Like many bands, the musicians in the Rochester-founded group, Free Casino, are a bit hesitant about categorizing music into hard-coded genres. However, they do admit that calling their songs “math rock” or “post-punk” is fair.
“I’m okay with calling us ‘math rock’ even if it is a bit of a ‘memey’ term. It used to be sarcastic slang, but now people are taking ownership of it even if it’s campy or goofy. Kind of like our name,” laughs Sean Saville, who plays guitar and does some vocals for the band.
“(With Free Casino) we all wanted to pull out the stops and flex a little bit, definitely compared to what our music was before,” adds Jake Denning, who also contributes vocals and guitar. “We wanted to make something that was really our own.”
Math rock is typified by atypical rhythms, unconventional harmonies, and extended instrumental passages, while post-punk maintains the urgency of punk sensibility but similarly heightens the musical complexity.
The mixture of those genres in “Slam Dunk Highlights” creates a song that is simultaneously technically impressive and emotionally raw, not to mention a sign of the group’s collective love for basketball. “Slam Dunk Highlights” is part of its first full-length album, “Beggar’s Pitch,” which releases today.
The album release still feels a little unreal to the band. In 2018, Saville, Denning and Marc Gabriel, who plays bass, were still students in the music program at Nazareth College, mostly playing covers at campus and friends’ events. Gabriel jokes that he started in the music business program rather than music alone so “his family could sleep at night.”
Now, Free Casino plays shows in Brooklyn and works with independent record label Sad Cactus, a company that has supported some of the group’s favorite contemporary bands.
“It’s nice to have settled on a relationship with what I do with music. Free Casino’s been a huge part of that, where it’s for sure why I still care about my instrument as much as I do,” says Gabriel.
Even though the band released original music in 2019 with “Punk Thing,” in an odd way, members admit it was the COVID-19 pandemic that helped them take that next step.
“For all intents and purposes, Free Casino prior to the pandemic is only the same band in name and partially membership. We could have been any college band doing what we were doing,” Saville says, noting the band covered songs they feel embarrassed about now. (The prime example? The “Drake and Josh” theme song.)
“We all wanted to be doing what we are doing now, but we just didn’t have the means or the confidence to do it right away. During the pandemic it was a little like, ‘Well, nothing matters anymore, so why not?’” he continues.
“Plus, we were all living together at that point. I don’t think (the EP “Our Casino”) would have been anywhere near where it ended up being if we weren’t living together,” adds Gabriel. “All our more insular music interests started bleeding into one another more because we were all listening around each other more often.”
Denning and Gabriel remember plenty of times coming home and joining Saville on the couch in viewing old live performance sets he used to watch when he first learned how to play guitar. Especially during the pandemic, all members agree periods of downtime felt uniquely fulfilling and led to the trio honing their style.
From that crucible of the COVID-19 quarantine, Free Casino created several releases with Rochester studios, including the Rochester-centric titled song, “I Hate 490.” The creation and release of “Beggar’s Pitch” does feel like a level up for the band; being able to work with New York City-based producers was a stand-out moment for the group.
Though they are now splitting time between Brooklyn and Rochester, the group still considers their origin point just as important as their new home. They returned in February for a show at the Rosen Krown, and they have shows in the near future in both Rochester and Buffalo. Fifty percent of the proceeds from “Beggar’s Pitch” on Bandcamp will go to support Restore Rochester for victims of sexual violence.
“It’s always exciting to see how many people still come out and support us in Rochester (and Western New York) when we play there,” says Denning. “Everyone in the music scene is so aware and involved.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].