Interview: Ensemble, et al. display percussive panache on new album

It isn’t often that the composition of a “rock band” deviates from that of singer, guitarist (or two), drummer, and bassist.  Sometimes a group will have a keyboardist or turntablist.  Maybe even a flutist or fiddler.

But ensemble, et al. is all about percussion.  Formed in Brooklyn, New York in 2010, the quirky quartet creates gorgeous, fascinating melodies using predominantly percussive mallet instruments typically found in chamber orchestras and symphonies. 

Of course, this approach would seem a little unorthodox for rock and roll—but the ensemble players weave their mirthful melodies around rhythms generated by electric bass guitar and drum kit, then slather them with moog and other ornamental elements for good measure.

Frank Zappa, Gentle Giant, and other progressive bands of yore were known to employ marimba and vibe into their mischievous mixes.  But those artists usually did so in the context of songs with vocals and easy-to-spot verses, refrains, breakdowns, and bridges.  Ensemble, et al. take a more natural approach, letting their instrumental pieces coalesce organically, in their own good time.

The group—comprised of Jeffrey Eng, Charlie Kessenich, Ross Marshall, and Ron Tucker—tested their collective powers on 2014’s present point passed.  But for the John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea & Cake)-produced The Slow Reveal the guys milk their percussive panache for a truly adventurous set whose sparkly strains and modal measures will ignite listeners’ imaginations.

We chatted with Kessenich and Tucker on the eve of the band’s upcoming tour that finds them performing a CD release set at Square Records in Akron, Ohio this Saturday, Nov. 11 and a headline show at Mahalls in Lakewood, Ohio later that night.

AXS: Hi, guys!  Could you talk a little about how ensemble, et al. started?

RON TUCKER:  I started the group a few years ago.  I moved to New York from Cleveland ten years ago.  When I moved to New York I didn’t know any musicians here, so I reached out to people on Craig’s List—which is a pretty common thing here—and met up with Ross.  Ross knew Charlie, so we played as a trio for a while.  But we were missing that fourth person, Jeff, who I found on NYU’s student percussion website.  That’s how we became a quartet.

AXS: So, you’re from Cleveland?

RT: I’m originally from Southeastern Ohio but lived in Cleveland for ten years.

CHARLIE KESSENICH:  We’ve got Ohio roots!  My mom’s from Canton, Ohio.  I’m back there every summer, yeah!

AXS: A layperson might look at a photo of you guys playing and think, “How neat!  They’ve all got xylophones!”  Can you help distinguish between vibraphone, glockenspiel, and marimba for us laypeople?

CK: Vibes and glockenspiel are both metal.  But vibraphone has a bit thinner of a bar, and you usually use mallets that have cloth heads.  They also have resonators that make them sustain longer.  Glockenspiel is usually hit with a hard nylon mallet.  It’s a much higher, brighter tone.  It’s kind of shimmery and twinkly.  Marimba is slightly different from a xylophone, although it looks the most like one because it’s also wood bars.  Except similar to the way glockenspiel and vibraphone are different, the xylophone and marimba are different.  Xylophone would be a harder attack, and marimba is generally a clunkier tone.  We don’t have any xylophones in the group.  Ron, xylophones have resonators, too, right?

RT: Yeah.  We use marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel.  If you think of it as a choir of mallet percussion instruments, the marimba carries all the bass tones.  The vibraphone carries the midrange, and the glockenspiel is like the soprano, the high end.  When we’re writing, we think of it like that.  The marimba oftentimes will hold down the bass line while the vibraphone is like a guitar in that it does the lead melody lines, while the glockenspiel is adding texture on top of it.

CK: When we tried doing it with all acoustic instruments, it was working well.  The marimba was doing the bass well.  But we were competing in a modern musical landscape and were being influenced by that landscape as well, so I guess we felt there was a further bass component missing.  So that’s when we brought in the Moog synthesizer.  Essentially that ends up being lowest sound a lot of the time, as far as timbre goes.

AXS: Does one guy play a specific instrument, or do the four of you switch around on them?

RT: We trade around, although Charlie is mostly on drum kit.  He’s mostly seen playing kit, but he comes out from behind on some tunes to play Moog or marimba.  But the other three—myself, Jeff, and Ross—we rotate around quite a bit between the mallet instruments and keyboards.

AXS: How did the writing and recording of The Slow Reveal differ from your first full-length with John McEntire?

