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    Katie Molck also contributed to this piece.

    Local group Bookshelf got together in 2012 when friends Tommy Arnspiger (bass), JohnBen Lacy (vocals/guitar/keys), Drew Bagby (guitar) and Chris Martin (drums) decided to become a full-fledged band after years of playing music together. The group, whose sound lies somewhere between indie rock and hard-to-define, has a vast and varied collection of recordings, thanks to their habit of recording everything they do - from practices to performances - and from the band's unique take on creating music together.

    Bookshelf finds a lot of its sound in "brain jams," exercises that they do at each practice that allows them to play and feel through music, unscripted. Rarely are there pre-determined notes to be played. Instead, the guys draw the notes out of ideas - what's the music that goes with "parking meter," "fireflies," or "apprehension?" Working from this and listening to each other, the band has improvised countless pieces - pieces which do or don't end up in Bookshelf's discography.

    Read's interview with Bookshelf as they talk about brain jams and their creative process: How long have you guys been playing music together?

    JohnBen: Since like, 2012.

    Drew: Yeah, like 2012. I want to like, December 2012.

    JohnBen: That was Brain Jam 0001.

    Chris?: Yeah, we’ve really been recording since Day 1, haven’t we?

    Drew: Yeah, pretty much everything is on a file. Yeah, I noticed you guys have a ton of stuff online.

    JohnBen: That’s like the tip of the iceberg. I calculated it a while ago, and it was over 48 hours of continuous [music]. And that’s not including the songs that we record [for albums]. That’s all like, original material. We’ll start every practice off with maybe an hour or more of just improvisation. We’ll kind of make up different exercises to challenge that process.

    JohnBen: If we don’t have a show, pretty much what we would do is just [improvise]. Sometimes we’ll come up with these really cool moments that just creep up.

    Drew: Occasionally, we’ll actually get a song from the brain jams. So, what’s brain jams?

    Tommy: So that’s like -- we have a white board over there and that’s kind of like… [Ed. The whiteboard has an outline written on it, made of of nouns and verbs and feelings.]

    JohnBen: Yeah, so we’ll use that. When we do the brain jams, I won’t say they’re completely unstructured, but we’ll write down a prompt. One that we do often, is we’ll write a three-act structure or maybe an introduction, one, two, three acts, and then a close. Then we’ve give each roman numeral will get a theme or a feeling or an image to evoke a movement. Usually, we can tell… We can just kind of feel it in the music when we’re going from “fire ant” to “ocean wave” or whatever. And it just kind of helps build a structure without actually building rules around it.

    Chris: It’s not always that exact, though.

    Drew: Yeah, last week we did one that was called, “Full Effect.” I don’t even know that we played a true note, we just messed with the parameters of our effect sounds to see what we could find. And just create anything and everything… And we record it. Yeah, tell me more about that. Most people record… Not just for the hell of it? But it seems like you guys record everything.

    Drew: If you’re not recording everything, You’re missing so many opportunities to find something you like. But, how long does it take to sift through the recordings?

    Drew: That’s the part --

    Tommy: If you don’t listen immediately, then it’ll essentially disappear. We save them, but…

    JohnBen: But, we’ll go back… I’m an obsessive chronicler of things. I mean, I’m a videographer for a living, so that probably plays into it. It’s just understanding the value of capturing something that will be gone one day and being able to have that to look back. With all these improvisations-- I listen to the very first one we did: it started off quite cheesy in the beginning because we didn’t kind of really have an understanding of where we all came from, but some of them are still really great, from day one. I can almost completely remember that time period when I hear that riff that I haven’t heard in two years and that only happened once in time.

    Drew: I think that’s another cool thing about our brain jams. We’ve evolved from this band that would only play straight sets, one song, two songs, whatever. Now, we almost approach shows the complete opposite. How many brain jams can we fit into this? Can we come up with something original that’s not thought out beforehand that’s really spontaneous? Is it just an entire brain jam set now? What’s the reception to that?

