In the ever changing music scene that is Boston, there have been two newer bands that have crashed the scene and really stood out. The coincidence is that both band’s names have the word Strange in them but they are complete opposites musically. After diving into their new cd’s- Strange Changes’ “I Want You” and Strange Machines’ “Space Cadet”, I’ve realized that at least the musical landscape is indeed changing and going into a direction for a new generation. But both bands play songs that bridge that generation gap and both bands are as important for their said genre’s and for the future creativity that sparks and makes up the Boston Music scene.Recently I was at a show that had The Shills, Ellis Ashbrook & School For Robots destroying the stage at Great Scott and this soft spoken scruffy character handed me a flier for his band’s upcoming show. When I looked down I immediately recognized the band name as Strange Changes and it just happened to be the one and only Tom Dowd the lead singer and guitarist for Strange Changes. Since then we co-promoted a sold out night upstairs at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA and they put on a performance that captured the audience from the first note till the bitter end of their amazing set. What I saw was a band that is amazingly talented and as they say themselves eclectic but in a way that hypnotizes the audience.On September 7th I had the privilege in working the EP release for Strange Machines who successfully sold out the Davis Square Theatre by 9PM. I was able to spend some time and speak with co-lead singer and guitarist Mike MacDonald who is one of the most genuine people you could ever meet. When he came off the stage after his amazing set capped off by a cover of Alice in Chains’ “No Excuses” he was drenched in sweat and it seemed like he was ready to play another hour and half.
Both Tom Dowd & Mike MacDonald remind me of each other in that they have an impeccable work ethic both on and off the stage and they are here to get the word out about their bands and will do anything to give back to the Boston music scene by supporting other bands and promoting live music where ever they go.
HNL: Tom D. Your band has crashed the scene over the last year but you’ve been around for a while. What kind of groundwork did you lay down to create such an explosion on the scene and what were you doing prior to getting the band out in the clubs?
Tom Dowd: The project got started in 2008 when I put together the first 8-piece lineup. Most of the members were students who weren’t really committed to the band long-term. We managed to record a 3 song EP and do some house shows but the group fell apart in the spring as most of the guys graduated and went their separate ways. Doing the Evil Genius EP introduced me to Geoff Nielsen, who engineered and produced that EP along with myself and Brad Will (of Holiday Mountain). I no longer had a live lineup so I put a bunch of new charts together and started recording I Want You piecemeal with Geoff, which took about 2 years. Last summer, with the album nearing completion, I saw the opportunity to work with some great players who were going to be around Boston for the foreseeable future and it came together from there. The main groundwork was getting a really good set of recordings done.
HNL: Mike MacDonald… You and Ricardo were playing as a duo for quite some time when did you all put the Strange Machines together and start playing out live as a band?
Mike: Ricardo and I have been playing music together off and on for about 7 years now. We originally started playing together in 2006, in a cover band called Deadbeat Nelson. About 2 years into that band we started moving towards original music and even recorded a 7 song EP (which was never finished), but musical differences between Ricardo and I and the other members led to us disbanding. After that Ricardo and I started writing together but almost immediately after the break up Ricardo moved out west and we lost touch for a year. Ricardo and I always had very similar ideas, style and taste in music, so when he returned to Mass the following year we knew we wanted to start work on an original project together. The name “Strange Machines” comes from the first song Ricardo and I ever co-wrote together before he moved. The song never went anywhere, but the name had a special meaning to us and it signified a new chapter in our musical endeavor together. In October of 2011 we discovered bassist Kris Hanson, who had just recently moved to Boston from Ohio. Kris was exactly what we were looking for and finally our lineup was complete.
To Mike: I don’t want to pigeon hold you in the jam band scene but your band contains many elements of that scene whether it be the extensive musical workouts onstage or the rabid hippie fans dancing to the sets all night long… There seems to be some sort of disconnect in the Boston jam band scene in that most of these bands play to empty clubs… What are you guys doing differently? What does it mean to you to play in front of a packed house?
MM: We consider ourselves a “reggae/rock” band, and almost all of our songs are based around the reggae vibe and groove. The “rock” side of our music is definitely majorly influenced by the jam band scene. I think the main reason typical jam bands play to empty rooms is because it’s too much about the jam, and there’s no real substance to the writing of the song itself. We strive with every song to bring the best of both worlds. Diversity is a key with music, you can’t be one dimensional. All of our songs start out as 3 to 4 minute commercial sounding songs with strong, catchy choruses and hooks, as well as intricate harmonies. Once we’ve taken care of the writing of the song itself, then we start expanding its dimensions and seeing where we can take it. I think we offer a little something for everyone, and that’s why we can pack a house. To play a packed house is the greatest feeling in the world, it’s what I live for. To hear 50 to 100 people at our Hard Rock show back in May all singing the words to “Thought of You” without it even being on record yet was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. We have the most amazing, supportive fans and we’d be nowhere without them.
