Clever, spunky, mischievous and yet not too irreverant to be cool, messy
and downright sexy, these indie/emo rocksters deliver a brew, taste-tested
to perfection, with both a spacey, distant vibe as well as gritty, edgy,
grinding coarseness that might occasionally flash you back to the 50s.
If you want the guitars to penetrate like needles and the vocals to remind
you of that bastard who left you, if you want the harmonies to wash over
you something like that drink in your hand, the Sutras could be just your
band. What does all this mean? It means a damn great album, top-to-bottom.
Okay, don't listen to me, Listen to them.
...unflinching aural and emotional sophistication...perfect arrangements
that highlight the prowess and maturity of these 30-something rockers
. . .I guess I couldn't have been surprised to find the guitarist playing
cocktail piano at Lobster Nite locally, but it saddened me . . . if the
world were fair, these guys would and could be the rock stars they seem
to know they are
Best CD Award 2004: The Sutras,"Thousandaire"
Every year, one regional release seems to stand out from the pack, and
the Sutras' new CD grabbed me almost immediately. AJ Strauss and friends
returned from a long hiatus with this stellar album that blends rock and
pop touches with strong arrangements and instrumentation...they could
be poised for bigger things...
...With a band like The Sutras, any audience can identify with the stark
honesty and simple intensity with which they write, record and produce.
A pleasant surprise from a genre that I’ve neglected, Thousandaire
has me throwing my old Pixies, Flaming Lips and Pavement CDs back into
my player rotation...
In the mid-1990s, the Sutras were one of the major players in Ithaca's
underground scene, Led by AJ Strauss, the band combined the loud alt-rock
influences of the era with touches of melodic 1960s pop... [read
...has the distinctive feel of an alternative classic...ten years you
can go back and read this and remember: I told you so!
By Dan Drago
On a Friday night , one of the last places I want to be in Philadelphia
is Olde City. It's crowded with poorly-dressed-for-the-weather (ie. "height
of fashion") U Penn coeds, tourists and stereotypical club hoppers.
But in the heart of all this mess is the Khyber, the best tiny rock club
in the city. And on this particular night, The Sutras will headline, making
the plunge into twenty-something hipsterdom less of a chore and more of
a joy. The classic conundrum for seeing new bands in a big city is present:
they're either immersed in a "garage-rock" sound and are mostly
unlistenable or they're pretentious and would rather spend the set introducing
you to Modal Scales 101 than actually be worth the price of admission.
The Sutras are a cut above the rest, meshing excellent musical arrangement
with a highly energetic rock show to back it up.
I catch up with AJ Strauss (vocals, keys, guitar) and Kevin Denton (guitar,
keys, vocals) at the Khyber's bar, and we wait for the rest of the band
to arrive. Derek Tripp (bass, vocals) arrives straight to the bar after
a four hour drive to the venue (45 minutes of it were spent on the last
ten miles), and Jeremy Allen (drums and cymbals) brings up the rear all
the way from Buffalo, New York. To completely juxtapose the following
conversations of drugs, personal injuries sustained by band members, bi-polarity
and the trials of an unsigned rock band, we settle down in front of a
turn-of-the-century style ice cream parlor around the corner. Kevin praises
the establishment's beverages ("Man, I've got a hard-on for their
sugar-cane Coke," he remarks the second the tape starts rolling.),
and a gentleman with an impressive handlebar moustache waits on the table.
AJ and Derek tell a story of how Derek breaking AJ's ankle in a drunken
wrestling match marked the upswing of the band af
ter the hiatus. "Everything started going really well," AJ cites.
"I broke my ankle, we found Jeremy and [Kevin] to play guitar. Everything
started going really well." Everything is well for these four guys,
and it's clear just sitting across a table from them that they are united
not only by a band name, but out of friendship and profound respect for
each others abilities. "Each of these guys brings a honed aesthetic
to the table when they first came and started plugging in. Each one of
these guys is extremely well listened. And each one these guys and their
aesthetic are completely in line with mine," says AJ about working
with the other three. You can tell that this is not simply the company
line: they are all grateful to be sharing their individual talents with
such like minded musicians. Their coming together did not happen overnight,
but over many years. It was definitely worth the wait.
The story started in 1992 in Ithaca, New York (An idyllic city in the
Finger Lake region that could have doubled as the site of the film PCU,
they ironically did not actually film Road Trip there.) when AJ, a classical
piano student, was thrust into the position of learning to play electric
guitar for Grandma Mapplethorpe, a local college band. He met Derek who
came to fill in for bass player Jarett Mason, and the band (a trio) became
known as The Sutras (culled from a flyer advertising real-life Asian sutras).
"Back then, people were saying we had an innovative sound,"
AJ remembers, "but I knew it was just the My Bloody Valentine."
Likened as well to Sonic Youth and Sebadoh, the band released A Prize
for Whitey on Pox Records and rocked hard throughout the Northeast. "We
had a great deal of popularity amongst the frats in our time," recalls
AJ. "I haven't made that much money with The Sutras since."
The swell lasted until 1997, when the band bid each other a fond farewell
and left it all behind for good. Or not.
