Music fans who attended last month's third annual Festival en el Barrio started off the day with a bracing blast from the Phoenix-area band Dry River Yacht Club, a striking nine-piece rock ensemble notable for its high energy, creative songwriting and unconventional instrumentation—violin, viola, cello, bassoon, tuba, accordion and bass clarinet, as well as acoustic guitar and drums.
Dry River Yacht Club plays a combination of rock, blues, folk and chamber pop, seasoned with pinches of Middle Eastern and Eastern European styles, pumped up with a vigorous gypsy stomp and showcasing the jazz-inflected vocals and fablelike songs of one-name singer and accordionist Garnet.
The band's website calls its music "acoustic symphony indie rock on a dancin' pirate's rusty yacht," which seems as good of a description as any, although the pirate aspect isn't immediately apparent. The music does project a rambunctious character, and onstage, Garnet radiates the air of an outlaw queen at a rollicking party that could be taking place on the high seas.
"We know how to rock, baby," Garnet says on the phone a few minutes before a recent rehearsal. "I think we probably think of ourselves as pirates because of our attitude, and our filthy mouths. We're hardcore, and we go big."
DRYC will play this Saturday night, May 26, at Club Congress. They'll play in between two bands: Phoenix's A Life of Science will open the show, and Tucson's The Tryst is the closer. (The group also was recently added to a June 12 date at Congress that will include the bands River City Extension and the Drowning Men.)
Formulaic isn't even a word in DRYC's musical vocabulary. As documented so far on two EPs and one album—a 2008 self-titled EP, The Ugliest Princess (the full-length) in 2009, and last year's Family Portraits/Calm Mutiny—each of its compositions sounds nothing like the others, which isn't surprising, considering how many styles and interests the band's players bring to the table.
"When someone says all our of songs sound different from one another, that's the highest compliment someone can give us, in my opinion," says drummer and percussionist Henri Benard. "But it's all part of a cohesive style that's easily identified as us."
All of the band members contribute to the songwriting process, Benard says.
"I feel like that versatility has been such a big positive force and way to focus in our band. In our songwriting process, we bring ideas to the others, and we bang them around. Anyone can veto them. It feels like our band, uniquely. There's no real forced formula or a prearranged way we want this to work out."
To which Garnet responds, "Amen." (This is her response to Benard's statements several times during the interview—almost like a bluesy Greek chorus.)
The band formed about five years ago and has undergone transformations in personnel before arriving at the current lineup. In addition to Garnet and Benard, it includes bassoonist Kristilyn Woods, violist Ben Allred, cellist Steve Bohn, bass clarinetist and saxophonist Fred Reyes, tuba-player Andrew Masiello, violinist Megyn Neff and guitarist Corey Gloden.
"We all came together very organically, very naturally," Garnet says. "It wasn't like we had a game plan on what instruments we wanted to include. We knew we didn't want the traditional rock lineup of bass, drums and guitar. We had all been there and done that in other bands. We just wanted to follow our instincts, and when we found people who were interested and seemed like they wanted to bring something to the group, they were in."
When Garnet writes lyrics, she likes to weave stories, whether drawing from mythology or creating new fables of her own, equally enamored of classical music and rock 'n' roll.
"All of my writing is very therapeutic," she explains. "I write a lot about violence and murder, and people being resilient and surviving that—about people taking care of themselves and getting away and getting better. If it's not about something like that, it's usually about sex."
She especially respects the songwriting talents of Billy Joel and Paul Simon. "They are patient enough to see the story play out. A lot of songwriters today in pop music don't do that. But I personally don't want to hear 'yeah, baby, baby, I love you' anymore, and I don't want to write it. That's so fucking boring."
Benard says DRYC likes to live on the edge, musically. "We have no problem with trying out new stuff, not limiting ourselves, and trying to take the good habits with the bad habits."
When Benard and Garnet talk, it becomes apparent that in addition to music, their band is concerned with building and maintaining relationships—among the band members, with the audience and between DRYC and other bands.
"I think we're a very harmonious group of people," Garnet says, "and not lurching from one style to another when we play. It's not like we are going to go from a punk song right into a jazz song." Although that sounds pretty good, and you'd imagine DRYC would do it well.
She continues: "We try to balance the darkness with the light, the cold and warm, and a sense of Eastern philosophy and Western."
It's about being part of a community, whether that community is a band, a fellowship of bands, or the overall music scene in the Phoenix area. And even Tucson, for that matter.
"We have been trying to work our way into Tucson, but it's taken a while," Benard says. "You know, playing Tuesday nights at Plush or whatever—for which we are totally grateful, by the way. But it was really great to be asked to play the Festival en el Barrio. And the whole day was amazing."
DRYC got to see old friends (Megafaun, Betsy Scarinzi from Silverbell, Sergio Mendoza) and make new ones (Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico). "What an honor it was to play with all those bands," Benard says.
Neither Benard nor Garnet believes in the fallacy of a rivalry between bands from Tucson and the Valley of the Sun. Garnet, by the way, professes to be a fan of everything Tucson, from the music scene to the gem-and-mineral shows.
"And I love eegee's," she says.