Wunderkinds: Air Dubai is set to release its debut, Wonder Age
Top row: John Shockness and Julian Thomas; middle row: Michael Ray, Wesley Watkins and Taylor Tait; bottom row: Lawrence Grivich and Nick Spreigl.
Photo: Emily Driskill
Nothing like having somebody who's been there tell you exactly like it is, eh? Brutal honesty. No sugarcoating. This past June, just before Air Dubai was preparing to release a six-song EP, Flobots guitarist Andy Guerrero let the guys have it with both barrels. Do you guys really want to play music for a living? He asked.
Well, yes, actually.
"Well then, you have to think outside of your friends and think national," says Air Dubai guitarist Lawrence Grivich, recalling Guerrero's pointed words. "Do you want to think about your friends and think really minimally and not really get that far? Or do you want to hold off and release something that can be well received nationally?
Guerrero posed these questions just a few days before what was to be Air Dubai's EP-release party, when the group opened for the Flobots in Wyoming. He urged the bandmembers to hold off on releasing the EP and offered to produce a full-length album for them. Since it was too late to call off the show, Air Dubai ending up giving fans a code to download two free songs — and a heaping dose of its energetic live show, which has generated a sizable buzz over the last year.
"That's really where all the hype is," notes keyboardist Michael Ray. "We haven't released any music as a band. This is the first time we're releasing music as a band. I think our live show has definitely evolved, because that's all we've been doing for the past year."
Although the guys already had six songs in the can, which they recorded at Colorado Sound Recording Studios with J.P. Manza, they headed up to the Blasting Room in Fort Collins and re-recorded most of the tracks and more with Jason Livermore and Andrew Berlin. During the sessions, some of the songs changed a bit, with Guerrero acting as producer, a role that allowed him to make suggestions such as creating more space on some of the songs.
"We have such a big sound with seven people," Ray points out, "it's kind of hard to know what to have featured where. He was good that way. He was like, 'Hey, if you play it this way it will give Julian space for his raps.' Little tweaks like that helped a lot."
After about a week of tracking and a week of mixing, the members finished the eleven cuts that make up Wonder Age, their debut. "I guess if Air Dubai is who we are, then Wonder Age is when we are," declares Julian Thomas, the group's MC. "It's really just us at this point in our lives and in our career, and just like all the experiences and everything that we're going through — this wonderful age."
While the members have indeed entered into a wonderful age — the guys range in vintage between 18 and 22 — the years weren't always so full of wonder for them, particularly this past one. That's when the band recorded some demos at the Auraria campus and submitted one of the songs to KTCL for consideration in its Hometown for the Holidays contest. As Ray recalls, "They said, 'The song would have been really good and really highly ranked if you would have recorded it at a nice place.'"
It doesn't really get much nicer than the Blasting Room. With the help of Livermore, Berlin and Guerrero, Air Dubai should have no problem finding a home this holiday season. Using Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — the 2009 release from Phoenix, an act they all admire — as a sonic reference, the band and its studio overseers paid especially close attention to the mix.
"Never do you hear a song off Wolfgang Amadeus that's muddy, but they have all those instruments," Grivich marvels. "It's really powerful. As far as the recording quality and getting some of the instruments across, that's what we were going for."
Mission accomplished. Wonder Age is an outstanding-sounding album that could easily propel Air Dubai into the national spotlight, especially on the strength of cuts like "Restless Youth," "Weekends" and "Warm Days." That last track contains the lines "I'm talking about L.A./The world's best settlement/Where you can trust the weatherman/'Cause warm days are better than/C.O. with fur hoods and deep snow" — which some people might take as a dis to Colorado.
"The thing that people don't understand about our music — or that even the guys in my band understand about my lyrics — is that when I write songs, I write as if it's a photograph, how I'm feeling at a very specific time," Thomas reveals. "I went to L.A. Both my sisters live there. I was just having a great time at home with my family when I came up with the idea for that song. It's not necessarily that I hate Colorado; it's just at that point in time, when that song was written, that's how I was feeling."
If any of his bandmates can relate, it's singer Jon "Rhias" Shockness. The pair write separate parts for the same song and often end up penning passages that correspond with each other, even though they're reflecting on their individual experiences. "I guess 'Weekends' is a good example of it," Thomas explains. "We're sort of talking about different things, but they're very tied together."
The two frontmen work well together, with Shockness, who grew up listening to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, taking more of a soulful R&B approach, while Thomas lays down fluid raps. After working together in the hip-hop collective A-Club while at the Denver School of the Arts, Thomas started Air Dubai as a solo project in late 2007 and later brought Shockness on board.
The name of the group was inspired by a trip to Twist & Shout, where Thomas was looking at vinyl by the French electronic group Air. "I was really inspired by that," he remembers. "I wanted to blend that with an Of Montreal kind of thing or Telephone Tel Aviv. I thought Dubai was a cool city, so I just put them together."
After putting out the jazz-meets-hip-hop disc Early October in 2008, Thomas and Shockness had a lot of electronic songs they planned to release on an EP. Shockness recommended switching things up a bit and suggested bringing in Nick Spreigl, a drummer he'd been playing with in another band at the time. While Thomas was on a three-week vacation in Puerto Rico, Shockness sent him text messages about recruiting members for a full band. Although Thomas was skeptical, he gave Shockness the green light.
"When I came back to Jon's garage," says Thomas, "he had a full band in a garage playing our songs. At first it sounded awful. After we practiced a bunch, it started sounding really good.
"What we started off doing was that they would reinterpret the Early October songs," he continues. "It wasn't until we started writing tunes all together that it became something cool."
The group began as a quintet and eventually expanded into a seven-piece consisting of Ray, Grivich, Spreigl, bassist Taylor Tait (all of whom went to high school together in Parker) and trumpeter Wesley Watkins, whom Shockness knew from the School of the Arts. After playing their first gig together in April last year, they bandmembers started writing material over the summer, pulling from their disparate influences.
For his part, Shockness grew up on hip-hop and soul and remembers singing the Jackson 5's Third Album at the top of his lungs when he was three years old. Thomas cops to being a major Phoenix fan, while Grivich and Rey lean more toward indie bands, and Watkins and Spreigl are both steeped in jazz. The result is a sound that often gets compared to the Roots or acts like Gym Class Heroes.
"If you say 'rap rock' or something like that — which is kind of what we are — that kind of puts us in there with Linkin Park or Gym Class Heroes," concedes Grivich. "It's really hard to put it in a genre, because we have seven people coming from pretty diverse backgrounds."
"The Flobots were too political, and 3OH!3 was too party," Shockness recalls a fan once saying, "and we were right in the middle."
Considering the acclaim of those two outfits, Air Dubai could certainly be in worse company.
"Obviously, the goal is to get somewhere with our music. We want to get signed," Shockness confesses. "Personally, though, I just want to play music. And as long as people are enjoying the shit that we do.... A lot of people will tell us, 'I see you guys going somewhere, and I hope that happens.' I never saw Air Dubai as a tool to get there. I just saw it as, 'I love playing music with these people.'"
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