By David Ma and Brandon Roos
Vocalist: Durand Jones
Vocalist / Drummer: Aaron Frazer
Guitarist: Blake Rhein
The origin story for modern soul heavyweights Durand Jones and the Indications emerged out of what can be considered divine timing. Vocalist Durand Jones is now best known for his gruff delivery and hair-raising yelps, but he arrived at Indiana University, where the band formed, to study saxophone. Even that part of the equation wasn’t planned. While pursuing his undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University, the Louisiana native had no intention of moving to the Midwest until IU’s saxophone department head personally persuaded him to relocate to Evansville, IN.
While in grad school for classical saxophone and coaching horns at the school’s renowned IU Soul Revue, Jones was poached to sing because the group was short on vocalists. He had familiarity singing in the church growing up, but it hadn’t been a musical focus for years. Blake Rhein, the Indications’ guitarist, was a recording engineer on those rehearsals.
To blow off steam, Rhein invited Jones over to listen to records. What started with 45s and drinks evolved into a weekly jam session, and organically yielded the group’s 2016 self-titled debut, an eight-song soul statement gloriously lost in time. The debut was a grassroots success story, with momentum gained, in the group’s words: “On the back of the band’s booming live shows and the enthusiastic recommendation of independent records stores across the country – who moved thousands of copies by simply playing the hell out of the LP in their shops for their discerning customers.” Drummer Aaron Frazer’s striking falsetto also emerged as a sharp contrast to Jones’ vocals, adding a pronounced distinction to their already balanced output.
New single “Morning in America” finds Jones struggling with hope in a modern homeland struggling to unify. “And in towns across the country, it’s color that divides / When in working men and ladies, we can find our common side,” he bemoans before heading back to tune’s mournful chorus: “It’s morning in America, but I can’t see the dawn.” The track is the latest preview from their sophomore effort, American Love Call, out March 1.
Needle to the Groove spoke with select members of the Indications in advance of their upcoming Bay Area performances. They shared their surprises on tour, the varied musical roots that inform their dynamic sound, and new directions the band is headed with their new album.
Firstly, thank you for your time fellas. We love the first album, it gets a lot of play around here. What are your personal favorites from it? What was the recording process like? Would you have done anything differently?
Blake: “I Can’t Keep My Cool” is one of my favorites. I love Durand’s performance on that recording and it’s so much fun to play that one live. On the first record, we were writing a lot of the songs as we were recording them. We did the whole thing in Aaron’s basement, working with very limited set of resources, which definitely gave that record a distinct sound.
On American Love Call, we wanted to push ourselves as songwriters and producers. We wrote and demo’d a lot of songs that we whittled down to the twelve that ended up on the album. Working with a string section and harpist was a huge learning experience for me. Although we had more resources on this record, we still maintain over a lot of the philosophy and techniques that made the first record special.
You guys had a tremendous year following the release, more gigs and acclaim than ever before. How has adapting to constant life on the road impacted you personally? As a modern soul troupe, what locations surprised you the most?
Aaron: We’ve been all over the place – headlining tours, festivals, the occasional support slot – but it feels great to see that work paying off. Life on the road is a blast but a grind. We’ve met so many amazing people around the world, all bonded by a love of soul music. We’re so lucky to be a part of this community that spans the globe but somehow feels like a small town. The tricky part is finding a bit of personal space, even if that means noise-canceling headphones in the van, and dealing with some grueling drives. San Antonio was a place that, when we started touring, we had no idea was such a hub of soul music. But the people there are so passionate and proud of their musical heritage, and it holds a special place in our hearts. I was also really surprised when we came through Visalia, CA. I wasn’t familiar with the town, and it was much smaller than other cities we were playing, but the crowd was hype!
During a recent performance on KEXP Durand said, “Those church musicians down in Hillaryville, Louisiana played such a huge role in how I sing today.” Who are some of these quiet mentors you’ve learned from while in attendance? What particular memories, if any, do you carry with you?
Durand: Ms. Dawn Shivers comes to mind. A strong alto voice. When she had heard that I started singing in nightclubs, she drove over to my Dad’s trailer and told me to “Never forget God.” She kept repeating, “God you promise us!” I’ll never forget that, rest in peace. She had a voice I really admired. I looked up to her.
