NYC Band of the Week: Frances

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NYC Band of the Week: Frances

Borough: Brooklyn
Fun Fact: The group’s biggest gig this year occurred at Shea Stadium, where the sextet performed before the opening pitch of a Mets’ game.
Why They’re Worth Watching: Frances’ densely orchestrated chamber pop perfectly complements vocalist Paul Hogan’s indie-rock sensibilities in their debut LP, All the While.
For Fans Of: The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Ben Folds

An accurate description of the music made by the band known as Frances could fill a textbook. Speaking with all six members of the group-- guitarist Brian Betancourt, drummer Tclael Esparza, bassist Nick Anderson, vocalist/keyboarist Paul Hogam, melodica player Stephanie Skaff and violinist/vocalist Julia Tepper-- in a snug bar in downtown Williamsburg, I ask them to describe their new LP as a psychiatric subject would describe an ink blot test.

Here are the results:

Betancourt: The extremes are farther apart. It’s darker, there are more colors… there’s a fucking chamber orchestra on it.

Esparza: Our music isn’t as polite as chamber pop.

Anderson: Chamber pop certainly isn’t the point of the music-- it’s just the means of delivery.

Hogan: It’s like pop rock with chamber icing on top of it.

Anderson: (sarcastically) It’s just music, man.

Brief seconds pass as the band continues to verbally dissect the latest result of their two-year musical careers.

Esparza: You said it’s the dressing on top of the rock pop, but that’s how I feel about chamber pop. I feel like the orchestrations on our album grow in a more integrated direction out of the music itself-- it’s much more composed. Most chamber pop music just throws strings around.

Integrated directions, chamber-pop condiments, not chamber pop: Check. Esparaza’s explanation brings temporary resolve to this issue, which really has no clear answer if one actually listens to the album in question.

Frances' music curiously resembles the dialogue of its members: Tones and ideas intersect, converge, split and combine in conversational banter from the minds of very smart people. The result is intimidating in its sophistication, an algorithm of beats, melody and accompaniments layered carefully into the verse-chorus-verse grooves of pop formula.

The group's high-concept ambition isn’t surprising given its history. Frances began with an self-titled EP of “lost love songs”-- both ironically (or unironically) named after one of Hogan's old flames. He recorded the piece solo when he was a grad student studying musical composition at Columbia University (he now holds a PhD in the field) and from there, an ensemble of familiar faces and acquaintances formed around him to translate his efforts on a live stage.

Esparza was a fellow student at Columbia and a natural fit for a drummer, and melodica player Stephanie Skaff had moved to Brooklyn with Hogan after they both graduated from the University of Cincinnati. Betancourt had taken music classes from Hogan at Columbia (“He was awesome in that class. Only one of the ‘A+’s I gave”) and Anderson joined simultaneously. A jazz vocalist major at Manhattan’s New School, Julia Tepper completed the set with her violin and pristine vocals.

After joining with Gigantic Music and recording with producer Chris Zane (The White Rabbits, Calla), France’s nuanced approach cemented a rising trend in Brooklyn and Manhattan concert venues where they opened up for bands such as Nada Surf and The Walkmen in addition to their solo shows. In hindsight, the group recognizes that their appeal comes from their diversity, describing “the resultant depth and dynamic” as a “temporal thing.”

“Brian, from rock, and T, from playing jazz, are people who come up with really, really innovative notions in the moment,” Anderson explains. “Paul has another set of tools where he can take something home, come up with an orchestration he’ll have with woodwinds or a string quartet, then add that into the mix. It’s multidimensional.”

Though All the While was just released this month, half of the group’s live set already consists of new songs. And even after recording an album with contributions from his high school marching band and, yes, a chamber orchestra, Hogan and his instrumentalists are ready to go back into the studio. “I think I’m bringing in less and less completed tunes,” Hogan says. “That process of figuring out what we’re going to do and what we’re going to play is a 6-person ordeal.”

Related links
Frances on MySpace
Bill Joel adds second Shea Stadium gig