Philadelphia is more than just home to the bandmates in Callowhill. It’s crucial to the indie rock outfit’s formation in the summer of 2013.
Guitarist Julia Gaylord and bassist John Pettit attended Central High School together. Pettit and guitarist Nikki Karam have worked together in libraries. And Gaylord and drummer Katy Otto have known each other for 10 years, from the days when Gaylord’s band True If Destroyed and Otto’s band Del Cielo played shows together.
“I always said it was one of my dreams to play in a band with Katy Otto,” says Gaylord.
“We ran into each other at a party and said we should get dinner,” says Otto, who grew up in Washington D.C. but now lives in South Philly. ”When I was getting ready to go, I said to my sweetheart, ‘I kinda wanna see if she wants to jam but I’m scared to ask.’”
It wasn’t always easy. The bandmates estimate they practiced just once a month the first six months.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” jokes Karam.
There was also the dynamic of coming from different backgrounds and musical tastes, from punk to hip-hop.
“I really wanted to form a band from scratch,” says Gaylord. “I think we all had different ideas of what we wanted this project to sound like. How it is now is different than what I imagined and that’s what I love about collaborative art. That’s part of the fun.”
Callowhill scheduled a show at Eris Temple Arts, which forced them to buckle down. The band enjoyed that first show and began writing. Callowhill’s debut self-titled 7-inch was released in February on Otto’s own Exotic Fever label, and was accompanied by a performance at Johnny Brenda’s. The release feels mature, from the bouncy riffs and distortion of “Philly or the Seashore” to the atmospheric and mellower instrumental, “By the Time They Notice We’re Gone.” The members share lead vocal duties on the album. The sound is also a bit of a shift for Otto, who is also in the punk band Trophy Wife.
Callowhill is eyeing a tour and full album down the road. That wouldn’t have happened if Philly didn’t rope them in.
“Being from D.C. was cool. I got into a Fugazi show as a 16-year-old,” Otto says. “But I wanted to move somewhere where there was an active, engaged, creative community. And I like that about Philly because it has grit and I think grit is good.”
Each member takes comfort and pride in the city, all the way down to the name. Karam said a history tour around the city led her to Callowhill, where she learned of William Penn’s wife, Hannah Callowhill, who secretly controlled the Pennsylvania colony for several years. That story stuck with the band.
“A Philly-centric name is fun because it means so much to us,” explains Pettit. “It is also a blank slate because we could impose our own thing on it. People from other places wouldn’t be too confused by it.”
“My out-of-town friends get really excited when they see the exit (off 676),” Otto says.
It’s clear Callowhill is still young, from the few shows they’ve played to joking about how they need to make some “merch,” to discussing the difficulty of coming up with a band name in the 2010s. But they are coming into their own.
“I’ve been in a lot of bands where their songs are very top-down,” says Pettit. “But I feel like with us, a lot of our best stuff is coming from just the few seconds of playing around in between songs.”
Tracks by the likes of Kanye West, Jazmine Sullivan, Pissed Jeans, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, LL Cool J, Jill Scott, Chill Moody and Dave Matthews have been written, arranged, produced and/or recorded here.
Trained in music recording and production, McCullough has been a guiding hand in The Studio’s operations since 2007, when it was still owned by the legendary Larry Gold.
She has done and seen a lot during her time at the famed space, some of which she can speak about. Some, she cannot.
Before [Late Night with Jimmy Fallon], The Roots were really present here at The Studio, really present in Philadelphia. Dice Raw came up to me and he was like, “Yo, Caitlin, we need a female to read the script and if you could just come back.” I went into the studio and I was asked to go sit next to him [Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought]. Basically, the skit was reading “Casablanca” but with Auto-Tune. It was me and Tariq just sitting, reading with Auto-Tune. I just remember kind of being in the middle of that and being like, “I can’t believe this is my job, like this is Wednesday…”
You look on the walls to see Grammy-nominated or Grammy-winning albums and triple platinum selling albums. How is it working somewhere that does stuff like that?
It’s a privilege to be a part of something like this.
What makes MilkBoy a place that artists from everywhere want to record?
I think it’s a level of quality. It all goes back to that saying, “You get what you pay for.” It’s definitely a combination of the work and the people that we have doing the work, in a respected place.
What’s the most rewarding thing you experience working here?
When all these rooms are filled and there’s music pouring out of all these rooms.
How does your background in recording and production help you manage the studio?
