Koa throws just about everything but the kitchen sink into its music, and even then the group is looking for more ways to keep its sound fresh and innovative.
The group, which features Chase Bader on acoustic guitar and vocals, Conor Kelly on electric guitar and background vocals, Ryan McClanahan on percussion, Alex Mathews on saxophone, Ryan Ladd on bass and Will Youngclaus on drums, display a breadth of music that cannot be matched. With musical styles and influences varying among the band members, it’s their differences that make Koa so original.
How did Koa form?
Kelly: “Koa began with Chase and I. We were writing songs together and wanted to form a band. Chase and I have been writing songs for a long time. We’ve actually gone to school together since fifth grade. One day, we heard Ryan Ladd playing on campus and had him come in and rehearse with us. After that, the three of us kind of just met everyone along the way. We met Will and Alex in the caf one day, and everyone else followed. It’s funny; I met Ryan McClanahan one day when I went to use the bathroom. I saw the toilet water vibrating and went to where I heard bass playing, and the rest was history.
You spend the summer touring across the U.S. What were some of the highlights?
Bader: “Definitely selling out Aberdeen, N.C. It was a hometown show for Will, and so many people came out for it. Also, on the first day of the tour in Birmingham, we aaccidentallyleft McClanahan at a music shop.
Ladd: “Another big date was our show in California. It was a hometown show in Placerville. The crowd was going crazy for Koa.”
Bader: “Probably the most memorable date of the tour, though, was our show in Fayetteville, N.C. We played at this bar where most of the customers were bikers. We saw guys roll in on Harleys and even have machine guns. We had a pre-show huddle and said that if we didn’t play loud and fast, they’re going to kill us. The coolest part about that show was that we were not the appropriate band to play there, but they asked us to come back. We were the only ones not wearing leather or playing Jimi Hendrix covers.”
A big part of Koa has been its branding, such as the Koalition and your elephant logo. Can you elaborate on your strategy to connect with your fans through these?
Bader: “The elephant logo is a description of our sound. It’s the biggest land animal, which is like how big our sound is. We have a hard time describing our sound to people. We used to tell people something like rock or soul. I find that having a big image like that is important to help people link to our songs. Being attentive to what makes us different is a big part of our branding. The Koalition is meant to bring a sense of community and connect with our audiences.”
Ladd: “I really feel one of our biggest goals is to connect with listeners. At our last show, people were literally onstage with us while we played, and I could feel the feeling of community our music brought.”
Youngclaus: “I feel the marketing strategy is meant to let people know that they are helping us and contributing to a part of what makes our music.”
You guys are in the process of recording your full-length debut. What’s the process been like, and what all should listeners expect?
Mathews: “For some backstory, we released our single called “False Calls” in May, which is the first single off this new album. It’s been an amazing experience the past couple months finishing all the tracking. Part of the magic is some of these songs were written as long as two years ago, while others have only been a couple months. There’s so much care and intricacy put into it. Underlying themes are throughout the album. We’ve been recording at Oceanway Studios and are fortunate enough to be there through Belmont. A couple of friends of ours are helping with the mixing, but we’re self-producing it, and the album is turning out to be 11 songs.”
You recently started working with Jordan Burger of Fleming Artists, a major booking agent in Nashville, Tenn. How have you guys evolved as band since you started working with him?
Bader: “Jordan came to us after being referred to by other people. We’ve always wanted to be a live band ,and the goal of being that is to be playing as many dates as possible. So for us, we haven’t even tapped into that, but our future is playing the festival circuit. We want to be playing Knoxville one weekend and Birmingham the next. Experimenting with our sound and seeing new faces has been a priority, and Jordan has helped facilitate that. We’ve got some big things coming up in the spring on some big stages. It’s really exciting to see where we can go with the help of someone who’s a professional.”
What are your biggest individual influences?
Ladd: “Victor Wooten, the bass god, has been a big influence. On my 14th birthday, I was playing bass on the street near where he was playing one of his shows. I couldn’t get tickets to his concert, so I just decided to play some bass on the street and see if people would appreciate it. I was talking with a homeless guy outside, and all of a sudden Victor Wooten comes out and starts talking to the homeless guy and me. One thing led to another, and Victor asked me to come on stage with him and jam. The fact that he took 30 minutes to spend time with me changed my life, and I wanted to pass that feeling on musically.”
Mathews: “One of my earliest musical influences was Vince Giraldi. There’s just something about his music that always moves me. The more I’ve grown in music, the more I have been about expressing emotion, and I think he’s a master of doing that. Saxophone-wise, Coltrane has been a driving influence. George Harrison’s experimentation in music has something I’ve tried to incorporate into my music. The way we write and how each member can bring something new to the table really resonates with that. Also, Kermit the Frog, just because he’s awesome.”
McClanahan: “I grew up playing percussion and piano. It’s cool to say percussion is my main instrument because it encompasses so many options. Vince Giraldi has also impacted me. My drumming is more melodic and musically influenced rather than focusing on holding down a rhythm. Instrumentally, Santana, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye’s percussionists have taught me so much about funk and traditional rock.”
Kelly: “Overall, my favorite musician is Eric Clapton. Dwayne Allman has had a huge influence on my slide guitar playing. More recently, I’ve been getting into Qawwali music, which is traditional music from India. Jimmy Herring has also been a recent influence.”
Youngclaus: “I’ve been playing drums for 17 years, but the first time I really got into them was when I was 9. My dad bought a 1960s vintage kit. He’s a drummer who played traditional grip and laid down the jazziest groove I had ever heard. I was so amazed I would just sit in front of the drum set and watch him play. I’ve always been more impressed with drummers who can lay down a solid groove and keep it tight rather than do a bunch of fancy crap. That’s what really turned me onto bands like AC/DC. Since coming to Belmont, though, I’ve found myself being more involved in jazz and R&B.”
Bader: Like Will, I started out playing drums. The running joke is that we have three drummers and Koa, which makes the rhythm section the tightest it can be. I’ve really been influenced by Bonam, Mitch Mitchell and Elvin Jones. I started writing in eighth grade/high school, but hearing “The White Album” by the Beatles changed my life and songwriting style. It showed me that saying so much with so little is beautiful, so I take on a minimalist perspective.”
What other big plans do you have for the future? Any goals you guys want to accomplish?
Kelly: “The biggest upcoming event for is our headlining show at Mercy Lounge on Nov. 14. We also have some shows lined up for this summer that we can’t disclose yet but will be announcing in the near future. The album and our headlining show have been our biggest focus. We’re really hoping for a big turnout on the 14th, and we will be trying to sell so many tickets by ourselves. There’s also a big show coming up in Atlanta, and we’ll be playing across the South in the coming months.”
Be sure to check out Koa’s headlining show on Nov. 14 at Mercy Lounge and keep up with the band on social media.
PHOTOS: Hadley Sintic