By Eric Schlittler
Kali Ma and The Garland of Arms have been kicking around the sub-underground of Northeastern PA for the past couple years, playing shows at the regular local haunts in addition to venturing to parts unknown on tour. Their forthcoming effort, “Cusp,” is a darkly heady mix of dream pop, post-punk and neo-psychedelia.
Band members Jami Kali (vocals, synthesizer), Ray Novitski (guitar, vocals), Matt Chesney (bass) and Anthony “Shiny” Montini (drums) took some time to talk about their creative process and much more. The new record will be released Oct. 25 on the band’s Bandcamp, but you can check out the debut of album cut “Platypus” below.
To kick things off, can you guys speak a little about how the history of the group so far?
Jami: In 2013 the first incarnation of KMGA began, consisting of my voice, a loop station and various instruments I chose for experimentation. Due to our involvement in the underground music scene along with an interest in things odd and obscure, Ray and I met and quickly began collaborating. After releasing an album of material, we decided to turn the project into a full band, to play these songs live and give them new life. In 2017 our lineup was completed when we were joined by Matt and Shiny. KMGA then began to take on a new form and evolve.
The name of the group evokes some interesting visuals. How did you come up with the name Kali Ma and the Garland of Arms?
Jami: My parents named me after the Hindu Goddess, Kali. Among many symbolic items adorning her attire, she wears a skirt/garland of arms around her waist. My idea for the name was conceived while still a solo project. What you are hearing is Kali, accompanied by her “band.” Think Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Iggy and the Stooges.
Your sound seems to pull sounds from a lot of different eras. Can you talk a bit about some of your biggest musical influences?
Jami: My musical influences span many genres such as pop, grunge, trip-hop, dream pop and post-punk, to name a few. My tastes seem to be ever-changing and I really enjoy that because it keeps things fresh and exciting. First and foremost, however, I’m a lyricist. Before writing lyrics, I studied and wrote fiction and poetry. I was always very influenced by writers’ uses of imagery, irony, metaphor and experimental wordplay. I love e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski.
Ray: I’m influenced just as much by paintings and books as I am by music. Essentially I’m influenced by tones, colors and emotions. Musically, genre or era never mattered. It was always about how a piece made me feel.
Matt: Mostly ’70s and ’80s punk/metal and post-punk. Big bands for me would be The Stooges, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, The Cure, Alice Cooper, Dead Kennedys and The Misfits.
Shiny: I’m influenced by the music I became a fan of in the ’90s. I’ve been a Garbage fan ever since “I’m Only Happy When it Rains” debuted on MTV. Smashing Pumpkins as well. With my favorite band being 311, that’s where most of my style as a drummer comes from. Basically I’ve always been a fan of alternative music.
Is there any music that you love that might surprise fans?
Jami: I’m not sure what surprises people. I was a pretty big AFI fan, spanning “Answer That and Stay Fashionable” till “The Art of Drowning.”
Ray: Wu-Tang and Beastie Boys, yet if you don’t like the Beasties, you don’t know your ass from your elbow. Wocka wocka!
Shiny: Beastie Boys and classic ’90s hip-hop jams such as, “I Got a Man,” by Positive K.
Do you consider yourselves to be a psychedelic band or something else?
Ray: There are tones and elements reminiscent of psychedelic pop and rock but we’re not tethered to any genre. Our music speaks in code to each individual. The best way to label our music is to hear it and come up with your own description.
Jami: We are genre-benders.
Can you give us some insight into the recording process for your upcoming album “Cusp”?
Ray: It’s actually a fairly quick and mostly easy process. The first stage is getting scratch tracks. That consists of me throwing mics in front of the amps and drums, then we play the songs with a metronome going to tame us a bit. It’s really only there to keep us from flying away on an energetic part. I don’t want it to be perfect because it sounds robotic and loses its soul. After getting the scratch tracks we re-record our parts separately while playing along to the scratch with our individual scratch instrument muted. For example I’ll mute the guitar track of the scratch then record the guitar by itself in order to get a cleaner recording. (By clean, I mean no other instruments are coming through the mic. Drums end up in every track of the scratch.) Then I just repeat the process for each part. To me, it seems to be the best way to record having the limitations of space and gear in a home studio. The goal was preserving the energy and soul of the performance but also giving me nice clean tracks to work with in the mixing stage. I can go on for days about the mixing and mastering so on that note I’ll say, if any readers have any questions about that part, I’m very open to sharing info or techniques with fellow up-and-coming producers.
Can you talk about the meaning of the title or would you prefer not to?
Ray: Cusp is a word describing a transition between two states. As I said, we’re not tethered to any genre. We are in between and on the fringes. We’re musically “black sheep.”
Were there any unexpected challenges that came up while recording the album?
Ray: The computer used for recording the last album decided it wanted nothing to do with recording music. It was glitching and lagging. We still get a lot of use out of it making album art or any band-related art and music videos, so it’s not a total loss. We just had to buy a new computer solely for music recording. It was a bit more expensive than the usual “dead cable” issue but the band plays on.
Jami: Early summer, I decided to get tickets to Levitation Fest in Austin, Texas, which takes place in early November. I imagined having our new album, a fresh representation of our sound, to distribute to so many like-minded people, people who were present enjoying music as eclectic and different as our own. This presented us with a strict deadline but we were confident we could make it happen.
In the video for “Something Else,” I was struck by the presence of Northeastern PA in the visuals. What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about being a band based in NEPA?
Jami: I’ve always enjoyed our strong underground music scene but have distaste for crime and corruption, which is typical of poverty-stricken areas. But the frustration gives us something to bond and bitch over. I’ve traveled across the country numerous times and although there are many small cities very similar to ours, NEPA stands out as having an abundance of people creatively expressing themselves and coming together as a community. That’s always been very inspiring to me.
Ray: I don’t have a least favorite thing about being in a band in NEPA. It’s only slightly annoying yet funny when I run into a person who doesn’t know much more than AC/DC or Zeppelin acting like a music expert, then begin to judge how I play or give advice on how I should play. That can happen anywhere. If we didn’t play out of town so much I can imagine becoming bored with playing the same places over and over. I enjoy a change of scenery. What I love about NEPA is you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who has a creative outlet. For such a small area it’s loaded with talented people.
Shiny: This area is thriving with talent. There’s camaraderie in our scene. The negative thing would be that it’s so under the radar and that makes it hard to really break out of here. There’s also more of a demand for cover acts than original music.
I saw you have an album release celebration coming. What are the details?
Jami: We have two release parties scheduled that are both guaranteed to be a killer time: The first event is Thursday, Oct. 24 at The Bog in Scranton with Das Black Milk and Family Animals. The show is free. Our second event is Saturday, Oct. 26 at News Cafe in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with The Benji’s and Bochek.
Looking down the road, what do you envision Kali Ma and Garland of Arms’ next musical statement might sound like?
Jami: We have no idea but we’re excited to find out.
Ray: We don’t approach it with any preconceived notions so it’s just as much a surprise to us as it is to any fans.
Do you have any final words?
KMGA: Thank you for listening!