I can’t even call myself a musician. I’ve always been a fan of music. I was the kid who was buying CDs and reading liner notes and seeing where things were recorded. I always wanted to be a part of that but I wasn’t really sure how. How my training has helped me is just being able to have intelligent conversations about booking rooms.
Do you have a vision of what you would like to see come out of the studio?
Philly is a great music scene but as far as being able to live here and work in this field, it’s really hard. To have these artists move forward, as much as I would hate anyone to leave, that, to me, is more important.
Would you ever be afraid that this would be seen as a stepping stone studio for engineers, like where they’d be before going to NY or LA?
I think it could be looked at that way but I also think that if we’re a part of a story that’s much bigger than that, then I don’t take it as a slight by any means.
The whole music business itself has definitely changed. Even from when I started until now. We do get a lot of label artists in here but not with label budgets.
People walk around with portable studios. There’s GarageBand. People record in basements.It’s definitely a challenge for a studio like this to maintain itself when it is so tangible, so accessible, to just go anywhere. As far as the business side, it’s been a challenge to figure out where we fit in this world where people don’t have to pay anything to record.
What’s been your favorite thing recorded here?
I’m very partial to what Larry [Gold] has done here, as far as his arrangements. For me, being a part of The Studio and being able to see what Larry has done – and how long he’s been in this business, the level of artists he’s worked with – whenever I hear anything he’s done, I’m always amazed for sure.
I get excited when the producers are here. Like we had Salaam Remi, who did Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album. I kinda get more excited when I hear the producers and the people who are really creating the music. That’s what’s really important to me.
Erik Paluszak had seen the world’s tallest woman. That was about his only interaction with the world of sideshow before he thrust himself right in the middle of it. In 2011, Paluszak hit the road under the stage name Velvet Crayon, performing with the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow as a one-man band. It was there he began to introduce audiences across the U.S. to his own blend of koala-based, psychedelic punk rock.
“This thing is disgusting,” Crayon jokes. “It’s covered in clown makeup, kisses and urine.”
His fuzzy melodies are made up of electric guitar and synth, with a little bit of ukulele squeezed between, crafted in the vein of the Australian marsupial. Calm and collected – that is, until it rips your face off.
“Some of his songs are just hilarious and get stuck in my head,” says Scarlet Checkers, a fan of the Squidling show and an aspiring contortionist. “As for his character performance, you never know what exactly to expect but you know it’ll always be weird. And probably naked.”
Crayon never expected to be a part of the traveling freakshow. He gave the Philly music scene a shot through small bar shows and a discography of two EPs and two full-length albums with Stoned Monkey Records. While studying multimedia at University of the Arts, Crayon became a frequenter of Carnivolution, the Squidling Brothers’ performance series in Philadelphia that was co-founded by Jellyboy the Clown and Matterz Squidling. A few drinks and a newfound friendship later, Jellyboy brought Crayon on as the opening act to perform amongst sword swallowers, burlesque dancers and an array of wonderfully-grotesque artists.
“I wrote songs never intending anyone to hear them. I know I’m in the show because they like my music – but it helps that I’m a natural-born freak,” Crayon says, referring to his diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.
Though his bones are extremely fragile, he is not limited to his wheelchair. Rather, he says he’s empowered by it.
“There’s a stigma that sideshow is about exploitation and that’s not true at all,” Crayon says. “For the most part, natural-born freaks are the highest paid people in sideshow. There was a time when, if you were disabled, you couldn’t do anything in this world. You’d be completely broke, homeless and dying. Sideshow was a way for these people to make money, to flourish and be kings!”
Frankie Bones, a booking agent and man not afraid to pound nails into his nose, has worked closely with Crayon.
“Velvet is a true human oddity,” Bones says with an admiring tone. “It doesn’t matter how shitty your life is. You look at Velvet and see that he ain’t crying the blues. He can’t play guitar like you and me but he found a way to do his dream by learning to play like a slide guitarist. Velvet is an inspiration for everybody.”
After spending the summer at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore, doing eight to 10 consecutive performances per day, and the month of February shocking audiences across Europe, Crayon is taking a break. He is dedicating the spring to recording and sleep – something Crayon hasn’t done since the release of his third full-length album, Koala vs. Squid, in 2013.
For Crayon, joining the troupe was a way to justify a career as a musician and to electrocute pickles every now and again for the sake of a laugh. Now he’s sitting on three full-length albums worth of content and touring the world with a band of brothers and sultry sisters.
