Artist of the Week: Jumbling Towers

(How fantastic is this picture?)

Listen to “The Kanetown City Rips,” by Jumbling Towers

Words like “insulation,” “sniped,” “villainy” and “evolution” come to mind when discussing the music of Jumbling Towers.

Comprised of Joe DeBoer (vocals, keys, guitar), Nate Drexler (bass, vocals), Kyle McConaghy (keys, guitar) and Demetrius Sledge (drums), the quartet lives, breathes, balls and makes music in the sporting city of St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s a location most music-minded folks wouldn’t think of when talking about towns known for having a thriving, independent music scene.

“St. Louis is a bizarre city – it’s very spread out,” says DeBoer. “The city itself has a few venues, but you can’t really live there, because of the horrible crime rate. There’s a few spots that are nice, but it’s basically all abandoned, nice architecture that no one can really use. It’s kind of a shame, actually. Downtown is good, but unless there is a sporting event of some kind, it’s pretty barren. The biggest venues are in the outlying areas. It’s a very urban sprawl-type city. Everybody’s got cars, but there is no public transportation of any kind.”

In spite of these obstacles, however, a music scene does exist. It may be somewhat insulated from the rest of the underground music-loving world, but it’s there alright, lurking in the shadows of all those giant stadiums.

For example, at BTR, we play plenty of music that hails from the fabled Gateway To The West. Bands such as Exercise, Bo & The Locomotive, Thankful Tree, Gentlemen Auction House, Jumbling Towers, The Pubes, Say Panther – all have found homes on BTR playlists. DJ Lottie (host of Thursdays on BTR) even did a Spotlight On The City specialty show on The ‘Lou  back in August of 2008, and, as God once noted, “it was good.”

As far as national exposure, however, the music scene (underground or otherwise) in St. Louis doesn’t seem to get much. Just try to name a band or artist from there (besides Nelly and Uncle Tupelo). This might help to explain why Jumbling Towers (a learned group boasting an LP and EP that would have caused a bloody ruckus in a more musically-inclined location) is a relative mystery to all the major music blogs and Pitchforks of the world.

Ironically, it might be a good thing

Yes, it sure sucks for the band trying to make it – not getting any national publicity or buzz – but as a result, that same band has the opportunity to evolve and mature naturally. It’s kind of like how the Galapagos Islands were when Darwin arrived (though obviously not that isolated). There is no fear of becoming a “blog band” that blows up for a day, gets saddled with ridiculous expectations, and then can’t focus on making music without insane pressure and subconscious influence from the fickle, charging bull of Internet media.

And this brings us to our first word!

“Insulated” by the Arch, Jumbling Towers have quietly developed an utterly unique sound, unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. Soon they will drop their second full-length LP, Kanetown, and then, I believe, their Reckoning will begin. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind (similar to the knowing that sushi rice will stick to the wall should I choose to lob a handful across the room) that, if the “right” people had heard about Jumbling Towers a few years ago, they would now be a known capacity in the tight-knit galaxy of independent music. Chisel it on the marble stone of my funeral pyre. (But would they have evolved in the same way? Hmmmm.)

Chew on that for a bit, let it digest, and in the meantime we’ll saddle up the Flux Capacitor and jaunt back to 2008, when the Classy Entertainment EP arrived in BTR’s inbox.

(Classy Entertainment EP)

Fans (aka ‘nerds’) of the Halo video game franchise know extremely well what it feels like to be “sniped” in a multiplayer game. All of a sudden, the game stops for about 10 seconds, because you have been “killed” by some other nerd (probably an eight-year-old, and probably shouting racial slurs and things like “suck on deeeze nuts bitch” with real, childish glee) toting a sniper rifle. All you can do is wait it out, until you “respawn” from the coded ether. (Oddly enough, deep thoughts and moments of hilarious clarity can come in that 10 seconds, like, why am I wasting my life playing a video game?).

It is fun though.

Hearing the Classy Entertainment EP for the first time, I felt as if I had been sniped, but without all of the negative aspects. Everything stopped, and the only thing I was capable of was an awed, stupid sense of wonder. Then I actually laughed with happiness.

First, I heard the keys of both McConaghy (who can also shred like the dickens) and DeBoer, which were uncannily sinister in sound. In fact, the beginning to “Apartments,” when the organ comes in, well, I just have no words. However, I do have images, and that is of vampires waltzing in an ornate ballroom, animated in black and white. Their eyes are shut (these cats are so rhythm-centric and conscious of their surroundings they need no sight), and the floors undulate in step with their feet. Remember how beautifully the animation paired with the music in Daft Punk’s video for “One More Time?” It would be as seamless as that.

