Ellis Ashbrook Is The Amalgam
In today’s music landscape there is such a heterogeneous conglomerate it can be hard to know what is going to pique interests, perk ears, and satisfy the endless myriad of disparate sensibilities. It’s as fast changing as this week’s series of viral YouTube experiences and ultimately just as bleak. Perhaps it’s the crisis of a generation lost within the self-imposed bondage of pocket computers whose slick screens beget the slippery slope of instant gratification required by the attention deprived. Or maybe, for the great many, music has been relegated to provide a din of barely discernable background static pulsing through the recesses of our cluttered lives. Short of the audiophile and musician himself, who sits down in front of a stereo system to just listen when listening is the only activity, the focus, the means to an end in-and-of-itself? A rhetorical question; certainly, but Ellis Ashbrook has been drudging through this barren wasteland on a desert raft… with an answer. Quality, effort, diligence, and essence will prevail, they must. Combined with the equally disparate interests of the four members of this band, EA is the amalgam of the spirit, the tradition, the artistry of the well-crafted song; the tireless dedication and effort to the craft of virtuosic musicianship, and the restless uncertainty of these rapidly changing times.
Born the old-fashioned, organic way; in a suburban basement grammar school friends, John Barber (Guitar/Vocals) and Alex Major (Percussion) started making music together sometime in the third grade in East Greenwich, RI. Although just children, there was a seriousness and passion for rock and roll that was present right from the start. There were other players involved that are no longer part of the project, but one expat in particular, Ryan Gildea (Guitar/Keys, currently involved with New England based ‘new alternative’ rockers Left Hand Does) was so integral to the development of the band and its sound that not including him in this biography would be omitting an essential part of the story. These three boys formed the core of spirit and aesthetic that remains to this day. Fundamentally an eclectic mix of progressive voices akin to Frank Zappa, Genesis, Rush, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and American jam rockers such as Phish and The Grateful Dead, but then shot in the arm with balls out cock-rock ranging from classic influences like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith to the alternative powerhouses of their youth, i.e. Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. The early days of EA, firmly rooted in these multitudes, would lay the foundation for the next phase of their development.
Jonathan Granoff (Bass/Sonic Treatments) grew up in a different suburb of Providence, with similar yet totally different influences. A darker, headier force than his East Greenwich counterparts, his decidedly more urban influences began affecting the aesthetic of EA when he joined the band during their High School years. Jonathan brings a different palette to the canvas with his strong affinity for reggae, funk, and the deep-space grooves of Sun Ra, while also a closet Phish head with a deep appreciation for all the good in music. But make no mistake; the man has impeccable, almost elitist taste that translates into his endless pursuit of perfection. His influence on the sound and style of the band remains quintessential.
Relocating to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music (Barber/Granoff) and Boston University (Major), Ryan Gildea went west to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh leaving space for a new voice; new brush strokes to an already complex visage. John Barber had wanted a female vocalist in the mix for a
while, and like two ships passing in the night, Natalie Lowe (Keyboards/Vocals) traveled east to attend Berklee in Boston, bringing with her an entirely different take on things; a product of her formative years in the heartland of Des Moines, IA, where schools have BIG music programs rivaling varsity sport. Natalie is a powerhouse of sound; with the voice of a siren and serious and studied songwriting chops heavily influenced by jazz legends Billie Holiday, classic American composers such as Henry Mancini and George Gershwin, and all the baroque and classical masters familiar to anyone who studied concert piano as a child. Her personal taste strays further from the other three in a way that constantly challenges the aesthetic, coloring the output differently, shaping the sound of today’s EA in a signature way. She and Barber share the duties of frontman, often sparking the kind of healthy competition that arises from the union of strong collaborators. The proof is in the product. The fully realized aesthetic of the band is as eclectic as these four individuals, meshing into each other a kind of unified magic.
The other side of the coin, aside from the artistry, is the craft of musicianship is not lost on this band. John Barber’s virtuosic guitar work is among the very best imaginable. Richly influenced by too many guitarists to mention, his style is all his own; a tasteful and true axman; a bluesman, a country picker, a bottleneck enthusiast, a raging shredder, and an effects master – he inspires awe every time he takes the stage.
Alex Major’s highly technical and skilled drumming employs a two-fold, seemingly polarizing approach: Ferocious intensity with laid back, deep-in-the-pocket grooving. At times it seems like he’s just cruising along, handling each curve of his rhythmic soundscape with the precision of a finely tuned Italian sports car: All of the rage and the intensity, combined with all the romance, the passion, the purity of spirit that serves the song first, and the ego second. For all the wannabees out there it’s hard to resist air-drumming to his ripping fills and complex solos.
Jonathan Granoff’s bass is like an instrument sent from outer-space. An expert player first, capable of highly complex riffs and licks utilizing multiple right-hand techniques, his prowess is magnified and made signature by his effects and processing wizardry. Credited above for “sonic treatments”, it begins here with the seemingly endless array of sounds he can generate from his classic ‘70s era Fender Jazz bass piped through an impressive rig of synthesizers and processers. The result is an other-worldly sound that is uniquely his.
Natalie Lowe’s approach to the keys creates a sonic backdrop that provides a perfect panacea, a counterpart to all that busyness from the other three, except when she steps up for one of many composed passages that often link with John’s guitar in synchronous perfection. However, it’s her voice that sets her apart from the others. A true rock vocalist built on formidable jazz chops, she can and does absolutely wail. She has the ability to conjure pure emotion that reflects on the audience with undeniable connection; as if she is summoning something else, something other, something beyond herself. Not to mention she can cover Robert Plant and Geddy Lee with aplomb. Her talent is unique and special.
Combining these individual and collective attributes with an arsenal of original songs contributed by each, as they are all capable songsmiths, the result is a band that stands alone in a sea of
the banal and familiar. There is nothing quite like them and with that there is the isolation of being an island to themselves. Until the connection is made in the hearts and minds of those who feel it the way they do. There’s a small army of dedicated Ellis fans all across America, islands to themselves, waiting for the next opportunity to commune together and let our collected serotonin receptors overflow with orgasmic flooding, synaptic discharge, hearts racing and raging to the spirit of four incredible musicians, four remarkable humans, creating art by channeling their own purposeful magic, in synch with those who know already, and those who are open to the experience of something different; more interesting, more real than most of what is out there today. Together we are the amalgam, the conglomerate, of the burgeoning music of tomorrow – the birth of a new kind of scene, aware of all threads connecting us and them and awaiting the arrival of everyone else.
To date, Ellis Ashbrook has released three albums: 2006’s self-titled debut, 2008’s ‘Assemblage’, and this 2011, ‘Meridia. Currently, they’re on tour to promote their latest album and they’re making believers out of you.
To download Ellis Ashbrook’s music, click here. Meridia is distributed by JMD Records and INgrooves, a partner of Universal Music Group.