What do you get when method is applied to the creative drive; when an appreciation for the vital cooperation of a band’s members is applied to a songwriting style, evoking the hindsight perspective on adolescents; and when all the pieces of that complex puzzle could have just as easily not have come together?
The riddle’s answer is Telemonster, a local Chattanooga band composed of Covenant graduates fresh off the release of their debut album, “A Girl I Knew.”
The five-piece band features the basic guitar, bass and drums trio with the addition of piano and viola. Telemonster is composed of lead singer and guitarist Ben VanderHart, drummer Josh Barrett, bassist John-Michael Forman, viola player Peter Griffis and pianist Dave Hess.
With a sound that swings from sweeping lyrical viola interludes to moments of trance-like static or more terse vocals, the band ascribes to the indie rock ilk of The Shins and Built to Spill but concedes that “A Girl I Knew” trades in the catchy hooks and the heartfelt lyrics of melodically focused pop music with the caveat of drums that are always driving the rock beat forward.
“It depends on the inquirer’s frame of music appreciation and tastes,” VanderHart said of what he tells people when they ask for a specific definition of Telemonster’s music. “For those who aren’t familiar with bands like The Shins or Built to Spill for even Radiohead, I tell them we sound like REM.”
The longer story of the band’s past, present and future is a little more complex, just like its unique, vibrant and burgeoning music.
Forming John Jones’ Gang
As Chattanooga is starting to discover with more and more graduates venturing off the mountain, Covenant College is apparently a fertile ground for music.
VanderHart and Barrett share a familial connection—the two are cousins—that facilitated a level of comfort in sharing the stage. Barrett and Forman dubbed themselves the Go-Tos, as there was a scarcity of bass and drummer combinations to go around.
The three original members of Telemonster explained that the music scene provided enough opportunity for bands to form spontaneously for one or two shows and then stick together or move on to other projects.
VanderHart, Barrett and Forman performed with a few other schoolmates in Covenant's Mountain Affair—the college’s major talent competition—and took the top prize.
However, the three didn’t act on their recognizable musical chemistry until well after their 2010 graduation, when they were living together. Telemonster played its first professional show at JJ's Bohemia in the spring of 2011 with Elk Milk.
What followed marked a turning point for the band: two new members—Griffis and Hess—and the decision to commit to music as a viable endeavor. They recorded an EP with Charles Allison at Spanner Sound of the three catchiest songs is their repertoire with the hopes of garnering a loyal audience off of which to build.
In the interim between trying to make their big break and actually making that break, the band members have retained their day jobs at Cigna, Kenco Group Inc. and TVA. Forman, the only musician not to hold a corporate job, is a full-time potter.
All about cunning
Telemonster continued to play shows into 2012 around Chattanooga and eventually applied the same sound logic to recording a longer, second project. Originally meant to be five-song EP, “A Girl I Knew” quickly emerged as a full-length project complete with nine songs.
Barrett explained that the choice of a Kickstarter campaign to finance the recording process came from friends’ positive experiences with the crowdfunding platform.
The band’s campaign launched at the end of this April and, with a final count of 112 backers, surpassed the goal of $5,000 within a matter of months. Amidst the chaos of a studio move for Spanner Sound, the band recorded the nine-song record in May with Allison and released their debut album Nov. 17 at The Camp House.
The same reasoning that guided Telemonster’s step-by-step track from EP to album is at the heart of the music’s composition. Each of the members is trained to one degree or another in their instruments and music’s fundamentals: private study, music theory, music appreciation, and time spent in numerous and stylistically varying groups, with a central grounding in classical music.
"I really like classical music, and I would say one of the things that makes classical music unique is the highly developed sense of cooperation and orchestration between the instruments,” VanderHart said. “I try to develop ideas that have a lot of space, but when you put all of the puzzle pieces together, it's like putting together a melody.”
For “A Girl I Knew,” VanderHart wrote the lyrics and most of the melodies. These songs represent a backlog of music he first put to paper in college and has been waiting to include in a way that did them justice. The process for the new material slated for a potential sophomore album is being put together more interactively for other members of the band.
Barrett and Forman added that often VanderHart may have the bones of a song written with a concept for the beat and bass line upon which they can establish the final product. This kind of collaboration ensures that Telemonster’s music is never a flat, one-dimensional sound. In fact, the band strives to be at once approachable for audiences and exciting for fellow musicians.
“We all have varying degrees of formal musical education or at least a serious interest in theory, and we really admire artists who are both accessible and musicians' musicians,” Barrett said. “Andrew Bird, who is just so talented beyond belief, is also so catchy that you might not realize the complexities of what he's doing. We wanted to appeal to the casual listener but also write stuff that we thought was interesting.”
You don’t need to be able to identify by name the time change in “Ocean/Sky” or “Ruin” to appreciate the oomph that the sudden driving kick from the drums gives VanderHart’s sting of a chorus—“Don’t tease me little queen/Don’t tease me pretty thing/Don’t test my sanity/You’ll ruin everything”—before subsiding to a slower tempo in the latter song and to understand it shows the flipside of the aching apology in the previous song—“I never wanted to be selfish/I should have given you the spark/I never meant to be confusing/Should not have left you in the dark.”
The fact that Telemonster’s members are so technically proficient lends a depth to the album in which the more focused listener can lose him or herself.
Penny—I swear this is about you
The fact that the nine tracks on “A Girl I Knew” date back to the Covenant days adds another layer to the onion. The songs, striking in their insight and craftsmanship, are a reflection of adolescents with its innate innocence and requisite degree of naivety.
VanderHart admitted to being drawn to the material at the same time that he wants to distance himself from it. The album and the process of recording it became a reflection on and a tribute to the artistic, initial act of writing the song and reflecting on a specific time in his life.
Though the songs touch on themes of obsession and the consequences of single-minded desire—a pair of moonboots unwearable after two injured ankles—the primary source of material are relationships.
“A lot of songs are reflections on relationships that I developed, whether is was with my parents or girls I had a crush on or girls that I dated or the woman I ended up marrying or God,” VanderHart said. “I think that, generally, we handle all of our relationships very much the same way because we relate to everyone the same way, so a lot of times I'll write a song where I think, ‘I relate this way to almost everyone, so it could apply to anyone.’”
Forman explained that sometimes the band is as in the dark as the audience as to a song’s real meaning. Barrett said he typically plugs in information he knows about his cousin’s life and jokingly makes “crass assumptions.”
Those secrets are often a treasured side effect of Telemonster’s music. When the songs mingle with the listeners’ own lives and experiences through interpretation, they grow all the more dear.
“It could be bad experience for the audience [to know the song’s meaning] because it takes away the mystery,” Forman said. “The tension of being able to pick out themes but not really know everything about the content of the song is really nice in some ways.”
The Nov. 17 album release party was a well-attended event and gave the band a chance to thank its Kickstarter backers with their promised swag corresponding to their level of monetary support.
Telemonster is currently looking to parlay the album into an expanded radius of playing venues. With Chattanooga as a base, Barrett explained the band could travel north, south, east and west to all the “villes” to shows.
The ultimate goal is to translate the music into an artistically and financially self-sustaining venture. With an encouraging habit of booking local shows, Telemonster will continue to play for the hometown crowd.