I’ll never forget my first time listening to DC’s Frend.
I was at Slash Run in Petworth with my friend Davis White. We were catching up over beers and nachos when suddenly our conversation was broken by a pulverizing guitar riff and pounding drums. “Hello. Who’s this?” — I remember wondering.
Davis told me the band was called Frend — “no ‘i’,” he pointed out.
I couldn’t recall the last time I heard a DC band pack so much power and intensity into its music with such a sharpened focus on craft. Here was a band not just interested in sheer power and might, but emotional heft and hooks. And it succeeded on all fronts — as a three-piece!
Make no mistake. Frend may be only three musicians — vocalist/guitarist James Keary, bassist Sarah Catoe and percussionist extraordinaire Ben Tufts — but this band is a force to be reckoned with. The band’s excellent EP, “Exercise Your Demons Pt 1,” which was recorded with an earlier line-up, highlights what makes the band so special: the quality of the songwriting.
And with its latest line-up, Frend are poised to scale even greater heights. I asked Frend vocalist/guitarist and songwriter (and DC-to-NYC-to-DC transplant) James Keary to tell me more about this most intriguing trio and what it’s like making music in the nation’s capital…
1) Let’s start with some band history. How did the band form and what led to your current line-up?
James: It’s hard to say exactly when Frend formed. I moved to DC four years ago for a failing relationship that crashed and burned horribly. Out of those ashes, I wrote some songs about the experience and my feelings on it. I decided to write songs like no one was going to hear them so that I wasn’t afraid of what people might think. I had left New York and didn’t know any musicians in DC, so it was pretty easy to think that way. But, the content of the songs got deeper than I first anticipated. Not only was I writing about the relationship, I started writing about my depression, my anxiety and self loathing — not only as a way to understand what happened at the end of that relationship, which was pretty earth shattering for me at the time, but as a way to understand myself. I developed this new stream of conscious way of writing songs. I would write journal entries that would be pages long for days on my neurotic thoughts and feelings, and then all of a sudden a song would just pour out of me like blood from an open wound. It was through that process I felt like I had really found my voice both as a songwriter and as a person. I felt like I had found my power.
I became driven to form a band around the songs and this writing process. But I didn’t have anyone to play with at the time. When I first moved here, I didn’t have many friends. So I spent some time finding people, which was hard because I’m a total introvert. I eventually started playing with a drummer, Sam Aydlette, who was a friend of a friend. Sam was so enthusiastic about the music and is such a powerhouse on drums. We played a few shows as a two piece. At one show we met Ben Green, a producer/engineer who runs Ivakota Studios in Capitol Hill. I asked to record with him. Shortly after that, we started practicing at 7DrumCity in Bloomingdale, where we met Nick Cruz who worked there. Nick popped his head in one practice and asked if we needed a bass player. A few weeks later the three of us were recording 10 songs at Ivakota with Ben.
Incidentally, Nick is an amazing guitar player who was playing jazz gigs over the city when we first met. We would play shows where Nick and I would switch guitar and bass mid-song, just so he could solo. But then, Sam and Nick left the band in early 2018. Nick moved to France and Sam didn’t have any time because he had a newborn baby on the way. After some time, Ben Tufts and Sarah Catoe joined Frend. Ben is a DC drum legend; he’s in several amazing DC bands, including FuzzQueen, Virginia Creep, Uptown Boys Choir, just to name a few. Incidentally, Ben had also popped his head into an early practice to ask to join the band. We couldn’t make our schedules work at that time. But this time we did. And Sarah Catoe is a super talented multi-instrumentalist who was in the South Carolina band Oicho Kabu before she moved to DC. She now plays bass with us. The three of us have been playing together for a few months now and it’s going great.
2) As someone who previously made music in NYC, how are you finding DC?
James: Both have their ups and downs in my opinion. The Brooklyn scene is very cliquish. It’s huge with so many practice spaces, recording studios, awesome venues, but mostly mediocre bands, at least when I was there. There are so many niche rock scenes, but nothing really ties it all together. Everyone’s very focused on “making it.” Since leaving NYC, I’ve been more focused on finding a community. The community here in DC is much more accepting, but very small, harder to find, and has no central location. There’s no single neighborhood where musicians congregate like Williamsburg or Greenpoint in Brooklyn. Everyone in those neighborhoods is in a band. When I first got to DC , I had no idea where to go. I couldn’t even find a practice space. Thank god for 7DrumCity, they’ve filled a void in this city. I heard there used to be more practice spaces in the city 10-15 years ago, but they all seemed to have closed due to noise complaints, which is why 7DrumCity is so vital.
I have this theory, and this may just be my cynicism, but I think most major U.S. cities are heading this way — kicking out the artists and siloing them to the suburbs, and the internet/social media isn’t helping, it’s pushing us further apart instead of bringing us together. It’s something we, as artists, have to fight against. It seems that most DC bands are silo-ed out in the suburbs, practicing in their basements. As a result, no one knows anyone, except for online Facebook group interactions. But that doesn’t replace community. I think the sense of community is lacking here. I’m from DC, and felt that way even when I was growing up in the suburbs here. Coming back to it has been interesting though, because in small pockets, I have found it. Some musicians and artists I have met here are driven and have things that they care deeply about. And there are a few places that are doing some great things for the community, like 7DrumCity, Rhizome in Takoma Park, and Hole in the Sky in NE DC. One thing that is really exciting here is the founding of the label This Could Go Boom. I’m excited to see what they do and the bands they promote. The bands may not be as polished as the NYC bands, but the good ones here are way better than the bands I saw or played with in NYC.
3) You earned a master’s degree in Music, Music Technology from NYU Steinhardt — how do you see that shaping what you do with Frend?
James: I did some very interesting things in that program — I designed digital audio effects, learned how to compress audio files, wrote algorithmic music pieces for computers, sonified data sets of PET brain scans, composed pieces of music that were just white noise and digital audio effects and mixing techniques, but none of that has been incorporated into Frend yet. I can see incorporating some of that in the future, but for now not yet. I’m still too interested in guitar-based rock.
4) Playing live versus writing/recording — do you have a preference?
James: I appreciate them both differently because I think they are both different art forms. I love the adrenaline rush of performing live — how no two performances are ever the same, and the performative aspect of it. I love trying to connect with people in the audience. And I love seeing people flip when they hear something they like. It’s so cathartic every time. I also love recording. A song can have so many performances, but only get one performance gets recorded, maybe more if you’re lucky. So that one performance always needs to be “the best” whatever that means. It’s an illusion because even if you are trying to capture a “live sound” as Frend does, you are always doing things like overdubs to give it more presence. Sometimes in recordings you do things to make it seem live, but are not actually live, all to give a sense of emotional release — anything to serve the song’s mood. I love getting deep into that if I can. Although I do understand that can sometimes be a luxury that not all bands can afford, which is unfortunate because it’s so necessary in order to be taken seriously as a band. Your recording has to be pristine.
5) Any specific band plans or goals for 2019?
James: We have two EPs coming out, Exercise Your Demons Parts 2 and 3. Part 2 will be released early this February, and part 3 shortly thereafter. We also have a bunch of shows coming up listed on our social media. After that, I’m actually really psyched for more writing and I’m excited about expanding the band eventually. I love big bands with many things going on — bands like the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Steven’s band. It’s a community in the band itself. Starting as a three-piece has really been an economic decision. But I want the band to build and evolve over the course of its existence. We will see what happens in 2019.
Listen to and purchase “Exercise Your Demons Pt 1” via the Frend Bandcamp page.
Check out Frend at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, Jan. 4th!