Telepath: All Eyes West

By: Zack Sampsel

For TelepathCurt Heiny (bass, synth bass), Michael Christie (keyboards, melodica, samples) and Mike B (drums, loops), it appears there’s nowhere to go but west. In a little more than two years, this trio has firmly etched their place in the live electronic music scene along the East Coast, and with a new album and plans to head towards the Pacific for the first time; it’s all about uncharted territory in 2009.

But, before embarking on another tour in support of their second album, Contact (JamBase review here), Curt Heiny took time to discuss their self-proclaimed “live electronic downtempo re-world breakbeat dub” sound and detail the band’s plans for this year.

JamBase: How has 2009 been for you and the band so far?

Curt Heiny: It’s been amazing. We just finished two sold out shows going into New Year’s, and then went back out and did about a three-week tour that finished up on February 7. It was, by far, the most successful tour we’ve had so far. Just the response overall was amazing, and we have a new light rig. It was our first tour with that light rig. All in all, it’s been really good, and we have a tour coming up in March. A few shows with The New Deal [dates here], and then in April we’ve got a tour broken into two parts with ten days on and ten days off. Our keyboardist lives in Philadelphia and has a baby, so for that tour we’re gonna do [it this way] so he can be back home with the baby. We’re working on festivals and the summer and the fall [tours]. I’m hoping that it just keeps going.

JamBase: First things first, let’s discuss Contact. It’s been almost six months since its release. How has the newer material translated over to the live setting and have you received positive feedback?

Chris Heiny: Yeah. We are really intentional about when we write music for an album. We intentionally write it in a vain that allows us to be able to play it live also. It’s very important for us to be able to put an album out and then follow it up with the live performance. The live performance usually is better than the album, instead of vice versa. We have a pretty good system figured out about how to do material live. The new material has gotten really good responses on the tours since the album was released. We’re now even playing more material that isn’t on the album. It’s gotten a good response. To play music live and not have it out yet, but still have people responding to it is usually a good sign that it will be a strong album.

After listening to your show from Charlotte on January 24, 2009, I heard quite a bit of feedback from the audience in between songs. Is that typical of any given Telepath show, and would you say that the fans of Telepath play an important role in the bigger picture?

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We can’t do it without the fans. That’s first and foremost. We’ve been really blessed to have an amazing fan base that has been extremely supportive and allowed us to do what we want to do musically. We just can’t do it without them. We try to keep it to a give-and-take sort of thing. We give something out, then we get it back, and then we give it back out again. The fans are number one as far as support goes to do this thing, and they allow us to do what we love for a living. It’s amazing to do what you want for a living and bring positivity and happiness to the people. We’ve only been together for two and a half years. So, as we’ve gotten a bigger fan base going more people are showing up to shows, and that’s happening more and more now. It’s been a recent thing but it’s really exciting to see.

How do you maintain that band/fan relationship? Do you answer emails, and are you receptive to things said at shows?

We still have all our own personal e-mail [addresses] on the site. Then people can e-mail any one of us individually and it comes to our personal Gmail accounts. We try to keep ticket prices reasonable and interact with fans before and after the show. We’re just doing everything we can to show appreciation for our fan base that allows us to do what we do. As you’re promoting anything it’s a situation-specific thing. It depends on the venue and city, but it’s important for us to keep a band and fan relationship.

After listening to Contact and some of your live shows, it’s obvious that you use a ton of different effects and instruments to create a very worldly sound, but how do you determine when enough is enough? How do you find that balance?

I feel like the music kind of leads to a minimalist approach sometimes, which we feel can tend to come across as more than what it is. We have some little Telepath secrets that we do. They can almost be subliminal. It’s not something that jumps out. It’s just something that fills out a certain space. There are little things we do that make the sound what it is. We’re not a jam band, so we’re taking the approach of live electronica so that helps to cut down on too much.

What is the process for writing your music? Is there a formula to it?

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There’s no set formula. Michael, the keyboard player, does a lot of the writing. And with the Internet and the way that we write, we can pass stuff back and forth. We can practice down here and he can practice in Philly. Then, we can get together before the tour and any new material we need to get together as a band we can work on that.

Outside of the instruments on the album that we can play, we also have to find other instrumentalists. That can determine a lot of how a song comes together. On Contact, there were 20 guest musicians on that album. We would maybe write a song, but in order to make it authentic we had to contact the horn player for the horns, or whatever. So there is no set formula, but we really keep everything authentic. Actual musicians are playing the actual instruments, and if it means having 20 guest musicians then we have to go out and seek those people.

What musicians and producers influenced you guys when Telepath was nothing more than a concept?

Well, the concept started with Michael. He is actually the ‘founder’ of Telepath. He pulls a lot from Afrobeat, like Fela Kuti, Jamaican dub, Mad Professor and stuff like that. There’s a whole world beat influence. He was in a Middle Eastern or Arabic band a couple years out of college, and that kind of opened up that world for him. Then we all got together, and we all have listened to different types of music, but we bring all these [elements] together to make the sound that is Telepath. It ranges from Jamaican dub, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Fela Kuti and so many other influences. We just draw from a lot of different genres to find the sound that makes Telepath.

