RVA #25: A chat with the members of Mikrowaves on the birth of their eclectic, funky project

by | Aug 8, 2016 | FUNK & JAZZ

Imagine a summer evening in Richmond spent on a patio. Beer bottles flood the tables as ashtrays are slowly beginning to fill. Conversations are asunder and the feeling in the air is intoxicating. Slowly, the hordes of denizens begin to make their way towards the night’s entertainment. A remarkable collective of musicians that refer to themselves as Mikrowaves are the evening’s main attraction. With an unmatched eclectic style and a fervent desire for intricate and challenging song structures, they are quick to be acclaimed by just about everyone in town.

Imagine a summer evening in Richmond spent on a patio. Beer bottles flood the tables as ashtrays are slowly beginning to fill. Conversations are asunder and the feeling in the air is intoxicating. Slowly, the hordes of denizens begin to make their way towards the night’s entertainment. A remarkable collective of musicians that refer to themselves as Mikrowaves are the evening’s main attraction. With an unmatched eclectic style and a fervent desire for intricate and challenging song structures, they are quick to be acclaimed by just about everyone in town.

This article was featured in RVAMag #25: Summer 2016. You can read all of issue #25 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.

It all begins in the living room of a south side residence. Veteran musician Edward Prendergast decides to pick up a guitar and see what he can come up with. To many, this might seem like a steep task. Clearly they’ve never met Prendergast.

A stalwart of the music scene, he has been involved with a number of projects throughout the years — the list of credits over the years including the likes of Bio Ritmo, The Great White Jenkins, Malhombre, and several others. Most importantly, his project Amazing Ghost would become a town favorite for a number of years. Prendergast has utilized various muses throughout each of these projects, but his current inspiration might come as a mild surprise. “My wife was about to give birth to our daughter and it inspired me to pick [the guitar] up,” Prendergast muses. “It was this thought of sharing this thing that’s been a huge part of my life with what would soon become the next huge part of my life.”

In many ways, this sensibility has inspired many of the directions Mikrowaves have taken. The project acts as a reflection of the past works of Prendergast, with the songs performed ranging from the early part of the 21st century with his first band, Pencilgrass, and leading up to his recent endeavors with Ghost and The Big East. Prendergast could immediately tell that he was going to need to assemble a crew of musicians to help with the project and the first person that came to mind was Kelli Strawbridge. “As crazy as it sounds, Eddie and I had never played together,” Strawbridge says. “When we set up time to meet up and write together, I really had no idea what to expect.” At first, Prendergast was inclined to have the project just be guitar and drums. “I had known him around town as a bass player and when he showed up with just a guitar, I was even more curious,” Strawbridge adds. Prendergast was quick to explain what inspired this direction. “I wanted to do this R.L. Burnside thing and have it be really raw,” Prendergast explains. “It also fit with how I was writing and I was revisiting all of this old material. I wanted to start at the bare bones and see how that would work.”

After a few attempts at fleshing this idea out, the two came to the conclusion that it was time to reach out to a few musicians. One of Prendergast’s longest standing collaborators is trumpet player Bob Miller. The two have worked together in several of the aforementioned projects and when Miller was approached about Mikrowaves, he was excited to be on board once again. “Eddie was talking about how he wanted to start playing some of these older songs,” Miller says, “and he had sheet music from projects he had been involved with for the past fifteen years. For me, I was excited to play on some of the Pencilgrass material that I never got to play on [before] and I thought it would be cool as shit to start playing those and even the stuff that came after that again.”

Filling out the rest of the horn section would prove to be just as easy. “When we started filling out the band, it made sense to me that Eddie went ahead and asked a bunch of the people he had worked with in Bio Ritmo,” Strawbridge says. Besides Miller, this included tenor saxophonist John Lilley and sousaphonist Toby Whitaker. Prendergast is quick to point out the value of Lilley’s contributions to the project. “The thing about John and working with him is just his style is unbelievable. When he writes a part for a song, it becomes irreplaceable. The song can’t exist without that part. Its absence is immediately detected.” In conversations surrounding Mikrowaves, Whitaker’s contribution is one talking point that comes up frequently. For those unfamiliar, a sousaphone is a tuba designed to be played standing up and in Mikrowaves sound, its presence occupies a lot of the low end and it also informs the mood of particular songs according to the band. “As weird as it sounds, I think those parts can make some of our songs sound happier,” Strawbridge explains. “On some of the material, we can end up going to some pretty dark places and Toby’s playing can almost elevate it from there. It’s an even balance.”

Rounding out the lineup would be conga player Hector “Coco” Barez, another member hailing from Bio Ritmo and a percussive element that could be considered the glue of the framework for several Mikrowaves songs. “Everything Coco throws into each song is just perfect,” Prendergast states. “The intricacies. The balance. It’s a good problem that we started encountering once we started adding members. We wouldn’t be able to give the songs the same feel if any of the members were absent for a gig. It’s a good problem to have, but can be tough when everyone stays pretty active around town playing music with a bunch of different bands.”

