Four New York Couples That Make Beautiful Music Together
Andy LaPlant has rarely been more grateful to play music with his wife than in 2010, when he almost died on tour in France. The drummer of Brooklyn psych duo She Keeps Bees had to undergo emergency surgery when a cyst near his spine ruptured hours before a show, and for the rest of the tour it fell to Jessica Larrabee, the band's singer and songwriter and Andy's partner of nine years, to serve as his nurse.
Larrabee diligently changed LaPlant's dressing every other day to stave off infection. Another band, perhaps one lacking the foundation of a romance, likely would have called off the tour. Any sane group definitely would have had they run out of antibiotics, as She Keeps Bees did long before their scheduled flight home. But bailing on the project that binds and fulfills them never crossed their minds. The only show they canceled was the night Andy went under. Now, as Larrabee says, "everything else seems like small potatoes."
Stuffing sterile gauze into an open wound in grimy bars across Europe goes well beyond the call of duty for the average band member. But when the patient is your other half, it's just another way to say "I love you," and another reason to be grateful you've broken the cardinal rule of music: Don't date within the band. For She Keeps Bees and three other musician couples working in New York and touring worldwide, they wouldn't have it any other way — even if, from the outside, it seems like the worst idea in the world. Larrabee and LaPlant got to know one another over many hours at the bar where Jess worked in Brooklyn. After they'd bonded over Neutral Milk Hotel's underrated first album, their conversations turned quickly to their own musical projects: her upbringing as the daughter of a jazz drummer and her subsequent songwriting; his classical training and short-lived high school punk band. Seeing an opportunity to work with a passionate musician who also happened to be a cute girl, LaPlant offered his skills as a recording engineer. The only problem: "I didn't actually have a setup at the time," he admits. "When she took me up on it, I was like, 'Shit! Now I actually have to go buy something!' " The next day he picked up the Mbox interface on which the band would go on to record its first two albums.
The investment paid off handsomely: Once they got to work, their creative chemistry was instant. Larrabee liked that LaPlant didn't want to change her music — a refreshing change of pace from previous male collaborators who'd tried to inject a showy, macho edge into her process. Because her songwriting tends toward the intensely personal, it was particularly important to work with someone who respected the vulnerabilities she exposed during recording. LaPlant allowed her space to breathe and be herself; there was no need to put up walls. But throughout the recording process, a secret wish kept nagging her.
"I'd fantasized a lot throughout my life about Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore," she says with a self-deprecatingly dramatic air. "That was the dream. I wanted to find my Thurston Moore." With every session, she felt surer that was LaPlant. And she was right. They began the album as collaborators and ended it as a couple (though they did separate for a time in between, before uniting for good). "We tried to keep it professional," LaPlant says with a laugh. "It didn't work."
In 30 years, She Keeps Bees might look a lot like country duo the Hippy Nuts. Ensconced in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment that doubles as a recording studio, Kathena Bryant and her husband, Tim Champion, exude the same mutual admiration that anchors LaPlant and Larrabee's relationship. As they share decades' worth of stories from their history as a band and a couple, the ease between them, the product of countless long nights in studios and vans, is apparent.
They're unsure if the producer friend who suggested they collaborate was trying to set them up, but their partnership was a perfect match even before their romance bloomed. Well, almost — their first session together fizzled, because (unbeknownst to Tim) Kathena had trained away her deep Texan accent for the musical-theater auditions she'd been frequenting and in the process lost any trace of character. Tim could sense something was off; nothing was clicking.
That changed once they took a margarita break at a bar down the block. After two rounds Bryant blurted that the drinks were so strong, "It's like a squirrel wrapped a tree backwards." Champion did a double-take. "Who's that?" he asked himself, stunned. "Wait a second! That's the person we need for our songs!" They returned to the studio to try writing country songs, and the switch flipped instantly. So did the attraction, but they put it aside for long enough to finish tracking and book a solid run of gigs.
Self-restraint while recording an album with a crush is one thing. Keeping it businesslike in a sexually charged cabaret setting is entirely another. Jenny Mitchell and Aldo Perez know this all too well, having held out for five months under just such circumstances. The pair anchor Dada-esque musical-theater troupe Renaldo The, whose anarchic shows revel in absurdity, poor taste, and wide-ranging parody. It's an environment ripe for life to imitate art and take fictional romance into the real world.
