Earlier this year I heard about one of the most intriguing new prog bands on the scene, Boston’s GEPH who play a highly intricate form of instrumental progressive music that features just a drummer and two guys who play that crazy looking tapping instrument, the Chapman Stick! If you haven’t seen this instrument, it’s been used to great effect by King Crimson bassist Tony Levin among others and is noted for the most adept musicians to be able to play bass and guitar lines simultaneously as well as creating many percussive and dynamic sounds that can only be done with this and other touch guitars.
The band is comprised of stick players Josh Goldberg and John Tyler Kent -along with drummer |Josh Merhar and their debut self-titled album just came out this past March and we had the chance to talk to the guys and find out how they came to create their very unique and dynamic sound and their take on their complex and very cool debut album. After the interview you can stream the whole album from their BandCamp site where you can also purchase a copy.
Hey guys, thanks for the interview and for helping us to get to know one of the most unique progressive bands we’ve ever heard!
Josh Goldberg (JG) – Thank you for interviewing us! With our album having just come out on March 29th, the timing couldn’t be better!
John Tyler Kent (JTK) – Yes, thanks so much for the interview, we’re really stoked on the opportunity to share a bit about this weird little trio of ours.
Josh Merhar (JM) – Thank you! This is an incredibly exciting time for us and we’re pumped to get the word out!
To start with, how did you guys get together? Since you’re from the Boston area did you guys meet up at the Berklee School of Music?
JG – I actually met Josh through Tyler, and Tyler through the Chapman Stick community as it’s relatively small and we all tend to congregate in the same areas on the internet.
JTK – JM and I met through Berklee, we were roommates and had worked together before. I reached out to JG after hearing some of his former work with a band called And The Traveler.
JM – As Tyler said, he and I used to live together. We jammed a bunch as a duo, just drums and Stick, and even played a show. A few months before GEPH officially formed, Josh joined us for a jam session. We all realized there was some tremendous potential between the three of us. Once Josh moved to the Boston area, we hit the grind.
What does your band name mean?
JG – It’s science short hand for Gephyrin, a protein involved in DNA synthesis. Apparently if you have too little of it you develop a complex called “hyperekplexia,” or exaggerated surprise. It causes you to have an unusually extreme startle reaction to loud and sudden sounds.
JTK – We had been joking about misspelling a common name like “Jeff” and using it as a band name. We looked it up and discovered that there is this cool scientific definition as well. I feel like that represents us pretty well; We put a lot of thought and effort into what we do, but at the same time we’re just three goofy guys who like making noise together.
JM – Yeah, what started as a complete joke that was almost immediately discarded ended up having a really cool and applicable meaning once we did a bit of research. It kind of sums up what we’re about; take an idea that may seem a little ridiculous on the surface, but explore it in such a way that it turns into a developed, in-depth work.
For the uninitiated can you describe what the Chapman stick is and how it fits into your band’s conception?
JG – I like to tell people that it’s the drunk younger cousin of the electric guitar and bass. It’s a bodyless guitar-esque neck with 8 to 12 strings, depending on the model, that you play primarily by tapping.
JTK – The Chapman stick is a touch-style instrument that you play by tapping the string to the frets. It’s got a bass side and a melody side that can each be processed through amps and effects independently. The harmonic and melodic aspects of our band’s music essentially revolve around the range and arrangement capabilities of the chapman stick in particular.
JM – From my perspective (drums), each Chapman stick counts as two instruments. Josh and Tyler will regularly switch roles throughout a song. Maybe in one section, Josh is playing a bass part along with chords, while Tyler plays a melodic line. During a different section of the same song, it’s possible that Tyler holds down the bass while adding textural effects, while Josh rips a solo. We’re able to produce the sound of 5 instruments with just the three of us, and that opens up tons of possibilities in terms of arrangement and orchestration.
So why did you decide to use not only one but two Chapman Sticks in your band? Do you feel that you can really create a more dense sound through such a multifaceted instrument?
JG – I consider the Stick my main instrument, and I also strongly believe that it and other tap guitars are the next logical step in the evolution of modern stringed music. What I see most of coming out of trade shows like NAMM is guitars and basses with more and more strings on them and a bigger focus on tapping technique to compensate. Clearly people are heading in this direction. When I first heard Tyler’s music, I was struck by his unique take on the instrument. I felt like we saw things in a really similar way musically and it just kind of made sense to me that we’d do something like what we’re doing.
JTK – The range and stereo output of the stick really lend themselves to how we compose and perform our music within this band. Nobody is really limited to one role- It’s not uncommon for one of us to be playing a bassline for one section before switching to a more chordal role for the next part while adding a melody line on top of that the next time around. It’s a really flexible situation that allows each of us to treat the bigger picture of the music instead of being overly zoned into its smaller parts.