“[Sideshow] is more fun because it’s like a family,” Crayon explains. “It’s not just by yourself. I think as a one-man-band, it can get kind of weird and lonely. We get to travel and make people laugh and cry and vomit. It feels great how we affect people.”
letlive. opened the night to a surprisingly sparse crowd but singer Jason Butler didn’t let that slow him down. He spent as much time writhing around on the floor with a microphone cord wrapped around his throat as he did on his feet.
Though he couldn’t climb the balcony after an altercation and misunderstanding on Saturday, he did end up in the crowd, under the stage and with his head inside a fan’s shirt.
Butler also gave shout outs to punk rock for allowing the band to think differently and to West Philly for giving the world The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The Menzingers followed letlive. with a calmer but no less impressive performance. Guitarist Tom May was a bouncing ball of energy, jumping, dancing and contributing vocals. The crowd was receptive to the almost-hometown heroes (via Scranton), especially when they played “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore.”
Taking Back Sunday came out to a huge crowd reaction for an hour and a half-long set that spanned everything from Louder Now to Happiness Is. The band encouraged fan antics throughout the night, which eventually ended with guitarist John Nolan hanging a thrown bra (which singer Adam Lazarra noted could “fit a baby inside of it”) from his microphone stand. He also commended crowdsurfer Johnny Gonzalez for finding a way to stand shirtless on top of the crowd two nights in a row.
The largest reactions came for Taking Back Sunday’s older songs, like “Cute Without the E (Cut From the Team)” and “MakeDamnSure,” which the band ended the night with to a full crowd singalong.
It is a quiet evening in Sam Cook-Parrott’s West Philly home. Most of his roommates are out. The 23-year-old musician is ecstatic about a book he just received in the mail. He plans on reading it while on the European tour he is about to venture on as Radiator Hospital.
Cook-Parrot began writing music under the moniker five years ago in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recorded lo-fi, fuzz-pop tapes, handed them out to friends and formed the band around that material.
“I think of myself as a record collector and fan of music first,” Cook-Parrott says of his influences, which include Paul Westerberg of The Replacements and Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers. “I just try to take in as much music as I can.”
Cook-Parrot grew up in a musical household. His father, who clearly passed down the affinity for vinyl, was a radio host throughout his life and now works at a record shop. As an avid record collector, his dad makes most of his income flipping records on eBay, Cook-Parrott says.
In Grand Rapids, Radiator Hospital, which is named in honor of an auto body garage in the city, had a decent following and released several different tapes and a 7-inch titled I Want to Believe through current drummer Jeff Bolt’s label, Stupid Bag Records.
Bolt, who also plays drums in Swearin’, moved to Philadelphia first and Cook-Parrott joined him a year later in September 2012.
For Cook-Parrott, Philly is a bigger city and a bigger scene than his hometown of Grand Rapids.
“I was feeling restless, like I needed to go somewhere else,” Cook-Parrott says.
“We always wanted Sam to come to Philly and do Radiator Hospital more,” says bassist Jon Rybicki, who moved to Philly from Cleveland three years ago.
Rybicki had known Bolt for several years from playing in other bands. When Rybicki heard of Cook-Parrott’s upcoming move, he messaged him saying they should play music together when he touched down. Bolt is dating current guitarist Cynthia Schemmer and thought she would be a good addition to the band. Everything fell into place quickly for Radiator Hospital since the band was set and prepared prior to Cook-Parrott’s arrival.
The music-making technique behind Radiator Hospital is like a manufacturing process: Cook-Parrott writes the lyrics and his respective guitar parts and then passes it all on to the band to add their work to the mix.
In September 2013, Radiator Hospital released its first EP as a Philly band, Something Wild. It was a collection of tracks that were either solo work of Cook-Parrott or full-band tracks. The band released their latest record, Torch Song, in September 2014. It marked a cohesive sound for the entire band and received a four-star rating from Rolling Stone, which was something they could legitimately show their parents who see what they’re doing as “unconventional,” Schemmer says.
“I think Sam branched out a little bit in his songwriting and there were different things going on that weren’t in Something Wild,” Schemmer says of the new album.
Radiator Hospital went on a full U.S. tour this past summer by themselves and ran into minor problems, like their week-old van breaking down 40 minutes into the trip. An alternative venue on the tour was a driveway in East Los Angeles with girl-punk duo Girlpool. It was packed, with at least 125 people, Rybicki says.
But one of the band’s almost unanimously agreed upon favorite shows was underneath an undisclosed Philly bridge where they turned on a generator and played shorts sets at midnight with Big Eyes and Tony Molina.
Cook-Parrott got back in February from his first venture on a European tour, opening solo for fellow indie-pop act Waxahatchee. Nothing is set in stone for the future of Radiator Hospital, but Cook-Parrot says he is always writing songs, so a new record can be expected before the end of the year.