With a lineup intact, it was time to consider recording a proper debut. The group decided to venture to The Virginia Moonwalker in Mechanicsville, a studio space run by local musician/engineer Russell Lacy. Lacy has been slowly generating a reputation around town for recording the likes of Pete Curry, The Wimps, The Milkstains, and several others. In what turns out to be the case more often than not, Lacy was already a fan of Mikrowaves to begin with. “When I was set to record Mikrowaves, the studio was still a work in progress,” Lacy says. “I saw them as a challenge and I accepted it immediately.” After a few sessions with the group, they recorded eight tracks that would end up being the debut release entitled Get Nuked!, a collection with several Pencilgrass favorites that the band revisited.

“Beautiful Thing” had long been hailed as one of the best songs Prendergast had penned and its reappearance in the group’s repertoire left fans brimming with excitement. It’s a song that feels like a universal summer anthem and could easily be found in any nightclub across the globe. “Edward Prendergast” would see a complete reinvention from its original lo-fi, synth-based original. In this new version, the song feels full of organic nuances and a delicate tension that erupt towards the end with an overture of howling vocals. Offering the song as Prendergast’s namesake, it only makes sense that the song would evoke such a strong finale over the course of its six minute running time.

Another standout track is “Rx-17,” a song that first began to appear during the short-lived days of his project The Big East. The song had seen many transformations from its demo to its Big East recording, and yet in the Mikrowaves form, it may just be its strongest. Subtle tempo changes groove through the undeniably catchy rhythm of the song. Its refrain has been reimagined to blend Prendergast and Strawbridge’s voices into a seamless entity that may have been missing in previous incarnations of the tune. And closing out the release is “Hairstyle,” a song that Strawbridge proclaims as one of his favorites for a variety of reasons. “One thing that draws me to how Eddie writes is just the certain phrases he’ll choose to roll with,” Strawbridge says. “On that song, the line that goes ‘tell me a story that you never thought could happen to you’ and the way it sends the song into this completely wild direction just knocks me out.”

After the release of Get Nuked, the band started to play around town and felt a greater sense of what they could achieve live. This also provided the band with more opportunities to flesh out rarities from the back catalog. “After we recorded with Russell, we started to pick at other songs that Eddie had written after Pencilgrass,” Miller mentions. “Songs from Amazing Ghost that we thought could fit really well or ones that maybe held up from those days.” Prendergast is quick to deny that any of the reputation from Amazing Ghost might have equated to added attention for Mikrowaves. “I don’t know how much of an impact those shows had for us,” Prendergast adds. “Or at least, how much of an impact for us now.” While there may be some truth to that, Strawbridge thinks otherwise. “I wasn’t in on Amazing Ghost when they were an active band, but they were definitely something I kept hearing about from a lot of the same groups of people. It was definitely a thing and even if it was missed out on, there is still a legacy left in its place.” Tunes like “Igetuppa” and “Sam Samina” went through the reinvention process for live performance and similar results were discovered by the group. Even lesser heard tunes like “New York City” and “Nite Rite” began to reappear and it kept the band feeling reinvigorated. “Constantly reworking songs has been a good way for us to keep things exciting for all of us,” Prendergast says. “It’s an opportunity to get even tighter as a band and keep the sets fresh.”

Through all of this reflection, the band began to look at options to potentially expand the band even further. At this point though, the band has looked no further than Lacy. “We were thinking it’d be cool to have an electric guitar in the mix and we brought Russell in to tryout,” Prendergast says. “It ended up fitting really nicely and it gave me a chance to focus on singing and not having to constantly be playing for every moment in the set.” As one of the sole electric instruments in the band, Lacy’s playing on guitar exudes a greater energy to the already powerful material. In many ways, his presence in the band can seem hidden during shows, but have no doubt that it’s become yet another integral part of the collective.

The journey of Mikrowaves have taken all participants in many intriguing directions. With what started as a two-piece slowly grew to include seven members — sometimes the group even includes an eighth member, by local vocalist Kenneka Cook. In the interim, the group has been hard at work on a follow-up to Get Nuked. An EP of new material that is being recorded at their homestead The Virginia Moonwalker will hopefully see a release in the next few months. Several of the songs might seem familiar to anyone that has caught a recent Mikrowaves, but Prendergast promises that everyone is in for a surprise. “Russell’s space has gotten even better and we have a number of great opportunities to really flesh a lot of these songs out,” Prendergast says. “It’s going to be cool. The writing on this one has been fun because it’s all new songs. It’s not like Get Nuked which was pretty much all Pencilgrass stuff. Now, it’s a chance to show off how we write together as a band.”

One thing is for certain. Mikrowaves are setting a path for themselves that is unparalleled to a lot of groups in town. Their shows contain a certain energy that’s contagious and gets any wallflower to let loose and set their inhibitions aside. If any of that can be captured on this upcoming release, everyone will be in for a treat. And that can only be a beautiful thing.


Shannon Cleary

Shannon Cleary

Radio/Words/Stories/Jokes/Bass Booking Agent at Flora, Bassist at Clair Morgan and Music director at WRIR 97.3 fm Richmond Independent Radio

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