Faster Than Sound: All Is New for Photokem, Freshly Graduated and Buzz Cut
On the senior-year making of inquisitive debut EP Luffon Bright
Following recent pandemic years dispersing collegiate culture, there's a surprising comfort in visiting the headquarters of a twentysomething band in a sleepy corner of West Campus.
Photokem originated from the light blue 1920s Craftsman, the type of big house you remember after a party. The tasteful clutter is immaculate boyish excellence – a poster of Seventies Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail above the toilet, a basketball idling by the front door, an immobile Nineties Ford model painted bright yellow out back. There's half-eaten strawberry cake on the kitchen counter and a roommate cooking asparagus under the updated cabinetry.
This all seems totally ideal, until the stifling reality of life without central air sets into the sunroom. There, instrumentalists Nico Fennell and Jack Kelly explain how they began the recordings that would evolve into Photokem two years ago, upstairs. They'd later recruit non-roommates Nana Acheampong – never before a vocalist – and Evan Ryckebusch, a novice bassist they asked to instead revive his high school cello playing.
All four just graduated from UT-Austin in the spring and don't have specific answers for after-undergrad plans. May also delivered the band's debut EP, Luffon Bright, an impressively distinct interplay of contemplative post-rock and inquisitive orchestral emotion, with Acheampong's deep spoken baritone as the guiding element.
"It's a weird time to go out into the world, I feel like," offers Dallas native Ryckebusch in mid-June, commenting on how no one had committed to a fall lease yet.
How's everyone else feeling in these hallucinatory hot, semi-salad days?
Fennel: "It feels nice to not have an institutional commitment, having to be somewhere."
Acheampong: "We're reading a lot of young men books, like Yukio Mishima, trying to figure out who we are and stuff. We're in info-gathering mode right [now]. It's so transitional, like outside grilling shirtless and shit."
Kelly: "Taking notes on Sun and Steel. Optimistic and loose."
They've only been Photokem for about a year, debuting with Bandcamp demos last June and borrowing their name from a box labeled "photo chemicals." No one except Fennell had ever been in a band before, and they've only been playing shows post-pandemic, acquiring a retired Spider House Ballroom sign hanging in the backyard. There's also tufts of hair on the ground, all sporting matching post-grad buzz cuts, besides Ryckebusch.
Fennell is an English major from Pittsburgh and Kelly a film major from L.A. Their recording experiments solidified with the addition of Acheampong, a journalism major who says no one had ever pointed out his remarkably deep voice before Photokem. His friends had read his writing in BlackPrint, a revival of a Seventies-founded UT publication, where aspiring documentarian Acheampong also made videos profiling Black students.
When Fennel trails off describing that voice, Acheampong drolly suggests the adjectives "distinct" and "dignified." So low and subtly sarcastic, it makes you lean in to catch the nuances between words. Though never before a musician, Acheampong did perform for poetry club during high school.
Back then, he remembers turning off the lights and listening to Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to write. On his early poetry, Acheampong summarizes: "Just bad. It was about my dad. It was about home." He and his mother moved to Houston from Ghana in 2012 to join his father, who drives a truck for Coke. The 13-year-old's American expectations were based on Disney Channel and bootlegged movies.
"I had this weird complex that I knew more about American things than American people," says Acheampong. "Over time, I learned that 'damn, I've got a lot to get accustomed to.' I had a flip phone. I was getting made fun of a little bit."
The songwriter's upbringing is a palpable presence on Luffon Bright, with lyrics remembering internet cafes and family scenes upping the intensity on the group's emo and folk leanings. He cites reclusive rapper Mach-Hommy and Gil Scott-Heron as inspirations for his current open practice. Like the "Hard Candy" line – "I miss you too/ But I'm a pain to be beside right now" – which arrived while watching a movie and solidified after hearing a friend's mom describe talking to her husband after surgery.
"A lot of stuff is designed around how I'm not the greatest communicator, coming down to my voice and inflections and the way I actually talk," says the vocalist. "That's a big theme for me, and connecting that to how I feel about the people in my life, like my family, my mom, all that."
Producer Fennell says "Hard Candy" helped angle the group's spacious, textured sound. For the band's integration of instrumental breaks, he loves the Eighties jazz eclecticism of the Lounge Lizards, particularly "the way the instrumentation feels like individual pieces off on their own plane, but the cacophony of it harmonizes well.
"As we played 'Hard Candy' live, we understood how we wanted a lot more rises and dynamics – trying to go for very large emotional moments," says Fennell. "That one song helped us find how we like to rise and fall."
Alongside Ryckebusch's cello, collaborator Leah Blom handles mournful violin parts throughout Luffon Bright. To achieve multiple planes, the group mostly recorded on mics handmade by Ryckebusch's father, otherwise used to record movie sounds like chirping birds. Fennel describes the sonics alongside the album cover, shot by Blom on a macro lens to emulate an otherworldly science textbook.
"We took a long time making sure that cover matched the aesthetics of the music: everything very clean-cut, with as much depth as possible," he says. "Mixingwise, we wanted something that sounded like it had a lot of three-dimensional space – naturalistic, but in kind of a strange way. We kept thinking of a time lapse of this strange, alien plant growing."
Kelly adds: "We went to 99 Ranch and just bought a bunch of plants we thought looked like they could be parts of other plants, wood ears and green onions, and then assembled it with toothpicks and glue."
The band didn't hear all the parts played in the same room until rehearsals for a May release show at the Ballroom, cramming 11 players into the living room to form the Neworldeli Orchestra. Their last gig, in early June at Hole in the Wall, cut the total down to six – requiring some compositional switch-ups to cover Luffon Bright's expanse. Afterward, lineup mate More Eaze (aka Austin's Mari Maurice) tweeted out a ringing endorsement, encyclopedically describing Photokem as "like some dream combo of Dean Blunt, Bill Callahan/Smog, Lambchop, and American Football."
In the sunroom, I informed the band that How to Dress Well's Tom Krell had responded, considering "asking them to be my live band for my next record." Photokem hadn't seen this and were pretty chuffed about a nod from a naturally recognized act, who they've since DM'd with. They also particularly liked Maurice's Dean Blunt comparison.
For the summer's remainder, filmmaker Kelly wraps up a music video. Acheampong wants to maybe play a house show to break out a cover of Drake's "Over." Riding the momentum of the stripped-down recent show, Fennell envisions further-simplified parts for a drumless, full-on folk Photokem set.
"That'd be cool, and give me something to do after college," he says.