Seryn makes its Aspen debut
February 20, 2013
ASPEN – After seeing a spectacular performance by Seryn last summer on the mainstage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and then clearing my schedule so I could see the band play a free show in a small park the next day, I wondered how it was that I had never heard of them before. Checking the band’s website, it turns out that I was not alone; relatively few people had a chance to witness Seryn in action. More than 90 percent of the band’s concerts had been in its home state of Texas, Missouri, Tennessee or Alabama.
That is starting to change. The six-piece band has a four-date Colorado tour that opens with its local debut Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen. Next month, Seryn gets the big spotlight of Austin’s South by Southwest festival, where it is scheduled for performances on 10 consecutive days. The band is in the early stages of a new album; it will be their second, following a debut, “This Is Where We Are,” released at the beginning of 2011.
Nathan James Allen, Seryn’s guitarist and singer, is confident that one of these events – a tour, a festival appearance, an album – will alert the world to the band’s music.
“It’s one of those deals where something will happen and a lot of people will be saying, ‘Hey, we saw Seryn 21⁄2 years ago,” Allen said from his home in Denton, near Dallas. “It’s one of those slow-burning deals. If you put a large pot of water on the stove, turn it all the way up, it can go from not boiling to boiling instantly. I hope that’s what happens to us.”
Seryn is hardly a bunch of old-timers. Allen, at 27, is the oldest member; the newly added backing vocalist, Jenny Moscoso, is just 20. Still, Allen feels that the band, formed four years ago, has put in its time.
“Even if we were on the cover of Rolling Stone in six months, I would consider that slow,” Allen said. “Four years can be a long time. Rock ‘n’ roll hours worked does not equal rock ‘n’ roll hours paid. If success comes at this point, we will feel as if we had paid our dues.”
And if Seryn does make it (my money’s on them), they will likely look back at these early years as a wise investment in their art. Allen confesses that the band hasn’t paid as much mind to the business side of things as other groups might.
“We’ve been focused on the music, getting better at our instruments, playing shows, keeping our gear in order,” he said. “I have a lot of creative goals, a lot of music I want to write. I hope that attention will have a net effect.”
While Allen anticipates the more fruitful stage, he expects that he’ll reflect fondly on these years as a time of youthful innocence.
“We’ll look back and see we’re on this stupid adventure. Reckless, carefree,” he said. “As things progress, it gets more intense and uptight: ‘Bon Jovi doesn’t get his buffalo wings, there’s not gonna be a show!’ We’re not there yet.”
If Seryn – the name is pronounced like “serenity” without the last two syllables – does get “there,” it might do so with a sound that is fairly different from what got them this far. “This Is Where We Are” is freak folk with equal parts freak (unconventional song structures, choir-like vocals) and folk (lots of acoustic instruments). The Telluride performances struck a similar balance: a foundation of acoustic guitar and violin, but a use of them that often was explosive. But Allen has been making room for electric guitar in the batch of songs intended for the new album, while drummer Chris Semmelbeck has been indulging his taste for hip-hop.
“So it’s more grooves and more guitar-driven, less orchestral-oriented,” Allen said.
For Allen, louder guitars represent a return to his foundation. In his childhood, near Dallas, he listened to his father play acoustic guitar and watched him spend a year listening to every piece Mozart had ever written. In sixth grade, Allen made an attempt at French horn. When Allen was in his early teens, his father told him to get a hobby. As it happened, there was a guitar show the following week. Allen picked out a Fender Squire and got busy learning the licks of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley and Angus Young. By high school, he had moved on to rock of a more contemporary and experimental variety.
“Then things just got weirder, these instrumental bands: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Modest Mouse, Explosions in the Sky.”
In the fall of 2007, Allen went to Chile. Without his acoustic guitar, he picked up the 12-string Andean tiple guitar. In Chile, he also met a woman who taught him “Freight Train,” by the folk musician Elizabeth Cotton.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, that’s what I have to do,'” Allen said. When he returned to the States, he saw Doc Watson, the master flat-picker, perform – “the sickest thing I’d ever seen.” And on a trip to New York City, he saw composer Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” an acoustic performance that prompted him to see more of Reich’s music. But the ensuing performances were electric, and disappointing.
So back in Denton, where he began meeting fellow dropouts from the University of North Texas’ acclaimed music program who would become his bandmates in Seryn, Allen says he was “super-charged up that all music should be super-acoustic. I said, We’re not plugging anything in.”
Allen believed that Seryn was riding an old-folk revival that began with the soundtrack to Joel and Ethan Coen’s film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“The sounds in there, it sunk into people,” Allen said. “Everyone understood the soundtrack as a piece of art that stood on its own.”
Perhaps even more significant was “Illinois,” the 2005 album by Sufjan Stevens that used folk ideas, but was constructed into something more dense and lush. “He gave a lot of people permission to pick up a banjo or ukulele,” Allen said. “But then things happen like a bassist joins the band and his acoustic bass is $300 and his electric bass is $1,500 and sounds much better. And you learn that acoustic guitar doesn’t always sound so good onstage.”
So as Seryn finds a way to fit electric guitars and hip-hop grooves into a folk setting, learns to add business savvy to its artistic ambitions, gets exposed to the world beyond north Texas, they are taking their time. Only two tracks for the second album are finished; Allen and the band’s two other principal writers, Semmelbeck and Trenton Wheeler, are still writing the rest of the material.
“It’s time to put out new music,” Allen said. “But I don’t want to rush it. It’s a career-defining moment.”