Three Is the Magic Number

The local scene is bursting with trios

Nashville is enjoying an incredible amount of diversity in its current crop of young indie rock bands—so much so that trying to find a common thread among them comes down to something as simple as 1-2-3: A bunch of these bands are trios. Slack, Lifeboy, Those Donnelly Boys, and Venus Hum all boast three members; heck, even hardcore stalwarts Serotonin and Nashville/Knoxville rockers Superdrag have pared down their numbers to three. Within this non-subjective grouping, the range of music being made is amazingly broad—everything from pop-punk and emo-violence to crazy alt-country and math rock.

Whether this preference for threesomes speaks more to the tattoo that Nirvana burned in alternative rock’s psyche or simply to the enduring power of Rush is a debate for the ages. What’s significant is that this recent surge of local trios is resulting in some great music, much of it distinct from anything else going on here at the moment. To cite three divergent but equally noteworthy examples, Lotushalo, Kill Devil Hills, and Viva Voce all draw their sound and inspiration from a different well, yet each group is perfectly content to limit itself to three players.

Viva Voce came to Nashville as the band Nectarine. Kevin and Anita Robinson and Mark Cross met in Florence, Ala., where all played in each other’s bands until eventually they made their way to Nashville. As Nectarine, they were on the Christian rock label Cadence, but through touring and trials with the record company, they realized they didn’t want to be limited to Christian music traditions or fans. Viva Voce’s most recent five-song CD, The Weightless EP, bears out their decision to expand beyond the Christian music world, capturing the dreamy sounds of England circa 1992. The songs evoke My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and other groups who were part of the guitar-effect-laden “shoegazer” movement of the early ’90s. (As if to confirm suspicions that the band is indeed a pack of Anglophiles, Viva Voce cover the daunting “Love Song” by The Cure.)

Ironically, Viva Voce reject this assessment by explaining that they don’t even know who Ride and Slowdive are. More significantly, they insist that the EP isn’t an encapsulation of the band’s sound; instead, the five tracks were simply songs that sounded like they went together. Held aloft by Anita’s whisper-sung vocals, they float through dense guitar effects, drums and bass, samples and keyboards while staying rooted in memorable pop-song structure.

Kill Devil Hills are on virtually the opposite end of the spectrum from Viva Voce. Their music avoids traditional pop-song melodicism, instead relying on a pounding, threefold rhythmic attack. They often sound like the Dischord bands that pioneered the emotional hardcore sound that has since been watered down into today’s “emo.” The prominence of the bass draws a direct comparison to Hoover, while the punchy, sharp vocals often sound like Fugazi. Andrew Seward, Chris Driver, and Travis Walker met at MTSU. Though their coming together had no specific genesis, they explain that the final pieces were put in place at a showing of “that movie where Cameron Diaz got that stuff in her hair.” (The band plays this coming Wed., Dec. 10, at NY Cafe in Murfreesboro.)

Lotushalo are the most articulate of these three bands. Like their music, they speak in simple, analytical terms. They got together to make “quiet” music “like Low,” they say, because they were tired of noisy bands. They keep their songs short, with clean and crisp guitar lines, because they are conscious of the audience’s attention span. Guitarists Dan Sherron and Jay Phillips trade off on bass and often play two guitars with no bass.

There aren’t any vocals in Lotushalo songs because there aren’t “supposed to be,” the members say. Indeed, everything about this band seems very deliberate—save for the actual writing of the songs. Drummer Rachel Gostowski explains David and Jay’s creative process: “One of them wanks, and the other fixes it.” The two guitarists agree that Rachel likes and even demands precision. “She doesn’t let us get away with any bullshit,” Jay says. Lotushalo’s sound reflects her obsession with exactitude: textured interplay between the guitars, straight-ahead drum patterns, uncomplicated song structure. They drop influences like Tortoise, Low, Don Caballero, and Golden, while comparisons to Slint and 5ive Style also come to mind. To their credit, they never touch the “wank” factor of some of those groups, even though they admit they’d probably sound more like Tortoise if they had the money to buy more instruments.

Each band has its own explanation for the trio format, but it all boils down to simplicity, whether musical or otherwise. For Kill Devil Hills, it’s easier to resolve conflict. As they point out, sometimes they can barely communicate just between the three of them, and an additional member would only complicate the situation. For Viva Voce, they have enough ideas and sounds between them to handle. For Lotushalo, one more band member would amount to a “team,” according to Rachel. “As soon as there’s four people,” she says, “it’s somewhat intimidating to watch.”

As for future plans, each band thinks similarly: record, play shows, write songs. Kill Devil Hills are only waiting for Travis’ graduation to hit the road, by which time they hope to have a full-length record completed. Viva Voce, who have the most touring experience, love the road but are wary of the complications it brings. They record all the time in their stripped-down home studio and are planning a record in the new year. Lotushalo are planning a split seven-inch very soon and are basking in the band right now. “If I could work in a pizza place and make enough money to live and play in this band,” Rachel says, “I’d be totally happy.”

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.