On a recent Saturday morning, the only denizens in this Petaluma office park are gathered in a conference room with doughnuts and apple juice. The whiteboard in the small room shows song titles and chord changes, and the room is cluttered with guitar amps, drums, keyboards, microphones and speakers. Trebuchet are about to get down to business.
The four band members are veterans of the Sonoma County music scene. But Trebuchet, arguably the most popular group any of them has been in thus far, sounds nothing like their previous endeavors. So what do they sound like? "We get that a lot," says Lauren Haile, who plays keyboards. "I don't know how to answer that."
Guitarist Navid Manoochehri chimes in. Since each member sings on nearly every song of their latest release, Carry On, he suggests maybe a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young connection, but shakes his head after a second thought. It's Eliott Whitehurst, another guitarist, who makes the analogy they all agree on. "You wanna know what we sound like?" he asks. "Just search YouTube for 'Scott Stapp singing the national anthem at NASCAR.'"
Laughter erupts in the conference room at the comparison to Creed's lead singer, whose bravado and frat-boy attitude couldn't be further from Trebuchet's sound and demeanor. But the question remains unanswered, so the band answers in a song. Rehearsal starts with the a cappella "How Can I Keep from Singing" before launching into "Lay It Out," a three-minute powerhouse driven by pounding drums and a catchy guitar riff. Haile's rich alto takes the lead, with the boys' voices, including that of her husband, Paul Haile, supporting her above and below her vocal range.
These are the first two tracks on Carry On. It's their second album, and, as one might expect, it's more mature though less definable, as far as genres are concerned. It might end up in the catch-all "indie" section at a record store, next to bands like Grizzly Bear, the Decemberists and Mumford & Sons, or be given a label like "post-folk" or "harmonious indie" by trendsetting webzines like Pitchfork.
It's a total change from the group most of them had previously been in. The long, experimental instrumental songs of Not to Reason Why, a band that included all members of Trebuchet except Whitehurst, are conspicuously absent. "We thought, 'Let's do the complete opposite of that,'" says Manoochehri. The voices of all four are central parts of Trebuchet's unique sound, with the band trading off lead vocal duties song by song.
The four studied music at Sonoma State University, singing together in choirs for many years. "We're music nerds," says Lauren Haile. That might explain the wide variety of instruments on Carry On. Drums, acoustic and electric guitars, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, piano, organ, bass and, of course, voice. "Eliott changes instruments on, like, every song," says Haile.
Carry On is rich and dense with texture. Like Brahms or Sufjan Stevens, Trebuchet's music is thick and layered. This makes parts like the vulnerable ukulele and voice that open the track "Stay Close" stand out even more. And for the 30 seconds when it explodes with big drums, guitars, sweeping mandolin and vocals that sound like they were recorded in a concert hall, the song can evoke tears.
This is a theme on Carry On. Many songs that start out calmly or delicately turn into all-out sing-alongs by the last minute or so. "The End" is one of those sing-alongs. With a powerful, wordless vocal melody sung in unison, it grabs the audience when played live, and it doesn't let go. The ending refrain, "And in the end you're all alone," is surprisingly cathartic to sing. We can't predict for the future, it says, but we can at least plan for the worst.
And with that, the worst that can happen is we end up being pleasantly surprised.