After seven years of shows, Stem Afternoon finally has a studio recording. Currently composed of Mykyl Garcia on drums and trumpet, James Velasco on guitar, DJ FTdub on turntables and sampler, and producer Clint Niosi on keyboards, the long-running dub collective’s new album Bandit from Beyond sounded like the appropriate soundtrack for a lengthy cruise in my car during a moment of national anxiety. I was headed to interview the band at Niosi’s Orange Otter studios, found in a converted Tuff Shed in a residential neighborhood south of Seminary Drive, and to give the recording its due, I waited until I’d crossed the West 7th/Camp Bowie/University Clusterfuck before I pressed play. Once I’d cleared that minor circle of hell, Stem Afternoon’s new LP (available on Bandcamp and Spotify) proved to be as cinematic as I’d hoped, a spacious, minor-key accompaniment to what I will always think of as the Weekend Before the Fascists Took Over Congress. The seven-song release, tracked live in-studio and mixed and mastered by Niosi, matched my sense of impending dread. I’m a Democrat. I’m writing this before Election Day. You can probably guess how I was feeling at the moment, and Stem Afternoon’s record, a foreboding soundscape of jangly Spaghetti Western-inspired guitars, splashy cymbals, and murmuring, psych-slurred samples was the sonic manifestation of my anxiety.
I’m projecting, of course. If you get emails from Marjorie Taylor Greene and then send her money, you are probably as anxious as I am. I do not want to ascribe any of my own political beliefs to Stem Afternoon, because the vibe of this collection of songs is edgy no matter where you fall on the right-to-left spectrum — if you’re conservative and biting your nails about the future direction of this country, this record is just as applicable to your worries as it is to mine. But as I fret about how election deniers and anti-abortionists will fare in the aftermath of Tuesday, well, these seven tracks kind of say what I’m thinking, even if the only lyrics are gauzy samples obscured beneath layers of filters and effects. Again, I don’t want to project my own beliefs on this band, but, damn, if they don’t make a good soundtrack for pervasive unease.
Stem Afternoon came about in 2015, following the dissolution of a couple bands that multi-instrumentalist Garcia had been a part of.
“I played in a couple instrumental bands — OK James, Drift Era — and it was good times, but they [dissolved] from creative differences,” he said. “We just stopped doing it, but with this one, I told myself, ‘Man, I’m gonna keep going.’ It became a ‘dub collective.’ That’s the best way to put it.”
Along with Garcia and Velasco, the outfit included bassist Mercedes Gloria and drummer Santiago Ryan. Their first show was at the short-lived house venue House of the Rising Thumb.
“And from there, it kind of spiraled up,” Garcia said. “We played a lot.”
After performances at Fortress Fest, the Sam Gallery, and MASS, Garcia said they “started off wanting to be kind of a trip-hop instrumental thing.”
For a while, Stem Afternoon played shows that were often 45 minutes of jamming, a testament to the participants’ devotion to the Cosmic Nod. They went with what sounded good within the inspirational blueprint of bands like Mogwai, Portishead, and Massive Attack. They recorded jams at their rehearsal space and uploaded them to YouTube. Their first shows were kind of a big deal, then COVID hit, and the collective’s rhythm team went their separate ways, leaving just Garcia and Velasco.
“We were just kind of figuring out what direction we wanted to take it,” Garcia said, “so I moved to drums and trumpet. I had bought [Niosi’s] record “Panorama Avenue,” and I had known him for a while. The B-side to that record was all synth and drone, and I thought, ‘Man, that would be cool to get him to play with us.’ ”
Stem Afternoon booked time with Niosi, and the songwriter/producer’s noir-esque aesthetic was a perfect match for the moody, cinematic ideas that Garcia and Velasco made happen with their vibey percussion and angsty, reverb-y guitar.
What struck me about the recording was how big it sounded. The space between the drums and the guitars sounds like a hundred empty miles stretched across a desert landscape, very much in line with Niosi’s ambient solo material and that of wife Claire Hecko’s Frosty project. Seeing that that sound was achieved in a Tuff Shed in a backyard — and tracked live with a bare minimum of overdubs — was kind of mind-blowing in itself. Garcia and Velasco’s collective is rooted in live improvisation, yet their album sounds very much intentional, and in that regard, the recording is that much more impressive.
Velasco’s song titles, however, are playful puns that reclaim the seriousness of existing art, so as sinister as his and Garcia’s compositions end up sounding, they are not without a sense of humor. But even when you hear a song with a title that pokes fun at Ted Nugent, well, the music is still made for these times. If you had to make a movie about life in 2022, Stem Afternoon’s Bandit from Beyond is as good as you could hope for.