Six years later, AJ and Derek emerged from between the Ivy Leaguers
and political action leaflets with a new lineup featuring Jeremy and Kevin,
who decided that he certainly would juggle getting his Master's Degree
and playing guitar. "When it became crunch time, I decided to play
rock." Kevin says. After four months of practicing, the band went
to Electric Wilburland Studios (".the finest studio money can buy."
quips Derek) in Upstate New York to record 2004's Thousandaire, a mix
of the old indie-rock experimentalism with a sense of pure pop mastery.
"I used to be ashamed of playing piano in a rock band," AJ explained
of the pre-hiatus Sutras. "But fuck that. I love piano." Despite
only being together for a short time, all band members agreed that everything
clicked when they went into the studio in June of 2003. Derek and AJ had
been playing together since the days of the band being a trio, and AJ
and Kevin had met playing in a hip-hop band called Mandingo. The recording
of Thousandaire was what truly cemented the musical and personal ties
of The Sutras. "We didn't know what would happen until we made the
recording," AJ says. "It really inspired us." Thousandaire
became the new start to the band.
The band has just recently gone back to the same studio to work with
their studio guru, Wilburland's owner Matt Sacuccimorano and record their
new EP, Those Are Mountains. The band could not have felt more at home
under Sacuccimorano's watch as engineer and producer. Jeremy voiced his
particular enjoyment of working with a producer who was also a drummer.
"Never have I been in a studio as a drummer and felt so comfortable
because I always had to watch and look over the engineer's shoulder to
make sure he was doing the right thing with the drum sounds. But when
Matt was around, I just kind of let Matt go and he came up with all kinds
of crazy shit." While Thousandaire was a very live and straightforward
approach to a record, the band used MP3 exchanging to work out the arrangements
and ideas that would shape the new recording. The distance between members'
homes (AJ and Derek reside in Ithaca, Jeremy in Buffalo and Kevin in Philadelphia)
is a factor, but the exchange helped foster the songs from demo to final
arrangements quite well. "We've just about figured out how to communicate
while being so far apart." says AJ on the trials of trying to keep
a band that straddles the Northeast up and running, much less prepare
a record for the studio. "This new record, we conceived it from bottom
to top. Thousandaire was kind of a pleasant surprise. [Those Are Mountains],
however, is exactly what we conceived from the very bottom to the very
end of the studio process." "There's so much more room for parts
fitting together, whether it be a horn section or a string section or
putting in instruments you normally wouldn't hear on a rock album."
adds Jeremy. The EP was recorded in the beginning of April, mastered at
the time of this interview, and will be ready to hit the real world by
midsummer of 2005.
Live, the band captures the rock n' roll that inspired them with the
polished approach that only seasoned players can muster. There is no downtime
between songs, there is no trouble with getting the amps to sound right,
both typical problems of a band still working out its kinks. The Sutras
have spent their time in the trenches with sub-par gear and poor sound
to emerge as a band that gives a shit about what they're presenting to
the audience. "We're well received here. People seem to be excited
about what we're doing." said Derek on playing in Philadelphia. "We'd
really rather be a small fish in a medium sized pond then be a big fish
in a really tiny pond," says AJ, talking about the difference between
playing in places like Philadelphia and playing their usual haunts in
their home of Ithaca. One of the best things about the band is that they
can be enjoyed on two completely different levels equally. If you're a
gear-head or a stickler for Beatles/Brian Wilson style arrangem
ent, you'll delight in the harmonies and AJ's impromptu Theremin playing.
If you yearn for the mid-90s style of indie rock, you'll dig the driving
guitars and sheer energy that these four guys can emit. But it's impossible
to miss the inspirations that have molded this band, particularly the
innovative studio work of the aforementioned Beatles and Wilson, but also
Bowie, Berlin and Queen. The band jumps back and forth in how they talk
about their work: heralding fine studio techniques and high-end live gear
while proclaiming up front that they really love to kick ass on stage.
Being an unsigned band in a business where cred is everything has had
its effects on the band, but they're not discouraged about it. Plans are
already being made to shop the new EP around to get their feet in the
door, and they're not going at it completely alone. The band has made
a great friend and contact in fellow Ithaca musician Mary Lorson (AJ appears
on her forthcoming record, now available in Europe) and members of her
former band, Madder Rose. But the selling point is the new release. "We're
really, really proud of the product, and it's anchored by a ridiculously
college friendly single. So we're hoping that'll turn the heads of the
less cerebral folks, and once we bring 'em in, we start preaching to them
with the whacked out arrangements." says AJ with a smile. "Ideally,
we'd now all be making our income, touring around the country seven or
eight months out of the year," he continues. "So, yeah, I guess
there is some pressure to do more." "And there's a subconscious
fear of success," adds Kevin. "Then we'd have to really do something."
Without a label, the band has promoted themselves mostly over the Internet,
but also use old fashioned grunt work of putting up their own posters,
making their own phone calls and relying on themselves as the frontline
of getting their name out there. "We really want a booking agent
to actually see the band and be so fucking impressed," explains AJ.
"Until then we kind of hit ceilings of what we can get without having
someone big on our side."
Is the industry ready to embrace The Sutras? Are audiences prepared
to put aside their biases against instruments they might not instantly
recognize and open up to a healthy mix of 60's and 70's innovators and
guitar-heavy indie rock? While it seems the rock world is ready to embrace
the past with their waves and waves of "retro" rock groups,
The Sutras offer music that gives a thankful nod to the old masters, yet
doesn't assimilate or flat out steal their work like so many others today.
It's not a step back, but a well-educated, well-listened step forward.