Denton’s fledgling mood-rock quartet Chambers looks to be destined for coveted Dallas music awards this year.
Chambers, the brainchild of chronically underrated Denton song craftsman and guitarist Judson Valdez, just dropped its nine-track debut album to critical praise (no doubt helped by a cheeky social media campaign “Everybody Hates Chambers,” a video promotion that include the blessing of some of the city’s most respected indie musicians), got picked up by a label and has already done some touring.
“Mostly, the record evolved from a lot of solo stuff I’d been working on,” Valdez said. “Then when we all started working together, it changed and became what ended up on the album.”
The songs on Inner Room reflect Valdez’s ability to tune his radar into simple, melancholy melodies that blossomed under the influence of University of North Texas theater arts major Piper Johnson’s choir-girl vocals, which often drift around Valdez’s lead vocals like a ribbon of smoke. Piper’s big brother, percussionist Chase Johnson, treats the drum kit as another palette of musical colors. Daniel Pelletier underlines and emphasizes the whole heady and emotional tangle on the bass.
In terms of sound, Chambers’ harmonies recall another Denton band, Seryn — and the influence is fair, not only because of Seryn’s acclaim in the local and regional indie folk scene but also because Valdez is friends with the members of the band. In terms of mood and effects, Chambers shares some the damp, dour Brit-rock pavement Denton’s Sundress occupies so well. Chambers loves its echo effects a mite too well (and takes a page from Midlake’s new-age troubadour poetry) but the songs hold up thanks to Valdez and Johnson’s talent for composition.
Valdez said Chambers got its start in earnest when he and Chase Johnson were walking around Deep Ellum after Index Fest last year.
“We were playing for [Denton indie folk artist] Sam Robertson and Judson said, ‘Here’s an idea. What if Sam was part of this, too?’” Chase Johnson recalled. “I remember when we really decided to make it happen. It was at a show in January of 2013. Sam left — she was getting married — and we had to figure out where to go with this.”
Shortly after Robertson left the group, Valdez said he and Chase Johnson played a set with Piper Johnson and another musician at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge in Fort Worth.
“It was super well-received,” Valdez said. “We got a lot of really enthusiastic feedback. That was the second moment.”
Piper Johnson said she was all in as soon as the band recruited her.
“Really, for me, it was from the beginning that I knew I wanted to commit to it,” she said. “Chase and Judson were working and for me, going into it, I felt like this was something I really wanted to do.”
Valdez is the songwriter-in-chief at the moment, and said he likes playing around with a vocal loop machine to experiment with harmonies and to tinker with layers. Inner Room is rife with songs that have a sonic backbone, with harmonies and verses growing outward.
“I think ‘In Your Blood’ is the best example of that,” Chase Johnson said. “The guitar’s the same from the beginning to the end, but everything else grows. Everyone else is layering over that.”
Inner Room was almost finished when it was picked up by Kansas City label the Record Machine, which is distributing the band’s debut.
“Record Machine was one of the first labels we talked to,” Valdez said. “We had a good conversation with [founder] Nathan [Reusch], and felt good about what they wanted to and how they wanted to work with us.”
The Record Machine is an indie label established in 2003, and includes the James Dean Trio and Cowboy Indian Bear on its artist roster.
Chase Johnson said Valdez’s raw material has become the band’s art and ethos.
“It’s really the album the band made together,” he said. “I mean, I can’t go to Rubber Gloves [Rehearsal Studios in Denton] and play a show of Chambers music on my own. That’s not going to happen. We all contributed something that makes the record what it is. I can say that, for me, I wanted to make the drums as musical as what Judson is doing on the guitar and what Judson and Piper are doing vocally. I wanted to make the drums the percussion section of the orchestra, you know?”
Chambers has the same challenge that any band has after a successful debut: living up to early expectations and growing past them, should expectations turn into constraints. Dallas folk artist Sarah Jaffe, for example, who made her celebrated debut Suburban Nature while living and working in Denton, surprised more than a few fans when sophomore record The Body Wins left much of the girl-and-guitar earnestness in favor of a headier electronic sensibility.
“I think, as a band, we don’t worry about what happens next,” Piper Johnson said. “Now, personally, I’m kind of anxious. I’m still in school. I’m asking myself things like, ‘Will I drop out of school? Should I make the band my top priority? If I drop out, will it be worth it?’ So I’m anxious, personally, yeah. But as a band, do we worry about what comes after this? No. We just keep doing music.”
Chase Johnson said his anxiety is probably impatience cloaked in antsy musings about how to make the most of a debut that has award nominators projecting Chambers as a contender.
“My anxiety for being in Chambers stems from wanting this to happen sooner rather than later,” he said. “I want Coldplay to be opening for us. You know? I want to hurry up and make music for a living. That would be great. That’s what we all want, I think.”
Valdez said Inner Room is a projection of the art to come.
“I really think this album, for us, showed us what the band is going to sound like. Some of the music is true to the music I was working on when we got together. But everyone turned it into what this record is,” Valdez said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we do next.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
What: Chambers opens for Air Review and Borrisokane
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Club Dada, 2720 Elm St. in Dallas
Details: Tickets cost $10 to $13. For advance tickets, visit http://spune.com/show/air-review.
Music online: Inner Room is available on iTunes and Spotify.
Track by track
Chambers, “Inner Room”
“Come Down, Please” — This gem appears at the end of Inner Room. A steady pluck of a single guitar string hints at the heightened heartbeat of a warring, estranged couple festering in separate rooms. Piper Johnson sings a lonely, aching introduction: “You won’t fight/So I won’t come down.” Judson Valdez answers: “I won’t bite/Why won’t you fight with me?” “I want to fight/I want to fight with you,” Johnson sings, joining Valdez as he sings, “I won’t bite, no I won’t bite.” The song isn’t typical verse-chorus-verse pop fare. It’s more of an idea that builds in volume (decibels and musical heft) as Valdez, Piper Johnson, Chase Johnson and Daniel Pelletier layer their sound onto the theme. And it’s utterly enchanting.
“Make It So” — There’s a hint of Renaissance fair madrigal to this song. A simple harmony weights the lead line with a plodding drum and light strings and dramatic, marching keys. Chambers could easily ride the song into sappy hokum with a hammer dulcimer, a bodhran and mandolin. But this track keeps it between the lines, subtracting where they surely prefer to embellish. The track benefits from Valdez’s sure edits, and stays on point — this tune is a proverbial message in a bottle from one cracked, worn soul to another.
“In Your Blood” — This dirge-y tune features a steady repeating guitar underscoring a chorus worthy of a Broadway musical drama, picking up midway with a contemporary drumbeat reminiscent of Midlake’s “Roscoe,” but more blunted. The band continues sorting through great big, timeless themes of seeking, betrayal and redemption. “Well, they say that the body’s a temple,” Valdez sings. “These pieces of rubble are all I have to offer up to your kin.” The song grows into a loud wail of “whoas” before slowing to a final few lines of guitar and this provocation by Valdez: “When I spit in your face there/Told you I’d be back/if you keep your arms lifted or fold them up and spit right back.”
— Lucinda Breeding