Aarich Jespers and Kobe Proesmans of The Colorist Orchestra are best known as interpreters and reimagineers, bringing their melodic percussion and avant-classical approach to other people’s songs. Howe Gelb is forever swerving and advancing, with a 50-album discography that includes Giant Sand’s underground guitar-skronk classics, solo piano and pump-organ mood poems, standards, country-and-Southwestern, and even gospel and flamenco. Now, with Not On The Map (Dangerbird), which also features singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, the Belgian arrangers and the Arizona vagabond have made something entirely new.
From the syncopated, noirish overture of “Counting On,” to the jaunty, jaundiced “More Exes,” Not On The Map is an ambitious, opposites-attract marriage: the sound of two great artists both in harmony and dissonance, with breathtaking results.
“The music I seem to savor has contrast embedded in it,” Gelb says. “Contrasting elements add a pendulum effect. Gives it a motion. Gives it an e-motion.”
Best-known for their 2016 collaboration, The Colorist and Emiliana Torrini, The Colorist Orchestra has also toured and recorded with Sumie, Cibelle, Gabriel Rios and Lisa Hannigan. With eight members including Jespers and Proesmans, who are percussionists, TCO is both maximalist and minimalist, eschewing traditional rock instruments or amplification for unusual, even previously unheard sounds. They’re inspired by experimental composers, homemade instruments, field recordings, noise-rock, jazz and nature.
“We both like playing on elements that are not really instruments, stuff that is not really playable on a stage,” says Proesmans. “And we had this dream of, what if we take those elements and those sounds, and we write arrangements, and we create an orchestra that is actually capable of playing them within the structure of pop music.”
The idea being to make pop music a little weirder, and weird music accessible. “Most of the weird stuff that we like, the music, the compositions…after 10 minutes you’re really like, this is hard to listen to,” Proesmans continues. “We thought there was an opportunity to bring those worlds together.”
The band’s name was inspired by the metaphor of comics art – that the song and its original recording are pencils and ink, and the new arrangements, color. It’s also been called “reverse karaoke,” where, instead of a new singer over backing tracks, it’s new musical performances beneath familiar voice and melody. Until now, all of The Colorist Orchestra’s previous releases were built around meticulously rehearsed and arranged live performances of songs from their collaborator’s catalog. But Not On The Map is entirely new material, with six original songs credited to both Gelb and the Colorist Orchestra, plus two by Brown, an instrumental, and an otherworldly cover of the John Hartford (by way of Glenn Campbell) classic “Gentle On My Mind.”
Perhaps the perfect summation of the project came from Proesmans’ 11 year-old daughter, after first hearing the latter tracks. “You have Howe, and he’s creating a world,” she said. “And then you guys create the ocean around it.”
In hindsight, Not On The Map’s existence seems inevitable. But that was not at all the case four years ago, when the idea was first put in the ether, by both Emiliana Torrini and the Puerto Rican-born, Belgium-based Rios. Independent of each other, they’d both suggested that the Colorists and Gelb might make for a good match. Jespers, a fan of Giant Sand whose old band, Zita Swoon, worked with frequent Gelb collaborator Malcolm Burn, was into it. Proesmans, who comes from more of a non-rock background, decidedly was not.
“To be honest, I wasn’t very convinced in the beginning,” he says. “I was like, ‘this is gonna be a mess!’ Because I don’t understand his music.”
Once they got together though, things not only clicked, but transformed everyone’s way of working. Even as they worked up a few Giant Sand chestnuts in preparation for a 2017 tour, Gelb was more inclined to toss out new ideas – and Jespers and Proesmans were more than happy to volley back, with riffs and grooves for him to sing and come up with lyrics over. “He was like, let’s make music together! Let’s make an album,” says Proesmans. “At that moment, we realized, this is gonna be something really special.”
The project also suited Gelb’s current headspace – to his mind, the old grind of recording and touring in a rock band was already at its end. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent much of his time at a TK organ at home, forever searching for what he terms “a perfect harvest of a song that has never been tried before.” Gelb uses neither analog mixers nor Pro Tools to capture these new songs, but rather, a CD recorder. He believes the sound is warmer than computers, but also, “it only gives me one shot at the song. It’s live to two-track. I can do another take, but I can’t go back and correct anything.”
Gelb even claims to love the fact that the Colorists don’t use guitars. “We’ve heard too many guitars in our lifetime,” he says. As Kobe and Aarich remember it, Gelb was initially still a bit lost when they suggested that he wouldn’t play it much, and sometimes not at all. But both sides adjusted. Gelb is used to operating on serendipity and spontaneity, going wherever the creative impulse takes him without it being contrarian, or for its own sake. “He never tries to do something,” says Jespers. “He just does things.” And the Colorists embrace that spirit too. “Most of the time, we’re not aware of what exactly we’re writing,” Jespers continues. “It’s just something that appeals to our ears.”
Like some of their influences – Steve Reich, Moondog, Harry Partch – The Colorists like making sounds at different tones and frequencies with things that are not actually instruments – cardboard boxes, woodblocks, fishbowls, gourds – as well as instruments they’ve made or altered (prepared piano, violins played with chopsticks, wooden drums). But once they find the sounds they want, it all gets written down and rehearsed: every groove, every string or piano chime, down to the most minute percussive layers. The other members of the orchestra – as well as producer and live sound engineer Jo Francken- are trusted and longtime collaborators, with backgrounds that range from punk to electronic pop to classical.
“I really had to stop for a minute and digest the fact that all those pieces were written out,” says Gelb. “That they didn’t just get together and jam out.”
The first time Gelb heard what became known as “More Exes” without his original vocals, he wasn’t sure he knew the song. “But that was okay. I wasn’t stubbornly trying to hold it down to what I thought it used to be. I thought that there might be something new hidden in there.”
Proesmans says this is a typical phenomenon. “Sometimes artists come back and they listen to our arrangement, and they’re like, ‘so which song is this?’ And then when they sing the line, in the structure they’re used to, it makes sense.”
At some point the biggest challenge was deciding which songs they had time to work on, since Gelb can just keep writing ‘em. “Every three days, a new song,” Proesmans says. “And 90% of the ones that came through were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is another good one. What are we going to do?’”
Which didn’t stop them from also adding Brown, an old, if mostly-long distance friend of Gelb’s, and someone whom he often bounced ideas off. “Pieta was like my guiding oracle.” Gelb says. “So at some point, it just seemed that she should be involved… more physically.”
Brown contributed backing vocals on three songs, as well as duets with Gelb on two of her own. The first, “Sometimes I Wish,” began life as an iPhone voice memo demo, just Brown and her guitar – and wound up lush, ghostly, and kaleidoscopic, in what was more like the traditional Colorist process. The other, the dreamy “Sweet Pretender,” ends in a hammering whoosh of Giant Sand-like noise that came entirely from the Colorists and Francken.
“It is pretty magical to take a song and send it to those guys and have it come back in a completely different, very expansive form,” Brown says. “It brought, literally, color and sound to an otherwise isolated stretch of time, out here in my weird garage in the middle of Iowa.”
Regardless of whether they were in the studio together (as at the beginning of the project) or doing tracks remotely (as for all of the pandemic), Gelb felt that same sense of magic and connection. He says that whenever he put the headphones on to sing, he felt like he was Frank Sinatra in front of The Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and they were all in the same room. “It has been nothing short of enchanting,” he says. “How they pull it apart and how they reassemble it. It wakes you up. It wakes the songs up.”