by Levi Parham
“Does anyone wanna hit this vape?” I solicit the room as I walk into a converted garage rehearsal space on the northeast side of downtown Tulsa occupied by the band Combsy. Combsy is a new music project from Chris Combs, a multifaceted Oklahoma musician, composer, and producer widely renowned for his work with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.
“Yeah, I’ll hit that vape”, speaks up Aaron Boehler, bass player and one fourth of the group, along with violinist and singer Olivia McGraw, drummer Josh Ramus, and instrumentalist Chris Combs. I funnel through the melange of keyboards, synthesizers, guitar amps, and drums to a small seating area in the center of the room where the band has gathered in a circle with a pre-roll the size of my thumb. Combs lights it up and passes it to me as I pass the vape to Boehler.
This motley crew of talented musicians – whose music fuses Jazz, Funk, Hip-Hop, Roots, Rock, and Experimental Noise into a jammy atmospheric, sometimes improvisational, feat of musicianship – only recently settled into the four piece they are now. Combs says, “The first year, year and a half or so there really wasn’t a band. It was just me booking dates first, then scrambling to see who I could get to play. Being in Tulsa, there’s a lot of really good musicians. And the great musicians, there’s a few of them. They’re all working all the time, so it’s a tricky dance. It comes down to you can either not play shows, or play shows and just do whatever you can to figure it out when it’s a little unrehearsed. So that’s kind of how it started, and then over the last eight months or so it solidified into a serious thing, where there are invested identities involved with each member and stuff like that.”
“Do you feel like now that you have that core group that you can do more, that you can push farther and develop ideas more?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely. Up until this last tour we did really, I felt like the best shows we had were when we could just pull it off. Like, ‘Oh shit, we made it through it! Wow!’ So now, this is like the very first time we can say, ‘Okay now we can actually play the songs. So how do we catch up to the potential that we have?’ It’s really exciting.”
In one way the band is utilizing their potential by connecting the long admired, yet growing Tulsa music scene with the deep history of the New Orleans music scene. “I’ve done some residencies in New Orleans and have connections down there. There have been just a few Combsy-oriented shows down there before, but these upcoming shows are going to be, I feel like, the first real shows as Combsy. But yeah, we’re sort of on the front end of that whole New Orleans thing. Takes a little to break into it.”
“Is the New Orleans scene more traditional, Jazz and Blues oriented stuff, or is it the more experimental fusion type stuff that is kind of in the vein of Combsy?”
“Strangely, New Orleans is like one of the last places where like the traditional shit and the really experimental, ground-breaking shit are like literally side by side. And it’s like that in Tulsa a lot. I
mean, for real. There are things that happen at like The Colony in Tulsa on Sunday nights, and then Spotted Cat on Frenchmen St in New Orleans, where it’s like a lot of really traditional stuff in the beginning of the evening, and then it gets crazier as the night goes on. So, I do think there’s some strange similarities between what’s going on in Tulsa and in New Orleans. In Tulsa, we have our roots but everyone is still reaching and writing new shit and goin’ for it and kind of swingin’ for the fences, while still grounded at the same time. That’s a big part of what’s going on in New Orleans too, where like one musician will play on a trad gig, then a blues gig, and then like a noise gig. They’re all over the place playing everything.”
Keeping his roots in tradition, Combs says, is what gives him the intention he needs when experimenting with tonality and noise to build a musical landscape that – as Combs stated in one past interview – ‘swirls’ into a finished product. “It definitely starts with intention. As broad as that might seem, but just doing something for a reason. I’ve had some people come up and be like ‘Oh that shit you guys are playing is so weird’ or like ‘Oh man that’s some weird shit’. Which it can be strange, I’ll admit, but it’s never weird for the sake of being weird. It’s not off the wall or purposely chaotic.”
“Oh there’s some structure there”, chimes in Aaron Boehler. Boehler is an accomplished bass player and has worked for many highly regarded artists, such as John Moreland – with whom he performed on the daytime television show CBS Sunday Morning. Boehler says “This is my shit” when speaking of performing in Combsy. “Now that the members of the band have been established, and we’re hitting the sets, we’re comfortable. It’s just nice to get to that point to where you’re not worried about what you’re playing, you’re just playing. It’s eyes up, worry free. That’s when it gets dope.”
