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Cuzco Subtracts One from Business People, Adds Four to Create Exquisite Soundtrack 

A math rock bromance

The scene is straight out of a nonexistent film we'll call Indie Bromance.

The venue is the Fillmore Charlotte; the date, Aug. 6, 2010: Will Schoonmaker and Nic Robinson, high school music nerds, are in different spots in the audience at a Silversun Pickups show, each singing his heart out amid colored lights and the lurching guitars and melodic verses of the Los Angeles band's pop-rock gem, "Well Thought Out Twinkles."

Will and Nic make eye contact and smile at each other, knowingly. Ever so slowly, as the song progresses, the two come together and lock arms. The scene moves into slow motion as the teens thrash about together, arm-in-arm, veins popping in their necks as they yell out the words to the refrain, "Come join in the last hurrah, with open sores and open jaw."

"That was the moment that solidified it for us," Schoonmaker remembers today. "It was like, 'We're gonna be best friends forever.' And then the next day, in psychology class, we found out there was going to be this battle of the bands and we were like, 'Let's do it!'"

Cue up the Queen song "You're My Best Friend."

The "it" Schoonmaker speaks of is The Business People, his and Robinson's band that went on to record the 5-song EP Dirty Feelings, which includes at least one bona-fide indie-pop classic, "From NC with Love." The band toured together and got another song, "Cocaine Girls," onto the soundtrack of an award-winning short indie film, Damiane and Her Demons. But then, six years and numerous indie-bro experiences later, Will Schoonmaker told Nic Robinson that he would be moving on.

Cue up Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."

Let's let Schoonmaker pick up the story from here:

"Dude, that was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life," he says. The 25-year-old is sitting on the side porch of a brick home in Plaza Midwood, having beers with his current fellow band members in Cuzco, a math-rock band consisting of guitarists Schoonmaker and Arman Serdarevi, 23; drummer Dylan Robbins, 24; bassist Matt McConomy, 28, and saxophonist Kevin Washburn, 24. Earlier this year, the quintet released its own 5-song EP, A Medicine for Melancholy, and will be unveiling a terrific new video for one of its songs, "Those Are Z's," on Friday, Oct. 6, at Snug Harbor.

Cuzco [from left]: Dylan Robbins, Kevin Washburn, Will Schoonmaker, Matt McConomy and Arman Serdarevic. (Photo by Savannah Wood)
  • Cuzco [from left]: Dylan Robbins, Kevin Washburn, Will Schoonmaker, Matt McConomy and Arman Serdarevic. (Photo by Savannah Wood)

"Nic and I had played together for six years," Schoonmaker continues. "We started that band to do a battle of the bands at our high school, and then we grew out of that and joined the whole Plaza scene and the Charlotte music scene. We basically grew up together as musicians."

The breakup was amicable, and The Business People are still going strong. But it was still difficult for Schoonmaker to tell his BFF that their musical tastes had diverged.

"I'd always had a knack for music that wasn't pop-rock," Schoonmaker says. He likes complex instrumental guitars played to music with odd time signatures — math rock. "I listened to a lot of [the British math-rock band] This Town Needs Guns, which really inspired what we're doing in Cuzco," the guitarist says. "I just love their guitar work and what the guitarist, Tim Collis, does. He just shreds."

So does Cuzco. At a recent show at the Visulite, the band — drenched in soft lighting, flowers placed strategically about the stage, and Dylan Robbins' drum kit set up sideways and more front and center than most drummers — played an impeccable set of instrumental music to a crowd of fans enraptured by the guitar interplay.

Math rock can be either noisy and complex, with lurching rhythms and unpredictable tempo changes, or gentle, but equally complex and with equally odd tempo changes. One of the earliest outfits to be tagged math rock was Pittsburgh's thrashing Don Caballero, formed by guitarist Damon Che Fitzgerald in the early '90s and signed to the hip Chicago indie label Touch & Go Records with proto-math-rock guru Steve Albini producing.

Cuzco's style of math rock is in the vein of jazz-fusion, but without the cheesy electronics or extended instrumental solos. At the Visulite show, Cuzco's songs were comparatively short, and exceedingly precise. And as complex as the guitar interplay and rhythms were, the overall sound and feel of the show was inviting.

