New Orleans' harmonies-heavy folk rock band formed in Baton Rouge to open for Rivers Cuomo and his band.
[This story is an encore presentation of one that first ran last September. Motel Radio will play Jazz Fest's Gentilly Stage Friday at 11:20 a.m.]
Winston Triolo didn’t always want to make attractive music. It’s what he does now as one of the guitarists and singers in Motel Radio, but in high school, he was a Green Day guy, and his band at the time made a loud punk noise. Then, organically, his sound changed.
“I grew out of listening to Green Day and learned some new music,” he says. “I found other stuff that I liked and preferred listening to.”
Motel Radio will play One Eyed Jacks Friday to celebrate the release of its second EP, Desert Surf Films. The title sounds most right on “New Badlands,” which has twangily evokes a southwestern sense of what happens on the flat land under a wide sky. Still, the title points our attention in the right direction. The songs often have a West Coast vibe as the songs move to relaxed grooves and find life in melodies and harmonies that sound effortless. No one in Motel Radio sounds like he is working very hard on Desert Surf Films, but everything works.
That sound is deceptive. "Deadlines really help us progress," says guitarist Winston Triolo, and it set one for the completion of Desert Surf Films, the follow-up to 2015's Days & Nights. The recording was on schedule for the most part, but it slipped a little when two new songs emerged that no one could say no to--"Palmilla" and "Star of the South."
"Those are two of the strongest songs on the EP, and I'm super happy we came up with those in time to have them on there."
Triolo sitting in the kitchenette of the Carrollton apartment apartment that he shares with bandmate Ian Wellman, who also sings and plays guitar. The space seems perfect for a young band that likes to sing with the kitchenette separated from the wood paneling-lined living room by a only couple of flimsy railings that surround the staircase down. The living room extends vertically to meet an open, carpeted attic space where a microphone on a stand indicates how it’s frequently used. Some day, someone will want that space to join the 21st Century, complete with central air and a real kitchen instead of a galley, but no band of twentysomethings with musical dreams would pass it up.
The living room has a couch, and Triolo and Wellman sit there playing acoustic guitars together, sometimes to no great purpose, but that’s where the bones of songs are formed—bits of structure, a melody, some of the words. “If we have something we’re confident in, we’ll bring it to the rest of the guys,” Triolo says. “They’ll give their input and help us a lot more with the structure and stuff.”
The Motel Radio story begins in Baton Rouge. There, Triolo met Wellman as freshmen at LSU. The two became roommates and best friends in their second year and jammed together, but they didn’t form a band at the time. Triolo already played in a modern rock cover band to play frat shows with drummer Eric Lloyd and bassist Andrew Pancamo. “It’s kind of sad, but we were getting paid way more back then than we are now,” he says.
The three also started a Black Keys-inspired blues rock band named Deacon Jones. “The whole project was to try to play this festival at LSU, Groovin’ on the Grounds,” Triolo says. The opening act for the show with headliner Weezer would be determined by a contest, and Deacon John existed to win that contest. "We spent half the year trying to win the contest, then half the year trying to not suck at the Weezer show," he says, laughing. They played the gig, didn't suck, then played one more afterward before the lead guitarist quit to move to San Antonio. Triolo suggested Wellman as the replacement, and when he joined, they retired the Deacon John name. “We decided to start completely new.”
Triolo misses some of the old songs, but continuing as Deacon Jones wouldn’t have made any sense, he says. “It was a whole new band with Ian.” The possibilities Wellman presented as a songwriter, guitarist and singer took the band in a new direction. He allowed Triolo to carry less of the load and become more of a lead guitarist and second vocalist, so the band remade their sound to suit the talents at their disposal and changed its name to Palmyra.
With Wellman, the band’s songs moved in a more folky direction with a greater emphasis on harmonies. Triolo’s affection for Bright Eyes, Houndmouth, and Death Cab for Cutie found their way into the songs, which became softer, as Wellman and Triolo connected to the singer/songwriter tradition. “It was a lot more mellow than the previous project,” Triolo says.
That emphasis on beautiful, melodic music has stuck, but the sound is tougher now than it was—something he attributes to relocating to New Orleans.
“After moving to New Orleans, we’ve become way more upbeat because of the crowd we’re playing for,” he says. “We don’t want to play these sad songs for all of our friends who want to party. That made us more of an upbeat band.” Musically, Triolo and Wellman became interested in Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala, and Courtney Barnett—indie rock artists that were doing interesting things with classic melodies, and to help flesh out the sound they were hearing, the band added Dave Hart on keyboards. While it searched for its sound, the band kept looking for a name, something with less cat’s claw associated with it. After a year of Palmyra, it became Motel Radio last November.
“The day we became Motel Radio, we got the call that we’d been accepted to Firefly, this big festival up north." Firefly took place in Delaware, and Motel Radio played a number of similarly high profile gigs this year including SXSW, Jazz Fest, Lollapalooza, and ACL. The band’s dreams aren’t big, but they reach beyond Orleans Parish. “We want to play New Orleans, but we don’t want to play it too much. And we want to get out there,” Triolo says. He’s not looking for arenas, but he’d like to play for packed crowds, whatever the venue. “There are certain artists who aren’t the biggest names, but they’re able to go on national tours and have a roomful of people who know their songs. That would be awesome” he says. “I’d like to have a career like Kurt Vile. We opened for him recently at The Republic, and he’s in a good spot that I’d be happy at.”
The band’s aware that there are other cities where Motel Radio would be a better fit and find more of a community with musicians who play similar music, but Triolo has no complaints. Audiences have been really supportive, and “it’s given us a chance to stand out,” he says. “I like being in New Orleans.”
Because the band is ambitious, its practices are very deliberate. Motel Radio practices in Triolo and Wellman’s apartment, and some are specifically songwriting sessions. Many of the practices this summer were focused on perfecting the set the band was playing at festivals, and recently it was worked to fine tune that.
“Right now we’re working on transitions,” he says. “We’re working on being more professional onstage and not having any dead space.”