Warm, cozy, sleepy. Eyelids drooping. That’s Rohs Street Café this autumn day.
I consider joining the couch-napping man but decide that would be creepy. Anyway, we’re talking about a fiery family feel mixed with an airborne artistic bug, much like a group of bandmates’ close vibe. Like smokes, wolves, cards, a musical gang in a pack.
One by one, The Happy Maladies calmly stroll in. Dripping with talent and training, all five have done time at UC's College-Conservatory of Music. And they all shack up together except guitarist/vocalist Ben Thomas, who lives down the street by his lonesome. Five cats roam the band house, and even the cats contribute on “Animal Welcome,” one of 11 songs on the band’s debut full-length album, Sun Shines the Little Children.
Last time we talked, Thomas (guitar, voice) was a couch surfer/crasher. Now he’s got a pad, but he still has that wild-haired, stubble-face look. Instead of books, he carries around an Ernie Ball guitar pedal.
“We’re hoping to spread roots with people we know and who like our music around the Midwest," he says. "Hopefully, once that’s progressed, (we’ll) push out further. I think the most rewarding part is that the music makes that connection. That happens everywhere.”
But while home the band members live, work and play inside The Marburg Hotel in Clifton, where they recorded nearly the entire album. Here, traditional roots do a headstand, resulting in a Punk-playful, Jazz-smart blend of Gypsy Folk Rock. Recorded by Jazz drum major Ben Sloan and piano performance major Adam Petersen, the album was mastered by fellow friend/musician Aaron Modarressi.
Comfort was key.
Brunette vocalist Abby Cox laughs and says, “We recorded a couple songs in the bathroom, standing in the shower.”
She’s the one in the red plaid skirt made out of a shirt, black tights and boots.
Edgy, yet soft-spoken, Eddy Kwon (violin, vocals) has a slight build, black jeans and worn Chucks. Eating kale and hummus, he gives a shout to his CCM friends, who kind of serve as built-in studio musicians.
“We’re lucky to have so many friends that are super talented and willing to spend the afternoon, evening or a few days with us recording for free and playing beautifully,” he says. “It’s really cool to have that extra somethin’ somethin’.”
Thomas adds, “We didn’t really mess with our normal live sound, besides adding extra instruments or doubling voices, making layered effects. For the most part, you get to take home the band after you see us.”
With big curls, glasses and wearing big stripes, Peter Gemus (double bass) says, “The effects, none of them are really electronic. At one point Eddy sang through tinfoil, which gave an effect, but most things are handmade. Everyone’s a musical voice, and it’s just multiple voices conversing with each other.”
Stephen Patota (mandolin) wanders in last, hurrying in his New Balance sneakers, sporting an orange T and brown cords. On recording, he says, “It may have started as one person’s idea, but the end is a different product.”
Since spring of 2008, they’ve hit the road hard. Travel is tight. Setting forth in Thomas’ Honda Odyssey, the bass neck hogs the front seat. First selling bootleg CDs, they later rocked out an underground, packed “CD leak party” in The Marburg basement.
“It was so hot. There were so many bodies,” Cox says, grinning. The official CD release party went down at Rohs Street Café.
The band’s spontaneous road addiction is strong. In South Carolina, they went midnight swimming in the ocean each night. In New York, a tango teacher recruited them to improvise and dance with strangers in Washington Square Park.
Of touring, Cox says, “It was like shaking the dust off, doing something totally abnormal.”
Along with souped-up school résumés, The Happy Maladies have a taste for the strange and beautiful, a quirky feel that leaks into the tunes. The outcome is a homemade soup made of Jazz, Folk, tinfoil and cats, mixed with rambunctious instrumental interludes.
Cox nails it when she says, “It’s like these songs are something wild that we tried to catch, and we caught them, and now they’re tangible. So now that we have this to put in our back pockets, we can catch other wild things that are out there.”
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