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His band may be preparing a breakup and its final show — but Adam Kempa doesn't sound all that hung-up about it. In fact, he sounds quite upbeat, managing to stuff in more than a few sprightly chuckles during a recent conversation. His cheerful demeanor probably reflects that, while the Recital, a band Kempa has played bass in for 10 years, is nearly done, his life — and that of his bandmates — is on a pleasant upswing.
Friday's show in the newly revamped café at downtown's Majestic complex has been strategically scheduled. "It was exactly 10 years ago that we did our first show," Kempa says. "If we were going to call it quits, now seemed like more than a good time to do it."
It's a shame, though, since the group has been one of the slickest, if somewhat obscure, indie groups in Michigan. Bassist Kempa's band was rounded out by principal songwriter and guitarist-vocalist Chris Ostafinski, guitarist Ryan Brescoe and drummer Rob Byrd.
The guys all grew up in or around Livonia, and they started things small when they formed in 1999. In fact, they stayed small. "It's been the same four guys this whole time," Kempa admits. "We played all over Detroit and Ann Arbor. And we did a few small, small tours. But we've mostly been a local band."
They were drawn together by a weird need to create unique music, even if they all had drastically different records in rotation on their collective turntables. "We all listen to a lot of different stuff," he begins. "The bulk of the [songwriting] comes from Chris and he's super into indie rock. Rob, our drummer, is into metal. Ryan and I were into surf records. It's a really weird combination. But we ended of up making music that we all enjoyed while making something that sounded nothing like what anyone else was doing."
Their first EP was self-released, but they were soon aided by eccentric local Detroit label Suburban Sprawl Music, a label Kempa even helped run for a while. (For those in the dark, the label is also home to current Detroit indie darlings, Javelins, and is a joint project now with Ann Arbor's perhaps more recognized Quack! Media.) Originally headed by Erik Koppin, Suburban Sprawl soon proved to be more than one man could handle, and Kempa picked up the reins. He fronted the hefty fees and ran the label's website. Suburban Sprawl has never had a de facto CEO, and, recently, Kempa's busy life forced him to pass all the work onto sometime Recital keyboardist Zach Curd.
"Curd's taken over the lion's share of it," he says. "I got super busy and I handed it off to Zach. My role these days is that I do the Web stuff and I work with Zach on decision-making."
Recital's first SSM release, Things That Could Very Well Happen and Ruin Your Life, an EP, was full of tiny symphonies weaved together with looped beats and buoyant sing-along choruses. The EP featured dense songwriting and an ear for the unique and obscure.
It's seemed like they could have become more than just a local crew. What happened?
"I think if we had [more national success] as a shared goal, we could have done more with it," Kempa reflects. "But we all had our separate paths, all aimed in separate directions. I don't think anyone really counted on [the Recital] as being our main thing."
Even so, the guys managed a full-length, Colour Up, the majority of which was recorded in 2003 but wasn't released until 2005. "After our first EP was recorded in my parent's basement, we got hung up on recording on 2-inch tape," he says. "So, for the full-length, we recorded demos in a house that me and Chris were renting and then we took it to Woodshed studios [in Oak Park]." Colour Up elaborated on the EPs by slapping more sheen and lush onto the band's quirky post-punk sounds. "Pink on Black," a track capturing the essence of the album, was laced with playful, dancing keyboards and bright vibraphone chimes against a popping backbeat. Ostafinski's vocals soared over the lithe and bouncy chorus, and guitars rang out melodies that seemed to mimic nursery rhymes.
After the release of that first and last full-length, it was more or less stagnant waters. "We didn't have a lot of lofty goals when it came to this band," Kempa reflects. "We all came from different musical backgrounds and we just ended making something unique when it all came together. Plus, a side effect of being in this band, since we all listened to drastically different things, is that we cross-influenced each other."
In the years that followed, the guys spent most of their time periodically playing shows. Kempa had different projects to tend to, as did the other guys. The Recital bassist, for example, is the drummer for another Suburban Sprawl band, the Pop Project, a group with enough songwriting chops via various members to put hordes of other tunesmiths to shame. They've got a knack for twisting melodies and multi-part harmonies — essentially what the Recital also did but with a bit more bite and complex hooks. (Hearing the Pop Project's recent work, with their skill for the instant catchy melody, it sounds like they could be writing TV theme songs. And interestingly enough, they released an EP, TGIF, back in 2005, on which they covered the themes songs of four famous '90s sitcoms: Perfect Strangers, Full House, Family Matters and Step By Step, all by composer Jesse Frederick. As noted on the Suburban Sprawl website, the band feels that "the songwriting, arrangement and density of craftsmanship on display in these four short themes are legitimately mind-blowing.")
Kempa notes that, since the beginning of this year, it was apparent that the Recital's time was nearing its end. "It's been less and less an active band," he says. "Our drummer had two kids. Our main songwriter is preparing a move to Chicago. A lot of life changes happen, you know?"
Life has changed for Kempa as well. "For me, I married. I got a job, thank God. I still will be with the Pop Project and that will be my main outlet, musically, once we've finished this show. Elsewhere, it's just normal, boring life stuff."
To further ensure the completion of the Recital as a creative project, the band is releasing a final EP in conjunction with the show. "All the members of the Recital have been in bands since they were kids," he says. "We didn't want to forget about all the songs that we didn't get to record. We pressed about 100 copies for the [Majestic] show and we've also posted it online for free [on suburbansprawlmusic.com]."
So Kempa and the guys really don't have a reason to be down this holiday season. This last show is, in its own odd way, a celebratory event, capping off 10 years of playing some great music on the group's own terms.
"I don't know what the future holds," Kempa reflects. "But it has been a blast and I think it's good to end it now instead of just letting it peter out and die. None of us are in disagreement with each other; we're all cool. We're just moving on."
The Recitals' final performance is Friday, Dec. 4, at the Majestic Complex Café, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7665. With Thunderbirds Are Now! and Zoos of Berlin.
Freelancer and MT intern Kent "Zacky" Alexander is no longer just as heavy metal wiz kid. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.