Lobo Marino are unlike any other act in Richmond. There’s a persuasive quality to their approach, enrapturing audiences on a variety of levels and ensuring that they remain a beloved local favorite. Creating in the privacy of a yoga studio, the duo of Jameson Price and Laney Sullivan are determined to find the perfect balance between improvised homilies and preconceived material. During a typical set, they confidently run through a prolific catalog of songs–many of them initially created in the course of their frequent journeys across the world.
Lobo Marino’s specific origins can be traced back to a going-away party for Sullivan and Price, which took place years ago at Ipanema. The duo, who were about to embark on a journey through South America, performed live together for the first time that night. Both were active elsewhere in the local scene at the time–Sullivan in Arise, Sweet Donkey and Price with Pedals On Our Pirate Ships–which helped bring them together as a musical unit. It was travel that truly solidified the group, though. “The birthing process of Lobo Marino was pretty much set [by] our experience in South America. That’s where we wrote the majority of Keep Your Head Up,” Price adds.
Keep Your Head Up, the group’s 2010 debut, was the perfect document of a year spent abroad. As they returned to Richmond, they were contemplating the best way to recreate these songs in a live environment. That’s when they incorporated a third member into the ensemble. “We reached out to our friend Nathaniel [Roseberry] about playing with us, and he was immediately on board,” says Price. Having Roseberry in the band “gave Laney and I the confidence we needed to figure out how Lobo Marino could be more than just a project of songs written abroad.”
Their first show as a trio was at Bogart’s, and this typical night at a local bar became something unique when the group took the stage. “I remember it being incredibly loud before we started playing, but something happened once we started. It felt like the room took this quick turn and began listening to us play. One of the bartenders even came up to us afterwards and told us that he had never seen anything like that before,” Sullivan recalls. “There was this initial sensation after that performance that made us realize that we had to keep doing what we were doing,” Price adds.
The band quickly began to play every environment imaginable–house shows, traditional venues, gallery spaces, and street corners. Affectionate sentiments toward the trio began spreading quickly through town. However, given that the band was born from a trip abroad, their future plans soon included extensive travels. “Laney and I didn’t really have stable work around Richmond, and that helped encourage us to just play out of town as much as possible. It also helped us factor in how we could do so affordably and live on tour,” Price says. This dedication to travel also helped refine their live sound–clocking in more than a hundred shows a year had a significant influence on the dynamics of the group. “The great thing about what Nathaniel brought to the group at the time was that, whatever he was doing, it was adding this flair to the song that Laney and I may have not realized the song could benefit from,” Price says. “If anything, the acknowledgment of that nuance is probably what informed the direction Lobo Marino would take from that point on.”
The group’s next recording session became a hallmark for many reasons. Released in early 2011, The Reincarnation EP was Lobo Marino’s first collaboration with engineer Dave Watkins, and became a true showcase for the auxiliary talents Roseberry brought to the group. Recorded at the Richmond Ballet, the two songs on this EP are exercises in stretching the dynamics of the band’s songwriting. Both tracks clock in around seven minutes in length, and both are ambitious triumphs for the trio. Watkins’ capture of these recordings was a key factor in the way Lobo Marino would approach future recordings. “Dave is just, all around, the best person we could imagine working with,” Sullivan says. “We never have to fashion what we are thinking of doing around any particular constraints. We can usually just throw an idea out there and Dave is already trying to figure out when we can get started.”
Not long after the release of The Reincarnation EP, Roseberry departed from the group. “As our touring schedule started growing, Nathaniel realized he wouldn’t be able to manage that,” Price says. “It was totally something the two of us understood. We are thankful we got to spend the first two years of the band with him on board.”
With Roseberry gone, though, this proved to be an intriguing moment for Lobo Marino. Up to this point, their songs were planned around Price playing guitar, Sullivan on accordion, and a third member filling in the gaps. Now, with another set of songs almost complete, they were considering their next logical step. In many ways, this was the exact challenge they needed to face in order to create what has since become the standard setup for a Lobo Marino show.
This began with Sullivan’s acquisition of a harmonium–a type of organ, popular in the late 19th century (and to this day in India) that generates sound with a bellows. “Once I got the harmonium, that is what really helped us fill that space with the necessary bass,” Sullivan explains. “It also helped me find my voice. When I wrote on the accordion, the challenge was that it was higher than I was comfortable singing with. On the harmonium, the lower register comfortably suited my voice.”
At this point, Price also diverted his attention from strictly playing guitar on their songs. He began using a variety of percussive tools–everything from an enormous bass drum to vases to bells strapped to ankles. Just about anything under the sun was fair game. These instrumental changes helped guide the two as they decided to make their next recording a live album. For the session, Price and Sullivan were joined by a variety of musicians over the course of an evening in the upstairs corridor of Gallery5. “We were excited to invite what we consider to be our close family to one of our favorite spaces and have them be a part of this experience. It was also a strong testament to what our band had transformed into,” Sullivan says. This collection of songs, released in 2012 and entitled Kite Festival, perfectly articulated the sound of Lobo Marino up to that point. Songs like “Celebrate” and “Stay With Me” examined the delicate intricacies of their sound; one song relied heavily on percussion, another on the subtlety of their lyrical nuances.
