Dikembe Circle Back To The Ledge
Posted on May 18, 2015
May 18, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey
Eventually, pretty much all of them have to get lives.
Things happen, and though the band may never necessarily go away completely, as that itch to create will likely always need to be scratched anyhow, the band will reach a point where those other things will take precedent over spending weeks in the studio or months piled into a van. It’s not necessarily that the band has plateaued, creatively or commercially, though that can be a terrifying notion to some, especially when the band is on their way up the hill, where the journey is the most exciting part and the destination is often underwhelming. It’s just that with very few exceptions, no one makes a living doing this. Spouses, children, jobs, they can all be fulfilling parts of life, and as the band continues on, and maybe takes another opening slot on another tour with poor routing and worse guarantees, those other things begin to seem more sorely missed and more important than ever. That the band can be a thing, but it can’t be the only thing. Not forever.
But sometimes, fan entitlement or expectations aside, the band surprisingly develops a following without ever really “going for it” or putting their lives at home on hold, with a perspective rooted in perhaps a touch of flinching cynicism, a sense of humor and a healthy portion of refreshing realism. Commercially speaking, with a pair of albums, a couple EPs and a bevy of splits under their belt in four short years, Dikembe should be hitting their stride right now, selling thousands of records and headlining clubs like many of their peers have. That they’re not could be due to slightly better luck on the part of said peers, but it appears to be mostly by design.
Dikembe made a big splash in 2011 with Chicago Bowls. Emo had been regaining consciousness for a couple of years, though as many would eventually and occasionally angrily point out, it never really went away, more people just started caring. It was that sweet chronological spot where musicians who’d grown up on the golden age of emo were just getting old enough to try it themselves, and where, after catchy, safely superficial mall-punk had dominated the 2000s, those kids were older and looking for music that better fit their newfound maturity. Said maturity was found by a few in a self-released digital EP in which every song title was a weed and basketball pun, as one often finds it. But those four songs had an immediacy to them, a dramatic push and pull that few other bands at that time could seem to muster. The talent was immediate, and the chemistry was palpable. Tiny Engines soon scooped up Dikembe, as well as their previous project Wavelets (ironically, Dikembe was started as a Wavelets side project but ended up being much more than that) and remastered and reissued Chicago Bowls. Tours with fellow Floridians You Blew It! Followed, as well as a pair of full-lengths in 2012’s Broad Shoulders and 2014’s Mediumship. The band’s relative prolificness in their short four years of existence is not only atypical, it’s continuing with a new EP, Ledge, that they’ll be self-releasing digitally in June, with a vinyl release set for July. The four songs have all the hallmarks, that aforementioned push and pull, a certain delicateness lined up against calculated, and usually melancholy aggression, but they’re also the airiest, most well-rounded songs of the band’s career thus far.
“We’re a very antsy band when it comes to releasing music. We are not patient at all,” guitarist Ryan Willems explains. “I don’t know if I speak for the whole band here, but the album release cycle is just kind of a bummer. Generally, a band is expected to tour on their most recently released music but when an album is released, for us it means we spent probably a year writing and tweaking those songs at shows before recording, then another year after recording of mixing and getting physical copies and rolling out a release schedule.
I’m not knocking bands that operate well on that kind of schedule but I just can’t always get that excited about touring behind music that is two years old to us. I think by the time Ledge is released it will only have been around six months since we wrote the songs as a full band. While being musically dissimilar, Ledge harkens back to where we were as a band when we released Chicago Bowls: just dudes writing some raw music and wanting to share it.”
There’s no hard feelings with Tiny Engines, Willems tells me, mentioning that Dikembe has “always had a great relationship” with them. The label, to their credit, seems busier than they ever have, having either released or announced 18 titles since the beginning of 2014, including six already this year. But with a busy release schedule, sometimes bands—especially admittedly impatient ones—can get lost in the shuffle. “I’d say the major driving factor [for self-releasing Ledge] was just trying to get something out in time for summer tour,” he explains. “We’ve always been a somewhat seasonal band, usually being really active for bursts of time (often the summer) with long stretches of minimal activity. We’ve toured every summer for the last few years and sometimes during winter breaks. We talked about it as a band and sort of came to the realization that we will probably operate better on our own terms for the time being.”
That impatience stems from a couple different schedule-related factors, Willems continues. “Outside of tour, we don’t have that many chances to all get together. A big part of that is Steven [Gray, vocalist/guitarist] living in Orlando and having a fairly inflexible job as a teacher, and now me because of my son. We get to practice only once or twice a year, and we have full band writing sessions only a handful of times each year. So when we do get a chance to get together we tend to push ourselves pretty hard. For instance, we tracked all of Mediumship in one day, and did all the vocals the next day.
In addition to all of that, the past couple years we’ve (or maybe I’ve) had this grey cloud of impending real life hovering over us. Steven moved to Orlando and settled in as a teacher; I got married and had a kid; David [Bell, drums] got married and is thinking about moving across the country; Randy [Reddell, bass] is probably moving next year. Thankfully, we’ve always been on the same page about the band not being the main priority for any of us which is really nice, but also means that the next inevitable lull is waiting around the corner.”
The songs on Ledge are both a natural continuation of those on Mediumship and a clearer realization of ideas Dikembe first attempted on that album. The most stark change is the spacing of these songs; in particular, there isn’t much in the way of power chords or gigantic, cathartic choruses; the songs have built-in breathing room. “When we were writing Bowls and Broad Shoulders we never really put a ton of thought into structure or spacing,” Willems says. “Our general writing philosophy up to around Mediumship was very minimalist. We always played just about as fast as we could without making the songs sound weird, and rarely had choruses or repeating verses. In recent years we have definitely made an effort to pace things more and leave lots of space so Steven has more room to play around with vocal melodies.”
If Ledge feels like it has even more empty space than Mediumship, that’s probably because David did tons of post production during the months he and Tim [Stimpson] were mixing it. That record had lots of third guitar and effects whereas Ledge is comparatively raw.”
According to Willems, Dikembe’s enthusiasm for the songs that make up Ledge is invigorating, and it would seem that perhaps the band completing the circle, as it were, is a contributing factor to that. “I don’t know if there were really any conscious efforts to do things differently as a band other than the raw recording and writing process, “he starts. “I’m excited that we managed to write what I feel is a pretty diverse set of songs that manages to hop between mellow, hooky, and grungy in a short time frame while still remaining coherent as a group of songs. I think we all have things we are personally excited about. Steven has said that these are by far the most lyrically personal and important songs that he’s ever written; David thinks this is the best sounding recording he’s ever done (and we did it live without DI on the guitars!); Randy’s baselines are noticeably more intricate; I incorporated fuzz and played solos for the first time.”
It would seem that the four members of Dikembe are all being pulled in different directions, with jobs and families and distance all hanging in the balance. According to Gray, that aforementioned impending grey cloud and its accompanying mindset heavily informed the songwriting on Ledge. “The whole underlying constant throughout all the lyrics is this feeling of being overwhelmed and afraid,” he says. “’Teeth in the Sink’ has a line that goes, “I built a life on a ledge,” which speaks to the idea that I’ve spent my whole life building this fragile thing. Everything feels really important and heavy, and I spend a lot of time thinking of possible ways to ruin everything. It all feels unreal, even now. I’m having a baby in November. I have ultra sounds. I have physical evidence that my life is going to be completely different. But I still spend a lot of time in this ‘what if? mindset. It’s a weird natural thing for me to worry, even though there’s really not much to do besides do it, I guess.”