Found in the Ground
Winging it with Mother Falcon
Outside at Mohawk, the Friday night crowd swells to fill the open areas; there's plenty of room left, but the upper deck railings are lined, and the dance floor is a sea of bobbing heads. Crowds in both areas double before the night is out.
The Octopus Project headlines with Tia Carrera in the middle, which means the early crowd is in attendance for the opening act, Mother Falcon, the ambitious orchestral pop collective tagged in Austin's high school orchestras and released into colleges and universities across the country. Dressed in black, a mishmash of materials from tees and long-sleeve button-downs to strapless satin, the musicians ease their strings, percussion, reeds, and brass in a drone that quickly funnels into a diaphanous whirl.
Under darkening skies the motif to "Her Radiant Limb" emerges. This is the arrangement from the group's Austin Music Awards performance during South by Southwest this year, the mass introduction to Austin and the world beyond that Mother Falcon had practiced for two years.
"I was found in the ground while you were listening."
The lyrics of "Her Radiant Limb" spiral upward as Nick Gregg's tenor soars amid the poignant swell of strings. The spring release of the band's five-song EP, Still Life (see "Texas Platters," April 9), carved a niche on a crag of the mountain of potential. Mother Falcon has distinguished itself as the local purveyor of chamber pop and yes, perhaps more.
That's never enough, to be full of promise. You have to go to the source. The capital of Texas remains a music sanctuary, with freedom of prayer, where the faithful come to intone their country, their blues, their rock, their songs to the great rhythmic gods of the Lone Star State.
Practice, Practice, Practice
If you're a local musician living in Austin anytime in the last five decades, you know this residence: the East Austin rent house.
You lived there or your friends did or maybe you went to parties there. It's the kind of house that invokes nostalgia once your friends and contemporaries own suburban houses or reside long-term in Downtown condos. In the East Austin rent house, its wooden floors, cubbyholes, and compact layout are instantly familiar, updated here and there, painted over for the hundredth time. If you're there today, it's good with you. It's affordable, and the neighbors are cool when your band practices.
This unprepossessing house in a cul-de-sac off Airport Boulevard has a history, years of students, young couples, roommates, and probably families at the neighborhood's early inception. Its hand-me-down ambience feels familiar. Just like in 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000, there's an American flag decorating one wall. Almost assuredly there's another musician or three in the house's past, probably a band, but for the moment its monthly demands lie in the hands of Mother Falcon's Tamir Kalifa. And today is band practice.
That's no easy chore, rounding up shifting members. It often falls on violinist Yun Du to coordinate, but he's out of town and not playing the Mohawk. Crammed into the living room and spilling into the hall and kitchen are 14 classical musicians, their instruments, their cases, and a few bystanders. The strings are huddled by the front door; percussion and horns stand over the couch. Gregg is in the corner at the piano, singing and directing like a conductor.
The current roster for Mother Falcon is worthy of concert notes: Laura Andrade (cello), Rita Andrade (viola), Diana Burgess (cello), Kira Bordelon (violin), Clara Brill (violin), Nick Calvin (cello), Maurice Chammah (violin), Yun Du (violin), Nick Gregg (cello, vocals, guitar, mandolin, piano), Austin Harris (violin), Tamir Kalifa (accordion, vocals, piano, bouzouki), Matt Krolick (trumpet), Gilman Lykken (bassoon), Josh Newburger (violin), Claire Puckett (guitar, vocals, trumpet, bouzouki), Matt Puckett (saxophone, vocals, glockenspiel, piano), Luke Stence (bass), and Isaac Winburne (drums, saxophone, piano).
The Falcons find an organic connection with one another amid diverse schedules, and that keeps the ever-shifting lineup balanced. This summer the group works without Clara Brill, Nick Calvin, and Maurice Chammah, who return to the nest in the fall, at which point Gilman Lykken, Josh Newburger, and Luke Stence leave for such colleges as Northwestern and Julliard. The demands of school, jobs, and everyday life compete with practice, a lengthy process requiring chunks of rehearsal time on each song.
That connection extends into the community of peers. Mother Falcon recently scored the soundtrack for local theatre piece re:Psyche and works closely with fellow wunderkind Speak. Gregg, Chammah, and Rita Andrade performed in the modern classical Red Armada Quartet and recorded Red Armada Quartet Plays the Music of Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds, with whom they've collaborated.
Mother Falcon has a party offshoot, too – Sip Sip, which Gregg calls "the crazy dark side, the tasteless and tasteful." Chammah moonlights with Oikos, Burgess plucks with the Apple Trio, Claire Puckett works with Patches, Stence has his own DJ group, and Newburger and Winburne play gypsy music. Matt Puckett made an early career with such indie rock bands as the Jimmies. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
As with a choir or gospel group, it's never the one voice but the many. The sum is greater than the whole, but the parts are exceptional individually. Some are siblings; some have known each other since they were babies. There are two Matts, two Nicks, a Claire, and a Clara. Some are classmates; some attend rival schools; all are orchestra graduates.
"It really helps that everyone is classically trained," suggests native Austinite Claire Puckett, 19, whose vocal and classical guitar duties often place her in the spotlight. "It's not as chaotic as other bands. There's a lot more focus when we rehearse. We're thinking about what we're doing right now. We're not hanging out. We do that too, but when we're working on music, that's what we're doing.
"Mother Falcon is really collaborative. We get ideas from 14 different people so it's always something different. With solo stuff, it's hard to keep yourself out of a rut in terms of style when your songs start sounding the same, but with Mother Falcon, it's always something new. Nick [Gregg] is really enthusiastic. If he has an idea, he'll push it. You can see he has all these ideas in his head waiting to come out."
