The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown

 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
BandRockAmericana

"With very strong vocal harmonies, bouncing bass lines, and crunching guitars...The Great Unknown got the chance to broadcast their impressive sound, one of classic country undertones and rock and roll energy.” -WXPN About the Music Blog

Biography

In a big 2010 for The Great Unknown, a quickly rising Philadelphia alt-folk band, they self-released a critically acclaimed EP, toured the midwest and east coast, shared the stage with such bands as Dawes, These United States and Good Old War, and finished the year with a 900+ audience performance at the legendary Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia.

For the Philadelphia group The Great Unknown, being in a band extends far beyond simply writing a handful of songs – it's about instilling everything they do with their own singular personality and distinct point-of-view. Case in point: when they were invited to play "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch of a packed-to-capacity Phillies game, the band chose to completely reinvent the song, transforming it from a too-familiar national staple into a call-and-response country number that was wholly their own. For their first record release show, they decorated the venue with leaves they'd collected, stocked the bar with their own home-brewed beer, and served the audience food they'd baked. For them, music isn't just professional – it's personal, a method of communication that's a natural outgrowth of being human. In fact, when drummer Jordan Berger auditioned for the band, he strapped his drum set to his body, walked it over to the house where the other members were practicing, and set up shop in the living room. "We take a lot of pride in doing things ourselves, explains frontman Todd Henkin. "We like to set up a space that's personal to us that we can invite our friends and other people to come share in."

This fall, they took that desire for personal connection even further, when they embarked on a tour of elementary schools, writing songs that emphasized individuality and self-worth with students from third to fifth grades. The band led the students through a series of exercises – brainstorming, free-writing, guided conversations – gradually turning the ideas they suggest into songs. "We wanted to show them that anyone can do this. Writing a song and recording it – that’s something that everyone can do." The group also visited urban farms and spent days in a row at several stops along the tour, all in an effort to bridge the gap between performer and audience.

"We're trying to rethink the concept of touring," Henkin explains. "We're trying to move away from just showing up at a venue, drinking a couple of beers, playing a show and leaving. We want to stay for a couple of days and meet people in the community. I feel like if you build relationships in a town, those people are gonna be willing to open up. You’re gonna have people who are doing awesome things, who are motivated – people who you genuinely want to be around. It becomes so much bigger than just traveling once every few months through a town."

That desire for connection and community is reflected in the group's songs as well, which mine the classic American country and folk traditions. Drawing influence from everyone from Leonard Cohen to Bill Callahan to blues legend Taj Mahal, the group creates rich, moody music that speaks to the fragility of the human condition. There's perhaps no better reflection of those concerns than "High Grounds," a glimmering slice of alt-country that finds Henkin, over ringing lap steel and taut, brittle percussion, considering the marvel of the human body and the centrality and unassailability of the human heart. That theme emerges again in "Iyla Grace," a song written shortly after Henkin was attacked and bitten by a pitbull -- an incident that intersected with the first time he met his infant niece. The song carefully considers the notion of having "new skin," using it as a metaphor for human vulnerability with a deftness that recalls some of Henkin's literary heroes -- Pablo Neruda and William Butler Yeats. Henkin had the opportunity to play the song for a group of recently returned veterans of the Iraq war, several of whom approached him afterward to tell him they were moved by the song's message.

In the four years since their inception, the group has grown together, making music that reflects their disparate personalities. "Matt is a classic rock guy, he comes from listening to tons of classic rock and tons of Black Sabbath and Metallica," Henkin explains. " Brad comes from more of a Wilco, Smog, Akron/Family background. But so much of being in this band is about bringing a song and losing your ego. It's our song." Through it all they've kept focus on the human connection – placing communication and community at the forefront of their music.

"I think people come to our shows and they feel something," Henkin says. "And thats what I like about making music. It’s an emotional experience for us. I think that other people -- even if they don’t know exactly what we’re singing about -- they can feel that."

The Great Unknown has shared the stage with Dawes, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Budos Band, Chatham County Line, Cotton Jones, Go

Discography

LP - 'Tonight, Let's Pretend' (self-released, available on iTunes and CD Baby)
EP - 'The New Skin EP' (self-released, available on iTunes and at digital.thegreatunknownmusic.com)

What they're saying:

Fogged Clarity - Featured Album review
"A nuanced and cohesive offering that melds folk and alt-country, The Great Unknown’s “The New Skin EP” is a disciplined collection of songs that explore hope and longing, and demonstrate why the Philadelphia band has become one of their city’s favorite acts."

Deli Magazine Philadelphia
"Tonight, Let's Pretend is a work of meticulous beauty. The Great Unknown, four local Philly gentlemen, have always been good at making folk rock something stimulating and fresh, which, considering how tired the outfit is, is no small feat. This full length album of songs is no exception, and demonstrates a fine level of craftsmanship. The orchestration of the multitude of string instruments is fantastic, smoothly forming that feeling of rolling the windows down on a long ride through the country. Banjoes, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and lap steel interplay for a dreamy southern twang - swelling and slowing with emotion. Military beats can sometimes be heard, and in other instances, a clear and driving force of drums as well as other percussions that give the music the perfect accent. A sense of loss can be found amidst the tunes in lyrics written by the whole band. "I'm Not Listening," for instance, which happens to be my personal favorite song on the album, contains a message of loneliness after separation: "Earthquakes and hurricanes, the ruins spell your name, I'm not looking." Heartbreaking lyrics such as these add a whole other element to Tonight, Let's Pretend. The endearingly sincere vocals heard throughout this album make it so much more relatable, making you feel every word intoned. It's an honest album, with no glitz or glam, but by relying on pure, raw talent, The Great Unknown have written one of my favorite albums of the year." -James Sanderson

Citypaper (Philadelphia)
'"I Can See Forever Up Here" is a romp through Jay Farrar territory, and "Votra Notra Dom" hints at the gritty Delta boogie of Little Feat. But the true strength in West Philly Americana quintet The Great Unknown lies in their moments of restraint. Check out "Shrapnel," a simmering hymn rooted in a rickety cello duo. Dig the breezy whistling and bango-led campfire harmonies on the flawless "The Weasel & The Worm," which closes their self-released debut Tonight, Let's Pretend.'
-John Vettese

Compilation - "I'm Not Listening" featured in Paste Magazine New Music Sampler (Dec/Jan '09, www.pastemagazine.com) and on Milkboy Live Volume 1 (available on iTunes).

Compilation - "Shrapnel" is featured on How to Make An Arrow - Philly Comp. One

Radio - "I'm Not Listening" and "I Can See Forever Up Here" receive airplay on WXPN Philadelphia, "The Loft" on XM Radio, and WRFL Lexington, KY

Set List

Sets can range from 40 minutes to 3 hours. Mostly original music, some covers include traditionals, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Beck.

The band is equally comfortable performing acoustic in a small venue or at a loud rock club or festival.