Photo: Nathan West
Minerva Lions are one of those bands that sound utterly unique, and yet feel as comfortable as your favorite pair of slippers. By subtly synthesizing folk, psych rock, alt-country and roots rock, they create a strange brew that’s as charming as it is welcoming. With support and accolades from artists such as Nicole Atkins, Dengue Fever, and Wilco’s Mikael Jorgensen, Minerva Lions look to be in just the right place at the right time.
Minerva Lions frontman Jared Samuel chatted with us about the band’s formation, their debut EP, and the life of a musician in Brooklyn. Read on!
We’re now recording.
I’m only wearing a dickey and mittens, so if we were doing a Skype , I’d have to at least put on some lotion, if not some pants.
Indeed, definitely lotion.
Why don’t we start with some history? How did Minerva Lions get started?
I had a bunch of tunes that I was writing for this old trio that I had together. That band was sort of falling apart, but I was still writing things in the mode of stuff that a live band would play — as opposed to sometimes when I’m working by myself, when I’m not too lazy to demo (which is seldom), I’ll just play everything: sixteen tracks of all me. I got kind of tired of that, and I wanted to play out live again, so I started to put a band together. That first band that almost got called Minerva Lions was originally just called Invisible Familiars, which is also what I DJ under, so ultimately we wound up changing it. It was a totally different rhythm section, plus Thomas Bryan Eaton on guitar, who wound up playing pedal steel on the EP. Originally, that was the band. It was Jeremy Kay, who now plays bass for Nicole Atkins, and Dave Mason who is a fantastic Irishman. Great drummer, great feel, great look. But he and Jeremy both had to bow out — their schedules got too full. It’s sort of the New York session-guy/musician thing. That’s why I tried to get guys who wanted to be in a band just for the sake of being in a band, so long as they believed in it.
Luckily I soon met Joe McCaffrey. Stuart Bogie introduced us. Stuart is a great guy. Everyone who knows Stuart thinks of him fondly, and for good reason. Stuart brings people together. He’s a hell of a musician and a stand-up dude. So, Stuart introduced Joe and I, and Joe lives around the block from my local, so we started hanging out a lot. One night after spending a bit too long at the bar, Joe said, “Oh, you would love my friend’s band. I’ve got to play you some of these bands. I used to manage some of them.” And I was hesitant because these things rarely turn out well, inasmuch as I can be a real harsh and opinionated bastard sometimes. [But] every single band he played me that he was friends with and he was psyched about, I thought, “This is amazing.” A year later, it feels like I’ve known him for a lot longer. He’s kind of got one foot in jam-band world — he’s a long-time Deadhead — but at the same time he’s into all sorts of [other] music. Joe is primarily a guitar player, but I asked him if he wanted to play bass, because I trusted him and where he was coming from, and I had gotten tired of the real technical approach to playing bass — not that there’s anything wrong with the clichés of bass playing; they are clichés for a reason. But Joe steers clear of those and really plays much more attention to melodic accompaniment.
So once that was happening, I got reintroduced to Tim Kuhl. I heard him playing in this band that had two drummers, Elliott Bergman’s Metal Tongues, and over the course of their show I realized that the other drummer was really keeping time and playing straight, and Tim was playing so melodically. Not all drummers can do that, but Tim does it in a way which is really unique. I feel like everyone in this band is a total character.
That brings us to Grey McMurray. Thom was our guitar player this whole time, but Thom is in demand, and justifiably so as he is a fantastic guitar player and a great pedal steel player. We had a whole bunch of gigs booked in the summer — just local stuff — but we wanted to play live as much as we could. We didn’t want to say no to any gigs, but Thom had to go out of town for some of his other personal projects as well as for some session work, so I asked around for recommendations on who would be good to fill that role. It’s funny, because Grey McMurray came in and didn’t at all fill the Thom Eaton chair. Thom is super-terrestrial; he’s so rooted, and he knows how to play guitar so well in the Americana/folk idiom — he can also go beyond that and be wild live, but that’s his vocabulary: a more rooted approach. Whereas Grey is completely extraterrestrial. That’s when it felt like the band had really come together.
