Earthquake Lights are a purported phenomenon whereby people claim to see rays of light flashing overhead during an earthquake. There is no definitive explanation for this phenomenon; indeed, some scientists dispute whether it even actually occurs. Nonetheless, for at least five gifted NYC-based musicians and their growing audience, Earthquake Lights are very, very real –– something to be both seen and heard.
A group of college grads slip into their alma mater’s music building after hours, telling the security guards on duty they’re rehearsing for “a recital.” On keys and singing lead, Myles Rodenhouse; the drummer, Stephen Helms; playing electric bass, James DiGorlamo; on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Cam Underhill; and on lead guitar, Evan Douaihy. In truth, there is no recital. Having met as students in the school’s jazz department, the quintet is here trying out something different, not exactly jazz, not classical, and with too many tentacles to be classified as either rock, doo-wop, soul, or R&B, yet still blending, refining all these styles and more.
Earthquake Lights plays its first real gig, in New York City, circa 2011; at the time, some of the members are still in school and others are living together in Astoria, Queens, NY. Shortly after their first live performance together, they fly out to Los Angeles to record a six-song EP at Rodenhouse’s brother’s studio. If a really tight indie-rock band apprenticed under a long-forgotten bebopper who never quite got his due, the result might sound something like Bangups & Hangups, released independently on February 29, 2012 — leap year day.
Over the next several years, the band works at writing and refining new material while playing shows in and around NYC. Rodenhouse becomes the proprietor of a recording studio in Brooklyn. The first track off Bangups & Hangups, “Choke em Up,” is licensed for use in a commercial for Tissot, the official wristwatch of the NBA. Track four, “I’ve Done No Wrong,” appears on the soundtrack to the TV series Edge of Eighteen, which airs on Al Jazeera.
The placements help put some coin in the band’s coffer, but it’s the refinement process that yields the bigger creative ROI. Unapologetic music nerds and devout believers in the combined power and purity of a colorful harmony accompanied by a compelling melody, Earthquake Lights’ five heads repeatedly fall victim to their own perfectionism only to rise time and again with newer, brighter songwriting ideas. “Early on, we learned to embrace a cerebral approach to writing music together,” explains Helms. “Sometimes a piece of music comes out organically and all the pieces naturally fall into place, and sometimes you need to bash your head against a wall for a year before it’s right. We’re not afraid to bash our heads against that wall.”
The creative grind continues uninterrupted, real-life experience part and parcel of the refinement process. After obsessing over some 10 songs, Earthquake Lights get to recording their debut full-length, Distress Signals, at Rodenhouse’s studio. With bold, meticulously soul-bearing works demanding outside expertise, the band recruits some Broadway musicians to play brass parts. Soon enough, Earthquake Lights find themselves at world-famous Abbey Road Studios recording strings with a professional orchestra. It’s a dream come true, to be sure, but more than that it’s an exclamation point, a finishing touch perfectly suited for the debut album by this band of perfectionists. A product of tireless and fruitful head-bashing, Distress Signals is a testament not only to Earthquake Lights’ vision but their execution of it — something to be both seen and heard.