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Pyramid Powers 

Years of collaboration pay off

You don't have to be in a band to know that they are collaborative efforts, and you don't get any more collaborative than the local octet Pyramid. For almost a decade now the core group has been making experimental music together, pushing and pulling at the boundaries of traditional song structure, defying most of rock's sacred cows and the hallowed shibboleths of any other genre crossing their paths.

For most of that decade, they did it for fun, a side-project not for publication, a lark, something for old friends, bandmates and fellow students to do the two or three times a year they got together.

But then something odd happened. They got good at these improvisational get-togethers. People urged them to play out. On a whim, and when convenient, they'd book a gig or two. Friends were impressed. One of them was a filmmaker (David Gordon Green) with an upcoming feature film who wanted two of their songs for his soundtrack. Sure, why not, the band said, and lo and behold there was a major-label soundtrack — All The Real Girls — with their songs on it, right next to those of some of their own heroes, like Will Oldham and Mogwai.

Suddenly, roughly two years ago, Pyramid was no longer a lark. This Friday at the Neighborhood Theatre sees the CD release party for their debut, a remarkably mature and organic, genre-defying full-length entitled The First American.

"I was telling my parents, when I invited them to the release party, I said, 'This is it, this is the big night,'" said singer and guitarist Joey Stephens. "Certainly for the past two, three years everything has led up to this. But then way before that when we first started playing together nine years ago, it has basically led up to this."

"It's been just under two years, really, which isn't fast, but it's not as horrible as it sounds to record that many songs since we went in there and said, 'Let's track it right,'" said reeds man Brent Bagwell. "But what he's saying is right; a lot of it was built on when we would get together three times a year in the earlier years — and built on just knowing each other (for a long time)."

"A lot of that was that we were just going to release an album and that would be it," drummer Chris Waldorf added. "We weren't necessarily going to tour, we were just a recording project — 'Let's just throw it out there and see what happens.'"

But All the Real Girls and a song on the subsequent Green soundtrack for the movie Undertow (The First American album opener "Digging to China") created a momentum the band couldn't and wouldn't deny. Waldorf, a sound engineer, began building a custom-made studio. Band members formerly scattered from Athens to Seattle, High Point to New York City, began relocating to Charlotte and environs. The late-night improv sessions took on a more focused air. Hundreds of hours of tape were culled for interesting new recording techniques, inspiring melodies and new, challenging or uncharted instrumental combinations.

Some of the results make up the 14 unorthodox songs heard on The First American. They were the chosen songs from among the 30 that the band recorded over the last two years, some of the rest of which are slated for EPs, 7-inch singles and b-sides, and the odd compilation or soundtrack. Throughout, each of the eight members — all of whom are multi-instrumentalist — took part in the band's rare collaborative process, which extends from ideas to final song selection and track listing.

With the often elliptical and striking words and phrases of principal lyrics writers Stephens and Ben Best usually determining the mood, all eight members are free to contribute to songs — either via suggestions at practices or through recordings, no matter who the principal songwriter is. Ideas are hashed out, adopted or discarded in part by democratic means, and, of course, via powers of persuasion.

Not only has no one been killed; they seem to genuinely like and respect each other. Egos get checked at the studio door, for the most part.

"When you start learning a song it kind of sounds like a big cacophonous mess," Waldorf said. "But everybody self-edits: 'It sounds cool if I lay out here,' or, 'What if it's just the two of you here,' so it becomes like subtracting elements — a lot of pulling things out and trying to figure out what's the most interesting part going on.

"I've certainly asked people to lay out, and I've been asked to lay out, and it doesn't bother me; I don't think it's because they think I'm a bad person."

The band cites several key factors for their mostly laidback approach: having been friends pre-Pyramid in many cases; playing largely for their own edification for years without the pressures of record deals or lengthy tours; their own multi-instrumental talents; and a "song-first" commitment above all.

"Speakeasy," a catchy minor-key march with different instrumentation for each verse and chorus, is one example of the band's collective approach. With all eight members present, someone suggested an experiment the others found too good to pass up. With one player on Theremin, and another on keys, the other six were given effects to tweak the main instrument's sounds, simultaneously.

"We did it over the course of the whole song," Bagwell said. "And then we just said, 'oh, that's great, and that's great, and that' — just little splashes here, and there — we wound up taking out 95 percent of it."

"People probably listen to it and think 'overdub city,'" said Bagwell, "but the vast majority of it is just for all of us to set up take it just a couple times, maybe four, and it's there. Then we would do stuff with it later. Eight or nine tracks are in real time — a couple of times on "Monster" it was one pass, then all of us on other stuff on another pass, immediately after — so it's over-dubbed, but in a way that feels more spontaneous."

A similar open-minded approach informs all of The First American. From someone grafting lyrics about the death of a loved pet onto someone else's formerly all-instrumental cut (and making it work), to two members simultaneously suggesting a New Orleans funeral march for the bridge of a country & western roots song, and another musician transposing an entire song from guitar to horns virtually on the spot, Pyramid's versatility, chops, almost ego-less approach and a fundamental belief in experimenting has provided Charlotte one of its most intriguing bands.

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