The City Paper Music Awards are back, and this year’s selections, chosen by you, dear reader, include two dozen of the best in the local music industry. From your favorite video to the band you thought was punk enough to get an accolade, this year’s list of winners is both delightful and delicious. We love it when newer names make the cut, and 2017 sees artists like Matt Zutell clinching Producer of the Year and Atlas Road Crew securing Rock Band of the Year for the first time. Congrats, y’all.
And, don’t forget to check out the CPMA Showcase of winners including: Jump Castle Riot, Quentin Ravenel & Friends, Dallas Baker & Friends, Dubplates, Travelin’ Kine, Atlas Road Crew, Secret Guest, Little Stranger, 2 Slices, and Fusion Jonez — all at The Pour House on Monday, Nov. 6
Rock Band of the Year Atlas Road Crew
The five members of Atlas Road Crew came together as undergraduates at the University of South Carolina with a common passion for classic rock, and after a move to Charleston and a few hard-touring years later, they have become the ideal rock ambassadors of the scene.
While the group has a nascent passion for Southern boogie rock and a matching soulful drawl with some pop-rock fundamentals, in recent years their drive to succeed and win the crowd over has had them reaching for increasingly heady musical heights.
“The new stuff we’re working on with [producer] Wolfgang Zimmerman, it’s definitely more atmospheric and bigger sounding than the more boogie, intricate guitar rock we had been doing,” admits drummer Patrick Drohan as he traces the group’s musical evolution. He cites their recent experience opening up for bigger acts like the Revivalists as pushing them more in that direction as well, matching their sound to the audience they want.
“When you put us in a club in front of 25 people versus a stage in front of 2,500, we figured out pretty quickly what works for a large crowd that we hope to inspire on our own one day,” he explains. “So especially our newer stuff, it’s leaning toward Kings of Leon, a bigger arena rock sound. And My Morning Jacket, they are definitely [an inspiration]. The thing with them is that their recorded stuff is great, but then you go see them live and it’s amped up — kind of hits you across the face.”
That transition was evident on the group’s debut LP Halfway to Hopkins as well, where well-constructed three-and-a-half-minute pop-rock tunes sat alongside songs with more obvious heft and ambition.
“It’s a natural [evolution],” Drohan says. “We’re definitely confident with the direction we’re going in. It’s really happened organically with us playing so many shows. We’ve kind of dialed in on what works best.” —Kyle Petersen
Video of the Year “Coyote” by Stop Light Observations
Watching Stop Light Observations’ “Coyote” video is nerve-wracking. Truly, I had to pause it twice, as watching the band’s songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist John-Keith Culbreth texting while driving caused me great discomfort — I didn’t wanna look. As he converses via text with his real-life wife Jordan in the video, his dog/the band’s mascot Lou, sleeps soundly next to him. The dread of what could happen is too much, because it’s all too real.
Culbreth says when he composed the song, he imagined what it would be like to get to the band’s writing-and-recording home base out on Toogoodoo for the first time without one of the members there, how haunting it would be to lose one of themselves to tragedy. The vision comes to life in the video. “I thought about sitting down to do our campfire like we always do but there’s this one missing person, so that’s the setting and the idea, and the rest came from that,” he says. When it came to writing the breakdown for the track, “Let’s raise a cup to a good, good year to some good, good friends who are not here,” he was thinking of his wife’s best friend since childhood who committed suicide their junior year of high school. Meanwhile, the song still lacked one seemingly unattainable part when Culbreth caught a tune guitarist Louis Duffie was playing around with. As it happens, it was a dark acoustic song he’d written immediately after a close friend’s brother died. So the band channeled a lot of loss, both very real and hypothetical, in creating what is a powerful track and video.
The chorus, “Howl into the night,” is about bereavement, too. “Right now in our country there’s so much continuous news to mourn and it’s happening so rapidly that you start to get into this numb state, and I heard that if you don’t let out what’s going on inside of you it’s the equivalent of taking a breath and never exhaling — you start suffocating no matter how much air you have in you,” Culbreth explains. “So the line, ‘Howl into the night’ is the idea of us feeling comfortable enough with each other in a small setting and as a country to mourn. It’s OK for us to mourn. For whatever reason, crying is such a strange thing in our country. It’s like this uncomfortable thing, so the idea of howling into the night, whether you’re alone or in a pack of wolves, we’re all kind of alone. Even in our pack we all carry this story of struggle within us.” —Kelly Rae Smith
Pianist of the Year Noah Jones
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Noah Jones is a Charleston musician through and through, and at age 19 he’s already cemented himself in the city’s jazz scene with his rapid-fire, fiercely emotive piano playing. He attended Charleston County School of the Arts, where he majored in piano and performed with the school’s acclaimed jazz ensemble. “I don’t want to be just a jazz musician though,” Jones says. “But there is a certain demand and discipline that jazz piano requires. It’s so complex, and that’s the reason why I’m drawn to it.”