Watching Gregg lead rehearsal bears out the younger Puckett's observation. He's at the piano, playing and singing, head turned to watch as much of the band as possible and an ear cocked to listen while giving direction. With a face chiseled in strong planes and great personal charisma, he would fit right in with an indie rock band – the "old old Mother Falcon" was an electric aggregation for a 2008 high school battle of the bands – but here in the crush of wood and metal, he's in his element.
"None of our goals was to make a huge band, and all our friends play strings," he says. "That's another reason the band started. I was in orchestra, and there's not much emphasis on improv. We'll play a lot of pop, and we'll play Paganini, but you make an interpretation; you don't make your own song. I started picking kids in orchestra who weren't afraid of jamming and got into it – and some are afraid of jamming."
Not afraid of jamming were Italo Benavides and Nick Calvin. The two jammed with Gregg between breaks during orchestra at Westlake High School and found it liberating. The bandleader remembers it well.
"We picked up the cellos and wrote 'Tokyo Rose,' and when we did that, it started catching on, and we knew we had something here," he says. "It's been a crazy ride."
The second version of Mother Falcon – and the first to perform orchestrally – was a fourpiece (Gregg, Benavides, Calvin, and Harris) and destined to not stay that way, especially when Gregg took leave to go halfway around the world. Their quartet was promising, like a younger, testosterone-driven Tosca String Quartet, but too small for Gregg's vision.
"I was playing in Code Rainbow with Fabi Reyna," Claire recalls. "Mother Falcon played a show at the same place we were. Back then, they were four cello players. We started talking because Nick was going to China, and they needed a singer to fill in. So I did.
"When he came back, I decided to stick around."
Giant Divine Light
"I knew my ticket into a band was not going to be through guitar."
Tamir Kalifa is blunt about his decision to avoid the six-stringed instrument. At 20, he's one of the few Falcons not hatched locally. He graduated from high school in Maryland before heading to Austin to attend the University of Texas as a film major. In between, a trip to Eastern Europe connected him to the Lone Star State.
"I found an accordion sitting in a market on the outskirts of Prague, and this giant divine light shined on it, and I said, 'I need to learn how to play this.' When I moved to UT, for an extra buck or two I would go out to the Drag and busk and play music I wrote. One day, Nick came along wheeling his cello on one wheel because the other was broken.
"He was like, 'Hey, you're really good.'
"A month passed, and I ran into him at a cafe. He said, 'Hey, we're doing a recording.' We didn't realize we had mutual friends in bands I knew in Prague from Austin. Then, I finally met them at a party, and they were like, 'You should join the band.' I went to a rehearsal and ...."
And Kalifa had his first experience with Austin's own giant divine light, the one that has for decades made this town a shining destination for creative expression and exchange of ideas. It was his Excalibur moment. The bond with Mother Falcon was complete.
Yet for all the rosy future and open vistas ahead, the band members are but babes in the woods with no experience fighting industry dragons. They do their own booking and hiring and are self-managed. They have some counsel but are ripe for a savvy soul to chart their flight path. It's a naivete both charming and maybe a little alarming until Claire's older brother, Matt Puckett, speaks up.
At 23, Matt Puckett is the old man of Mother Falcon. He's carved a respectable career in the Jimmies and played the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lollapalooza, and that's come in handy when rejecting contracts for Mother Falcon.
"They were recording Still Life, and I figured I'd help out a little bit and accidentally joined the band," he chuckles. "I kept helping out, doing one thing or another, and eventually I had played five gigs and was helping produce the EP. All of a sudden, I was in the band. Most of the band members are really, really good at a couple of instruments. I decided to be good at a whole lot of instruments.
"One of the reasons I stick with them is they do surprise me. It's the opposite of an ego-based, covering-our-own-backs kind of band. No one's watching their own back – everyone watches out for each other. There's so much creative output and support of the musicians around us. It makes me really happy to be in that position."
For Gregg, nothing takes the place of the giant divine light of music.
"We've gotten lucky. The instrumentation is the big point – there's not much orchestral pop out there. That gives us a lot of lenience, so we'll try anything from very orchestral to our new one, 'Pennies,' which is very jazzy, like old-time blues, but we try it all. Whatever sticks will stick.
"We believe in a string education, string players being not neglected but heralded. That's the main vision. We wanted power for the strings."
The Song Is the Arrangement
Outside at Mohawk, the delicate, rhythmic "Faint Green Light" – inspired by Gregg's reading The Great Gatsby – commands the band members to raise their voices in unison. Within the frame, Claire Puckett's profile is classic and alluring, outlined by silken hair feathered around her face. Kalifa's honey tenor is lingering over his Prague marketplace accordion. He's strikingly handsome onstage amid his attractive bandmates.
A beautiful sway exists in classical music like no other genre. It's angelic, cathartic, emotional, disturbing, arresting, soothing. Gregg is lost in its moment, caught in the colored stage lights, ever aware of Mother Falcon's flight path as it glides to a close with "Pennies." Strings swell with sensuous abandon, and Josh Newburger solos on violin with such poignancy that it threatens tears. When the roar of applause rises up to the skies at the end, Mother Falcon is one with the night.
"We're lucky that none of the band have great egos about themselves," Matt Puckett contends. "We arrange the music with Nick Gregg as the frontman, without a doubt. The rest of us don't get that attention because he's up front and people are watching him. However, people are responsible for their own parts.
"Much of what makes the song the song is the arrangement. In that sense, everyone is creatively invested. Everyone's ego is simultaneously massaged because everyone is responsible for what goes on.
"And we all know it."