Like a gymnast sprinting down the mat toward the pommel horse, Octopus Jones built up a lot of momentum before they hit the springboard for their full-length debut, Phantasmagoria. Along the way they lost a bandmate in a tragic accident, moved from Myrtle Beach to Raleigh, N.C., and found their missing piece in guitarist Tyler Morris, before vaulting forth with 10 songs of shadowy, art-funk and cabaret-inflected new wave.
Octopus Jones originally formed in 2008 while its members — singer/guitarist Danny Martin, drummer Darrin Cripe, bassist John Pruitt, and guitarist Clay Carlisle — were attending Coastal Carolina University. Eighteen months after getting together, Pruitt passed away when he overturned his Chevy TrailBlazer in a water-filled ditch and drowned. The band played a memorial show and nearly called it quits.
"We took six months off before we started playing again," Cripe recalls. "It was actually John's family members that kind of urged us to keep going."
Cripe and company regrouped in 2010 with two new members — guitarist Blake Ratcliffe and keyboardist Chris Wilson — while Carlisle slid from guitar to bass. That fall they bested 40 others in a Battle of the Bands at the New Brookland Tavern in Columbia, S.C. The grand prize was studio time that the band used to produce 2011's 8-song Treat Yourself EP.
The disc features several songs co-written with Pruitt and showcases the band's gift for jittery, slashing rock, from the spunky jangle of "Johnny Carson" to the spooky Klingon-stomp "Worf," and the feedback-laden dream pop of "Val Kilmer." In the drama of Martin's elastic croon and the music's spiky melody one hears echoes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Gun Club, and Possum Dixon.
"We had those songs for a while. That was essentially our first attempt at recording and writing in a professional studio," offers Cripe.
The guys in Octopus Jones spent 2011 supporting the album and touring throughout the Southeast and along the East Coast. Soon they felt a need to move beyond their old college stomping grounds. In spring 2012, they relocated to the Research Triangle and left behind Ratcliffe and Wilson. The transition was neither easy nor immediate. After all, what works in a beach town doesn't necessarily fly in college towns like Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh.
"Coming from Myrtle Beach definitely put us in a weird spot where people didn't really know how to take us," says Cripe. "In a place like Myrtle Beach, you're playing with a bunch of weirdos all the time, so I think people might try to see more where you fit in ... But it's nice to be in an area where there are a lot more venues and a lot more connections to good music out there."
At the same time, they didn't want to change who they were, particularly the music's breezy vibe which leavens the intricate arrangements and jarring guitars. "I definitely think that's where our roots are," says Martin. "That's one thing we all kind of said we didn't want to lose, that and the thirsty vibe we had in Myrtle Beach."
Not long after moving to the Research Triangle, the members of Octopus Jones were invited by Columbia-musician Tyler Morris to back him on some demo tracks he was cutting with Charleston musician/producer Wolfgang Ryan Zimmerman (Brave Baby). They'd known Morris from touring, and when they got together, the chemistry was palpable and apparent.
"Ryan said, 'You know you guys should join forces. This is some really good shit,'" Cripe recalls. "So we entertained the idea and it just made sense to bring Tyler in."
By the beginning of last year, Tyler had joined the band and relocated to Raleigh. They returned to record with Zimmerman and were able to work more casually than they did on Treat Yourself, where they felt the pressure of being on the studio clock.
"With Ryan, it's almost home recordings. We recorded most of it in Raleigh at our [practice space] and it was more kind of 'We're going to do what we want to do' type of thing than we have this amount of time to complete these songs," Martin says. "That left a lot more room for experimentation."
Some of the tracking occurred at Carlisle's beach house, where they set up a couple drum kits and pounded away, developing songs from deep percussive grooves. Overall, it's a darker, stonier album suitable to be called Phantasmagoria. Morris has a deeper voice and slinkier manner, nicely balancing Martin's pitched, dramatic style.
Overall, the album conjures a dusky carnival atmosphere that still percolates with new wave punchiness but now filtered more through Nick Cave and Birthday Party than the Talking Heads. From minor key potboilers like "Phawn" to surf-tinged power/garage-pop "Tarantino" and the gritty gutter-soul shimmy of "World of Steers," Octopus Jones tap into a reservoir of implacable late-night cool.
"Tyler has brought a new flair to the band, and the amount of ideas that are coming — it really is doubling the amount of creativity. You can definitely hear the polarity of Danny and Tyler's vocals, it plays with this kind of lightness and darkness," says Cripe. "Tyler had to pick up what he had going on in Columbia, and I think it was a big leap for him, but it's cool that he came up and joined us, because he fit right in."