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The Red Sea Pedestrians take Abbey Road to Wealthy Theatre

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Red Sea Pedestrians' Ian Gorman and Ira Cohen talk community, particle physics, the paranormal and Beatles geeks.
Underwriting support from:

The Red Sea Pedestrians and The Corn Fed Girls perform Abbey Road

The show: Saturday, November 12 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $8 CMC Members; $10 General

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Red Sea Pedestrians - The Electromagnetic Escape

Red Sea Pedestrians - The Electromagnetic Escape /Courtesy Robert Shimmin

(l to r) Jay Gavan, Cori Somers, Ira Cohen, Ian Gorman, Rachel Flanigan, Michael Shimmin

(l to r) Jay Gavan, Cori Somers, Ira Cohen, Ian Gorman, Rachel Flanigan, Michael Shimmin /Courtesy Robert Shimmin

Ian Gorman and Ira Cohen, The Strutt, 2011

Ian Gorman and Ira Cohen, The Strutt, 2011 /Matt Jarrells

Kalamazoo's The Red Sea Pedestrians "world roots" music has been said to delight Michigan listening audiences, as evidenced by the band earning two WYCE Jammie Awards. Before bringing "The Red Sea Pedestrians and The Corn Fed Girls perform Abbey Road" to Wealthy Theatre, Saturday, November 12, RSP founding members Ian Gorman and Ira Cohen chatted with WYCE's Matt Jarrells at The Strutt in Kalamazoo.

Matt Jarrells: Thanks for taking some time on a beautiful Sunday. We’re going to talk a little bit about the band and its members; your latest album, The Electromagnetic Escape; and then get into your upcoming show at Wealthy Theatre.

I came into learning about the band a little bit late with your second album, Adrift. So before we get into the new record, could talk about the backgrounds of each of the six members of the band: it’s such a deep and diverse cast of musicians.

Ira Cohen: I grew up here in Kalamazoo and I’ve been playing music for a long time. My parents are both folk musicians and I spent my formative years playing music with my younger brother Aaron, who is a great guitar player. I played for about 14 years with Corn Fed Girls, a Kalamazoo band. Around 2005, as Ian was forming the band, I was excited to join because we had been playing together and Ian and Jay [Gavan]’s songwriting was a big plus for me. I wanted to get in and rub elbows with these guys.

Ian Gorman: You mean you thought we’d make you look good?

Ira: (laughs) Yeah. No. It’s tough to be a sole songwriter in a band and I co-wrote for years with my brother and had been in other bands with co-writers but I really felt like Ian and Jay’s sense of beauty, and the movement of the chordal structures, and the comic sense and dark sense of the lyrical fit what I was into and had been doing. And, everybody in town was just starting to realize what a hot dog Rachel Flanigan was on clarinet.

Ian: For me, I started playing music in middle school, started playing in rock bands and stuff like that: electric guitar, bass, drums. In college I started getting into recording taking John Campos’ classes up at Western. Which originally was just about my own art, trying to figure out ways to get what I wanted out of the studio. But I got really into it, working for other bands full-time professionally for quite a while. I didn’t play much [of my own] music for the first few years after college. And then over time started playing again, met these people, and also started having my musical tastes broadened and did different styles – folk music and world music and jazz. Especially in the folk world, it’s a real social music where people get together at house parties. We got to know each other through the studio and [we were] just hanging out long before we put a band together.

Ira: He and our drummer Mike [Shimmin] play with Seth and May [Bernard] quite a bit when they come through town.

MJ: And so, Michael Shimmin, obviously a great performer with so many other acts. How did you get him into the mix?

Ian: Well, we tricked him. Mike’s a guy that plays with so many people around and like so many of my musician friends, I met in the studio. When this group started out we didn’t have drums. We were a five-piece at the time with a guy named Nathan Durham, who is a multi-instrumentalist who lives in Kalamazoo and plays all over the country. We started to hire Mike for the occasional gig or for session work. Before you know it he was in the band.

MJ: And Jay and Cori [Somers]?

Ira: I’ve known Jay as a buddy in high school. Jay – just from the moment I met him – his music was interesting. It’s quirky, it’s energetic and I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time but I didn’t really get to know him until, I think, after I met Ian. Our engineer friend John [Campos] would have parties in the neighborhood and Ian would set up some studio gear.

Ian: Yeah, they had a barn, strangely enough, right in the middle of town. The barn just sounded amazing. What started as hangout parties became a little more formal: performer jams where people would show up and debut new songs and it became real interesting from a songwriter perspective.

MJ: So, very much a community-oriented beginning.

Ian: Yeah. A little more on our other members: Rachel is our clarinetist. She, like Cori and Mike, come from the formal training school of music. They all went to Western Michigan. Rachel is a super ‘band geek’ type or was when she was younger. She once – I don’t know if she wants me to mention this –

MJ: We can edit it out.

Ian: She once transcribed “Bohemian Rhapsody” for her high school marching band, stuff like that. It’s interesting because she didn’t listen to much rock music growing up, which is mostly what I listened to until I was older. We were at a coffee shop and Benny Goodman come on and she was, like, “Oh, that takes me back to high school!” Nirvana brings me back to high school.

Cori is also formally trained, plays for the Kalamazoo Symphony and has played with a ton of bands around town, in studio, session style. She actually approached us to join as a fan of the band. From the moment we heard her, we were just blown away.

And then, of course, there’s Mike Shimmin who is the rare drummer who is into all sorts of styles as well as playing other instruments and understands music theory and is a songwriter and a singer. He’s a lot more to the band than just a percussionist, he helps us write.

Ira: Yeah, on-the-spot arrangements and great dynamic ideas for the songs.

Ian: As a songwriter it really helps to be able to take it anywhere you want to take it and have musicians skilled in a wide variety of styles.

MJ: I think a lot of what you’ve said so far has given us some good clues: built in community, diverse backgrounds, "musician’s musicians"-meet-"rock musicians," coming together around an idea. But still it seems so unlikely to me that this would all come together as Red Sea Pedestrians, Michigan’s premier Hebrew-fusion band! It almost feels like it had to happen. Have you reflected on that at all?

Ira: I would say that The Electromagnetic Escape had to happen. At that point we had been writing and playing for a while and were enjoying it but I think the initial contact was serendipity. Left to my own devices I feel like would still have some of these writing ideas but the other five pushed me into a whole different realm of rhythmic playing and melodies. They’ve helped me to explore music, and not just Eastern European music.

Ian: I would say it’s been serendipitous. This group started out as a side project for everybody. The actual origin was The Corn Fed Girls had an annual Christmas show. Some of us had been listening to some klezmer style music and thought it would be fun to open up the Christmas show with some klezmer tunes. When the band started it was with the idea of playing klezmer music, thus the name.

MJ: So almost a novelty?

Ian: Yeah, or at least playing a relatively obscure style of music that most people don’t know and exploring that.

Ira: And hoping that - this was my hope with that name - that they might come into it looking for some of the humor in the lyrics. Because sometimes it’s disguised.

Ian: Right. So that’s sort of the zygote…sort of the embryo of the band. The idea of being a klezmer band went away pretty quickly. The truth is that we don’t play much that’s a traditional klezmer style. At best it’s influenced by some of those scales and rhythms. It’s the kind of thing where we sound klezmer to people who don’t really know klezmer and people that know klezmer, don’t think we’re klezmer at all.

Ira: I would say on this new album Cori and Rachel each wrote a tune that’s very ‘klezm-ish.”

MJ: ‘Klezm-atic.’

Ira: ‘Klezm-ic.’

Ian: In addition to changing styles, the lineup has changed over the years. Ira, Jay, Rachel and I have been in the band all along but everybody in the band writes.

Ira: Jay, Ian and I are just a little bit more experienced writers.

Ian: The others just write differently. Even if the lyrics are mine, Rachel and Cori and Mike come up with their own parts. If you play violin or clarinet you have to write your own part, it’s not like playing guitar where you follow along on the chords. You have to compose something. I’d say everybody writes in that aspect.

Ira: Sometimes that arrangement changes the song so significantly that the arranger ends up being credited as a co-writer.

MJ: You can almost tell by listening to the songs on The Electromagnetic Escape whose song is whose, who planted the seed for the songs. Can you talk a little bit about having that flexibility – having that many contributors? Does it make generating twelve songs for an album easier or does it make it harder with so many ideas flying around?

Ira: I would say easier, at least for us.

Ian: Yeah, like Ira, I’ve done a lot of solo playing and performing and it’s so much easier to have a collaborative band where, for an album, you can bring three songs and try to make them the best you can instead of trying to take on the weight of writing the whole album.

Ira: It’s really nice to have all that extra time to edit between albums so you can really bring a song that you’re confident that you want to get out there and want people to hear.

Ian: At the beginning it was more adapting my own songs to the group and now when I’m writing a song I’m thinking about everybody. We have the freedom to say “I don’t know what’s going to happen after the second chorus. Maybe it’ll be a sweet clarinet solo? Hey, Rachel! Cool. That’s done.”

MJ: Do you find yourself writing songs or coming up with great ideas and saying, “You know what? I don’t think that’s going to be a Red Sea Pedestrians thing.”? Does everybody have outlets for that material otherwise?

