P-1's Box of Surprises
Chicago/NYC's P-1 would rather let their songs define them than any one style, which is probably necessary considering the cross-pollination of influences and sound incorporated in their mix. And his refusal to be pigeonholed might just be the thing that expands their audiences even further as they release their second album.
In the yet-to-be-corporatized neighborhood of Manhattan's Lower East Side stands the Pink Pony, a French café/bistro-cum-refuge for artists and writers. The music of Miles Davis, the Shirelles, the Doors, St. Germain, and Prince wafts above the bread and wine, appealing to the taste of just about anyone who walks through the door. This type of eclecticism also informs the music of P-1. Steve Perry is blasting from the speakers when Beth-Anne Arentsen, lead singer of P-1, walks into the Pink Pony on a balmy August evening, eager to discuss P-1's new album, Power.
Before continuing any further, you might wonder, "What/who is P-1 and why should I care?" P-1 is a cross-genre "groove" band based in both Chicago and New York City. Three multi-instrumentalists form the core of the band, and an extended family of other musicians embellish their grooves on recordings and in concert. Just below the radar of mainstream, P-1 is about to rise from the underground with their second album, Power. Melding jazz, house, Latin, reggae, and pop, the band members know no boundaries, and it is this quality that makes P-1 a band to watch.
The seeds of P-1 were planted in Pelvic Delta, a group of Chicago musicians who jammed, primarily, on funk and jazz. When the lead vocalist fled to pursue other projects, guitarist Steve Butler and bassist Tim Deuchler were without a singer. Pelvic Delta's manager, Hillel Frankel, discovered Beth-Anne Arentsen at the 2002 South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Liking what he heard, Frankel flew Arentsen to Chicago for an improv gig at the Elbow Room with the remaining members of Pelvic Delta. Within months, Pelvic Delta became P-1, recording their first album with Arentsen on board.
Back to the Pink Pony... Beth-Anne, known to P-1 fans as "B.A.", is the dynamic personality who not only fronts the band, but co-writes all original material, plays piano on the tracks, and lends her versatile voice to the melodies. She is also refreshingly down to earth. In describing how P-1 came together, B.A. still seems awestruck by the synergy of talent of which she's a part. Citing her extensive writing with guitarist Steve Butler on the first album, Step (2004), B.A. recalls, "I was blown away by our chemistry. Steve also had a voice as lead producer on that album, and I was excited to take that trip with him. I’d never been in a collaborative situation where I actually surrendered a lot of artistry to a different person to see what we could come up with.
"I went in as a pop writer to a band that was very much about extended jams and improvisation. I was very 'verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus', so my contribution was directing the band towards pop." Indeed, the music on Step is an urbane hybrid of B.A.'s pop-based melodies and Butler's down-tempo, atmospheric grooves. Step garnered regional acclaim: remixes of B.A.’s ode to romantic escapism, "Vespa", echoed through Chicago clubs and on satellite radio, "P-1 Groove" went to #1 on jazz radio in Chicago and Washington DC, and the title track was spun in heavy rotation on CD101.9 in New York City. To support the album, P-1 made a high profile appearance at Symphony Center in Chicago for New Year's Eve, played the Chicago Gay Games, and opened for jazz legend Roy Ayers on Long Island.
Even with extensive touring, P-1 faced challenges penetrating markets outside of major metropolitan regions. "We ran out financial gas to really work those (other) markets," explains B.A. "We spent a lot energy touring in markets that I don’t think really embraced us. We spent a lot time thinking about what we're going to do instead of just doing it." The band went on hiatus to regroup and decide how to proceed for a second album.
During the intervening years between Step and Power, the members of P-1 wrote a wealth of material and auditioned producers to test different styles on their songs. Phoning in from Chicago, Steve Butler summarizes P-1's mindset about creating Power: "The challenge of every record is to not only have an artistically sound album, but also being able to appeal to radio and the masses. This is not our debut album, but a lot of people are going to see this as our debut album. We have a much bigger platform right now, so we wanted to have stuff that's a little more pop, a little more ready for radio." Save for three tracks, Butler took a back seat to producing Power and focused more on creating the beats that inspired B.A.'s lyrics.
With producers such as the Insomniax and Vince Lawrence enlisted for production duty, Power is a pastiche of sounds. Only one track, the laid back "chill" of "Easy in Love" (featuring Roy Haynes on trumpet), fits the sonic template employed for Step. Elsewhere, reggae, house, Latin, and dramatic pop songs hold court. "It's hard to place us or compare us to anything that's currently out there," stresses Butler. "If you like Portishead, you'll like P-1. If you listen to a little bit of Scissor Sisters, you'll dig P-1. Even if you like Pat Benatar, you'll like P-1," Butler adds, laughing. The Benatar reference is sincere. During the band's many appearances at the Wild Hair, the premier reggae club in Chicago, they cross-pollinated Pat Benatar's 1983 hit "Love Is a Battlefield" with reggae rhythms. That fusion now appears on Power, along with a cover of Bob Marley's "So Much Trouble in the World". About the two covers, B.A. says succinctly, with just the right amount of understatement, "We don't want to be pigeonholed."
One of the first songs written and recorded for Power was "Wisteria", the album's centerpiece. Written by Butler and B.A., the track features a buoyant deep-house groove buoyed by Decuhler's bass and master flautist Steve Eisen. B.A. explains the genesis for the song: "It came from a jam rehearsal. Then Steve sent me the track. I wrote something that isn't really sensical, about flowers growing and buildings coming alive like a fast action video." To this listener's ears, it's the summer jam you can spin all year round.
In fact, the BPM count is noticeably higher on Power than on Step, which is not entirely by accident, given the club success of "Vespa". Tracks like "Digital Lover" and "Morning Rush" are Queer as Folk-ready, while "Fairytale" is the stylistic cousin to "Wisteria". Yet each song's skeleton could be dressed in any style. "We just choose the styles we like the best in rehearsals," says B.A.
No matter the style, what is important to the band is that listeners experience the album on more than just a casual level. "I want listeners to feel that they've actually gone on a journey, to really listen to the stories and have a real emotional experience," says B.A. "I can't force people to have a reaction, but I want them to take away that this band is really sincere about the music." The Eric Yoder-produced "Boy", for example, begins "The boy across the street is a neo-Nazi". A song about the shame that shapes cruelty, "Boy" strays from the band's beat-driven approach to songs in favor of highlighting B.A.'s flair for piano-accompanied storytelling.
What a listener carries with them after listening to Power is that P-1 is a band well-versed in numerous styles. P-1 wants you to have as good a time listening as they did making the music. Steve Butler comments, "I hope old fans will see this record as a box of new surprises. New fans will see it as a great debut album. If they like this, it will give us the latitude to go in different directions." Among the new fans are Chris Botti, who gave "Easy in Love" pre-release praise, Perez Hilton, who laid a mean rap on "Ladrona", and the music supervisors of Trust the Man, who featured "Wisteria" in the film.
As B.A. and I end our conversation at the Pink Pony, B.A. smiles radiantly thinking about all the different opportunities Power could bring P-1. Power is ready for radio, ready for the club, ready for the road, ready for your car stereo, ready for your iPod. P-1 is ready to take the musical world by storm.