A farmboy drummer whose old man was Kerouac's musical collaborator and the first ever composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. An ex-subway busker who plays organ for Sunday services at a Baptist church in Bed-Stuy. A saxophonist with a penchant for Cuban spy film music and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And a larger-than-life (6’ 5") frontman in the blue veins of Jagger or Morrison who starred last year as a Lithuanian basketball player in a Fox sitcom pilot. Ladies and gentlemen, meet, and hear the strange sounds of, the New York Howl.
Last year, the Howl released its debut LP, "People Will Come To See Us Ride," which showcases a giant sound that blends multitude of influences -- Detroit and Memphis soul, Morphine burlesque, carnival waltzes, rock n’ blues stomps. But somehow their sound is far grander than the sum if its parts. "I think everyone can appreciate the Howl," explains keyboardist/guitarist Brer Brian. "All our songs are Bizarro reinterpretations of the hits of eternity, so anyone that likes music will find something. It transcends any sort of ‘scene’ or ‘click.’ At least I hope it does. I’d like it to."
"Ride" is an instant classic album – a body blow landed squarely by the raw momentum of a band just discovering itself and realizing its potential for epic greatness. From hard-driving blues chuggers, to hair-raising carnival geek or railroad worker anthems, to moving chicken-soup-for-the-soul ballads, the Howl is always free of pretense, and the resulting honesty resonates deeply. Some songs blow minds on first listen, others reveal themselves over time, and fan favorites shuffle constantly.
Recorded output aside, the Howl’s infamous live performances fall somewhere betwixt spiritual revival and voodoo ritual – perhaps owing to Brian’s Sunday services or the way frontman/guitarist Andrew Katz owns the stage like a Baptist minister owns his pulpit. The fearless, reckless abandon to which the band commits, anchored by a bruiser baritone sax, strips the crowd of inhibitions that often plague a New York rock show audience, and then proceeds to work them into a mad frenzy. The band recently finished a residency at Crash Mansion, and at their final performance, in the span of three songs, people simply went bananas. A straight couple waltzed; a lesbian couple slam-danced; a middle-aged businesswoman pop-and-locked and did the robot; and two mod London birds stroked out on the Monkey and the Watusi. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
"The goal is to hit the back of the room every time," explains Brian. "Get the sound guy on our side. Get the bar staff on our side. The busboys. Foster a vibe that we’re all in this together. We’re great with a room full of revelers, but even when things are off or working against us, we’re malleable and we persevere. We will find a way to make it happen."
Drummer Adam Amram explains it in slightly more mythological, if less serious, terms. "We’re basically a bunch of white unicorns flying through a lightning storm when we’re up there on stage," jokes Amram. "Folks respect it or they’re left in complete awe because we’re such a bunch of freaks."
The band has its roots in the downtown performance art scene, begun generations ago and which still thrives today at venues like the Bowery Poetry Club and Surf Reality open mics, under the watchful queer eye of art star torchbearers like Faceboy and Reverend Jen. As Detroit-bred Katz explains, he was initially drawn to the scene by something more than just the unbridled artistic aesthetic. "I first came [to a Surf Reality open mic] because someone told me I would see at least two naked women. I saw four. I also saw a woman stab her vagina and coffee beans came out. So when they said ‘anything goes,’ they really meant it. And Brer Brian was always one of my favorite performers there."
Katz then met saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk while tending bar together at Bowery Poetry Club, where Zeniuk doubled as sound engineer. Zeniuk was playing in several bands around town including the Latin jazz outfit Gato Loco he still fronts, and the two would jam together after closing up shop. And then, "in 2005, Stefan and I had this idea," explains Katz. "We wanted to do something like Otis Redding but with a whole lot of gasoline. We needed a keyboard player, and I said ‘I will do this band with you, if we can get Brer Brian.’"
Brian, who composes in multiple genres with Daniel Johnston-like agility, and who picks up new instruments even faster (he recently learned trumpet, and promptly arranged an entire horn section for the Howl), quickly signed on. At the time, he had been working on solo projects, playing keys in a Brooklyn Baptist church, and busking on the Times Square subway shuttle, an endeavor that had begun to lose its luster. "When I first started [busking], I had this notion that I was this universally beloved young star, and I made a lot of money, and I felt very creative and appreciated," explains Brian. "Then the economy went to crap, and I had nothing. But I had nowhere else to go, so I did it long after I’d worn out my welcome. No one was excited to hear me down there. Everyone was telling me to shut up and I felt like a broken record, but it definitely left the blueprint of New York stamped on my ass and taught me a lot about being a musician in this city. And towards the end I was looking for a fresh environment," which the Howl certainly provided.
With Brian on board, Katz found the final kernel in drummer Adam Amram, whose sister Alana introduced them at a party. All three Amram children [sisters Alana and Adira are both NYC musicians] grew up playing music on a Putnam County farm with their father David Amram, a world-renowned composer. David Amram was Jack Kerouac’s musical collaborator, became the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence, and along the way worked with legends like Gillespie, Monk, Mingus, and other luminaries, some of whom became Adam’s practice partners, and who Brian explains, "ruined him for everybody else."
"Yeah, you guys [his bandmates] suck compared to those guys," jokes Amram. "No, I feel blessed to have sat in with T.S. Monk and all those incredible musicians. I was blessed to learn what’s most important in music – which is to SIT IN and FIT IN – to just be a part of the wheel and go along for the ride."
"When I met Adam," explains Katz, "I immediately told Stefan, ‘I got the drummer. I found the fuckin’ guy.’" A few days later the band jammed together at Katz’s tiny Washington Heights apartment without ever really having met, and "we knew immediately, from the first rehearsal, we had something special," says Zeniuk. "This was before we’d played in front of anybody – we just sort of felt it within ourselves."
After that first jam session, explains Katz, "we walked out of my apartment and down to the side of cliff in Manhattan – strewn with crack vials, bottles, dirty diapers – and we had some beers and made a pact then and there to make a real go of it."
Perhaps it’s their downtown performance art aesthetic, but the Howl resounds differently than most other NYC rock acts. "Some bands try to portray or live this idea of what they should be as opposed to who they are. They don’t really look you in the eye. We aspire to a communal experience with the audience – to be lifted above the fuckin’ struggle of New York City – or just life – to be part of something larger than yourself which I think is really important for the human soul."
"The New York wind is only beginning to howl," foretells Amram. "A storm is coming in. We can all feel it.