Ira: Really since I joined this band, most of the songs I write I want to end up in this band because of the musicianship, but it just doesn’t always work out that way. There is a moment when I first start working on a song where I say, ‘Yeah, this is gonna be something I want to shop to the Pedestrians.’ And hope that they’ll be into it.

Ian: Which we usually are.

Ira: Yep.

Ian: Writing for the Pedestrians is different because I know that it’s the group that the most people are gonna hear what I’m doing. The reality is that more people are gonna buy the CDs and come to our shows than myself playing solo. It’s a real draw to a songwriter to think, if I write a song and it ends up with the Pedestrians, you know, ten times as many people are going to hear it.

MJ: It's clear that every song on the record has an interesting story behind it. Right in the middle of the record, and maybe you can speak for Jay on this, there are a couple tunes, “Downstream” and “Brutus”, where your political stripe, your socially-conscious stripe shows up. I wonder if you’ve reflected on having this medium to speak your mind on these sorts of issues.: where you as a band fit in this crazy time we’re living in.

Ian: I think we all have very strong opinions about certain political and social issues. Frankly, I think we would do that more if it wasn’t so hard to write political songs.

Ira: It is. It’s such a challenge.

Ian: I find it difficult. I find it hard to make a bold statement without sounding like you’re on a soapbox.

Ira: Or preachy.

Ian: Sometimes it’s hard to turn concrete political thoughts into poetry or art of some sort. Some people do it incredibly well, Seth Bernard springs to mind first. And May. They both write fantastic songs with a lot of political or social ideas.

Ira: And without them being overbearing at all.

MJ: Yeah, you were talking about the light and the dark of Red Sea Pedestrians. There’s some scary stuff on here but there are also some really funny songs. Like “Brutus” is just hilarious to me.

Ian: I can’t speak for Jay. But Jay’s a history teacher, that’s his day job. And he’s a very politically minded guy and has some really strong opinions. That’s one of the things we love about it. There have been times he’s brought a song to the band wondering if they’re too political and we’re, like, no, let’s go for it. “Downstream,” that’s a song Ira and I wrote together.

Ira: Ian wrote the song and asked me to sing it and I just changed a few things. Ian wrote that for the Kalamazoo Water Festival.

Ian: Yeah. The Water Festival in particular, which [focuses] on water issues around Kalamazoo and the state and it happened to happen right after the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

Ira: In Marshall.

Ian: But there’s also a lot of concern about water issues and corporations buying the water and about protecting the long term future of this region, being one of the largest freshwater reserves. [We're concerned about] the necessity of water to life and the people that are not respecting that. It was something that I felt very strongly about. It was something I just decided to finally go for. It’s easy to write about women and death, I wish I could find the right political message more often.

MJ: Local history is reflected here as well in “Singapore, Michigan.”

Ira: It’s kind of a lyrical mashup. It’s kind of local history of Singapore, a ghost town. But the song is taking part in an early part of that town’s history. There were these wildcat bank scandals that were happening and they got caught up in one. They were moving money back and forth up and down the river. But there’s also the children involved in the story and their dreams and their hopes, the way things are for them and the possibility of getting away from this place.

MJ: I noticed that you resurrected a song, “Alternate Plan,” from an earlier record. Can you talk about some of the choices you made in the studio, vocally and so forth?

Ian: That’s a song that dates back to when I was playing solo and that was one of the first tunes we took and adapted for this group and looking to do something different with it. That was why Ira started singing it and we came up with the arrangement that we did at the time.

Ira: Didn’t you guys just sort of come up with that when we were recording?

Ian: The new version, yeah. The album that it was on is out of print and a lot of people ask us at shows if that song is on a CD or what. We just wanted to give it a new look and it’s fun as a songwriter to take the same chords and melody and words and try to do something different with it. And Jay and Mike and I kind of came up with the, I guess, Tom Waits vibe on it and just [went] somewhere different with it. The overdubs expanded that, Mike came up with the breathing idea, the ‘who ha’ and all that.

MJ: There’s a little song on there, “Ella, 1914.” Is that your response to “Love Potion, Number 9?”

Ira: (Laughter) That’s a good question. No, that’s just a junkie’s lament. The Harrison Act in 1914 outlawed laudanum and this is just a window into that moment.

MJ: That’s how I read it. Because without knowing that little nugget of history, it says sounds like a fellow that fell in love with a girl who was really into him and then, something…

Ira: Yeah, well, that’s what happened but it was just Laudanum. But I like that interpretation. And the tweaked out vocals are coming from that spot.

MJ: So you had to come up with a theme for the whole thing, which turned out to be The Electromagnetic Escape. Are there songs on the album that influenced the title? What’s your interpretation of the title?

