Friday the 13th is an appropriate date for an “Americana noir” band to play its bassist and singer’s home state.
Big John Bates, a group named after its lead guitarist and singer, is co-led by Brandy Bones, who lived in Florence from age 11 to 19 and took private violin lessons during that time. She picked up the upright bass when she moved to Bellingham, Washington, and started playing with bands.
Bones joined the band in 2009, when her previous band opened for Bates. It was his bassist’s last tour with the group and they offered Bones the job. It came with a free trip to Europe on tour, so she learned 30 songs in a month and has been with them ever since.
She described her indoctrination as “sink or swim,” particularly at one of their first tour stops in Germany. “One of the first shows was for 10,000 people,” she said.
Their newest record is a home recording, British Columbia-style. “The whole album was written and recorded on a boat in Vancouver, B.C.,” she said. “From the Bestiary to the Leathering Room” was put out by the German label Rookie Records and distributed in the U.S. by Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles.
They describe their music as “Americana noir,” or “symphonic rock.” It fits in with the punk-roots scene of the Northwest, where punk, Americana and more get blended up. “I would say we’re a little more symphonic than that,” Bones said. She pointed more to Denver bands like 16 Horsepower or DeVotchKa, with its world influences. “We’re really strong in the roots, but it’s kind of more dark and dreary,” she said with a laugh.
Bones, one of the songwriters, singers and its bassist, draws more on post-rock for the arrangements, citing groups like Cult of Luna and Mono, or David Eugene Edwards. Bates, meanwhile, is a Cramps guy and a fan of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.
It’s broad enough to include a faithful cover of Iggy Pop and Ricky Gardiner’s “The Passenger,” which augments the classic chord progression with some mandolin. Bones sings lead on the tune. The artwork was designed by Santiago Caruso, an Argentinian illustrator who worked on “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
She said they were “honored” he let them use his work, which is typically found on albums by death metal bands. (Appropriately enough, the painting is called “Nocturne II.”) With the addition of cello and arco bass, they can create a gothic chamber music atmosphere in the tunes’ darker corners, such as “Bitterroot.”
On the current tour, they’ve added a cellist, Justine Echo, which means Bones can focus on bass and vocals. “It makes it more full and visually it’s nice to look at,” she said. After all, how often do you get to see bowed cello and bowed bass on the stage of a rock venue?
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