“We like the dark sounds, I guess,” says DeBoer. “I don’t know why that is. That’s a big attribute to Kyle, our other keys guy. He’s just great at settings in general, and I’ve actually learned from him more, in that regard. He does a great job in getting that sound we like, which is generally a darker sound. No idea why, but I guess it feels more unique.”

Second (and speaking of unique) came the voice of Mr. DeBoer, which, for real, sounded exactly as if Gargamel had grabbed a microphone and started ranting about his endless frustration with the Smurfs.

Of course, DeBoer is not singing about The Smurfs, but his voice and inflection perfectly captures Gargamel’s bottomless rage. Actually, it could just as easily be Snidely Whiplash’s voice from Dudley Do-Right, or Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe, or Skeletor from He-Man. DeBoer’s voice has all the characteristics of the classic cartoon villain, you know, that sneering and conniving delivery, dripping with sarcasm, ready to suddenly pitch high whenever frustration runs red into rage.

And we love our cartoon villains, do we not? Who doesn’t want to  jeer at an unwelcome telemarketer’s phone call in such a voice?

I was baffled with joy at this voice sneering out of the speakers. Singing along, I vicariously lived through DeBoer’s delivery, pretending to be the smarmy villain. On the Classy Entertainment EP, and the band’s self-titled, debut LP (which sounds like a more daring Interpol, hosted by a larger-than-life carnival barker fighting for the people) DeBoer sings with this villainous wit and, as Patton Oswalt might say, sarcasm “so thick you could drizzle it over pancakes.” With McConaghy contributing on lyrics, DeBoer tackles all kinds of nerve-wracking topics, silly and serious, whether it’s the inane stash of smut in your apartment, the Asian car he can’t afford, the kid who still lives at home at the age of 27, or the utter stupidity of racism.

All in the key of a benevolent Gargamel.

“It’s almost like a character, actually,” says DeBoer, of his voice. “What happened there was, I couldn’t actually sing – and I’m sure a lot of musicians have this problem – but you start a band, you’re eighteen, you’re like ‘man we rock! I got a 4 chord song here,’ and then no one can sing at all.”

“At that time I was really into Talking Heads, Pixies – a lot of music that didn’t require a good vocal, and so, it’s just kind of what happened,” continues DeBoer. “At first I started shouting, and I was like ‘that sounds terrible man, you got to do something else with that,’ and then it turned into kind of this – yeah, I guess like a faux-British yelp of some sort. I really had no desire to do it, but it seemed like the only thing that worked.”

Worked? Hell yes it worked! No voice comes to mind that sounds even remotely like DeBoer’s “faux-British yelp.” Combined with the mean Rhodes piano, this is one fierce frontman.

(Jumbling Towers debut LP)

Third, and with more focused listening, I realized that the rhythm section of Jumbling Towers was just as solid as McConaghy’s keys/guitar and DeBoer’s unique voice/foreboding piano.

Bassist Nate Drexler’s style reminds me a lot of early Carlos Dengler, esp. the way in which he welds the bass so tightly to the beat. In fact, it’s hard for me to differentiate the drums and bass into two separate sounds. In Jumbling Towers, unlike Peter Pan’s shadow, the rhythm section pulls and draws together as the sun tracks its course across the sky, never separating. Elongating maybe, and Drexler breaks out some funky flairs (“Classy Entertainment” comes to mind), but the flow never yields. The drums hit hard like nail guns, packing exclamation-point-punctuation, and it all crackles with the perfect blend of lo-fi production.

Of course, Jumbling Towers and the Classy Entertainment EP are old news. But I wanted to document the band’s evolution, because then we can really appreciate the next chapter in the band’s sound, which represents a quantum leap in style, approach, and production. Also, unlike the first two Jumbling Towers releases, the band wants  to drop Kanetown on a proper label.

“We’ve been a band that hasn’t got a lot of notoriety, which is totally cool, but we wanted to make a pop album, do something new, and maybe get on the map a little bit,” says DeBoer of the new Jumbling Towers album. “It’s (Kanetown) basically a concept-pop album, and it’s turning out way poppier than expected, so, I’m sure we’ll regret it in ten years, but that’s OK. It was just the progression that came naturally, and I felt that we were still keeping our artistic integrity.”

(“Kanetown City Rips” b/w “Gilberta” 7″)

As a precursor to the new full-length, the band recently released “The Kanetown City Rips” single via the UK-based Half Machine Records, with the B-side being a game-changing song called “Gilberta.” Before we get into all that (and the bass, oh THE BASS), the question is obvious – how did a band from St. Louis come to be on a British label?

