It’s after midnight at St. Petersburg’s Local 662; the room floods red and black. Erin Murphy and Greg Bortnichak of Teach Me Equals (formerly Bard and Mustache) take the stage in artfully worn-and-torn threads. Bortnichak hunches over his cello. Murphy positions her violin. Both ready their bows.
When they launch into “More Where That Came From,” a hazy, intricate wave of string-fueled art rock sends chills through the space. It’s not often local music scene fiends get treated to such highbrow yet accessible music. There’s so much energy rushing between the couple, as their voices layer in haunting, pulsating, hypnotizing harmony over their live loops of cello, guitar, and violin. Sometimes they sing directly into the instruments’ pickups. This almost comical display creates a distortion that, Murphy says, “takes the vocals out of the lyrical presence, and it’s just visceral.”
The palatable musical and onstage intimacy is hard to deny, maybe because of the obvious love they have for each other (the two are engaged). But instead of writing sappy little love songs, their repertoire includes loud, dramatic, gut-wrenching ballads that capture the true chasms of emotions. “It’s called scrape rock,” Murphy tells me after the show, dubbed so by WMNF Grand National Championships host, Alastair St. Hill.
They met and hit it off in Sarasota; he lived up north but relocated pretty quickly. “I flew down, Erin and I went into the studio,” Bortnichak says. “Forty-eight hours later we were a couple.”
This week, the duo hitches their new home (a pop-up camper) to their Honda Element, and embarks on a 12-month tour of the U.S. and Canada. Even though Murphy grew up in Sarasota and remains one of the scene's greatest champions, she doesn’t seem to have qualms about leaving it, at least for now, and its limitations have much to do with it. “Sarasota is so small,” Murphy says. “Really there are three venues; Growler’s Pub, Cock n Bull, and Sarasota Lanes, which is a bowling alley.” Because of the couple's respective jobs, touring had always been limited to three weeks or less, leaving little opportunity for growth. “When you have three months or six months on the road, you come back as a different band and your sound evolves,” she explains.
The duo started planning the year-long tour a year ago. “We focused on streamlining our lives,” Bortnichak says. “Recording, saving money, relocating our pets.”
They both agree it wasn’t easy. “The key is keeping it sustainable with enough shows, close enough together,” she says, “so we don’t have to reintroduce ourselves every year and build it up so we don’t need to have side jobs.”
But all the hard work is about to pay off. “I just got my passport and I’m 28,” she says. “I’ve been working since I was 14. Always working and once or twice a week I’d get to play. But it’s about muscle memory, and it fades if you don’t use it. We want to write more and perform more together, and now we will.”