A Spiritual Experience: The origin story of Philly power trio Ill Fated Natives
Otheni Thompson, Joseph “Joey Stix” Pointer and Bets Charmelus, collectively known as Ill Fated Natives, have brought soul-stirring, genre-blending music to the Philadelphia scene since 2013.
Heat, sweat, and adrenaline are all three things in no short supply at one of their shows. Ill Fated Natives’ performances are practically religious experiences, and their sets are highly interactive. It is as if there is a sort of ceremonious exchange of energies between the audience and the band. Each party feeds and fuels the other.
Thompson refers to the band’s origin as a “tribal fire” that began when their previous quintet, And The Nameless, dissolved into three members. Although the collective is a small one, their chemistry was so tight that the music packed a heavy punch.
The sound the newly birthed band had lies somewhere in the crossroads of a black baptist church on a Sunday morning and Woodstock in ‘69, their most notable and obvious influences being the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Church was a significant influence for two thirds of Ill Fated Natives. For instance, Pointer was handed his first pair of drumsticks at the tender age of three – five years later he became the principal drummer of his congregation.
“Normally musicians from church play with a lot of motion because we’re playing for a greater purpose,” he explains. “Giving praise to someone greater than us. Still, every time I play my instrument I always recognize this.”
Similar to his bandmate, Bets got his start with bass guitar in the Haitian church seven years ago. Up until very recently, almost of of the music that he ever heard was religious music.
“I learned how to read music and general playing techniques from playing Haitian music and playing in the high school jazz band,” Charmelus says. “I only started listening to most genres of music about eight years ago. Before that, all I ever heard around the house was gospel music. Not contemporary, fun gospel, either. I’m talking about old school, Catholic style choir hymns.”
Thompson, lead vocalist and guitarist, was reared on hip-hop and roots reggae, and wasn’t really exposed to a wide breadth of music until his teenage years. The catalyst that caused him delve into other genres was when he received his first guitar eight years ago.
“I played the sax for a while in fifth grade but not enough to change me in a musical sense,” he says. “It wasn’t until getting a guitar at age 16 that I had the drive and tools to go and find the blues, jazz, and world music across all eras. So now I’m eight years years into an expansion that will last me the rest of my life.”
Thompson acts as lead vocalist and guitarist in the band, and though he did not grow up learning to play music in the church, his passion for the craft nevertheless stems from internally spiritual place.
“It’s an homage to an eon of lost culture and history,” Thompson says. “To tribal / natural communities all over the world who understood God and were usurped by those who didn’t. To ordinary people who want to live simple lives and are met with opposition they can’t even fathom.”
Reflecting on the band’s name, he adds “Only time will truly tell what it means for us…which meaning of the word ‘ill’ will hold true.”
When performing live, each member of Ill Fated Natives is a startling contrast from the others. Pointer drums as if he has a battery in his back. He jumps in and out of his seat, arms flailing, shirt long gone, his torso covered only in a film of glistening sweat. The rhythms he bangs out are tell-tale signs of his church boy roots.
When on stage Thompson is either in a trance-like, highly focused meditative state or a technical playground where he plucks bluesy riffs from his guitar in awkward positions such as behind his back or with his mouth. His musicianship is so passionate; it is almost sexual. His vocals are breathy and haunting, much like the late Hendrix.
To say that Charmelus is a mellow performer would be incorrect. The majority of his energy is transferred directly into his instrument. His no-frills showmanship allows the bass be the glue that holds together Ill Fated Natives’ sound. When the audience is drawn away by the Thompson’s electric guitar solos and Pointer’s pounding rhythm, Charmelus’ bass guitar creates the harmony and oneness that is Ill Fated Natives.
The band’s fan base is very eclectic. Their supporters range from hip-hop heads, to blues enthusiasts and indie rock proponents. The relationship that Ill Fated Natives has with their fans goes beyond the music but is founded on a natural akin of personalities and like-mindedness.
“We don’t maintain a typical fan-artist relationship,” says Charmelus. “Even the word ‘fandom’ is one I wouldn’t really use to describe the people who support us. We connect with a majority of the people who have seen and heard us play. Our music is very personal to us. When it’s exposed, people feel how organic it is and react with their own energy. That interaction holds way more weight and adds a level of intimacy that a typical fan/artist relationship doesn’t have.”
The bond with fans and supporters is strong, but the bond between these musicians goes significantly deeper.
“The best part about playing with these guys is just being able to be myself on stage and off the stage,” says Thompson. “These guys understand me as a drummer and as a person. It’s just something special when you can totally be yourself, your whole musical self, on the stage and at a show. People come up to us and say ‘the energy that you guys gave us so amazing’ or they say ‘oh my God I feel like I was just in a church service.’ Whatever it is, I know that this isn’t me by myself – it’s the team effort it’s everyone that’s playing on the stage with me.”
Ill Fated Natives’ first album, Savages, was released last year, and is available for download on their Bandcamp page. The group plans on releasing two separate projects in 2016 and hopes to go on tour over the summer.
“For me, the best part about playing together has been when people come up to us after a show and tell us they felt like they had a spiritual experience,” says Thompson. “A benevolent spiritual experience to me is priceless. So even if we never blow up or make any real money as ill Fated Natives, on the stage we are wealthy beyond all measure.”
Ill Fated Natives perform with Songhoy Blues at Arden Gild Hall on Friday, April 15th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.