To Tom: I always urge bands to get out in to the clubs and meet people and other bands to support them and promote their upcoming shows. You seem to have done this without any thought. Did someone tell you to do this or are you truly all about the scene? If so what are some of your favorite bands in the local Boston music scene?
TD: During the 2-year period when I was recording the album, I was a big shut-in. I was spending all my money on studio time and hardly went to the clubs. But once I started playing a few shows, I quickly made new friends and realized just how dynamic and exciting the scene is in this city. Now it’s hard not to go to the clubs! There’s too much going on. Some of my favorite bands we’ve worked with are School for Robots, The Shills, Das Muerte, Ryan Jackson Troika, Something About Horses, and People With Instruments.
To Mike: You and Ricardo share lead vocals and guitars…how do you choose who sings what and who plays the lead on which song? How does the songwriting process within the band work?
MM: Well the most basic answer to this would be that whoever writes the song sings lead and the other person plays lead guitar, but with a lot of our songs its more complicated than that. Everything we do within a song we do FOR the song. We do our best to leave egos to the side and do what will add to the song, not what will make one person in particular stand out. The songwriting process is generally as such: either myself or Ricardo writes a skeleton or a body of a song and the other paints over it. Once we’ve arranged things between ourselves we bring it to the rest of the band, who then adds their own pieces to it.
To Mike: “Remedy” is a sweet, sweet track. Can you speak about what the song is about and how you came up with all funk and reggae progressions in the song?
MM: With most of my songs it just started with a certain riff (in this case the funk riff during the verses), and the rest just kind of happens. I couldn’t explain how; when that happens I feel like I kind of black out and a few hours later come to and find that I have a song. All the songs I end up keeping and bringing to the band are the songs that come about organically. Anytime I sit and try to force a song I end up throwing it out, it has to happen on its own terms. As far as what the lyrics are about, I can’t speak to that. I’m just as big a music fan as I am a musician, and a lot of times when I know the specifics of a song’s meaning it can take away from its effect on me. I think the purpose of a song is for people to derive their own meaning from it and make it personal to them.
To Tom: The record is all over the place in a good way and very accessible . . . How were you able to make all of the jazz, classic, and rock stylings work and who are some of your influences?
TD: My biggest influences are Zappa, Mingus, and Mr. Bungle. I view all three as experimental popular composers. This means they worked in popular musical genres (rock for Zappa and Bungle, jazz for Mingus) but they took avant-garde sounds and advanced composition techniques and made them part of their repertoire. This is what I shoot for as well. The trick is to find the right balance. It’s like gourmet cooking: you need to find ways to include some very strong and potentially alienating flavors but balance them with a main course everyone can enjoy.
To Tom: “Huffin in the Nude” is some rockabilly craziness . . . is this song really about the dangerous lifestyle you live or was it about one night out?
TD: Fortunately, that song is not autobiographical! The lyrics for the song started as a joke between me and my friend Sam, as well as my girlfriend Cat. Just for fun, I’ll list all the drugs in the song that I have NOT tried… those who know the lyrics will be able to figure out what I have. I’ve never done angeldust, huffed industrial chemicals, sniffed glue, snorted coke, or taken asthma medication. I prefer to stick to hippie drugs myself.
To Both Tom & Mike: Where are you all going in the future besides out of space? Any plans to start recording again? Any plans for world domination?
MM: World domination is a must haha. Our plan for the future is to get our music heard by as many people as humanly possible. We are starting to expand to new markets around New England and New York, and from there can hopefully start branching out to other parts of the country. This is our shot at making it so we plan on giving it everything we’ve got. As far as recording, we just finished the EP in August so it will be at least a year till we hit the studio again but once we do we plan on recording our first full length album.
TD: Right now we are focused on expanding our regional presence by playing shows in New England markets outside of Boston. We have a handful of good headlining dates in Boston coming up and hope to get back to New York soon as well. We will probably do a new single sometime in the spring of 2013. I’ve completed about 60% of our next full-length album in full score, but it might take me another 2-3 years to complete that one so don’t hold your breath. There you have it there are some Strange Changes in the air and the Strange Machines will take to out of space but only if you let them and they are both up for it anytime all the time. Come out and see their shows and make sure you let them know that you appreciate what they are doing to create an atmosphere for fans of live music to get together and enjoy live music.
Un-carefully, un-edited by Mark Kaye
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