When they met in 2007, Perez was mired in a messy breakup and had sworn off further dating to focus on The Curse of the Mystic Renaldo The, the highest-profile (and best-funded) show of his career. But when Mitchell walked in to audition for the female lead, he abandoned his resolution, falling for her instantly.
"It was a lot of things," he remembers. "Her voice, her musicianship, the fact that she aced every weird thing we threw at her that day." Grinning, he moves back into the pair's sweetly bawdy rapport. "Or maybe it was just her butt." Particularly impressive were Mitchell's ribald wit and penchant for sheer fun, unusual traits for a classically trained performer: Onstage, she was equally comfortable singing arias and faking orgasms. The two began seeing each other shortly after.
They were careful, though. "We didn't want to fuck up a good gig with interpersonal bullshit," says Perez. "It's so trite." And with corporate money backing The Curse on the line, they were determined, exceedingly, to keep their growing attraction from interfering with the show. Respect for their fellow collaborators kept them focused on art first and romance second, because they knew they were lucky to have a cohesive ensemble outside their budding romance.
The Hippy Nuts are committed to the same professionalism, but they've struggled throughout their career to convince others of it. They'd already broken the rules and gotten involved with each other; few similarly serious musicians believed the pair wouldn't drag their fellow players in too. Frequently, they say, otherwise-ideal collaborators simply believed they were destined to break up — even after years of marriage. She Keeps Bees have dealt with the same knee-jerk; they've lost bandmates who viewed playing with them as "Mom and Dad fighting."
The difficulty of finding that perfect other bandmate was enough to convince Sara and Tyler Villard to cancel a planned move from Brooklyn to L.A. in order to hold on to their drummer, Justin Sherrell. The couple is now two-thirds of Bezoar, a prog-metal power trio that just finished its third album. Sara sings and plays bass, Tyler's the guitarist, and they needed a drummer who could, as Tyler puts it, "play crazy time signatures, but who would also yell at both of us as needed and wanted to be our friend." They knew a good thing when they saw it and stuck around to see the project through.
Knowing their dynamic can be occasionally difficult to work with makes the Villards all the more grateful to have a solid lineup. Sara knows exactly what she wants, and Tyler's unafraid to challenge it. They agree they're perfectionists, and that the safety of their relationship can exacerbate their stubbornness in music. "It would be easier for me to step back and consider if someone other than my husband told me something didn't make sense," says Sara. Occasional tension lends a frenetic color to their music, something they both enjoy.
She Keeps Bees have no such potential for conflict when it comes to songwriting, because the duo agrees Larrabee is at the helm. She jokes with LaPlant that he'll be the one to make their million-dollar hit — if only she'd let him write songs. His quieter presence holds space for his bombastic partner: Where Jess talks with her hands, does funny voices, and moves around to accentuate a point, Andy has a warmly even disposition that complements the forcefully creative woman with whom he shares his life.
Their live performances set a similar scene: Larrabee in her own world, with LaPlant expertly building a container around her intense focus. Without looking at each other, they stay perfectly attuned, a rapport cultivated over years of collaboration. "He learned to play to me," Larrabee explains. "He can feel every nuance and anticipates everything.
Performing is a very emotional thing for me, and it's amazing to have that support when I'm onstage." As a result, she feels she can no longer play well with anyone else. She chalks it up to being an inferior musician, but it's clearly due at least as much to their comfort and familiarity with each other. Being in a band has a reputation of "feeling like a marriage." When it actually is, some things come more easily.
Before the Hippy Nuts surrendered to their feelings, they continued undertaking similarly unsatisfying collaborations with others. Early in their courtship, when neither she nor Champion would acknowledge the depth of their feelings, Bryant penned an exasperated song called "Watch Your Language," with the help of the producer who'd introduced them:
Your tongue is in my mouth, your name is on my tongue But neither one of us is gonna say it. We say it with our hips, we're hip to what we say But neither one of us is gonna say it. Watch your language, we might make it all come true Watch your language, lover, you're afraid of saying it; me too.