Once we recorded the EP, we were fortunate enough to have Thom in for pedal steel, and we had some other friends helping us out. Our friend Sarah, aka Bunny Benabdellah, helped out on background vocals. That’s the lineup.
It’s really solidified nicely then. How did the show with Dengue Fever come about?
It was a combination of things. Joe has a lot of history working in both sides of the music industry. He plays in Nightmare of You, who’ve had some huge success. Joe “knows people,” as the expression goes. He’d been in touch with folks at Highline Ballroom, and they basically told us to keep an eye out for bands coming there that we’d like to open for. They heard our EP and they dug it, so they wanted to try to help give us a leg-up. We picked out a couple of bands that we dug, and Dengue Fever was one of them. Then what happened was Dengue Fever’s manager heard the remix of “For R.A.” that Mikael Jorgensen [of Wilco] did for us, and it turns out their manager is old friends with Mikael, so instead of just approving [that show], he listened to the whole EP, fell in love with it, and invited us on a whole tour with them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t really do the whole thing on short notice, but we all agreed that the Highline Ballroom show would be the one not to miss. We made way for that, and hopefully we will do more with them.
That must have been pretty exciting having Jorgensen remix one of your songs. How did that come about?
I’ve known Mikael for years now, actually. Again, there’s the Stuart Bogie connection. [Former bandmates] Phonograph opened up for Wilco a couple of times. Me and Mikael both bonded at first over being gear-geeks — he’s totally out-shone me in that department, though. He knows so much about all kinds of vintage instruments, and also how to build a studio and make it sound wonderful. He’s really generous with that, too. So, Mikael and I have known each other for a while, and then we got reintroduced through Stuart, because he was playing in Mikael’s band Pronto. Actually, you know what? I think I’m flipping this all around. I think Mikael actually introduced me to Stuart in the first place! It’s funny, I haven’t thought about that in a while. Well, it’s all fuzzy, but the point is that they are both incredibly wonderful and kind, talented musicians.
I got back in touch with Mikael more recently because he came back to Brooklyn in the last couple of years, and started living out in Fort Greene. He invited me out to his studio, and I wound up collaborating with him a bit in the live lineup of his band, Pronto. Especially in the newer direction that it’s taken, which is like two-keyboard, super-krauty stuff. It’s a lot of fun. So we wound up just staying in touch. When it was time for Minerva Lions to go and record this new EP, we did most of the principal tracks at GodelString in Park Slope, under the tutelage of Dan Rosato from Your 33 Black Angels. After that — for overdubs — Mikael was kind enough to lend us his space while he was out recording with Wilco. When we were done, we just asked him if he wanted to do a remix of one of the tracks. I let him pick which one, because I figured he’d pick the one he dug the most and have fun. I think he chose “For R.A.” because it’s the farthest away from what the remix wound up sounding like. He said he wanted to pick the one that would seem the least dancey, and make it more so. I don’t know if any of the tunes on this EP are going to have people rushing to the dancefloor, but we always like when it happens. It’s more like a head-nodder.
Do you have plans for a full-length?
Yeah, we have a ton of new songs that we’re constantly adding to the set. No matter how many originals we have, our set always ends up being at least 30% covers, just because there are songs that I love, and that everyone in this band loves, but they’ve been kind enough to let me pick out the covers, especially since I’ve got to sing them. So we would probably go into the studio and record, like — at this point, we have enough for a full-length and then some. And then maybe add another cover. The cover of “Ascension Day” has been so well-received, almost to the point where now more than ever, I wish I had written the damn thing. The plan is definitely to go back into the studio, but this summer the goal is mostly just to perform live as much as possible, and share what we’ve already got with people, and make them listen to it in their homes, in their ears, in their bedrooms, and in shopping market aisles.
Excellent. Are you thinking of hitting the road, or are you mostly just playing locally?
