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Published: Thursday, 8/25/2011

Ann Arbor band Ella Riot is blazing a new trail

BY ZOE GORMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

DENEKA PENISTON Enlarge

ANN ARBOR -- Tyler Duncan, covered in glitter, powers up the synthesizer -- he's saving his bagpipes for the finale.

Frontwoman Michelle Chamuel fist-pounds the air twice in rhythm with the riff while waiting for her entry as the Ann Arbor club crowd's energy builds.

What ensues is a seamless mix of pop vocals, techno synthesizers, punk drum beats, and rocking guitar riffs -- all topped off with quirky touches, such as vocals highlighted by megaphone and harmonized live through a machine, that build on an already unique sound.

Ella Riot, a band made up of recent University of Michigan graduates Chamuel (vocals), Duncan (synthesizer, bagpipes), Matthew Henninger (bass), Robert Lester (guitar, vocals), and Mike Shea (drums), is pioneering a style of music it terms "DanceThink," which combines elements from rock, dance, electronic, soul, punk, pop, and jazz music to engage the body and the mind. The goal: to provide a moment of purity and liberation from what Duncan calls the "judge," a metaphor for an individual's inhibitions and insecurities.

"The over-arching priority in Ella Riot," said Duncan, the band's founder, "is to make music that resonates deeply in us and resonates with the listener and allows both of us to free our minds from the judge."

From the energy-charged, almost video-game-worthy synthesizer lines of "Karma," to the funk vocal lines and soulful echoes of "For Your Love," to the driving rock riffs of "Amsterdam," genres are all over the map and shift within a single number.

The band's out-of-the-box musical intentions come to a climax in "Clubbin," which features the first American to win the All-Ireland Championship on his childhood instrument, the Irish bagpipes, over a repeated bass riff.

The band, which performed at Lollapalooza in 2010, evolved in and outside the classrooms of the University of Michigan from a six-piece instrumental, progressive rock group, Toolbox.

In 2007, guitarist Lester played his band mates a track he'd been working on in class with a fellow performance art technology major, Chamuel. The project mixed hollow, water-droplet-like synthesizer sounds and sweeping vocals. Timing and volume come together in a shifting balance in which one does not outshine the other. The band was impressed.

"At that point [Chamuel] didn't carry herself in such a way that would make you think she had this crazy voice," Duncan said. "So when I found out it was her I was really surprised."

He invited Chamuel to improvise over an instrumental skeleton, and after half an hour, the band had its first vocal track -- "White Lies" -- and became "My Dear Disco" after the track Chamuel and Lester first worked on together.

My Dear Disco came out with its first album "Dancethink" in 2009. The group changed its name to Ella Riot last March before releasing its second album, "Love Child," because Duncan said he did not want the name to pigeonhole the band into a genre. The newest album "The One to Glow" will hit the market in September.

The band produces all of its own tracks, mostly in studios set up in Duncan's and Chamuel's bedrooms. Chamuel decided to learn to produce music during high school after she found that a song she had written in summer camp sounded different after production.

Six out of 10 of the tracks on the new album have at least one moment when the sound on the record is the original recording as it was first being written.

"[Later recordings] didn't have the same something that those initial super low quality vocal takes had," Duncan said.

When performing live, Chamuel distorts parts of songs with a megaphone. In the song "Just One Way" the megaphone's use on the recurring line "for me to let you go" heightens a sense of gritty desperation with a jarring realization that a loved one is slipping away.

While the group tours internationally, most of the band members still call Ann Arbor home, and most of their fans are from the Michigan and Chicago areas.

"We want to make something that we believe in in such a comprehensive and passionate way that we almost have no other choice but to follow it to the ends of the earth," Duncan said. "If we're not doing that we might as well stop."

Ella Riot will perform at a free "Sonic Lunch" concert at noon Thursday in Ann Arbor's Liberty Plaza.



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