Callowhill: Made in Philadelphia.
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.”