    Tommy: Well, I think a lot of times, at least in a live setting in front of people, we seem to in the exact moment… we seem to not like it. Upon playback, though…

    JohnBen: Oh, yeah. We record all our shows, too. Really!

    JohnBen: Both video and audio [all laugh]. Nothing gets by me!

    Tommy: It’s selfishly, for us, a way to keep it exciting and entertaining for ourselves. I think, once you play whatever song so many times, it’s not like it loses its luster, it’s just… It’s for somebody else; it’s not for us.

    Drew: One thing that I will say, personally, that I love about the brain jam, at least live, in front of people, is that it’s a risk. It’s a risk you take instead of playing “the hits,” not to say that we have hits… We have a couple songs, at least one that’s on WFPK. We love playing that song, but we don’t want to play it every time we play live. It gets boring after a while, it’s like driving it into someone’s skull. So, I kind of like the idea of taking the risk and getting out there and doing something spontaneous. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Maybe you look like a fool, but at least you tried.

    JohnBen: And it is hit or miss. We’ve had some, and maybe this is our own perception,  that I felt like I was drowning and it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like doing this right now but I have to keep playing.’ and that’s part of it and I think that’s a valuable experience - to understand that feeling as a performer in any aspect.

    Drew: It’s almost becoming like, not to say we know what the others are going to do, but we feel it and we know when something is maybe going this way or, hey I’m listening to Tommy right now, but maybe I’m going to switch to the right and listen to what Chris is doing. You know, he’s got some cool rhythm going, let’s try to mess it up. Let’s do something different. I don’t know, it’s spontaneous and it’s fun and it’s different. We’ve had the talk down here before about how sometimes that’s all we want to do.

    JohnBen: For me, it’s always trying to figure out what bit of magic exists in this space [Drew’s basement], and how we could actually do that in front of an audience. I think a lot of that is just the comfort of being in your own space with just the four of us, but if there were a way to translate that and feel that kind of relaxed nature live, I think there would be a lot of really cool stuff. How long have you guys been playing shows?

    JohnBen: Uh, since Crestival 1.

    Drew: That was July third of 2013.

    JohnBen: That was the first annual, and only annual, Cresitval, which we set up on the back porch. Invited all our friends, sent flyers up and down the street, and had a huge, like, neighborhood party on the Third of July. What do you guys like about playing local?

    Tommy: I remember being underage, going into Nachbar or something when it first came out and seeing bands, thinking ‘how cool is that?’

    Chris: I never really thought of it in terms of “local,” you know? Obviously, being from Louisville and playing in Louisville, there’s a certain enjoyment that comes from playing for friends and being part of the community, but I see it more on just, you know, based on the experience of playing, each night’s different. Therefore, every place, every venue, has its own charm. What are your influences? What do you listen to?

    Tommy: That’s a loaded question. I like everything. I know that’s a lame, cheesy answer.

    JohnBen: You are a jukebox.

    Drew: Literally, he likes everything.

    Chris: A library of music.

    JohnBen: He’s a connoisseur of all music that exists. He made us all - well, he’s still working on Chris - the perfect mix. A bunch of cds of just the perfect songs that represent every genre. And mine, I don’t know if I requested it or if you just did it, they’re all unlabeled and I’ll just listen and be like, ‘Oh, this song is great,’ and I have no idea… Thank god for Shazam.

    Drew: Tommy and I have been playing music since 2005 and I will admit that since 2005, I’ve gotten all of my music from him.

    Tommy: I think by listening to so much, by being exposed to so much, it truly defines how I play sometimes in these brain jams. I’m not afraid to play a heavy rock song and then play a jazz song, or anything. World music, polyrhythm, things like that has a big appeal to me. I guess that’s what brain jams are, is jazz music. There might be a motif, but it’s all made up on the spot. If that’s not jazz, then I don’t know what is.


    Photo courtesy Bookshelf's Facebook page.

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    About Michelle Eigenheer

    A Louisville transplant beginning to appreciate all the city's small things.

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