New Haven's No Line North — four educators, a communications specialist and a journeyman musician and writer — behaves as more of a collective of musical friends than a band.
"In the span of a year, we never had the same lineup on stage, which was awesome," says bassist John Leonard. "It really forced us to adapt."
The six members — singer and guitarist Jon Schlesinger, bassist John Leonard, drummers Mike Kiefer and John Gage and violinists Taralyn Bulyk and Brian Slattery — came together to play a distinctly New England-friendly blend of folk-leaning pop, garage rock and Americana roughly a decade ago, after Schlesinger moved back to Connecticut from California.
Schlesinger had a few half-written songs. He met Kiefer; they talked music and went to see Sonic Youth. Kiefer, who was busy with other commitments, introduced him to Gage.
"We started making a record, basically, with [Gage] on drums and me on guitar," Schlesinger says. "We'd make a scratch track and we'd build off of it."
Leonard joined on bass, then brought in co-worker Bulyk to play violin. Calling itself Closely Watched Trains, the band finished the album and started playing gigs. Kiefer, meanwhile, who'd formed stoner-rock duo Myty Konkeror with Michael Steubs, started Twin Lakes Records to put new recordings out into the world.
"I was totally inspired as a kid by the Dischord Label and Fugazi and how they did everything themselves," Kiefer says. "Sonic Youth started a label called Ecstatic Peace. Music had gotten to the point where everyone could record on their own. Established labels, especially major labels, seemed kind of irrelevant. You don't really need that. Just put your [stuff] out by yourself."
Twin Lakes released "Closely Watched Trains" in 2010. The album mixes distorted Neil Young-ish textures with quieter acoustic and orchestral sounds. The band gigged and kept writing songs.
"We'd all been playing together as a unit for two or three years at that point," Schlesinger says. "It was time to do a website and so on. Then we come to find out there was another band called Closely Watched Trains on the West Coast who plays bluegrass."
No Line North was born. "Farther Out Beyond Today," a debut album, was released in 2014, after two years of recording, collecting lush, ambient textures and motoric grooves, with band members adding harmonies to Schlesinger's deadpan vocals and slightly ironic drawl.
Schlesinger, for the most part, spearheads new material.
"I'm a very straightforward songwriter," he says. "One of the pleasures of the band is that I'll bring an idea to everyone and it always gets elevated to another level. It's usually verses and choruses and melody and lyrics. We run through things in a number of ways at the beginning."
Life stepped in: Gage, a father of two, became a school band director; live, Kiefer filled in on drums. Bulyk gave birth. Schlesinger and Leonard kept the engines running as a duo, practicing and writing new songs whenever possible.
"We thought: Let's not do that again," Schlesinger says. "Let's not put out an album that takes two full years. It's not like that many people know who we are or what we sound like."
When Bulyk was in the late stages of pregnancy, Slattery joined Kiefer, Schlesinger and Leonard onstage at singer-songwriter Lys Guillorn's Night of the Living Banjo. "I was like, 'Oh my god, this guy is great: maybe we should ask him if he has time to jam and record with us,'" Schlesinger says.
"Brian's approach and my approach [to the violin] are polar opposites, but it works," Bulyk says. "I'm disgustingly classically trained. You put the sheet music in front of me, I'll play it. It was always very challenging to come up with my own stuff, and Brian just plays off the cuff. He's watching my left hand, and we're feeding off of each other."
"Dreams of Trees, Part 1," a five-song follow-up to "Farther Out Beyond Today," comes out on April 28.
"It made sense to split this into a two-part thing as a calling card: Here are five songs, they're pretty diverse," Schlesinger says. "It doesn't get into more of the heavier stuff. That will maybe be on the second side."
"Line Drive," the first track, is a lengthy Krautrock-Appalachia hybrid, an instrumental with a propulsive beat and minimal chord changes lasting a little over seven minutes. If it lasted for more than an hour, it's fair to say, I'd keep listening.
"We talk a lot about that raga, where you're just sort of zoning out with something that's moving you along," Schlesinger says. "When we play, we try to get that stuff going, where you get into a trance-y beat. You can do some really interesting layering. Everything is weaving around. The melodies weave back and forth."
"We call that tune 'Neu-Americana,'" Kiefer says.
Like Slattery — over the last few months, I've seen him play stand-up bass, trumpet, and violin with various bands — everyone in No Line North plays several instruments, which leads to novel sonic combinations.
"If a violinist can't be there, John Gage can play vibraphone," Schlesinger says. "If he can't be there, maybe Brian plays bass and John [Leonard] plays lead guitar. We can strip it down to acoustic instruments. Our catalog has been able to go through all of this, too."
No Line North is booking shows for the summer. Look for future gigs at venues like Cafe Nine, BAR, Three Sheets and Lyric Hall in New Haven and Best Video in Hamden.
In March, the band played a well-attended EP release show at New Haven's Lyric Hall, with five out of six members present. (Bulyk was ill.) Sprawled out in front of a movie screen showing classic Connecticut imagery (translation: the weather sucks), the collective played through the entire EP and songs from its back catalog, with Gage and Kiefer switching off on drums (Gage played vibraphone).
Leonard occasionally strapped on an electric guitar, and Slattery took over on bass. No Line North paid tribute to fellow New Haven band Mercy Choir, led by Paul Belbusti, by covering "Birdwatcher." (Belbusti and other band members were in attendance.) It all came off as fluid and fairly organic.
"We're all at a stage in our lives that we've all evolved as musicians," Schlesinger says. "We're just on wavelengths. We are all so familiar with these songs at this point."
Press Play is a column by music writer Michael Hamad exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.