by Chris Parker
With a name like Sinful Savage Tigers, you half expect cookie monster vocals, thundering breakdowns and a machine gun hardcore backbeat. But the Chapel Hill trio is a string band wedded to contemporary rock/pop sensibilities. In May, they released their debut, Rain is the Soup of the Dogs in Heaven. Their origins go back a lot further—to Seth Martin’s undergrad years at Sewanee College in Tennessee. It’s there that he met Rob Guthrie, his collaborator on the project’s songs.
“He started playing guitar in college,” says Martin. “I heard him down the hall, playing nothing but Dave Matthews covers. I went into the room and told him to knock it off. Or learn some Who or some GBV.”
They would eventually collaborate, but only when Guthrie gave Martin a call several years later. In the interim, Martin had moved to the Triangle with the loose intent to get hooked up with “an angular indie rock act.” But the opportunity never materialized, and after a few tours of the local open-mic venues, he became more dedicated to his graduate studies at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in English. Last Spring, Guthrie asked Martin if he’d come down and help him fill out a couple hours at a big music and arts festival where he lives. He wanted to perform as a duo and pad out the set with some of Martin’s own tunes, just rearranged in a string-band style.
“I said, ‘I guess.’ I didn’t have anything else going on,” he says. “That really got me back into playing again, and it sort of worked in a way I thought it had no chance of working. So we decided we’d record some of what we’d done in December. That was the motivating factor to start playing again locally.”
Martin recruited guitar/mandolin/banjo player David Berney through Craigslist because he was embarrassed to ask his friends. (“You want to leave any successful three or four bands and sort of help someone that doesn’t have anything to show for living here six or seven years?”) Upright bass player Jones Smith came along a little later.
Though he considers himself as anything but a bluegrass player, Martin’s enthused by the form. Together, they indulge a pretty laconic gait on the doleful, “That Spider and the Moon Between the Pines,” and “Natural Ghost,” whose ambling banjo melody and sweet harmonies recall The Avett Brothers, something Martin admits sheepishly. Overall, the experience has been a revelation for him.
“There’s something really fantastic about not having the drummer there, to sort of fall back on,” says Martin. “Having to make an instrument that’s also making melody have to make that. There’s nothing else like that, and I think that’s part of the attraction for me.”
“Also, being stripped down I guess in the same vein, you have to let the song be out there, naked almost,” he continues. “There’s not a warm electric guitar and all its effects taking up the EQ space. There’s not a lot of room for jams and things like that; people will get bored too easily because you’re not taking up enough space. So it really lets you know what part of your song will work and how much you need to cut. It’s sort of that wonderful sense of brevity you pick up–or I did—from bands like Guided By Voices.”
Sinful Savage Tigers play with Adam & Mike of The Mayflies USA tonight, Thursday, Nov.12, at The Cave. The $5 begins at 9:30 p.m.