It's been eight years since City Newspaper first sat down to talk with Rochester's heavy blues and garage rock trio, St. Phillip's Escalator. They were kids then, barely in their 20's and their music was unfettered from any pretense or calculated effort. It was big; it was loud; it was all theirs. Taking a page from heavy history penned by the likes of Blue Cheer, The Sonics, and even MC5, St. Phillip's Escalator came roaring out of the gate with its 2006 Chesterfield King-produced release "Endless Trip." The record was a most excellent heaping helping of heavy blues with dashes of trippy psychedelia done with mind-blowing authenticity. Nothing could stop St. Phillip's Escalator except St. Phillip's Escalator.
The band insists it never broke up and just continued to work at a slower pace when guitarist Ryan Moore got a gig with Time Magazine and split for New York City, leaving bassist Noel Wilfeard and drummer Zachary Koch in Rochester. The band continued to write together online between infrequent rehearsals, slowly amassing material for a follow up to "Endless Trip" and playing shows in New York City.
Flash forward: Moore recently moved back to town and the band is out of hibernation and hitting on all eight. With live rehearsals, shows, and the imminent release of "Elevation" due out sometime this winter, there's no need to use the stairs any more. The Escalator is back, baby. The trio is a little older now (some even sporting beards) and the music coming out of them is a phenomenal sonic blast. With all three members living in the 585, there will undoubtedly be an increase in local shows. There's nowhere to go but up.
Wilfeard and Koch sat down with City to discuss the heavy blues, how the band has changed, and how they couldn't write a pop song if they tried. An edited transcript follows.
City: When Ryan moved away to New York City in 2008 did you think it was over?
Zachary Koch: We worried about that for a minute, and a lot of people thought that too. But no, not really. We're survivors.
Noel Wilfeard: We just kept setting up shows and playing. Then I moved to New York City and we kept bouncing back and forth.
How did you make it work?
Koch: So we ended up renting a space down there and sending ideas back and forth online. We just never stopped playing.
Wilfeard: But it wasn't the same as playing in the same room.
Do you think if the band hadn't split geographically that maybe you'd be further along?
Koch: That's a good question. We've been playing together since we were 13-14 years old. We're best friends, kinda like a family. And like any family we went through a tumultuous couple years there, where we weren't playing as much. But we still stuck together and managed to write enough material for a new record. I don't know, maybe if we lived in the same city, we wouldn't have been as far along. Ryan living in New York actually opened up some opportunities to play more. We got to play with Mark Lindsay and got in with Jon Weiss and just got more opportunities to play New York, which is always fun.
So SPE is back, back together in Rochester. How back is it? Back with a vengeance?
Koch: Back with relief. We get to play together more often. Those years that Ryan was in New York, we hadn't been in the same room to play more than two or three times a year.
Wilfeard: Now it's such a fluid working thing. We all still surprise each other. We've played together for years but now we're back in the groove rehearsing and writing. Writing seems to be easier than it used to be. Before, we used rehearsals just to keep stuff tight. Now we use whole rehearsals to write new material.
How has the band changed?
Wilfeard: Personally, I'm holding back. I'm not trying to be John Entwistle anymore. I think my playing is more in the pocket now.
Koch: Things change, they evolve obviously. We're not as loud. We were laughing at an old picture recently; Noel had an Ampeg 8 x 10 cabinet, Ryan had a Marshall half-stack, and I was playing a big kit. We went full-force.
Wilfeard: And there was a time where I was going to buy a second cabinet.
How were you going to move it?
Wilfeard: I know. I was driving a '94 Saturn. I used to use the one I had in my apartment as a coffee table.
But musically, how has the band changed?
Koch: There will always be a psychedelic undertone, but I think we've become heavier, darker sounding. We've learned that what we really are is a live band and that's something you can't record separately.
Wilfeard: I was recording the bass parts alone and I could hear Zach's drums, but I couldn't feel them.
So what's the plan for St. Phillip's future?
Koch: Right now we're treating it as if we're starting off at square one again, though we have a pretty good fan base. The first time around we had a great record.
It's like your audience is rediscovering you.
Koch: It was like, "Oh, you guys are still playing?" And we were like, "We never stopped." It's nice to have a presence again.
As the band revisits and reinvents, what's something you won't ever do?
Wilfeard: Any song that has a breakdown where everyone is clapping in front of the stage. I f***ing hate that.
Koch: And f*** writing a pop song just for the sake of writing a pop song.
I bet you could write a great pop tune.
Koch: I don't think we could if we wanted to.
OK then, what's something you'd like to do?
Wilfeard: I'd love to do a James Bond-style song with a full orchestra; bring the whole RPO in and play it at Monty's.
Depending on who you ask — or when you ask the question — you'll get a variety of explanations of what the Sound ExChange Project really is: A local contemporary classical ensemble; a chamber group; an artist collective; composers; curators; educators; community-investors.