Monday, October 18, 2010

To Light A Fire

Birmingham’s melodic alternative rock quintet, To Light A Fire, began when vocalist/keyboardist Ben Smolin and guitarist Tyler Cody started playing music together their senior year of high school. “We eventually got everyone together. I was dating Allison (drummer/vocalist) and she started singing harmonies in the group and started playing drums and keys,” Smolin said.

Bassist Shane Cardinal and guitarist Andrew Flickinger rounded up the final lineup. The band started to practice regularly and seek out shows in local venues, finding audiences in coffeehouses, and then eventually expanding to The Nick, Bottletree, and Workplay.

Smolin chose the name To Light A Fire as a metaphor for what the music creates in both the listener and the musicians themselves. “The idea was that when you hear a song out of a person that you really like, it’s usually because you relate to that and feel an emotion inside..reminds you of breaking up, reminds you of something you feel.”

The group cites a diverse range of influences such as U2, Radiohead, Tool, Slash, and Our Lady Peace. Cardinal hails from New Orleans and Smolin says that Cardinal’s vast knowledge of all things musical and melodic heavily influenced the band’s sound in the early months. “A lot of the stuff I listen to is stuff he gave to me. Like when he joined the band, we were like, ‘You should give us some of the stuff you listen to.’ And he literally brought down a stack of 15 CD’s and gave them to me,” Smolin said. “And he did that every single practice. He definitely brings uniqueness to the group.”

Lyrics and music are almost always written together during practice. The band emphasizes the idea that every instrument has its own voice and carries and complements the song in an unique way. Smolin often writes lyrics on the spot to go along with the emotion being exhibited in the music. “I guess a lot of themes that come out are personal, definitely religious, God, struggling with all that. I guess that’s probably been some of the main themes. I like to think that a lot of the lyrics apply to everyone in the band because I really do emotions from what Tyler is playing with his notes and the beat that Allison’s doing,” he said.

“That’s the majority of it and the rest he’ll take and make stories, fictional stories of someone we have no relation to or haven’t experienced yet. “Take Your Time” and “World War 2” are basically stories. “World War 2” is coming from the perspective of someone in World War 2 and he’s really good at putting himself in these places; singing to where we all can relate to it somehow,” Flickinger added.

So far, the band has released two recordings, 2009’s To Light A Fire EP and 2010’s Inward Dwelling, recorded by local producer Joseph McQueen of Dos Amigos Recordings. While the majority of the songs of TLAF were written solely by Cody and Smolin, Inward Dwelling represents a more collaborative effort. “In a five person band, we’d each come in with ideas but you have to see it as a group thing. You can’t think of your part as the most important. And it wasn’t that any of us were arrogant or trying to be selfish; it was just this idea of learning to play,” Smolin said.

“For me personally, it was an enormous jump between the first and second CD’s. I made my own name in the band and I was able to make my voice heard. And that was the big difference for me, putting my emotions into it. We’re still learning about what our style is and it changes all the time,” Flickinger said.

As far as live shows go, the band has started packing up the trailer and hitting some out-of-state gigs on the weekends. However, finding their niche was a difficult task in the beginning. Smolin said he would find plenty of venues, but the band would almost always end up on a bill with hardcore and screamo acts, a problem pop-punkers Saves the Day had to deal with early in their career. This time around, he hopes to do things differently. The band has shows lined up in Birmingham, Mobile, Nashville, Atlanta, and Athens.

Ultimately, the band hopes to develop a following along with achieving a sense of longevity. “Even if we have an awesome tour and we quit our jobs, we don’t want to be that one band that has a successful hit and then dies. Even if we were set for life and that’d be awesome, but what we really want to do is to keep playing music. Take a band like U2. One of the reasons I respect them is that they’re not doing a reunion tour where they’re playing their old hits for the 50th time. They’re creating new music and even at 30 years, they’re still enjoying each other’s company,” Smolin said.

