Cover Story

Give It Up

by Dege Legg

Written by Dege Legg
Photos by Robin May
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on, Lafayette's Givers are on a rocket-like trajectory.

The sound is kaleidoscopic, optimistic, and celebratory like a rainbow-plastered journey into the upper reaches of the heart. There's a marrow of euphoria flushing through each note - a prism of joy in each crescendo. It's part Afro-rock, part power pop and part world music sock hop.

Written by Dege Legg
Photos by Robin May
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on, Lafayette's Givers are on a rocket-like trajectory.

The sound is kaleidoscopic, optimistic, and celebratory like a rainbow-plastered journey into the upper reaches of the heart. There's a marrow of euphoria flushing through each note - a prism of joy in each crescendo. It's part Afro-rock, part power pop and part world music sock hop. It's the sound of a Fruitarian meritocracy grinding against the cynicism and firmly entrenched corruption of the modern age. It's the sound of cotton candy and zygote jazz. The songs and energy of Givers radiate a contagious positivity that pops off like an Up with People pep rally crossed with a neo flower-power jam. The music seems blessed. Perhaps even destined. It is the sound of giving. And the individuals creating the sound are Givers.

No band in Lafayette - Cajun, zydeco, country, rock, indie, or whatever - was hotter than Givers in the past year. Period. Other bands may have traveled farther, sold more records, but none had the intense heat of Givers attached to their name. Formed almost by accident in November 2008, by spring 2009 the band was on the rise and buzzing. By summertime, it was packing local venues. By fall, it had an EP in the can and was dominant - no questions asked. It was obvious to anyone who saw or heard rumor of the band that something new was happening. Argue and debate it all you want - Givers are blessed with some kind of magic that only five people on the same psychic wavelength can produce at specific intervals in the astrological spectrum. Starting a band gifted with that species of magic is like falling in love with four people at the same time - rare, extraordinary, mysterious and unquantifiable.

Top to bottom: Tiffany Lamson, Taylor Guarisco, Josh Leblanc,
Will Henderson, Kirby Campbell.

Every five to seven years or so, a new band breaks out with something unique that has a pronounced buzz. In the late 1980s it was the alt-Cajun roots of The Bluerunners and Mamou - both of whom appeared on MTV during the channel's prime. In the '90s it was the raw rock and roll of CC Adcock and Frigg A-Go-Go that predated the retro garage revival by eight years. In the late '90s and 2000s another string of bands came and staked their claims: Urbo Sleeks, Santeria, The Transmission, Matt Rock & The Power Boxx, The Object at the End of History, and others; all of them great bands that had enormous buzz and high hopes surrounding them. For one reason or another, whether it was a music industry that has historically ignored Louisiana rock bands, a drought of capable management, or lack of the fortuitous right-time and right-place opportunities necessary to break a band on a national scale, none of the above mentioned bands "made it" on a mass scale that most people associate with commercial success. But then again, none of the bands mentioned was associated with the same degree of undeniable excitement now linked with Givers. The buzz around Givers has the kind of lofty topspin on it that can either push a band to greater heights or glumly date it to a short-lived, fast-burning moment, time-stamped into the accelerated market of popular culture.

The heated trajectory of Givers has its beginnings in a November 2008 Caffé Cottage gig where the members - all locals versed in musical improvisation through their previous bands (Uma Zuma, The Board, Spontaneous Comphunktion) - were summoned to play in place of a band that had canceled. The individuals who eventually became the band Givers - Taylor Guarisco on vocals and guitar, Tiffany Lamson on vocals and percussion, Josh Leblanc on bass, Kirby Campbell on the drums, and resident mad genius Will Henderson on keyboards - improvised the entire set. No songs. No set list. Not even a name for their group. No nothing, but the musical chemistry that, from all accounts, was evident from the start.

Josh Leblanc and Will Henderson at Dockside Studio

Taylor Guarisco.

Taylor Guarisco, 23 (vocals, guitar): We all played in improvisational groups together before Givers, but when this particular lineup got together something different happened. It felt like we were improvising songs, not just jams. There was enough structure and pop sensibility within this improvising that it felt like we were really getting away with something - like we had fooled the audience and ourselves into thinking that this music was premeditated. From that first show, we picked out enough ideas to write three songs.

Kirby Campbell, 20 (drums): Instantly we were like, "We have to make this into a band." We began working out songs like "Ceiling of Plankton," which seemed incredibly special.

Tiffany Lamson, 22 (vocals, percussion): There was no denying the fact that we were destined to create music together for life. The connection is in no way short of magical. I wouldn't trade them for anyone else.
Josh Leblanc, 23 (bass):** Musically it was very apparent that we all had chemistry. I didn't take it seriously for the first few weeks. Taylor had jammed with me in Uma Zuma. I play trumpet, but he saw me play bass somewhere. He would tell me, "Oh man, you're going to play bass in a band with me." He kept saying it. Eventually we started playing and building a "super group" as Taylor called it. The set just got tighter, and we started bouncing ideas off of each other; then bam, we have a "real band." Experimenting in Afro-esque, rock styles instead of funk.

