The three founding members of the Detroit-based septet Sold Only As Curio reference nearly a dozen different genres or traditional styles from around the world within the first five minutes of our interview.
Gregory Mulkern is on electric banjo, Bianka Black is on violin, and Nate Brokaw Jackson is on seven-string electric guitar. They met 10 years ago in Oregon and played their first show on Halloween night in a historic cemetery with candles everywhere and interpretive ghost dancers milling about. That's the short version. At this current moment, at the onset of a new monthly residency at Hamtramck's new craft cocktail and performing arts venue, Bar/ter, the band has solidified as a seven-piece, with Erin Marie Smith, Julien Saker, Mark Newport, and Djeto Juncaj. The band's instruments also include drums, bass, accordion, and a lute-like stringed instrument called an oud.
"Our show really changes people's perspectives," says Jackson. But he admits that people's first-takes of their band can inevitably be a bit reductive: the band gets labeled as anything from goth, to steampunk, to Balkan folk, to dark circus music. And none of that is the case, although they do include Balkan music as a reference point, among an amalgamation of disparate reference points, including funk, R&B, cabaret, rock, pop, soul, blues, reggae, and a compound mixture of traditional European music, as east as the Balkans or as north as Sweden. For brevity, in terms of genre, they usually stick to "other."
"But 'Hoodoo dance-punk' is also a thing that we've used to use to describe ourselves," says Black. In fact, the band name comes from a Hoodoo saying — a mixture of traditional beliefs incorporating African American, Native American, and European folk magic — required to be put on potions or herbs for sale in the South.
Mulkern says it's no use getting hung up on genres. "Did Queen stick to a genre?" he says. "Did They Might Be Giants stick to a genre? The comment we get every single show we play is: 'I don't even know what that was... but I loved it! When's your next show?"
The idea with the band's new monthly gig at Bar/ter (set for the final Thursday of each month) is that it will pair their eclectic set with a guest performer, essentially applying a theme to each night, and allowing for some dancing before, after, and between sets from the curated mix of Black's and Jackson's DJ sets. In fact, dancing is a sort of starting point for their intentions as artists: if a live music performance in a venue can become something akin to theater, than Sold Only As Curio are keen to engage the audience not just physically (in that, the band members will likely come off the stage and dance with you), but emotionally and spiritually as well. The intent is that you feel more alive at one of their shows than you likely may have felt in a while.
"The point, for our band, is we want it to be an experience, an experience for everyone," Black says. "I personally feel responsible once you've come to the show, so I want you to have a good time, to make you move around a bit... The more energy (an audience) has, the more energy we'll have."
This inclination toward interactive performances stems from a decade ago, when Black and Mulkern first started busking as a duo around the Portland area. Jackson, who was in Germany at the time, joined in as soon as he returned and Black booked that first fateful show in a cemetery on Halloween. But they've been all over the world since then, and their tastes span the globe as well.
Black may have grown up around the South, but she's since traveled to more than 160 countries and experienced countless forms of music and different kinds of performers. Mulkern may play the banjo, but his influences are miles and miles away from what you'd presume that instrument's home to be (i.e., bluegrass). Mulkern, notably, also performs a refreshed and progressive style of Americana music through his other project, Banjolectric, which has also taken him on world tours. And Jackson, with his own world touring project, Bootyjackson, may have some country music on his early résumé, but you'd never suss that out from what he brings to Curio's current commingled essence via his seven-string electric guitar.
Black is essentially speaking for everyone when she says "my primary inspiration for wanting to be in a band was to get to write songs that I've never heard before." With Curio, it's about finding something, rather than settling into something — as Mulkern adds, while Black essentially leads their songwriting process, the process is substantially collaborative.
"The three of us, as the core members, all have totally different backgrounds," Mulkern says. "Maybe why our music is really different is because none of us can predict the way the song's going to wind up at the end of the day. But it starts with an intention. We're not starting with a riff; it's more like 'How do we write a song that feels this way or that way.' Because the band isn't playing itself, we're more so trying to play the audience — we want the audience to feel something or think about something."
"They have to feel it," Jackson concurs. "And maybe someone in the audience is like me. I grew up in rural Oregon, where there wasn't a lot of people to otherwise choose from to play with, and so we've had to mix styles together."
Black likens it to cuisine. Any resident of a major American city has access to every type of food from around the world, in terms of restaurant selection. "You're able to sample everything and find new things you like, and you realize that just because something has tomatoes doesn't limit it to only being Italian food," she says. "The music is different but it should still hit the part of you that makes you want to dance, but also hit another part of you that makes you want to feel confident or mysterious or any emotion that you normally turn to music to get in touch with. I see more examples all the time in Detroit of genre-mixing and a lot more especially outside of the United States. Genre is never pure in the first place. I really think that bands like ours are going to become a lot more common in the future."
Sold Only As Curio performs with Jenny Raquel, DJ Madame Zora & DJ Sherlock Whore on Thursday, Aug. 29 at Bar/ter; 11601 Jos Campau, Hamtramck; 313-707-0986; barterdetroit.com. Doors at 8 p.m. Free.
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