Local Wire

How a Jazz Group Became One of The Hardest-Working Bands in Phoenix

The day had begun dusty and dry — nothing a drink couldn’t fix — as night settled crisply over The Lost Leaf, while members of House of Stairs loaded  their gear inside. The stage was lit brothel-red and adorned with white Christmas lights, but the small, downtown bar was nearly empty save for the walls of surreal, smeared paintings of St. Mary and antiquated sculptures by Abe Zucca, who coincidentally has done a painting of the band.

The place was empty, but seemed to fill up the minute House of Stairs began playing. They opened with low, slow tones courtesy of Garrison Jones on keys, while lead singer Holly Pyle sampled and looped her voice into a muted, abstract soundscape. On another song, drummer Stephen Avalos, wearing a A Tribe Called Quest shirt, used the digital sampling pad next to his drumkit to create chattering, squirrel-like effects.

If House of Stairs looked tired, they didn’t show it. They had just gotten back from playing Prince covers at Crescent Ballroom, and even still had their wristbands on. They would play at Lost Leaf from 10 p.m. until the bar closed, a total of almost three hours. The following Saturday, they did a 75-minute concert before rushing to a four-hour private party right afterwards. A seven-hour New Year’s Eve set is their record for longest set. Tonight was, if nothing else, a testament to how long and hard this band gigs.

House of Stairs is Pyle, vocals; Jones, keys; Avalos, drums; and Shea Marshall, keys/sax/bass clarinet, also of The Sugar Thieves, who was absent that night. Marshall and Pyle recently married.

House of Stairs’ grooves are jazzy and soulful, and improvisation is central to their performance, which has earned House of Stairs a reputation as a “jazz” band. For what it’s worth, their music is often featured on local jazz station KJZZ, but their sound is closer to the ambient textures of Kid A-era Radiohead, while Pyle’s vocals most evoke Beth Gibbons of Portishead. The disparity in sound has led to somewhat of an identity crisis:

“Basically, jazz listeners don’t think we’re a jazz band,” Pyle tells New Times outside the venue. “And non-jazz listeners think we’re a jazz band. “

Whatever category they fit into, or don’t, House of Stairs have unique instrumentation. Not many jazz bands — or few bands in general — add in digital drums or live-mixed vocal loops over low-tempo poly-rhythmic riffs. And like any decent jazz band, they can do a mean cover. Similar to the M.C. Escher lithograph the group takes its name from, House of Stairs often takes two-dimensional pop songs like Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” and Thom Yorke’s “Eraser” and stacks them on top of each other to create illusionary new tunes.

“The weirdest cover is probably our Backstreet Boys/Ariana Grande mashup. We don’t do it as much anymore,” Pyle says. “My favorite is the Nine Inch Nails [“Closer”]/Michael Jackson [“Scream”] mashup, which we call ‘Nine Inch Jackson.’”
The band has approximately 20 all-original tracks, but keeps a growing book filled with more than 100 different covers the band cycles through and reinterprets. They take many liberties, often changing the key or meter completely or throwing in entirely different chords.

“It’s an ice breaker,” Pyle explains. “It’s getting that sense of intrigue combined with a sense of familiarity. Once that’s crossed, then we can dish all our original stuff, and there’s a foundation.”

“It’s kind of a necessity to keep our jobs actually,” Jones laughs.

It’s uncommon for a local band to support themselves entirely through music, especially having only started in August 2014, but House of Stairs have found a way to make ends meet by teaching private lessons and performing often, averaging between 15 and 20 shows a month, which means a lot of upscale restaurants. Now, House of Stairs are aiming that ambition toward a Southwest summer tour, followed by a full-length album they plan to record in the fall.

Last June, Stairs released their Step One EP, which opens with a cover of “Pannonica,” written by Thelonius Monk with lyrics by Carmen McRae. It’s airy and soothing, a fitting tribute to Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the prominent Rothschild scion who patronized Monk, Charlie Parker, and other jazz legends.

But it’s the original songs on the album that are most hard-hitting. Like its title implies, “Zoloft” wrestles with being too numb to feel, which Pyle says is autobiographical.

“I started getting panic attacks at work and filed my own disability claim for mental illness, went to a doc, got prescribed and diagnosed immediately, took antidepressants, and slept on my couch for a month straight,” Pyle says. “The meds felt worse, because I didn’t care about anything and didn’t feel like myself. I ended up resigning (claim not approved), ditching the meds, and worked at coffee shops and Guitar Center for a while until [I] got my confidence up enough to work on performing music full time.”

The dark, moody “Stop Sign” paces and ruminates before exploding with an even-handed crescendo, like Pyle is trying everything to hold her composure. When she performs this song live, her hands jerk with precise emphasis, slam-poet style. The lyrics deal with Pyle being sexually abused as a teenager and her struggle to overcome her victimhood.

“I was molested at age 15. It was not addressed by my family or reported, [and] the lack of tangible consequences really confused my feelings about it. I spent years feeling at fault; the other person was left to form his own consequences in his mind,” Pyle recalls. “[The song] ends up being very empowering, because the focus isn’t to ‘ruminate’ about suffering, but to give conscious time towards acknowledging a feeling in a real way so that I can move on to other aspects of life.”

Addressing the personal nature of her lyrics, Pyle adds, “If I felt my life was too private to talk about, I’d have no business writing music.”

Pyle says she once registered for a Vipassana meditation retreat in an effort to reconnect to her body.

“I applied, but didn’t get accepted, so I turned to songwriting as a DIY effort to reconnect,” Pyle explains. “The process is my therapy, a subconscious window to better understand a lot of suppressed feelings and situations. … My lyrics are sometimes very dense and strange, but to me it paints a picture of how complex our feelings and situations can be ... With that, I inherit more awareness about myself and surroundings and it gives me resolve.”

House of Stairs formed two summers ago, but their roots go back to when Avalos and Jones met at Scottsdale Community College in the jazz program.

“After that, we started to get together and write stuff and jam until 3 o’clock in the morning, playing like metal-ass sounding shit,” Jones recalls.

“I saw [Holly] at the Nash at a jam session sing this jazz standard that I have never seen a vocalist do like how she did it. I was just blown away,” Avalos says. “We [all] got together and jammed, even created songs that later we recorded and became songs. We had material from that first day … From that day … it’s been literally nonstop.”

View House of Stairs’ very packed schedule at www.houseofstairsmusic.com.
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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah