Indie-pop band gets perspective with gender mix

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The Sour Notes find equilibrium, keep strong sound despite previous ‘revolving door’ of band members

Jared Boulanger believes in gender equality. Of that, he is sure.

When I ask Boulanger, lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for indie-pop band The Sour Notes, if groups such as Radiohead or The Beatles would have benefited from having a female vocalist, he chooses his next words carefully.

“But then they wouldn’t be The Beatles in that case. They wouldn’t be Radiohead,” he says. “It would be different. That’s not to say they would be any better or any worse — but it would be different. I’m not sure what that would be like.”

Taylor Steinberg, The Sour Notes’ drummer and most outspoken member, pipes in.

“Having a female vocalist provides us with perspective,” Steinberg says. “Gender aside, for the amount of people in this band, I think people would be surprised at how agreeable and nonconfrontational our personalities are. I’ve done a tour with just guys before, and it’s a completely different experience. Still fun, but it’s changed now that I’m in The Sour Notes.”

I’m sitting at a table inside Spider House Cafe with Steinberg, as well as band co-founders Boulanger and guitarist Chris Page. There are glasses of Lone Star on the table and Kelly DeWitt, the chanteuse currently in question, will join us after she gets off work at American Apparel. Bassist Amarah Ulghani is also working, but we’ll interview two days later.

“So, you’re saying Kelly provides balance?” I ask.

“Definitely,” Boulanger says. “My favorite singers are female. Of course, everybody needs to be equal. But you have to realize there’s going to be a different vibe, depending on who’s playing the part. There’s different approaches. In order to be a good band, you have to appeal to everybody; it’s more well-rounded that way. Having a female element in the band forces me to think about what I’m doing and how I [perceive music].”

Fresh off a North American tour, The Sour Notes know a lot about balancing gender in their band. That tour, Ulghani says, was awkward because it was essentially “a van full of people that didn’t know each other.” At first, their revolving door of musicians might seem off-putting to the casual or new listener — they’ve gone through “at least three incarnations” of the band, by Steinberg’s count — but Boulanger affirms it’s finally reached a stasis they can all agree upon.

“It’s definitely the strongest it’s ever been,” he says with genuine conviction in his voice. “If people look at a band’s history on paper and they see lots of changes, [the band] might be [perceived] negatively. It sort of insinuates there might be disorder. But the band’s [musical output] has been brilliant, which is different from other bands’ histories. Those bands will break up after half a year or a year, but we’ve kept going.”

“The rest of us, Jared’s still kind of molding,” Ulghani says in reference to herself, DeWitt and Steinberg, the latest additions to the band. “That’s the hardest part about new members — trying to force this connection to hurry up.”

We spend the next 15 minutes discussing the bandmates’ shared love of Warp Records, a label that has produced bands such as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Autechre, while qualifying its taste for warm electronic music, such as that of Flying Lotus and Prefuse 73. But between all the name-dropping and genre discussion, the band is insistent on one thing: None of the members really listen to anything that reflects The Sour Notes’ sound to the extent that they would want to emulate it.

“I like Velvet Underground’s stuff ... Brian Eno,” says Page, the group’s designated music guru, as he offhandedly bites down on a BLT sandwich. He seems relatively reserved tonight, but the understood assumption is that there really isn’t anything that represents The Sour Notes’ sound, so there would be no influence to make mention of anyway.

I ask DeWitt who she thinks she may be influenced by. She’s sipping a Diet Coke and whiskey and becomes wildly enthusiastic.

“Do you know who Janelle Monáe is? You need to know who she is. She’s amazing,” DeWitt says. “She calls herself an android and writes these really badass songs. And I didn’t really realize I was influenced by The Animals for a while. I like that vein of sort of classic rock. I’ve always looked up to ‘60s female vocalists, like Dusty Springfield.”

At a recent, all-ages show at the United States Art Authority, the band played a slew of new songs set to appear on an upcoming album. This month, the band will begin recording its fourth album, entitled Last Looks.

“Playing new, unrecorded material is exciting for me, but scary,” Ulghani says. “It takes a while to beat it into shape without a reference point.”

Boulanger offers an explanation for the album title, saying it isn’t nearly as gloomy as it might appear.

“The album title sort of insinuates that this is going to be our last album, but it isn’t,” Boulanger says. “It’s like, if you’re in a relationship or you’re about to jump over the edge, you see someone’s last look. And I feel like the majority of the songs deal with that sort of theme. And, more importantly, it will feature the current lineup of the band.”

DeWitt is excited about that prospect.

“Taylor, Amarah and I are finally going to be on an album, and we’re excited for the entire writing process,” she says, referencing a song she’s especially eager to record called “Hot Pink Flares.”

“It’s kind of about the state of music and burning out, and people riding the waves of hype,” Boulanger adds.

DeWitt is surprisingly committed to the band, considering she didn’t want to join at first. It took, in her words, a few drinks at Shangri-La and a little coaxing from Ulghani before she was convinced it was the right decision.

“A friend of mine asked if I wanted to join a band called The Sour Notes. I listened to their music for, like, five seconds and said, ‘No,’” DeWitt says with a nervous laugh. “And Amarah, who I’ve never met before, sent me a Facebook message and was really sweet about it. A couple of days later, I went to a going-away party for a friend, and I overheard someone say Amarah’s name. She was there, and we decided to be best friends. I said, ‘I want to be in your band now!’ She gave Jared my number and he called me the next day.”

Ulghani echoes DeWitt’s sentiments a few days later. She originally started her foray into music as a disc jockey for local radio station KVRX and wasn’t keen on anything except mainstream-accessible indie pop.

“But as time went on and I really got into the station, I got exposed to a lot of cool, non-mainstream stuff,” she says. “So I wasn’t into The Sour Notes at all, to be honest, and Kelly said the same thing at the time. [But] I started looking back at the old greats, especially stuff from the ‘70s, and really started to appreciate good songwriting and compositon. That made me think Jared was doing something special. He was into putting pieces of a song together in a perfect way so it was melodic and harmonic.”

Boulanger likes the idea of being accessible, though.

“I like doing two- or three-minute pop songs. Someone reviewed our show the other day and said we make pop music in an adult sort of way, and I sort of liked that,” he says with a soft smile.

Tonight, potential audiences will get a chance to see what this rollicking indie band is all about as The Sour Notes will play a show tonight at Hole in the Wall — “the only legit bar in West Campus,” by Steinberg’s assertion.

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WHAT: The Sour Notes with Row Zero, Zorch and The Great Nostalgic
WHERE: Hole in the Wall, 2538 Guadalupe St.
WHEN: Tonight at 9
TICKETS: $5 at the door