Jones is now a sophomore at the College of Charleston and already has one of the most eclectic musical resumes in the city. He performs with Steve Simon & the Kings of Jazz at How Art Thou Jazz Club on James Island, island band the Sounds of Sand, up-and-coming R&B group New Galaxy, and rock outfit Little Bird. He has built a platform for himself in an astoundingly short amount of time and is already looking for ways to help Charleston’s music scene grow. “I greatly respect and admire all of the work that Charlton Singleton’s doing to promote jazz and bring music into schools. I’m a major advocate for schools utilizing their music resources appropriately. Every student, no matter what color, what background, where their school is located, everyone deserves the opportunity to make art.”
Jones’ debut solo album, Sounds Familiar, is due out in Spring 2018. He does not want to classify the project into any particular genre — and perhaps it’s better that way. With the extensive amount of training that he is bringing to the table and the deep variety of music he is currently playing, Jones should be able to bring forth whatever sounds best to him. As he says, “If it’s good music, it should be a part of the scene.” —Alex Peeples
Up-And-Coming Band of the Year Fusion Jonez
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You cannot get much more up-and-coming than a band of insanely talented high school musicians. Fusion Jonez, as the name implies, specializes in jazz-funk fusion in the vein of bands like Lettuce, Tower of Power, Snarky Puppy, and Moon Hooch. The band consists of Charleston County School of the Arts students Walker King (guitar), Tanner Kirk (alto sax), Jalin Williams (tenor sax), Asher DiBernardo (drums), McCormick Emge (piano), and SoA alum Greg Heyward (bass) — all of whom have at one time or another played in SoA’s jazz ensemble under the direction of Basil Kerr. “He introduced us to the world of jazz, and from that point we were all hooked,” says Walker King. “What we’ve learned while in the jazz band has truly impacted us and given us the drive and dedication to pursue our music.”
Fusion Jonez is currently working on their first studio album titled Slight of Hand and has been collaborating with Return to Zero Records’ Todd Brown on the project. The band promises a “hard-hitting album” above all else. On top of putting in studio time, the band has a full slate of shows for the remainder of 2017 including the Coastal Carolina Fair (Nov. 4), The Pour House’s HEARTStock (Nov. 11), and the Blackwater Bridge Jam (Nov. 18). Though the band does make a point of not letting their blossoming career as a Charleston band get in the way of their schoolwork. King says, “As a unit we are all musicians but we each have individual education goals, and school is still very important to us.” —Alex Peeples
Soul/R&B Act of the Year Terraphonics
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Terraphonics is busy as hell. In the past year, they’ve released an EP, their first full-length album Tarab, completed a residency at the Pour House, and collaborated with other local artists at every turn. “I guess I’m just the kind of person that when I go for something I tend to dedicate all of my time to it,” says guitarist/composer Thomas Kenney. “I really believe in the band. I really believe in the talent of everyone that’s playing.”
Recently, the band has let their R&B flag wave high, with their Sample Jam series. The shows see Terraphonics bringing rappers and vocalists on stage to lay down lyrics over the band’s world music-influenced sound. “I had always wanted it to be a collaboration between emcees and my favorite vocalists in town,” Kenney says. “I just didn’t know any emcees from the outset.” That problem has been ameliorated a few times over with rappers like Abstract, Kevin Shields of Little Stranger, and Damn Skippy becoming common contributors to Terraphonics’ sound.
The frequent partnerships with local b-boys will come in handy in the near future. Already, Kenney and company have a collaboration with Matt Monday in the works. The two artists are tackling a remix of “After the Blast” from Tarab, which (like the rest of the album) sounds like it was tailor-made for a chill-hop freestyle or two.
In addition, a new album is on the horizon with Kenney citing R&B music, Herbie Hancock, and Parliament-Funkadelic as primary influences. Of course, the band won’t stray too far from their consistent fascination with world music. —Heath Ellison
Punk Band of the Year Secret Guest
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There’s no denying that Secret Guest is a great band — but best punk band?
“I’ll take it,” frontman Brett Nash says with a shrug. “A lot of people thought it was interesting that we were nominated for best punk band instead of best rock. It was like, ‘Good for you?’ There was almost a question mark at the end of it.”
Nash, who in addition to playing guitar and leading Secret Guest plays bass with a dizzying array of bands in town, including Vanity Plates, FALINE, Southern Femisphere, 2 Slices (also a winner this year), and more, is fine letting audiences sort out the distinction.
So while it’s clear that punk rock is definitely in Secret Guest’s DNA — the DIY recording style, the noisy, off-kilter guitars, and Nash’s nontraditional singing style — the group’s mid-tempo speeds and penchant for six-string sprawl made them a somewhat unlikely fit, despite sharing two members in Nash and Scott Dence with Dumb Doctors, a true punk band that has won the category for three years running prior to 2017.
“It was kind of weird telling Scott,” Nash says bemusedly. “It was like, ‘Your streak of Dumb Doctors winning is over, but you still won?'”