“They’re a family and that’s what we are. We really are a family and we’ve been through a lot together. Not one of us is going to walk out on this project,” Cody added.

“We’ve almost got enough new material for another album and it’s gonna be completely different from the last one because we learned more about how to play with each other. Out of all the weird styles, we’re learning to bring it together as our own and we’re learning our own style,” Flickinger said.

Check out the band at or become a fan on Facebook.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Giants and Toys

Blues-influenced rock with a twist of indie/alternative and a subtle helping of ska. A lead singer with a musical and lyrical affinity for Tom Waites. Energetic live shows with visual nods to Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips. The Montevallo five-piece known as Giants and Toys is gaining some serious momentum.

The band started in the fall of 2008. Michael Messina (Lead Vocals/Guitar) and Jack Kish (Guitar/Vocals/Synth), who both graduated from Montevallo High and had been playing music together for several years, started looking for a new drummer and vocalist. They even went as far as to put up Singer Wanted posters around campus, but just ended up “meeting some pretty weird people.”

They recruited percussionist Chris Estes, bassist and trumpet player James Vance, and keyboardist and trombone player Jake Finn from another Montevallo act, Hey Man!, of which Kish and Messina were also members. “We had done Hey Man! as sort of a novelty ska band that won the Battle of the Bands our freshman year. Then it kinda went a little further and we actually played a show in Birmingham. That was a pretty big crowd, Chris was interested in playing drums not just for Hey Man, but for something more substantial,” said Messina.

“Jake played trombone in Hey Man and he was a music major and that was his first experience being in a band. Vance has been in ska bands since high school,” Messina continued. “Initially, Vance was gonna be the trumpet player and I was gonna be the bass player cause I’ve played bass since high school. Jack was gonna play guitar and Chris was gonna be on drums.”

However, as the practices became more routine, each member began transitioning into their current role in the band. Vance moved to bass, allowing Messina to take on guitar and vocal chores. It was during this period that the band realized that simply jamming out was not enough. “December 27th, 2008. That’s when we wrote our first song (“Hold Me Down”) collectively,” Estes said.

“It was a song that I had written and something that I had never even considered. I wrote it my senior year in high school. A lot of turbulent things were happening my senior year. It was something on my back catalogue that I never thought about playing,” Messina said.

Messina said he just started playing the song one day at practice and the band took a hold of it and made it their own. “From there, we were like ‘Man this is something we can do’,” he said.

Their name often throws venues and first time listeners for a loop. “We get a lot of interesting confusions. My favorite one was Giants with Boys or Giants and Boys. Giants with Toys, that’s what BAAM called us on the internet. But we’ve heard some interesting variations,” Messina said.

The idea for the moniker came to Jack Kish after a failed Google search for “cool band names.” “I think I had read somewhere that some band had named their band after a movie I liked and I thought we needed to try that. Second Lions, we thought about that one. Then, Giants and Toys was an old movie from the 50s,” Kish said.

The movie was a Japanese film about three competing candy factories; the members admit they have not seen it all the way through, though they said you can find it on Youtube.

John Nicholson created their famous robot logo that has been seen on past show posters. “Every great venture in business, music, and entertainment, they always have a logo so we wanted something people could identify us with and GAT wasn’t positive,” Messina said.

Musically and lyrically, the band draws from a wide variety of influences such as Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waites, and The Flaming Lips.

“What you think influences you is not necessarily what your music is gonna sound like. Evan from Toga! Toga!, when we first played our show with them, he said that I sounded like a mixture between Jim Morrison and Jack White when he played with the Raconteurs. I thought that was interesting because I didn’t necessarily sit down and say, ‘That’s what I wanna sound like,’” Messina said.

“Most of the songs are about having a good time, some of them are about heartache, some of them are about some really dark stuff. Some of them are just fun,” he continued. “I mean, there’s no theme. I’m not trying to write every song the same way. I have a lot of messages I want to convey.”

