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The SPECifics: The Senators of Americana

“Don’t look at that,” said a voice above the chatter at the crowded Lux coffee shop. It was a Wednesday evening and while we sat at the bar waiting to meet with a band of strangers, we browsed their website, looking for clues that could lead to questions. It had been months since they first contacted us about coverage and that evening we were finally going to meet. The voice was that of Jesse Teer, one-sixth of the Phoenix-based band The Senators, and his friendly demand was meant to deter us from the band’s under-construction website.

If you know who The Senators are, you’re in on a big secret and it’s something worth sharing. Brothers Jesse and Adam “Rooster” Teer have always been involved in music. Jesse would write and share songs with Rooster and eventually the two started putting songs together. The duo recruited old friends, and one new one, to complete their sound. The Americana band is now the Teer brothers along with Amber Johnson a pianist who played in Phoenix Youth Symphony with Jesse; Jason Yee who played drums in a band at Jesse’s church; Joe Bitz on the trumpet, Rooster’s good friend from high school; and banjo player Carlos Villegas, the multi-instrumentalist found through a Craigslist ad.

“We have a lot of better musicians than us, which is great,” says Jesse.

“It’s not just trying to have someone fill a role…” says Rooster. “It’s like we all know each other and we’re all really invested in the project.”

“The best thing is that when we hang out, we’re not musicians, we’re just people,” adds Villegas. “I mean, we do our jobs when we’re working, but I think we have so much more in common. Everyone gets along really well.”

We searched the shop looking for a quiet space to chat and settled at a long table in the back room. Villegas and the Teers ordered drinks and inquired about The Spec and soon enough, the conversation switched back to the band.

For Rooster and Jesse, music-making for The Senators has been a process. It began five years ago, before a band name had been chosen and members added. Jesse had been writing songs and giving them time to develop. “London Bridge” and “Queen of Spades” started as demos that Jesse sent to Rooster as a Christmas gift in 2008 while he was away at college in Memphis. Rooster liked what he heard.

“I think it was maybe December of two years ago when we actually decided we were going to self-record this album,” says Rooster. “So we bought a bunch of gear and got everything set up and that’s when we brought everybody else in.”

On working with his brother, Jesse says, “He makes me honest…if I put something out and it’s not genuine, he’ll let me know right away. It’s one of those things where you get that honesty in a working relationship…It’s a good thing because I know he’ll never lie to me about what he thinks.”

cover art, The Senators, arizona musicThe band released its debut, Harsher Than Whisky/Sweeter Than Wine on June 5. The album originated as a three-track EP, but as the band worked and wrote more, it developed into a full 12-track album.

“We were really looking for an identity in the first album and I think we found that,” says Jesse.

When asked about their experience with music growing up, the three seemed stumped. How does one describe a connection that seems so innate? Music has always been a part of who they are and what they’ve done. “Everybody is classically trained,” shares Jesse, whose first instrument was the cello. “My mom tells the story when he was at school that he had music days where professionals would bring their instruments and when Jesse saw the cello play the JAWS theme song, he was hooked,” shares Rooster.

Rooster’s first instrument was just as non-traditional, “ I was a trumpet player in middle school and then I started playing baritone and I did that all through high school. I did any band thing that was available in high school. I was in jazz band, regular band, honors band, pep band and brass ensemble.” He took a break from his early music career during the first two years of college, but went with friends to a choir audition where he discovered, ”I have a decent voice,” he says. “I was never fostered as a singer, so I ended up joining the choir on campus and a month later was singing in Carnegie Hall on Thanksgiving break.” Rooster didn’t pick up the bass until his senior year of college. He recalls, “my friend Brian was learning how to play the drums and he called me up one day and was like, ‘hey do you know how to play bass?; I’m like, ‘no but I’ll learn.’” And so it began.

Villegas grew up in Miami, Ariz., a small town that did not offer band programs. Still, he got his hands on the guitar and experimented. It wasn’t until he left his hometown that he truly began to immerse himself in music.

“Moving into a big city, I just felt like punk rock was the way to go. At that time, there was a lot of Hispanic bands doing punk rock, so I learned guitar… I really wanted to play the banjo,” he says. “I was really lucky because my parents were very diverse. I had a lot of mariachi, but I had a lot of 50’s and 60’s soul, and R & B at the same time…the first time I heard Johnny Cash…I was like yeah, this guy is awesome. I go to church and talk about Jesus and this guy is talking about Jesus, but he’s pretty badass too. He’s also talking about taking coke and running around the desert.”

Although the group is comprised of parts from all over, the six mesh together to form a cohesive sound in a unit of not only musicians, but friends. Recently, the band has been working on new music for an album set to release before the end of the year. This sophomore effort has taken longer than expected, but only for the reason that quality is the priority, not quantity.

“I think if we hone in what we’re doing we get better and better as we go. It really steps up. It gets more organic, I think I’ve mastered the us-producing thing. So the quality is much better. Now that we have all of the instruments that make up the band we’re writing for them so they’re all on the new tracks,” says Rooster. “I feel like a lot of the new stuff is about growth and getting outside of what you’ve known growing up. Like, that heavy hearted, I wish I could go back home but home’s not the same anymore. I think that’s just a piece of growing up… that’s the theme that kind of runs through,” adds Jesse.

The forthcoming release The Belly of the Beast, in Jesse’s words is, “a lot more organic in the way that there’s a lot more mandolin, more banjo, acoustic guitars, we’re relying less on layering the electric guitar and things like that.” With influences such as Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Perkins; Carlos “the history buff” Villegas; Rooster’s college years spent in Memphis; lyrics that feature biblical imagery; and a band name The Senators, it’s no surprise that the six-piece’s sound is old-timey. Familiar, yet fresh. Sounds from the past that have been reworked into relevance.

“It’s always a process…I can’t even explain how it all comes together,” says Villegas.

It may be some time before listeners get to hear how the recent work comes together on the new album. In the mean time, fans can listen to the band’s past releases on SoundCloud or catch them live at the Rhythm Room on Sept. 9 with Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk and Tres Lunas. Purchase tickets for $8-$10 through Ticketfly.

3 Comments

  1. Great article, The Spec. You’re right, “If you know who The Senators are, you’re in on a big secret and it’s something worth sharing.” Their album catches you with its eloquence, and keeps you with Americana anthems like Lazarus. I can’t wait for the show on the ninth!

  2. I heard them in Starbucks the other day! Love, love, love this group.

  3. great article… also stoked for the show!

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