Before the members of Root and Stem retreat into their wood-paneled den to resume practice, the smoke-break bullshitting whips from topic to topic at typical young-guys-in-a-band pace.
"That sounds bad. Are the guys playing with dolls?" Root and Stem singer and guitarist Jim Embry asks cellist Mike Harte, who is directing the orchestra in a local production of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.
"It's like, the dolls are female," drummer Jared Bond interjects. "Dudes and Chicks."
"It's wrong to say 'chicks,'" Embry says.
"It's also wrong to say 'boys and girls' in the same sentence with a creepy eye, Jim," Harte says. He lurches into the circle with a crooked look in his eye. Everyone laughs.
"That's an orgy face," violinist Chaski Dye says.
The chatter takes a new turn. "You know, I heard that the technical definition for orgy is four people in the same room with their shoes off," Bond says.
"We could have band-practice orgies," bassist Alex Chapman says.
It's not unusual for young bands to riff, ridicule and joke — in fact, it's important. Banter builds camaraderie. And Root and Stem members are capable of matching their bullshitting with serious dedication to their craft.
The KC group began with Embry and Harte singing and jamming together on guitar and cello for four years before evolving into a solid duo. Slowly, the band acquired a drummer, a violinist and a bassist. It has been just eight months since the band's first performance as Root and Stem, in December 2009. Yet the trust, communication and skill on display are those of band members playing together much longer.
Part of this has to do with the members' musical credentials. Chapman, who joined in April, works as a studio bassist and audio engineer for L.A. Audio and Studio City. Before joining Root and Stem, Chapman mastered the band's self-titled live EP (released in April). Dye started violin lessons at age 5 and now works as a freelance composer and string arranger. Embry has been playing bass since age 9. Harte gives cello lessons and is the music director at Holy Trinity Catholic School. Bond was the drummer for Lawrence's late, lamented Josephine Collective.
When the band members recount their evolution, the word most often repeated is organic — something that Root and Stem's rustic name evokes.
"Everybody builds off of each other," Embry says. "We talk to each other through our music. Alex only joined three months ago, but the moment he came in and laid things down, it was like, 'You get it.'"
"One of the reasons we don't have to talk about many specific things is the fact that we are all trained in what we do," Chapman says. "We just know."
Dye concurs. "The sound was not agreed upon," the violinist says. "It just happened." Likewise, Bond says drumming against the classical instruments pushes him to play with more delicacy. "It opens up this new sensitivity that I never had growing up, playing loud," he says.
That sensitivity is on full display as the band practices. The yawning strings — cello and violin — open the music to a full swell, backed by Bond and Chapman's rhythm section. Chapman looks over at Bond, who clatters with the utmost precision, and unfurls a knotty, funky bass line (demonstrating why band members call him "the Noodler"). Embry's vocals filter through the dense, layered din with tender sensuality.
Words rarely interrupt practice, give or take the occasional bout of technical musicspeak that's in stark contrast to the comic dialogue you'll overhear when the band pauses to smoke or get fresh air. Organic is a good word to describe it, but unforced might be better. The members of Root and Stem understand the challenge they have undertaken, and they tackle it with a level of focus you might not expect from the five jokesters standing on a porch talking about orgies and the movie that made them cry.
The blend of classical and traditional folk isn't remarkable. (A portrait of Chopin hangs in the practice room, and pages of Bach sheet music litter the house.) Root and Stem's music stands out because of the way it vibrantly coalesces, and every member contributes, finding a democratic balance between natural flow and focused songcraft. It's music that aches with character. The members agree that trust is key to their unified musical vision. Embry quotes a friend: You don't have to be in a band with your friends, but you do have to be friends to be in a band.
"Most of my friends are musicians, but I didn't choose to play with them," Embry says. "I chose to be in this band. It's not something that I fell into doing. It's that this is exactly how I want it."