"Subterfuge" from the album Contact
Borrowing sounds from other cultures and mixing them into Western music is nothing new — just think Paul Simon's Graceland or the Brazilian street drums of Rhythm of the Saints.
But Asheville, N.C.-based, Philly-bred Telepath take that concept to a new level. The Middle Eastern chants, Indian sitar, and West African beats that complement the group's live bass, drums, and keys on their new album, Contact, weren't recorded with portable gear on the streets of New Delhi or Tehran, but instead were conceived by the band themselves. They then recruited over 20 guest musicians from around the world to record those parts, allowing them the flexibility and control to design the album they wanted to make.
"This is the first project that I've ever tried to do something like this, playing parts like that to other people and turning them into samples. It's been a pretty big learning curve," says keyboardist Michael Christie.
By using a laptop alongside his key rig, Christie is able to take the samples and incorporate them into live performance, expanding and opening up on the tight format required for a studio album. But they're quick to emphasize structure, distancing themselves from other electronic acts dubbed "jam bands."
"When you're talking about peaks, like for instance, (Sound Tribe) Sector 9, they peak where it builds and builds, and the guitar is building, and they hit that peak," says bassist Curt Heiny. "Sometimes there's a key solo that we'll build on in a certain song, but a lot of the actual peaks are coming as a whole sound versus it being driven by one set instrument."
Even though their music is lyric-less, Telepath assumes a responsibility with their role as musicians to bring about progressive change.
"What's happening in the songs is a tool that we can use to try to spread a message of unity and awareness of other cultures," says Christie, who, prior to forming Telepath, spent two years performing with an acoustic, traditional Arabic music ensemble. "Sometimes I feel like our government wants us to fear, so that's a huge reason for bringing in some of the Arabic influence right now. There's such a negative spin on the Middle East, so we try to use some of those [samples] as a positive influence."
And while Telepath would love to travel abroad to see how their electronic, beat-driven take on Eastern music is responded to in the cultures where it originates, they're also happy to be sharing that sound here at home.
"The U.S. is one of the most needed places in the world for positivity and change," says Heiny. "Music is a good way to do that."