You may have heard of them from open mics at MilkBoy Coffee or Fergie’s pub, or perhaps from gigs at JD McGillicuddy’s or World Cafe. Â Philly’s own Up the Chain is a staple in the local music scene and has been playing venues from the inside out since 2008, sharing and spreading their voice in the city of Philadelphia and beyond. Â Many musicians have added their creativity and musical versatility to the project over the years, lending different ingredients to make each song a unique recipe. Â Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Reed Kendall, the roster of players in the band is constantly changing, but some of the most frequent participants include Avery Coffee, Anam Owili-Eger, Phil D’Agostino and Matt Scarano.
Their most recent release, Holy Open Drying Road, is filled with stylistic diversity and thoughtful musicianship. Â Teeming with horns, bowed strings and mandolin, the variety in musical background among the ever-changing musical cast really gives the band a slightly different tone each time they perform. Â The only reason Reed Kendall and his band Up the Chain have become a household name at open mics and venues around Philadelphia is because of their constant devotion to playing as much as they can- spreading their sound around. Â I interviewed Reed to find out about how Up the Chain started, the creative process behind the music, and what the next step is for the band.
Michele Zipkin: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but what is the meaning of the name Up the Chain?
Reed Kendall: It originally comes from the cartoon Space Ghost (from the fictional late-night talk-show Space Ghost Coast to Coast spun off from the 1960s cartoon.) Space Ghost was interviewing Willy Nelson, and someone randomly blurts out [up the chain] in the background. Â My friends in high school and I thought it was funny so we named our high school floor hockey team Up the Chain, and we made shirts with our names and numbers on the back. Â Then, when I was starting up the band (it wasn’t like, five guys starting a band together, it was just me and some studio musicians), Â I didn’t want to call it Reed Kendell so I just called it that.
MZ: Â When you started out, how inconsistent was the personnel in the group? Â How did you initially get together with the people you started playing with?
RK: It was very inconsistent. Â Â Avery has been with me from the start. Â He and I were in the Alfred James Band together. Â When I started my own band, I went to MilkBoy to record an EP demo, and he (Avery) played on it, and a bunch of other guys who hadn’t played with the band since played on it. Â Then I took that to Fergie’s Open Mic, where I met everyone else who’s played with me since, which has been about 20 people total over the course of two or three years.
MZ: You’ve had several musical accomplishments so far. Â You made an EP I’ll See You Inside, a live album at MilkBoy,Â and a full-length studio album, Holy Open Drying Road. Â Did you see a noticeable growth in the band or in your style with each of your albums?
RK: Yeah. Â For the live record, that was basically the first time the band had ever been the same group of people for two shows in a row. Â We did four shows at MilkBoy, so it’s weird that the band did a live record and the group wasn’t that familiar with each other playing live. Â It’s not really a sensible way to do it, [but it speaks very highly.] Â The studio record was the biggest step for us. Â When we play now, we’re just a lot better after having gone through arranging the songs and talking about them… Â Before that it was just like, â€˜do we know the songs well enough to play them live, yes OK, good enough’, but doing the record… Producer Barrie Maguire gets a lot of credit for that. Â Â We got together a bunch of times for pre-production and everyone was just really focused, and everyone had ideas. Â That’s when it started to get good.
MZ: The song â€œEn Zedâ€ (from Holy Open) is a very poignant song. Â The chorus has a â€œstop and smell the rosesâ€ and appreciate the simple things in life kind of theme. Â Can you talk about the meaning of the song?
RK: En Zed is â€œN-Zâ€ people in New Zealand say Zed. Â I lived in New Zealand for six months. Â That’s basically what the chorus of the song is about. Â There weren’t too many distractions there. Â I wasn’t on Facebook at this point in my life… Â I didn’t have TV, really. Â We had a group of friends and a beautiful landscape. Â It was just kind of enjoying the simple things kind of energy. Â It was a great change of pace for me. Â I miss it. Â I live very much in the city now, so it’s different.
MZ: What do you think the most important thing is in creating a story behind a song?
RK: Creating something that people can relate to. Â Even if it’s not necessarily what the writer has in mind, if people are relating to it that’s the goal. Â Making a connection of some sort.
MZ: What was the coolest or most enjoyable show you’ve played?
RK: I can tell you the strangest happened the other day. Â (I won’t forget about the coolest though.) Â I was doing a gig on Market street. Â The city hired a bunch of people to play for four hours on the street for two or three days a week. Â I was the first one to do it. Â They didn’t tell me this at the time, but they were trying to faze out these radical hate groups that set up on Market Street. Â So when the time’s come for them to set up, this lady comes up right next to me over top and says â€œThere’s someone where you guys usually set up, what do you want me to do about it?â€ and then starts causing a scene, so they called the police. Â I had three policeman on either side of me. Â Â It was just me and this guitar, and there’s this hate group that’s coming, demanding their turf. Â I was like, what the hell is going on, I didn’t sign up for this!
And then the next one of those gigs that I did, there was a preacher on the corner with a microphone and an amplification system, preaching. Â I had to set up ten feet from where he was. Â The city was paying me to do it,Â so Â I said â€œLook man, I’m sorry but I have to do thisâ€. Â So I set up and plugged in and started playing. Â So he turned up, and I didn’t turn up to fight him. Â I was singing a mellow Amos Lee song or something, and he’s preaching in the background. Â It was the most bizarre thing. Â We were fighting for volume.
My favorite gig was the Philly Sings Philly gig at the Fire. Â There was a residency on Tuesday nights in November of last year. Â Just Philly artists covering Philly artists. Â We did a five song set and it was a lot of fun. Â We covered Chris Kasper, Hezekiah Jones, Cow Muddy, Chris Grunwald and Ryan Tennis.
MZ: What is the significance of the album Holy, Open Drying Road?
RK: It seems like every song on the record has something to do with a restless feeling- traveling, changing scenery. Â So the Holy Open Drying Road, is what we’re doing next. Â We’re doing a tour in August- going down to Nashville, Knoxville, North Carolina.. .That’s basically where my head is. Â If someone books a gig and asks me to play in Philly, that sounds great… but when I’m booking things I’m looking elsewhere and trying to spread around a little.
[Here’s a story behind the meaning of the word â€œdryingâ€ in the title]: I was in a car accident while driving on the high way, it was pouring rain. Â I spun out and hit the guard rail. Â My car wouldn’t start as it was facing I-95 highway traffic in very low visibility. Everything turned out fine. After the accident I had a fear of driving at high speeds in the rain. I think it still lingers a little. When I wrote those words I was thinking back on the feeling of being out driving as the sun came out on what was previously a very rainy day. the warm sun drying up the puddles was very, very reassuring. It’s a hopeful metaphor for the next chapter of the band – traveling.
MZ: What is the one thing you think the music industry needs in order to thrive? Â The Philadelphia music scene?
RK: I don’t really know that much about the industry. Â If there were more record deals out there- if I could pay my bills by being a musician. Â I think no matter what happens with the industry, creative music and sharing and connecting with people on an artistically credible level will always exist. Â It may not be what dominates the radio or TV. There will always be creative people making good art. Â Even if there’s not a lot of money in the industry… Â Â I’m not that worried. Â It fluctuates. Â When the Beatles and Dylan were what was popular, they were amazing. Â There are similarly amazing artists out there now, it’s just not as much of a phenomenon. Â That’s not bad, it’s just different.
Holy, Open Drying Road is now Available on ITunes.