With a background saturated in music (his family owned Viner Music Co. in Bangor for decades), Viner told me that music came very naturally. “We always had a piano in the house and then, when I was 2, I got my first drum set after my mother was tired of me beating on the woodwork all day,” he said, smiling. Formal lessons and a jazz background followed. Viner says that Gene Krupa’s drums on Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing Sing” made a huge impression. “I was like 10 years old listening to this stuff. That’s what started it. I didn’t listen to much rock until late middle and high school.”
From a very young age, Sasha recalls being captivated not so much by the music but by performance. “I loved recitals and I loved being able to put on flourishes and make it into a show. When I was about 10 years old, that’s what I fell in love with,” she told me.
While majoring in chemistry at Cornell, Alcott bought a guitar and taught herself to play. A move to New York City to obtain a master’s in secondary education led to a daytime life of teaching high school chemistry – a position that coincided with 10 years of Big Apple rock band experience. Accomplished and respected chemistry teacher by day, charismatic and edgy rock guitarist and singer at night – a schedule that she maintains today after seven years of chemistry instruction at Bangor High.
Alcott told me that Viner’s professionalism and dedication to his craft has inspired her to take voice lessons and dedicate more time to practice. “Chris is much more academic than I am,” she told me. “I’m the passion person while he can think about things and say, ‘We can make this a little tighter or change this rhythm here.’ He thinks about it that way while I’m trying to get this idea out.”
When the pair began venturing to open-mic nights in town, Alcott initially played acoustic guitar. One night at Paddy Murphy’s open-mic run by their friend Allison Melton, Viner and Alcott arrived without instruments with the intention of just listening and supporting the other musicians. “Our friends said, 'Come on, you guys should play,' so Sasha borrowed someone’s electric guitar with a distortion pedal,” Viner remembers. “When we got off the stage, our friends said, 'That was amazing – you need to just rock out. Do not ever play acoustic again! (laughing)' That’s kind of how it all started.”
This week, When Particles Collide hits Worcester, MA; Burlington, VT; Brooklyn, NY; Columbia, SC and Dover, NH. Alcott says their tours are about more than just playing shows - the band acts as a mobile tourism bureau of sorts. “Part of what we do on the road is meet new bands and make new connections,” she said. “We want to bring up the musicians who are here and we want to bring musicians here. We want to be the indie equivalent to the Waterfront series. We really believe in Bangor as a place for original, independent live music.” Viner and Alcott plan on being part of this year’s KahBang music art and film festival in several ways.
Alcott says that between shows, the band continues to work on their debut album slated for a June release accompanied by a summer filled with shows. “Because of my schedule, we have the opportunity to tour all summer. So a killer full-length album is next and we’ll be playing as many shows as possible to support it.”
Spontaneous Reaction: A Q&A with Sasha and Chris
Dow: What inspired you to pick up a guitar and play?
Sasha: In the early '90s, there was a big DIY movement in rock and roll. “Nevermind” came out in 1991. The Pixies had been around since the mid '80s – Then Kim Deal’s side project, The Breeders, happened. There was this aesthetic that anyone could really up pick up an instrument. The Riot Grrrl movement was happening at the time, and I decided I really wanted to be in a band and be the master of a creative domain. I played in bands for the next 15 years.
Dow: How do you write your songs? Do you sit down and craft them or do they come from the two of you playing together and coming up with spontaneous ideas?
Sasha: I try to hear the song in my head first. I usually sit down with a guitar – but sometimes with a piano. I play around with chord progressions and different rhythms to try to eke something out, but usually there is something I want to write a song about. And then we do spend a lot of time playing things and recording them. I have to listen for where the next part should be or how we can revise it and make it different.
Dow: What made you realize that you wanted to keep this musical partnership going after working together in “Hedwig?”
Chris: After the show was over, I had a situation where I needed to find a new place to live, and Sasha invited me to stay at her place. We played around with the idea of doing music together. We were both in different bands at that point, and the band I was in would open for hers once in a while. I sat in and played some acoustic hand-stuff on some of her songs old and new. From there, we played together more often and went with a full drum set with acoustic guitar and tried out material at open mic nights. Our friends were digging it, so we decided to start recording an album.
