By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Natural Velvet.
Guitars scream and twist like dancing banshees around a persistent bass slither. Corynne Osterman’s voice teeters in the maelstrom between a too-cool indifference and lilting waivers that bring to mind Lou Reed… if he were a woman.
You can experience this phenomenon by listening to Natural Velvet, a four-member “dazed post-punk outfit” based out of Baltimore, Maryland. Emphasis here is on the dazed, but not in a lazy or far-gone kind of way that you might expect. The songs on their new album Shame move forward at their own pace, which might sound akin to a stagger down a long and dimly-lit hallway.
Whether it’s drawing inspiration from alien films or experimenting with feedback manipulation, the band members aren’t afraid to take chances. Guitar player Spike Arreaga sits down with BTR to talk about what makes Natural Velvet so natural.
BTR: How did the band come together?
Spike Arreaga (SA): We all went to art school together here in Baltimore. We had a few people come in very early on that didn’t end up sticking around–like a lot of bands there was plenty of member-cycling in the beginning. There’s only one person in the band who’s a local, the rest of us all moved here from different cities. We’ve been friends for close to six years now and we’ve also been members in a variety of bands and projects so we knew we’d be able to make this happen.
BTR: Coming from all these different places, what was it like acclimating to the Baltimore music scene?
SA: We all really appreciated it compared to where we were coming from. Not to say that any of the places we left were bad. I’m from San Antonio, Texas, our bassist Corynne Ostermann is from Chicago, and our guitarist Kim Te is from New York–so we all come from very different spaces with vastly different music scenes. I think we all agree that we enjoy the Baltimore music scene more. I mean, New York is always going to be a special place; it’s always going to have a bustling music scene no matter what.
But compared to Chicago and San Antonio, Baltimore feels way more active. There’s just a lot of people in motion that are constantly adding to it, and at the same time it never feels too big. Sometimes it’s nice to have a tighter community. You get to know everybody, and they get to know your work and understand you on another level. With too many people artists can forget about each other easier.
BTR: How about some creative influences, musical or otherwise?
SA: Personally I pull a lot from a lot of influences. The band definitely shares an affinity for groups like the Banshees and the Cure. We’re all also really big fans of Blonde Redhead even if we don’t borrow too much from them. We admire the fact that they’ve been around for so long and put out a massive body of work.
We’re also all visual artists–me and Kim are both illustrators and Corynne’s a painter–so we’re definitely influenced by looking at art. Drawing from these other outlets, whether they’re cartoons, TV shows, paintings… it’s hard to put your finger on how the images influence the sounds, but that’s part of the magic. We have one song we’re working on right now that’s inspired by that new Scarlett Johansson movie where she is an alien…
BTR: Under the Skin? That was a great film.
SA: Exactly, we have a song that’s based off of our feelings we shared after watching it in theaters. The message might seem veiled, but it’s definitely there. I really enjoy being able to do that, finding inspiration in mediums outside of what we do.
Photo courtesy of Natural Velvet.
BTR: Speaking to that collective inspiration, it seems like you guys are pretty tight. Do you all write songs together, or is it a solo endeavor?
SA: We definitely do it together, starting with a bare-bones melody or bass line, and then we’ll jam on it to see where it takes us. That’s actually how we begin every practice together–with a jam to warm up, and then another one to bring some ideas out on the floor to work on. Maybe we’ll start with a bass-line, and then build off of that skeleton.
Usually someone will take some of the pieces home and turn them into something bigger.
BTR: The guitar work on Shame was impressive in that it’s really screaming yet yours and Kim’s tones never step on each other’s tones. Was it hard to find that sense of harmony in the chaos?
SA: We had a lot of trouble working with that initially. For a while we struggled with EQ’s and making sure all of the levels sounded alright, because there is a lot of feedback at work. Should the guitarists sit in their own place, should they blend together? It was a lot of experimentation.
Kim and I naturally have very distinct contrasts in our sound, so it was definitely a conscious effort to try and bring those two worlds together. The longer we played together the better idea we ended up having as to where each of us should sit in the mix, and how to create something pleasing out of the differences and spaces between.
To hear more from Natural Velvet, check out their bandcamp or BTR’s very own In the Den.