Seven out of eight rockers agree: “kids are the new rock,” said Collin Cogan, drummer of Washington, DC-based band, The NRIs, as we ate spinach dumplings and jalapeño poppers at Koda in Bushwick. The NRIs were on a mini-tour promoting their album “Playground/The Charm,” a folk-rock record exploring themes of permanence. Their show at the Pine Box Rock Shop on Saturday night was their first set outside of the DC metro area – ever – and they left behind a brood. Between the eight members of the band, they have seven kids and two of the band members are expecting. Cogan’s wife is pregnant with a girl.
The band has been together since 2008, “but we practice ten times a year so…” Nayan Bhula, lead of the NRIs, trails off. Coordinating an eight-person band is an operation. With full-time jobs, kids, birthdays, weddings and more, finding time in their schedules is an undertaking, but they’re making it work. “I think we went in knowing our situation, and have set attainable goals. I had a vision of keeping costs low, recording five song EPs, and really just having some fun – to have a creative outlet,” says Bhula, a father of two and director of several music schools of a nationwide chain. The NRIs rehearse once or twice a month for two hours in bassist Jesse Burgman’s basement, which saves on costs and the hassle of transporting instruments. They also play one show a month, frequenting venues like the Black Cat on 14th St. NW, the Rock & Roll Hotel on H St. NE, and Iota in Arlington, VA. “In general, setting realistic goals and just having fun has made for a successful formula,” Bhula concludes.
During their early years, The NRIs experimented with a range of sounds from country to rock to soul. They even dabbled in classical Indian music, which influenced Bhula, who was born in South Africa to Indian parents, grew up in Toronto, and fell in love with music in DC. He says, “I’ve always wanted this band to have that diversity, especially live, play everything from a rock number, to a slow acoustic number.” Between 2009 and 2011, The NRIs captured this exploration of genre in two EPs, 8:42am and Kings and Birds, recorded in makeshift studios.“We wanted to keep costs low as we didn’t have any money,” Bhula explains. For 8:42am, they used a room at one of the music schools to track the drums and then a voice over studio at a friend’s workplace to track everything, piece by piece. The overall effect was not great, but Ben Green (Fairweather) was able to bring it to life during the mixing stage and overdubbing back at the school. Green was also instrumental on Kings and Birds. This second EP was recorded at guitarist Gabriel Fry’s parents’ house using Garageband and all the microphones they could find. They spent two days tracking and then overdubbing again.
With several years of practicing, playing shows, and recording together, The NRIs were ready to work in a real studio. Using funds from paid gigs and CD sales, they recorded the more cohesive EP, The Charm, at Inner Ear Studios, a well-known indie-punk studio in Arlington, VA (Dave Grohl talks with Don Zientara, owner of Inner Ear Studios, in his Foo Fighters Sonic Highways HBO series). Working with Eamonn Aiken in Studio B, it was on this EP that The NRIs found their sound. Playground followed last summer and The NRIs released it with The Charm on CD and vinyl. For many of the songs on these two EPs, players came into the studio with a small idea of what they were doing and only finalized it when they were recording. “It kept things fresh. I kind of took that approach from reading about it for some Bob Dylan sessions. Band members didn’t even know the song’s names, and many times had to re-learn parts once we finished mixing,” Bhula says of the process. Green did the mixing for The Charm and TJ Lipple (Aloha) did it for Playground. Playground/The Charm solidified their strengths in blending different musical styles into a new category of Americana.
And people are noticing. The NRIs recently opened for Laura Stevenson and the Juliana Hatfield Three. The feedback they have been getting on the record motivated them to finally venture out of the DC metro area. This tour had them going from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to DC. They are planning a similar tour in the fall and adding shows in Baltimore and Annapolis. “We would also like to go south Richmond, Norfolk, and Chapel Hill,” Bhula adds.
Good thing too. While Playground/The Charm will still make you want to kick your shoes off and dance like you’re under the sun at an outdoor festival, the best way to hear The NRIs is live. They banged out a terrific show at the Pine Box Rock Shop. Beginning with “Testament,” Bhula’s voice, which resembles Adam Duritz’s (Counting Crows) rises in the first line “As I get older, it’s getting harder and harder and harder” until he’s almost crying out “To play this here guitar.” Dressed in a red button up, black slacks, Converse sneakers, and Buddy Holly glasses, Bhula, who turns 40 this year, has transformed into an entirely different person: from mild-mannered and unassuming to a bona fide rocker. “Someone once remarked ‘you look like my dad’s accountant,” Bhula joked after the show.
Colin McCormick on trombone and Mike Nilsson on saxophone were added in the last couple of years to round out the full band, and they shine during “The Streets,” a song about the loneliness of empty homes late at night. At the end of “Playground,” written for Bhula’s daughter, it sounds like gospel with his, Melanie Fallow’s and Audrey White’s voices melting together. Partway through the set, Bhula mentions that copies of Playground/The Charm on vinyl and CD are available after the show. “Get us back over the bridge,” Bhula says, joking about the cost of tolls to get to and from New York. “No!” an audience member shouts back. “We’re keeping you here!” They closed the set with a new song that Bhula has been working on for a decade, “Brooks Was Here,” inspired by the character Brooks Hatlen from The Shawshank Redemption. The lyrics may change because they just finished the song, but during the bridge Bhula lilts, “Everyone’s got their own, version of themselves / That only they can see, they can see and know.” Then in the outro, quavers, “I got hell to pay, but that’s ok / I got hell to pay, but I’m ok / I wish, I wish, that I could show you why / I wish, I wish, that I could say goodbye / I hope you, I hope that you can forgive me, forgive me.”
It was a sublime ending. My only wish is that they played “Memory,” a beautiful song, that more prominently features Fallow and White, not just on their respective instruments, but also their vocal harmonization. The show featured seven of the eight members: Bhula on vocals and guitar, Burgman on bass, Cogan on Drums, McCormick on trombone, Nilsson on saxophone, White on keyboards and vocals, and Fallow on violin and vocals. (Fry, usually on guitar, was in a wedding and unable to tour.) Speaking to Fallow, who is six months pregnant, I asked how she is managing shows and the tour while preparing for motherhood. She looks at White, who is standing nearby, and says, “She did it.” White smiles, eyes glazing like she’s thinking about that time, and adds, “I did two gigs when I was nine months pregnant. I told them they might have to take me to the hospital.” She smiles wryly. “What made you do it?” I ask. She answers, “You just don’t know. Maybe I’ll never get to do this again.” Her son is now three.†
The NRIs are based in Washington, DC. You can also follow the NRIs on Twitter at @TheNRIs and Facebook. They will be back in New York in the fall.