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Alumni see success with Stellacutta album debut

(Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez)
(Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez)

(Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez) Jazz piano performance senior Greg Diara and guitar performance alumnus Max Knouse rehearse the song they recorded Sunday as part of Stellacutta, a band made up of local musicians. (Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez)

The release of Stellacutta’s CD in late January and the concert on March 31 at the Cresecent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix mark roughly a decade of music-making for a band that started at Tempe’s New School for the Arts and Academics.

Two years ago, drummer Jordan Tompkins joined bass player Dylan Thomas, photography senior and lead vocalist Meredith Minne, jazz piano performance senior Greg Diarra and guitar performance alumnus Max Knouse to make the band's current lineup.

“I didn’t start getting into singing as an actual pursuit until high school — I met Greg and Max and Dylan there,” Minne said. “We all went to the same high school, and we’d write songs at my house.”

“Me and Max started writing songs together when I was 12 and he was 13,” Diara said. “It’s something that’s been part of our friendship. … Over the years, as (Stellacutta) stayed together and (we) evolved as artists and people, we decided to take it a little more seriously.”

The band has been playing at First Friday in downtown Phoenix for more than a year and half, using Tompkins’s house as a venue. The group won a battle of the bands at Paradise Valley Community College that led to an invite to record a track for a Harry Nilsson tribute album, which it finished Sunday.

“It was a pretty low-key battle of the bands, but what has come with it has the potential to be pretty huge,” Tompkins said.

The artists have diverse pursuits, and each has more than one musical project in addition to Stellacutta.

“The thing about Stella that makes it awesome and also very confusing, is everyone in the band is one of five really talented artists, so anyone can do their solo thing and still be successful,” Diarra said. “We all realize the potential of the group, and we see the reaction that we’ve been getting around town, and it keeps it going for us.”

The first album seems to project this, with each song taking detours and only occasionally coming full circle.

“We spend a lot of time going over the details and making sure nothing is too random,” Tompkins said. “That allows us to open ourselves up to improvisation in a way that other bands don’t really explore.”

The first four songs are easy to listen to and bright, if a tad heavy on cymbal crashing. The first track, "Inching the Foot," and the fourth, "Schadenfreude," were on the band’s EP released in 2011. The friendly group vocals in "Schadenfreude" are peppered throughout the album.

The album’s fifth track, "Bouquet," is a risky combination of chords and ambient sounds. A vintage quality is present in each of the following songs, and Minne adds a 1920s feel with the lyrics that she wrote.

“My mom lives in Oregon, and my dad lives in Alaska,” Minne said. “All the imagery I pulled from those places, that’s what inspired me to write.”

"Ne’er-do-Wells" is a blend of Diarra’s piano line and Minne’s vocals and has the instrumental variety of a pit orchestra.

“The arrangement, the way the accordion comes in, (Minne’s) vocal track is amazing on that, and the bridge, there’s a guitar strumming part that’s totally out of key,” Knouse said.

The group plays around with dynamic and time, especially in "Wicked Woods." Minnie sings, “No need to make sense / out of all beating thoughts,” and the instruments become momentarily chaotic.

The abstract middle of the album ends with bright vocals and a jazzy rhythm section with "Somethings Loose," the final track.

“All five of us have things we’ve contributed to every piece,” Thomas said. “It’s really great when we’re playing one of Greg’s songs, and you can clearly tell that it’s a Greg tune.”

Not fitting into any one genre, Thomas said the band’s music is a product of creativity and collaboration.

“Each player in the band is a professional musician and being that it’s an original music project and everyone puts in the same amount of creativity, it could go anywhere and be anything that we want it to be,” he said. “Everybody needs to hear the record and we need to play out as much as possible anywhere.”


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