The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

June 26, 2009

Grey Egg — appearing Saturday night at the Art Bar

Filed under: writing — cynthiaboiter @ 23:12

(Below is a repeat appearance of my article on the local Columbia band Grey Egg — performing this Saturday night, June 27th, at the Art Bar.  The article previously appeared online in the April 2009 issue of Stir Magazine)

 

Grey Egg

            If you get the feeling, when listening to local Columbia alt band Grey Egg, that you might not be in Kansas anymore, it’s okay.  That was the plan.  For starters, chances are pretty good that the lyrics you’re hearing aren’t being sung in English.  Chances are even greater that you aren’t going to be able to translate those lyrics either – not unless you can get inside the head of band leaders Steve Dennis and Julia Elliott.  And I’m not sure you want to do that.

            Listening to Grey Egg perform is reminiscent of traveling abroad or watching the recording of a foreign film, but doing so in the comfort of your own culture.  But rather than hearing French or Farsi or Portuguese, what you hear is a fake language constructed in its entirety by Dennis and Elliott.   Not all of the lyrics are created in the heads of the couple, who literally are a couple having been married, “forever, and ever, and ever,” as Elliot says.  The English language does occasionally crop up in the vocals, sometimes jarring the listener out of that meditative place where ones head seems to hang while listening to Grey Egg’s music and forcing her or him to actually hear the familiar English words.  Luckily, the drug kicks back in pretty quickly though and you soon feel like you’re in some smoky eastern European coffee house, or huddling around the samovar in a Turkish hammam.

            The band members themselves are almost as eclectic as their music.  Co-founded in the late nineties by Elliott and Dennis, who began playing as a duo back when the two were small town South Carolina teenagers, the sounds of the band may not reflect the members’ upbringings, but seem oddly at home with the lives the musicians now lead.  And odd ain’t bad. 

            For day jobs, composer and multi-instrumentalist Dennis, who is also a permaculturalist, works with bass player John Hammond as an heirloom grain processor.  Drummer David Kelly, originally from Rock Hill, works as an historic preservationist when he is not driving the group’s experimental inclinations toward both progressive and psychedelic music a la` late sixties and early seventies.  Both Elliott, who once went by the name Liz, and violinist Sarah Quick, are part-time college professors and when Quick isn’t studying anthropology and ethnomusicology, (she is an expert on the Métis of Canada), she can sometimes be found performing with the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra.  Then there is saxophonist Amy Overbaugh who hails from Charleston and, rumor has it, sports a dandy dead toe she only shows to band-mates and friends.

            But much of the attention in a Grey Egg concert rests on keyboardist and vocalist Julia Liz Elliott.  She doesn’t just play the keyboards; she plays her voice as well.

            “I do use my voice like an instrument, and for some reason have always approached singing this way without really thinking about it.  Recent influences have helped me conceptualize this process more clearly – Magma, Catherine Ribeiro, Yma Sumac,” she explains.  “Steve (Dennis) also does this quite naturally.  I think that’s partially how we drifted into the fake language thing because it is much easier to compose vocals, in terms of sounds and syllables, this way – and then these sounds inevitably evoke specific language groups.” 

            According to local music aficionado and WUSC Music Director, Kyle Petersen, “Grey Egg is one of those bands that exists outside the normal margins of rock and roll.  Most bands incorporate Eastern elements and dense instrumental passages as diversions from the actual song,” he explains.  “But for Grey Egg, these elements and passages are the primary focus.  It is hard to argue that there is any other band like them on the local scene – they are like nothing else you will experience in Columbia.”

            The past few years have revealed some surprising new directions for Grey Egg, a name chosen for the band because it “somehow captures the notion of a green world in decline,” Elliott glibly shares.  Kelly and Hammond didn’t actually join the group until 2006, and the quartet recorded their more electric CD titled Indoor Ski together in 2007.  Violinist Quick and saxophonist Overbaugh came on board a year or so later, and all six musicians will be featured on their new CD, entitled Albumen, which will be out this summer.

            “We’re also starting to be more bilingual,” Elliott says.  “For us, this is a process that usually involves composing the vocals the old way via sounds, but then translating as much of that as possible into English.  More than half of the vocals in the upcoming CD Albumen are in English.”

            Rare bird that the band is, it’s not easy to catch it about town.  You’ll most often find the group performing at Hunter Gatherer, or sometimes at the Art Bar or the Whig.  According to Elliott they only make forays out of town to Asheville, Athens or Charleston on occasion.  But the sure sighted will be able to spot them this summer when they settle in for a performance at the Art Bar on June 27th.  Until then, check Grey Egg out online at www.greyegg.com or www.myspace.com/greyeggmusik.

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