The Growing Underground
5 Local Bands and Solo Artists Create the Unique Sound of Harrisburg
On the corner of Green and Muench streets in Harrisburg, butted up against Little Amps Coffee Roasters, the trio of Steph Werner, Jordan Zabady and Morgan Laubach perform for a healthy collection of fans, friends and passersby. It’s National Night Out in Olde Uptown, and the neighborhood is out in force despite the threat of rain. A random woman – just a few paces from the tri-source of the sweet, wonderful sound – cannot keep from dancing. Without the burden of self-consciousness, she’s the only one brave enough to let the vibe move her as Werner strums, Zabady beatboxes and Laubach unleashes her voice. You can tell that this lone dancer has just happened upon the show, yet the music catches her and folds her in as if she has no other choice. The blend of guitar, vocal percussion and technology-tweaked singing is powerful because true original music has that effect. They go by the name Des Sera, and they’ve only been together as a group since February.
Des Sera’s sound brings together folk, rock, hip-hop and probably a few other genres as well, though – like most other artists hesitant to cast a label upon themselves – they have no official name for it other than “experimental.” There’s certainly an “indie” feel, but Des Sera is just one of those bands that needs to be heard before being categorized.
Formed little more than a half-year ago, Des Sera came together through performing separately at Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (HMAC). Werner and Laubach were singing at HMAC one evening during open-mic night, when they met Zabady. As Werner puts it, “We were there, and this kid rolls in late – like 12:30 or 1 a.m. – and just starts beatboxing.”
Werner and Laubach were impressed. After a bit of nervous awkwardness, the two ladies approached Zabady. “We extended an invitation to him to see if he ever wanted to just jam around with us,” Werner recalls. “And he agreed.”
It turned out that he was also a fan of theirs.
The three songsmiths began playing together more frequently, and eventually formed Des Sera.
As a band who writes their own material, Des Sera relies on the songwriting process. “There is no set formula,” explains Werner. “It happens on small levels and as a group. It’s very all-over-the-place, and I kind of like it that way.”
Zabady adds, “I think we enjoy the music we are making, so we don’t get tired of rehearsing or playing new pieces because we are challenging ourselves.”
As for musical influences, Werner points to Portishead, Laubach to Radiohead and Bon Iver and Zabady to Beardyman.
When it comes to bands and musicians creating and performing original songs, all three of the members of Des Sera agree that the independent music scene in Harrisburg is rich.
“It’s so vast,” Werner says. “I never realized there was such a musical thing happening here. ...Everyone is just so talented and musical. I would say it’s very much alive.”
Laubach confirms her bandmate’s sentiments and acknowledges the expanding community of music appreciators in Harrisburg. “We are in a good spot here, and beyond that there’s a growing group of people who are more interested in staying here and making Harrisburg something. I feel really lucky to be involved in it at a time like this.”
Zabady sums it up. “I think local music, in general – underground artists – there’s a big change happening because they don’t need the big distribution deals to be heard. It’s easier to express yourself and get your ideas heard, and you never know when an underground artist could become your favorite artist.”
Just ask that random dancing woman standing in front of Des Sera as they performed in Olde Uptown on National Night Out when she discovered her new favorite band.
Check out Des Sera at facebook.com/desseracollective for upcoming show dates.
Harrisburg hip-hop artist J. BAIR lives and breathes music. Inside his head, there’s an ever-changing, always-moving conveyor belt of melody, rhythm, words and beat.
“All day, every day – there’s a lyric here, a lyric there,” he says. “I’ll be at the grocery store and see something or hear someone say something, and the words will start coming to me for the chorus or a concept for a song. It’s nonstop.”
With this constant stream of musical creativity running through his mind, it’s no surprise that this past July marked the release of his seventh project, which is also his first full-length album. Titled Dare To Be Different, this latest offering, he says, took his whole life to make.
“It’s a very personal album with a lot of things in there that are very honest,” he describes. “It talks about love, heartbreak, failure, success, my passion for my genre of music, my culture, hip-hop, everything. It’s very open. I make what I like to call common-man music or blue-collar hip-hop because the everyday person can relate to something on the album.”
As much as J. BAIR thrives on pouring out the never-ending jukebox in his mind into an album in the recording studio, he also lives for the thrill of performing live on stage. “I would equate it to any type of addiction that you may have,” he explains. “Whatever someone’s vice is, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, video games, whatever your thing is, eventually that high wears off, and you need another fix. Being on stage is like that. There’s nothing like feeling the energy from the crowd and their response and the atmosphere.”