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Some songs maybe have more of an Arabic influence, while the others might have more of a hip-hop beat, and other songs may have more of a Jamaican dub sound while we’re adding a sitar over the top. You can kind of inter-mix. It’s fun to dabble in whatever styles you want to make the sound that you are hearing.

Curt Heiny

Photo by: Allison V. Smith

How did you arrive on the central idea of the sound?

Like in our description, it’s a re-world sound. It’s a conglomeration of a bunch of different influences and mixing those in with the Western influences we have growing up in America. There are common threads running through each song, but I don’t think any of the songs sound the same. Some songs maybe have more of an Arabic influence, while the others might have more of a hip-hop beat, and other songs may have more of a Jamaican dub sound while we’re adding a sitar over the top. You can kind of inter-mix. It’s fun to dabble in whatever styles you want to make the sound that you are hearing. Each song is different, and one may have more influences than another. One might sound straight like a desert caravan while the next track is Jamaican dub. It’s kind of like making a soup. You just kind of add a little of this, a little of that and then you have it.

It sounds like one or maybe all of you have been involved with musical projects in the past. What were those, and how have those influenced this project?

Michael played for a short time with Lotus and another band, Afromotive, and another band named Second Sky. Those were kind of three different genres of music. Drummer Mike B actually played in a rockabilly band and a reggae band in Florida. I’ve played in everything from a reggae band to a jam band to a Grateful Dead cover band. So, as far as influences go, that’s somewhat of an influence on me. And that is kind of where all the different influences come from.

Have you noticed your music changing at all as you become more familiar with technology and your sound as a band?

Yeah, Contact was way more focused than our first album. Fire One is touching on a lot of different things while trying to find a Telepath voice. That album was done by our keyboardist before Telepath even got together. He actually put that album together, and then decided he wanted to make a live project out of it. Fire One was kind of his thing. He was finding his voice as a writer. It wasn’t a live project so we didn’t have the live aspect that we were able to piece back into it. When we got together we started playing songs off of that. We have been constantly upgrading technology and finding better ways to do things.

Contact was intentionally focused more as an album in the Arabic and Indian vein and the Jamaican dub vein. There’s not one solo on the album. We really wanted it to be a whole piece. We wanted there to be some kind of melody you could walk away singing that will stick in your head. There was an intention behind Contact. Even the songs we’re playing live that aren’t on the album are just being focused more into what I believe is the voice of Telepath. Fire One is all over the place as far as styles go, while Contact is more streamlined down into the genres that we want to do. The next album is going to be the same way, too. It’s always going to evolve but I think we’ve found our voice. Now, we’re writing in that vain. There is definitely intention behind Contact and the things we do. The electronic aspect has been cool to find new things we can do, too.

Before we discuss Telepath’s future, I have one more question about the past. How did you guys arrive on the decision to wear suits when performing? Are you old school ska kids all grown up?

In everything that we do we try to be professional. That’s just the professionalism that goes from the way we conduct ourselves to how we handle ourselves on the road to the way that we look every night onstage and on to the production. So, it was more of an overall band decision. We want to portray this image every single night and that is the image we want – classy and professional. This is what were trying to do and it’s what’s important to us.

I’ve seen articles mention the Echo Project as a breakout performance for you guys, and I’ve had friends mention your first performance late night at Camp Bisco VI was what sealed the deal for them. What would you say has been that defining moment for the three of you?

I don’t know if I can pick just one. Those two were definitely big, but there have been so many. We’ve been given so much love from bands that didn’t have to do that. We’ve been really blessed and it means so much to us that bands like Sound Tribe and The Disco Biscuits have taken us under their wing and given us opportunities to play in front of a lot of people. Camp Bisco, Echo Project and Caribbean Holidaze have all been amazing experiences. To go to Jamaica for five days and play with the Biscuits and Umphrey’s, Toots and Maytals and to be on a beach is amazing.

What role has the Internet played in gaining popularity for you guys, and how do you utilize the Internet?

The way things seem to be going everything is going digital. It’s hard almost to keep up with the curve because it all goes back to the whole situation-specific thing, where each situation is different. I think definitely that MySpace and Facebook are great for marketing through. Forums like The Lowdown and Phantasy Tour are both really good tools to use. The Internet is definitely the main forum, but doing things like this interview are big, too. It’s been a learning curve for sure. You learn something new every day and there is no set formula that works. You learn and kind of roll with things until you figure something out different. We’re actually going to release Contact on 1320 Records soon, and that’s another form of Internet help. Sound Tribe has built up a sizable fan base. With them taking the album on 1320 that is huge. Any of those kinds of things are amazing.

Where do you see Telepath in five years?

In five years, hopefully we’re playing theatres and amphitheaters and continuing to bring our positive music to that many more people. In five years, I’d like to be playing as much outside of the United States as we are playing inside the United States now, and I think the style of music we do lends itself to being able to do things in Europe and Japan. Did you know that Contact was released on Buffalo Records in Japan?

I didn’t know that.

Yeah it was released in January on Buffalo Records. It sold almost a thousand copies in about a month or so. We’re trying to get over to Japan for a tour sometime in the spring or summer. We have a couple things we’re working on in Europe as well. In five years though, I’d like to see us doing things that we want to do through music and have the opportunity to benefit people through our music.

Telepath is on tour now, dates available here.

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