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Holly Pyle of House of Stairs Shares Her Obsession with Looping Her Vocals

Holly Pyle of House of Stairs Shares Her Obsession with Looping Her Vocals
In Pound For The Sound, we get technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature tones.

Holly Pyle is an extremely talented singer and composer. She is a big time outside-the-box thinker, and is constantly pushing the barriers of vocal melodies in her music. When she sings, it sounds like the smooth richness of Billie Holiday mixed with beautiful fluttering tones of Merrill Garbus. It is truly a sound of her own. She is the main songwriter for her outfit House of Stairs, and she describes their music as "a quartet of multi-dimensional jazz musicians that mix elements of pop and progressive soul with electronic instruments and looping devices."

When she sings, people stop and listen, as Pyle is a commander of sound. She sets the tone for her songs, and the stage, by letting a release of vocal harmonies fill the room, and it sounds as though there would be four or five singers with her on stage. However, when, and if, you decide to open your eyes and come back to reality, it's just her making all that vocal melody happen with her Boss RC 505 Loop Station.

If you are looking for live jazz, then look no further. Holly and the rest of The House of Stairs (Garrison Jones, Stephen Avalos, and sometimes Shea Marshall) can be seen gigging around town at classy establishments, like every Wednesday at The Vig Arcadia, every third Monday at The Womack, and every third Tuesday at Lost Leaf. However, that is usually just the trio of keys, drums, and vocal looping. They only do the quartet for the feature shows, so keep your eyes peeled.

Currently, House of Stairs is working on recording an album and are playing at Phoenix Pride on April 1. New Times was lucky enough to get some words in before the madness ensues.

New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?

Holly Pyle: As a band, tons of loops. Vocal loops. Keyboard loops. Multiple keyboards. Polyrhythms. It’s dense. I use the Boss RC505, our keyboard player Garrison uses a Line 6 M9. We’re advocates of having everything live and without a click. Live looping with occasional delay/reverb effects helps make the three- to four-piece band have a fuller sound with more depth, [like] the 1950s in space.

What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?

The loop station is my main gear and easy to love. It’s greatly expanded my relationship with music and songwriting, plus it’s been a total life changer in musicianship, specifically with strengthening rhythm and intonation. If you suck, the machine reminds you over and over again until you get it right.

Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
I plan to acquire much more vocal gear over the years. … I initially started with a Boss RC20 but found the two channels limiting, plus it’s not hand-friendly at all. ... I was gifted the Boss RC505 back in early 2014 and have been hooked ever since. I’ve been told I’d have much more range with a few other devices, but I like the creativity that comes out of the 505’s limitations. I’ve found a surprising amount of loop hacks inside the device. ... I found a way to have 10 channels instead of 5, transpose specific tones, alter the lengths of each channel, take channels out of sync, reverse. ... I’m still learning more about it all the time.

You recently shared a video with New Times for your song “Autopilot” that will be on your forthcoming record.  Just love it was so creepy and so cool. Can you please describe what your writing process for this tune and how you make it work live?

Autopilot started as random loop jamming at home, singing an improvised melody and then improvising harmonies over it, I often stumble upon progressions I like this way. During the jam I was mumbling "autopilot cause a riot" and it stuck. I brought in the chord progression/loop idea to the band along with the bassline/melody and the guys adapted the rest. Lord Kash of The Stakes was happy to add a verse over the concept as well. It’s a song that tries to paint a strip club and a war zone in the same poetic frame: the intention is to address the insidious damage that can come from desensitizing oneself in damaging environments. To make the song work live, the initial loop is sung a cappella to avoid band interference in the loop. The autopilot hook in the middle works the same way; recently we’ve added live beat-boxing to the loop sections and have incorporated the station's "beat repeat" function to glitch the hook. ... [We are] still working on making the glitch smoother/more deliberate live; timing is a daily gamble. At the end loop, I add reverb effects for added creepiness.

What singers, and/or records, do you draw from when thinking about vocal looping? What is about them that you want to convey by being able to create so many different harmony loops, sounding anywhere from the likes of Billie Holiday to Merrill Garbus of tUnE yArDs?
I initially found out about looping from Cyrille Aimee (her video Nuit Blanche). I’ve been recording a cappella ideas and harmonizing them since I was about 10; to see someone do it live immediately inspired me to invest in a looping station. Theresa Andersson and Merrill Garbus of tUnE yArDs are also inspiring vocal loop pioneers, plus Reggie Watts. Outside of that, I was a total choir geek from elementary school through college; vocal harmony in general has been a strong part of my background. Also Philip Glass, Samuel Barber, Debussy, Steve Reich, Grizzly Bear, The Chordettes, The Mills Brothers, Bon Iver, Pattern is Movement, Laura Mvula, and many others being large influences to how I interact with harmony. I like to figure out how many notes I can get away with, both minimally and excessively. I want to be an instrument, this device enables that quite a bit.

House of Stairs is playing Phoenix Pride. What are you most excited for regarding Pride and representing Phoenix at such a large event?
We played Pride last year and it’s a blast. It’s a beautiful community and a place where we can express ourselves however we want. Weird, bold, dark, light, full spectrum.

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Henri Benard
Contact: Henri Benard