The duo’s frequent travels also helped to create an interim release in 2013 entitled Fields, which collects field recordings from various stops in their itinerary. A chronicle of two three-month trips, one through Puerto Rico and another through Europe, “Fields was a documentation of how the different places we have traveled have influenced and inspired the way we write songs,” Price says. “In all of our experiences traveling, we have always relished the fact that we can fit on any bill. We can either be the weird band on the folk bill or the quiet band at the punk house,” Sullivan adds. “Fields hopefully can articulate how our environments inspire us in a variety of ways.”
An even stronger testament to the way their travels have inspired them can be found on 2014 follow-up City of Light. This release, recorded in a single day, is a collection of kirtan–sacred Hindu chant music–featuring one of their most beloved compositions, “Holy River.” The two spent a month in the city of Varanasi, India, where they explored Indian harmonium music and, in many ways, found a deeper spiritual connection with the songs they were writing. They also took time to educate themselves on meditation and yoga. “City of Light is a definite correlation of these thoughts, and it also helped us create a strong connection with the peace found in meditation,” Sullivan says. “The other side of the harmonium, which I think lends itself to that form of exercise, is how it requires air to be pumped into it while it’s being played. The fact that the instrument requires that energy to be exerted plays very much into the strengths of how it works with this style of music.” “The best part is that some of the songs that we perform at a show that could be considered our loudest end up being some of our quietest songs once we incorporate them into an environment like [a yoga studio],” Price adds.
The culmination of all of their travels and prior recordings have helped to shape their most recent release, We Hear The Ocean, which came out this past summer. “We Hear The Ocean is probably best explained as a bridge between Kite Festival and City of Light,” Price says. “We [combined] the initial experiences of incorporating new instruments into the group and the experiences of educating ourselves about kirtan, and that inspired this collection of songs.”
A core theme of We Hear The Ocean is the belief established in Lobo Marino that all things are connected, in ways they are still discovering. “A lot of what drove these songs was an internalized thought of how the interconnectivity of the universe is this thing that we are growing towards better understanding and realizing. It can be defined in how we relate to others or how we treat our surroundings. It’s about consciousness and how to best exert a proper control over that,” Sullivan says. “If you trace back to any of our other records, whether that’s South America with Keep Your Head Up or India for City of Light, they are chronicles of that particular stage in our lives,” Price adds. “We Hear The Ocean is definitely an extension of that, but I think we touch on a few more universal truths and themes with this release.”
Since the release of We Hear The Ocean, Lobo Marino have settled down for the time being. “We spent the greater part of five years traveling across the globe, and what we came to realize is that Richmond was our home,” Price says. “It has a unique spirit to it that really stands on its own, and there are too many organizations to mention that we just find to be absolutely remarkable around town. We are delighted to just take a moment to be in one place and not in constant transit.”
While taking a break from their travels, they’ve remained creatively active. Collaborating with local video collective Good Day RVA, the group wrote a song specifically to protest the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which they believe is against the greater interest of the people of Richmond. “The song was written to sound large and in many ways, cinematic. During the shoot, we had this moment of noticing that a wind front passing through was damaging our set. We had to work without hesitation to get the shots we needed, and that urgency certainly defined the energy of that environment,” Sullivan says. “I think when I listen back to our music, Fields is probably the closest we’ve come to resembling something that feels like a soundtrack to a film,” Price adds. “Definitely with any of our newer material, I could see us venturing in that direction.”
The prolific outfit promises that there should be something on the way in the near future. “We are constantly writing. I am actually starting a few songs on guitar, which is a first for me,” says Sullivan. “Every time we pack up to go on tour, Jameson will debate on whether he should bring the guitar, and I have to almost pull his arm to get him to pack it. I always want that to be in the mix. Even if it doesn’t end up being used in the final version of whichever song, I think that’s a strong foundation for a lot of our songs.”
The latest addition to Lobo Marino’s instrumental palette is a mouth harp, played by Price on several of their newer songs. This treasured instrument was acquired during their travels through Spain. “Laney was feeling adrift and wanted to head back to the States,” Price says. “I was determined to make my way to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that passes from Spain into Portugal.” “Before I left, I found this bizarre instrument at a street vendor stand,” Sullivan adds. “I purchased it immediately and gave it to Jameson.” During his solo travels, Price practiced the mouth harp, slowly beginning to understand how it worked. “I think that is the best way for me to learn how to play any instrument. Take an undisciplined approach, work to figure out how you would write music on that instrument, and trust your instincts,” Price says.
Lobo Marino operate on a number of different levels, simultaneously working towards a greater understanding of the world as a whole and a deeper focus on the mind and spirit. Their challenging music resists any easy set of expectations one could bestow upon them. However, their enthusiasm for artistic endeavors remains romantically intoxicating, inspiring and impressing audiences across the world. “The one thing about Lobo Marino that I will always adore: whether we are playing a big stage and they have an enormous PA, or we are just strolling into a house, we can fit into any room or space,” Price says. “It has never been [difficult] to create a connection with an audience. In many ways, that’s the true heart and soul of Lobo Marino.”