Ira: “Magnetic North,” I think. We had lots of ideas and discussions about the title. I liked The Electromagnetic Escape because I like the way it ties in with analog recording and music.

Ian: There’s also “Deven’s Escape Hatch”, so we kind of have two title tracks, in a way. Like Ira said, there is the tie-in with analog tape. We do record to the computer but on our last two albums we’ve mastered using analog tape and everything’s gone to tape at some point. Lyrically, it can be interpreted many ways.

Ira: The paranormal.

Ian: Yeah. Also, the misfit escapism of the electromagnetic particle. The way I understand it, and I am not a physicist, the electromagnetic escape are particles from the sun that are escaping our solar system. So in that sense, there’s sort of a beauty to the distance and loneliness of it. The misfits way out there on their own.

Ira: Well, let’s look at it…there’s “Keynahore,” escaping the evil eye. There’s “The Gypsy Moth,” which it sounds to me, at the end of the tune, the gypsy moth doesn’t make the escape. “Rosabelle Believe,” there’s the séance and spirits coming and going.

MJ: Houdini, escaping from almost everything.

Ian: Everything except the afterlife.

MJ: And so the paranormal aspects of “Rosabelle Believe” – Houdini and the séance – must be the inspiration for the artwork. Can you talk about the process of creating the photography and the artwork of the album?

Ian: Mike Shimmin’s uncle, Robert Shimmin, is a professional photographer whose specialty is old school photography methods including tin-type and wet plate style photography. He has a studio out in Hastings and we went out and did a real wet plate photo session with him. It was so different than the way things are done in the digital age, you know, you just get together and snap a thousand photos. This was a very different thing where he would have to dip the plates into the chemicals right there on the spot, in his portable dark room, take them out, do a long exposure - the album cover exposure itself is about 45 seconds – and then develop it right on the spot. Every shot was this composed thing that would take 25 to 30 minutes per shot. It was really a lot more like - bringing back in the tape concept - it was a lot more like recording to tape, where you’re doing takes. We got four takes of the album cover and that was it – we took two hours.

Ira: We were limited by light availability and we knew we had to get these in.

Ian: So, we could do a shot and all crowd around it and talk about what was working and what wasn’t. The inside shot of us, too, through the window with all the bottles. The thing is it was very premeditated shots.

MJ: Turning to upcoming items: November 12, Wealthy Theatre, Red Sea Pedestrians and Corn Fed Girls – which, I didn’t realize, you had roots in, Ira – performing The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It has gone, by all accounts, really well so far. You’ve had a few performances? What was your initial interest in taking on this project?

Ian: That’s one of the unifying factors of this band and The Cornfed Girls, I’d dare say, [we are] all Beatles geeks. It was a combination of things, the idea of paying tribute to a record that’s been really influential to all of us and the challenge of trying to reproduce such an ambitious record live and learn those parts. For me it’s been a real learning experience as a musician. And just trying to do something special, trying to do a show that isn’t just "Local Band Has Show Tonight." It’s been ambitious and time consuming for everybody.

Ira: It’s like being in another band suddenly. There’s 17 tunes. Just Ian trying to figure out what the stageplot was going to be must have been a nightmare. Giving up the parts: they layered lots of vocals, lots of keys.

Ian: Jay Gavan has been huge in that process. He’s been unofficial music director of the project.

Ira: Sarah, too. Sarah Fuerst [of Corn Fed Girls].

Ian: Jay initially sat down with the album and figured out what was going on in it, which can be hard to do with heavily produced music. Figured out parts for people. When we first started out it was a looser idea, like, "Oh, we’ll just learn those tunes and play them." But everybody is so into the album that everybody just naturally progressed toward learning the parts from the album. I could just play rhythm guitar or I could spend an extra half hour and figure out what the rhythm guitar part is on the album. As time has gone on we’ve become more true to it.

Ira: We’ve done the best we could with the string arrangements but we do have a French horn. There is a Rickenbacher on stage, at some point.

Ian: There are some things we tailored toward our own instrumentation. There’s no clarinet on Abbey Road.

Ira: Or mandolin.

Ian: Rachel’s actually playing some keys and there are a lot of vocals. We take some of the orchestral parts and turn them into violin and clarinet, as opposed to string quartet or whatever.

MJ: Anything else we should know?

Ian: In addition to that, at Wealthy Theatre, we’re also performing our original music. We’re doing two sets. The first will be half Corn Fed Girls music and half Pedestrians original, and then the second set is going to be Abbey Road. It’s really exciting for us, hopefully getting the attention of some people through this production of Abbey Road but also getting to share what is at the heart of our bands, not just this special project.

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