By Brian Tucker
Jason Andre said one his favorite moments making The Midatlantic’s self-titled debut EP was listening to final mixes of songs in his van with fellow musicians in the Americana/Folk/Bluegrass band. Driving around Wilmington they listened to them and then stopped for beer and pizza. They talked about the songs, went home, listened on a home stereo and finally sent the EP off for production.
“It felt really good listening to what we all created together,” Andre said of the relatively new band that’s only played a handful shows locally.
For years Andre, a surfer who was raised in Cape Hatteras, had made and performed music as a solo artist. He released a full length in 2009 (The Phoenix & the Fish) and followed with a documentary soundtrack (Redfish Can’t Jump). Wanting to make a living doing music he created commercial jingles, engineered voice-over’s for One Tree Hill and edited audio at Audio Kitchen.
A full time job at WB Surf Camp took over to the point where Andre stopped performing, stopped writing, lost inspiration and drifted “for a good long while.” He wouldn’t play again until a friend’s wedding, this time with two musicians – Jessica Donnheimer and Jesse Bond, which led to writing sessions and inviting Steve Schroeder to fill in on guitar and harmonies. Tentatively called The Gray Jays, it proved fertile.
“As The Gray Jays sound grew, I started looking for friends to fill in some of the holes,” Andre said. “Fellow surfer and surf instructor Ben Sciance mentioned he played drums.”
Donnheimer moved away but remaining members continued writing music and had their first show last spring. There they met Allan Upham who would soon join the band on bass.
“As far as I’m concerned we’ve spent the past two years finding our sound before letting anyone hear it.”
The result is a five song EP out this week and a band playing new material and reworking some of Andre’s solo material. “Nothing’s Wrong” off the new EP illustrates their sound – warm choruses and lively, acoustic driven, rollicking songs. The band environment is different compared to his solo working days where everything fell on his shoulders. He welcomed working with others. Before, he recorded everything, built songs layer by layer, and sought opinions from his wife.
“I had to record my own vocals and instrumental parts on this EP, but I got to work with four other guys who were equally invested in the project.”
The band is inspired by the sea, but the EP is shaped by experiences that are emotional and spiritual as well travelling. Andre said life experiences are integral to writing, whether it’s an inspiring place or simply hearing a good beat.
“Words start flowing, capturing that moment in that place. Songwriting will probably always be my way of translating, working out, and making sense of all of those experiences.”
Along with a renewed interest in making music, Andre has a videography business (Seven Season Films), a small flock of chickens and recently began beekeeping. His songwriting remains reflective of life’s experiences on the new EP. “Run Love Run” is about two couples he admires, who both fell in love, got married and decided to live adventurously by not looking back. One couple involves his sister (who gave him his first Mandolin) that bought a sailboat and lives in the San Francisco Bay.
“I really respect my little sister and the balance she’s achieved in traveling the world obtaining her goals,” Andre said. The other couple also bought a sailboat to live aboard, mostly in the Caribbean and teaches people how to free-dive.
“I owe a lot to this wonderful family of ocean lovers who have continued helping me to explore the depths of the ocean, as well as myself.”
Additional Q&A with Jason Andre
Did I see those pictures right? Are you a new dad?
Andre: I am not yet a dad, but our flock of chickens is up to 6 (or should I say down from 8) and I started beekeeping this year with a couple backyard hives, but I lost one to wax moths.
Do you still work with that surf company? Are you still surfing as much as before?
Andre: I resigned from WB Surf Camp back in February to pursue a career in photography and videography. I started Seven Season Films and so far have shot everything from zombie chase wedding films to megalodon tooth discovery diving. I’m actually surfing even more now than I was because to a certain extent I can work hard from home at all hours and surf or paddle board whenever I want. Wedding season is pretty gnarly though. I’m actually taking my first personal surf trip in five years next week with my dad and a couple good friends to Nicaragua. I’m beyond stoked about that.
I’ve mostly known you as a solo performer. When did the band come together?
Andre: The band came together by accident through a long journey. After The Phoenix & The Fish in 2009 I began exploring alternative means to making a living doing music. I did some jingles, tried producing some more cinematic instrumentals that never saw the light of day, got into engineering voice-overs at Screen Gems for One Tree Hill and editing audio for film with Alex Markowski at Audio Kitchen.
I also digitally released a soundtrack for a friend’s documentary called Redfish Can’t Jump and played a few premiere shows where I brought in other musicians to fill in sounds that I could hear or recorded originally, but could never replicate live. Hank Carter filled in on stand up bass a few times and got me plugged into Bluegrass Nights at Satellite.
