Sarah Brown

Don Harvey, band founder of The A Is Red, describes the band’s style as an instrumental blend of Middle Eastern ambient music and American jazz. The A Is Red plays shows at Strange Brew every other Friday night.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Local ensemble A Is Red has managed to take what should be a displeasing cacophony of culture and transform it into an enjoyable fusion of sound and – for some people – color.

The band title is not a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work of fiction, but is instead influenced by a rare neurological condition known as synesthesia. Those affected by the condition experience a blending or crossing of the senses, which often results in certain sounds appearing as certain colors or tastes.

Band founder Don Harvey is fascinated by synethesia, but he is not personally diagnosed with the condition.

However, he, like many other prominent musicians and composers before him, claims to experience a touch of the bizarre phenomenon.

“To many composers throughout history, the letter and key of A has stimulated the color red, and I do have that when I play,” Harvey said. “It wasn’t until I started writing music that I realized, ‘Wow – it really does feel this way.’”

Harvey’s career as a composer is just taking off, but he has been performing alongside other musicians since he was 19 and living in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“I grew up in New York not too far from the city, then I was in Tel Aviv, Israel for five years,” Harvey said. “I played a lot of music over there with Israelis and people from all over the world. There were a lot of musicians from the Middle East and even some Palestinian musicians.”

The music composed by him and fellow musician Stefano Intelisano is best described as a blend of Middle Eastern ambient music and American jazz, an odd pairing that results in the cinematic, instrumental pieces performed by A Is Red.

Band bassist Sarah Brown has been playing alongside Harvey since the early '90s, but this most recent project is miles away from the classical jazz and blues standards she is accustomed to playing.

“I thought the music was really different from anything I’d played and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it,” Brown said.

“But then [Don] played me the songs that were coming out on his second CD and I really fell in love with them.”

According to Harvey, Brown has found her niche in the multidimensional folds of his eclectic tunes.

Naga Valli, who is a Mumbai, India native, adds her own cultural flair to the ensemble’s music through her vocals.

“Valli brought an enormous depth and new element to the music,” Harvey said. “The songs are all instrumental pieces that don’t have any lyrics, so she usually uses her voice as an instrument.”

Valli’s vocals are found throughout the ensemble’s second album, “The Light Shines Through,” which is an album Harvey helped build from the ground up.

Jon Niess, owner of local studio Austin Signal, utilized Harvey’s alternate career as a realtor to purchase land on which to build a proper studio, as opposed to the one he previously operated out of his garage.

“Don was kind of around the whole time it was being built,” Niess said. “He ended up being the first project, the first record that we made there.”

Greg Klinginsmith designed the studio, but Harvey helped test the acoustics of the rooms as they were being built by playing his music.

“Because of the work Greg did and some of the suggestions Don had in terms of layout, the record came out beautifully,” Niess said. “Don’s music was a great test of Greg’s design of the rooms.”

With the studio practically hand-crafted for his next album, Harvey and his ensemble recorded “Light Shines Through” at Austin Signal.

According to Harvey, the ensemble writes a new song every time it rehearses, and there are plans to release a third album in the future. However, Harvey’s ultimate goal is to score a soundtrack to a film.

For now, Harvey and his ensemble of multicultural musicians have a residency at Strange Brew where their enigmatic, color-evoking songs can be heard drifting from the lounge side every other Friday night. 

Music Monday

Sleep Over is Christa Palazzolo, Stefanie Franciotti and Sarah Brown — three 26-year-olds who came together in October to start conceptualizing what would become one of Austin’s crown jewels of the underground. Though still in its infancy, the group’s music stands out as a promising precursor to some upcoming releases, including a 7-inch split in June with like-minded musicians Pure Ecstasy on the Light Lodge label.

Sleep Over’s music is hard to classify — on “Fog Juice,” a mostly instrumental track that recalls Pocahaunted’s Peyote Road and the mania in a Diamanda Galás track, howling guitars fill the negative space as a slow, primal drum beat pulses. And on “The Key,” Palazzolo’s reverberant vocals stand out in the hauntingly beautiful chorus, as does the cosmic dissonance in the wall of sound behind her voice.

The Daily Texan sat down with Sleep Over to discuss ankhs, the group’s experience at South By Southwest and their prior bands.

The Daily Texan: So, what kind of gear are you using?

Stefanie Franciotti: We use an AX60 keyboard, an AX80 keyboard, a bass and a guitar.
Christa Palazzolo: The setup is still pretty fresh, and we’re still thinking about incorporating new elements.

So, how did Sleep Over come together?

CP: We started in October.
SF: More like December.
CP: Yeah, we came together last October, but we just started recording material in December. We kind of were just hanging out. At that time, her other band shared a practice space with a bunch of other bands, and we would get drunk in the freezing cold. [laughs]

What was your band?

SF: Silver Pines.
CP: And a couple of other bands played there, and Sarah and I have known each other for a long time.
SF: They’ve known each other since they were tweenagers.
CP: And we’re good friends with the drummer in Silver Pines. So, I guess that’s how we met.

Did you guys grow up here in Austin?

Sarah Brown: Yeah, we went to middle school and high school here.

Which high school?

SB: Bowie.
SF: [laughs]

[to Stefanie] I noticed you’re wearing an ankh, would you mind talking about it?

SF: I’m Egyptian.

Really?

SF: No.

I also kind of find it surprising you guys started in October — kind of serendipitous, given the kind of music Sleep Over makes. But October is my favorite month.

SF: Mine, too.

What was the first song you guys made together?

SF: “The Key.”

And Sleep Over played a few times during South By Southwest right? How did that go?

CP: It was great.
SF: We were kind of maxed out. Next year, I’d like to just cruise, you know?
CP: Yeah, I think we played a little too much this year, and we didn’t get to see the bands we wanted to.
SF: Well, in some cases we got to play with the people we wanted to see, which was cool.

Like who?

SF: Pocahaunted.
CP: Sun Araw, Speculator.
SF: Pure Ecstasy, Ged Gangras.
CP: [Stefanie’s] biggest influence is probably Cocteau Twins.

Oh, yeah? Can you recommend a good Cocteau Twins album for someone who hasn’t listened to too much of them?

SF: Garlands. Blue Bell Knoll.
CP: I think, creatively too, we are inspired a lot by what our friends are doing. Which people should do, you know — draw from each other.

Are there any bands besides Silver Pines that you girls are associated with?

SF: Belaire. [points to Christa]

Wait, what? You’re in Belaire?

CP: Yeah, with Cari, my twin sister. She lives with us, too. She’s the lead singer.

Oh, no way. [laughs] That’s weird. So what have you been listening to lately?

SB: I haven’t changed the songs in my iPod for months. I’ve been listening to Survive a lot lately.
CP and SF: Yeah!

Ironically, I’ve been listening to Suicide quite a bit lately. There’s a song called “Frankie Teardrop” that blows my mind.

CP: I’ve been listening to a lot of dub and reggae.

Did you do Marleyfest?

CP: No. [laughs]
SF: I’ve been listening to a lot of Franco Battiato, Les Rallizes Dénudés.

Oh, awesome, I love Les Rallizes Dénudés — but their stuff is so hard to find.

SF: They regrouped to play South By last year, but I unfortunately did not get to see it.
CP: And there’s that really dark stuff, that Italian label.
SF: That’s the Italians Do It...

...Better. Yeah I love that label. They have, what, the Chromatics, Glass Candy on there. A lot of dark Italo-disco. How many songs have you guys made so far?

CP: We have four that came out on a tape EP.
SF: Night People put it out.
CP: That just came out last month. But we have a couple of 7-inches coming out soon, also.

Who’s putting it out?

CP: We can’t leak it just yet, but we’re recording next week. And hopefully, there’s an LP in the future.

Let’s talk about movies for a little bit. This is a weird question, but can you each tell me one movie that describes your music? Does that make sense?

CP: Yeah!
SF: Maya Deren’s experimental shorts. Some people say she died of a voodoo curse. Her films are really dreamy.
CP: Not much verbal dialogue. It’s so beautiful ... limited music.

What other movies do you all like?

SF: “The Thing”!

Which was that one again?

CP: Kurt Russell — a total hottie — and a bunch of dudes stranded in Antarctica.
SF: And I just saw “The White Ribbon” by Michael Haneke.
CP: And “The Piano Teacher.” Have you seen it?

No.

CP: Don’t watch it. [laughs] It’s fucked up...

I want you each to pick one word to describe your music.

SF: “Lunar.”
CP: Mine is “alpha.”

I noticed that word on your MySpace — you called yourselves “alpha femmes,” if I’m not mistaken. There are a lot of these little symbols floating around in Sleep Over. What’s the meaning behind that?

SF: Wingdings are coming back, dude.
SB: My word ... “puppies.”

But going back to first impressions, I’m kind of surprised how sweet you girls are, considering how tortured and dark your music can sound.

CP: Those are the current vibes.

That’s why I was so surprised when you said you were in Belaire — Sleep Over is the total opposite, it seems.

SF: I think all of our experiences in music have really kind of brought us where we are, and we’ve all definitely brought different things to the table.

[to Sarah] Were you in any bands before Sleep Over?

SF: Yeah, she was. She played bass in high school.
SB: So awful. [laughs]

Okay, this is a really cheesy question, but could you describe your perfect day in Austin?

CP: Aw, that’s a nice question. I like that.
SB: Projecting a movie on the living-room wall. We just got a projector, and we’ve been watching a ton of movies on it.
CP: If it’s a perfect day, I would not be waking up early.
SF: I would! I would make some breakfast.
CP: I’d be drinking mimosas or beer.
SF: And lox and bagels. And we’d jam! Straight jam all day.
CP: Swimming in Barton Springs.

What kind of beer?

CP: Lone Star. It’s my staple.

That’s the best cheap beer, in my opinion.

CP: And there’s a lot of pride that goes behind it.

Okay, another weird question. How would each of you describe your perfect sandwich?

CP: I got this: It would be a 12-seed bread with mayonnaise, regular mustard, provolone, some Swiss, turkey, avocado, alfalfa sprouts and spinach. And now, I’m hungry. [laughs]
SB: Honestly, when I think about my favorite sandwich, if I could have my perfect sandwich, it’d be cheap white bread and peanut butter and jelly.
SF: Arugula, prosciutto, tomatoes, some feta ... on focaccia bread.

Last question. Top three albums of all time?

SF: Les Rallizes Dénudés, Heavier Than a Death in the Family. Franco Battiato, Energy. And then Cocteau Twins, Garlands.
CP: I think Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

Yes! I play Fleetwood all the time on Hole in the Wall’s jukebox.

CP: There’s a lot of female vocalist-led bands I like — Cranberries. And I’ve been listening to a lot of The Byrds.
SB: And you’ve been listening to a lot of Alton Ellis. Me, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon, Graceland. Neil Young, Harvest Moon. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

[to Christa] I notice you have a pretty amazing tattoo on your forearm.

CP: This feather? Little piece of spiritual independence.

At first, I thought I saw the Virgin Mary.

CP: Yeah, the sunburst behind it draws from the Virgin of Guadalupe’s. By the way, I feel like I’ve met you before.

I feel like we’ve crossed paths before, too. [laughs]