One minute and forty-eight seconds into a video for George Morris’ song, “Fuck It,” directed by Jesse Shepherd-Bates, the singer can be spotted standing in front of a wall, staring intently at the camera, and holding a baby in his arms. I have seen this video probably 6,000 times and I have always been overwhelmed with confusion about this paternal scene. That is, until I saw Morris perform at The Magic Stick on Saturday, September 28, 2013.
George Morris & The Gypsy Chorus drape themselves across the stage and let their sound follow suit by unraveling its delicate fabric upon our ears. I hear everything at once and am at a loss for words. The band performs such stellar songs as “Nine Lives” and “Girls on Parade” with such vocal crispness and rhythmic perfection that they seem too good to be live.
Even for a band with a stated “leader,” as it were, this group contains members who could very easily be making their own agendas. AJ Nelson, the bassist, carries the pulse on each track, adding passionate motion to stage right. The keyboardist extraordinaire Helena Kirby pours her entire being into the keys before her with grace and diligence on stage left. Behind them, Zach Pliska casually puts every drum to use with intense precision that is simultaneously impressive as all get-out and super annoying (because it’s as frustrating as someone beating you at a videogame while eating Cheetos and petting their dog at the same time). I imagine each of these three could be performing alone on this stage right now and doing a bang-up job at entertaining the audience. But instead, they choose to fulfill a greater musical role by supporting one another and the man behind the words.
choose to fulfill a greater musical role by supporting one another and the man behind the words.
And there he is, of course, standing firmly at the front of it all. Morris moves about in subtle surges, proving himself to be one of those singers whose voice comes from his toes and rises up out of his pores without asking. But the surges are less forceful than they are gentle. Morris’ voice is uniquely angelic and as serene as a lullaby, even at its most outraged. All of that is to say, snaps for Jesse’s video production. I would love to have George Morris hold my baby.*
Periodically on stage the bandmates will look at each other whimsically. Kirby will flash her dazzling smile to Pliska and Nelson intermittently, and they will smile back. Then, after “Girls on Parade” she will look to the crowd and yell, “We love love! Don’t you love love?” Finally, a few songs later Morris will walk up to Nelson and hug him in front of us all without saying a word. While at this point it appears as if the crew has spent their entire childhoods on the same couch watching “One Saturday Morning” before playing laser tag, it turns out that they didn’t all know each other that well before uniting musically. Morris sits me down after the show (not really, but I like to think this is actually how the story went) and tells me that this band is only three or four months old (which is astounding to me), and that before that he had only worked with Nelson and Pliska on other musical endeavors. Prior to creating the Gypsy Chorus, Morris was, in fact, going solo much of the time and exploring his own musical identity.
“I’ve been trying to write music since I was probably ten years old,” Morris explains. The musician grew up in the Waterford and Commerce areas, where he explored music at a young age by trying to collaborate with cafeteria mates as early as his middle school years. “My first real band was in high school,” Morris declares upon noting my obvious awe. Morris is modest.
Though he says he hopes his music style has changed a great deal since the cafeteria days, there is one sentiment that will forever thrive in his music: “My philosophy has always been just to try and concentrate on writing good melodies.” From the complex phrases of “Call Girl,” to the more calming predictability of “Old Friends,” Morris’ Magic Stick set shows this auditory foundation. The artist makes these varying melodies the basis of his work, and, as he further states, “I’ve always tried to do that no matter what type of music I’m trying to make.”
Morris’ writing process thus begins with a prominent tonal expression. But how does this melody come to life? “It’s spontaneous,” Morris reveals. I imagine the singer/songwriter kneeling on a knoll somewhere in England (in proper poetic fashion), feeling the wind upon his cheeks and the grass between his toes. Suddenly, Mufasa appears (this is where it gets less clear, as I’m not sure why Mufasa would need to urgently speak with Morris) and says, “Look inside yourself, George,” and then suddenly Morris’ pen is on the staff paper and he can’t stop writing. Within minutes, the page is filled with notes that traveled to his soul because they wanted to. I could be wrong about this scene, but it does seem plausible. “After that moment, though,” he continues, “then I sit down and just flesh it out.”
“My philosophy has always been just to try and concentrate on writing good melodies.”
But once one has found one’s melody, one must always consider one’s television. What does television have to do with music, you ask? Well, everything. Duh.
“Honestly, I’ll write to TV shows, or, I don’t know… Romantic Comedies. Like, the end of [them], you know, when either everything’s going horribly or everything’s coming back together.” Yes, that’s correct, readers: George Morris is inspired by the movies you hope no one finds out you watched in your bed while eating Ben & Jerry’s by yourself. Not only that, he pairs these with his essential ethereal tones to make you regret ever having been embarrassed by your TV-based feelings in the first place!
Morris then turns to me seconds later and says very frankly, “There’s a CSI song.” And I suddenly get really nervous for the world because I realize that none of us are as awesome as this guy is. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” as Dante would say.
