Before you hear the funky, spacey Philly instrumental duo Killiam Shakesepare play its newly released album A Town Called Elsewhere at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, Nov. 24, you have to go through the past to get to the future. “That’s the heart of this sound,” said keyboardist Corey Bernhard, a partner in Killiam Shakespeare with his longtime cocomposing pal, drummer Steve McKie. “Back to front, past to present to future. That’s us.”
McKie claims that, as inventive instrumentalists who have traveled the globe, Killiam Shakespeare are about “doing a little bit of everything” in a genre-less mode. “Hip-hop, rock, trap, jazz — you hear all that in our sound,” said the drummer, referring to Killiam Shakespeare’s spaced-out melodies and elastic rhythms that are equal parts Herbie Hancock (a hero to both players), Tortoise, Slint, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and The Roots. The latter outfit play a big part in Killiam Shakespeare’s development, as does Germantown vocalist Bilal, who will sing at Saturday’s gig.
“Playing with Bilal forced me to let go of traditional ways of approaching music, to be more comfortable with experimenting with odd sounds, textures and approaches to accompanying the lead,” said Bernhard. That definitely rubbed off on the duo where recorded works such as A Town Called Elsewhere are concerned. This new album is tight and funk-filled, but open-ended and spacious in manner resembling Pat Metheny’s breeziest work.
What drew McKie and Bernhard together was that neither was kidding around about jamming together. “It wasn’t one of those things where you say, ‘We should get together,’ and didn’t,” said Bernhard. “We said it, and started the next day. It was instantaneous. And the music was good, special and just … came. We just pumped it out.”
So devoted was the pair to getting the band off the ground and its sound formulated that they rejected the idea of session work for a full year before and during the recording of its 2015 self-titled debut album. “We got to the studio, recorded so much stuff, and just built upon that,” said McKie. “While we were in the middle of it, it just seemed natural to make a band out of that material.”
There are no rules when it comes to starting a Killiam Shakespeare song. It could begin with a lick, a rhythm or during a lengthy jam session. That’s what happened with 2016’s mixtape Killiam Season 1, and again on the cut-and-paste bop of “Crispus Attucks” on A Town Called Elsewhere. They went to the house of famed DJ Jazzy Jeff, of Fresh Prince fame, and went to work.
“We first ran into him backstage at a Wawa Fourth of July show, and we had a track on us — this song, ‘How Philly Used to Sound’ — he loved it, and the relationship just blossomed.” They got along so well that Killiam Shakespeare even played 2017 European summer shows with Will Smith and Jazzy as the Overbrook rap legends’ band.
Despite the duo being an emotive, experimental, all-instrumental outfit, A Town Called Elsewhere — more layered and produced than its predecessors — punctuates its sound with the contributions from vocalists Bilal and Chris Turner, as well as “penetrating singer and multi-instrumentalist” Amber Navran. “We sent her the track, and she sent it back with her playing flute, sax, and so much more in terms of the melody,” said McKie, still in awed surprise. “Bilal did the same thing on ‘The Circle’ — made our melodies his — with that total soul throwback sound.”
Bernhard believes that A Town Called Elsewhere shows off the fruits of the duo’s labor as producers as well as players, as the new album “is deeper in terms of melody and texture. We’ve grown since the first project, what with everything from analog synths and real strings. And the good thing is, you’ll be able to tell, too, when we play live how much we’ve grown together.”