Now in its 20th year, MoPOP’s Sound Off! is the premier 21-and-under music showcase in the Pacific Northwest. This year, we’re celebrating a milestone anniversary of the program, which has built upon an incredible legacy in the local music scene. Celebrate with us at 7 p.m. PT on Saturday, May 15 with a virtual music showcase featuring performances and interviews with eight artists from across our region.
Aurora Avenue is proof that necessity is the mother of invention. Forming a few months into the pandemic, the J-pop-influenced indie outfit with a 3-piece horn section has honed their bright pop songs in backyards and under carports. A culmination of the diverse music tastes of its members, Aurora Avenue blends their influences seamlessly into a sprawling, unique sound.
We took some time to get to know Aurora Avenue during filming at MoPOP ahead of Sound Off! 2021 on May 15.
How did Aurora Avenue get started?
Aurora Avenue (Koh Casaba): The band started, I think, early June . I posted something on my social media that I wanted to start a band with the music that I've been writing recently, and everyone came to me. I didn't go reach out to anyone. They all expressed interest. We started with, I believe, we started with seven and then Dom [Dominique Ocaña] came around when we realized that we need a powerhouse vocal on these songs, and we got her. It all worked out in the end.
So Aurora Avenue formed in June of last year, in the midst of a global pandemic?
Aurora Avenue (Koh Casaba): During the madness of the world, yeah. I missed playing music and kind of just needed a whole refresher on my life in general, just because it's like, everything's going on. We all know what was going on last year. So just like a complete 180 from 'how could I turn this terrible situation into something that I can have fun with and build? It all worked out in the end.
Aurora Avenue (Henry Parker): This is our first time playing inside a building. We only play in Koh's yard every weekend, and hearing ourselves like this was so cool.
Starting a band and creating music during this time, how would you characterize it?
Aurora Avenue (Gabi Meredith): I think almost the weirdest thing is that it feels normal because, at least for me, I've never been in a band before. So literally, it feels weird playing inside. I just think like, 'yeah, bands rehearse outside. That's what they do.' And we're so used to playing in the yard with this terrible mix, and now, especially coming here and hearing this professionally engineered mix, it was incredible. I guess the biggest issue is that it's been really hard to try to record like actual audio for albums and stuff. And that's kind of what we're trying to work on for after Sound Off! And especially with vaccinations, that'll be a lot easier.
Aurora Avenue (Henry Parker): We recorded our demos for auditioning for Sound Off! in November in the freezing cold through Koh's basement door; he had his door open and he'd sit in with his laptop on a stool with the mic hanging out of the door, my hands shaking, my saxophone out of tune. 'Uh, all right, take one!' You know? And to go from absolute ground zero to just high production value, this amazing opportunity, it's insane. And we've been really fortunate to have this happen and be a part of this and really have music be kind of what's gotten us through this past year as a group together. We've created a huge sense of community out of the eight of us here, and to have it at such a difficult time like last year and still going through it as we speak, it's been a really good foundational glue for all of us.
Honestly, going through such a difficult thing, like a global pandemic, no one in our generation has ever experienced that. No one in most generations ever experienced that. And so it was obviously a really down emotional time and this band coming together, it hasn't even been a year, and it couldn't have come at a better time for, I think all of us, collectively to create and be passionate about music. Again, it's really been the best community I've ever had, for real.
How would you describe your sound?
Aurora Avenue (Gabi Meredith): Originally when we were first rehearsing it was pretty much a straightforward indie pop band. But each rehearsal, as I feel like each member got more comfortable sharing their own inspirations and influences, it kind of added on and on. And it's kind of got to this point where our songs have so many influences. Like, I listen to progressive metal, so I've been influenced from that. And then a lot of people are in jazz band, so there's a lot of jazz influence. There's a lot of funk, you've got the funky rhythm guitar style. Our sound, a lot of it's influenced by J-rock and J-pop. It's kind of hard to describe it. I'd say mainly it's like an indie R&B jazzy type sound, but then there's so many individual influences. It's really hard to define it and each song varies so much too.
Aurora Avenue (Koh Casaba): Every song, in my opinion, is different. When I write the songs, I always take a different approach to all of them. Like, 'oh this genre, I want to write a song that's in that genre,' and then let everyone else build around that, which is more influences and genres. It creates, I would say, super unique sound.
Aurora Avenue (Gabi Meredith): I think that's what's so amazing about Koh as a band leader is he has full trust in every member and he gives them entirely creative freedom. Every time someone comes forward with an idea, he's never like, 'I don't think that'll work.' He's always accepting of it. And he's trying to build around it. Like, 'where would this work? Can we build a song around this?' And I think that's why everyone's personality shows through and makes the sound so, so unique.
Aurora Avenue (Henry Parker): Eight people makes a ridiculously unique collaboration of sounds and I think that everyone can find something to really enjoy about our music because it is so diverse.
Aurora Avenue (Dominique Ocaña): We all love it. We all love it. Everyone is like a super different person in this room, right? And so we bring a lot of that dynamic to our rehearsals. And I know that I joined the band because I was like, 'I love music. Never been in a band. They need a singer. I can sing!' Right? And so it was always just like bringing what you got, and because you love to bring it, you enjoy the experience.
Aurora Avenue (Henry Parker): It's a passion and a love for it. There's no like, 'God, I'm doing it! I want to get famous!' Or, 'I want to make money!' All of us signed up for this. We all made this choice, individually that this meant something to us and that we wanted to continue to pursue making this music because it made us happy. And we want to show people how happy it makes us feel and how powerful we think our music is. And we want to show that to other people.
Aurora Avenue (Gabi Meredith): To me, I think the biggest thing about music is that self-expression, that's entirely what it's like. You know, if you listened to a guitar part I wrote, it's like, 'that's a guitar part Gabi wrote' because your personality gets expressed through the music in a way. I feel like almost no other artform can do that.
What's your strangest music memory?
Aurora Avenue (Koh Casaba): I think I do have the one crazy story that made the band, in my opinion. On our second rehearsal ever, my neighbor came out and I was like, 'Oh man, he's probably angry at us because we're making too much noise.' So I walked over and I'm like, 'Hey, is there a problem with noise? We can turn it down.' He was like, 'No, no, no. I used to be a sound engineer, and I have all these microphones and cables and monitors laying around my house and not being used. Do you want them?' And I was like, 'absolutely.' And I think that moment there, that's when we took it up a notch.
Aurora Avenue (Neizer Xavier Olivera): So scrap our other answer [about why Aurora Avenue makes music], we do it for him.
Aurora Avenue (Koh Casaba): Neighbor Tom, if you're out there, thank you.
Aurora Avenue (Michael Smithgall): I mean, if we influenced him that much to where he'd lend us all of that gear, I mean that has to mean something, right? We're definitely doing something right. So that definitely brought us from there to here.
This program takes a village to build, and we are grateful to The Looking Out Foundation and Mackie for their generous support of Sound Off! 2021.
We’d like to thank our community partners in helping to amplify the work of these young artists and for their support of Sound Off! 2021: KEXP, London Bridge, and The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter.