Do artists need vocals and lyrics to demand audience attention in a place like the Bay Area, where there are new musicians popping up left and right? Eric Kuhn and Robin Landy, better known as instrumental duo Silian Rail, have found the answer to that question to be a resounding “no.”
With a handful of locally well-received releases under its belt and an upcoming headlining show at Bottom of the Hill, Silian Rail has clearly made it work thus far without words. The band's songs run on a driving rhythm paired with carefully crafted guitar work. The complexity of its sound has continued to kept critics and fans coming back for more – a happy discovery for many, that expansive instrumental music can hold their attention.
For a recent companion piece, however, the band added something somewhat foreign to its repertoire, through collaborations with other artists: vocals. “We do have a couple singers on this album,” Kuhn says.
“Our choice to be an instrumental band is not something we ever really talked about. The way we play together emerged quite naturally – [Landy] plays guitar, I play drums...We thought it would be a fun excuse to collaborate with friends and see what they would contribute.”
Silian Rail's collaborative recent EP every/one (released in May of this year as a companion to the each/other album) will benefit United Roots Oakland, with all of the proceeds going towards its community engagement programs in the arts and media. That EP includes Lewis Patzner (Judgement Day, the Devotionals), Thao Nguyen, Andrew Maguire (Thao and Mirah, DRMS, the Devotionals), Colleen Johnson (Upside Drown), and Winston Goertz-Giffen (Saything).
“The Bay Area music scene is great – not just to blow smoke up the collective ass of the Bay Area,” Landy says with a laugh. “It’s non-competitive and very supportive. It seems different than LA or New York in that way... I’m just guessing.”
Kuhn says the title of the album, every/one, is a reflection on the tension and paradox of the strength of a collective or a collaboration versus the importance of individual freedom.
“The songs are more or less all from a similar thematic world, which are various texts, films, experiences relating to non-normative psychological functioning – an attempt at sensitively referring to what is classically termed 'mental illness'," Kuhn explains.
"[We] have a lot of empathy for these perspectives, and relate to them in many ways, and respect the non-normative psychological individual as being someone often possessing of an ability to see beyond the arbitrary limits placed on our experience of the world by the various social codes and ideologies that are part of the status quo. There is a wildness and also a directness and a poetic nonsense clarity that we find inspiring and that generally tickles our fancy.”
The band discovered United Roots Oakland at an Occupy Oakland event, where there were young kids free-styling. “It’s an awesome thing to have a creative outlet for kids, [and] to have competent adults there to coach them,” Landy says.
And since the EP was a collaboration, it seemed strange for the band to personally collect a profit from it, Kuhn says, which is they decided to donate.
Silian Rail has a long history of creative endeavors with other musicians. It first gained attention through its connection with other East Bay acts such as Tartufi, Birds & Batteries, and Low Red Land as the group Thread Productions. Although Thread is no longer active, a lot of what the group used to do still happens informally – the bands frequent each others' shows, try to spread the word on upcoming concerts, and often perform live together.
“It was a hugely helpful idea at the time,” Landy says. “Lynne Angel from Tartufi still plays with us. Our new record is super lush, so we needed extra instrumentation, and she was kind enough to lend her talents. Tartufi still does a lot of broader community organizing around music. I have no idea how they find the time and energy to do it!”
Yet Silian Rail seems to pack in a lot projects in too. Its working towards scoring more film projects – its music has already turned up in various indie films, short clips, and videos, such as an ad for “Farm Fresh Cocktails” (which both Landy and Kuhn found quite odd). Essentially, the Silian Rail sound seems ideal for soundtracks.
But the band's own music, of course, always comes first. They've both long been drawn to creating music. They were friends who grew up together in North Carolina, and parted ways at 13, only to find one another in California many years later.
“Having a guitar with me through adolescence was a lifesaver, having that emotional outlet.” Landy says, reflecting on the importance of music.
Another charitable activity on the band's plate: it just finished a session at Bay Area Girls Rock Camp – a nonprofit organization that “empowers girls through music” – in Oakland before our interview. At the camp, musicians teach workshops, host group activities, and perform live.
“Kids are so honest that we were more nervous to play in front of a group of five to 12-years-olds then we are playing a packed venue in San Francisco,” Landy says, “They asked us why we don’t have a singer.”
“With these arts programs, it’s not like if kids have something to do, their problems will go away, it is clearly more complicated; but music can serve as an outlet.”
Kuhn adds: “Music is a means of expression and communication that transcends a lot of barriers – things like technology – more than just language and culture. It holds a fundamental power to enable communication with people.”
For such a technically impressive band, I was impressed to find out that Landy had no formal training on guitar “I don’t really know what I’m doing at all, which has mostly helped my style evolve. I am free to experiment and do things in a different way. It’s all abut making happy mistakes; of course there are benefits to knowing what you’re doing, but it is also a benefit for me to not know. The way I learn things, it probably would have been a waste of time anyway."
“I did play flute in band during middle school,” she says. “But guitar is basically the opposite of those instruments.”
While Eric had a moderate amount of formal training (he took guitar lessons in high school and “tried to be a music major in college”), he now learns to write for different instruments for new songs without proper lessons. “I needed to write violin and cello parts for songs I’m doing on the new album, so I sat down with a music book and did that.”
“I’m inspired by painters,” he muses. “The idea of fearlessly exploring new territory and always pushing ourselves to new places.”