On again, off again
Grand Banks might be one of Charlottesville’s best-kept secrets. The duo of guitarist Davis Salisbury and keyboardist/singer Tyler Magill have been playing together for over 10 years, yet its discog-
raphy amounts to a handful of CD-Rs, and performances and recordings can go on hiatus for years at a time. But when Grand Banks gets together, dedicated followers anticipate some of the most transcendent, satisfying musical experiences around.
The group formed in 2001, after the dissolution of several other projects. “We were in a band together called 100 Dollars,” Salisbury said. “Then one of our band members moved away, and we became Galaga. Then somebody else moved away, and eventually it was just me and Tyler. And we still had a practice space, we were just trying to play music because all our bands had broken up.”
The pairing of keyboard and guitar may seem like a non-traditional line-up, but Grand Banks was less interested in playing traditional rock ‘n’ roll songs, and more intrigued by the possibilities of exploring the further reaches of drone, noise, and avant-garde music. According to Salisbury, “Tyler was one of the only other people I knew in town where, we could put on Sonic Youth’s Silver Sessions”—a 1998 EP consisting of 30 minutes of screeching, overwhelming feedback—“and say, ‘yeah, that’s one of the best things they’ve ever done.’ So our original rehearsals were just recreating that—I was plugging the guitar into the amplifier and turning it up really loud, and letting it drone. Tyler would plug a cheap keyboard in, and turn it all the way up.”
Though Magill is often brash and witheringly sarcastic, the soft-spoken Salisbury is one of the gentlest souls around, and between them they share a dedication and a carefulness that informs their improvisational work. They often jammed together, but the idea to form a proper band didn’t arrive until the afternoon they began a musical feud with a band in the practice space next door to theirs.
“They were the type of guys who could all play really well, and didn’t do anything with it,” Salisbury said. “They did a lot of covers, and they wrote some original material—it was basically songs that sound like what they imagined that people who like the Dave Matthews Band might like. And that’s not even a negative thing—if your goal is to be financially successful, that’s probably a much better plan than turning your amps all the way up.”
“We had to listen to them practice Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl,’” Salisbury remembered. “I had to hear them play it hundreds of times. I mean, I actually like that song. But we got so sick of hearing them rehearse it—they weren’t even bad musicians, we were just so sick of hearing them play it over and over again. They had played it like 15 times in a row, we imagined they were rehearsing all their ‘cool stage moves.’” “They kept practicing how they were going to say, ‘Goodnight, Charlottesville!’” Magill added.
“Finally we just lined up all the amps in the room,” Salisbury said, “and there were a lot, because there were other bands that shared that space—and we just lined them all up, piled them against the wall that we shared with the other studio. Our goal was to get them to stop playing ‘American Girl.’ And the thing is, it didn’t work! They didn’t stop! We were so disappointed. But we actually liked what we ended up doing, so that was the beginning of the band. Tyler had had the name Grand Banks in his pocket, waiting for a type of music that sounded right, and that was it.”
For a band born of frustration, hostility, and ear-bleeding volume, Grand Banks’ music is often surprisingly thoughtful and gentle. It’s songs are long and abstract, but the pair is able to summon a great deal of focus and restraint, occasionally punctuated by subtle elements like a xylophone riff, or one of Magill’s brilliant spoken word pieces. According to Salisbury, “Grand Banks was never loud for the sake of being loud ‘Not-playing’ plays a huge part in what we were doing; being quiet, playing delicately.”
Grand Banks took a hiatus when Salisbury relocated to New York from 2008 to 2011, while Magill busied himself with other projects, including Mss.. “We’re both married now, and living more complicated lives,” Salisbury said. “It happens when it should. A lot of it is dictated by people asking us to play, especially if a friend comes through town, or there’s a band we’d like to open for.” Since Sailsbury’s return, they’ve played a handful of shows, and are planning an upcoming concert at the Tea Bazaar.
“Grand Banks will always exist, and we’ll always find a reason to play every now and again,” Salisbury said. “I’d like to maybe record some [this year], and maybe play out more, but a lot of it depends on how it feels. But I’ve always been O.K. with failing, musically. Anybody who’s spent any amount of time seeing improv, or noise bands, even ones of a certain caliber, the shows don’t always go well. You always have off nights. But what makes up for it is the nights where everything comes together.”
Grand Banks play at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on Saturday, January 26, along with Ben Seretan and the Early. Tickets are $5, doors open at 8pm.
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