On a more serious note, Nash finds some comfort in the fact that some of Secret Guest’s formative influences, from Built to Spill and Guided by Voices to Wire and Television, come from a kind of punk-adjacent scene that balanced the forthright fury of traditional punk and more complex, intricate arrangements.
“When I saw we were nominated for that, I was remembering something that the band Television said, that their whole thing was ‘punk for the jazz set,'” he recalls. “I try to let it make sense in my head. There are punk bands who have some intricate sides [too].”
All genre quibbles aside, CP readers rightly recognized that Secret Guest is one of Charleston’s best, as their most recent EP Dry Jest aptly illustrates. —Kyle Petersen
Producer/Studio of the Year Matt Zutell, Coast Records
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In a city where you can’t seem to swing a bass guitar without hitting a great producer with a first-rate home studio, Matt Zutell has been making himself and his Coast Records studio stand out.
In the past year, he’s worked with a plethora of local and regional bands in either a production, mixing, or engineering capacity, including Little Stranger, Brave Baby, Atlas Road Crew, Heyrocco, and She Returns From War. He’s also handled sound for SUSTO’s YouTube series, SUSTO Stories, which has been one of his more rewarding assignments.
“That’s been a lot of fun,” Zutell says. “We’ve done each episode in a unique location with a different setup for the band, and they did different acoustic renditions of their songs.”
And how has he managed to get noticed in such a crowded field? Zutell says it’s a combination of results and approach.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the end product,” he says. “It’s in the quality of the work. I don’t have a million-dollar professional studio, but with the technology of today, you can make a lot happen without having that. And I grew up learning how to record that way.”
As for the “approach” part, Zutell simply goes with the flow rather than trying to micromanage the bands he records.
“Sometimes they want me to be more of an engineer,” he says. “And sometimes it’s someone who comes to me with an acoustic guitar and a voice and they want a full-band arrangement around that. And I can dive on in and be a producer and add the elements they need, because I have a network of friends who are these great session players, and I can have them come play on the tracks.
“It’s not about trying to get you in and get the song cranked out and getting the next person in,” he adds. “It’s more about trying to make each song really count.” —Vincent Harris
Jazz Artist of the Year Charlton Singleton
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For many people in Charleston, there is one name and face that they associate with the local jazz scene: Charlton Singleton. And it’s not hard to understand why. The multiple-time Jazz Artist of the Year winner is the conductor and artistic director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, and he’s also a skilled trumpeter and bandleader away from the CJO, and for the past year or so he’s traveled around the world with Ranky Tanky, a quartet putting their own exciting spin on Gullah music.
But Singleton, while happy to once again receive the distinction, is quick to point out that he feels like he’s part of a larger community of great musicians, both living and passed on.
“Historically, there have been so many tremendous jazz musicians in Charleston, both yesterday and now,” he says. “Look at [drummer and composer] Quentin Baxter. He’s toured all over the world with Grammy-nominated artists and entertainers. Look at [jazz studies professor] Robert Lewis at the College of Charleston and what he’s doing with the jazz program. Keeping Charleston’s jazz scene relevant is something that we all do. I think I get a little more publicity, and that might make me the face of it, but there are so many other great musicians in town that make it a good body of players that it is.”
Singleton says that the strength of Charleston’s jazz scene is evident from the number of musicians who have begun choosing to make their careers here rather than moving on.
“The general consensus has always been that you become a great musician and then leave to go somewhere like New York,” he says. “And now you have people saying they like Charleston and want to stay. When we travel, people ask us about the jazz scene in Charleston. It’s inviting for people once they get here, and that’s what makes the scene great.” —Vincent Harris
Electronic/Experimental Band of the Year 2 Slices
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2017 is the “Year of the Slice,” according to 2 Slices frontman Danny Martin. At only 10 months old — yes, you read that right — the electro-pop/dance act is learning to run pretty quickly, thanks to the recent success of their debut album Best Believe. Even Martin is a little surprised by how well things have gone. “When I first started this album, it was for my personal benefit — just to make myself feel better about myself,” he laughs. “Everybody’s been really relating to the songs, and it’s been great. I didn’t really expect it.”
One of the primary reasons for the quick lift off is the support they’ve seen from local artists like Brave Baby, with 2016 Producer of the Year Wolfgang Zimmerman producing Best Believe. “This scene in Charleston opened up to us because we were something a little different,” says Martin. “It wasn’t just a traditional rock band with everybody playing guitar and bass and stuff.” One of the main instruments for the band is the soundboard, operated by DJ Lazer Cat. The band is often remixing songs on stage at live shows.
According to Martin, the future for 2 Slices is all about step two. Following a warm local reception, the electro-pop group is looking to hit the road on an East Coast tour at the beginning of 2018, with more singles and music videos to come. Martin says, “I’m ready to get back into the studio, have a fresh sound, a new sound coming out, trying different things on the second attempt.” —Heath Ellison