JM – As a drummer, I just can’t believe I’m in the company of two people that play that weird instrument.
Do you fear that your unusual instrumentation will perhaps be seen as gimmicky (not that I feel that way at all!)
JG – I can understand how people might initially see us that way. Maybe it would be if we were a top 40s cover band, or if we weren’t at the level we’re all at. If you don’t do something unique and do it well, then nothing ever grows. Look at a band like Animals as Leaders. A big part of their draw is the double 8 string guitar thing, but only because they’re all phenomenal musicians. It would have been gimmicky if they sucked, but instead they paved the way for some of the biggest innovations on the electric guitar since probably Steve Vai’s contributions.
JTK – I don’t really spend much time thinking about that. The unique instrumentation is essential to how we write for this band, and I think our music communicates that. I’d like to think that once people see us perform or hear the songs, the notion that this was all for show kind of dissolves, and people start get a better sense of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
JM – I think it could come across as gimmicky if the instrumentation was the central focus of GEPH. Like, “Hey, come see the mythical CHAPMAN STICK! This instrument looks weird!” But it’s kind of the opposite. We often have a vision for a part of a song, and it just so happens that the Stick is the best vehicle to bring that vision to life. Many of the parts cannot be easily replicated by one person on an instrument that isn’t the Stick.
Who are some of you main musical influences? Prog, metal, jazz or even some of the few groups who have used the Stick – King Crimson, Trey Gunn solo work and even an old 80’s world jazz band that I used to see play live in the LA area, Kittyhawk come to mind.
JG – Firstly, major props for knowing Kittyhawk! For me, Animals as Leaders, Guthrie Govan, Cloudkicker, lots of jazz guys and classical music, and most of all videogame music. I’m talking old school SNES from the 90s, golden age of the JRPG era stuff. Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 7 are why I’m a musician today and that sound seeps its way into everything I do one way or another.
JTK – Trey Gunn is definitely a musician who I find myself coming back to from time to time. He’s a very creative guy and I learned a lot about utilizing dissonance in a musical way from him. King Crimson is a definite major influence, as well as some of the more modern progressive rock groups like Tool and Porcupine Tree. I’m also influenced by a lot of jazz/fusion musicians such as Allan Holdsworth and Chick Corea.
JM – I’m heavily influenced by groups such as Blotted Science, Animals as Leaders, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, the Mars Volta, and a bunch of jazz artists/drummers; particularly Nate Wood, Mark Guiliana, Jojo Mayer, and others. I like combining math and music.
I really love the diversity of songs on your album, especially the first two you put out before the album release Both are very intricate and there is so much interplay that it’s hard to believe it’s just Josh and John handling all of those bass and guitar lines. I also love the fuzz bass you have goin’ on the song Mawhktarr Da’ario. The groove on that song is just awesome btw!
JG – Thanks! Yeah, that’s just the three of us! We’ve worked everything out so that everything you hear on the album is playable live. The fun thing about this kind of instrumentation is that we sound like a 5-piece at times despite being a trio. It’s all in how you arrange the parts.
JTK – That particular track is really special to me because it’s actually a live recording. One of my all time favorite albums is Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson. They mix studio and live recordings on that record in such a seamless and creative way. For me, including the live track on our release is something of a tribute to that record. We spent a lot of time rehearsing that tune to make sure that we had the parts and the feel ingrained in us before we went in to record it.
How would you describe the album as a whole?
JG – The whole thing is a free flow, each song moves into the next to tell a story. I like to think of it as a soundtrack to a made up movie. You can check out the plot on our BandCamp page.
JTK – The album is essentially a bunch of really pretty and ugly noises that describe in a fairly accurately way where the three of us come from as musicians.
JM – More extreme time signatures.
Do you guys play a lot of live shows these days? That must be a trip to see you guys do this stuff live!
JG – Yeah, we haven’t been a band for very long but we’ve worked our butts off to get our name out there. Last summer we played all over the place, from a cool little artsy town a few miles south of the Canadian border down to NYC and CT and a bunch of places in between. The crowd’s reaction is always really strong. I think there’s an aspect where, even if the music doesn’t connect to you in a super deep way, it’s still visually stimulating and interesting enough to really capture you.
JTK – We have also been working on incorporating a lot more improv into our live set. We like to change things up live, rather than just reiterating the exact same music in the exact same way it’s presented on our album. For me, that’s what makes live music really special and unique.
Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
JG – Please go check us out! Our album came out on March 29th and you can find it at geph.bandcamp.com. You can also follow us on Facebook or on Twitter and Instagram with @GEPHband. Thanks again for for having us on your site!
Interview by Jeff Stevens