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NYC Noir: An Interview With Kalen Lister From Death By Piano

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

NYC Noir: a scene that draws you in, taking you to a hauntingly swirling, atmospheric place, topped with an air of sensuality. You will find the darkwave style here: a derivative of well-produced, timeless trip-hop that has evolved to an especially canorous, velvety sound for duo Death by Piano. They are proud to play their part in the Big Apple’s scene but feel it in their bones that there’s most undoubtedly a place for them in Great Britain. One half of the pair, Kalen Lister, graciously explained their roots and brought to us up to speed with their vibe.

Like so many times that have gone before, Death By Piano was born out of friendship, where an inevitable bond formed over music. Kalen starts, “Greywolf and I met in my old band, Kalen & The Sky Thieves. He'd drop me off after rehearsals, and we'd talk about downtempo and electronic music, which was different from the rock we were playing at the time.” Eventually, Greywolf, who is a gifted bass player, started experimenting with production. “I loved what he was doing and started adding vocals and synth and playing with the arrangements, and before we knew, it Death By Piano was born. We'd each been playing music since we were children.”

We come on to revelatory book Meet Me In The Bathroom by Lizzie Goodman, which candidly describes the musical landscape of New York from the late 90s. The fascinating read can get pretty wild, and Lister thinks about how places come and go in city life. “I haven't read it but definitely will as I love those types of stories. I came onto the scene in NY in the mid-2000s. There were a lot of great venues that aren't around anymore - Black Betty, Zebulon, Caffe Vivaldi, Spike Hill, to name a few. There were also some great house and loft parties. New underground places always re-open. You can still find the grungy, creative spaces; they're just usually not the same ones from a decade before.”

The question of inspiration occurs often but is essential to ask, as the answer can shift somewhat, Kalen applies it to Death By Piano, “For this project, in particular, Portishead is a big influence along with Massive Attack, The XX, Phantogram, and Tricky. Greywolf and I each have many different influences outside of these trip-hop legends, though. I cut my teeth on my mom's old classic rock, R&B, and folk vinyl while Greywolf used to be an emo kid.” Their sound holds cinematic drama. She continues, “Cinematic indeed - it must activate all of the senses. Glad people feel that.” And could the songstress describe DBP as a cocktail we'd like to sip on their very scene? She whets our appetite, “A smoky blackberry mezcal with a spritz of lemon and a sprig of thyme.”

Lister remembers standout moments on this ride so far: “Walking through Gowanus with our friend, filmmaker and poet KiNo getting footage for an early video.” However, it’s easy to tell that she is lapping up all elements of artistic life. She continues, “Literally every time in the studio, particularly collaborating with Abe Seiferth; shooting the "Countdown" music videos with friend and creative director, Rober Lux, and shooting the upcoming "DO I?" video with friend and filmmaker, Lena Rudnick; our show in Portland, ME. Many great moments so far that all have to do with collaborating with kind, creative friends.”

Current track Emergency is a bewitching synthy-electro duet, where the writing eludes to that unexplainable feeling of doom before a heavy storm. Kalen goes on, “We do a lot of writing about confronting change in this band; a lot of digging into tough relationships. Greywolf had a rough idea of a track he couldn't wait to share with me. I was bowled over when I heard it; I thought it was his best production to date. It jumped to the top of my lists of one I wanted to tackle. The song came together very quickly individually and collectively. We kept Greywolf's beats, recorded all the live instruments on top at King Killer Studio, and then sent it to Abe Seiferth to mix.”

Emergency opens with the poetic line of “I can hear your heartbeat pounding through the sheets. Sirens, an emergency tearing through my dreams.” This continues through the song, but this isn't a structured or planned thing. “We don't consciously try to write poetically, but we do try to write honestly, and in a way that's lyrical. Lyrics have always been an important part of my songwriting. Greywolf is newer to it but has a Masters in creative writing, so he was a natural. We've always cared a lot about lyrics and making sure we're really saying and communicating what we mean.”

So what are the next moves in mind from the two? “We have another single in this trilogy: Newer Light, Emergency and Nightwalk. Then, we're sitting on a six-song EP called Hellish that will storm the world next.” We end with our Brooklyn songbird discussing personal thoughts of the UK and whether she has ever graced us with her presence: “I have. Fucking love London but I've never played music there. I'm very eager to.” And the future? “Keep collaborating with brilliant folks and sync some songs in films. Oh, and playing London and Japan.”

Article by Beverley Knight

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