J. BAIR’s musical influences include Marvin Gaye, Jay-Z, Nas and the writing style of James Taylor. He also comes from a musical household, and his brother – Craig Boogie – is a bit of a local legend as an emcee in Harrisburg. “I also have two other older brothers – one of them does poetry, and the other is just a musical junkie,” he says. “So we are all into music really heavy, and my mother and father were both really into music. As a child, it was kind of pushed from every direction by default and was always playing around the house.”
It was a natural evolution to get into music, he says.
As for the music scene in Harrisburg, he feels like it’s diverse and filled with talent.
“We’re a smaller market. You’ve got your hip-hop crowd, your rock crowd, folk-music crowd, spoken-word crowd – if it’s good, it’s good, that’s it. ...There are some people around here that can sing and do different types of music and are really talented, and people would enjoy it if they gave them the opportunity.”
He adds, “Just support good music. There are only two types of music: good music and bad music. So, support good music. Give it an opportunity, and if you like it, tell someone else about it.”
For a copy of J. BAIR’s new album or to find out when and where he will next be performing live, visit jbairmusic.com.
On a late-summer Saturday morning, at a little coffeehouse in Harrisburg, Shine Delphi performs one last show before leaving on a cross-country, month-long trip to the West Coast and into Canada. He’s got a mellow, jazzy, folksy sound that he couples with witty, original lyrics. It’s the kind of music perfect for both the coffee-sippers as well as a long road trip. He’s also got one of those disarming smiles that flashes uncontrollably, especially when talking about music.
With his brand of music and his friendly demeanor, you’d never guess the genesis of his musical talents. “I loved metal,” he says. “I was huge into Metallica and Slayer and Megadeth. I’d always sit there and rock out with an air guitar. I always loved guitarists for some reason, and my parents bought me one for Christmas one year. I didn’t play it at all, until eventually my neighbor, who was a 16-year-old stoner kid, came over and played Rob Zombie riffs.”
From that moment on, he was hooked.
Delphi “screamed,” as he calls it, for several metal bands before going to music school in Los Angeles. From there, he found his way to The Big Easy. “New Orleans was like music school for real people,” he says. “I just had to learn on the fly in order to make a living out there. I had to be good, even though I wasn’t really ready for it. But people there knew I could do it, so they were like, ‘You’re going to play this gig, and you’ve got to learn this song.’ Before I knew it, it was so much easier – I could pick up a song in a matter of seconds and play it well.”
Delphi made his way to the midstate six years ago because of family in the area.
One of his greatest joys comes from performing live in front of a receptive audience. “It feels great,” he says, “especially when I have the right crowd, and that’s what I love about being on stage. I’m doing what I love to do, and I think that makes people happy. And then they’re dancing and showing me that they’re having a good time, and together we’re just continuing this circle of good energy. It just grows and grows. It’s the best feeling that I know of. I try to find other things that give me that, but there’s nothing like playing a big show for a group of really cool people who are really into it.”
Delphi knows well the struggles of trying to make a living as a songcrafting independent musician, and while the Harrisburg scene is growing, it relies on the support of the community.
“Just support them,” he says of midstate music-makers. “If they have a CD, buy the CD. If they have a t-shirt, buy it. Musicians don’t make a lot of money off of a gig – your guarantee is pretty small, and it’s all about what you can make after that. A lot of us have to do other jobs. If you want to hear other original music, support it.”
Josh Howard, singer and bass player for The Line as well as bass player for The Virus, first got into music via older-sibling property theft.
“I stole records from my sister,” he confesses. “A lot of punk-rock records. I’d sneak into her room and take her records, and then record them onto cassettes as fast as I could before she noticed. If I was lucky, I’d write down who it was. As we got older, we started going to shows together after she decided that I was cool enough to be part of her pack.”
At 13, Howard bought his first bass. “I just plugged it in and was like, ‘I’ll figure this out.’ I mimicked the Ramones and bands like that. Of everyone in the bands I liked, the bass player was the guy that seemed like the cool dude to me. It just clicked. I tried different instruments, and I could figure them out, but none of them felt right. Loud guitar and bass sounded like how I felt, as ridiculous as that sounds. It made more sense. A horn sounds happy for the most part, and I wasn’t happy. You’re 13, and you’re pissed off, so you want a pissed-off sound.”
