While at least one aspect of Brian Kelly's aesthetic is steeped in the sonic excesses of gothic Americana, the brains behind Oakland rock project Oceanography isn't entirely certain where the rest of it resides, creatively speaking. He is sure about at least one attribute pertaining to his new EP Parachutes of Plenty.
"I guess what I'm trying to do is avoid folk," says Kelly. "I'm not just some dude playing a guitar."
That much is obvious while listening to Parachutes of Plenty's swirling collection of guitar-heavy epics and free-roaming gloom-pop. Musicians on the EP include drummer Kathleen Richards and organist (and engineer) Scott Barwick, but Oceanography is more or less Kelly's baby.
After moving back home to Oakland from New York City in 2009, Kelly packed along a quiver of songs he'd been working on over the past year. When Kelly arrived back on the West Coast, however, the difficulty in finding people to parlay his songwriting with on stage or on record necessitated his eventual approach with Oceanography as a solo project, recording his first self-titled EP shortly after. But rather than rest on his laurels (or the happenstance boost of having Offspring drummer Pete Parada record drums on the first EP at Barwick's Chico, California studio), Kelly resolved to maintain a revolving cast of contributors to Oceanography, both on stage and off.
"That's why I didn't stamp the project with my name and call it The Brian Kelly Band," explains Kelly. "I wanted to leave the door open for musicians to contribute creatively and not feel excluded from the writing process."
The five tracks on Parachutes of Plenty benefit greatly from the collaborative spirit, with Richards and Barwick expanding upon Kelly's barebones compositions with driving percussion and ethereal blasts of Wurlitzer, respectively. Kelly's naturally meandering vocal sensibilities bark in, out and around sparse instrumental pieces to create a tension and dynamic not unlike War-era U2, British Sea Power, or Interpol.
"I was trained in jazz guitars, and there's a melodic element that's missing guitar- wise, so I might be making up for that and using my vocals as an instrument," says Kelly. "Instead of noodling on guitar, I'm noodling on the vocals."
EP opener "Reggie Jackson" rolls a slow-burning rocker through repetitive, warm cloaks of washed-out guitar. "Keep What You Can Hold," the EP's second track, posits loads of amp squalls and Kelly's soaring vocals while maintaining a strangely haunted psychedelia before the chorus blooms perhaps the EP's best melodic moment. Similarly, "Napoleon Holiday" basks in a wave of watery guitar calisthenics, building slowly and with care for the variation in dynamic that pulls Oceanography further away from the Bay Area's overflowing rivulet of garage and metal acts.
"There are dark undertones to most of it," elaborates Kelly. "It's not radio- friendly music, or commercial-friendly for that reason. I guess this album in particular is related to not making much money, living on the fringes a bit. Some of those songs were written as I was packing up my things and getting ready to move [to Oakland]." For Oceanography, things are always in flux, and collaborators are consistently rolodexed. Kelly still shows up to venues by himself occasionally, confounding club owners and bookers who were expecting a full band and instead are treated to one guy with a slew of guitar amps. Atop that teetering foundation, however, Kelly has found a chameleonic identity inside his songs, allowing compatibility to blossom organically from musician to musician and song to song. To boot, he says he's fine giving up control sometimes.
"You don't have to rely on your own decisions all the time," explains Kelly of the liberation of collaborative writing. "Like when you make something and you ask yourself, 'Does this suck?' Maybe it does suck. It's hard to really decide until you present it to other people and really gauge its strength on their reaction. I don't have to do that live anymore. I can use a band as an audience first."
Oceanography is celebrating the release of Parachutes of Plenty with a release show at San Francisco's Hemlock Tavern on December 13. Kelly is also embarking on a pre-release spate of live performances in New York City in November, and is planning a tour for after the New Year.