Two heads are better than one: Duos to know in the Charleston music scene
The duo has long been a unique and intimate fixture in the music realm, hailing back to the folk movement in which harmonies are essential and stringed instruments sound better in pairs. While the solo artist and full-fledged band tend to dominate the studio and stage, the duo still shines in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Hall & Oates and Simon & Garfunkel, among others who lit the torch along the way.
Many modern-day names embrace the two-piece arrangement, stretching far past the folk genre. Take rock and rollers The White Stripes, or more recently, twenty-one pilots, a hip-hop meets -electronic mastermind of the setup.
From South Carolina breakout Shovels & Rope to Durham, North Carolina-based electro-pop Sylvan Esso, the Southeast has equally embraced the duo. And though some masters of the arrangement, such as the Civil Wars, have since ceased to exist, others have held on for the long haul while some have just begun.
The newest duo in town is composed of two members of successful Charleston outfit SUSTO. Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell have heralded their own project before, under the moniker of Rico and Miranda. Latest endeavor Babe Club is a new title for an already existent sound bolstered by Desmond’s songwriting and vocals and Campbell’s guitar playing and production.
“This is me getting to share my thoughts and story for the first time,” says Desmond, who is used to being the only woman on the road with SUSTO for weeks at a time. “I’m on the road all the time with a bunch of guys. So, sometimes I feel far away, and I need to talk to a woman about ---- that’s really annoying. Being on the road has really challenged me writing-wise. Spending endless time in the van comes with its own challenges, and that’s inspired a lot of material for these songs. It’s interesting supporting someone and then kind of stepping back and expressing your own story. All of those things reinforce each other.”
Desmond and boyfriend Campbell, who met at the College of Charleston in 2013, have been working on a collection of music for more than two years. The duo started by making demos on Garage Band and sending ideas back and forth to each other. It formed into a long-term project that is now coming to the forefront with Babe Club, which is making its debut during a short SUSTO tour hiatus. Desmond hopes the duo will turn into a larger collaborative effort.
“I’m kind of trying to play with other women in town,” says Desmond. “I hope that Babe Club puts that aura out to the world. I love playing with men too, but I would like to write with women.”
She’s already been joined in the studio by Mary Alice Mitchell of the High Divers and Jenna Faline of Faline. Desmond and Campbell also are hoping to play with a larger ensemble for some shows, such as their very first full band performance under the new moniker at Royal American last Tuesday. The lineup included Camille Rhoden from Grace Joyner, Tanner Cooper from Hey Rocco and Kelly Morris from The Mobros.
Ultimately, however, Babe Club is the brainchild of the duo.
“It’s so easy for us to work together,” says Desmond. “We just understand each other really well, and we bring really different things to each other. Corey’s very technical and focused on the tedious things that crafting sound and composing involve. But I’m kind of more intuitive and hear melodies in my head and then get Corey’s help to work them out.”
“Automatic Love,” released under Desmond’s name on the 2017 Scene SC sampler, will be on the first Babe Club album, set to drop early next year.
Another duo fairly new to the Charleston music scene is 2 Slices, started by former Raleigh, North Carolina band Octopus Jones’ lead man Danny Martin and Brandon Fudge, aka DJ Lazer Cat. The ’80s pop, R&B and hip-hop-inspired collaboration is far from the psychedelic surf rock of Martin’s yesteryear. 2 Slices also has gained recent attention from a music video for single “Slow Poison,” which was filmed in a one-shot take at downtown venue the Commodore by Dominic and Geno DiMaria.
“I kind of wanted to get out of my funk of writing rock and roll,” says Martin. “I wanted to try a new genre. I’m a guitar player and wanted to play more keyboards and synth to expand the sound and keep up with the kids and the trap music.”
Martin brought Fudge on board to make the solo project a more manageable and larger effort. The two have known each other since 2009, when they both lived in Myrtle Beach.
“I didn’t want to do the whole thing by myself,” says Martin. “It would be too much. Fudge has been helping me out. Now, it’s blossomed into this whole project where he’s been improvising and creating new beats, and he’s been in the studio with me. He always keeps me in check. If I have an idea, he’s the guy I feed it off of.”
2 Slices has transformed from Martin’s typical bedroom DIY recording projects into a full-fledged studio album that is set to be released in September. The debut disc, “Best Believe,” will be a personal revelation from Martin, working through the emotions felt when his bandmates from Octopus Jones moved away and Martin relocated to Charleston.
“After the band split up, I found myself at a crossroads,” says Martin. “I was thinking, ‘Do I want to continue music?’ This project helped me find something new with music that I didn’t have before. It was a breath of fresh air.”
Another new duo forming in the local hip-hop scene, is JahSCrib, a collaboration between Johnny Howard Jr. (Johnny Jr.) and Kevin James (DJ SCrib). The two teamed up after James saw Johnny Jr. at Dave Curry (Black Dave)’s Charleston Hype Show on Jan. 7. Instead of Curry DJing for Johnny’s set, James stepped in and the duo was formed.
Since then, they’ve been writing together and creating a nostalgic sound, which was recently displayed at an album listening party at PURE Theatre.
