Memphis Hill
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Memphis Hill

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2013 | SELF

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2013
Band Rock Blues Rock

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"The Cut"

Memphis Hill. Sounds like the name of a band, doesn’t it? All five of the members agree with the name Collin and Alex chose back when they started the band while attending CMU. One of the first things one notices when listening to Memphis Hill is how hard it is to pigeonhole them into a single genre. This can be chalked up to their wide-spanning influences, each member possessing a cornucopia of styles. The Cherubim brothers, Vic and Collin, easily distinguishable by their fabulous dreads, grew up learning classic rock-and-roll, with Vic on guitar and Collin on drums. Mac, who came from Rochester with Vic, was influenced mainly by bluegrass, plays guitar and handles sound engineering. Alex plays his signature bass with hints of blues and soul, and Elle originally started singing with Italian arias.

The variety of gear they use also contributes to their sound. Vic and Mac both use some Fender gear, known for its bright, resonant tones. A lot of their guitar lines are also played through their signature Leslie speaker, a vintage rotating speaker that gives a distinct warbling, tremolo sound. Alex has a one-of-a-kind, gigantic custom bass built in Carnegie Mellon’s woodshop, which, due to its size, can be used for odd dropped tunings. Collin actually uses a drum kit intended for death metal, albeit with a few modifications. Mechanically, it’s tweaked to produce punchier sounds. Aesthetically, it is modified with the Memphis Hill mermaid emblazoned on the front instead of skulls and fire.

Through the entire interview, it was very clear that Memphis Hill loves playing music for the sake of playing music. They said that their best practices occur when everyone manages to throw themselves into the music and just jam: Their improvisation sessions are known to last around 30 minutes. This extends to their gigs, as they explained to me that it is the crowd that makes or breaks their shows. A show that would have been any band’s nightmare, a four-hour-long wedding gig where the power cut out every five minutes, ended up being one of Memphis Hill’s favorite memories due to the energy and support the crowd lent them as they jammed despite no one even being able to hear them at times.

Memphis Hill is releasing a new album, EP, and remaster of their first album, Backwards Beginnings, in 2015. - Arun Marsten


"Mermaids, sick drum beats, and dreadlocks"

As I walk up the steep steps to Memphis Hill’s precariously perched house not far from campus, clutching a hastily-bought box of chocolates that I hope no one notices is from the CVS next door, I stop for a moment in front of the door to admire the feel of the house. Lawn chairs with crushed beer cans, a classic round grill — it all looks like a scene ripped from a southern frat house.

Hours before the release party for their debut album Backwards Beginnings, I knock on the painted front door, to see a smiling man in ridiculously amazing dreadlocks and large rimmed hipster glasses greet me — Memphis Hill’s drummer, chemistry master’s student Collin Cherubim, who explains that the band is waiting for a shipment of their album (also available for streaming on SoundCloud). After hasty introductions, I’m shown into the band’s house — a collage of original artwork painted by the band’s close friends decorate almost every wall, culminating in a visually insane community art project. Blues-rock artist Gary Clark Jr. is playing in the background, the distorted guitar contrasting with a smooth and measured voice.

Over the four hours or so I’ve spent talking with the members, going to their show, and listening to their debut album, it’s clear that, above all, Memphis Hill’s greatest asset is their fans. With a dedicated core of close friends cooking together, doing homework, going to all the shows, as well as creating insanely good artwork for the walls, shirts, album covers, and posters, Memphis Hill is a five-person band only by technicality. But damn are those five people talented.

I’m shortly introduced to guitarist Mac Inglis, who is wearing a skintight jet black bicycling outfit; guitarist Vic Cherubim (who would look startlingly like his brother, if Collin would swap some of his dreadlock length for facial hair); bassist Alex Holloway, a senior cognitive science major whose long blonde hair and disarming smile carries an overwhelming sense of good-will; and finally, female vocalist Elle Allen, a master’s mechanical engineering student who at one time split her time between singing, building race cars, creating robots, and grad-level research.

