By Chyrisse Tabone
Each month Rock At Night features a “Band of the Month.” This month’s in-depth interview is with The Applebutter Express hailing from Tampa Bay, Florida.
I have been in the ukulele cult for a few years now and people keep asking me, “Have seen The Applebutter Express yet?” They are a band whose music centers around a ukulele. “Nope,” I usually reply, “I have seen them on Youtube, but not in person.” The reply is usually, “Oh! You must go! Really…”
Well, Sunday I ventured into Tampa on a rainy evening to Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa, to finally see The Applebutter Express. I had hoped the gig would not be rained out but the leafy oak canopy and metal-covered shelter provided adequate refuge from the natural elements.
I finally had the opportunity to speak with Kyle and Shannon Biss, founders of The Applebutter Express. Kyle explained he was a bass player for years but picked up the ukulele in 2010 after purchasing one on EBAY for $25. You can listen to him explain the story here:
It appears that Kyle and Shannon Biss did not set out to make a career in music but accidentally fell into it. It appears Kyle studied communications and Shannon studied baking and pastry arts in college while music was a sideline. He creates his music centered around the ukulele (although he does not appear to be in the ukulele cult) and aims to write “stories” about life and fictional characters (“he” and “she”) which he and Shannon swear “are not them.” The group basically started after both Kyle and Shannon realized they actually could sing and harmonize well together. Actually Shannon, who has a beautiful voice which is very well-suited to country-ish music, was very self-conscious about singing in public and opted to stay in the background. She used to sing in the choir when she was younger but singing in public was not something she aspired to do. It is actually hard to believe because her alto voice is so sweet yet womanly and meshes with Kyle’s voice like a well-tuned instrument.
When asked to describe the band’s music genre, Kyle really could not exactly put a label on it. He noted it is likely deemed as “Contemporary Americana” but it is really “unique” and “difficult to answer” since the band ventures into non-traditional areas. The music tiptoes into blues, southern rock, and even a couple songs have an “island feel.” The duo really expanded its musical direction after the addition of Matt DeSear (bass) and Joe Trivette (fiddle) in 2012. Actually, while listening to the fiddle during the concert, I realized it is almost a replacement for lead guitar licks. I asked if the band utilized any percussion but Kyle joked, “No. The joke is we have a drummer but he never shows up for the gig!” Actually, he explained, the “chunking” of the ukulele strokes offers percussive nuances to flesh out the songs.
No doubt, The Allman Brothers Band
When asked which bands have influenced The Applebutter Express music, Kyle noted he is influenced by classic bands like, The Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, Parliament/Funkadelic and even contemporary bands like Weezer, Ben Folds Five. The topic of The Allman Brothers Band lead us to a little side discussion on the merits of band, Duane Allman’s guitar playing (“It may sound blasphemous but Derek is a better guitarist because he’s been alive longer! Duane was 23 years old when he died.”), Wanee Festival (they faithfully attend every year) , the final break-up of the band (“It’s a heartbreaker but I understand. I get it. Warren and Derek are doing their own thing”). He continues, “I believe The Allman Brothers shouldn’t be lumped in with all the other southern rockers because they got a little more jazzy and technical [with their music].”
His current favorite band is Trucks and Tedeschi, which he and Shannon consciously try to emulate saying “We don’t sound like them stylistically but they are kind of the model [with the husband and wife duo]. They are huge influences on us and we want to follow their blueprint.” It should not surprise me that Kyle and Shannon recently went up to Georgia to visit “The Big House.” Even their CD covers imitate the psychedelic watercolor appearance of both The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band.
Actually, when I heard the set after the interview, I was very impressed with their rendition of “Whipping Post,” including the jazzy introduction of the song. Shannon’s voice was totally well-suited to belting out the bluesy lyrics to this song as well as adding a feminine touch to “Midnight Rider.”
Songwriting, ukuleles, and liquid courage
I wanted to know how Kyle and Shannon decided to form a band and create The Applebutter Express. Kyle relays, “Shannon used to be in chorus. We would sing on the couch but she wanted nothing to do with getting on stage. She was 17 and I was 18. She wanted nothing to do with being a singer and couldn’t wrap her head around the idea. When she turned 21 she was able to get a little liquid courage. Shannon interjected, “Yeah, I had a beer first.” Kyle continues, “She simply was tired of watching the band [I was in at the time]. She’d sit in and would sing back-up. Finally, somebody said, Kyle you need to stop singing and let her sing.”
So, Kyle continued playing bass in the band at that time. He then told Shannon, “Whenever you want to sing, I’ll quit whatever band I’m in and we’ll sing ‘you and I.’” Kyle and Shannon then tried singing as a duo at campfires and festivals. After Kyle saw the favorable reaction to their music, he thought “This is a whole different thing than anything I’ve ever done.”
At this point The Applebutter Express was born and escalated rapidly in popularity. Kyle says, “We’ve been incredibly lucky. We got to play Bonaroo in 2012 during our first year as a real band. We’ve been to New Orleans, Nashville, and [have played] mostly at the East Coast.
Shannon discusses their first gig at Skipper’s Smokehouse, which appears to be a regular gig, “Our first show here was in Uncle John’s Band. They let us do a couple of songs. Ever since then we’ve been coming back here once a month or so. “ She continues discussing the band’s current project, “We’re working on a new CD now. We’ve got six tracks recorded. We have two CDs previously out and they are doing pretty well. We are excited about the next one. “
And the songwriting process is……
Since I play music the subject of the songwriting process and, of course, ukuleles were topics I wanted to discuss. Kyle says, “We all kind of write as a group. Everyone has their stuff they are good at. I like to write music that tells stories.” Shannon interjects, “Kyle is really good at lyrics and I’m a good editor.”
Kyle explains, “The ukulele part first. For a song with four verses, I will write 25 verses and Shannon will tell me that one of them is a keeper. As frustrating as it gets sometimes, she’ll tell me that doesn’t make sense. You’re contradicting yourself [in this verse from the last]. “ He continues saying, “Anytime I have writer’s block I try to write a sequel. Let’s take these two characters and see what they will do after this. It might be lazy but I’ve fallen in love with these characters we write about. It’s he and she. It’s not biographical whatsoever. “ Shannon briefly corrects him, saying “Smile” is a personal song and the new album has a lot more personal songs than previous CDs.
The first CD was recorded in Shannon’s hometown of Bradenton, Florida. The second CD was recorded at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, Tennessee. Kyle boasts, “Shannon sang in the microphone that Robert Plant used for singing the “Raising Sand” album. Jerry Reed…my hero…has recorded there. “
A new CD is being cut in Florida. Last year The Applebutter Express signed a publishing deal and the song “Hey, my brotha’” was featured in Ron Howard’s film “The Good Lie.” Kyle beams, “We got to go to the movie premier and everything. It was so cool! We met Reese Witherspoon. We got to see our name in the big screen and everything. It was wild!”
So what is in store for The Applebutter Express in the new year?
Kyle answers, “Without it being completely confirmed there’s some West Coast things happening in 2015.”
Things are definitely happening for The Applebutter Express! This train is rolling for the long haul!