Introducing beatnik fusion
Having reached legal drinking age, Kyoto Beat Orchestra is poised to take over the club scene
“I’m sorry; we’re sold out,” said the nice lady selling CDs at a local club. When audience demand exceeds musical supply, it’s an impressive accomplishment for any local band, but I had walked up to buy a record as soon as Kyoto Beat Orchestra finished its set, so that means people were snapping those puppies up even before the band was done playing.
That response is not surprising when one hears Kyoto Beat Orchestra. What is surprising is that the orchestra only has two members, Terra Lopez on vocals and Eric Isom on keyboards and drums, and both have just attained the age where they can walk into a 21-and-over venue and partake of a libation, should they wish.
Kyoto Beat’s music falls into the “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know I like it” category. It draws on many varied influences, including jazz, hip-hop, trip-hop, experimental and rock ’n’ roll.
“We used to get frustrated [describing the sound] because the music is not just one thing,” Lopez said in a recent interview. “It changes constantly. Who knows where we’ll be in a couple months, a couple years? So, I made up this phrase: beatnik fusion.”
Indeed, the music pulls just as much from literary influences like Jack Kerouac, William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings and others as it does from any particular musical genre. (And this beatnik-fusion duo longs to play on the sidewalks of Berkeley, as did a prior generation’s beatniks.)
It’s a bit eye-opening to see self-taught musicians as young as Lopez and Isom drawing on such musical inspirations as Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as newer bands like Portishead; Medeski, Martin and Wood; Fiona Apple and Björk.
During live shows, Isom often will start a song by creating a groove on drums. Then, looping it, he’ll jump on his Yamaha keyboard and a synthesizer to supply the melodic part of the tune. Lopez augments her vocals with a Kaoss Pad that adds in vocal effects.
The one drawback to doing all this on their own is that Isom has to lug both drums and keyboards to gigs. “We’ve had a couple times when we’ve had labels that were interested say, ‘You know, if you had a drummer and a bassist …’ We understand that’s the normal thing to do, and we respect it because that’s what makes a band,” Lopez said. “But right now, even though we’re open to change as we go along, we feel comfortable with what we’re doing.”
And why change something that is so obviously working? Kyoto Beat Orchestra manages to get a very big sound with only two people; a fact that continually amazes people. “I think that’s what makes us stand out,” Lopez said, “because we’ve had people come up and ask us how we’re doing it.”
As for professional aspirations, Kyoto Beat Orchestra plans to keep things on a small DIY scale for now. “We would love to do music for our living,” Lopez said. “We don’t want to get signed to a huge label or anything, just stay indie on a small label.” The duo plans to record a studio CD soon and possibly will bring in some musicians to augment that recording. Well on their way to becoming established on the local scene, Isom and Lopez also have plans in the works for touring up the coast.
“When we started out, we never really thought too much about where we wanted to go,” Lopez said. “And I remember passing by Old Ironsides and Blue Lamp or Capitol Garage, and I’d think it would be so cool to play there. Now it’s kind of surreal that we’re playing these places, and we played in Monterey, and we’re going to be doing a mini-tour of Oregon and Washington.”
I wouldn’t call it surreal. I’d call it impressive.