Before Rachel Gurley joined Marina Orchestra, she had never seen the band or heard its music. A friend directed her to YouTube, where the band had posted videos of its live performances.
"I was immediately like, ‘Paul Simon, Graceland,'" Gurley says. "That's what I grew up listening to, so it was exciting. A lot of people are like, that's odd, for a group of twentysomethings to be playing this music. But I don't think it's that odd."
It's not that odd, really—some of the most critically acclaimed pop artists of the last decade, like M.I.A., Dirty Projectors, and Vampire Weekend, claim music from Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the Caribbean as major influences, and labels like Sublime Frequencies and blogs like Awesome Tapes From Africa have made decades' worth of original folk and pop from around the globe readily available to Western listeners. Still, there is something novel about a nine-piece band (guitar, bass, drums, plus three backup singers and three additional percussionists) in Knoxville performing a ragged but enthusiastic—and funky—kind of worldbeat rock that absorbs inspiration from all over the world but doesn't limit itself to strict imitation.
"Well, this is what I've been influenced by—a lot of internationally renowned groups, not necessarily Afropop but even Cuban and Caribbean and Latin American, that all had an influence," says singer and guitarist Justin Powers, one of Marina Orchestra's founding members. "But also more obscure ones—there's a lot of blogs online with tons of really old albums that nobody listens to anymore. I'd eat it up.... I'll come up with something at practice and pull out my iPod and say, ‘Play this beat', and I'll put it up to the microphone. ‘Just do that.' Obviously we're emulating, not trying to rip off. It's meant as high praise. We've also started trying to get into our own thing. We play something called the Marina beat. There's one beat that overarches everything we do. We're definitely honing in on a certain style that's our own."
So far, the band has released only a self-recorded three-song EP, available as a free download at the band's website, marinaorchestra.com. They have started working on a proper full-length album at Knoxville's Famous London Recording Studio, owned by Jonathan and Frank Kelly, but that is turning out to be a complicated project for a nine-person band. Getting everyone together for practice is hard enough.
"We've been working pretty hard on those recordings," Powers says. "It's expensive and it's taking a very long time."
But they are learning through the process.
"I Need Sleep was the only band I'd been in before this," Powers says. "I Need Sleep was just smashing stuff, basically. Now we're trying to play something that's—there's a rock aspect to it, but it's a little bit softer. It's been an interesting experience holding back. It's still energetic, but trying to tap into different motions than headbanging.... Jonathan and Frank from Famous London came over to practice one day—I had given them a compilation of some of the things I was getting into—and they were like, ‘Okay, you guys are all playing all your own separate things. These guys on these recordings are like one meta-instrument.' I feel like we've learned a lot from that session."
Even as they hone their sound, though, Powers and the rest of the band—Gurley, Joel Thompson, Tim Eisinger, D.L. Bergmeier, Scott Kapusinski, Andy Fagan, Alaina Smith, and Nichole McMinn—envision Marina Orchestra getting even larger.
"It's only going to get bigger," Powers says. "Most of the songs, I've written horn parts for, but we don't have any horn players. I have put so many things on Craigslist or flyers around campus, but it just hasn't happened yet.... That's the music I want to bring back to Knoxville. I guess there's a good amount of the whole spirit of all those recordings—the old ones and the new ones—that I just don't feel is happening in Knoxville. A lot of positivity that we miss out on."