“Karen was like, ‘I want to play drums. Get them out of the basement.’”
By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Although RJ Dietrich handles the lead vocals in Essential Machine, the band’s songwriting process is a shared effort. He or his wife, drummer Karen Dietrich, might create a lyrical outline but they usually work together to flesh out ideas. “I think Karen and I can both relate to the idea that your place where you are, or where you have come from, informs your identity — even if you don’t want it to. Or even if you do want it to,” he says. “So I feel that a lot of the songs have this theme of trying to figure out who you are and how you fit into the greater picture of things.”
Although Dietrich says this while discussing the title track of Essential Machine’s new release, Wildfires, the concept can extend beyond the lyrics to the band itself. Husband-and-wife musical acts aren’t unusual in-and-of themselves, and Essential Machine is rounded out by RJ and Karen’s 17-year old son Robert, who fills out the sound on keyboards. But any generalizations about a family band can end right here.
After meeting in Florida, where Connellsville native Karen moved after college, the couple eventually relocated to Greensburg, seeing it as an ideal midway between Karen’s hometown and Pittsburgh. “It was a good decision for all kinds of reasons but creatively, it was like a turning point for both of us,” says Karen, who has published two books of poetry, a memoir and has a novel due next year. “There’s such an arts culture here in Pittsburgh that is community-based. Tampa doesn’t have that. Not the way that you have it here.”
Essential Machine began as a stripped down duo in 2009, with Karen singing and playing concert bells along with RJ’s voice and guitar. After recording and releasing a few EPs that featured a bigger production, their live sound needed a boost. “We were talking about who can we get to play drums and we had a couple of people in mind,” RJ says. “And Karen was like, ‘I want to play drums. Get them out of the basement.’ She started playing every single day and jamming with me and really getting into it and I thought, ‘Oh, she’s a drummer now.’”
Robert’s role in the group came about organically. “I always thought that it was cool that they were in a band. And I definitely had an interest in playing shows with them,” says Robert, who first sat in at the age of 12. “I don’t know how clear I made it before I became an official member but they ended up asking me, so I assumed they knew that I wanted to be part of the band.”
His parents didn’t want to put any pressure on Robert either. “I made it clear to him, this is only if you want to do it,” RJ says. “I don’t want you to feel obligated in any sort of way because that’s not going to make good music.” Robert proved his commitment by spending a night learning a keyboard part note-for-note to their song “Paper and Stars.”
Wildfires, the group’s sixth release overall but first full-length album, reveals the band with a sophisticated approach to songwriting. While songs like “Wasted” and “One Shot” have choruses that sound immediately accessible, “5th Ward” and the title track reveal a more narrative quality, that hints at Karen’s background and the way she and RJ work together.
“Sometimes I almost interview him about what a song is about, so he comes up with this whole character,” Karen says. “I’ll have him talk about a song and take notes almost like I’m doing an assignment, and see what I can come up with.” RJ adds that either one might originate lyrics, passing it to the other to edit and arrange them.
The group worked at their own pace over the past year, recording Wildfires with Jake Hanner of the band Donora. By taking their time with the songs, the 10 tracks touch somewhat on the more ethereal sound of classic albums on the 4AD — due to Robert’s keyboard work — while still relying on both a hard edge with the guitars and a pop sense that runs through them.
This week’s CD release show also celebrates another local release by one of the bill’s other performers. LoFi Delphi is releasing its “Gold” single with the songs “Right On” backed with “Sweet Sweet” that night. Both tracks find the band continuing in its power pop mode, fueled by Becki Gallagher’s powerful vocals and some sharp songwriting that represent the standard for the evening.