NEW YORK — It is generally frowned upon to not know if you’re coming or going. But in the case of “The Big Island,” the sophomore offering from Brooklyn-based Americana-indie band Motel Motel, it’s a super power. The band has somehow mastered the ability to make listeners feel nostalgic for home and for the sense of familiarity, yet ready and yearning to embark on a great voyage of things and places unfamiliar.
Motel Motel’s songs contain strong vocals and heartfelt orchestral chords, and just about every song on “The Big Island” has a joyous and powerful energy. Classifying the quintet as a “rock band” doesn’t fully describe them, but they are also not what one thinks of when they hear the words “indie Brooklyn band.” Even though when you get off the subway to see one of their shows, one of their audience members may glare at you for being in your work suit or not having stylish bed bug bites, Motel Motel is anything but another stale hipster band. They are completely original, and any influences one may hear in their music probably comes from the band’s similar experiences or level of talent as other great musicians.
Motel Motel is a modern rock band that ties in an indie edge with the sprawling sounds of the great west. The album makes listeners feel as though they can live in this dream time of comfort when they felt “home,” even just for a few moments. Their vocal harmonies are so soul shaking that they seem to unite the listener with some higher human emotion. If nostalgia were an instrument, one of the five musicians that make up Motel Motel would be a master at playing it.
Yet the band’s western twang and sudden key changes make the listener feel as if they are exploring uncharted territory. Their songs are like some kind of untamed ocean, where the water under your boat starts out with one motion and takes sudden unknown turns. Whether the waters are quieting down, or ripples begin to turn into a tempestuous tirade, the one thing that is certain is that you don’t know what nature has in store for you and your journey. No one song on “The Big Island” ends with the same sound, tone or emotion it began with, making the music as mysterious yet natural as the aforementioned sea. And like the ocean, no matter what direction the “waves” are moving, the music seems to seamlessly flow.
This nomadic quality may have something to do with the Motel Motel’s members seemingly making up some sort of mini Rock ‘n’ Roll House of Representatives. They each hail from a different state and represent almost every time zone the country has to offer.
“I think because we’re all from all over the place, I think we all kind of speak to different experiences and have sort of a sentimental sense of the road and traveling and that kind of thing,” said Mickey Theis, one of the band’s guitarist and vocalists. “All of us I think have that. We all came to New York because we were unsatisfied I guess with where we were living and I think this band has taken us different places.”
Motel Motel’s first album “New Denver” sounds more chaotic and a bit edgier than the band’s second feat. “New Denver” sounds like the result of scooping up the island of New York City and suddenly dropping it in a big square state out west. “The Big Island” has an easier and more joyful yet longingly sound. The latest album definitely depicts different perspectives, ones that are sometimes working together and sometimes working in discordance. This element is one reason “The Big Island” is so unique.
“We’ve known each other for so long we kind of discovered a way to work with each other. Its not as beautiful as it may appear, we argue a lot, we fight a lot, just yesterday we got into some pretty intense arguments,” said Eric Engel, guitarist and lead vocalist. “It’s a lot of intense moments we have that make decisions. But when it does work out and it does come together, it’s beautiful,” Eric said.
It is hard to miss the influence of Hawaiian sounds on the album. It is not to say that “The Big Island” is going to be part of your Sublime/Jack Johnson/311 “Surfs Up!” play list next summer, but it does have elements of what most would consider a “beachy” vibe. It incorporates Hawaiian themes in a very grand way, perhaps in the way that you would describe an epic wave would crash into the shore in Hawaii vs that experience in New Jersey. This sound melts into the album seamlessly thanks to an instrument called the Pedal steel, a string instrument with a reputation for being extremely difficult to play. Many of the band members expressed how impressed they are with keyboardist Erik Gundel’s ability to effortlessly play such a complicated instrument.
“The Big Island’s” Hawaiian influences have no doubt to do with guitarist/bassist Timothy “Timo” Sullivan’s growing up in the Aloha State. The band said that on this album, the duty of creating lyrics naturally fell more so in the hands of Timothy and Eric Engel.
“My dad is a fisherman,” Sullivan said, “and he fishes at night, so my idea of Hawaii is like dark oceans and scary waves and very epic. So it wasn’t conscience at first, it became conscience, that we were trying to make an album that really swelled and was epic. Where the Hawaiian most came into play was (in the song) ‘Kaimanu,’ because that’s the name of my dads boat. … So we pictured it like (the sounds and lyrics of the song) would be him sailing into the ocean. But we never named that song ‘Kaimanu’ until the end, we always pictured it would be a song about the ocean, but it all fell together.”
The Hawaiian theme doesn’t stop there. Many of the songs have the Island’s mythology, imagery or culture entwined with its notes. Another song on the album, “Keauhou,” references a harbor, and urban legends about a Hawaiian King, King Kamehameha, who was said to carry a giant rock 40 miles just to prove he could be king. This is a story that well known to Hawaiians according to Timothy, and storytelling such as this is what this album does so well.
This is a prime example of the familial feel many of the songs have, and perhaps it is because we can sense it is familiar to someone somewhere. To those non-Hawaiians, it seems like an exciting story from a far away land, but to someone else, it’s a story from home. One constant theme on “The Big Island” is its push-pull feeling of reminiscence and the exploration of lands and emotions unknown. The album has something identifiable and familiar for everyone, and something mysterious and exciting for everyone else.
“(“Keauhou”) is about leaving from a harbor, that harbor always struck me as a really desolate sad harbor to leave. As you dock all you can see are rocks, but as you turn around and jetty the corner, the ocean just opens up,” Sullivan said, reflecting on his trips to and from the Keauhou harbor.
The one criticism that must be bestowed upon Motel Motel is that it is probably easier to spot King Kamehameha carrying that rock than it is to catch the band performing live. But the band has a number of upcoming shows in New York. Seeing the band play live is an experience that no one should miss. Motel Motel’s bodies and instruments simply explode with gleeful movements and noises respectively, and the feeling fills the entire room to the brim. No matter what the venue, Motel Motel’s live performances completely transforms any space, making the audience forget how they almost got shanked passing the scary Brooklyn truck yard by a vacant lot to get to the venue, and brings them to some sun filled, sweet and lovely beach or mountainside.
This band and this sound is exactly what New York City needs — a safe haven from the hustle and sometimes harsh atmosphere of our “Not quite as big” island. Motel Motel brings the ocean to our parched ears, and serves as an oasis in our urban desert.
Upcoming Motel Motel shows:
- October 21, 10 p.m., Bowery Hotel Arcade 44 Party (CMJ)
- October 21, 11 p.m., Spike Hill in Williamsburg (CMJ)
- November 13, 9 p.m., Bruar Falls with Tuning
- November 20, 9 p.m., Pianos-Start Magazine Presents Roadside Graves with Motel Motel and Dinosaur Feathers
- December 15, 10 p.m., Grasslands with Depreciation Guild