If you were to place the Photosynthesizers in a police lineup and ask somebody to pick out the seven co-conspirators … well, good luck. “Usually you see people playing together with a similar style,” producer and guitarist Josh Bryant says. “I feel like we all have completely different styles and tastes and attitudes.”
What started as a traditional rap duo, with Bryant and MC Maurice “Barcodez” Jackson, has grown into a live hip-hop ensemble. And while the Roots helped make live instruments fashionable for the DJ culture, Photosynthesizers stray closer to Gnarls Barkley with their mash of soul and electro.
Without an official manager, it can be tough to coordinate seven band members, including vocalist Samantha Hewlett, drummer Nick Tharpe, bassist Mike Williams, keyboardist Wade Puryear, and DJ Philip “DJ Manifest” Nguyen. For this interview, Style Weekly managed to reach one, Bryant, who stressed that a firm belief in Photosynthesizers as a group, rather than individual personalities, keeps them on point.
“We feel as though we have something that is not being heard or seen,” he says. “And we are all very excited and willing to put in the work to make it happen.”
Style: So tell us about that one song…
Josh Bryant: The hook for “Word of Mouth” has been around a long time. Maurice came over one day and we were trying to put it together and it started with an idea of how the drums should sound. I tried a bunch of different keyboard lines and nothing was really sticking. Then, I hit this one little progression and he was like “Yeah, build on that.” Next thing you know, we were transitioning into verses. At the time, we were really close to having all the pieces of the band in place. When we created it, I felt like it had all the ins and outs that a band could work really well with. Once we presented it to the band, it really took off. To me, it's one, if not the, favorite song for me to play. Usually when we perform it, it gets a lot of response, so I feel like it's a good track to represent us. We went into the studio a couple months ago and recorded it with the band. It's come a long way.
It's got a mean, almost rock ‘n roll vibe to it, with fierce lyricism. Sam actually wrote her first rap to it and she killed it. Her verse is really good. The song talks about how we don't need all of these different forms of media. We're not worried about shooting videos for it, this and that. We feel like the quality [of the music] will be spread through word of mouth and if it's good enough, people will respect it and tell other people about it. That's the foundation and everything else is based around it. The song is more of a battle rhyme as opposed to some of the other stuff we play that's more science-based. This one is more open and classic, with MCs battling on it.
How has Photosynthesizers evolved?
Bryant: I actually met Maurice through Style Weekly, right when I started getting into producing about 5 years ago. I knew a lot of musicians because I majored in music at VCU, but I didn't know any MCs or anybody I thought was reliable and serious enough about it. I never look through the Style classifieds, but on a whim I saw this MC who was looking for a band. I contacted him and told him I had been in bands, but that I was just producing myself at the time and looking for an MC. We met up and it started developing from there.
He's been with me since I started producing. It's really crazy to go back and listen to some of the first stuff we did and hear how far I've come. I was definitely not expecting to find an MC like him, too. He's easily one of the most unique MCs I've ever heard. Language-wise, he's all over the place, using science, using words I don't even know. I'm looking them up or watching the science channel, “Oh, that's where he got that from.” Very intelligent guy. And he's progressed, too. At first, Maurice would flow for like, forever, and not be real catchy or structured. He had a lot of stuff to say and he would try to fit it all in. It would be so busy, it would be hard to even catch what he was saying.
When it was just me and Maurice, I produced all the songs, made all the beats. The lineup we have now has been together for probably 6 months. Once we got the group together, some of the songs ended up completely different. Structurally, they're the same, but I used a lot of samples and all kinds of keyboard sounds when I produced them. Now, instead of having a bunch of samples, we figured out what would work best and modified a few things. We just started writing as a group and have 1 or 2 songs completely done.
Do you miss producing your own songs?
Bryant: There are still some songs I'll make, but I like it a lot more as a band thing. When you're producing, to some degree you're limited. I'm glad to see a transition taking place where a lot of MCs are also using a band. They'll take the songs that were produced by whoever and recreate them live. You have a lot more freedom to modify things. Once you [produce] a track, a DJ plays it and that's that. There's no wiggle room at all, unless you go back and remake it. This way, we can work out and extend things and really be more dynamic and versatile, as opposed to playing the song the same way every time. This way it's a lot more fun.
