Making Sound Waves

During a muggy week in June 2009, Angelo Peters ’10, Bobby Spellman ’10, Andrew Klein ’10, and three others convened in a small wooden cabin on the shores of Cayuga Lake. The group recorded music all week, pausing only for the occasional barbeque or to have a drink on the dock that jutted from the shoreline.
Crammed into the first floor of the unfurnished house, they experimented, trying different sounds and styles—even incorporating the ambient noise of nearby trains. These recordings, dubbed the “lake house sessions,” were the nascent tracks of a band that came to be known as the Big Mean Sound Machine.
Peters, Spellman, and Klein—who play bass, trumpet, and drums, respectively—had all crossed paths before. Performing in different bands at Ithaca College, they got to know each other through various degrees of separation.
“We were all friends who wanted to play music in a band together,” Peters says. “This is what has made it special for as long as it has been.”
Over the years the band has slowly added and dropped members. Currently a total of 15 musicians are on call. Although the core group lives in and around Ithaca and attended the college, some of the musicians live as far away as Boston or New York City. Many of them have second jobs: some teach private music lessons and one manages a restaurant in Manhattan.
To accommodate the range of schedules, Peters, who spearheads the group along with Klein, books shows and communicates the dates through Facebook or email. Band members who can attend opt in, and the leaders ensure a balanced composition of instruments. The members of Big Mean Sound Machine characterize the band as “Ethio-jazz”: a fusion of Afro-beat and jazz with Latin influences. But the key is that it makes people move.
“We ultimately got together because we had become sick of playing music that didn’t make people dance,” Peters insists. “We wanted people smiling, dancing, and partying at our shows.”
Klein adds, “One of the crucial messages offered by Afro-beat is ‘forget your problems and dance.’ A rule for us is that we have to have a party on stage. If we’re not partying or enjoying ourselves or having a blast, how is anyone else in the room going to do that?”
Last year the band raised money through Indiegogo, a crowd-funding website, and released their second, full length studio album, Marauders, to a positive response. In the same year the band released the music DVD Dr. Iguana, recorded and filmed live at Electric Wilburland, a studio near Ithaca that is owned by Grammy-winning sound engineer Will Russell. Big Mean Sound Machine has since recorded another album’s worth of material that the band expects to release in the spring.
But their real passion lies in live shows. Last year, the band performed more than 50 times. This year, if everything goes to plan, Big Mean Sound Machine will play 75 shows. Next year they’ll aim for 100 and in the near future, according to Klein, they’ll work on the possibility of an international tour.
Klein intones, “This is a beautiful and intense form of music, and few things would give me more pleasure than to share that with as many people as I'm able. We’re really not that big or that mean.”