Dow: Recently, I bought Jacob McCurdy’s album, “Sleepless,” and I really liked it. He told me that you played drums on that record. I love your drum sound on there.
Chris: We recorded that in the studio at NESCom. Frank Baron did an incredible job engineering that record. The drum sound he got is amazing – he did a really great job with it.
Dow: You’re very well connected with the local music scene. Who are some of the Maine bands that you feel strongly about?
Sasha: I’m a huge fan of Theodore Treehouse, A Severe Joy, I love The Class Machine and Bangor locals Temperature of the Sun…
Chris: I love going to see all of those local bands she mentioned. The Milkman’s Union are friends of ours and a band we both like a lot. They’ve helped us out a tremendous amount. Grand Hotel is another band we really like, along with The Other Bones, who we just had up here the other day.
Dow: Chris, what do you listen to at home or in the car?
Chris: I still love to listen to Dave Matthews – I love the seven minute jam once in a while. John Mayer impressed me when he came out with “Continuum.” In high school, I thought he was a tool bag and wanted nothing to do with him - [Sasha chimes in: He is a tool bag (laughs)]
Chris: - When that album came out, I said, “Wow, that’s John Mayer?” Once in a while, I’ll still listen to jazz. One of the things I’ve picked on through listening to bands like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is the interaction between drums and bass or in our case, drums and guitar. There has to be this defined groove in the song and it’s something I have to pay a lot of attention to when we’re playing. I’m the drummer, but I also have to be the bass player and that’s a hard thing too and it’s what a lot of our practices involve.
Dow: Think back over the last year and a half. What’s been a highlight for you?
Sasha: Last summer when Chris left his job to do this full time, we booked a two-week tour before I went back to work. It was very challenging, but we set up some dates and booked seven shows in 14 days. We spent three days in Charlotte, NC. It’s an amazing town, and since we were there a couple of days before the gig, we decided to hit some record stores, play some open mics and hustle a little bit.
We walked into this little place called Tommy’s, and according to the newspaper, they were supposed to have an open mic. We look around and there are stains on the walls, Nascar memorabilia everywhere and we see a young guy typing away on an old PC who looks up and says, “Can I help you?” We told him that we were there for the open mic and he told us the newspaper had published the wrong date. It had actually taken place the night before but he said, “If you want to play, you can come down and play.”
Imagine The Tavern only smaller and with more wood paneling and more Nascar. There was literally one girl who showed up – her name was Val and she danced during every song we played – it was just us and her. The amazing thing is, another band was booked for the following night and we played a couple of songs before their set and a couple at the end. So we played for five people that time. The next night was our scheduled night at the venue we booked elsewhere in town. We were playing this super room, great sound, great monitors – we could hear everything. We’d played two nights in a row and we played really well. At this show, we had the people who had seen us play earlier at this little dive bar. They took the time to listen to our songs online and people we had never met before came out and they sang along to every song.
Chris: You go back to that place where you played two nights in a row just for fun, have a good time and make life-long friends out of it. We still talk to these people online. They tell us, “Let us know if you’re playing somewhere close and we’ll come.” That’s how you build an audience – you drive and play these places, three, four, five times. We played the same place in Ashville three times in a row and it’s gotten better each time – the same with Pittsburgh – more people come out each time. The first time we played Boston, there were about 150 people there – we were on such a great bill.
Sasha: The other thing that’s fun is the transference where it finally happens where it’s not about us, it’s about the audience and that we have something to offer them that they actually care about. We have a good friend who was a fan before a friend and I knew she really loves one of our songs in particular. We invited her up on stage and she sang every single word. That type of thing is humbling and joyful at the same time. It could bring tear to my eyes.
Chris: You did cry the other night.
Sasha: It’s true, I did. We have friends in Portland – they’re like family. I’ll go on record as saying they’re our Portland family. They are two women who own and run Peek-A-Boo Tattoo. They have been incredibly loving and generous towards us. We played a show recently at The Empire. Bless Mel - she showed up with a When Particles Collide tattoo. What do you do with that? It’s incredibly humbling. We may not play sold out stadiums and make incredible amounts of money but we’ve had these moments where people sing along, seem to be having a good time and seem joyous. If you can make somebody feel happy, that’s awesome.