Bombastic, ambitious, theatrical, intricate — these are a few words to describe Earth Engine, the seven-headed beast of a band that's been clawing its way to existence over the last two years, playing its genre-melding rock in and around the Detroit area, recording in basements, scraping together the money to make their presence known.
The band — which consists of the basic singer-drums-guitar-bass set-up along with keyboards, trombone, and saxophone — makes music that is an ever-shifting amalgamation of elements. Tracks on their short but potent 2016 self-titled EP swell with rock swagger and grandiosity, only to drop everything for a spastic horn solo. Other times, things take on a wistful air with cinematic piano rock. Whatever the mood — and it shifts a lot — the band has managed to make something coherent out of chaos.
Originally a four-piece, Earth Engine formed when singer Matthew Romanski, guitarist Tim Gregg, keyboardist and bassist John Raleeh, and drummer Tom Stanko were students in Fraser Public Schools. They disbanded shortly after graduating, then reunited in 2015, adding Romanski's brother Aaron on bass, Niklaus Landstrom on keyboards, and Raleeh, who is also a member of Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, shuffled over to trombone. The finishing touch came with the eventual addition of Chad Opfermann, saxophone player and the "calm of the band."
Their aforementioned EP was a scattershot project that involved recording in a series of basements throughout the metro Detroit area over the course of 2015. Learning as they went, you can hear the sound quality improve with every track, Gregg said, as the band got better at recording.
Now, with a little more experience under their belt, Earth Engine is nearly finished with their debut LP, Looking Down for Dollars, a large portion of which was recorded at Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak. They are also scheduled to play the Pig & Whiskey Festival Sunday, July 16.
Metro Times spoke to Gregg, Romanski, and Landstrom in advance of the show about the ideas behind their new album, their prog-rock roots, and making it work as a seven-piece band.
Metro Times: When you first started playing together, what kind of music were you into?
Matthew Romanski: I don't know if it has any bearing on what we're doing now, but we were weird little Zeppelin worshippers.
MT: Where'd it go from there?
Romanski: There was a point where we were all super into progressive music in some fashion or another. I think that's what made us sound the way we do. We're going for a pop-oriented, streamlined sound now, but it's still got a sort of busyness without actually being busy.
MT: What were your favorite prog rock bands?
Tim Gregg: Mars Volta was a huge thing for us, at least for a time. But whatever we are now could be as much Mars Volta as it could be like, "this is the sickest Paul Simon groove ever." It's somewhere between those two things.
MT: I feel like some of your songs change mood halfway through. Like, in "Joy Blue," on your EP, where it suddenly gets angry and you start screaming at the end.
Gregg: Matt's car got stolen the morning before we were supposed to record that part of the song.
Romanski: It happened at night actually. I was up all night, and then Tim came and picked me up and we went directly to finish tracking on that.
Gregg: He grabbed a low sensitivity mic and laid it on the ground of the basement and did that part of the song.
MT: What's been your process for making this new album?
Gregg: Before we started recording the album, I felt really uneasy. I don't think we knew what we were doing, direction-wise. But when we got into that studio, it felt like we finally had something to grab at. It was mainly because of Tom and Aaron (drummer and bassist) having stepped up their game. They were the first people to do the recording and they just destroyed, for four days. After that, everyone was like "shit, we have a sound now."
MT: What are the themes on the album?
Romanski: The title is going to be Looking Down for Dollars. It just encapsulated the feeling of everything at that time. We were spending money we did not have on this record and we still are.
Gregg: I remember Nik named off a few words that described the album.
Romanski: Water. Sex. Gold.
Niklaus Landstrom: Yeah. We were just trying to come up with a color palette or something, so I had Matt send me the lyrics, and it was desert sunrise-y.
Romanski: We're in the midwest, all we see is snow, and summer is here for about a week, so everything I write is really warm. Warm and surreal.
Gregg: And that translates well with what the album cover is going to be. It's the image of a strange desert hotel with some precarious things happening in the windows of the hotel.
Romanski: I like to think the hotel is a representation of Detroit because it kind of is. There are a lot of precarious things going on in the scene in general. And I don't think a lot of towns are like it, music-wise.
MT: Is it difficult having a band with this many members?
Romanski and Gregg: Yes.
MT: How do you ever make decisions?
Landstrom: Everyone has their own particular areas of aptitude. There are certain things where my input is required, and there are certain things where it's not.
Gregg: We've gotten a lot better at it over the years. I've known these people for so long, and having that inherent love for them is really important, because you can totally not like someone in the moment and still love them, and you can get through it.
Earth Engine performs at Pig & Whiskey on Sunday, July 16; East Troy Street between the WAB and Emory, Ferndale.