Both, actually. We just played a gig opening up for Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea in Baltimore, and we’re opening up for her again on July 28 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. On July 7, we’re going to be on the Beyond Beyond is Beyond radio show on East Village Radio, and then that night we play at Rockwood Music Hall. Then on July 31, we play a show with Endless Boogie that Beyond Beyond is Beyond is presenting at Riverside Park for Amplified Sundays. On August 6, we’re playing the Future Folk Festival in Vermont, likely as a stripped-down version — maybe a duo — and the next day we play the Backyard Brunch Sessions as a trio. The goal is to play as much as possible, and almost always with all four of us, but sometimes we make exceptions. But we always send postcards to the ones who aren’t there.
I saw you guys perform not too long ago, and Nicole Atkins came onstage and sang a few songs with you. Was that a one-time thing, or is that liable to happen at any show?
Yeah, she’s kind enough to pop up from time to time, and we’re always happy when she does. I sometimes play keyboards for her, and sometimes her drummer, Ezra Oklan, is our second drummer (simultaneously with Tim Kuhl). It’s a wonderful, thunderous occurrence when Ezra and Tim Kuhl get down together, but it’s mostly just fun. No pretense. A lot of our favorite bands had two drummers: Pavement, Grateful Dead, James Brown. Led Zeppelin sounded like they did. But I digress — yeah, if she’s in town and she’s not recording or rehearsing or what-have-you, chances are that she’ll probably stop down and join us for one or two. [That show] was really kind of special, though. I was really kind of honored to the point of blushing excessively when I found out that our EP was on constant replay in her tour van. I was like, “Really? Five songs? How many times could you possibly listen to five songs?” I was expecting at least one of them to respond with something like, “You’re right, Jared — I was getting a little sick of it!” Apparently, everyone in the band digs it. It’s a total Mutual Admiration Society, for sure.
All in the family.
I understand that you make your residence at an infamous Brooklyn venue called The Church. What’s it like living there?
[laughs] It’s never boring. It’s called The Church because it used to be one. When I first moved in there, a friend of mine told me that their friend was looking for a new roommate, and when I heard it was called The Church, I was expecting — well, I was kind of expecting the church from 21 Jump Street. That’s pretty much what came to mind. And it’s not that at all! [laughs] There’s no stained glass, there’s no marble. It’s basically an A-frame, just one story. There’s a giant open space from front to back where some bedrooms have been built, and then there are two more in the rear. The nice thing is that we don’t have neighbors upstairs or downstairs, and we have this huge, wide open room that has — I kid you not — wall-to-wall carpeting. And I mean, literally, carpeting on the walls. It’s a really nice thing because it absorbs sound, and there’s something about the reflection and the way a drum kit sounds in here. We have one of the shittiest drum kits in all of Brooklyn as our backline. It’s just beat to hell, but it always sounds great.
We’ve had a lot of different bands come through here. Plus, it’s just such a treat for me after so many years of rehearsing in places that are the size of a double-wide coffin. I’m just so used to playing in spaces like that, with no windows and no oxygen, and where if I want to switch between guitar and piano, I have to put my guitar back in its case, put the case on the shelf or on the wall, and then move the piano away from the wall, so that I can actually get behind it and play it. And I might have to climb over the piano in order to do that. So, to not have that, for the first time in a really long time, is a joy. It’s not always the most peaceful place to live, but I’m only here to sleep most of the time anyway, and occasionally cook a meal, given near-sanitary conditions. It’s a great place to live, and a much better place to play, write, rehearse and record. And for the odd time I bring home female company, they are rarely concerned by the sketchy conditions. Maybe they’re too kind to mention it, or maybe it just fits in with the whole musician/dirtbag mythos.
One last question: do things go better with Coke?
A number of things go better with Coke. Here’s what doesn’t: run-ins with law enforcement, visits to the dentist… actually, I have a good friend who once said, “It’s not that I like coke; I like the smell.”
Pick up Minerva Lions’ debut EP Great Strides, Priestess & Queen.