Missoula, Montana is seldom recognized, that is unless you live there, as a cultural hotbed. This city of 57,000 is more often preferred by the naturalist clique, which opts to visit or live in the mountains of Montana for its pristine landscapes and down-to-earth, small town appeal.
For Signal Path, it's become home, and a very welcoming home at that. Since meeting and subsequently forming there in the fall of 2002, they've worked to place Missoula on the musical map. In just two years, they've created quite a stir not just with their hometown brethren but throughout the live music community with their energetic blend of beat-driven, instrumental jazz-infused electronica
Back in mid-June while covering the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival outside of Lawrence, Kansas, I was highly anticipating the afternoon main-stage set of these Montana melody makers. The band commenced a sun-soaked set of electrifying drum n' bass and down-tempo organica on fire and never looked back. Colorfully filled with tasty tidbits of jazz, Latin and funk, their set was keenly received by an amenable crowd of sweaty, red-faced onlookers. This is the scene I've experienced at previous Path shows, and when we got the opportunity to catch-up in Colorado the following week, guitarist-turned-keyboardist Nathan Weidenhaft filled me in on the band's fine tunings.
"Everyone was kind of gung-ho about the whole thing, so it was really easy for us to get our start," admitted a soft-spoken Weidenhaft. "We already had a school bus (laughs)....Really we were just ready to do it."
Within weeks after their conception in the fall of 2002, when drummer Damon Metzner, a high school friend of Weidenhaft's from New Orleans, began playing with guitarist Ryan Burnett, upright bassist Dion Stepanski and percussionist Ben Griffin, the members of Signal Path had already cut their first demo. Two months later, the band was on the road for their first ever tour of the west.
Everything came together when Weidenhaft, who'd been in school studying jazz guitar, decided to make the switch to keys. The move, which enabled guitarist Burnett more artistic room, opening-up the Path sound to an array of fresh directions.
"I always played keys a bit, but I ended up quitting the piano to play guitar," explained Weidenhaft. "I thought it (piano) was a nerd's instrument; it's funny how things turn around. Eventually I wrote the parts for my guitar into keyboard arrangements. As a guitar player I already knew what sounds I wanted to hear from the piano."
Now able to span the country and draw crowds in several major markets, Signal Path has gained national attention and recognition. Their groove intensive, backbeat based mnge of heavy percussion combined with concise guitar-keyboard interplay has carried them from Missoula to LA to Cleveland.
"We're just stoked to be playing music that people are digging and be able to write songs that sound good; and anything that sounds good moves me," he emphasized
Metzner, who studied in New Orleans under Galactic's Stanton Moore, pairs with Stepanski and Griffin to provide the rooted rhythmic basis for the Path's instrumentation. Coupled with Burnett-who's shared the stage with such prominent figures as Merl Saunders and Tom Constanten and Weidenhaft's versatile keyboards, Signal Path blends funk, jazz, Latin, African and rock influences into a pure up-tempo, electronic dance party blowout.
"If anything, we're definitely instrumentalists," he supposed. "Our songs are getting shorter, more concise and are developing a much stronger electronic vibe. We're just naturally evolving away from jams and traditional guitar and keyboard solos and into our own sound"
Burnett's experimental rock background and Stepanski's Detroit-based, ultra-jazzy upright bass style complement the New Orleans funk-soul flavor of Metzner and Weidenhaft. When combined with Griffin's flare for African, Cuban and Latin beats, all the band's influences unite with their love for the electronic to produce a diversified, polyphonic fusion.
One won't hear the same guitar riff repeated incessantly, nor will someone feel that tonight's show was a mirror reflection of last night's. Fueled by an unremitting desire to shift their music away from that traditional rock and funk-based jamband label, the group vies to take the vibe into innovative and fresh territories. They don't have raging guitar solos or pull over-the-top rock star antics. Instead, they play organic, electronically influenced, jazzy music that thrives on switching from balls-to-the-wall electronic trance to funk-filled, wah-wah driven New Orleans flavor on the drop of a dime.
"We might be a little more on the jazzy tip than other bands in our genre. Just to be in the same category with these bands is awesome," he explained.
Pulsating drums and smooth bass lines lay the foundation for synthesized, spiraling keyboards, vocal samples and smooth guitar chops. Through their usage of modern and post-modern technology-from digital samples to Pro Tools-they are a bit of the old meets the new; taking some flavor from the past and throwing it in the pot with a taste of the future.
"Perhaps the greatest attribute of Signal Path in the live setting is their knack for keeping a groove moving forward. They are adept at sitting in a deep pocket and demonstrating a collective patience for letting a song, or a groove take shape and develop. Subtle signature changes and enticing keyboard and guitar melodies are further fueled by a powerful rhythm section that includes the thickness of Stepanski's upright bass. Live electronic music played with an upright bass? It sounds a tad strange to most, but it's just another characteristic that separates the Path in an already clustered genre.
"As it stands we're getting into a lot of programming stuff, still looking to find what our sound is and filtering out what we don't like," said Weidenhaft."Now, we're just trying to tighten-up the whole operation and put out a quality product. Lately, we were stretching ourselves thin, and now we're hitting it really quick and tight, and then giving ourselves a break to write new material."
After just two years, Signal Path has already toured most corners of the country, performed late-night at this year's High Sierra Music Festival and are in the midst of a west coast run with Galactic
"Everything was all ready to go. We already had our whole tour planned and three weeks ago they (Galactic) hooked it up and all the sudden, we had to reroute our whole tour," he explained. "But it's cool because Galactic is a bad-ass band, and they're playing really well and coming on tour with them has been great. A lot of people get to hear our name and check us out so we get to lay the foundation to come back to these places in the future."
So what lies ahead for the guys of Signal Path? After the Area 51 Sound Test in early October, they will return home to Missoula for a couple weeks to relax and write music. Then it's off to San Francisco for a two-night Halloween run at the Boom Boom Room. Playing right across the street from STS9, Signal Path will hit the stage soon after STS9 departs. Currently, the band is also working in cohorts with Real Image Recording to produce high-quality recordings of each show, immediately available after each performance.
"We're to the point where we're getting our dues out of the way. Now, we're slowing down to quarter speed, and it feels good," concluded Weidenhaft.