William Henderson, 24 (keyboard): It was apparent very early on that the dedication was there in each of us.

The band settled on a name and began practicing regularly - sculpting shapeless jams into song form and sanding down the rough spots into what became its overriding sound - a kind of Graceland overdrive - festive, danceable, African-influenced, indie pop fueled by a youthful undercurrent of trustafarian glee and experimentation.

After another string of well-attended Lafayette gigs, Givers' fan base continued to expand; however, a knowledgeable minority of tastemakers and scenesters grumbled that certain musical similarities to current indie rock critical darlings, Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, could be construed as a calculated move on the part of Givers to capitalize on the emerging Afro-pop influenced trend in indie rock. In Givers' defense, neither Vampire Weekend nor Dirty Projectors possessed the supercollider energy exhibited by Givers' live presentation - a kind of transcendent vigor laced with uninhibited, youthful celebration. In addition, over the years there has been no shortage of Lafayette bands that have nursed a healthy obsession with world music instrumentation and melodic sensibilities - a likely result of growing up in a town where Festival International exposes the populace to music from around the world on an annual basis.

Campbell: At least we're being compared to cool bands, rather than bad ones. I think we're doing stuff that's 100 percent totally different from them. Vampire Weekend's got this mellow thing, and we pull out this energy that I think comes from a different place.

Givers' mighty compositional skills became evident as vocalist Guarisco presented the band with home-recorded demos that it collectively overhauled into elaborate song form with co-vocals and guitar/percussion from Lamson, rhythmic workouts by Campbell and Leblanc, and sonic theatrics supplied by keyboardist Henderson. Rhythmically and melodically, the band's music entered a territory where the core of its songs - riffs, verses, choruses - became highly addictive and almost instantly memorable. "There wasn't a decision made on how we would sound. We just sound how we do. We all have influences, and obviously the ones we all like come through as the strongest influential path," says Lamson, whose musical talents are equally matched by her ambition to succeed in the music industry while pushing the potential of Givers past the Louisiana state line. "I want to be on the road three quarters of the year and be able to reach into the world at every corner. This band has the capacity to support that dream for me."

Guarisco: Every song is different. Some came from an improvised set before we ever had a band name. Some came from me sitting down at a computer working out melodies and lyrics until something felt good. I'd bring it to everyone, and we'd jam the idea and let it go where it wanted to. Everyone contributes their own totally unique and irreplaceable vibe to make each song complete.

Tiffany Lamson

Campbell: Most of our songs originated with Taylor's demos, which sound pretty awesome. We jam through the idea with Taylor and Tiff singing the parts Taylor had in his demo. We'd record ourselves playing through the ideas, trying other ideas, and then we'd go home, listen, and the next day try it out again with new ideas.

Leblanc: Tiff and Taylor have this whole crazy chemistry, and Will is like the ominous fly on the wall who creates these textures and colors to the music. I really think without Will, our sound would not be half as cool.

Henderson: The evolution of songs in Givers is just that, an evolution; a process that happens in stages. Songs are born through ideas and live performances, mature and grow to become what they are at the present, ever-changing.

In almost fairy tale fashion, Givers have had a rapid local ascendency. From the first official gigs, Givers' danceable and inclusive vibe translated well with audiences. The colorful escapism has had an almost magnetic pull, packing local shows and striking a chord with younger audiences looking to cut loose, dance and just have a good time. Givers' refreshing sound is contrasted by the dark aggro, angst rock of the past two decades epitomized by Nirvana but infinitely maligned by the plodding dude rock bands of commercial rock radio. Young Lafayette adults especially took to Givers' music, looking to claim something as their own, while facing the sometimes grim post 9/11 landscape seemingly filled with endless war, firmly entrenched political corruption, shrinking employment opportunities, and a color-coded, terror stricken population reduced to junior high school levels of bullying as a substitute for political discourse. During that first string of Givers shows, it was obvious that the "Shut Up Factor" would not be in effect.

Givers picked up more steam and more fans with each show. Their hard work and relentless practice schedule - sometimes rehearsing as many as four or five days a week - led to the kind of break most bands wait years to get: an opening slot with a big band on the rise. After a rocking Givers show in Baton Rouge, the band was offered a chance to open for Dirty Projectors - current stars of the indie rock world and one of the inspirations influencing Givers' sound.

Guarisco: Having people that are into this music that we put so much work into is a gift. I'm not sure any of us have had this kind of experience in other bands in the sense that this band is like a baby we've nurtured since birth. I played with Feufollet and Terrance Simien for some years and had an amazing experience with them both, but these were bands that existed years before I showed up. Givers is a total representation of our individual selves and the music we choose to create. It gave us a chance to get every musical nutrient our diet had been lacking for years.

