So many surprises with art band Jaggery, but awe isn’t one
Jaggery will take the stage Saturday as it usually does: As a surprise.
This has nothing to do with being unreliable. Newcomers to the band should know Jaggery always shows up, always has Mali Sastri behind a keyboard and always provides a riveting, beautiful and haunting show. Casual fans can tell newcomers that the surprise of a Jaggery show lies in what shape it takes — which members play and which of roughly 40 songs get performed.
The real surprise will be known by the serious fans: Most of the band lives in New York and New Jersey. When the full band plays, some drive nine hours to take part. “When there’s a Jaggery show everyone lives at my house for a few days,” says Sastri, who lives in Cloud Club, the legendary communal artists’ home in the South End.
Sastri moved there from New York, which can be another surprise.
While it helps to know she grew up in Lexington — a classmate of Amanda Palmer, once of the Dresden Dolls, who lived in Cloud Club before Sastri and just talked up Jaggery as her Boston band crush — it’s still a counterintuitive move. (Especially when it’s not everyone moving five hours to the northeast.) The narrative is that bands start in Boston and Cambridge and go to New York to make it in the industry.
“It was definitely the right move to move to Boston. I don’t have any regrets. New York sucks,” Sastri says with a giggle. “The band wasn’t getting anywhere. I feel like in New York it’s really about trends and fashion. That being said, if I found a niche there I think it would have been fantastic and I would have loved it, but I just didn’t. There were moments I felt like I had, but it was so hard to build up momentum. There’s always so much going on.”
Amid the creative struggle, there were lifestyle issues:
“I was very tried of feeling like I was a sucker. I lived a mile from the train in a great, beautiful, awesome loft, but it was super expensive and kept going up in price. Everything is so expensive. It’s very hard living. A lot of people go to New York to have big dreams, but they have to get some sort of job to support themselves and wind up living so far from Manhattan — because nobody can afford Manhattan — and having this huge commute. And then they don’t want to go out and play when they’re done with work, they want to go home. They have to do laundry or they have to do food shopping, which takes forever in New York. I was tired of just the relentless unfriendliness and relentless competition just going out to do errands, to do laundry. I find people here so much nicer and friendlier. People here are, ‘What? You’re crazy! I go to New York and I feel like everyone’s so chatty.’ I don’t feel like that at all. I feel the opposite. I feel like New York has the worst of the worst, but also the best of the best. So I found friends that I will have for the rest of my life in New York, I found my best people in New York. But it just wasn’t worth it anymore.”
Another factor, she says, was that “We’d always been really, really well received as a band in Boston. We’d had way better shows in Boston than New York.”
A tour stop in Pittsburgh almost lured her, but a room in Cloud Club opened up and she was convinced — despite a sometimes reclusive personality that made her hesitant to take up communal living — it was too good to pass up. One of the people convincing her was band member Daniel Schubmehl.
“The band members were totally open and supportive of it,” Sastri says of the move. Two had already relocated without causing a band disaster; one, upright-bass player Tony Leva, had a seven-hour drive from Lakewood, N.Y., to rehearse or play. Harpist and singer Petaluma Vale is a striking and standout player, but also the one most likely to go missing from a show. As a student entering a career entirely outside music, and in New Jersey, she has even once opted out of touring.
“Jaggery is a collective and people can come and go as they need to,” Sastri says. “We can do things even just me and Daniel. I can do things solo. I’ve done shows with just Rachel [Jayson, the viola player]. We’ve had to change things up, which has actually been good. It creates variety for the audience.”
Judging from band blurbs, “good” is an understatement.
“Not really jazz, not pop, not ethereal rock — this is not like anything else you’ve heard,” wrote an enthralled Jack Rabid in The Big Takeover magazine. “One of the most beautiful voices in modern music,” says Oedipus, vice president of alternative programming at Infinity Broadcasting, quoted on the Jaggery website. And from The Noise: “Jaggery conjures up an impressively unique set, dancing between Bjork, Diamanda Galas and Jack Kerouac … Jaggery is for those who want beautiful original music that’s dark in the vein of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ Don’t wait. Pluck this jewel post-haste!”
All that leads to a tidbit that is shocking but, given the scattered nature of the band, not surprising: The band doesn’t get to rehearse much. It overcomes that with immense musical skills (Jayson, for instance, trained at the Boston Conservatory and could be forgiven for forgetting how many bands she plays in) and long knowledge of each other as players and with Sastri’s songs.
As a little girl, home-schooled and pecking fecklessly away at piano lessons, Sastri would tape Madonna songs from the radio, transcribe lyrics, write her own pop songs and dream of being Cyndi Lauper. She restlessly left Lexington for London, literally finding her voice in the same elite Voice Movement Therapy program for which she now teaches. She landed in New York City in 2001 and formed The Throes with her brother, Raky, a band that became Quay the next year with the addition of bassist Ziggy Drozdowski. With both Sastris trying to lead, but in different directions, the trio broke up even before its first EP was printed. But there are songs from that era already recognizably Jaggery, and Jaggery still plays some of those songs.
There is a tour planned for June and a second full-length album (after “Polyhymnia” in 2006) to be released in August or September, and Leva and Schubmehl may yet move to Boston. “I think we’re on track,” Sastri says. “It’s definitely hard, but ultimately we just have to remember why we’re doing it — we want to make beautiful things and share them and create, and it’s become a lifestyle, and a very fulfilling one.”
That leads back to Saturday’s show at the Cantab Lounge, one providing a final surprise. Jaggery, which often finds itself paired with performance-art bands such as Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys, is scheduled to play with a markedly eclectic group: While the theatrical What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? is on the bill, so is Faux Ox, whose hard punk sound belies its whimsical name, and so is Mascara, a trio whose arty underpinnings meld with metal-style power chords.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s have a new experience and see what happens’ by doing music with bands whose music is very different,” Sastri says. “Sometimes I’ll meet people after a [Jaggery] show that would be totally into it who I would never suspect, seeing this person on the street, would ever listen to my music.
“Playing a show to a full house kind of gets into this circle of feedback. There’s a full house, so you’re putting on a better show,” she says. “And there are enough people into it that the people who aren’t sure, it bleeds off onto them.”
The final Jaggery surprise, then, is likely to be many people’s first.
Jaggery plays May Day! May Day! with What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?, Faux Ox, Mascara on Saturday at the Cantab Lounge, starting at 8:30 p.m. and extending to 1:30 a.m. Sunday. The lounge is at 738 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. Call (617) 354-2685 or click here.