A Conversation with Wave Cage

By Graham Bridges
Amid KURE’s trip to Mission Creek Festival, we were given a chance to speak with saxophonist Nolan Schroeder, drummer Chris Jensen, and trumpeter Ryan Garmoe of Wave Cage, a jazz/electronic band based out of Iowa City.

After listening to “Level Up,” a track off their 2021 release, The Portrait EP, it became clear that Wave Cage presented something new to offer. Through the fusion of brass instrumentation paired with 8-bit synths you’d hear in an NES video game, I became curious about the band’s creative process during a recording session.

What does the creative process look like to Wave Cage? Are there certain parameters the band needs to optimize creativity?

[Chris]: We have to play the songs live in order to fully form. Usually [melodies and chords] are written by somebody (in the band), and we’ll bring that to a rehearsal or a gig — and play the song, and then it usually takes SOME shape that we can usually mold from there.

[Ryan]: Some of these songs we’ve been playing for over two years now; they’re always different. And so it takes us a long time to land on a final form that we really like. There’s this whole other process of adding synthesizers and electronics, which almost comes after the

The post-production phase?

[Ryan]: Yeah, the post-production stage. That’s a good way to put it.

[Chris] And I would also like to say that the post-production influences how we will then perform them, so it’s just another step of composition basically.

When acts begin getting comfortable with each other, there tends to be a major shift from just jamming along to having that moment where you go, “wait a minute: we have something unique here” The mix of brass instrumentation paired with a healthy dose of 8-bit synth leads heard on “level up” indicate the band has an ambitious take on Jazz. Was there a moment when you realized you had something special with Wave Cage?

[Nolan] I think [Wave Cage] is just an unusual ensemble because we don’t have an actual bass player, so we’re pretty far removed from the “Jazz tradition” that we come from. We’re more influenced by actual electronic-type stuff rather than just horn groups. We kind of use our horns as melodic instruments rather than just like — “there’s horns.” You know?

For sure.

I think, just when we started like — expanding the synth sounds and both actually electronically and mentally programming the sounds we use on horns to get a certain vibe. That’s when we really formed the group’s “sound.”

Oh, okay.

Yeah, and that happened like a couple years ago. It’s like, [Christopher and Ryan] were starting and I kind of joined in after the first couple gigs when we started to play as a quartet and started to really get into those sounds.

[Chris to Nolan] I think that would have been in the summer of 2020, right?
So amid the pandemic.

[Nolan] Yeah, we got together a lot. At Chris’s house, other people’s houses, just whoever had the space to play. And we would record free improvisation stuff and record songs, like over and over, haha, and like dial them in and use different sounds and stuff.

Based out of Eastern Iowa, are there any particular influences you guys can look at and go, “Hey, I’m glad I’m from there!” Do you think this has affected your sound at all?

[Ryan] All three of us went to the University of Northern Iowa, and Jerret (Purdy) went to the University of Iowa, and so definitely going to school for music in those areas — I know all three of us definitely got a lot from our professors up there. It definitely influenced our sound a lot. I know at UNI our professors were really open about letting us explore different types of music, different types of Jazz.”

[Nolan] Like swing stuff

You all seem to have a formidable background in Jazz, but were there any musicians or acts that — I don’t want to say inspire — but gave the project (The Portrait EP) some juice?

[Nolan] Inspired, informed, definitely. It started originally kind of modeling off of “Real Feels,” by John Raymond, which is Trumpet, Guitar, and drums. With the guitar playing bass and chords. I also feel like we got a lot from the band Kneebody which is very much like, I would call it punk, grunge, Jazz. It can be very intense and in your face, and it can be all over the place, but in a good way.

[Chris] I think along those lines, too, Brad Meldau’s duo with Mark Guiliana. It’s just keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, which was a huge influence for me.

[Ryan] Tame Impala. For me, it was “Real Feels”. When we put the group together, that was the thing we wanted to model ourselves after, and I think we’re pretty happy with where it’s at right now.

[Nolan] Yeah, Real Feels is definitely more acoustic sounding if you’ve ever listened to them. They’re a lot more gentle, generally. Then we took a lot from bands like Tame Impala and Kneebody in terms of intensity and adding the electronic stuff. It’s easy to get carried away and [digital effects] can kind of take away from the music, but we use it carefully to add to the compositions, but not make it all about the effects. No Contrivance.

Any further plans for the band? In terms of tours, places, just general things of excitement. Are there any projects coming up for Wave Cage?

[Ryan] Oh yeah. We have a full record coming out early this summer, I think June 3rd is the release date. We also have a tour associated with that where we’re hitting Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and we’re still trying to fill out some dates like that. If you’re interested about those dates, Instagram. We’re always posting our stuff on Instagram. Any of you guys wanna talk about the project, and collaboration, and all that?

Please do

[Nolan] Yeah, we got a nice grant. We got funded through the Iowa Arts Council for the record. We’ve hired collaborators and made [the record] heavily based on collaboration. Every track has colleagues of ours, former teachers, even people we don’t know well but we’re able to connect with. We had our spoken word artist play with us today. Then we have a singer, we have a guitar player, even a couple professors from our Alma Mater come to play with us, who wrote a tune with us. So that’ll be pretty epic when it’s done. So we’re casting a wide net, but also under the umbrella of our band.