It is pretty clear that nonconformity in the music industry is a parallel wave of success for Radiator Hospital. They are making music the way they want, with no strings attached.
“It’s very DIY for someone to not want a PR person or a manager or a booking agent,” Schemmer says. “To be a band that doesn’t have any of that and to be where we are is definitely an accomplishment.”
The members of Radiator Hospital take the term “DIY” seriously as Cook-Parrott strays away from working with booking agents and labels.
“There are no advertisements for Rad Hos records,” says Bolt.
Cook-Parrott is inherently open about his opinion on the music industry and recently published a letter on his WordPress addressing his sentiments on Radiator Hospital garnering attention recently.
“I just think the way you present your music is really important,” Cook-Parrott says. “I just want to present ours in as honest of a way as possible.”
Two of the three members of the Bakery Boys relax at the kitchen table in a friend’s apartment. Quinton “Q” Russ (aka Diabolicool) and Mark Ryan sit, waiting for the last member, Russ’ cousin Alexander Ruffin (aka Ace Bangaz), to arrive. When Ruffin finally walks in, Russ jumps up to show his cousin his retro Stone Cold Steve Austin “Austin 3:16” shirt, which leaves Ruffin cackling.
The way the group gets along, it’s easy to tell they’ve known each other for a long time. While growing up uptown, in the neighborhoods of North Philly, the guys’ first real connection with each other was through skateboarding, most often at LOVE Park.
Each had at least a fledgling interest in hip-hop but it wasn’t until they started tooling around in Ryan’s basement that things started coming together. With their own space to explore musically, their formation as a unit didn’t have to be a conscious choice. It just kind of happened.
“I had a basement where we could all hang out, smoke weed and fuck around,” says Ryan. “And that’s what happened. It’s the classic rap story. I had a place for us to figure ourselves out.”
Having lived in Philadelphia their whole lives, the guys are well-versed in the city’s idiosyncrasies and strange characters. For instance, a street performer once brought a PA system to LOVE Park and let them borrow it for a few minutes to perform. It’s what they would come to call their first ever gig.
“Philly is a weird planet,” says Russ. “It’s a parallel universe.”
But the Bakery Boys accept this weird planet as their home, especially North Philly. Instead of doing skits for their recent release, The Package, Ryan clandestinely recorded the group moving around their stomping grounds on his smartphone. There’s the sound of change hitting the counter of a Chinese corner store as they argue over what to buy in “Us,” and the familiar “chirp-chirp” of the crosswalk in the background as they take a break from skating to chat with a friend on Broad Street at Cecil B. Moore Avenue in “Peeps.”
“This is where the stories are being made,” says Ruffin about North Philly. “It’s storytelling. Our true stories are interesting enough that we can tell them to people and they’ll listen.”
North Philly is their home, for better or worse. Ruffin’s least favorite memories of recording their first effort, First Batch, were leaving Ryan’s basement at the end of the day. Partly that’s because it was such a comfortable space and partly because it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots on the walk home.
“We talk about grimy shit but it’s not to glorify it,” Ryan says. “It’s just like, be aware. Be conscious. As a group, we’re pushing for our lane.”
They’ve started their own label, B.A.K.E.D. Recordings, to house both their individual efforts and showcase the talents of other local artists, like Mick Raw (pictured above with Bakery Boys) and Javin Lessane.
After leaving Philadelphia to live in Denver for several months, Lessane discovered that most people outside of the city have the theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” as their only cultural reference.
“It’s cool but at the same time it’s like… yup! That’s it,” he says about other cities’ knowledge of Philadelphia.
Lessane thinks artists like the Bakery Boys are more representative of where Philly is at now and it’s about time the world knew.
It may come across as nothing but stoner whimsy but B.A.K.E.D. actually stands for “Being Ambitious Kids Every Day.”
“We strong,” says Russ. “You may not know yet, but we are strong.”
Thanks to all those who showed up at Underground Arts for the Red Bull Sound Select show on Thursday that we curated. Pissed Jeans were crazy loud and super fun, and they allowed fans to stage dive and go wild.
The next JUMP Sound Select party is in in July. We’re still working on those details.
Veteran Freshman hosts the next Sound Select party on April 16 with Rakim, Chill Moody, Dyme-A-Duzin, Reef the Lost Cauze and DJ Aktive. Last time we saw Rakim in Philly, he was among the headliners at the Roots Picnic. RSVP for $3 tickets here.