The band began recording this summer, though they experienced some initial turbulence. “Before we went into the studio, we had planned to have album out by June 30th, but the first recording studio we went to kind of screwed us over,” Estes said.

However, through Estes’ grandfather, the band got placed in the hands of Grammy-nominated record producer, Don Mosley. Messina said that stepping into the studio for the first time was nerve-wracking.

“They had an original Fleetwood Mac from one of their albums; it was a painting, the original artwork in the recording studio. We were just like, ‘Who else has been in there?’ and now we were in there recording our stuff. That was cool, that notion. Figuring which people had been where you’re standing,” he said.

If everything goes as planned, the EP will drop October 31st.

In regards to their live act, Giants and Toys played their first show in February 2009 and played one show a month in Montevallo, alternating between The Bus Station and The Main Street Tavern, eventually making the trip to Birmingham for a show at the Firehouse. Recently, they’ve participated in Birmingham’s inaugural BAAM Festival, playing at Matthew’s Bar and Grill on Morris Avenue. They also kicked off the school year with a gig at Eclipse Coffee and Books.

The band said that they hope to provide an entertaining and energetic show that provides a lasting memory for the audience.
“For me, I just want everybody to have a good time. Smiling and dancing. I really feel like our music is about having a good time, getting rid of your cares for a little while,” Estes said.

“I hope, that since I man the confetti cannon, that they take away a little piece of confetti,” Kish added.

“I want people to remember us. That’s my biggest thing. It’s kind of childish. You know, but it’s kind of like going after your American Dream. You just want to be remembered. I hope the crowd will remember us. I hope it won’t be some three month shindig and they say: ‘Yeah I remember that. It was fun that you did that. You should start up a different band.’ I want it to last,” said Messina.

Listen to their music on or become a fan on Facebook.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Collaboration and The Birmingham Music Scene

Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and occasionally Young). These musicians created a plethora of memorable music through intense collaboration. These relationships exist mainly between individual musicians but can also affect the songwriting community of major, music-infused cities.

The melodies that float from the heart of Birmingham, Alabama songwriting collective, are well thought out and innovative, but often underappreciated.

“Birmingham musicians have grit and sincerity. We have our backs against the wall and I really believe that we have a lot of fight left in us,” says Jon Black, a musician who moved to Birmingham from Georgia a few years back. Black plays his own style of folk/rock with an Americana twist and frequents the city’s most prominent venues such as Workplay Theatre and Bottletree CafĂ©.

“We're not Nashville and we're not Atlanta,” he continues. “We're a bunch of post-punk southerners with a do-it-yourself attitude.”

Part of this “do-it-yourself attitude” allows for more artistic freedom. The 21st century musicians are discovering ways to record and distribute their songs in an innumerable amount of avenues. This sea of independent talent is often so overwhelming and crowded that an artist must find an element that sets him apart in songwriting. Musical collaboration plays a role by providing artists with a challenge to blend styles and ideas, to immerse themselves in a community of songwriters, and to impact the future of the local music scene.


A songwriter often develops a personal style that is familiar yet creative. He seeks after a particular sound and hones in on the lyrics and melodies. However, he sometimes becomes stuck in his chosen genre while creativity ebbs and flows. He begins to seek outside sources to spark his imagination. The process can begin with simply changing from an acoustic-driven sound to something more electric-laden. Lyrical collaboration can lead to a variety of themes and concepts that neither party had previously explored.

“Collaboration in the songwriting process can be critical. I think the one thing that people need to realize is that the songwriting process is not the same thing as co-writing a song,” Black says. “The process is a tedious journey through multiple versions of lyrics and music and you will always need someone there to bounce ideas off of.”

The concept of “bouncing ideas off each other” serves as a system of checks and balances. While collaborating, one artist must be able to read into the other’s thoughts in order to pull out a more complex version of the original concept. On the other hand, that person who comes up with the initial song idea must be willing to relinquish some control in order to create a successful tune.

