Inside the sound: Duo Grand Banks takes its improv to the masses

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Grand Banks duo Davis Salisbury and Tyler Magill have been partners in drone music since 2001. Their first label release, QB4: 1877-1896, is due on cassette from Oxtail Recordings on December 5. Photo: Publicity photo Grand Banks duo Davis Salisbury and Tyler Magill have been partners in drone music since 2001. Their first label release, QB4: 1877-1896, is due on cassette from Oxtail Recordings on December 5. Photo: Publicity photo

You can’t cover a Grand Banks song. Don’t even think about it. It’s not a question of chops or instrumental know-how. It’s about the unique relationship between the two musicians in the band, the growth of their friendship over the years and their approach to making sound together. “If somebody asks me what Grand Banks is, I call it textural improvisation,” says Davis Salisbury. With Tyler Magill, Salisbury has been playing music as Grand Banks since 2001. The two started the project while playing in other local bands together, christening their endeavor with a name that had been rattling around in Magill’s head for a while.

The band has evolved over the years, incorporating different instruments on and off, depending on what interests the duo at any given time. The sound has changed as well, shifting from assaulting noise to Grand Bank’s current approach, which touches on the description of sometimes melodic drone music. As in any creative relationship, there is a substantial amount of give and take between Salisbury and Magill.

“When we have been playing for a while, we’ll get to a point where I can’t tell who’s making the sounds, it’s just kind of manifesting itself,” Salisbury says. “That’s a really interesting creative place to be in. You’re in it and you like it and you want it to keep happening. But you’re also fighting the urge to make something happen. Getting too excited while playing in Grand Banks can often be a detriment to the music.”

From the audience, the experience of a Grand Banks show asks only for openness, curiosity and patience. Indeed, there remains a sustained interest in the band, both locally and further afield. “We have these people who are really supportive of it over the years. They just get it and appreciate that we make the effort,” says Salisbury. “I get to play for people who are willing to take the chance, to live inside the sound and try to appreciate where we’re coming from with it.”

Passages of sound can last for minutes and feel like hours, but the reverse is true as well. “The ability to play with time and people’s experience of time is fascinating to me and that’s really the only reason I play music,” admits Salisbury.

Similar to meditation, when a Grand Banks show works, it unlocks a way of being that seems removed from space and time. There is only the immensity of the sound, with little distraction from Salisbury and Magill, who are fairly introverted in their performance styles. “It doesn’t look like we’re doing anything,” says Magill. “We would play the same show whether there were people there or not.”

Now, as the band approaches its 15-year mark, Grand Banks is celebrating its first label release. Sure, it has released CD-Rs in the past, but nothing on a label. The album, titled QB4: 1877-1896, is comprised of 4-track and reel-to-reel recordings, and will be released on cassette this month by Oxtail Recordings. “It’s archival material in that we recorded it in 2001 or 2002, but we dug it up and it’s all been re-contextualized and collaged,” says Magill.

You won’t find anything resembling a single on a Grand Banks release. “I consider us primarily a live band,” says Salisbury. “We have a few things that we return to, but for the most part we just improvise live. So, even with these recordings, they are improvisations, but ones done without an audience.”

In the back of his mind, Salisbury admits that he always thought Grand Banks would play a show one day and the duo would meet a guy—maybe one who knew a guy—who would ask to release a Grand Banks album on a label. Recently, at one of his solo performances as Dais Queue, Salisbury met Mike Nigro from Oxtail Recordings, who expressed interest in releasing an album for him. Though Nigro’s interest was initially in Dais Queue, one thing led to another, and the forthcoming Grand Banks album found a home.

A cassette release show is scheduled for this week at an unannounced location, with Nigro and other musicians opening for the band—but it won’t be at a formal venue. In fact, the bigger local venues rarely invite Grand Banks to perform, and the pair almost never plays more than a few shows in Charlottesville per year.

“They don’t take chances on stuff like us,” says Salisbury. “I have no interest in being involved in shows where the main priority is making sure enough people show up to justify the fact that the venue booked the bands. I think it’s cultivating the side of music I’m not interested in participating in anymore.”

Salisbury and Magill continue to focus on what’s important to them as Grand Banks, challenging one another in their improvisations while creating work that they find interesting.

“Collaborative art is really hard, and it’s not fun all the time,” Davis says. “It’s a struggle, but that’s what’s been special about Grand Banks. Life gets hard for us, but Grand Banks is always easy. There are no words to express how much I get out of playing in Grand Banks. It’s one of the things I do that will never not be special. And I just hope everybody finds stuff like that in their life.”

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