Durand Jones & The Indications: “Not since the ‘70s has there been such an appetite for soul music”
Durand Jones & The Indications were initially here for a good time, not a long time. The poster for their debut gig at The Bishop in Bloomington, Indiana in May 2014 teased that the group would be playing for “one night only” and that it would be the “one and only chance” to see this fresh new soul band in action. It was a sliding doors moment for a group of musicians in various projects to seize their moment. They didn’t disappoint.
“That night was electric,” Aaron Frazer, drummer and vocalist of The Indications tells NME via Zoom from his New York apartment, a smile growing across his face. The band’s titular frontman Durand Jones, currently residing in San Antonio, Texas, agrees: “It was one of the best experiences of my life. Even though we’ve done bigger things, that was the moment where I really felt free in this music for the first time. I get emotional just thinking about it,” he adds, tailing off.
A sample of that energy was captured in an accompanying live album which was recorded during that era and later featured on the deluxe edition of their 2016 self-titled debut. The spicy licks on ‘Groovy Babe’ tumble out of fellow founding member Blake Rhein’s guitar, as the pings and pangs of Frazer’s drums hit the low ceiling and cannon back towards the crowd. Judging by the reaction of the whooping and hollering audience, it’s the kind of gig where it feels like, in that moment at least, life can’t get any better than this.
Durand Jones & The Indications split off in various directions after that gig, but reunited for a 2016 show at The Bishop to celebrate the venue’s seventh anniversary. Word had since spread about this band and their sound, an exhilarating mix of retro soul, blistering rock’n’roll and gooey R&B. They were championed by small communities, including the Chicano Lowriders and the Steppers dancing group, and found a home with local Bloomington-based label Dead Oceans [Phoebe Bridgers, Japanese Breakfast], who re-released their debut in 2018 and helped take their music to a wider audience. It quickly bucked the idea of the band being as elusive as the musicians they’d grown up worshipping.
“At the time, we were all coming from a collector culture that worshipped obscurity,” says Frazer. “There’s such romanticism of a band just doing one 45rpm record or just one album, but as we heard back about the first record, and every project we’ve worked on since, when people say they found a role for our music in their lives, it became clear that not being lost in obscurity is more fun.”
Consider their third album ‘Private Space’, out on Friday (July 30), as a true coming-out party, with the band ready to take their place alongside mainstream contemporaries like Leon Bridges and Anderson .Paak. The record dabbles in disco grooves and pop ditties, boasting sleek production that’s miles away from their rough’n’tumble debut album. And there’s a noticeable spark of joy that was less obvious in 2019’s ‘American Love Call’. The band say that album reflected its times – the midpoint of Donald Trump’s presidency – but the new record sheds that skin.
“I think ‘Private Space’ is a more hopeful record than the last one,” Frazer says. “If ‘American Love Call’ was like heading into the storm… ‘Private Space’ feels like flying out of it.”
Jones agrees: “We felt like once we’d got out of the pandemic of sorts, people would want to come out and hear music, dance, be positive, love and embrace one another, and that’s definitely what we wanted to go for.”
The band, who are run three ways by Jones, Frazer and Rhein and complemented by Mike Montgomery (bass) and Steve Okonski (keys), arrived in Bloomington, Indiana on different paths. They describe the city as being supportive of the arts and cheap to live in: a liberal outlier in a state that skews conservative. Alongside jobs as a session musician and a trouser salesman respectively, Frazer and Rhein played in various bands at house parties in the city, the bar being set by rival groups nailing “four-part harmonies through a blown speaker”.
Jones arrived in the city from Hillaryville, Louisiana, a 500-strong community set up by eight freed slaves following the end of the US civil war in the late 1800s. Music was something to be revered but never attained for Jones while growing up in a working-class community ravaged by rural inequality and the aftermath of the ‘80s war on drugs.
“Sometimes I feel like an imposter, especially whenever I’m around people with a lot of money – that’s something that I never grew up around,” Jones says. “Being in really nice houses and restaurants, I would feel like I didn’t deserve to be there. When I went home to Hillaryville during the initial stage of the pandemic, I got the time to really assess the work that I had put in to realise: ‘Fuck, I am worthy of this! I don’t know how I let myself get in my head’. If anything, it’s so amazing and beautiful to come from poverty and to be where I am.”
An attempt to join the US military band as a young saxophonist was scuppered by a failed background check – an acquaintance had sold Adderall to an undercover cop, which Jones had given to him to help buy groceries. “It was my first time ever doing something like that and it absolutely ruined my chance to do music in the way I intended to,” Jones says, crestfallen. He wound up studying in Indiana and working in a local laboratory, all the while fronting a wedding band as a singer.
