She & Them

Post Rock provocateurs Us, Today flip the script on their improv structure for the composed and concussive 'TenEnemies'

Mar 25, 2015 at 8:48 am
Us, Today
Us, Today

After five years of exploring minimalist Post Rock’s frontiers, Us, Today has amassed an engaged and cerebral fan base. The Cincinnati band also attracted several clueless nutballs.

“People constantly email us thinking we’re USA Today,” vibraphonist Kristin Agee says during a recent conversation in her Northside living room. “It’ll be, ‘You ran this article, you said this, and you’re wrong because blah blah blah.’ ”

“And we’ll send back, ‘We have a show on Wednesday, hope you can come out,’ ” drummer Jeff Mellott says.

The band’s christening came from an early rehearsal between Agee and guitarist Joel Griggs, a barista where Agee got her coffee. Griggs burned a CD for Agee containing the music they’d played and some bands he liked.

“He was writing out what he’d put on the CD and the first track was ‘Us, today,’ ” Agee recalls. “I was like, ‘That’s our band name.’ ”

Us, Today’s new album, TenEnemies, should swell the ranks of legitimate followers and reduce the number of errant soapboxers. After two hastily arranged and self-recorded albums (2011’s RH Sessions and 2012’s Beneath the Floorboards, which were both good but, as Griggs observes, “They’re like our high school diary”), the trio elevated its game across the board; a real studio, financing through Indiegogo and largely scrapping its Ambient improvisational style for a more aggressive and compositional Rock-tinged approach.

“Much more planning and organization,” Agee says of TenEnemies. “We wanted to crowd-fund it, so the idea of the album came before the songs. The first two albums were done way cheap; we recorded them for free in the basement of CCM, all in one night in the same room. This album, we didn’t want to do that. We took two months off from playing shows to actually write songs.”

Accordingly, TenEnemies vibrates with sonic tension and visceral intent. It could also be one of the year’s best albums and break the band to a wider audience.

“I listen to that recording and I’m like, ‘Man, we nailed that,’ ” Agee says. “That’s the energy, the style, the feel I had in my head. That’s even better than how it sounded in my head.”

One point of contention for Us, Today’s members has been the perception that they’re a Jazz outfit. Although Mellott’s Jazz education certainly points to it, and Agee and Griggs admit early rehearsals included a spin through Miles Davis territory, they insist their direction is exactly as advertised on their business card: Experimental Post Rock.

“People hear Jazz and they’re thinking cocktail quartet,” Agee says. “I get it, we’re instrumental, one of the lead instruments is a vibraphone, which is thought of as a Jazz instrument. That’s not us.”

The question of influences is tricky with Us, Today. On its early improvisational work, the band seemed steeped in the fringe-dwelling work of Tortoise, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, Can and Don Caballero, some of which would apply to the more aggressive TenEnemies. Us, Today’s singular sound comes from Mellott’s Jazz and Agee and Griggs’ Classical education, which funnels and filters their various musical inspirations.

“I’ve never really listened to Frank Zappa,” Griggs admits. “I really dig the level of musicianship involved there, it just loses me when he sings. (John McLaughlin’s Fusion band) Mahavishnu (Orchestra) always captured my attention more when it came to virtuosity. Otherwise, my influences range from Classical flamenco training to (drone metallers) Sunn O))). That’s been the idea in our writing, to inject the stuff we really like into our tunes.”

The band’s specific philosophical vision for TenEnemies began with the title, which refers to the experiences the musicians had in Us, Today, the longest tenure for any of them in an original project.

“We’ve become tighter as friends and musicians. It’s having that experience of knowing what the other person is thinking and what they’re going to do,” Agee says. “But along with that, we’ve tended to accidentally make enemies with venues, bands and people who don’t like our music. It’s not what we’re set out to do, it’s just part of the process.”

“We’re not saying, ‘We’ve got ten enemies and you suck, we’re awesome,’ ” Mellott says. “It’s about letting those demons fade away.”

In addition to a professional studio experience at Columbus’ renowned Oranjudio, TenEnemies benefits from a stellar physical package assembled by designer/photographer Chris Glass. As with Holzman, the band gave Glass just the title to spark his creativity.

“He did the album cover, the photos, two different logo designs for the T-shirts,” Agee says. “We’ve got stickers, buttons and matchbooks, this whole merch package and it’s all united with the artwork. We’re branded.”

Although they’d never actually written a song together, Us, Today’s collaboration on TenEnemies displays the chemistry the members cultivated from the start.

“I’ll have this idea, and it could be this cool Rock song, and Jeff will go, ‘No, it’s got this beat right here,’ ” Griggs says. “And it’ll be, ‘Yeah, that actually works. I’m not a drummer.’ So there you go.”

“There’s not a lot of one member telling another what to play,” Agee says. “Joel is the president of the guitar, I’m the president of the vibraphone and Jeff is the president of the drums.”

As Us, Today prepares to release the elegantly powerful TenEnemies, some relatively lengthy Midwest/East Coast touring is at hand. Luckily, the trio survived its past limited experience in this regard, so the musicians are confident they’ll manage this upcoming trip in a similar fashion.

“We went out on a long trip, drove back into Cincinnati and we were like, ‘Wow, we still like each other, we’re not at each other’s throats,’ ” Griggs says. “We can do this. We can hop in a car and go anywhere.”

Maybe more like everywhere.

US, TODAY celebrates the release of TenEnemies Thursday at Woodward Theater. Tickets/more info: Find more about Us, Today here.