“It’s electronic, but it doesn’t sound electronic,” says Telepath bassist Curt Heiny.
A fusion of electronica, dub, world music and ambient jam, Telepath makes a huge sound. The trio started in Asheville four years ago and has not-so-quietly gained popularity on stages from the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco to the Congress Theatre in Chicago.
“The beauty of Telepath,” Heiny continues, “is trying to take influences and different aspects of each musical style and landscape per se. We pull from a lot of different styles, so it can then be like a dub track with sitar and an Indian singer on it. It’s not just like an old Jamaican dub track — it’s got three or four different musical elements in it that create the overall sound.”
Computers onstage enable the band to color its pulsing rhythms with exotic musical samples. “It’s very organic sounding,” Heiny says. “The computers allow us to do the things we do with only three people. But any horn line you hear, any vocal, sitar sample, guitar or percussion, is either recorded by one of the guys in the band, or by other people that we know. We write the lines, but we sometimes get other musicians to record a line. We hired vocalists in India to record tracks, hired someone to record sitar parts, wrote horn lines and sent them off to the Asheville Horns. It is computers triggering samples, but it’s all stuff that we wrote and recorded. That’s the only way to do what we’re doing without having 20 people onstage.”
The bassist has been influenced heavily by reggae and dub music, which infiltrates Telepath’s dance grooves. “Family Man [The Wailers] is probably the greatest reggae bass player ever,” Heiny smiles. “Bill Laswell is a big influence, a little bit more modern. Sly and Robbie were an amazing rhythm section. And then some of the guys that nobody knows. I can’t even name them, but the backing bands for people like Augustus Pablo and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Mad Professor. Any of those tracks. It was more a listening thing, internalizing it.
“A lot of the dub stuff that we do, we’ll have other instruments that aren’t native to old Jamaican dub. You might hear melodica. There might be tabla as part of the rhythm section. A reggae bass line and drums, a sitar playing the lead lines. Or an Arabic or Indian singer singing over a dub-sounding track.”
Heiny was classically trained on cello for 12 years. “I decided that wasn’t the direction that I wanted to go musically,” he says. “I started to play guitar and did that for awhile. I ended up taking bass and learning keys as well. So bass has just become my main focus as far as a live setting goes. But the training on cello helped out with the upright, and the overall music theory, reading and understanding how music works.
“I love playing cello and classical music and still listen to it today, but symphonies wasn’t what I was going for,” he explains. Besides reggae, Heiny was being drawn by bands like Green Day, the Grateful Dead and Phish. “Listening to Jerry Garcia, Trey [Anastasio], and other guitar players — I did the jam band thing and that wasn’t what I wanted to do either. Then I started playing bass and studying jazz. I listened to a lot of jazz — players like Gary Peacock, Scott LeFaro, Eddie Gomez, Miroslav [Vitous] — and gradually progressed into just understanding and finding the beauty in all different types of music. Trying to find your own sound and style, which doesn’t happen overnight. Taking a little bit from here, a little from there, and creating your own voice on your instrument.”
Keyboardist Michael Christie, previously in the Asheville-based group, The Afromotive, started Telepath as a studio project, releasing the downtempo electronica album Fire One in 2006. “He had a musical idea of what he wanted to do,” and decided to make it a live band, hiring Florida-based drummer Mike B, the bassist recalls. “Michael and I knew of each other, but had never really talked or played together. I was playing with a reggae band, and we both ended up quitting our bands at the same time. We were both unemployed, and he reached out to me. From the first time we got together everything just seemed to work the way it was supposed to.”
Christie moved to Pennsylvania last year, but the band continues to write new music and perform. “Michael will come up with a general premise for a song, and then we e-mail things back and forth,” Heiny explains. “We’re able to share things online so we can take it and put our own musical twist on it, and then come together and try to put it together and make it work in a live setting. We do a lot of bouncing ideas back and forth over the Internet. It’s an interesting process learning how to work together not living in the same place.
“When he moved, we had been together for two years, and had been rehearsing three times a week, five hours a day. We knew how each other played, knew what needed to be done, so we were able to keep things going.”
The group has released two other albums together — Contact (2008), and Remixes (2010) — and a new CD, Crush, arrives January 2011. “It’s more vocally driven,” Heiny says. “Really focusing on hooks. We had Stephanie Morgan from Stephanie’s Id sing on a track. We have singers from Jamaica, India, and different places on this album, so the music is definitely more focused toward mainstream. A little more pop sounding, lots of melodic lines that we want people to walk away singing. We want the audience to have a good experience when they come to see Telepath. We’re trying to create an atmosphere, and we want that to be a positive experience.”