The song portrayed a situation familiar to everyone the Voice interviewed for this story: Songwriters who turn to their notebooks when the source of their heartache is in the band confront a tricky balancing act. Larrabee used her first album under the She Keeps Bees moniker to work through fears about one of LaPlant's ex-girlfriends, never telling him the impetus behind the oblique lyrics. Only after years of playing the songs on tour did LaPlant divine their meaning. Given that experience, along with Larrabee's solitary songwriting tendencies, it's no surprise to hear LaPlant say he has to constantly remind himself not to take her output personally.
The Villards say they (and Bezoar) are too weird to work out issues in their lyrics. They already feel they subject Sherrell to an unfairly hefty dose of their dynamic; no need to unload it onto their audiences as well. Onstage energy, off-kilter time signatures, a generally manic aesthetic — that's what they want their banter to add to their music. Which is not to discount the element of using collaboration to ease tension. Perez and Mitchell say the violent slapstick of Renaldo The performances — Aldo lets off steam through his most despicable characters, while Jenny delights in teaming up with the rest of the ensemble to defy his dictatorial onstage persona — help keep their offstage life on an even keel.
Perez says finding a kindred spirit to share his life both onstage and off- is what allowed him to finally surrender to his creative drive. In Mitchell he met his match creatively — she approaches work with the same dedication as he does, and he loves that she gets lost in her own world as often as he does in his. They support each other's solo work without getting jealous. He developed her improvisational skills and rekindled her talent for playing clarinet; she taught him to respect his work enough to be professional in every aspect of it.
LaPlant says some of She Keeps Bees' best shows coincide with the band's fights. Larrabee rips into her guitar, he takes it out on his kit, and by the time they leave the stage, he says, "The balloon has popped." Occasionally a short denouement is necessary to return to normal, but they can't stay mad while they play. Audiences notice the ferocity, but most in the crowd seem not to realize the two are a couple.
"We really understand each other intrinsically when we play music," says the Hippy Nuts' Tim Champion. "Sometimes certain expectations" — from taking out the trash to offering emotional support — "aren't met in the relationship. But we can always hit the pause button and turn back to the band." He and Bryant effortlessly share musical duties, swapping lyrics and guitar licks. Audiences assume she writes the words and he the music, but Champion says the band is entirely a mutual endeavor: "We create and live the character together."
Perez and Mitchell strive (and sometimes manage) to set aside time for their relationship outside their music. Not so for She Keeps Bees. Though the duo is taking time off to regroup from a year of tragedy in Larrabee's family that included the death of her father, they still spend nearly every waking moment together, working on songs. And they can't wait to get back in the van in the spring, when they have a West Coast tour planned.
Before Andy quit his day job, Jess's insistence on full commitment irritated him, but now both grow restless when they step away. "I can't imagine not spending all my time with Jess," he says. "I don't understand how other couples do it."
Same goes for the Villards. When they're not physically separated — Sara at the vintage shop she opened last year, Tyler at the bar where he works several nights a week — they're working on music. That's about to change in ways they can't predict: Sara is six months pregnant with their first child. But far from being a risk to the band, they expect her to be a musician from day one, raised in a house full of every instrument she might want to pick up. Sherrell, their drummer, is already a dad; his wife has volunteered for babysitting duties during future shred sessions.
Renaldo The is on a temporary hiatus while Perez works on his first solo show in years. He and Mitchell still collaborate daily, with Jenny providing Aldo headchecks for his new work and Aldo continuing to write music for her ever-growing mastery of instruments. As Mitchell navigates her first 9-to-5 job (she's working at a video-game company — still creative for an office gig), she sees firsthand just how unusual her partnership with Perez is. Before, they may have taken for granted that their work was not only fulfilling but kept them close. Now they can't wait to get back onstage and be the giddy six-year-olds-at-heart that keep them falling in love in the spotlight.
The Hippy Nuts continue to do what they know best: recording in the studio where they live, playing at the country-music clubs that fostered their success, and touring for a dedicated fan base. Years ago at a show in Connecticut, a burly, enthusiastic younger fan pulled them both into a headlock, one in each of his muscly arms. "If you ever stop playing music with her," he said, glaring at Champion, "or you ever stop playing music with him" — to Bryant — "I'm going to hunt you down and kill you both." Turns out they didn't need the motivation. These two are in it for life.
'We didn't want to fuck up a good gig with interpersonal bullshit,' says Perez. 'It's so trite.'
'Sometimes certain expectations aren't met in the relationship. But we can always hit the pause button and turn back to the band.'
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