Howard’s musical influences range from The Clash all the way to Elvis. “Elvis took what was already happening in music,” he says, “and took it to the general public and made it sort of dangerous. People were scared of it.”
The Line formed three years ago, after Howard had taken a break from music. He wanted to make a punk band based on the premise that the music doesn’t have to be negative. “I wanted to put hope back into people with an angry sort of sound,” he says. “I wanted to take a different angle, and it seemed to work. People seemed to grab onto it. I also wanted to make a band focused on the pride of our city. That was big for me. You go to other cities, whether it’s Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Boston or New York, and those bands wear their cities on their sleeves.”
The Virus originally started in Philadelphia, and recently got back together after 10 years apart. “The Virus did tours and a bunch of records back at the turn of the century. It’s a Philadelphia band, but there are three members who now live in the Harrisburg/Lancaster area. After 10 years, the response has been amazing.”
Howard urges people to support original independent musicians and artists. “If you just let the mainstream take over, then it’s boring,” he says. “You’re just force-fed like everybody else. ...Support independent music and support people doing whatever art they feel is something they believe in. You can make music as much as you want, but without a crowd to be a part of that, it’s nothing. It’s a two-party event. I can show up and set my amp up and sing, and I’m going to have fun doing it, but if you’re not there, it’s not as fun. That connection is where it’s at. I like writing music, and I like playing music so that not only I can disappear for that 45 minutes, but also so that you can block the world out. Forty-five minutes to yourself – you and the music. That’s really what it comes down to.”
“We are metal!” declares Dwayne Deimler, bass player for Meet At Sundown.
The other three founding members – Deimler joined later – further qualify this popular band’s sound as southern metal.
In the summer of 2006, Dave Golen, Mark Thompson and Adam Bower formed Meet At Sundown after exchanging a few messages through Myspace. They had each been in bands prior to that, but it just seemed to click for them, and they’ve been going strong for the past seven years.
Bower sings and comes up with the lyrics, Golen plays guitar and serves as the primary songwriter, Thompson forms the backbone of the group on drums and, of course, Deimler lays down the bass lines.
After making and performing original tunes and being part of the midstate music scene for three years shy of a decade, Meet At Sundown has a strong grasp on what it means and what it takes to be a functioning band in this area. And creating their own songs is perhaps the most important part of the equation.
“I want to create music, not just play it,” says Bower. “I feel so much more connected to songs that I’ve written.”
Thompson adds, “It takes a special group of people to play original music and stick with it. It’s not easy. People seem to love cover bands, and to be quite honest, I don’t understand that. I don’t see the appeal of listening to a band play someone else’s music. I like to hear guys doing their own thing, putting in the effort to write quality meaningful original songs. It’s tough, and I have a ton of respect for original bands. ...I do like to hear a cover song or two from an original band. When you throw in a cover in the middle of your set and do it your way, that’s a cool thing.”
As lyricist and songwriter respectively, Bower and Golen describe the creative process.
“Sometimes I show up to practice with a whole song written or just a riff,” explains Golen. “The songs that I like the most are the songs we write that come out of nowhere. It’ll just be Mark and me, and we’ll be goofing around, and more often than not, we come up with something that we like and just ride that feeling, feeding off of what we started.”
Golen feels that the lyrics should come from only the vocalist. “You can sense when a vocalist is using lyrics that he didn’t write because they are not personal to him.”
“When writing lyrics, I take my time to be sure not to force anything,” says Bower. “If lyrics don’t seem to fit, the song doesn’t get written. By doing this, I think the vocals fit better with the music. I want there to be a passion and feeling with all of our songs, and I think we’ve been able to achieve that.”
So what does it feel like performing those original songs live on stage?
“Exhilarating and addicting,” Deimler says. “I’m an extremely shy person, so I thought I’d have massive stage fright, but it never happened – the stage feels like my natural habitat. When I get home after a show, my body is battered and exhausted, but my mind will not shut down for hours.”
Thompson stresses the importance of supporting the local music scene, especially the independent bands and musicians who create their own tunes.
“Without original bands what do you have?” he asks. “You don’t have the next rock stars or huge band. Where do you think every band you love and hear on the radio and go see at huge arenas started? Not at Madison Square Garden. They started at places like the Gingerbread Man, Tubby’s and Johnny Joe’s. They were all out there slugging it out on local stages before someone discovered them. Get out to a venue and see a show – who knows, you might like it.”
For a schedule of Meet At Sundown’s future show dates, check out meetatsundown.com.