As a “serious” musician, Justin Powers had some trepidation when he founded Marina Orchestra.
His previous outfit, I Need Sleep, was a percussion-heavy, barely controlled mess of beauty and chaos, with myriad ideas brought to life and killed off in the span of a single concert. The band’s off-kilter charm made them darlings of the East Tennessee underground scene and took the band to South By Southwest and earned them slots on Daytrotter.
Marina Orchestra, however, is a more linear creation. The songs are straightforward, the performances focused on dancing and smiles than eliciting confused grins and puzzlement. Marina Orchestra has a clear sound — tropically tinged dance-rock heavy on world music influences and a perfect cure for winter blahs and life blues, equally at home on large stages or in the grungy Old City club, The Pilot Light, where Marina Orchestra will celebrate the release of its second CD on Friday night.
Going from one project to the other, Powers told The Daily Times this week, initially concerned him that fans and peers might think he was treading into gimmick territory.
“I am aware of treading the novelty line, of people saying, ‘Oh, it’s island music,’ or, ‘Oh, it’s that Jimmy Buffett sound,’ or whatever,” Powers said. “It might seem easy to write it off, but to me, it’s coming from a place that’s very honest. That’s the music that is actually inside of me. I’ve always loved world music or whatever you call it; it started with a love for reggae music, and that just kind of took me all over the world, musically speaking.
“I think that this style of music has always been somewhere inside of me, and I’ve been able to tap into it and make it exactly the way I want it to be. It might on the surface look like a gimmick type of thing, but if you can get over the gimmick and see the band as a real, actual thing — a real band making real music — I think there’s something there.”
If there ever was a time when local music lovers considered Marina Orchestra to be a novelty act, it passed quickly, probably the first time they saw the group perform live or heard the band’s debut album, 2012’s “Take on the Silence.” There’s an earnest giddiness to the music that’s genuine, and “Oceans” takes what Powers and his bandmates did so well on their debut album and fine tunes it. The songs flow from the conga line bump-and-grind of “The Laughing Song” to the surf rock/ska mash-up of “Jelly Hammer” to the languid groove of “Field of Dreams.” If ever a band could manifest the sounds of a day at the beach — the excitement of arrival, feet pounding across sand to the water’s edge, volleyball games and cold beer in a nearby cooler, gazing out at aquamarine waters as boats cruise past — Marina Orchestra has done so on “Oceans.”
“I kind of look at it from a Walt Disney point of view: I read a quote one time where someone commented that he made kids’ movies, and he said, ‘No, we make movies for everybody,’” Powers said. “Well, I love Disney movies, and I kind of feel like Marina’s the Walt Disney of music: I’m making music for everybody, and I don’t care who ends up liking it. I’ve always had that kind of direction for the band from the beginning.
“I thought if I could be listening to all this music that I love, and it makes me feel so good, I should be able to digest that and create something similar for the people in Knoxville and hopefully for everybody else in the world at some point. It doesn’t take a whole lot to understand this music. You hear it, and you’re happy. I think this world has a lot of (bad stuff), and if I can put one good thing into it, it’ll be a little bit better, and hopefully this band will inspire other people to do that.”
In other words, there is beauty in simplicity, although the logistics of putting and holding together a band that can make the sort of music that Marina Orchestra does can be a bit complicated. The group got off the ground in 2010, when Powers and his I Need Sleep bandmates returned from the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and decided to call it quits. After a few months of working and not playing, Powers realized he was going stir-crazy. At the time, he was listening to a melange of world music — African, Caribbean, South American, Cuban; and it was while listening to the Benin native Ignace De Souza that the concept of playing such music locally hit him.
“The original vision was that I wanted to make a street band, which is not at all what this is,” Powers said. “When we first started the band, we said, ‘Let’s get all of our friends together and start a band with all this percussion.’ When we started, we had a drummer and three percussionists. It was a very different band back then; we had no idea what we’re doing.
“As we’ve kind of figured out what the sound of the band is and what we need, and as people have come and gone, we’ve thought, ‘We’re losing another percussionist, but right now we don’t need to focus on having a percussionist; we need to focus on having a horn player.’ So we’ve been tweaking it as we’ve gone along, and I think we’ve finally settled into a format that’s going to last us for a long time. Everybody in the band is really into it and really excited.”
In the beginning, Powers called upon some of his old I Need Sleep bandmates, as well as veterans of other projects like Matgo Primo, and started small: a couple of horn players, a guitarist and percussion. As Marina Orchestra became more collaborative, however, it grew in scope, until eventually the band swelled to 10 people. These days, it’s down to a more manageable seven (or eight, depending on the day), which is perfect for churning out the group’s signature sound of rhythmic percussion, swaying beats, catchy melodies, lyrics that are easy to sing along to and a vibe that’s blindingly sunny. Members who have left the project have done so amicably, and finding the right replacement has been relatively easy, Powers said.
Currently, Marina Orchestra is working with a booking agent based in Chicago, which is where Powers and Marina bass player Tim Eisinger both grew up. They hope to book some shows in the Windy City and want to get out of the East Tennessee area more, but the logistics of putting a seven-piece band on the road are difficult. There are plans in the works, however, that may provide a work-around to such challenges, although getting there means Powers has had to become more business-savvy than he ever has before.
“I’m really seriously looking at the business end of the music, which is not something I’ve ever done in any of my other bands,” he said. “Always before it was like, ‘Well, we’ll play as many shows as we can and release as many records as we can.’ But ultimately what I want to do is play music forever, and ultimately I need to do whatever I need to do in order to do that.”
“Oceans” proves that when it comes to the creative side of the music business, at least, he and his Marina Orchestra bandmates have found their Zen — that place where the band can coexist peaceably alongside both the indie and underground projects that call The Pilot Light home and the more mainstream bands that play on stages at Barley’s Taproom and Preservation Pub.
“It’s a fine line,” Powers said. “I Need Sleep was very much one of those off-night Pilot Light type of bands, and I think Marina has had a little bit of trouble finding how exactly it fits into that culture that I Need Sleep came from — but it does, somehow. And the way I dealt with figuring out how it all works together is just not worry about it.
“I like going to The Pilot Light and hanging with all those dudes, and then I come in and play my music, which is not normally something that happens at The Pilot Light — but somehow it all works. I think Marina Orchestra is kind of in some sort of weird ‘Twilight Zone’ area where we can sort of walk into most venues and play and be accepted, and I think maybe it comes from that genuine feel to the music. The band is not really trying to be anything specific — it just is what it is, and I think part of that is a testament to the Knoxville music scene.
“Everybody’s so ridiculously supportive,” he added. “It seems like a pipe dream kind of thing, but it’s something I really enjoy doing. I never want to stop making music.”