Schoonmaker and Robbins initially formed the group as a side project. Robbins had reached out to Schoonmaker because the two shared an interest in the experimental Charlotte band HRVRD.

"I was still in the Business People when this was happening, and actually, Nic came up with the name Cuzco," Schoonmaker says. "Nic and I lived together, and would often just spout off potential band names, and one that Nic came up with was Cuzco. So when Dylan and I were thinking of names for this band, I asked Nic, 'So dude, can I use Cuzco?' And he was like, 'Yeah, dude.'"

Cuzco continued rehearsing together, adding Serdarevi on second guitar and auditioning numerous bass players, eventually locking in on McConomy. When the band went in to record its EP, Schoonmaker wanted a saxophone and brought in his old friend Washburn, who had cut his teeth on John Coltrane and other 20th century jazz greats. After a record-release show, the band members immediately knew they wanted Washburn to be an official full-time member.

By 2016, Schoonmaker was spending much more time with Cuzco than with the Business People, and he needed to break the news to Robinson and the others. "When Will first left, we went into practice and said, 'Well, crap! What are we going to do now?," Business People drummer Anthony Pugliese told me in May. But he added, "Will seems much happier. It was a very amicable split."

When you see Cuzco play, you will be convinced the members all attended a prestigious conservatory such as the Berklee College of Music. But that's not the case. Each member is self-taught.

Serdarevi, born in Germany and raised in Utica, New York, got his first guitar lesson from his classic-rock-loving mom, who taught him how to play "Stairway to Heaven" on a little Spencer acoustic. Serdarevi then gravitated to metal and jazz. "I pretty much learned to play the way I play now from listening to a lot of Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Django, stuff like that. I just try to keep the spectrum of music I listen to really broad so I can pick up little nuances that I can incorporate into my playing."

Robbins, born and raised in Shelby, also came from metal — by way of the Beatles. "My dad, who's also a drummer, had this old 1982 Tama Swingstar kit and a copy of the Beatles 'Please Please Me,' and he said, 'Learn how to play with this,'" Robbins remembers. "So I learned how to play with that record, but then I immediately went to heavier music, like Underoath, and was stuck on that kind of music for a long time."

After years of playing in hardcore and metal bands, Robbins realized it wasn't the music that called out to him anymore. "Like Will, I had started listening to a lot of different genres and realized that I liked them more than what I was playing," Robbins says. "So by the time I reached out to him and we started jamming together, it just clicked. I was like, 'You see eye to eye with me on where I'm trying to go.'"

A ménage à trois-mance had formed.

And others piled on. For Washburn, joining Cuzco was completely unexpected. His early love of jazz had branched into an appreciation of world music and Latin rhythms, but he had never played in a rock band before Cuzco. "I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know how my voice as a saxophonist was going to fit into this band at all," he says. "But it's been a fairly easy and smooth process. I try not to overthink it. I just do it."

He does it exquisitely. In fact, the entire band plays together as though their hearts and minds are one. After the gentle guitar lines of the EP's first track, "You Said Number 11," opens up to bass and then mesmerizing guitar strumming, Robbins lays down a simple drum pattern that provides the foundation for some slicing guitar chops and eventually saxophone. From there, the song — and entire EP — gallops on a cinematic journey through changing time signatures and sublime guitar interplay that could serve as a soundtrack. When the band performs live, they add interludes between songs.

Cuzco enjoys the porch life. (Photo by Mark Kemp)
  • Cuzco enjoys the porch life. (Photo by Mark Kemp)

"We have a set list of songs from the record and songs we haven't released yet, and then we add these interludes — little soundscapes, like waves or sounds of owls or crickets, or sounds you might hear if you're out in a field and it's raining or something," Schoonmaker says. It's not just for aesthetics. "The reason we do the interludes is because we use a lot of alternate tunings. We went a long time without having second guitars, so to make it interesting and keep things flowing, we would do these interludes while we tuned," Schoonmaker says. "Now, we have second guitars, but the interludes have become part of the performance."

Also part of the performance are the flowers and warm lighting. Because Cuzco is an instrumental band, Schoonmaker and Robbins wanted the band's performances to be full of visual and sonic experiences.

