It Takes Two: Philly jazz punks Writhing Squares up their game on Out of the Ether, share their favorite duos
Two piece rock bands are kind of the redheaded stepchildren of the scene. They’re treated as an anomaly and a freakish one at that. It’s part of the reason why events like Two Piece Fest, which is coming up at the end of the month, have thrived. There’s a community there, a familiarity and solidarity even among bands that have seemingly nothing in common but their number of members.
Some two-piece bands are formed out of a sense of desperation – they can’t find a third member or somebody quits and they decide to just make a go at it – and others from a drive towards innovation. The word ‘experimental’ gets bandied about a lot when talking about duos, even when they’re playing utterly straightforward music. Still, there’s something to be said for the power of pushing the boundaries of what just two people can create.
If you want to see a prime example of that look no further than Philly two piece Writhing Squares and their sound that’s at the midpoint between prog, pysch, jazz, and punk. Their latest album Out of the Ether was just released on Trouble In Mind Records and they’re playing a record release show tonight at Kung Fu Necktie with Sparrow Steeple and Headroom.
The fact that neither Kevin Nickles or his bandmate Daniel Provenzano play drums wasn’t a deterrent when they decided to start Writhing Squares more than five years ago. Nickles plays sax and flute in the band and Provenzano is on bass. The two have been friends since they were teenagers growing up out in the far outskirts of the Lehigh Valley and have been in bands together for just as long.
“We started this thing because we wanted to make music together,” Provenzano told The Key. “We have a lot of shared interests and we’ve been playing together in other bands and other forms for years and years and years. We were, like, ‘Let’s try something with just the two of us.’ We figured that bass and sax is enough for a band.”
He’s right. While two piece bands can sometimes feel a bit hollow, like they’re missing something, Writhing Squares never do. In fact, the opposite is true: their sound, bolstered with keys and a steady drum machine beat, is rich and booming.
The band’s influences are wide-ranging, from King Crimson to Hawkwind to Suicide to Neil Young to a huge swath of jazz and punk, and it comes out full-force in their music. It’s trippy, weird, and at times abrasive stuff but it’s also very, very catchy and fun to listen to, something that seems appropriate for a band that’s been on both local label Siltbreeze and now Chicago’s Trouble In Mind. “Philly has a really strong tradition of weird experimental and DIY [music],” Provenzano said. “I think people are very open and supportive.”
While the songs don’t feel stripped-down in any way, despite the lack of guitar and analog drums, they’re also not trying to hide the fact that there’s only two people making this racket. Asked about the new album, Provenzano referred to it as “more focused” than previous output. Nickles agreed, saying that while in the past they’ve tried to sound like a “full band,” on the new one the thinking was, “Let’s try to make it more like it’s just the drum machine and us.”
While being in a two piece might mean a lot more work for each member, it also means that they have an equal share of the decision making process. According to Nickles that division of labor can be heard strongly in the music of Writhing Squares: “There’s a little more room to express yourself, especially when we solo and things like that. There’s more room for us to reach out.”
The same holds true for Provenzano, who added that he likes the minimal member format because it allows more control over what’s going on in the band. “I have a very critical ear and I always nitpick shit,” he told The Key. “I’m always listening to bands that have one too many guitarists and I’m [thinking], ‘They don’t really need to be there, do they?’ So by having less than we probably need, we always know that we’re not overdoing it. There’s nothing unnecessary, nothing superfluous.”
Both Provenzano and Nickles know how to play and write for keyboards and bass. Not surprisingly, the two share songwriting duties. “It’s pretty much straight down the middle,” Nickles said. “It’s not really one person in charge.”
While the usual Writhing Squares modus operandi is that one of them will bring an idea to the other and they’ll figure out how to turn it into a song, that went out the window on the 20 minute long “A Whole New Jupiter,” the final track of Out of the Ether. Asked about the process of putting together something that’s longer than all the other songs on the record combined, Nickles explained that, “We were working on a song and it wasn’t coming together but we had a cool drum beat. So Dan just started jamming something on bass and I started jamming a key line and that was the basis for it. We kept on coming up with ideas and we recorded probably a few hours worth of material and then edited it down together into a song.”
While writing and performing the song has been fun, Provenzano was quick to stress that, “We don’t want to be a jam band, we always want to have songs.” That begs the question of how one goes about defining something like Writhing Squares that defies genre and at times description. The two laughed when asked for their standard answer. “If you’re trying to explain it to your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner I’d probably just say an experimental punk jazz band,” Nickles told The Key, while Provenzano countered: “I would say it’s ‘Two nerdy kids who really like prog rock, old jazz, and weird old music who are trying to make rock music with a drum machine and a bass and a sax.’ I’d just call it what it is.”
“True two pieces are hard to come by,” according to Provenzano. “They’re hard to do.” With that in mind, we asked Writhing Squares for their favorite duos, and here are their selections:
* Tears for Fears – The classic British new wave-influenced rock band has been going strong for almost four decades. While a handful of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s songs were huge hits, basically everything they ever put out has been fantastic.
* Simon and Garfunkel – For a couple of seemingly shy and nebbish folkies from Queens, it’s amazing the influence Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had on rewriting music and influencing culture.
* HIRS – Philadelphia two-person queer powerhouse punk band that recently put out an album with guests including members of Against Me!, Screaming Females, and Garbage. Truly one of the most amazing acts this city has ever produced. Writhing Squares shared a stage with them at Two Piece Fest in 2017.
* Darsombra – This Baltimore duo write tunes that are just as much meditation as they are music. Proudly out there in the ether, the band makes “trans-apocalyptic galaxy rock” with guitars, bass, keys, and gongs. As you might imagine, seeing them is an experience everyone should have at least once.
* Big Business – One part Karp, one part Murder City Devils, all trouble. Big Business started as a duo 15 years ago. While they’ve added occasional guest guitarists since then the core has remained Jared Warren and Coady Willis. Their new album The Beast You Are is coming out in April on Joyful Noise.
* Dos – Dos is Mike Watt from the Minutemen and Kira Roessler from Black Flag. They both play bass and sing and it’s about as amazing as you might imagine! Writhing Squares’ bassist Provenzano said, “I love that stuff.”
* Jim Hall and Bill Evans – Pianist Evans and guitarist Hall would collaborate on a couple albums, 1962’s Undercurrent and Intermodulation, released four years later. Both are absolutely brilliant examples of the beauty of simple, stripped down jazz. Or as Nickles put it: “That’s great, that’s good shit!”
* Xylouris White – George Xylouris is a lute player – technically speaking, he plays the laouto, which is a type of lute from his home in Greece – and Jim White is an Australian drummer known most famously for his work in the rock band Dirty Three. The music they create together is a mix of those backgrounds with a heady dose of free jazz and other noisy stuff. They’ll be playing at The Rotunda in April and you owe it to yourself to check it out.
* Suicide – Listening to Writhing Squares you can feel the influence of NYC new wavers Suicide on the band, especially when it comes to how both use repetitive drum machine beats as a sort of backbone to their songs. Nickles said, “That’s a solid, dynamic duo.” Can’t argue with that!
* Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe – If it’s two piece acts you’re seeking, this 1970’s free jazz duet literally put out an album called Duo Exchange. While the album – which Provenzano was excited to point out on Nickles’ record shelf – is considered to be a classic of the NYC scene, drummer Rashied Ali was born and raised in Philadelphia.