“I think that’s great, that’s really great, I mean….Umm… I got so high I forgot what we were talking about.” As Boehler finishes describing getting lost in song, I confess to the group I’m lost in the conversation. We all laugh.
“It’s some good stuff, huh?” giggles Olivia McGraw, whose mystic lyrics, unearthly singing, and spacious violin add a whole new layer of depth to the band’s new cache of songs. Their newest single, Fell Through – available on Spotify, features this latest arrangement of the band’s sound, though the songs on their first record [self-titled] featured a much different mix and were all instrumental. “Man, it’s been so long since I’ve had any “parts” it seems like, in terms of the old songs. It’s been so open to interpretation now for so long that it feels like I’ve created my own parts to them. But it changes a little bit every time. Every performance is like a snowflake, I think.”
As the joint makes its way to the ashtray, I pull myself together to ask the band my next question. “Where does Cannabis come into play for making music in Combsy?”
“Yeah, a lot of times, it gets the gears turning.” says Combs.
Olivia agrees, “It definitely gets the creativity flowing.” “It KEEPS the gears turning.” grins Boehler.
“It does man. I mean, creatively, it is really like a performance enhancing drug in a lot of ways. It’s like, dude do you want that extra four hours? When you’re performing and you’re feeling spent, it can really get you through and keep you in the music. It’s what our musical heroes all did for the past hundred years. But then, to me at least, it never feels essential, like it’s this cornerstone to the music or anything, but it is still like a big part of the process.” says Combs.
“Like a protein bar, specifically made for music.” jokes Olivia.
For a group that experiments a lot live with improvisation, using Cannabis can be a great tool for keeping up their musical stamina. Still, I’m curious where the core of the songs come from and where that process starts. Combs explains, “I think it depends on what we’re feeling at the moment. There’s a lot of stuff that comes together during rehearsal. There’s a lot of stuff that comes together from what I’m currently bored with. Which is like, sometimes it’s fun to play guitar, sometimes it’s fun to play with computer stuff, sometimes it’s fun to play with synthesizers. There’s definitely a selfishness in my personal process where’s it’s like, what do I want to do today? I’m recording all of it all of the time, so luckily some of those things can fall together to be something meaningful. But I think part of it is maybe a bit selfish.”
“It doesn’t seem selfish, it just seems like you’re waking up every day just like ‘What’s the dopest thing I can make right now?’ reassures Olivia.
Combs continues, “I guess it’s kind of tricky because the most important part to anything is like the last 10% of what happens. It’s pretty easy to get 80% where you’re going on anything. But the shit that takes it to the next level really does happen in that last 10% during rehearsal.”
As the band puts the icing on the cake during the final stages of songwriting in the rehearsal room, it’s Combs’ industry savvy and motivation that has brought the band to the next stages of their careers. Recently, the band signed with Hoplite Booking Agency based out of Vermont. The agency caters to bands like Combsy and have a long history of working with top names in the genre. “I was aware of Hoplite through bands on their roster who I’ve liked. The guy who runs it is this guy named Tom Baggott. He’s been in the industry for like 30 years and he’s been a major player for a lot of these bands in the earlier parts of their careers. Bands that have a similar trajectory as ours. And that’s the thing that he’s really into is finding developing bands. Some of the bands that he’s worked with in the past that are now filling 3k cap rooms, we would be a perfect opener for them. I mean, I probably hit up like 50 other agencies before landing with this one, and it’s really a great fit for us right now.”
“So does that mean full time on the road for you guys?”
“Yeah, I mean, we’re not going to start doing like 20 dates a month right away. Our whole thing is we want to do intentional, smart shit. We want to do the right thing, make the right move over and over again for as long as we can. I’ve done the thing where I’m out on the road for eight months of the year, and it’s hard to keep that up for more than five years. I know there are bands out there that do it, but we’re really trying to find that balance of keeping ourselves healthy, keeping ourselves happy, and making sure we’re moving forward and upward.”
“And keeping that excitement ” adds Boehler.
The band is poised for plenty of forward movement this year, with a full calendar and plenty of Oklahoma grown cannabis to keep the gears and wheels turning. To see the band live or to hear their latest music to go combsymusic.com