An interesting cast to say the least, and indeed, while talking with them, I began to see the dynamics at play within the band: Mac’s charming sense of humor, Collin’s irresistible boy-next-door friendliness, Alex’s analytical and thoughtful answers to questions the rest of the band had trouble answering, Elle’s warm laugh that would melt Frosty the Snowman, and of course Vic’s oddly musing proclamations that are hard to not good-naturedly make fun of. At one point, after asking whether the members’ college educations impacted their music in any way (hoping to fish out a story where Elle fixed a guitar pedal or something), Vic uttered the sentence, “What you do is who you are. Who you are is what you do. The music you make is coming from you, man” (Ok, I added the “man” at the end, but still). My first thought was, “Wait, seriously?” followed by, “That’s actually a good point, and I’m definitely going to quote that.”

The band later took me down to their practice area in the basement. An organ that the band bought on Craigslist stood by the left wall, and they informed me of a period of time when they had a 50-year-old man drive from an hour-and-a-half away to jam on the organ with them. Surprisingly, that deal didn’t work out for too long, and so the organ remains unused (and if anyone reading this can play a killer organ and likes blues rock, I encourage you to seek the band out). The lighting of the basement looks like an authentic replica of a Snoop Dogg (Lion?) music video, with deep purple shades and a single bright light accenting Memphis Hill’s signature mermaid logo on Collin’s drumset. I never got the chance to ask them why they chose a mermaid of all things, but the logo is amazing, with the mermaid’s entire body formed out of the letters Memphis Hill in psychedelic ’60s font (if anyone has a better name for the font that Jimi Hendrix used for his album Are You Experienced, I’m open to suggestions). The name of the band itself, Memphis Hill, comes from one of its biggest supporters who I’m told is a “Garden Fairy. A beacon of light that shines down on all of the band and a savior of children’s lives.” Sounds like a cool person.

As I stood there listening to the band’s jam sessions straight off the machine while scribbling in my notebook, I pondered the musical style of Memphis Hill. They have a wide range of musical styles, ranging from alternative rock, to more blues rock, to psychedelic, and more. Hearing their improvised session, it’s clear that, above all, the band has a clear sense of musical space. The guitar and drumming fade when Elle picks up the tempo of her vocals. When she subsides again, Collin picks up a syncopated rhythm, and Mac adapts with a wailing, distorted lick. It’s truly amazing to see the sheer musical talent the band possesses, especially with their cumulative history of rejecting classical and formal training.

Collin’s love for the drums started at an early age (“I actually started off with the accordion,” he joked), but he traded in rote memorization of rudiments for jamming out to ’80s hair metal with a more … alternative teacher. Alex has a similar history, having been involved with violin and trumpet, and then falling off with music until he became roommates with Collin his first year at Carnegie Mellon. He’s only been playing for four years, and while his bass lines aren’t too complex, they’re driving, and most importantly, they synergize with Collin’s drumming almost seamlessly (moral of the story — it’s never too late to pick up an instrument!).

Elle also got started taking classical voice lessons early on, but moved on to rock, jazz, and, now, whatever she feels like. Listening from the machine, I was impressed with her vocal range, tone, and ability to improvise syllables and sounds that mesh with the rest of the band. Perhaps the most surprising element of the recording I listened to was when Vic moved from lead guitar to sort of a supporting role, Mac sometimes stepped up with a rather surprising repertoire. For someone who wears flannel shirts with suspenders, he can improvise some startlingly good and varied rhythms, ranging from Led Zeppelin-like wailing to eastern-Arabian sounding rhythms. As awesome as hearing the machine was, I was eager to listen to the real deal. Plus, my time with the band was way longer than I thought it would be, and I was really late for Concepts of Math. So, fashioning a short excuse that the band understood like only a band composed of Carnegie Mellon students would, I made my way back down the steep steps, counting down the hours until their album release concert at AVA Cafe and Lounge.

The first thing I noticed walking into the lounge was the crowd. I had heard about the band’s loyal fan base before, but watching everyone in the room, it was almost trivially easy to pick them out. They were the ones jamming out the hardest, the ones at the very front talking with their other friends who they’ve been coming to Memphis Hill concerts with for almost two years. They’re the ones who stayed even after the band exhausted their repertoire of original songs, the ones who still screamed for an encore anyway, the ones who refused to leave even as the band went over their allotted time, the ones who were there for one purpose only: to support their favorite band.

