Chapel Hill has a storied legacy of bands of eclectic tastes, creative ideas, entertaining stage shows, and an ethos decidedly not mainstream. The Red Clay Ramblers come to mind, as well as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five.
Ellis Dyson and the Shambles follow in the footsteps of those legendary combos with horn-driven tunes, lyrical whimsy and an eye-catching stage show. On April 5, the Shambles will put it all on the line at the Cat’s Cradle as they celebrate the release of their latest CD, “Shambylvania,”
The band was founded in 2013 by Dyson and Danny Abrams as an outlet for their Ragtime/New Orleans/Big Band/Folk interests. The band features saxophone, trombone, banjo, guitar and bass. Combined with the band’s changes of tempo, keys, moods, and phantasmic storysongs — “Party in a Cave” is one example — the music never grows stale for the listener or the band.
Jerry Brown, who engineered “Shambylvania” in his Rubber Room studio, characterizes the Shambles as having “that quirkiness of Chapel Hill bands going back to the Red Clay Ramblers.”
Before their album release party, Abrams talked to The News & Observer about the band’s origins, philosophy, and “Shambylvania.”
Q: How did Ellis Dyson and the Shambles come together in 2013?
A: Ellis and I were undergraduates in UNC-Chapel Hill. I was in the jazz program playing saxophone in the UNC Jazz band. Ellis wanted to find musicians to play with. He wanted to find horn players. That’s how we met.
Q: Bluegrass and old-time music are among the popular styles in Chapel Hill these days. Why was the band drawn to Ragtime and New Orleans jazz?
A: We are all influenced by an array of styles. Ellis was always more interested in old time clawhammer banjo than he was in bluegrass. Before bluegrass, the banjo had a big role in jazz before guitars were amplified. He took a mixture of Piedmont music and his love of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and the old New Orleans people. So that’s why the sound in his head was to find some horn players as opposed to seeking out a violin or mandolin. That’s where his ear took him first.
Growing up listening to jazz and classic rock and maybe funk and soul music, I hadn’t done this kind of stuff with the banjo. But when we put that together, it created the beginning of what would be the sound of the Shambles, which is not just one thing. It is as big a mixture as we make it.
Q: Ellis plays jazz-style banjo with a plectrum (flatpick), as opposed to old-time clawhammer style.
A: He plays it as a strumming rhythm instrument. Along with acoustic guitar and upright bass, that makes up the engine of the sound. The two horns sit on top of that.
Q: “Shambylvania” is your third full-length album. What can you tell us about the music and what it says about the Shambles at this stage or your career?
A: It’s really a series of vignettes where just about every song is a story based on characters. A lot of these are humorous tales. Some sound like they could be theater pieces. We have a song called, “Dinner Party in a Cave.” It starts out in a happy-go-lucky, major key, walk-in-the-park type melody, and you have a cave person describing having this great dinner party and inviting friends, who caught a pheasant.
There’s kind of a mysterious chord, and it switches to a minor key. Then you hear from the next two characters, bears, who are going to wait til the humans finish their dinner party and eat the humans. It switches back to major key and the listener is in on the story at this point. You could laugh at how naïve the humans are. So we really make an effort to do that kind of thing with the songwriting because we find it more interesting and fun.
Q: Where do you get ideas for your songs, and how do you put them together?
A: It’s intensely collaborative. Anyone can bring in the seed of an idea, even if it’s just a set of chords and a verse or melody idea. Then we get together as a five-piece, sit in a circle and try to contribute ideas.
Another way we do that is by seeking out spaces. Our friend Katherine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers let us go to her farm property in Efland throughout January, and that’s where we did a lot of finishing the writing. So we get into a space where we can all contribute ideas. We try to let the song dictate us, in a way.
One thing we think about is the idea of “contrast” in all its forms. We don’t want to write a song that sounds exactly the same at each minute or every second, so we think, “Okay, if we just did a loud section maybe we should follow it with a quieter section. Or maybe we should speed up toward the end.” There’s no such thing as a bad idea. We see what works. It goes slower as a process, but it’s a better process.
Q: Ellis writes most of your lyrics. What is his background that allows him to write the stories that you and the band put to music?
A: He was a Southern Studies major. That’s perfect because the rest of us are jazz nerds, in a way. We have music theory backgrounds. Ellis is writing most of the lyrics, and I think that influences some of these stories and the murder ballad tradition and the way he thinks about these things. That really closes the loop of how the music and storytelling come together.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about “Shamblyvania?”
A: It will come out as a CD, but also as vinyl. We teamed with local artist, Max Huffman, for the vinyl package. It’s a playable board game in the shape of Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. The pieces and cards are inside. You can play the game while you listen to the record. The vinyl will not be available at the Cradle show, but we will have the CD.
Who: Ellis Dyson & The Shambles album release party with The Tan & Sober Gentlemen, Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands
When: 8:15 p.m. April 5
Where: The Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com