Leblanc: It just continued to get more serious. More people were coming to the shows; it just felt like we had to ride the wave. We were practicing about two or three times a day. Then once we heard we were going to play with Dirty Projectors, we practiced our asses off every day. That was a long and hard few weeks.

The Dirty Projectors opening slot was a huge success. Givers rocked it. The gig yielded two more significant breaks for the band: a booking agent (Panache Booking Agency) and a two-week tour with Dirty Projectors. Not to subtract from the inherent brilliance of Givers, which was in obvious effect from their first gigs - you've got to have talent to attract the opportunities - but the importance of these two turns of fortune cannot be understated. A well-connected booking agent is a necessity if a band wishes to succeed in the tightly policed world of independent rock where, if not properly vetted by the current kingmakers (Pitchfork, Stereogum, Daytrotter), your entrance into the upper echelons of the music world could be a hard and difficult one. Givers sailed through it with an auspicious sort of grace. With their infectiously catchy tunes, well-honed chops, and energetic live shows, Givers gave, and got back, a lot in short time.

Campbell: I have never experienced anything like this. My previous bands had a sturdy following, but it never grew like this. Dirty Projectors loved us and told their management about us after the show. They were friends with the people at Panache. We signed with Panache in August 2009. Everything just fell into place after that. Within a couple of weeks, we found out we were on the Dirty Projector tour. On that tour, our sound grew. It amplified us louder than we'd ever heard before, making us realize every single thing we play, meticulously correcting ourselves each show.

Givers and family clap for the record.

After completing the Dirty Projectors tour, Givers returned more confident and tighter, digging deeper into their creative resources. Emboldened by the recent turn of events and enthusiastic crowd responses at live shows, Givers booked Nitetown to throw their CD release party - a venue usually reserved for bigger touring acts and well-established locals. If anyone had any doubts as to the local drawing power of Givers, they were soon silenced upon seeing the 826-person capacity Nitetown filled with fans, the curious, the skeptical, and most notably, the newly converted dancing to the music. It's those kinds of moves that exemplify the Givers' confidence in themselves.

Leblanc: It was very confusing. I didn't know there was this "scene." I tried so hard to promote all the bands I was in, but you usually just get a modest turnout. With Givers, people showed up and were like "Yes! Something new!" After the first shows I was convinced that it was going to catch on; I don't know why, but it did.
Lamson:** It has been amazing and only somewhat surprising. The feeling I get playing with them is amazing, and I think people listening in the crowd feel that too. It's something of an escape.

In January 2010, the band holed up at Dockside studio in Maurice for three weeks and went about the lengthy process of recording their first full-length CD. Nestled along the Vermilion River among the arthritic live oaks, Dockside is the place where bands go to make their masterpiece. It's fitting that Givers, with their boundless enthusiasm and precocious talent, chose Dockside for this first outing.

Joined by their families on the day I visit the studio, Givers lead them through a hand clapping session that will be featured on one of the songs. Instead of cocaine, strippers, and hangers on, you have this picturesque Rockwellian scene - as opposed to a debauched "rock-hellion scene." Mannered moms, dads and extended family huddle around a microphone, gleefully clapping along, sharing in the music that they, in turn, helped create in some fundamental way.
Campbell:** The record will have 10 songs, including all four from the EP, reworked and re-recorded. There are six other songs we have been playing for awhile that will be on the record. It took a lot of stepping back and looking at it from other people's shoes, but it was totally necessary for us to have every song exactly how we wanted it.

Loosely scheduled to be released in the fall, the new Givers album is almost certain to be a high water mark for the band and for Lafayette music outside the Cajun/zydeco spectrum. Names are being batted around, but no title as of yet has been decided for the record. After a successful run of shows at South by Southwest in Austin this past March paired with an appearance on the cover of Soundcheck Magazine, rumors circulated that a number of smaller indie record labels were interested.

Maybe Givers are on to something. Maybe giving is the solution. Maybe the time is right for some genuine positivity and hope. In a world filled with wars on two fronts, an unstable economy, and a terror-exploited population becoming increasing distrustful of the country's leadership, maybe a pleasurable form of musical escapism is a viable reaction. Maybe it's time for some uplifting, life-affirming party jams.

There are a lot of great expectations for Givers. As the band readies for appearances at Festival International De Louisiane, Downtown Alive!, and a national tour in May, let's hope it can avoid the pitfalls of a quick rise through the ranks, and keep it together long enough to make the most of the magic it found in its creative connection. In addition to the thrill of a rapid ascent, there is also a murky side that sometimes accompanies triumph - a warped sense of privilege, insulting ego-maniacism, obnoxious bluster and the like. It can do weird things to a musician's head.

"I think we all are trying our best to soak up what's happening here and now," says Guarisco, Givers' always affable frontman, summing up the band's collective attitude. "We don't want to be a band that is so goal-oriented that we forget to enjoy life as it's happening now."