The accidental all-girl, multicultural band that rocks

CorrespondentApril 11, 2013 

Heliotropes.

COURTESY OF JESSICA AMAYA

  • More information

    Who: Esben and the Witch, with Heliotropes

    When: 8 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham

    Cost: $9-$11

    Details: 919-901-0875; motorcomusic.com

  • More information

    Who: Esben and the Witch, with Heliotropes

    When: 8 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham

    Cost: $9-$11

    Details: 919-901-0875; motorcomusic.com

Bands usually start when two people decide to get together and begin making music. That was certainly the case with Jessica Numsuwankijkul and Amber Myers, founding members of the Brooklyn-based band Heliotropes.

“It was fairly unserious,” says Numsuwankijkul, on the phone from the band’s in-transit tour bus. “Like, Amber and I were just sort of tinkering around on, like, synthesizers and just making noise.”

The former 9-to-5ers – Myers worked in development at Pratt Institute and Numsuwankijkul was an editor at DC Comics – were exploring their experimental, musical sides by trying to play Brian Eno songs on analog instruments.

“That was kind of the direction we were going in at first,” says Numsuwankijkul. “And then we just sort of discovered that it was too hard and that we should just start a rock band.”

Numsuwankijkul put out a Craigslist ad looking for musicians, eventually getting together with drummer Cici Harrison and bassist Nya Abudu. With guitarist Numsuwankijkul and percussionist Myers sharing vocals, Heliotropes was born – well, not quite.

“When we all first started playing, actually it sounded terrible,” says Numsuwankijkul. “So I think that it just took us a bit of trial and error and going out and embarrassing ourselves in Brooklyn.”

It’s taken three years for the Heliotropes to come together and establish their psych-rock/garage-band sound. Not to mention that it’s taken that long for Numsuwankijkul to study classic rock riffs and become the bona-fide, guitar-wielding riot grrrl she is today.

“I would definitely try to figure out, you know, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana songs on acoustic guitar,” she says, acknowledging the band’s Clinton-era influences.

“Yeah, I think it’s good we all grew up in the ’90s. I think that if we put more thought into it, we’d probably sound like something else.”

Of course, what makes Heliotropes most distinctive is that they’re an all-girl, multicultural band – Numsuwankijkul is Thai, Abudu is black, Harrison is Indian and Myers is white. They’re a walking Benetton ad with instruments. “Yeah, they should totally give us an endorsement,” jokes Numsuwankijkul.

Yet they say their backgrounds rarely have a role in how they create music.

“We don’t really think about it that much, actually,” says Numsuwankijkul .

“I think we’ve been asked before if it was a conscious thing – that we got together and we’re, like, four women that have got very different skin tones.”

Numsuwankijkul says that they weren’t even an all-girl band at first. “We used to have a guy in the band, actually,” she says. Unfortunately, the guy had a job he wanted to concentrate on more.

The band generated a lot of buzz when they played at this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Rolling Stone put them on its list of “20 Must-See Acts” at the festival. They did six sets in three days, a different experience from the last time they were at SXSW.

“We went in 2011, and we played a couple of really casual, unofficial showcases,” remembers Numsuwankijkul. “It was a very different experience this time around. We had a great time, but this time it was remarkably more exhausting.”

Currently, they’re out there doing more shows, getting audiences in their corner so they’ll buy the band’s first, full-length album, titled “A Constant Sea,” set for release in June.

The Heliotropes continue to make noise, but unlike the noise they were tinkering around with when they first started, you can actually rock out to the noise they make today.

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