The sideways drum setup was an idea Robbins got from another Charlotte band. "I totally took that from [HRVRD drummer] Tim Cossor," Robbins says. "He did it, and I always liked the way it looked, so when they stopped playing, I just kind of — it was an afterthought — but I just selfishly decided to start doing it myself. I thought since we play instrumental music, I wanted us to look as interesting as possible onstage. And people really notice it and comment on how cool they think it is."

The idea for flowers came from Asheville band Midnight Snack, but the warm stage lighting was totally Cuzco's idea. "The music we make can be pretty intense and all over the place, so this is how I see it: If I was in the audience and watching us play this stuff, I would just be staring at the hands," Schoonmaker says. "So when it comes to the part where a song is over and the interlude begins, I want the audience to see it all as one thing. The interludes are the part where you start noticing the aesthetics of what's happening on stage, as opposed to what each of us is doing individually. So having soft lighting and flowers helps create a vibe."

Sometimes, he has a hard time explaining it to the clubs Cuzco plays. "I tell them, 'Think about when you're sitting in a room alone with one lamp, and you're drinking coffee and reading a book.' That's what I want it to look like."At a recent show in the round at Goodyear Arts, Cuzco used actual room lamps. It went over well. "So now, whenever we have the right kind of stage space, we'll still do that," Robbins says. "Like when we play the Neighborhood Theatre. We do it there."

Math rock is such a wide-open genre that it's often hard for the members of Cuzco to define. It could be the harshness of Steve Albini's Shellac. Or, it could be the sound of older music that was never called math rock — the progressive sounds of a Boomer-era guitarist like Robert Fripp of King Crimson. Sometimes, the members of Cuzco don't even try to explain it.

"When people ask me what kind of music my band plays, I say, 'Just come see us, because if I try to explain to you what kind of music we play, you're probably not going to get it,'" Robbins says.

Worse, a definition of the music might make it seem boring, something Cuzco most definitely is not. "A lot of people who have no idea of the genre we play will come see us and go, 'Wow, this is really different and cool,'" Robbins continues. "So I feel like not only do we gain different fans from different musical backgrounds, but we're also educating people, in a sense, on other styles of music."

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Listen to what Cuzco sounds like here:

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Even the producer of Cuzco's album, Cade Ratcliff of Moonmouth and Knowne Ghost, initially didn't know what the hell the band was playing. "After the third or fourth show we'd ever played, he says to us, 'That's the best post-rock attempt I've ever seen,'" Schoonmaker remembers. "And I'm like, 'Thanks, but what the fuck does that mean?'"

The guys explode into laughter. "And every time after that, when someone would come up and tell us, 'Hey, that was really good,' we couldn't hear it because of what Cade said," Serdarevi adds.

"We never let it go," Robbins says.

"Yeah, when he was recording our record," Schoonmaker continues, "every five seconds, we'd say, 'How's that sound, Cade? Post-rock enough for you?'"

"To be fair," Robbins clarifies, "when he said that to us, our sound hadn't really become very mathy yet."

Another instance that gets the band's goat was when CLTure ran a review of Cuzco's EP that said the band was "keeping math rock alive in Charlotte."

Schoonmaker laughs. "I'm like, has it ever been alive in Charlotte? I don't know of any other math rock bands here," he says. "I mean, HRVRD would have been the closest thing Charlotte's had to math rock — they did some odd time signatures — but they weren't really math rock."

Which begs the questions: What, really, is math rock? And does it matter?

The answer to the first question is that it's highly technical and precise music with odd time signatures — a definition that could describe music as far-flung as King Crimson, jazz fusion and post-rock bands like San Diego's Drive Like Jehu. It's often instrumental, but not always. One of the mathiest math rock bands is This Town Needs Guns, whose music is filled with lyrics.

The answer to the second question is, no.

All you need to know about Cuzco — which will be returning to the studio to record a full-length follow-up after a short tour — is that they are incredibly talented Charlotte players whose music and shows will move you.

"We've progressed really quickly," Robbins says. "From the first set that we ever played up to the time we did the record, we really skyrocketed in terms of our capabilities." The comment is a fact, not a boast. Robbins is humble about the progress Cuzco has made. "I go back and listen to it now and I'm like, 'How did we ever write that?' I don't even remember how we did it. It's kind of amazing. None of us really knew how to do this stuff. And now we're doing it. I'm constantly surprised at what we've done."

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