RT: To go back a little further, before present point passed we did an EP.  The EP was mostly written by me, and it was what I used to find the guys to start the band, basically.  So present point passed was the first time we collaborated as a group.  Because we write all our own tunes.  It’s not like we have just one composer who brings the tunes; we all bring ideas to the table.  Present point was the first time we did that, and it was very rewarding for me to get away from writing it all myself!  So with The Slow Reveal we just kept adding to that approach, collaborating.  We’d played together longer, so we have a general sense of where we’re all going, compositionally.  So it became bigger and better, and with that, I think we started to kind of land on a “sound,” if you will.  At the end of the day we realized what we’re going for, and how these new tunes on The Slow Reveal were unveiling themselves as to how someone like John would be a good production partner, in that he’d get what we were doing.  We reached out to him on a cold call, like, “Hey, here’s our previous record, and here’s some new ideas we’re working on now.”  He took us on right away.

CK:  There was a definite beginning of understanding what our sound was on present point passed, and that this record was…we had an idea of what the sound would be.  The compositions got a whole lot longer.  It just so happened that the songs became more long-form, more narrative.  We liked the repetitions and rhythms, but we wanted to create that narrative, and on this album I think we did a better job of that.  The songs have better beginnings, middles, and ends.  There’s not so much weaving in and out.

AXS: When you’re writing, does one of you come in saying you have a “riff” for the others to add to?  Does it work that way, like the way a guitarist might share a “riff?”

RT: Yeah, I think.  We have an inside joke of calling them “riffs.”  Like, “Hey, I’ve got this riff!” like you’re a guitar player.  But it’s a similar vibe.  I’ll bring an idea in, and we’ll call them “seeds” to a song.  I’ll have an ostinato vibraphone.  For example, Charlie might come up with this cool beat to groove around with an ostinato pattern.  But then Ross can come in and add some harmony on the synthesizer that goes around the pattern well, and the next thing you know the tune is starting to unfold and the ostinato gets a harmony.  It’s like that in a nutshell.  Somebody will bring in an idea, and we all add ideas on top of that, and it springboards form that.

CK: If we’re feeling fancy and drinking wine, it’s called ostinato.  If we’re drinking beer, it’s called a riff [laughs]!  And we’re usually drinking beer [laughs]!  Ron gave a good overview.  But it’s a tune-by-tune basis.  Like, “Ondrejko” is a great example of “riff” for us, because that was me and Ron sitting around marimba, just taking a riff and working off on it.  The evolution of that song was bassline, and then doing just one riff—but in as many ways as possible!  A few days later Ron sent me the mp3 saying, “This is that seed, but I’m going to modulate it four times!” And that created the middle section.  That whole tune was just interpolating a riff and moving it around as much as you can within the context of one ostinato.

AXS: What’d you listen to growing up that might’ve influenced you, musically—perhaps not consciously, as in “Let’s do an all-percussion instrumental group!” but more subconsciously?

RT:  That’s a good question.  All of us are schooled in music and have studied and such.  In kindergarten I remember coming home off the bus and air-drumming in front of a mirror to Kiss records.  This was back in 1979 or 1980.  Also growing up I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and classic rock groups.  It didn’t necessarily inform me for this record, but there were these ideas that informed my musical outlook in general.  But it my days in school and in post-college there was a lot of looking into jazz, and into groups that were pushing boundaries and innovating elements of rock and groove.  There were bands on the Thrill Jockey label out of Chicago.  Tortoise was on Thrill Jockey.  A lot of post-rock bands were working with melody and texture, and unique stuff happening!  That’s where I come from, generally speaking.  The edgy end of the spectrum is where I sit as a musician.

CK: Ron and I have a pretty similar background that way, which I’m sure is part of the reason we get along so well and write so well.  It was Led Zeppelin for me.  When I heard them I was like, “I’m going to be a drummer, for sure!”  That was it.  I remember when I first heard “Immigrant Song.”  I’d been waffling on it for like, three years.  But when I heard that song, and that was it.  Another band I like that a lot of people might not expect is Tool.  Tool is a band that has been influential to me forever, especially with their long-form songs.  The way they evolve.  They start in one place and end in a different place.  Before I had any consciousness of classical music that was actually cool [laughs], that was my introduction to long-form songs.  Another big revelation for me was the ‘70s Miles [Davis] era—hearing Bitches Brew for the first time and Live-Evil. We were just talking about that the other day.  For me, those records are all about mood and vibe.  As soon as the needle drops, you’re immediately in another world.  And that’s something that’s very influential to this band, and the kind of feeling we attempt to create.  We want to bring you out of the mundaneness!