Cherokee Red creates songs that are equal parts catchy and haunting, tantalizing you but never pulling back the curtain to fully reveal what’s truly at their core. It’s a unique sound that one might not expect to come from Northeastern Pa., an area seemingly dominated by mainstream hard rock and the occasional jam/roots act.
On April 16, the band re-leased its self-titled debut album, a fine document of the band with the difficult-to-classify sound, with elements of dream pop, folk and two female vocalists. While there is no distinct pigeonhole readymade for Cherokee Red, some listeners might find similarities to the hushed indie folk of Belle and Sebastian, the dreamy jangle of The Sundays or newer groups like Beach House or Wye Oak.
“It just really happened,” Cherokee Red multi-instrumentalist Dirk Dekker says of the mood that permeates the record. “Everybody’s got the mood that they live by and how they view the world. . . . That’s not to say that there’s anything we said beforehand, like ‘We want to sound like this.’ We just let the songs develop organically.”
That unforced approach has been a constant since the project got its start when guitarist/pianist Charles Davis and vocalist Christiana Bartolini began working on songs at a health store where Davis worked. They later brought in guitarist/vocalist Brittany Thomas, drummer Andrew Sgarlat and Dekker, who primarily plays bass, but like several of the band members, plays several instruments. The band takes its name from Cherikee Red, a cherry-flavored soda popular in Northeastern Pennsylvania that recently returned to the marketplace.
“I knew of Charles from Ends of the Earth and always wanted to do a collaboration with him,” Dekker says. And Cherokee Red’s music and personnel gave him the opportunity to apply some new musical styles he had been working on.
“That’s just it. It’s so multifaceted that there’s a lot for me to do,” Dekker explains. “Lately with my other group the Free Music Orchestra I had been refining my approach to ambient, spatial guitar. And Charles writes a lot of songs with interesting chord progressions, and Charles’ style, and Brittany’s style to some degree, and the breathy vocals, lends itself to different playing.”
With Thomas, who recently graduated from Temple University, connected to the Philadelphia music scene, the band has played at venues there such as Kung Fu Necktie and Silk City. Cherokee Red has also recently begun performing in New York, and will return on May 2 with a show at the Mercury Lounge.
On May 16, the band will play at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains, where it actually tracked the debut album.
“It’s a great situation for us, because I play at the Jazz Café pretty regularly, and this guy there Keith Litzenberger has an in-house recording system. We started tracking on stage on a Sunday in 2011 and basically tracked all of the songs there,” Dekker says.
Dekker than loaded the tracks onto his computer and added overdubs like additional guitars, glockenspiel and effects. Dekker also engineered and mixed the record.
“That’s the beauty of the modern world,” he says. “This is so hodgepodge and ragtag, we don’t necessarily need to be in a sterile studio because it’s all sort of organic anyway.”
Some “eerie elements” made it onto the album, too, like someone walking across the Jazz Café’s wooden floor in the song “Leviathan.” Dekker added the sounds of crickets he recorded outside his house to another track.
Cherokee Red’s live shows have recently taken on a new flavor, with the band adding Matt Rattigan from Dirt Vultures to its lineup. Rattigan plays drums, bass, percussion “and pretty much everything else,” Dekker says, giving the other members the freedom to play different instruments.
“Having that has been great, especially live,” Dekker says. “It has made our sound a lot thicker and developed and more like the album.”
While the band is relatively new, it has attracted a healthy amount of buzz from outlets like American Songwriter and renowned Philadelphia radio station WXPN’s blog The Key, which two weeks ago featured the track “Vaya Con Dios” as a daily download.
“It’s great,” Dekker says. “The cool thing about Cherokee Red for all of us, we’re not 20-year-olds doing our first band. We’ve been in some projects most of us, so we know the ins and outs of being in original bands. It’s not like a hobby for us.
“We’re trying to do the best we can with it and put it out there. We know it’s different than the typical stuff, and we’re trying to let that happen, let that be as an angle in a saturated world of music and bands.”