Other folks like this man by the name of Hardino who didn’t sing in the choir but when the spirit called upon him he would rise from his seat and shout and growl, “Ooooooooooo Lord I Got To Lay My Burdens Down!” As a child it was the scariest, bone-chilling thing. I still try to this day to mimic the sound but I’m not as powerful as ole Hardino, rest in peace. And then there was Troop, the last cowboy in Hillaryville [Louisiana, Durand’s hometown]. He sat way in the back and couldn’t sing but could throw his voice. He was amped up in church. I think I learned the art of throwing [my voice] from him and other country folks there.
We really need to talk about your incredible version of Penny & the Quarters’ “You and Me.” As one of the most uncanny songs ever, whose idea was it tackle such a recording?
Aaron: I’d first heard the track sometime about five years ago. What struck me most was how plain and beautiful the recording was. It’s clear it was all done through a single microphone, with the amp somewhere towards the back of the room, the backup singers closer up, and Penny Sharpe right in front. It feels like a really honest translation of the performance, and fits the simple but moving lyrics. It’s a big idea done small, which was the foundation of our entire approach to making soul music, and it just gives me the feeling sharing a small moment with someone with someone really special to you. The high vocals are right in my range and I’m a sucker for unadorned but powerful love songs. When we decided to do a covers 45, it was my first choice.
Durand, despite being best known for vocal abilities, you spent many years prior studying classical saxophone at Indiana University. How do you pull from the same creative space with both singing and playing, or do they operate from separate places?
Durand: I haven’t played sax much since 2016 but when I do I find that it correlates to my singing. Mainly in the oral cavity. A goal of mine was always to “Sing through the horn!”
How did you first connect with Colemine Records? We’re big fans and really love what they’re doing. Whom else from the label should fans check out?
Blake: A really great record store in Bloomington, IN called Landlocked Music started stocking all the Colemine stuff pretty early on. I noticed the 45s all had an Ohio address on them, and I was really excited there was a label doing that type of thing so close by. We started talking to Terry [Cole, founder of Colemine Records] over email and he was really supportive of what we were doing. I love the Wesley Bright & The Honeytones’ 45 [“Happiness”] and The Jr. Thomas & The Volcanoes record [Rockstone] has to be one of the best Rocksteady albums to come out last year.
Durand mentioned in the Albuquerque Journal that the band essentially formed because he wanted to “make friends,” adding, “It really made this shy, introverted dude find his space in the world. Prior to playing music together, we first got together to listen to soul music, playing 45s for one another.” It seems like a love for record collecting is a shared passion among all group members, as you’ll share records on Instagram from time to time.
Durand: I did not get into record collecting until I met these guys. Someone will find a store and we’ll go and check it out. The record collecting started out as a big influence. When we were in Bloomington, we would share [records] with one another on Sundays. But now being spread all over the country it’s hard to do that. Mostly a lot of where we can hear what each of us are listening to is Spotify on the Indications Inspirations playlist.
Your songs are all over the soul spectrum, from sweet soul to sweaty funk. What type of music did you listen to growing up?
Blake: I remember filling out a time capsule in 2nd grade and saying my favorite song was “Dancing Queen” by Abba. I think I was really drawn in by the arrangement and the melody. The way the piano plays off the voice is great. My older brother gave me an Outkast CD for my 10th birthday and I listened to that religiously. Again I was really drawn in by the production. I felt like I could hear all the little intricacies in the mix, and that was really eye-opening for me.
What directions, if any, do you see your music moving towards? Will it be more sweet soul, heavy funk, or all of the above?
Durand: Right now it’s heading into a more sweet sound. Many of the times when I sang for the record I kept getting the comments “too dynamic” or “too much velocity.” [It’s a] much different style of singing from the first album and what it took to sing those songs each night. So I had to change my approach and method. At first I felt a little discouraged because it was tough! But then [I would be] listening to Irma Thomas and [hearing] her not letting any genre trip her up. So I took the challenge.
Durand Jones & The Indications’ new album, American Love Call, is available on all formats March 1st 2019. We’d like to thank Durand and company for their time and insight on a career we cannot wait to absorb.
Interview by David Ma, foreword by Brandon Roos for Needle to the Groove Ent.