Let's remember that Talking Heads began as an art school band - a bunch of students at the Rhode Island School of Design - back in the mid 1970s. That, you could say, turned out well.
Savannah's equivalent is General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers. Each of the band members is tied to SCAD - that whole "creative careers" thing - and each brings something unique, conceptually, to the project.
The band is celebrating its first CD, Whistle the Dirges, with a performance and party Feb. 5 at Tantra Lounge, with an opening set from Lady Lazarus.
General O (that's the preferred shorthand) plays a kind of literate, poly-syllabic folk music, with lyrics that radiate from the obtuse and art-school consciousness stream to the strictly narrative. Think Modest Mouse mated with the Decemberists.
This is put across with guitars, bass, drums and accordion (!), with mood and tempo shifts, and a sort of quirky aesthetic and harmonic gang-vocal approach that brings to mind both Jefferson Airplane and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. And pretty much everything in between.
General O's music is equal parts whimsy, reflective poetry and finger-snapping fun.
The lead singer, guitar player and co-writer is Devin Smith, an Illinois native who's studying filmmaking. "We're all dreamers," he says. "Obviously, we're at SCAD and we have art student-type mindsets, so we wanted it from the beginning to be something."
They are, proudly, a self-sustaining collective. The Tantra bash will also include the premiere of the video for their song "Sick Sick Lover." Smith directed the clip as his senior project.
For his web design class, drummer Duncan Iaria put together the official band site.
Anna Chandler, she of the accordion, musical saw and other left-field instruments, designed the CD package and provided the endearing illustrations that go with the lyric sheet.
Chandler composes most of the lyrics, with Smith collaborating here and there, and putting music to her words.
They don't always make sense - art, of course, doesn't have to - but they're provocative. And fascinating.
"It comes out like that because I'm a fiction writer and Devin's a filmmaker," says Chandler, who graduated with degrees in illustration and creative writing in 2010, a year after General O's odyssey began. "That narrative aspect's going to be in everything we do, I'm sure."
We both spent years
Alluding ships in half a hundred colors
But you were a club-footed shoe-in for Christ listening to pilgrims' tales
With your mouth half-full
But this tense were shaking in between
- "Hush Animal"
In the summer of 2009, Chandler - she's originally from South Carolina - returned to Savannah after an internship up north. She played a little bit of guitar and other things. Always fascinated by toy instruments, she had purchased a real one - a Hohner student-sized accordion - during her time away.
"I had this epiphany when I was in New York," she explains. "I was kind of scared to write music, but somehow through the magic of the tiny accordion ...
"Devin and I had played music before. He would come to my dorm, he played guitar and he was really good. He was living with my best friend that summer. I brought my instruments over and we just jammed together. It clicked."
They first song they played was Modest Mouse's "Grey Ice Water," followed by the Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road."
For Smith, who had been knee-deep in SCAD work since 2008, hooking up with Chandler was a revelation.
"I would play and record on the computer, to pre-made drumbeats," he says. "I was really excited when I got to work with other people. I'm from a really small town, so this is the first band I've had."
Together, they recorded a song for a local compilation CD. "We wouldn't do our vocals in front of each other," Smith laughs. "One had to go smoke a cigarette on the porch while the other one did their vocals."
The band played its first gig in October of '09, at ZunziFest.
"Watching them the first time, I could tell that they were really new to the whole thing, but I really liked their style," says Iaria, who also drums in the band Howler. "And I felt that there wasn't really much in Savannah that was like that, live."
Alabama-born Iaria joined the band, which was soon augmented by bass player Jak Horner (although he plays and sings on Whistle the Dirges, and will be onstage for the CD release gig, Horner has since left General O to focus on his career in graphic design).
Everything snowballed. "We would go to Tantra and play open mic night," Smith recalls. "And that was like the Greek Theatre or whatever. It was amazing to play in front of people."
Adds Chandler: "We were getting strong reactions. It was nice to have that affirmation: ‘OK, we're not the only ones who like this.'"
I'm sorry for taking all your time
Lackluster lips tainted gin and lime
Spent a good 10 years burying dragonflies
Knee-deep in waterbeds and Mae West thighs
- "Sick Sick Lover"
Smith and Chandler prefer to write over the Internet - or, at least, that's how it works out a lot. "We'll be in different places over break, and she'll send me a sort of poem that she wants to be a song," Smith says. "I'll send her music back and she'll be like ‘I like this part,' and then we change things. It's a lot like back-and-forth, but every now and then there's a song where we just sit down together. ("Greyhound Rows," from Whistle the Dirges, was written while the two were in the same room.)
The complexity of the arrangements comes later. "A lot of times I don't play straight through, because there's a lot of negative space in the music," explains Smith. "I'm thinking about where the drumbeat will come in - or her accordion, mainly. There's a lot to think about, but there's a lot that comes by chance and re-writing once we're playing.
"Now we're working with a keyboardist as well, Daniel Wilson, so there's even more melodies to throw in."
The album includes a well-woven tapestry of marimba, flugelhorn, glockenspiel, trombone, trumpet and other delights. When Smith straps on an electric guitar, General O becomes a rock ‘n' roll band. Sort of.
"It ends up sounding like us, regardless of what instruments are being played," he says.
Brian Kucinski recorded Whistle the Dirges at his Savannah home studio (the White Noise Factory) and co-produced with Smith.
The Panhandlers' goal is to branch out and perform wherever, whenever they can. They like the idea of serving as Savannahian musical ambassadors.
After all, there's that name, which they adopted early on. "We wanted something local, and at the time I guess we wanted something kind of silly," Chandler says.
"Savannah was very fresh to me at that point," explains Smith. "You're impressed by all the history, but then you've also got the other side, that's maybe got some poverty. Everywhere we play a show, there's always people there panhandling. We played a show in DeSoto Row a year ago, and the panhandlers got on our instruments and started playing them and stuff."
Interjects Chandler: "We wanted a Savannah sound, though. We wanted something to characterize where everything was coming from ... although some people from out of town have trouble pronouncing ‘Oglethorpe.'"
General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers
With Lady Lazarus
Where: Tantra Lounge, 8 E. Broughton St.
When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 5
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