Indie dream pop and Indian rhythms collide in the band Tongues In Trees – John Schaefer, Soundcheck (WNYC)

Samita Sinha, Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray met as a trio in spring of 2013.

But the story of TONGUES IN TREES began in 2004, when Sunny and Samita had their first session in Sunny’s Harlem studio. Samita had just returned to New York from immersive study of Hindustani classical music in India, and was poised to dive into musical experimentation. Sunny was active in the city as a bandleader and drummer and was looking for a vocalist. His beats, informed by Indian rhythms, drum & bass and jazz, and her voice, at once raw and refined in spirit and expression, found immediate chemistry. They became key collaborators in one another’s projects over the next 3 years (Sunny Jain Collective, Kaash) before going in separate directions—Samita spent the next 5 years transforming tradition into her own vocal art, while Sunny created Red Baraat, the beloved 8-piece “dhol & brass” band.

By 2013 they were ready to meet again. After globe trotting heavily for several years as the dhol player for Red Baraat, Sunny wanted to delve back into drumset and create another avenue for expression. Meanwhile, Samita had been creating and composing performance works. Her solo vocal performance work, CIPHER, developed and produced by MAPP International, was about to launch its national tour. She was also composing scores for dance and performance (Fiona Templeton, Daria Fain, Preeti Vasudevan). She missed the collectivity and joy of making music with a band. They had a handful of sessions in Sunny’s Brooklyn studio, picking up where they left off, acquainting each other with their respective discoveries by improvising openly from images, rhythms, and traditional fragments that they would migrate and mutate.

Sunny knew Grey and had the thought to invite him in for a session—not because they needed a guitarist, but because Grey’s musical sensibility and personality were compelling. Grey had performed with Meshell Ndegeocello, Tyondai Braxton and Colin Stetson and was, and still is, a frequent collaborator with So Percussion. He also currently co-leads itsnotyouitsme with Caleb Burhans, which has released four albums on New Amsterdam Records. Full circle back to spring 2013, to the trio’s first musical meeting: the first note the trio struck unfolded into a 30-minute improvisation. It was clear that each knew how to lead and how to support, and each had a unique compositional approach rooted in their own instrument.

After many months of improvising, composing, developing, rehearsing and performing shows in New York City, Tongues in Trees recorded their debut album, Parallel. Recorded in February 2014 in Brooklyn at Valleau Studios, Parallel is a testament to the chemistry and eclectic sound of this band of three. The chant-like and cyclical nature of the song “Hurricane” is rooted in the Sufi rhythm dhammal, something Sunny has been studying intently for a few years now as a dhol player. As a whirling dervish reaches for a trance state, “Hurricane” spins out of control before reaching the eye of the storm. Also, there was a tense discussion that occurred during a break during the recording that lingered into the sound booths and the emotions of each of the musicians. They let their conversation play itself out through sound, and “Voltage,” the album’s most improvised and electric track, was born. “Love Letter,” one of the most beautiful gems on the album, was initiated at the very start of the recording session. As the band was warming up and getting levels for their headphone mixes, Samita started singing the song she recalled from Sun Ra And His Arkestra’s album, Interplanetary Melodies. The band had never played it before and Sunny and Grey had never even heard it before. Grey was immediately struck and asked the engineer to start recording. No road map, no vision, just a trio in a blind place, walking this delicate clear melody to some safe cosmic end. “Love Letter” showcases the band at its most exposed and intimate moment.

When it came time for each member to name albums to reference during the post-production of the record, each came from the perspective of their own instrument, with their own individual take on the whole and each of its parts might resemble. Influences on the sonics of the band’s first record run far and wide, and include Bill Withers, Black Keys, Okinawan folk master Seijin Noborikawa, Deerhoof, Bjork, Flying Lotus, and The Cure. Despite and perhaps because of their disparate influences and points of view, the band took many months and great care to mix/master, and they did it with the best—Hernan Santiago (TV on the Radio, Ashford & Simpson, N’Dea Davenport) & Michael Fossenkemper (David Byrne, Kaki King, Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins). Sunny, Grey and Samita are magnetic forces in parallel, at times attracting and at times repelling, but always in line with one another.

Parallel, the debut album by Tongues in Trees, was released October 23, 2015.