“Nate, our bassist, is very active online, and he wrote an email to one of their guys, saying, ‘hey, listen to this,’ and they did,” says DeBoer. “And it’s funny because we’ve had label talks for years that just never materialized. You know, they would say ‘what are you guys doing? This is what we’re doing. We really like it,’ and we’d say, ‘OK,’ and then write them back, give them a little nudge, saying ‘we would be totally down with releasing this – would love to hear details!’ and then it never goes anywhere. It was odd, just sending a blind email and getting a deal. I mean, we’ve been having contacts with people for 3 years, nothing materialized, and then we take a shot in the dark. But, that’s how it worked out.”

There must be some clever cats at Half-Machine Records. Though we only have two transmissions from the fictitious land of Jumbling Towers’ Kanetown to decipher at press time, it’s hard to imagine any independent label passing up the chance to release this new devilry.

First off, gone is the lo-fi production. It’s as if Jumbling Towers added a fog light kit to their front of their ride, cutting through the haze and swirling mist with ridiculous clarity, revealing waves of jocular bass. The drumming is now a deft mix of both man and machine, though its marriage to Drexler’s basslines remains as magnificent as ever. And speaking of Drexler, holy mackerel! His off-the-wall funky basslines are the secret weapon in Jumbling Towers. They are so good it’s unfair, like Robocop’s ability to holster a high-powered gun within the synthetic cyborg flesh of his own thigh.

Both “The Kanetown City Rips” and “Gilberta” boast beats more contagious than Swine Flu – your neck can’t help but obey and nod, just like your fingers can’t stop popping blisters of air when confronted with a sheet of bubble wrap. “Gilberta” is especially so, and it shant be long before someone choreographs a joyous group dance routine to it, with the apex coming on the line “Why don’t you borrow my leather coat?” Of course, DeBoer’s inflection whilst saying this odd query is simply classic, sporting the perfect blend of sass and authority. It’s absurd, but I can imagine a dance troupe clad in matching leather coats, you know? At the predestined moment, they rip the coats off their chests in unison and hurl them at the audience, all the while clapping confrontationally  to “Gilberta’s” infectious beat.

“We got a new drummer, about a year ago, and we have been doing all the recording at his house,” says DeBoer of newest member Demetrius Sledge. “He’s brought amazing stuff to the table. The rock drumming is going to be kind of gone on the new record, and there’s going to be a lot more sampling.”

“The whole concept to Kanetown, it sounds really childish on paper, but it served as an exciting, fresh approach to what we’re doing,” continues DeBoer, “is about this group of kids that have been exiled from a major city, in the early eighties. That’s where most of our instruments come from anyway, and so the kids create this little pop-land, this very dark world, and that’s where a lot of the percussion comes from. He’s (Sledge) got a 1981 808 machine, and all sorts of other stuff, so we just let him do his thing. I think it’s very unique-sounding, and, again, the lyrics and pop music are all based upon this little world of Kanetown.”

It should be noted that, the core members of the band have known each other since they themselves were little kids. In fact, that’s where “Jumbling Towers” comes from.

“We all were friends when we were very young, long before music started, and Jumbling Towers was a game we liked to play, back in the era of carefree, high school life,” says DeBoer. “It worked, and no one really second-guessed it.”

Then again, that’s the thing with this band. It works, and based on what we’ve heard thus far from Kanetown, it’s safe to say that some of that carefree feeling has returned to the Towers. DeBoer’s voice still has that unprecedented, villainous mood to it, but  he sings as if there are less things weighing heavily on his mind, and the songs themselves are far more cheery. You can dance to “Gilberta” and “The Kanetown City Rips,” but what really smacks of something Special K is the inspired evolution of the band’s musical mechanics. Just listen to McConaghy’s minimalist guitar solo in “Gilberta.”

I reckon DeBoer was right when he said the poppier Kanetown seemed like a natural progression for Jumbling Towers. He kind of sums it up himself in “The Kanetown City Rips,” right before dropping into a series of  Rosemary’s Baby-esque “la-da-dun-da-da-de-dums.”

“We’ll fall back on higher ground/ We won’t give up our outcast sound/ ‘Cause there’s no higher ground to find here.”

What else can I say? Insulated in St. Louis, left to evolve naturally in sound and gifted with a villainous voice to lead them, Jumbling Towers hath arrived, and it won’t be long before heads start snapping to attention.

Here’s to ‘The Lou.


Oct 4 2009 at Mojos with The Walkmen in Columbia, MO
Oct 23 2009 at BTR’s CMJ Party @ Trash Bar w/ Generationals, The Loom and  Holiday Shores in Brooklyn, NY
Oct 24 2009 at Matchless (CMJ MARATHON) in Brooklyn, NY

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– Matt Lehtola


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