The seven N.C. musicians who make up Paper Tongues started out as street buskers in an improv music collective that regularly met and jammed at a busy Charlotte intersection "for the city and the people and the homeless and the club goers and whoever wanted to come out."
All that changed four years ago when their demos caught the ear of producer Brian West (K'Naan, Nelly Furtado), who invited the septet out to his LA studio to record. "We were just like, 'Yeah, we'll be there, see you in a week,'" guitarist Devin Forbes recalled in a recent CL interview, laughing as he described the frenzied fundraising that followed and ultimately inspired their first single, "Ride to California."
Once they arrived in LA, they were faced with a new challenge: learning how to create in an environment completely different from the one they were used to. None of them had ever worked in a professional recording studio, and coping with the pressures they put on each other was just as demanding as learning the technical ins-and-outs of the process. "We had to deal with getting over a lot of emotional boundaries of just allowing each other to really explore a song ... and not jump to any conclusions about it too early," Forbes explained. "Actually giving people space to breathe and create and to move within a song that we're working on, that's how we really got to this crazy sound that is Paper Tongues. It's not just Aswan North's sound, it's not just Dev Forbes' sound, it's all seven members — which is a lot of members, mind you — jiving together and trying to make something that we can compromise on together."
The seven musicians — North, guitarists Forbes and Joey Signa, bassist Daniel Santell, drummer Jordan Hardee, and keyboardists Clayton Simon (synths) and Cody Blackler (Rhodes) — have managed to draw on their respective and varied influences, synthesizing their favorite elements of hip-hop, alt rock, funk, soul and pop-tronica into a big, bombastic genre-jumping sound. Rhythms trade between propulsive rock 'n' roll drive and ass-shaking hip-hop grind, while echoing guitar solos and distorted riffs are set against a backdrop of techno-sonic atmospheres. Soaring over the seething mix is the powerful voxbox of North, who howls compelling melodies, rages through refrains and spits rhymes in a gruff demanding shout.
The Paper Tongues' whirlwind trip to California not only helped develop their sound and kickstart their career as a fully-functioning band, but led to their fateful meeting with Grammy-winning producer, entrepreneur, musician, record producer, manager and American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who was impressed by the septet's sound and songwriting skills, and recognized their potential as a viable talent. Soon enough, Jackson took Paper Tongues under his wing, becoming their manager and mentor, and generally easing them into the music biz.
"He's been fantastic," Forbes said. "We were so new at everything that we really needed someone to guide us and get through all these crazy times and sharky waters and all the stuff that kids from North Carolina have no clue about, going out to Hollywood to try and play music. So it was really just a dream come true to have him come on board."
His hand in their growth has been an undeniable advantage. Not only did Jackson help get them get signed to major label A&M/Ocetone Records, but more importantly according to Forbes, "He was actually the first person who believed in us as a band. Everybody else — it was the classic, young band gets signed to a record label, record label wants to drop the band, keep the singer, hire a new band, whatever. Randy was the first person who actually believed in the seven-piece group."
Perhaps in a normal scenario, the manager's opinion wouldn't matter so much; but when you're Randy Jackson, people tend to listen. "He was like, 'This is a movement, they're gonna be another here today, gone tomorrow pop thing if we just do the Aswan North thing. But this is a band, this is a movement.' He really encouraged us to stick together and really make something big out of it."
Last year, the septet finally released their self-titled debut, a 10-track album that jumps from rousing arena rock anthems like the NBA-approved driving-toward-a-dream single, "Ride to California," to sincere but unsappy love songs ("Get Higher," "Love Like You"), to soulfully uplifting scorchers ("Soul," "Rich and Poor").
Paper Tongues has been on the road pretty much nonstop promoting their LP and have made numerous stops in the Sunshine State. "Florida has been probably the best market for us — the people there, the fans there, have taken to our music better than anywhere else in the entire country," Forbes insisted. "So we're always just so excited to go down there and play." The band returns to the Bay area to kick off the 97X Freebie Weebie concert series this Sunday. "With the economic crisis, if you can go out and have a good time and catch some music for free, hopefully you would be inclined to do so."