Atlanta INtown contributor Ty Collins gets up close and personal with two up-and-coming bands on the verge of making it big.

Oryx & Crake

Atlanta nonet Oryx and Crake’s self-titled debut finds the sweet spot somewhere between brooding introspection and childlike awe.

Mixing nuanced elements both buoyant and atonal, these orchestral popsters manage to draw a listener in with accessible melodies, only to reveal the onion that is each song, its layers sloughing off, coupling complex metaphors with haunting string arrangements, all chronicled in a choir boy’s honed chirrup.

It’s evident someone has loved these songs and nurtured every textured note to maturity. They are neither folk nor fusion. They simply are. I sat down with three of the band’s nine members to talk about music and the logistics of “making it” in an industry fraught with uncertainty.

Oryx and Crake is the brainchild of sound-design professor Ryan Peoples.  The band’s name pays tribute to a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, and hints at an intellectual authenticity hovering just below their signature eclectic sound. They incorporate everything from a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) to a toy piano in their diversified stage show.

People’s songwriting partner, Rebekah Goode-Peoples, also happens to be his wife. Together, they hammer the first nail in every Oryx and Crake construction. “I’ll sit down with a guitar or at the piano and hum some ridiculous gibberish,” says Peoples, sitting sentry on his couch beside a record player, the comforting hiss of an LP registering just below his words. “She either laughs at me, or she becomes inspired, and we start writing. The song kind of evolves from there.”

Goode-Peoples, an English teacher, reflects on her foray into the singer-songwriter world: “I’ve been writing poetry forever,” she says, balancing a glass of red wine on her knee. “I was never into the esoteric academic circles. That wasn’t a good fit. I was looking for a new vehicle. Ryan and I started writing lyrics together; it was very different from writing poetry, but I had some tools in the tool box ….

“We’re both very competitive. Getting to collaborate and share something like that with your partner is motivating, but it also brings us closer … [the time we spend writing together] is sacred. For me a lot of it is emotional. It’s about our relationship, a way to express all of this [mess] I got going on in my head.”

The “[mess]” eventually finds its way to cellist, Matt Jarrard. He fills in the cracks, providing cohesion where cohesion is needed. He credits the Suzuki method, a series of principles emphasizing playing by ear before learning to read music, to his eerily enchanting style. As far as inspiration is concerned, he points to an entirely different source:

“I had this cassette: Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin ,“ he says, his eyes wide with nostalgia, “I distinctly remember them doing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ …  It gave me a new understanding of what cello could be about.”

Critics often draw comparisons with Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, when describing the band’s byzantine but entirely palatable sound. Goode-Peoples realizes the music is difficult to categorize, but she thinks they’re ball-parking it. “We don’t sound anything like them,” she says, her inflection souring slightly. “We just have a lot of people. “

As of January, Oryx and Crake remain unsigned.  They offer different theories as to why label reps haven’t come calling: “Maybe labels don’t think we need any help,” says Good-Peoples, noting the album’s polished sound and appearance. “I think we need lots of help. I would love help.  We are not opposed to ‘labelness’ at all.”

Jarrard says luck may be factor, as well: “Who knows if the right people have listened. You like to think if enough people listen to you in Atlanta the right person is going to hear you; but you don’t know that.”

Peoples and Goode-Peoples also have two young children to consider. “My parents could watch the kids for a week or two,” Good-Peoples says. “Things could be done. If the right opportunity came along, certainly we would make it happen … But what’s great about Oryx and Crake is as long as these two are there (she gestures to Peoples and Jarrard) it’s Oryx and Crake.”

The Constellations

Atlanta mega-group The Constellations released their debut album, Southern Gothic, last year to much critical acclaim. Charismatic front man Elijah Jones took a break from his grueling tour schedule to talk about life as everyone’s favorite Constellation.

Who are you touring with these days?
I’m on tour with Robert Randolph right now; we’ve been touring with him since January I think. We toured with Toots and Maytals recently, too. It was amazing. I’ve been listening to him for years and years. I love Toots.

As far as genre is concerned, you guys are pretty hard to pigeonhole. I’ve heard ghetto-tech; I’ve heard hip-hop/rock; I’ve heard psychedelic pop.  Does transcending categorization help you?
No, I think it definitely hurts us. People like everything to be in a nice simple, clean package. They like their bands to look like what they sound like, unfortunately. I do think that hurts us. Live, I think it helps us, though. People can get bored really easily at shows. And that’s the number one thing I get after a show. People say:  ‘I love how ya’ll mix this and that with the other.’ They say: ‘I was coming here to see a blues band, or a psychedelic band, or a hip-hop band, or whatever, and you guys opened up, and I was surprised and amazed.’ We get a lot of that kind of stuff, and to me, that’s the true test.

Tell me about “Step Right Up” (a reworking of Tom Waits’ funhouse barker classic, complete with a rundown of Jones’ favorite Atlanta watering holes and some of their celebrated regulars).
Me and Ben Allen (Allen is known for his work with Animal Collective and Gnarls Barkley) were in the middle of recording stuff, and we wanted to put out a cover to get people interested in the project or whatever, and we came up with “Step Right Up.” I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. I could sort of get the cadence down, so Ben was like, ‘why don’t you go home and write your own lyrics,’ which was extremely intimidating. Rewriting one of your idol’s songs is quite a task. I came up with the first verse, though, and everything just kind of spilled out after that.

What was it like working with Cee-Lo Green? (Green was featured on The Constellation’s “Love Is A Murder”)
It was amazing. I tried a number of times to get in the studio with Cee. He actually came out to see one of my old bands play. I didn’t know he was going to be there, I was like man, that’s Cee-Lo Green.  From there, we just developed a relationship. He liked what I was doing, and I kept bugging him to get on a track. He finally came in and did it. He’s super talented. He knows what he’s doing; he goes in there and does in one take and that’s it.

Are you getting any writing done on the road?
You know, it’s hard. You don’t get a lot of free time. Most of your time’s spent in a van, or waiting at sound check, or waiting to play. We get very few days off. Last year we played more than 300 shows. There’s no time for anything really. But I manage to get up to the hotel room to write somehow. I have to switch up my writing process as much as I can. I have tendency to repeat myself. I get three songs in and I’m back on the same thing. Sometimes I start with the lyrics; sometimes I start with the track; sometimes I’ll write a complete song and scrap the lyrics and go back to another song and plug those lyrics in.

What’s 2011 looking like for you?
Hopefully, tour, tour, tour, and record. I’m really itching to get back in the studio. Just trying to get out there and reach as many people as possible.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.