Smooth Operators

Brooklyn's Tigercity teaches the unwashed hipster masses a little something about soul

The four guys of Tigercity must be totally smooth dudes. There's the cover of their latest self-released EP, Pretend Not to Love — a photo of four graceful stallions galloping down a crystalline beach. Smooth. Then there's the opening of "Are You Sensation" — grooving percussion picked up by funky guitars, a dash of slap bass, and vintage synth. Smooth. And lead singer Bill Gillim's impressive falsetto — that's smooth, too.

"Tigercity is a POP BAND," reads the group's mission statement on its MySpace page. "We love POP MUSIC. This is why we are getting SMOOTHER AND SMOOTHER. Maybe, one day, our smoothness will allow us to live on AN ISLAND. Maybe we will call it TIGERCITY. It will be the smoothest of all islands...."

Tigercity: It's hip to be square
Dot Hong
Tigercity: It's hip to be square

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Tigercity, Stylofone, and John Hancock ANR perform Monday, September 10, at Studio A, 60 NE 11th St, Miami. The show starts at 8:00 p.m., and tickets cost $10. All ages are welcome. Call 305-358-7625, or visit www.studioamiami.com.

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Joel Ford, the band's 25-year-old founder and bassist, and one of its primary songwriters, chuckles softly at the mention of that. "The whole 'smooth' thing was kind of a joke," he explains from his girlfriend's vacation home in Sarasota, where he's taking a quick break before hitting the road again. "Like, 'We're some smooth yacht rock' kind of thing. But the myth we've been trying to create when writing with Tigercity — as anybody does when they write lyrics — is this element of smooth fantasy life."

Ah, yacht rock. Think Patrick Bateman music — the sort of highly produced, aggressively feel-good pop-rock of Seventies and Eighties groups like Toto, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, or the dreaded Huey Lewis and the News. It was wildly popular in its heyday, then reviled, and now "rediscovered" by both those subscribing to the sniggeringly ironic school of hip, as well as the willfully uncool school of hip. It was music about feelin' groovy and good times. Which, based on what Ford has just said about his band's lyrics, seem like Tigercity's topics of choice.

"Oh, it totally is yacht rock," Ford says. "But it just happened because we wanted that to happen. But it's not like we wanted to be yacht rock."

Well, okay. But while the bandmates' smooth talk might be a joke, the music is not. In fact they seem deadly earnest about it. Rather than playing it for laughs, Gillim's voice is sincere, gliding into falsetto for extended range rather than jokey effect. And the band's got serious years of playing and formal training under its belt. Ford is self-taught on bass but has been playing since his teens in both funk and punk bands. Drummer Aynsley Powell and guitarist Andrew Brady attended Boston's Berklee College of Music, where they studied jazz performance. Although the music press has harped on the supposed Hall & Oates thing, Ford says the band's real influences are more along the lines of Talking Heads, Prince, and Let's Dance-era David Bowie. Oh, and Chic. "When we were writing most of the songs that we now play live," Ford says, "we would hang out at night and drink and listen to disco."

It's not surprising, considering Ford started Tigercity in 2004 as a semi-solo electronic act in his college apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was sort of out of necessity: He collaborated with a guitar player, but a lack of a decent drummer — as well as space in which to play — turned them toward a machine. Ford had been experimenting with his own electronic music on a sampler and sequencer, and the first Tigercity EP — recorded only a few months after the project was baptized — emerged in a dance music idiom. "We would record the guitar parts and chop them up," he says. But when he came onboard as a singer, Gillim brought with him more traditional song structures. Then he and Ford, shortly after graduation that year, decamped to Brooklyn, where mutual friends introduced them to Brady and Powell.

"I think when Andrew and Aynsley joined the band and we started reassembling Tigercity, it just became smoother and funkier than it was in the past. [Our old guitarist] came from an emo-hardcore background, so he had a very outsider approach to guitar," Ford says, "whereas Andrew and Aynsley were totally finessed, technical musicians. There was this in-between period where we had to try to work out the transition from being a stripped-down pop outfit, while not being too overly detailed or really technical."

There was also the matter of navigating the typically unforgiving musical climes of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. And at the time, vintage synthesizers and funk bass were scarce. "We were all really excited ... because New York was still at the end of the electroclash thing, and with the noisier rock bands with punk aesthetics, it was just kind of boring," Ford says. "So to be smooth at that time was kind of like a fuck-you."

Then came the blog and Internet accolades, culminating in a featured spot in Rolling Stone's "Artist to Watch" department. Which is from where, Ford says, that pesky recurring Hall & Oates tag stems.

"The Rolling Stone interview was cool, but they totally blew it out of proportion. Bill's quoted over and over where it makes him sound like, 'I hated Michael Jackson and Hall & Oates until I realized it was awesome and I started dancing,'" Ford says. "The band's development has flown from something like electronic dance rock into a slicker instrumental pop group, and it was definitely natural. So in that way it's totally not ironic.

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