People that I've talked to are impressed with the fact that we are doing it this way. I wouldn't even necessarily call us hip hop, but a lot of people will say when they go see hip hop, it's just a DJ (playing the music). It can be anti-climactic in a way, because it sounds just like it sounded before. This way is really cool to be able to do different things with it, to make something up. And Maurice is a lot of fun to work with. He doesn't play instruments, but live he'll be like “You guys just jam out for a second and I'm gonna freestyle.” In front of the crowd, we've got to come up with something on the spot.
How is the song creation process different?
Bryant: The first songs I made as Photosynthesizers were made before concepts were brought to me, which is different than how we do things now. Those used a lot of sampling. I'd find samples and try to chop them up and see where it went. Sometimes I'd sit down and think I'm going to do one thing and once things start flowing, I'd just let it go. It's like I'm not even in control, something guiding me to make songs the way they are.
Anytime I'd present something to Maurice and think he's going to love it, he'd be like “Eh.” Then there would be songs in the stockpile tucked away that I'll play it for him and he'll say “I love that!” “Astro Belts” was one of those. I did the verses and I didn't even think they were done, but then I heard the way he was approaching it, getting a girl to sing the hook. I was floored at that point. I've always loved the boom-bap style, but also a lot of times when I write music, I have a tendency to be more laid-back. I think that's a good dynamic me and Maurice have always played with. No matter what I would do, he would add the final touches to bring things to a head and provide that energy and that spark.
Now people will come to me with an idea, a melody, this and that. Sam will have a song that she has a vocal melody to and we'll build around that. The way we rehearse, sometimes we'll start working on an idea at practice and them someone will go home and build on it. We'll ask Maurice and Sam if it's something they'd like to build on and work with. Philip made a song based on something we played in practice. He went home and created this killer song. Nick picked up the guitar and played a song idea and I took the guitar and molded it into my interpretation of it and that became another song. It's gotten to the point where I don't feel like it's just me making the songs anymore. I like the idea of us collectively doing things. Even when I do bring a something, it's really cool to hear everybody's different interpretations and the song ends up much bigger.
What would be one of your most outrageous moments as a band?
Bryant: I don't know if this is outrageous, but Photosynthesizers played on WRIR recently and the day of the show, our keyboardist had a situation arise where he couldn't make it. Within a single day, we went from going to do it, to not going do it because Wade cancelled, to we should try to do it. So, we get this guy John Connolly to come in. He plays keys, but I knew him as a guitarist. A sick guitarist. He learned all of the keyboard parts for four songs about two hours before we went on the air. That was crazy. He just sat down and wrote out all of the chord progressions for the songs and we went over it. We didn't even rehearse with the full group, it was a crash course. He nailed it.
Then, another John Connolly fill-in moment came when the band played St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville. This time, I was sick and couldn't make it. The rest of them and John played down there and evidently the president of the school told us that they would love to have us back. They offered to have us open for Yung Joc a couple nights later, but we already had a show booked. I was afraid the band would get back and tell me not to come to any more shows!
What is one thing you think would help improve the Richmond music scene?
Bryant: Support and teamwork. I feel like Richmond's really cliquey and people aren't the most supportive when it comes to music coming up. For a long time, Richmond's been a metal and punk town. Those (type of) groups manage to stick out and make it, but other groups don't make it here. They make it elsewhere or find the right management to become successful.
It's hard to get people together and form a bond where things can blossom and a movement to some degree can take place. Sometimes Richmond doesn't do a good job of supporting local artists. There are a lot of artists, but not a lot of ways to network.
What is your first musical memory?
Bryant: My first memory of even wanting to play music was watching hee-haw and seeing Buck Owen play a red, white, and blue guitar. I thought that was the coolest-looking guitar. I barely remember, I was so young, walking by this music store in my hometown and that guitar was in the window. For that Christmas, my parents got me a little $20 Sears guitar.
I remember one of the first times playing music (in a band), I was doing this short guitar solo. I was in seventh grade and this older guy in the crowd, some junior or senior I knew indirectly, yelled “Yeah!” That moment, that feeling was it. Everything I did musically after that, even to this day, built on that feeling.
Photosynthesizers will be opening for Flobots at the Canal Club on December 6th. Divine Profitz and Proverbial are also on the bill. Doors are at 7pm. Tickets are $15 and are available at thecanalclub.com.