Before forming George Morris & The Gypsy Chorus, our fearless leader had actually been doing solo shows for a year or so with these same wonderful tracks. When asked why he chose to integrate his phenomenal music makers, Morris smirks slightly and says, “Well, I got tired of playing by myself.” He chuckles a bit, and adds, “And I wanted more energy.” To me, the word ‘energy’ kind of encompasses the entire idea of Morris and his Gypsy Chorus because it very clearly reveals a mission for the band as a whole to be a living organism. If the singer had said that he collaborated with these artists in an effort to add more volume, strength, or power to his music, the music itself would be less significant. He would then be using this band to demand that his message be heard by his audience without any possibility of them misunderstanding. But Morris’ message is one whose foundation is, and only needs to be, itself. The band is there to make the message mean something to each listener individually. “And,” he adds, “they do their own thing; they’re all putting their own twists on it.” This energy toward the audience and between each other is what makes George Morris & The Gypsy Chorus the jubilant band family that I saw on stage earlier.
Nelson saunters up near the end of our conversation and chimes in to help Morris further explain to me the band’s sound. “It’s tough because I feel like the definitions of genres are always changing,” he explains. The friendly bassist goes on to illustrate how vastly different the word “indie” is now than it was when he first got into “indie” music. Morris agrees and the two try to explain how much they don’t understand about music labels anymore and how they would almost always rather listen to The Walkmen than MGMT. We talk for probably fifteen minutes about this until Nelson finally looks up at me and asks, “What was the question?”
These guys know exactly what they’re talking about when it comes to the musical world, and for that, I believe they have the upper hand over their “indie” competition. But they finally agree that their sound is based on a combination of very different musical acts: The Beatles, Radiohead/Thom Yorke, The Walkmen, Jack White, and The Velvet Underground. “For me it was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles,” explains Morris. “Then I got really discouraged because I couldn’t write a song as good as any of those songs. Then I heard The Velvet Underground and that showed me a different way to make music.” As for their other influences, Nelson declares, “Radiohead is almost like The Beatles, where you just can’t even attempt to do anything like that, and you’re always going to be let down. But ‘The Eraser’ (Thom Yorke’s solo album) had obtainable melodies.” Morris and Nelson quite obviously treasure the musicians who came before them immensely and eternally.
The singer takes a break from explaining how the past has affected his cherished Gypsy Chorus to give me some sneak peeks into their very bright future. “We are putting an EP together that will come out at some point and in some form,” he explains. “That will all be leading up to a record eventually. I’m not sure how it’s going to come out or what, but sometime next year.” Furthermore, the band is also playing one of their tunes at the TEDx Detroit event on Wednesday, October 2 (guys, that’s tomorrow!). Finally, they plan to open for Jessica Hernandez at St. Andrew’s Hall on November 27, 2013, so you should probably go to this show if you have a brain.
Beyond just musically, the band has been progressing artistically in many ways, as well. Morris has recently given good friend Jesse Shepherd-Bates the reigns to make another music video for the band’s awesome tune, “Girls on Parade.” “Jesse just chose it,” he explains. “He just showed up at my house one day and said he bought a camera and was shooting a video for the song.” So, of course, Morris simply said, “okay,” and since then the singer explains, “it’s all Jesse.”
Morris did have his doubts about the videos at times, simply because he felt he wasn’t knowledgeable enough to assist with such tasks. “But,” he continues, “I’m really impressed with how Jesse has just kind of jumped into it. He learned on the fly and is turning out some really impressive stuff. All of his videos look spectacular, and this is the first time he’s ever really done it.” So, with a director like that, Morris feels confident that his creation will be preserved and admired. Jesse’s video for the band’s catchiest track, “Fuck It,” is a superb example of the director’s mastery. If I lived in the smart house of the Disney Channel Original Film “Smart House,” I would definitely opt to have this video play on my bedroom walls instead of that one B*Witched video.
Going back and forth between solo work and close-knit bands with hit videos, Morris’ musical career has certainly been an exceptional, and consequently wild, ride. He admits that much of the wonder he has experienced as a musician has to do with his place of residence. While he feels that, at times, “Detroit can be a hard place to make any art,” as, “it’s very critical,” he explains that musicians just need to have a little more confidence here than they might in other places. “I think the talent in Detroit is incredible.” He declares, however, that, “because of that, it’s a hard place to play sometimes. Because even if there are so many musicians around here, at a lot of the shows everybody is standing still.” While the audience can sometimes seem uninterested, Morris explains, “You have to understand that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and that they’re just listening to you.”
“It’s when they leave that it’s bad,” he laughs.
Detroit then proves itself not only a teacher of self-worth, but a place where that worth can easily flourish. “Detroit is unlike the majority of cities,” Morris continues, “and I think everybody takes it for granted because they just assume that it’s like this everywhere.” Morris explains that “In a lot of places, if you want to see a rock show, you go to one venue. Then a metal venue, maybe. And maybe a folk venue, or something. That’s all you get to choose from. Here there are tons of places that constantly host different kinds of bands.” Being in a band whose genre he and Nelson will later agree to call “alternative indie pop rock (with a little electro),” Morris would feel slightly unappreciated in lands of black and white. Having this realization, Morris talks about his city with an overarching sense of love and sanctity. He is grateful for this often-dreary place because it has given him a chance to be himself and feel valued as such.
If you are not yet entirely amazed by George Morris & The Gypsy Chorus I must inform you of the two most important facts about them: 1. George Morris plays sports with adults at the YMCA as his day job, and 2. Bassist, AJ Nelson helps his dad make granite ping-pong tables that are worth a lot of money. Enough said.
*If I had a baby, of course. Which is not the case.