For a local band that spent the past year dealing with pandemic restrictions and the loss of a member, Subcontra is looking ahead to new shows, a new album, and moving forward with their love for music, each other and the town where they grew up.
The key word for the band is “organic.” From their beginning to the way they write their songs, they’ve always had a knack for adapting and letting things grow into their own unique style.
Sporting talent as a multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Gardner joined Subcontra last fall and can be seen on electric violin or exchanging duties on bass with founding member Lucas Feather during live shows. He previously played in other bands around town, allowing him the opportunity to watch Subcontra’s presence develop until the day he was ushered in.
It’s hard to pinpoint Subcontra’s sound, but they categorize themselves as jazz/funk fusion. Gardner’s first impressions of the band, however, may capture their essence the best.
“It was just mystical, insanely complicated, niche elevator music,” Gardner said with a laugh. “What was so fun to me was the question, like, ‘Why would anybody play this?’ I just think it’s a really beautiful thing. Pursuing something just for the pursuit of it. I think Subcontra captures that really well.”
In 2018, the original lineup of guitarist Matt Simpson, drummer Joseph Wells, bassist Avery Goodman, keyboardist Jack Holiman and saxophonist Feather played their first show in Cleveland, Miss., under the name Feather and Associates. Eventually, Feather pitched the name Subcontra based on an enormous type of bass saxophone that requires two people to play.
The band simply liked the sound of it, but as time went on, the unique nature of the instrument seems increasingly fitting to the music they play.
Over the past year, they have undergone multiple lineup changes, notably the departure of Goodman and addition of Gardner.
The most drastic change for the band however, came with the passing of Jack Holiman last September.
“It was a gut check. It was just a really dark time for all of us,” Simpson said. “We didn’t really think much about the band. It was just the most surreal thing. It is still hard to find words for the feelings because he played a really integral part in our band.”
As important as Holiman was to the group as a band member, his presence was felt even more as a friend.
Gardner had only been playing with Subcontra for a short time before Holiman passed, and some sessions left him nervous to the point his hands were shaking. He said Holiman took the time during one session to encourage him.
“Probably a week before he passed, there was a time where he had pulled me aside and been really supportive of me and my position in this group,” Gardner said. “I think he had sensed that I was maybe a little unsure, uncertain, uncomfortable and maybe even a little lacking in confidence at that point. This was just Jack, he just knew what you needed to hear.”
The loss of Holiman forced them to rework their sound without a keyboardist. The pandemic left the band unable to perform live, so they spent the time practicing and overhauling their sound with new creative approaches to fill the gap in their music.
“Jack would have wanted us to continue playing 100%,” Gardner said. “If we lost the music or lost our will to play, even though his death was in vain, it would have been even more so.”
Their new album, “No Need for Words,” is slated for release on April 30. It will be dedicated to Holiman.
Their sound may be considered somewhat otherworldly, but it’s not indescribable. It is the product of classically trained multi instrumentalists, all with experience from multiple bands. The result is an eclectic compilation of different influences, styles, and genres that accumulate into something different.
Though they’ve experimented with having a lead singer, they are decidedly an instrumental band. They choose to speak with their instruments, creating melodies that leave the emotion of the song up to the listeners interpretation.
“I think that’s what’s really cool about it,” Wells said. “It’s kind of like visual art but for your ears. You look at it, and you’re like, ‘Well, what do I think of this? How do I interpret it?’ and I feel like that’s what we allow people to do.”
Simpson said the band avoids being confined to one genre, as setlists provide songs that are tightly composed but freely improvised upon, transitioning from reggae to blues, then funk to something more pop. In the end, the core of their product is still “Subcontra.”
Initially, Subcontra did not know how their instrumental approach would be received. While there are jam bands that frequently circuit the bars in town, there aren’t many that play with quite the complicated sonic fusion of Subcontra.
“We weren’t sure how people would react to it, but we have people from all age groups and walks of life,” Simpson said. “Alternative kids come out, frat jamband kids come out, older people come out and they are all just like, ‘That sounds tight.’”
The positive reception creates a living atmosphere at their shows where they do their best to interact with the audience, particularly a recent moment where Feather and Simpson had an impromptu “solo battle” between saxophone and guitar. Constant practice allows them to build this kind of rapport and make moments like these possible.
“As we’ve gotten more comfortable, I feel like we’re just more comfortable taking chances,” Wells said. “The songs become part of your bone structure, and you could play them in your sleep. You feel more comfortable trying new things on him in the spur of the moment.”
Their attendance numbers have steadily increased every show to the point that their last four or five shows have been sold out, so crowds have grown large enough to make playing live an addictive experience for its members.
“It’s just euphoria. It’s like the best drug,” Wells said. “It gives you a high that persists. No matter how sober you are after a good show, you just feel wired up. I definitely chase it, I get withdrawals when I haven’t played live in a while.”
Every band has a “home base,” and for Subcontra, that venue is Proud Larry’s.
For a period of time the band was under residency, or a multiple show contract at Proud Larry’s. Without it, they might not have been able to cut their teeth and develop their chemistry as a band quite like they did.
“I think there’s a mysticism about Proud Larry’s. It’s got this history of like amazing artists coming through and building their names,” Gardner said. “To be at that stage in our career where we’re small but accepted, and I would even say enjoyed, it’s kind of a beautiful building block that we get to see and be a part of.”