Matthew Mayfield, another Birmingham songwriter who once fronted alternative rock band Moses Mayfield and currently records under his own name, understands this system. During several of his recording sessions, he enlists the help of John Paul White of the indie-folk group, The Civil Wars. “We just have a good friendship and he's an amazing writer/player. He gets me and my strengths and I can reciprocate. That makes for a really great dynamic,” Mayfield says.


Jon Black also adds that to build a music scene through collaboration, musicians must rely on and support each other, both in a recording and performance setting. “You have multiple bands playing shows together and multiple people playing in multiple bands. Backstage they're talking about life and being friends. They're talking about what records they're listening to and what they ate for lunch. They're sharing life with each other and that's the collaboration that leads to great songs.”

In the Birmingham music scene, the act of musicians playing in several different bands during the same show manifests itself in the ever growing songwriting movement known as Grey Haven Community. Local photographer Caleb Chancey started the organization in 2008 as a way to drawn in and showcase local talent. He and musician/pastor Josh Wilson met for BBQ and began discussing an issue that had been on Chancey’s mind, the future of music.

” You see musicians on labels, videos, and TV. You see musicians doing their own thing and then you hear about community of musicians that band together like the Brooklyn Community, the Asthmatic Kitty Community and the Seattle and Portland communities. They have this great camaraderie. So what is the idea of us getting together and exploring music together with the sole purpose of doing nothing but creating together?” Chancey says.

Grey Haven takes the simple formula of the ten songwriters/two songs each open mic night and gives it a unique twist. Every time a new member comes to the bi-monthly gathering at Urban Standard Coffee, they must perform with someone who has played before. This rule encourages collaboration between both professional musicians and hobbyists. Oftentimes, the performers play anything from traditional “band” instrument such as acoustic and electric guitars, drums, and keyboards to more “unorthodox” rock instruments such as cello, mandolin, ukulele, and violins. A punk rock act can be found on the same set as a country artist and folk and electronica musicians also populate the stage.

Members of Grey Haven use their collaborations from these meetings as a springboard to explore further musical ideas. Landscape architect and musician, Neil Couvillion, started playing at Grey Haven after the second show. After a few performances, Chancey approached him. “At the fifth show, Caleb came up to me and said we had to record the album. That was the beginning process. We started planning out the album in the fall and I have met not only great musicians, but kind of a family of friends and musicians. It opened a lot of doors and creativeness.” The result was Couvillion’s 2009 release, Time Machine, which expanded on his original compositions by incorporating the efforts of several Grey Haven performers. In instances such as this, the artist dives head first into the community and allows this new reservoir of ideas to challenge his or her own ideas about songwriting.


In the final stage of the collaborative process, the musicians take their creative efforts from the studio to the world around them. The ultimate goal is to continue developing relationships with artists who are willing to create and develop new ways of playing and enjoying music.

Grey Haven Community keeps an online library of every musician who plays at their events
that contains bios, lists of specialty instruments, and music. The group uses this catalogue for future participants in the Grey Haven events who are looking for collaborators, but Chancey has much more ambitious goals. His hope is for Birmingham to be a resource for travelling musicians. If an independent band plays a show in the city and need a violin, bass, guitar, or piano player, they can contact Grey Haven and request the musician who plays that particular instrument.

“When you have that, you have independent musicians pulling from the local scene and they’re playing with them. No longer is your friend the opener for the band, they’re playing with the band. You’re going to want to go see that show because your friend is playing with the band and that creates a deeper community. The musicians benefit, the songwriter benefits, everyone benefits,” he says.

Others recognize the importance of groups like Grey Haven, but know that many more musicians must jump on board for the scene to be successful. “The Washington Post said that Birmingham had the potential to be the next Austin or Athens,” says Jon Black. “I believe that but we really need a few artists to catch some breaks and figure out a great way to build a bigger community around local music.”

Until then, performers in Birmingham will continue to collaborate, continue to perform, and continue to pour out melodies that echo the heart and soul of the scene.
Check out music from the interviewed artists: