Empty Space Orchestra has, over the course of a couple of years of regional touring, invented a game. It's called P.T. Cruiser, the rules of which are unexpectedly complicated and apparently quite rigid.
Here's how it works: The four members of the band not driving the tour van (safety first) are to keep a watchful eye out for P.T. Cruisers, which for the less-than-automotive savvy is Chrysler's decade-long-minivan-meets-old-timey-sports-car mistake. They're rare, but not too rare, because as the band is riding down the freeway to Portland, Seattle, Eugene or wherever that weekend's schedule is taking them, a member of the quintet will see one of these vehicles. He or she will then declare "P.T. Cruiser!" and then is allowed to slap a band mate of their choosing in the face. It sounds like a classic game of "slug-bug," but this has the potential to get more violent, and easily more hilarious, because if someone sees a Smart car, they're free to punch one of their fellow musicians.
"It got to the point that everyone in the van was super tense. We looked like a bunch of meerkats," says bassist Patrick Pearsall, sitting on the floor of Empty Space Orchestra's practice space in an industrial area just east of Bend's Third Street.
Oddly enough, there's little if any of these band-mate-smacking hijinks to be found a few minutes earlier during the band's rehearsal. Things are actually quite businesslike as guitarist Shane Thomas and drummer Lindsey Elias discuss the rhythm of a song they're in the middle of crafting. They take it from the top and this new track, like most of the cuts to be found on the band's recently released self-titled record (which has been garnering excellent reviews from national online publications), is a surging, sonically advanced whirlwind that is much easier to bob your head to (as keyboardist Keith O'Dell is doing during the jam) than try to stylistically describe.
Since forming in 2008, Empty Space Orchestra has transformed gradually from a spacey jazz-rock trio to a genre-mashing quartet and finally, into the five-piece heavy-as-hell psychedelic powerhouse we hear today. And still, they don't have any vocals, opting for a completely instrumental yet somehow awesomely melodic attack at whatever style happens to pleasure their collective palate at the moment. Their shows in Bend are known to draw an ever-growing group loyal fans, and their draw was evidenced when the band played a month-long weekly residency this winter at the Silver Moon Brewing Co., packing the venue for each show.
"It was crazy that people kept coming out," says saxophonist Graham Jacobs. "I remember thinking after the first show that this kicks ass, but will people keep coming out?"
Sometimes, it seems even the band is surprised at how well they've done in growing a hometown following.
"It takes longer for people to get it. Bands that play weird, inaccessible music take longer for people to catch on to," says Thomas over a beer as he sits with the rest of the band in the spacious warehouse space.
"But the scene (in Bend) is small enough that it can support one totally goofball-ass act," says Pearsall, getting a laugh from the rest of the band, which, as a whole, is beginning to exhibit some of the freewheeling nature that leads one to readily believe that P.T. Cruiser is, in fact, an actual game and that they really do smack each other around just for the hell of it.
The band also discusses one of the constants that's been with ESO since its inception and that's the appeal of drummer Lindsey Elias, who, despite her petite frame, is the wild dynamo that powers the act and is also often the focal point of their shows. The guys have accepted this reality, moving Elias up to the front of the stage to showcase her even more prominently. She doesn't mind. Well, not most of the time.
"The only thing that really bothers me is drunk dudes who creep over my beautiful drums with their beer," she says.
While they enjoy plenty of notoriety in Bend - enough to support a full-scale release show complete with a light show to celebrate the album's release - Empty Space Orchestra has been constantly stepping out of its comfort zone by heading to other cities in the region. Sometimes they play in an opening slot for a full room, but at other times they're playing to a handful of people who've never heard of them before. The band also got away from their home territory to record this record by heading down to Sacramento's Hangar Studios where they virtually enclosed themselves in the studio, laying down a couple tracks a day.
"It's taken a long time. This is the first record we've done real-deal style where you go into a really good studio and you send the tracks to somewhere to get mastered. We went through the whole process," says Thomas.
With the album out and more shows coming up, Empty Space Orchestra seems in as good a shape as they've ever been. They seem content, but not necessarily satisfied, especially when someone asks if there are limits to their stylistic wandering.
"This thing can be anything. Reggae, death metal, polka, jazz, whatever," says Pearsall.
"It's rock hyphenated," interrupts Elias.
"It's omni-genrical. And you can put that word down on the books," says O'Dell, for the win.
Empty Space Orchestra
CD Release Party
With Diego's Umbrella and
The Quick & Easy Boys
8pm Thursday, May 19. The Century Center, 70 SW Century Dr. All Ages. $15/door, $13/advanced at
bendticket.com (includes free
download of the new album).