My Surf Camp job started at about the same time and became full time so all of those other ideas and opportunities kind of fizzled and passed as I put all of my energy into the more stable full time job that kept me in the ocean all day. I would still perform once in awhile, but I wasn’t actively pursuing music like I had been. Then there was a pretty tough period where I just stopped. I stopped performing, stopped writing, lost inspiration.
The Midatlantic was formed out of a few different friendships through that time that have grown over the past five years. I would have to attribute the first seed by our friend Rachel Dowdy. Her wedding was the catalyst for local singer-songwriters, Jessica Donnheimer, Jesse Bond and I. Originally Jessica had wanted me to record and produce some tunes that she had written during my period of flux. After I had tracked her initial tunes, I began adding instrumentation, and really took to the mandolin that my sister had given me.
Jesse Bond had done the graphic design album work for The Phoenix & The Fish (and this new EP), and as it turned out, unbeknownst to me is an amazing pianist and incredibly creative mad scientist when it comes to building instruments and sounds through his keytars, cellotars, and arpeggiones. We rehearsed for and performed at Rachel’s wedding, and then all kind of looked at each other afterwards like, “hey that was pretty good and really fun.”
Thematically, I think it’s hard when we are all so inspired by the sea, we live on the coast, and we’ve gone ahead and named ourselves The Midatlantic to not fall into a trap of thinking we’re pirates and this band is our ship. I was raised in Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks where the high-tiders can probably be traced back to Edward Teach himself. But I also think we are all creative and critical enough of ourselves to not necessarily limit ourselves to that. I’m excited to see what we can come up with, be it related to the ocean or not.
You’ve worked on your own with EPs and full lengths. Was it difficult at first working with others?
Andre: It was a welcomed relief actually. Previous to this, it’s always just been me adding layer upon layer, wondering if it’s good or not. Putting my patient wife up to the task of telling me if something worked or not, as well as revealing my works to a handful of friends to offer their critiques towards the end. Sure, I had to track and record my own vocals and instrumental parts on this EP, but I got to work with four other awesome guys who were all equally invested. We all have contributed our time and energy musically, artistically, and really focused on a professional approach to everything.
We’ve played a bunch of shows and saved up enough money to afford to do this. Each person also brought brutally honest constructive critique on their own respective parts as well as on my parts. They all put a lot of trust in me at one point or another during their sessions and the production process as a whole. For the most part, during writing and recording everyone develops their part and we all critique each other.
Regardless of whether or not something works or doesn’t work with a song, we’ve created a safe and honest atmosphere where we can talk about it, so that the song and sound of our group is the priority. So even though I guess I acted as a production manager, everything was always done democratically and we produced it as a group.
What has surprised you in working and playing with a band now?
Andre: This will sound like a Bible or Yogi Tea quote, but putting one’s self last, putting others before yourself, and not thinking too highly of one’s self is the way to love and enlightenment. And good music. In order to not become selfish or greedy or just come off as being a jerk, I have to constantly remind myself of these things. This has been a tremendous growth period for me personally, as a musician, a producer, and for us as a band.
The best surprise is how much better each song becomes with everyone’s contributions. I’ve always been able to control everything in regards to writing and recording, which most human beings crave in the most rudimentary ways, but it limits you and it limits the music. The best music has always come out of collaborations – Paul M and John L (Beatles), Greg G and Brett G (Bad Religion), The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, Broken Bells, Volcano Choir, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, etc. Each individual is an amazing artist/musician, but together they are phenomenal.
I admit it’s still challenging but awesome to let go and let others in, make music together, and be more creative. I think it makes the music more original, malleable, and in the end more approachable. I don’t think we’re close to phenomenal yet, but you have to start somewhere. We’re only just now really delving into writing together from the ground up, giving everyone a microphone, and making the most out of what we have.
The most difficult part for me has been the letting go and letting others into the creative process, because I’ve been doing it one way for so long. The most difficult part for the band, and any band I think, has been and always will be scheduling around life priorities and learning each others weaknesses, strengths, and communication styles.
Is the band still in its honeymoon period? Are songs still evolving as you perform?
Andre: Yes and no. We are a very new band. Although it’s been four years in the making, we’ve only been performing out and about for a few months. We’ve played out of town a couple of times, but we’ve never toured. We’ve only played here in town a few times, so no one really knows that we exist, except for some very supportive friends and family.
The production process of creating something for the first time between five very unique, at times very opinionated, and strong creative personalities brought out the best and worst in all of us, but taught us a lot. We all at one point or another had to take a deep breath, or surrender some thing that we thought had to be an absolute. We worked through every part of it though like any good team through positive encouragement and discussion, mutual respect for each other’s opinions, and taking moments to step outside of ourselves. We vote on each step so that no one person is more important than the others. We are really proud of this little collection of songs.
