Afro-geek rockers Apollo Heights are recognized on the Lower East Side for their “soulgazing” wall of guitars and lo-fi grit; on their debut disc, White Music for Black People, frontman Daniel Chavis seems to be as influenced by the falsetto flow of Donny Hathaway as he is by Cocteau Twins aural angel Liz Fraser. Even though a generation of boho folks unfamiliar with the tragic tension of Hathaway’s voice might argue, anyone who’s ever listened to the quiet-storm heartache of that particular ’70s soul suicide victim will hear the similarities. As Chavis’s haunting voice wrings every drop of doomed romanticism from the depths of the deliriously explosive “Dankini” and the symphonic guitar textures of “Everlasting Goppstopper,” these songs serve as a reply to anyone who thinks that soul is missing from the indie-rock scene. Imagine if A.R. Kane had done the soundtrack to Super Fly and you’ve got an idea as to what Apollo Heights represents.
Like the Kinks and Oasis before them, the band is led by constantly squabbling siblings—in this case, identical twin brothers from South Carolina named Daniel and Danny. (Danny plays guitar and bass.) “Ain’t that the most country shit you ever heard?” laughed the friend who took me to see Apollo Heights five years ago in some forgotten East Village dive. “Who would name their kids Daniel and Danny?”
Having come of age during the CBGB/Knitting Factory scene—when Black Rock was the rage and groups like Living Colour, Eye & I, and 24/7 Spyz were blazing an underground-railroad trail with electric guitars and brazen Mohawks—it was cool watching Apollo Heights blare away at their own brand of black noise. Whereas Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs, and Jimi Hazel had a muscular, furious sound more in line with Zeppelin or AC/DC, the Apollo Heights crew pays homage to the 4AD dreamland posse that once included the Pixies, Lush, and, of course, the Cocteau Twins, whose chief auteur, Robin Guthrie, produced four tracks on White Music for Black People.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, “the twins” (as everybody calls the Chavis brothers) were formerly members of the Veldt, whose Afrodisiac (1994) marked the genesis of the Apollo Heights sound. “It was during that period that we first worked with producer Diamond D, who introduced us to looping and programming,” says Danny. “To me, the Cocteau Twins always sounded like Schoolly D with guitars, and we wanted that sound on our records.”
The AH lineup includes bassist (and LES party animal) Micha Gaugh on keyboards, guitarists Honeychild Coleman and Monk Washington, and programmer
Hayato Nakao. Favoring what Danny describes as Hayato’s “pristine but still raw” programmed beats to live drums,
the resulting monster-movie soundscapes have more in common with RZA than Eno. But there’s plenty of the latter. White Music for Black People wasn’t the first title the group considered. “I was sitting around one day with Honeychild, and we were just throwing out titles,” Daniel recalls, surrounded by his bandmates in his downtown crib last month, with a picture of Jimi Hendrix staring down from the wall. “White Noise and AC Outlet/DC Guitars were two of our rejects. People shouldn’t read too much into the title.”
Thinking back to my own memories of listening to Kiss in my Harlem apartment, I can clearly remember my brother taunting me for listening to “that white-boy music.” Certainly it’s a dilemma Apollo Heights can relate to. “Guitars went out of style in the black community a long time ago,” says Danny. “Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack had been replaced. With Apollo Heights, we make soul songs for people that hate our music.”
I wanted to believe that the band is named after a made-up mystical land, but Daniel tells me that Apollo Heights was the housing project where he and Danny’s grandmother once lived in North Carolina. I like that even more. Indeed, it’s that Southern element of blues and gospel, soul and funk that supplies the band’s foundation, and it makes me smile to know they aren’t ashamed of those origins.
And unlike their homeboys TV on the Radio (whose David Sitek produced the art-funk delight “Disco Lights”), who sometimes come across as a bit cold and existential, Apollo Heights radiate with heat and emotion. “Sometimes when we’re playing ‘Everlasting Goppstopper,’ I’ll look up, and people will just be making out,” blurts Honeychild, the only female in the group. “Other times, there will be these lesbians checking me out. Girls love me because I have an air of mystery.”
Without making a fuss about the extent of their experimentation, Apollo Heights deliver an organic hybrid of jangling guitars, soul-powered vocals, and breakbeat science that works smoothly without being rhythmically pretentious. Though I could’ve lived my entire life without hearing guest-star Mos Def scream fake-punk raps over guitars, as he does on the not-entirely-wack “Concern” (one day John Lydon is going to slap the shit out of him), White Music for Black People digs deep. Through a storm of feedback and distortion, these guys have no problem exposing their electric souls. Indeed, there aren’t many artists who can make oceanic r&b (in this case, the “r” stands for rock) that would just as easily fit into a surreal David Lynch film as it would a back-lit bump ‘n’ grind scene from a blaxploitation flick.
Apollo Heights play the Annex November 14, 152 Orchard Street