“People will say that wedding bands are corny as shit, but at the same time I got to sing Stevie Wonder, Al Green, James Brown, Donny Hathaway every night and got to learn what soul music is not by hearing but by doing,” Jones recalls. “It made me see that if you want to front a band, you’ve got to let it all hang out like you’re naked. Be yourself and be goofy and silly, sexy and fun, as sad and happy as you want to be… do it all.”
“Artists like Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron have been a compass for us,” Frazer agrees. “They really understood that to engage with the political side of things and to reflect them you need to find time to be tender, to make love and be silly and party, but to also be a fighter and engage. We are all of these things.”
Jones was the perfect foil for The Indications, their brand of rock’n’soul needing a frontman to propel their songs into the stratosphere. Watching Jones perform live is a mesmerising thing: he’s like James Brown with ants in his pants and a need to dance, or perhaps Curtis Mayfield, a big softy at heart who’s able to deliver the ballads with the required sincerity. He’s the heat in Jones and Frazer’s fire and ice routine; Jones lights a spark while Frazer’s “cherub-like” falsetto – modelled after his hero, Smokey Robinson – is there to keep things controlled.
The band adhere to the age-old mantra of soul music: it being less so about the sound – though their buttery compositions do fit the bill – but the conviction, mining deep inside for raw, uncut emotions. They now join a modern renaissance for the movement alongside Michael Kiwanuka, Celeste, Sault and more.
“Not since the ‘70s has there been such an appetite for soul music. It’s weird to think that in some small way we kinda helped do that,” Frazer says. “I think part of the beauty of soul music in its heyday was the accessibility of it. In every town you had a scene that was making amazing music and doing it simply and embracing imperfection. That’s the spirit that it is here right now, and maybe it’s a response to the hyper-polished curation of Instagram and the internet. But my hope for the soul scene is that more people will start to embrace the idea of experimentation moving forward, like Kiwanuka did with his last album.”
‘Private Space’ fulfils that desire to push that sound into a contemporary space. Both ‘Witchoo’ and ‘The Way That I Do’ offer tasty morsels for those devouring the disco revival, while ‘Sexy Thang’ dives into the West Coast tunings of Steve Lacy’s woozy guitars. ‘Sea of Love’ is ripe for festival DJ sets this summer, should it get the nine-minute house rework it deserves.
Recorded in a rented lodge in upstate New York earlier this year, several of the songs were borne out of the frustration of pandemic life. Gorgeous opener ‘Love Will Work It Out’ in particular is a temperature check following both last summer’s devastation from the virus and the helplessness watching the “modern day lynchings in the streets” of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US. The idea of change and revolution is baked into that song’s chorus – “it feels a little MLK,” Jones admits – but does he see a path forward?
“Some people might say that this one is a little bit altruistic… but why the fuck not? Why can’t we try and find some way to overcome our differences and be a people that love and protect this planet for future generations? I believe that we can do it. It just takes some humility.”
Frazer adds: “When you listen to [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘What’s Going On’ or [Curtis Mayfield’s] ‘We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue’, you think they’re such great protest songs that they could have been written today. And in a way that’s amazing, but it’s also kind of depressing. Writing songs like ours perhaps does not solve the tribalism of racism, but perhaps it’ll help people putting one foot in front of the other.”
This desire for change will not be resolved quickly, they acknowledge. “I’m just so fed up with how moderate and slow progression is coming in America,” Jones says. “I did bite my tongue and vote for Joe Biden hoping that he would hear our voices and try to get the ball rolling on some things that are really important to us, like student loan debt. It’s disproportionately affecting people like me, Black people, people who are in poverty – it just seems like such a trap.”
Representing his community is what Jones hopes to do on his next project, a solo record which serves as “a love letter to Hillaryville” which will “smell like magnolias on a hot summer’s day”, he says. “That reminds me of home; that sweetness, as well as that mustiness – there’s something beautiful there.” It’ll showcase the full range of his vocal capabilities, he says, dabbling in jazz, classical and rock’n’roll, something that quarantine emboldened him to attempt to realise.
It’s a similar approach to Frazer’s own solo album ‘Introducing’, which was released earlier this year and produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “I wanted to take the opportunity to prove that it didn’t have to be all one thing,” he says. “I wanted it to be a chance to celebrate a full-range of who I was.”
The approach to these projects and the extensive reflection period from being off the road has spilled into ‘Private Space’, a rich example of a group coming into their own, seeing off the strife and pushing both themselves and their sound forward. Durand Jones & The Indications are now one of the best American soul bands of their generation: not bad for what was initially a one-night thing.
Durand Jones & The Indications’ ‘Private Space’ is released on July 30.