It’s dark and lovely, it has a standoffish quality that is somehow endearing and inviting. Despite its malevolent penchant it somehow refers to the most comfortable room in the house.
It’s the Living Room and as much as it is ensconced in comfort it still manages to maintain its macabre. But we ain’t talking about haunted furniture here. No, we’re on about this city’s new seven-piece outfit called The Living Room, a band of calculated doom within its casual Gregorian waltz.
It all comes from the lyrical mind of the group’s mastermind up front, Eric Witkowski, a flippant, nonchalant cat who possesses a sense of humor tempered in disdain. And he and the remaining band members—Nia Shea, vocals, Amber McAlister, saxophone and vocals, Pete Manktelow, guitar, Greg Wilcox, bass, Jay Moon, drums and the band’s utility man, Frank Ashcraft, keys, vocals, triggers, and percussion—dish it out in overcast lyrical bursts. They skate the fine line between laid-back hyperbole and a profane truth a la Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds … maybe a wee bit lighter, I think.
This Rochester band has just launched its eponymous EP that’s a few clicks shy of the band’s mood on stage. It sounds folky like a wayward magical madrigal, which translates well on tunes like So Long Ago (With The Cats)” which taps into Gram Parsons territory before moving on to the hilarity of “Ugly Guys Are Good.”
The happy honky tonk of “The Hard Way” leads everyone to “Home,” just a plain ol’ sad song done right complete with barrelhouse piano sprinkled throughout.
But then we’re back to the lyrics. Draw the shades.
“I hate my family, I hate religion, and they both disturb me deeply,” Witkowski says as if someone provoked him with the question.
Usually, he keeps it secreted away with the rest of the evil, however. Even though the songs are strong, man, you don’t get beaten over the head.
Recently, The Living Room put on its first gig. For some members, it was a debut, a maiden voyage as members of a seven-piece ensemble. For others, the performance was even more foreboding. It was also singer Shea’s first show ever singing on stage. Period. She matched wits and balls with Witkowski with a gentle breathy bent to coincide with his baritone.
Wrangling seven souls on stage can be a chore. But The Living Room pulled it off effortlessly.
“I think it’s easier,” Ashcraft says. “You can rely on the others if you flub. It really doesn’t matter if there are six other parts working. The thing that’s hard is making it the sum of its parts. We might be playing some weird, off stuff with really dark sounds and treatment of the arrangements influences and you start to hear.”
It kind of sneaks up on the listener, this attraction to the splash of macabre. But it’s not a one-trick pony. According to Ashcraft, “sometimes there is a dark vibe to it, but other times there’s this kind of sultry feel.” Perhaps even more in proportion with the dark.
“And … sometimes,” says Shea, “they’re just standard break up and love songs.”
Witkowski and Wilcox were in Jan The Actress and then Die Kitty Die, where they first discovered Witkowski’s dark force and mood.
“Eric is definitely the driving force behind our music and we just build around it,” Ashcraft says.” “And his tonality, in reference to his lyrics, is definitely coming from a dark place. I don’t consider him as dark. I feel he’s a jovial person.”
The love is mutual.
“Fuck you,” Witkowski says.
There’s something that people are drawn to in this music. It starts with the songs and ends with the slightly left of center instrumentation. Some of the instruments, saxophone and accordion, are unique in their own regard. Witkowski is not opposed to expanding the ranks past a septet though he hasn’t any immediate plans to.
“I’d love to have a violin or viola player,” he says.
“Right now,” says Ashcraft, “I’m filling in the parts that we want through a synthesizer. So we’ve got synthesized strings and sound effects I trigger from time to time, so yeah, I think the band could go bigger. This is where the band flirts with spooky moods—wolves howling, wind blowing, footfalls—without really any irony or camp or dread.”
The band opens us up to a storytelling vibe, and by adding the sound effects it becomes more immersive and kind of brings you into this space. Kind of in the way that canned laughter leads to guffaws.
“There’s kind of a cinematic element to it,” Wilcox says. “The mood and atmosphere are pretty thick.”
Picture a Tarantino film with a little less surf action, foot fetish and blood and guts.
Witkowski has slit his wrist and is prolifically bleeding on the open page, writing as many as 15 songs in one session. Consequently, the band has a lot in the hopper with anywhere to go.
“We’re still kind of feeling it out,” Witkowski says.
The Living Room with Komrads, Marching Band Forms Pentagram, The Grinders. Will Carroll will be hosting, MK Ultra will be spinning records, Luc Thiers will be doing comedy. Nov. 20, noon to 10 p.m., Pavilion Lodge in Ellison Park, $15.
Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer.
Here’s a comprehensive list of live shows in and around Rochester: Get Your Gig On