[Chris] I think in a lot of ways, this project, in particular, was a way of finding what we were good at, how many different directions we can go, how many — I don’t want necessarily to say genres — but how many different musical environments we can incorporate in our sound. When we
were trying to put together our first album, we had a lot of songs, but we wanted to figure out what more we could do. And it was a great time with that grant to bring in our local influences, and a bunch of people we haven’t yet worked with to create some new things, so looking forward to it.

Although, at this point, you all have become terrifically experienced at performing. Tell me about some real character builders for the group? What were you all doing before Wave Cage, and how did the band form?

|Nolan] Well we met through college, and we played through bands. Me and Chris have been playing for 10 years or more.

[Chris] Yeah, since like 2011.

[Nolan] We actually grew up around a half a mile from each other, but we went to different schools so we didn’t know each other until college. I played with the blues band for ten plus years, I’ve played with soul bands, other jazz groups, funk bands, and national touring acts. It’s really about the working musician life, it’s not always about being a part of one group. Especially as a horn player, where you’re seen as auxiliary as opposed to essential, which is not true in [Wave Cage] because we are solidly part of the lineup, thankfully, haha. The biggest lesson I learned was get your hmm together — haha -–- because you don’t want to be the person that people have to drag around on the job.

[Chris] I think, in addition to that, having played so many different kinds of gigs growing up. It kind of became clear to me that I want to play gigs with people that I like, play music that I like, for people who also enjoy that music. I didn’t realize until we got to Wave Cage that I want to make music that people want to hear, and also I want to play. Throughout the experiences growing up, good and bad, it kind of hammered in “What do I like? What do I feel resonates with audiences around here?” So that was sort of the synthesis of Wave Cage. We want to play music that is modern and reaches people today.

So a lot of artful integrity is what I’m hearing.

[Nolan] It’s also in addition to job work. Doing gigs you don’t necessarily dream about. We got to pay the bills, man! Me, Chris, and Ryan have day jobs that aren’t tangentially music-related for me. Some people play for a living and they gotta do gigs all the time whether they like it or not,
just to pay the bills. I’ve seen it happen and it can make you jaded, so playing with a group like this that I love playing in and love playing in and — bringing original ideas to — it’s such a breath of fresh air if you get in a rut. I always feel good coming back to it.

[Ryan] I was going to talk about (former band) Goosetown.

[Nolan] Oh yeah, we all played in that band too.

[Ryan] We played in a band from 2015 to 2018 called Goosetown. We were based out of Cedar Falls. You talk about experiences where you sort of fall on your face a bit. I was really lucky to be included in Goosetown with these guys, playing with them for about 3-4 years, I was like “Oh Shoot! I gotta get my stuff together!”

Tell me a bit about Goosetown, what was that like? Where did you get to a point where you decided to start your own thing?

[Chris] Well it wasn’t necessarily that it went from Goosetown to Wave Cage. The experience we had in Goosetown, we got together with a similar idea: we wanted to play music people knew, but put our own musicianship on it. It worked, we enjoyed it, but we reached a point where we were in this place where we were like, “do we keep playing covers, or do we write original music?” Then it sort of just fizzled out. Later on, separately, we rejoined with Jarrett (the keyboardist of the group), where we were like, maybe this is the opportunity to play that original music with that kind of vibe.

[Nolan] That band was fun though, we played Neo-Soul and funk, rock covers — All over the place. I think the best things we did was these tribute shows for Halloween.

[Ryan] Those were awesome.

[Nolan] First year we did the whole Thriller album by Michael Jackson — and keep this in mind: our core lineup was three horns, guitar, bass, drums, and singer. So a lot of these music things you think about, they have so many keyboards and background, so we were basically rearranging all the original stuff to fit our group. But for these Halloween shows we would add an extra guitar, an extra horn, and a keyboard to fill it out.

[Ryan] That’s when we started playing with Jarrett because Jarrett was on those Halloween shows. That’s the first time all four of us played together.

[Nolan] So we did Thriller, and if you think Michael Jackson you probably go “eh,” but if you dig into his stuff, it’s so thoroughly orchestrated. There’s layers and layers of background vocals, synths, and all these amazing musical things. And the next year we did Queen, which is another band where you have just enough Freddie Mercury tracks that if each one of us played one, you wouldn’t get all of them, so we were trying to cover all that. And then Hallowomen, just like famous women from across the decades, that was cool.

[Chris] That was a huge range too.

[Nolan] Yeah like Beyonce, Etta James, to Brittany Spears.

[Chris] We were really flexing our music school chops there. Genre hopping.

[Nolan] We would take turns arranging songs, like each of us would do two or three songs. We would have like a fifteen-song setlist for those shows, which is a pretty solid seventy-five minutes. We were flexing our arranging chops and being creative to cover all that. Just working together for so many years is how we came to like playing with each other.

[Ryan] I think that’s a really important part about a band. A, Can you play with the people, and B, does everyone work well together? Can you spend time around each other and be friends? I think that’s one of the reasons that — Wave Cage, I feel like we’re on a really good trajectory. We’re all good friends, we like hanging out with each other, we like spending time with each other. That’s where I feel the potential for longevity comes from.

[Nolan] I think you see it a lot, even on the national stage, pay attention to one specific instrumentalist and just see how many other groups they’re a part of and you’d be surprised. It’s often a very small world. It’s definitely the same in Iowa because Iowa is literally small.

Wave Cage’s forthcoming album “Even You Can See in the Dark” is coming out this June 3rd. Be sure to check out their forthcoming single, “Bumpus,” releasing on April 22nd of this year.

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