matty day | harvey brown | july 2015
Confession: when people from other cities ask me about the Green Bay music scene, I still feel a bit weird telling them my favorite local band mixes rock and rap. Especially when the term “rap-rockâ€ likely brings to mind Linkin Bizkit-level drivel. But if it's tough to describe Harvey Brown's sound in a way that does justice to their fuzzed-out rhythms, fiery vocals and funk-the-funk-off guitar work, it's because they're simply chasing their own thing, convenient taglines be damned.
Recently, courtesy of talent like Harvey Brown and Brooklyn-via-Milwaukee artist Juiceboxxx, rap-rock's getting itself a bit of a reassessment. In the right hands, it should make for an exciting blend, shouldn't it? Thankfully these musicians actually have a strong sense of rock 'n' roll and hip-hop. But comparisons between the two acts might end there. One difference is that while Juiceboxxx now performs backed by a live band, it's still his show, where Harvey Brown essentially has four different stars: Alex Smith on guitar, Chris Frey on bass, Jake Phelps on vocals and JD Skenandore on drums.
Admirably, there's no drop-off in skill between the four band members – all area graduates in their mid-twenties – despite their varied musical backgrounds. If the bandmates' tastes intersect anywhere it'd be early Red Hot Chili Peppers, otherwise anything goes: psychedelia, hip-hop, classic rock, alternative and metal all inform the Harvey Brown sound.
The results continue to evolve. Before JD, the then-trio recorded legitimate hip-hop demos with live instruments set to MIDI beats. Even on these early Harvey tracks Jake's flow and creativity shine undeniably. (For you “headsâ€ out there, when I asked Jake to name his top five emcees he rattled off Rakim, Slick Rick, Q-Tip, KRS-One and MF Doom.)
But everything went live once JD joined, leading to the group's self-recorded debut album, 2013's “Meanwhile, In Another Part of Town.â€ The band had also added a second vocalist in Beau Thomas, providing Jake with a verbal sparring partner and making for catchy and coordinated vocal interplay a la Beastie Boys. This lineup was intact for the first two Harvey Brown shows I witnessed, and I was a fan right away, if only because what they were doing was just so different for this city.
My third Harvey show, however, happened to be their first live performance pared back down to just one emcee. I'd popped in solo, unaware of any change within the band, but I quickly learned of it; the reduced roster was all the anxious-yet-apprehensive crowd was talking about, and it made for this great excitement building up to their set. It truly felt like anything could happen. Suddenly, the four musicians took to the stage, all of them wearing classic NBA jerseys.
Maybe the musicians had simply gotten tighter, more talented with time. Maybe as the sole emcee Jake was freer to spit from the hip, and improvise instead of stick to a script. Maybe the Lyric Room's sound system and technicians – some of the best in town – happened to be especially on point this night.
Who knows why? But the show was dynamite.
As any band's original lineup is altered, so changes the bond between remaining members; it will either get weaker or stronger.
Perhaps symbolically, halfway through the first song of this pivotal performance, Jake, Chris and Alex abandoned their normal posts, rallying around JD's kit to grab sticks, tambourines and anything else at hand, building up noise and rhythm into a raucous drum jam – a first for their live show. If there was any lingering drama, it must have been cathartic to bring the focus back to where it belonged: The Beat. To me it felt like a reflection of newfound solidarity among the group. Then again, they've got a knack for spontaneity, and it may have been just a last-minute goofy idea they had. Either way, it totally worked.
Now, when bands have a singular trait that garners them some attention, they may not face as much external pressure to improve or to expand creatively. Realistically, Harvey Brown could have coasted on the unique fact that they're the area's only live-band hip-hop group. But they want more than that; they push themselves, and the drum jam is just one of many examples. More than focusing on a strategy or agenda, they play to their strengths as individuals, cohesively; they aren't wrapped up in whatever genre they're playing.
Nor are they terribly concerned with the style of the bands they play with. Where Juiceboxxx gained the bulk of his early live experience opening for punk bands, it was the area metal scene that facilitated Harvey's formative shows. (“The first twenty or so,â€ according to Jake.)
One benefit to being part of a smaller music scene is that there aren't enough bands to be cliquey, or to be picky about who you play shows with. Harvey's also earned opportunities to open for some wildly different touring bands, from Peelander-Z to Nappy Roots. The experience they've stored up jumps out of last year's “Lyric Room Liveâ€ album, which finds the band in full command of songs from “Meanwhile,â€ as well as tracks set to appear on their next disc.
While it's not uncommon to catch a spontaneous Harvey Brown mini-set at an open mic night or, really, anytime the four of them happen to be in a given show's audience (i.e. Mollies Way's farewell gig), they've recently let up on live playing in favor of writing and rehearsal time.
“As a group we're becoming better songwriters,â€ says Jake. “That's just something I'd like to focus on, and I think that's already happened.â€
“We're benefitting from having studio time,â€ says Chris, adding, “It helps out at the show.â€
After they've taken a couple months off to work up new material, you can catch them live again on July 4th outside of the Exclusive Company, later that night at the Crunchy Frog and at Pride Alive fest on July 11th. Then look for Harvey's second studio album to drop November 28 for their annual Brown Saturday party (last year's had to have been the best house show Green Bay's hosted in some time) at a to-be-determined venue.
Watch for updates at Facebook.com/HarveyBrownMusic – which also features some outstandingly edited images and photography – and sample some tunes at Reverbnation.com/HarveyBrown.
Matty Day's written about local music for 3 years, while performing with Muddy Udders, the Foamers?, the Gung Hoes and more. He wishes more people in Green Bay were on Twitter; find him @PollutedMindset. E-mail him at Events@FranklyGreenBay.com to request an interview, help booking shows, whatever! DIY Rule #1: It Never Hurts to Ask.