They were fun people, and I didn’t feel like an outsider for a second. I vaguely remember jamming out with a cute girl over Collin’s ridiculously good drumming (seriously, imagine someone with the speed of a punk rock drummer, but who actually knows how to play more than one thing and can switch from metal thrashing to syncopated blues at the drop of a hat), watching as Vic nonchalantly shredded the guitar with the facial expression of someone ordering a coffee at Starbucks, some girl putting a ridiculously large cowboy hat on my head that wasn’t mine, then dancing with some dude who was wearing a red dress for some odd reason, staring at a picture of an octopus being shot in the head for like five minutes straight to the tune of one of Memphis Hill’s psychedelic numbers, and discussing why Doolittle was The Pixies’ best album at the bar. I had a good time, is what I’m saying. After the show, Vic was gracious enough to invite me to the after party, but as soon as I headed home, I felt so tired I passed out as soon as I hit the bed, ears pleasantly ringing, with a Memphis Hill T-shirt and poster in my hands.

It’s hard to say anything bad about the band, considering the fact that they’re awesome people and insanely talented, but the fact remains that Memphis Hill has a long way to go if they’re looking to get even bigger. The songs are good, great even, but on each song, I can’t get over making the obvious connections to the sounds of other bands. Much of this can be traced back to their creative process. They take their improvised jams (clocking in at over nine minutes) and cut the parts they don’t like. Their first album consists simply of the first eight finished songs they had, and indeed the band members themselves disagree on the direction their sound is evolving.

While Mac, for example, believes that the band is heading toward a more roots rock vibe, and away from the softer tracks found on their debut album, every band member has a different opinion. As Collin aptly pointed out, the inherent diversity of the band’s musical backgrounds is both a strength and a weakness. Between the members of the band, they have the elements to create a unique Memphis Hill sound. For example, I wish Mac would have included some of the more esoteric melodies from the recorded jams they showed me on the album. I want to hear Elle singing in an Ella Fitzgerald voice over Arabian guitars. Most of all, I wish more songs featured Collin. Truly the heart of the band, on their best songs like the song “I Feel You Sweet Thing,” an apt listener could accurately guess the entire band’s movement at a given point in time solely by listening to Collin’s rhythmic tendencies. I want to hear the band’s psychedelic tendencies more, and while Elle’s singing is often so good I don’t care, an evolution of the band’s lyrical songwriting could be used.

In summary, perhaps the best thing the Memphis Hill band can do right now is nominate one of their own to be their producer for the entire album to develop a unique, marketable “Memphis Hill” sound. The band can go a long way in getting another instrument, like the organ or perhaps a trumpet. Don’t let this deter you from listening, however. Memphis Hill is a band to keep your eye on, and their musical talent and potential is undeniable. Support them by spreading the word about Backwards Beginnings, available on SoundCloud and CD, and by coming to their next show on Nov. 14 with Beauty Slap. - Brian Trimboli


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

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Bio

Pittsburgh: a city of steel, a city of bridges. Just as bridges close the gap between places, so too does Memphis Hill, bridge the bluesy sound of classic bands such as The Stones and Led Zeppelin with the modern rock stylings of musicians like Jack White and the Black Keys. And even as bridges connect various locations, uniting diverse areas in the course of one journey, so too has Memphis Hill brought together musicians and friends from cities all over the country, including Rochester, St. Louis, Chicago, and, of course, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to the Steelers and large sandwiches.

The seed of inspiration which would grow into the band appeared in the dorms of CMU, when three freshmen, Collin Cherubim, Alex Holloway, and Austin Marcus began jamming together, soon recruiting the vocal talents of Elle Allen to form their band. Collin’s brother Vic soon made the pilgrimage from their native Rochester to wield his meanest guitar with the band, and after the departure of Austin, Mac Inglis, another Rochesterian, brought his talents in sound, songwriting, and rhythm guitar to the table. After the show which comprises the material of the soon to be released album, Live at the Wilkins Block Party, Elle left the band to pursue acrobatics and world travel, and the band recruited local performance powerhouse Lucy Clabby as their new lead singer, as well as bringing on board the saxophone skills of Logan Randolph. The band continues to write new songs, rock shows, and redefine their soulful, bluesy, and sometimes psychedelic sound, a sound which brings new life to the fabled, “Pittsburgh Sound” that the great bard Wiz Khalifa once spoke of.

Band Members