“These songs represent our childhood as well as growth as adults,” says James. “We wanted that feel like an old mixtape that had a plot within the songs, so we featured multiple skits at the beginning, middle and end.”
The collaboration has only solidified during live performances.
“We both bring an energy to not only the music recorded but when we perform,” says James. “It’s like we free each other from fear and forget about all the bad in the world for a brief time.”
The JahSCrib mixtape will drop July 21 on Soundcloud.
Kevin Shields and John Shields are not related, even though they share the same last name. They did, however, go to the same high school in Pennsylvania, playing in separate bands Long Miles and Racket Boys before ultimately settling into the duo that now is Little Stranger here in Charleston.
Little Stranger combines guitar tracks, drum beats, synth drums, bass, MIDI keyboard, melodica and more through a looper, while adding on smooth and catchy hip-hop vocals. There are no prerecorded beats during live shows, meaning that every sound on stage happens in the moment. And though they’ve both had full bands in the past, Kevin Shields prefers the duo, somewhat for coordinating and booking reasons and somewhat for the more intimate feeling it creates in a performance setting.
“I definitely think there are times when I want a full band,” says Shields. “In bigger rooms, it puts less pressure on John having to loop everything. But one of the biggest compliments we get is that the two-piece setup is pretty unsuspecting. Having two people on stage versus five is also better for the audience to get to know us.”
The duo’s Techniques EP was released in May 2017 and features hits “Me and You” and “Girl III,” among three other fizzy feel-good tracks. The disc is a lyrically clever eclectic blend somewhere in the mix of Gorillaz and a Tribe Called Quest, with the overarching familiarity of twenty-one pilots.
Future Little Stranger happenings include a show at 9 p.m. on July 22 at the Royal American with Human Resources and Damn Skippy as well as mini collaborations with world jazz hip-hop group Terraphonics on Tuesday nights in August on the Pour House deck.
Unlike the Shields, the Morrises of soul duo the Mobros are in fact related. They’re brothers, and they’ve been playing music together for most of their lives.
Early influences for the two include Trinidad Calypso music, a part of their mother’s heritage, along with classic soul singers such as Al Green, Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge. These both heavily transfer into their rhythmic vintage sound.
“Whether you’re a duo, trio or quartet, a good strategic projection is to try to achieve everything that you are hearing— piano, the horn line, a brass or woodwind section— and consolidate it into something you can pull off yourself,” says Kelly Morris. “So, that’s the challenge. Use your instrument as a voice. Don’t look at it as it really is. Play guitar parts as organ parts or drum parts as syncopated beats a horn might play. A lot of guitar players focus on speed and agility and showmanship but not picking up a true melodic sense of what they’re doing and what it means.”
Being close siblings also makes creating music much easier.
“The most freeing thing about being a duo is we’re able to go off and play live at different places we wouldn’t be able to if we had someone else with us who didn’t have that connection that we have as brothers,” says Patrick Morris.
And living together makes it easy to practice and work on other music-related projects such as Flower Couch Sessions. This endeavor brings local and touring musicians onto the Morrises’ retro floral couch for interviews and acoustic performances, which are then livestreamed on their Facebook page at facebook.com/flowercouchsessions.
“It’s networking for musicians,” says Patrick Morris. “One artist will come on and bring new fans, but we can bring them fans and then the next artist can reciprocate. And we want to make a comfortable laid-back environment. We may have a beer, talk, hang out and just see where it goes. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have a story or message, and it might grow into addressing social issues at some point. We’re here for that purpose. It’s a catalyst in a way, because the idea is bigger than we are and has the potential to expand to a much larger idea.”
As for the Mobros, a record is in the works and it’s going to be more conceptual than ever.
“Everything you write is a narrative of your life,” says Kelly Morris. “Even if it’s metaphorical or fictitious, it’s coming out of a part of you.”
Shane Williams and Warren Bazemore of longstanding duo Finnegan Bell are masters of the two-part harmony.
“It’s more like two singers singing together instead of one in the background,” says Williams. “That’s always appealed to us.”
And the duo has had a long time to develop the perfect vocal blend, since Williams and Bazemore have been playing music together since 1994. They were in Appalachian folk rock group Silers Bald right out of college, which made it all the way to a record deal. During the heyday, they were touring more than 200 days a year. However, both artists wanted times to write again and a chance to lead a more sustainable lifestyle when on the road. Therefore, the duo was officially crafted.
It comes naturally.
“One of the most amazing parts about playing as a duo is that Warren and I have done it together for so long now that it’s almost like breathing,” says Williams. “There’s no set list, and we don’t even have to talk about the songs ... There’s this really cool openness that can happen, and you can only get that with someone you’ve connected with on that level for so long.”
Beyond performing live about 150 days out of the year, Finnegan Bell has started hosting “STACK” house shows. The performances take place in people’s homes and unique locations throughout the Lowcountry, such as an abandoned Cainhoy church. Williams and Bazemore rearrange the space to create an intimate listening room environment. Then, they begin with a few songs as Finnegan Bell before introducing other artists.
“Charleston has such a beautiful scene,” says Williams. “We love being engaged in what’s happening. And you don’t see a big pissing contest here.”
Finnegan Bell will be releasing a single on vinyl and digitally in September, leading up to a new album set to be recorded in spring of next year.