An Interview With Christian Smith of Cerulean City

Having learned their craft from greats like Wayne Krantz, John Pattitucci, and Kim Plainfield, the three members of Cerulean City bring enough talent for endearing melodies to the table that they don't have to set the speakers aflame with blazing solos. Instead, they tick-tock through a group of harmonious compositions that constantly breach the surface of improvisation and leave plenty of space for the listener.

By: Chris Robie

HGMN: How long have you guys been together? Who came up with the name Cerulean City?

SMITH: Cerulean City started about 3 years ago while we were living in New York City. We actually played a few shows under the name "Birth of Mud" before that. We went through a line-up change about a year and a half ago when Kevin O'Brien came in to play bass. When we were living in New York, we were studying at a school called The Collective. One of the songs that we played a lot there was called "Cerulean Blue" by a great jazz vibraphonist named Joe Locke. I really liked that song and thought was kind of indicative of what we were trying to do, so I wanted to call the band "Cerulean." Unfortunately, there is a rock band in LA with that name, so I figured we'd tack on "City" to represent being from NYC. I didn't realize until after we started touring that "Cerulean City" was actually a stage in a very popular Pokemon game. Oops. I figure when all those 10 year olds hit college, we'll be huge...

HGMN: How much time went into making the new album? What's it like compared to the first album?

SMITH: Both albums were made in the same amount of time: 5 days. 2 days to record, 2 days to mix and 1 day to master. Its extremely difficult to make an album that fast, but we figured that its better for us to spend the money on hiring a kick-ass engineer and renting a kick-ass studio than to spend it on months of a mediocre engineer and a crappy studio. This way, if we rehearse like crazy before we go in there, we can just lay it down and let the master go to work. The quality of sound and mix is really important to us and you're not going to get that even with all the time in the world unless you get a great engineer and a solid studio setting. The guy we work with is Joe Ferla, and he is a true master. He's done some landmark recordings, including John Scofield's A Go-Go and Bill Frisell's album with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. And many many more. We have a great relationship with him and are definitely honored that he would work with us. We were much more prepared for this album compared to the last one. We had a solid idea of what we wanted, the sounds we wanted, the arrangements and the general order and vibe of the album. The first album was really just a learning experience for us. We tried to prepare as best we could for it, but not having a frame of reference we were just not very efficient in there. We spent a month straight rehearsing and writing and concepting for Saturn Return so that we could go into the studio and just have fun and let the engineer go to town on it. I think that came across. The vibe on this album is much more relaxed and flows from one song to the next much better than the first album. I also think we played better and I think the writing was better.

What kind of music are you guys listening to these days?

SMITH: We listen to a lot different stuff. That's one of the benefits of being stuck in a van all the time! We are all huge fans of Wayne Krantz, so he's heavy in our rotation. Lately, we've been listening to more singers and horn players...Mos Def, Fiona Apple, Chris Potter to name a few. When we went into the studio we were listening to the latest Oz Noy album a lot. There is a song on Saturn Return called "Broodwich" that is sort of a nod to Oz.

HGMN: What's the scene like in Ithaca and how do you compare it to other cities you perform in?

SMITH: The scene in Ithaca is starting to come alive again. I think when we moved there, it was a little quiet. I really felt like were scaring people away! But people there are pretty open minded and we seem to have found an audience. One of the things that disappointed me about getting on the road with this band was the total lack of community we found out there. I really thought that we would start playing shows and find like minded bands and people that wanted to be part of a community or scene. We found few friends. It dawned on us at some point that if wanted to feel community, we were going to have to do it ourselves. So, we started trying to work as much as we could with other bands that we like and forge friendships/alliances with these bands. It has taken some time, but I think out of that has risen the beginnings of a new scene in upstate NY. Bands like Oshe, Mountain Mojo Authority, Doja, Triose and others are all bands that we like to work with and are bands that are working hard to create a community for all of us to enjoy. We are very proud to be a part of that.

HGMN: What other talents do you guys have outside of music?

SMITH: Ha! Well, Lars is our diorama artist. So, you'll have to come to our shows and see for yourself if that would be considered a talent or not. Kevin works construction in his spare time, so he is our resident brute. If you are a venue and you don't pay us what you agreed will meet Kevin. Me? I am the single greatest parallel parker on the planet.

HGMN: When the tour ends, what's the first thing on everyone's agenda?

SMITH: Generally, we just get away from each other. We get along very well, almost too well. But after being stuck in a van with each other for months on end, we all need a little time to decompress. A trio has a very interesting dynamic. There is no such thing as an equal sided argument when you have a trio. It is ALWAYS two against one. So on any given day on a tour, you could be the one that is getting picked on, and there is no rhyme or reason to the daily alliance - when its your day, its your day.

HGMN: Describe your music. Any influences (Past or Present)?

SMITH: We've been using the phrase "Electro Slam Jazz." I don't think that really does it, but describing our music is tough because people who listen to us describe it in so many different ways. We are certainly heavily rooted in funk and jazz. The rhythm section of Kevin and Lars (or "Kevlars" and we like to call them) is just a solid funk/groove unit. We take it out, try some different stuff, throw in some odd meter phrasing, but it all comes back to groove. We've been doing some more trance stuff lately and some more rock stuff too. Wayne Krantz has been a big influence on us. We work hard on trying NOT to sound like him, but even if we wanted to we couldn't. That guy is insane. John Scofield was definitely and influence. We started listening to Photek this past year, getting some ideas for Drum n' Bass and Jungle stuff. We went through a big Garaj Mahal phase. I am a big Steve Kimock fan and Lars loves Rodney Holmes playing in that band, so we have definitely worked through some of their stuff. "Sherbert" on our first album was a nod to Kimock's tune in 6 called "Ice Cream."

Where do you draw inspiration to write music? What motivates you to pick up and write a song?

SMITH: I would say writing is the most difficult thing that we have to do. Any time we try to force a song out, it rarely ends up being something that we all like enough to use. Usually, I will bring in a small idea, maybe one or two short sections, and then we'll work through the rest as a band. It is rare that song comes out that doesn't have everybody's finger print on it somehow. Occasionally we'll pull songs almost entirely from improvisation. In fact the title track on the new album was entirely improvised. We were on a marathon gig in Long Island and we ran out of tunes so Lars kicked in that beat...and the rest is history. Luckily it was recorded. What you hear on the album is almost exactly what you hear on that original tape.

HGMN: What's the craziest thing to happen to you in the past year?

SMITH: Lars is an endless supply of entertaining moments. I don't know what it is about drummers. Probably the the funniest thing that he did in the last year was to actually cut the end of his pinky finger off with a frozen hamburger. He was trying to split two VERY frozen burgers by slamming them against a ceramic sink. He literally lost the end of his finger. I have pictures to prove it.

HGMN: If you wanted to turn someone on to your music, someone who had never heard your music before, which song would you pick and why?

SMITH: At the moment, I would choose "Saturn Return." We work so hard on writing tunes and refining everything we do...and yet that one came out of us just having fun at a show. I think it says something about the direction we are trying to go in and that really we are at our best when we just relax and have fun. It has a nice groove, and is a nice foundation for some fun improvisation. We really try to stretch that one out live. That song is also a totally collaborative effort.