Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Millions Can't Be Wrong

"It's funny what kinds of people dance," Freshmillions bassist/programmer/funkiness collector Geoff Earle muses. "Jadedness is kind of the enemy here. Humans who have a lack of pretension will dance." Earle, guitarist/keyboardist Cody Skinner, and drummer Dan Skarbek don't seem all that self-conscious themselves. They've been known to take the stage in bathrobes or tracksuits, and their music exists in that postmodern space where there's no rules about where sounds originate. Live instruments, loops, and samples of all sorts of provenance are fair game, and the only objective is that people listening get moving to it, beginning with the three guys on stage.

Although the Freshmillions machine hums along so nicely now it's hard to believe they didn't have everything worked out from the beginning, Cody says there was "zero, zero orchestration." Rather the band in its present form grew out a five-year search by Geoff to find the right outlet for his beatmaking abilities. When he was 22 a college buddy who lucked into a job with Columbia Records offered him the chance to work with a big library of pre-cleared samples. The results were encouraging, with Geoff's work getting serious consideration for use by big-time artists. Although none of his efforts ended up Top 40 smashes, the confidence boost was enough: "I made a lot more beats!"

Upon settling in Austin, Geoff began to transition from producer to bandleader. Freshmillions didn't find a stable lineup immediately. At one point they had a vibes player; Bryan and Trivett of The Sword passed through for two shows. Geoff grew up with Cody, who moved to Austin from Denton in July of '09. He knew Dan from music business school in New Orleans; when his name showed up on a Freshmillions guestlist, Geoff and Cody immediately started thinking about drafting him into the band. They got their man. "Now I'm playing with dudes who are better at their instruments than I am," says Geoff. "I think that's why the band's taken off this year!"

To the casual observer, the completed lineup is a guitar-bass-drums power trio. But their sound, and their process, are more complex. "I'll make a beat and bring it to the table," says Geoff. "That's how the project started." A number of the songs on their stellar debut -- "Million Dollar Bill Pt. 1," "Monty," "Forever" -- he completed writing himself around his initial sampling. Now that Cody and Dan are on board, Freshmillions work together to build instrumental parts around Geoff's tracks. "He's going to bring in a snippet, or maybe multiple snippets," says Cody.

There's no doubt about the extra power the live drums and guitar bring. "You want the full palette of sounds available to you," Cody says. "People never get tired of seeing people play music -- it's a different energy." Freshmillions had to figure out that they were a rock band to find the audiences most receptive to their grooves. Cody: "We played a lot of shows with dance groups and electronic bands and people didn't dance!"

Cody and Geoff's list of favorite Austin bands cross the divide between rock and "other," and many are trying like Freshmillions to straddle both. Neiliyo, Butcher Bear & Charlie, Fingaar Bangaar, Focus Group, Zlam Dunk, Woodgrain, Spells, and Sip Sip are all mentioned. "Zorch is top of the list," Cody says (and I tend to agree). As for favorite venues, they're one of the first bands I've spoken to with nothing but nice things to say about the Beauty Bar. "You would never expect it," but according to these gentlemen the bartenders and the staff in general at the often-maligned 7th Street disco have never been anything but nice to them. "The 21st Street Co-Op show was the most fun we've ever had on stage," says Cody -- glad I caught that gig! They're also looking forward to playing Scoot Inn again.

Next steps? For now, the plan is weekend shows in as many southern towns as possible. "I wonder if we would do well in Europe," Geoff asks. "Guess we got to book Europe and see what happens," Cody responds.

I catch a ride with the guys to their show at the Beauty Bar, and while we're chatting on the way I learn a few more interesting things about Freshmillions. They can't drink or do anything else mind-altering before they play, because keeping time with the loops and samples requires their full unadulterated attention. This is particularly challenging when the opening bands are bad! Another thing I didn't know about is how fully their electronic equipment is integrated with their guitars. Commands from the computer over by Geoff go through MIDI cables and operate Cody's guitar effects. If either musician needs their hands free to play a keyboard part, the computer tells their pedals when to loop a bass or guitar part and for how long. If there's delay or something else that needs to be timed to the music, the computer sends the necessary information to the effect. Freshmillions may seem like goofy, fun-loving guys -- and they are -- but when it comes to their music they're all business, and they know the technology front to back.

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