The songs that are on this EP are done as far as we’re concerned which is why they made it on the album. We have enough material for a full album, but the other songs are still taking their time to mature and evolve as we rehearse, as we perform to audiences, and as we continue to add more to the list.
I think I hear your solo style in new songs, a personality I recall from before. Did you aim to retreat from that period of music or expand on it?
Andre: Up until now it’s still mostly songs I’ve written. We’re even playing a few of the same songs from my old material during live shows, but everyone in the band has contributed and collaborated so even the old songs don’t really sound the same in their current format. I don’t think I’ll be rerecording them, but they set the stage for a similar drive and energy.
There are aspects of that period of music that I’d like to retreat from, but there are others I’d love to expand on. For instance, “Down the River” has always been one of my favorite songs to perform live. It has a bluegrass/punk rock feel to me that I would love to replicate. Performing standing up instead of sitting down is a fun change that creates a completely different energy from before. I love the didgeridoo, but I’ve tried to bringing it into this format and it feels forced so that’s out for now.
Attending and playing out at Bluegrass Nights has definitely had its share of influence on our instrumentation and arrangements. It’s really fun though sharing something I’ve been noodling with for a few weeks with the guys hearing it one way in my head and then having them hear it differently or say, “Hey, try this…” Listening to all the elements fall into place to make something that’s fun to play and hopefully fun to listen to.
As far as expanding goes, everyone’s starting to write. Ben actually created the melody for “Constant” and has a few more up his sleeve that we’re working on, as do Steve and Jesse. I never wanted this to be just me or “me and the so and so’s”. I’ve really enjoyed listening to each person bring material to the table and create their own parts through the songwriting process and then really lock it in during the recording process. I’ve never had that before.
Would you say there’s more emphasis on a variety of styles with this band?
Andre: I don’t think so. It’s definitely not the same style as what I was going for back then. I was trying to combine all of the acoustic world folk sounds that I had learned and accumulated over the years and put my own spiritual journey twist on them. That’s’ where I am coming from, but Steve comes from a very bluesy, country, Americana style. He knows and could play classic and modern Americana bar covers for five hours straight if you let him and never repeat the same song.
Jesse worships Ben Folds Five and has more keyboards and synthesizers than Bob Moog. Ben’s been a Jazz and Rock drummer through high school and college, but loves Dispatch and knows practically every Iron & Wine song on the guitar. Allan had a surf rock band called Singlefin for awhile but can also play funk and stand up bass.
So although there is some diversity and there are also some cool places where paths cross and the ability to grow and expand is endless. It’s landed us currently in the realm of Americana/folk rock/progressive bluegrass, which is all arguably the same thing.
Have life experiences or interests shaped the new material as found on your solo work?
Andre: I feel like life’s experiences are pivotal for my writing. Translating relational, emotional, and spiritual experiences I’ve had with physical places I’ve been or physical experiences I’ve had transcends nearly everything I’ve ever written. It usually works one of two ways. Sometimes I’ll hear a good beat, be in a really inspiring place, and the pen hits the paper.
Words start flowing out, capturing that moment in that place. The words will sit in that notebook, napkin, or scrap paper for a long time sometimes. I’ll lose them, and discover them weeks, months, or years later. If they seem to fit a new melody I’ve been noodling with I’ll start editing it, typing it out, rewriting it, and it eventually gains some structure.
Other times I’ll have a little melody I’m working on and if I’m not distracted I’ll start writing to whatever emotion that melody is invoking in me. If it feels right or has a decent framework, I’ll bring it to the guys. The physical experiences I’ve had get relived at that point when memories of emotion and experience begin to cross paths. Peaks and valleys in relationships then make a lot more sense when you recall that hike you did to 12,500 feet with fifty pounds on your back, legs burning, gasping for air.
Or when you slid down a skree field into a ravine and started feeling really claustrophobic, because the walls around you went straight up, there’s no turning back, and you’re not sure if the winding ravine ahead is going to open up to a green pasture or come to a sudden stop at a 100 foot cliff, but you have to keep going.
The cold heavy squeeze of the ocean makes a lot more sense when referring to life’s pressures, when you’re free-diving to 88 feet on a single breath, passed through two thermoclines, have nearly three atmospheres of pressure weighing on you, but you have to remain calm, reserve your oxygen, and kick your way back up to the surface. The past few years brought a lot of challenges personally.
I’ve also had some amazing experiences physically. My songwriting will probably always be my way of translating, working out, and making sense of all of those experiences.