How do you straddle the line between ambient and engaging? It's a question that Raleigh's Alphas Wear Gray answers in its own hushed voice.
After spending time in both California and New York, Silas Kath, who began the project as a one-man endeavor, decided to return to the City of Oaks after being underwhelmed by those metropolitan music scenes.
"I was not at all excited about the musical
climate in either of those places. There wasn't any innovation, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to come back or not," he says. "But I didn't really have a musical outlet, and felt like I would have had to turn my back on music completely in order
After returning to Raleigh, Kath began crafting songs at home without any real pretense of performing publicly. After a few months, a friend who knew he was writing music at home asked if he wanted to play a show.
"I wasn't really prepared, but that forced me to commit to it," says Kath, who performed under his own name before realizing the solo road was difficult. "I had to swallow my pride and realize that I could not do everything."
Initially, longtime friend and established pianist Della Baines was asked to join him only for a few songs. Their collaboration worked out so well, though, he invited her on board permanently.
"It's all collaboration now," he proudly announces. "There were a number of songs that I had written that I didn't think I would be able to do live, but Della made it possible and added things that made them better."
The duo decided on the name Alphas Wear Gray, a reference to Brave New World that is actually quite telling. The music is slightly minimalist and ethereal but driven by an underlying sense of entropy. Innocuous key lines are offset by jagged, syncopated beats that create curiosity instead of complacent, ambient ease. It's this challenging quality that prevents AWG from becoming background music, the domain of a majority of such-technology heavy groups.
"I wanted to introduce an element of unpredictability to the music. I didn't want to have a strict repeating loop, which is where The Problem Child comes in." The Problem Child is a plug-in interface Kath developed and styled after the Roland TR-808 analogue drum machine, which became popular in the late '80s. "There is an incidental quality to it, since it provides some random variation to the beats. I never wanted it to be pre-recorded. I wanted it to be loose and spontaneous in order to allow for fuck-ups."
AWG use live keys and voice in their performances, but the sporadic beat variations keep it interesting and tend to add a bit of an improvisational vibe to the music.
Their elaborate array of computer equipment, keys, and tons of wire have proved a bit more difficult than expected in terms of making the transition to live shows.
"In a place with a house system, you really have to consider how they normally accommodate rock bands. I always did stuff on studio monitors with a CD mix in mind," says Kath. "It's a huge adjustment to go from that to playing in a rock club. It involves major soundchecking."
As for recording, the duo is actually flirting with analogue: "I'm thinking about buying an eight-track for recording," Kath admits, "just so we can work a little further outside this completely digital, computerized world a little."
Kath's predilection toward computerized music is a bit ironic, given his and Baines' respective educations.
"I went to school for computers, and he went to school for music theory," Baines says, laughing. "But when he starts talking about the inner workings of his gadget, I completely glaze over."
Alphas Wear Gray plays Sept. 20 at Bickett Gallery with Monologue Bombs.