By Anita Stewart, ROCK AT NIGHT Pittsburgh, PA
Don’t let their age fool ya! This band’s love of the old school blues and classic rock and roll shows and the dedication to their craft is impressive. With videos, appearances at live concerts and local festivals and TV and magazine interviews, this happy band of school aged musicians are working it really hard so they can be seen and heard everywhere! Don’t label them as a cover band! Even though they can play covers quite skillfully, they are also working on their own music and have some videos of originals on YouTube already. Their sound is very much like the classic album rock of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Think Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Fleetwood Mac, Cream and Greta Van Fleet.
ROCK AT NIGHT describes The Refuge as a “Kenyan Greta Van Fleet”
They and their families consider Nairobi, Kenya home and they work and go to school there. Their parents work for aid organizations and all of the band members are still in school, under 16 years of age, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. They have been playing together for over two years now. The band is made up of siblings–Patrick and Teresa Sanders, the lead guitarist and vocalist and the band’s dedicated manager is their father, Joe. Gabe Gebremedhin on drums, Silas Piper on rhythm guitar, Ben Matsaert on bass and Ike Ngala on the keys completes the total lineup. They are only heading upward and played their first major music festival in Germany this past August to great reviews. Take a listen and get ready to rock!
Q&A WITH THE REFUGE
Who are your biggest influences right now?
We would say that our sound is high-energy, guitar-driven rock n’ roll with strong influences from the classic rock greats of the 60s and 70s. We don’t like to use the term “rock” because, to most people today, that means NOT rock n’ roll. We joke that we are POST DIGITAL… back to pure analogue.
Our influences are broad but some of the artists we listen to and appreciate include the Allman Brothers, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Eagles, Black Sabbath, Santana, Jesse Collins Young, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and Blues greats such as Albert King, Elmore James and Buddy Guy. Although our sound has broadened since, the first two bands to really inspire us and help create our identity were the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead. They will always reflect our roots… and they represent what we like the most as musicians: jamming.
We are a bit cautious about over-characterizing our sound as “classic rock” since that implies lost nostalgia and makes us sound like a cover band. At our core, we are just a rock n’ roll band that loves the blues and loves to jam.
Who are your favorite older bands and who are some new ones you like?
Haha… well I guess Patrick’s answer covered the first part of that question! Honestly, we don’t listen to a lot of modern bands because we are so immersed into learning the old stuff. But there are a few modern bands out there that we really love, such as the Allman Betts Band, Greta Van Fleet, Tedeschi Trucks Band, John Butler Trio, Blackberry Smoke, KingFish, Marcus King Band, and a few others.
Are you also reading biographies of the older rock stars and if so has any of that information been helpful? If you haven’t read any, who would you read about and why?
You wouldn’t believe how much we know about older bands! That’s been something we have always been interested in – knowing about the guys who made the music we love so much. Our dads played a big role there too; making us watch documentaries like Woodstock, The Last Waltz or Long Strange Trip and learn about their origins, their influences and how they evolved as artists. We find that stuff fascinating, and we often say that we were born in the wrong generation. It’s amazing to think how exciting and vibrant the rock and blues music scene was back in the 60s and 70s.
One thing that is important to us is to know about the mistakes some of our favorite artists made as well. We are aware of the risks in the music scene and, honestly, it’s helpful to learn by example on what NOT to do from artists like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. Imagine what the world had lost just because of the bad decisions made by some people.
How do you do your decision-making as a band? Through consensus or some other way that works for all of you?
Basically by consensus. We started three years ago and back then we were just struggling to learn simple songs and not completely suck. There wasn’t yet much need for direction or much to make decisions on. But once we were clearer on what kind of music we wanted to play (about a year ago), it required us to become more organized. There have definitely been some heated debates over what songs to cover, who does what when, what sounds we’re going for in our original songs… all that stuff. But we have always managed to let the music play the major role in what to do next. If it’s good, it’s good… and it’s never too hard for all of us to recognize that together.
Describe the kind of support you get from your families, friends and the music department at your school.
Patrick’s and Gabe’s dads were impressed right from the start, and did whatever they could to help the band along. In the early days, they were very involved in giving us ideas for what genres to play and what bands to cover. They also helped with the logistics around practices and our early “gigs” at middle school socials and other events… basically, they were our roadies!
None of us come from particularly musical families, at least not our immediate family members. But all of our parents love music, and by being in REFUGE we have managed to get them into the blues, classic rock and jam bands. They have been crucial to our development as a band and we are really grateful. We have met a lot of musicians who mention how lucky we are to have parents that support our band. And every kind of support: managing us, paying for everything, organizing us for practices and gigs, sharing music ideas, etc.
Our music teachers have also been a huge support, especially Chris Okana who has been the music instructor (at some point or another) to nearly all of us. He is special, and we know that an important part of the band’s progress is thanks to Chris’s gift as a music teacher.
How important are the social networks and online communications to the work you are doing as a band, with promotions, scheduling events, etc.? Who handles that or is it DIY?
Social media has pretty much been the source of EVERY opportunity the band has had so far. That was how we first got on Kenyan radio last year – they just played our song straight from the video on our Facebook page! Social media is important because we have two big disadvantages as a rock n’ roll band: 1) we live in a continent where rock is not very popular, and 2) the main market for our kind of music is very far away. So we use social media as the only way for non-Kenyans to ever know who we are. Since starting our accounts a year ago, they have grown fast and it has been great to get such useful feedback from around the world. That is what also got us our biggest gigs, including the recent festival in Germany.
Original Song-“Down There”
What do you think about being one of the bands that is bringing the classic rock genre back into the mainstream? Is that what you want your legacy to be? Does the band or some of the members eventually want to explore other genres of music? If yes, what genres and why?
We will be happy when people stop calling it “classic rock” and just say “rock n’ roll”. I think “classic rock” implies “old stuff” to a lot of people. It might also give people the idea that we are a throwback band or a cover band. But if you listen to our original songs (9 are available on our EP ‘Haven to a Heavy Soul’), I don’t think you would say it sounds old. It definitely has blues, roots rock, folk and psychedelic rock elements to it, but that doesn’t make it “old”. That said, we absolutely love being recognized for trying to bring these sounds back into the mainstream. Our contribution is still very small, but we really admire those bands that are doing it today, and we hope to join them and increase our influence on people’s musical tastes. If that’s all we ever achieve as a band, in terms of our legacy… awesome.
Although we can be categorized as “classic rock”, we actually have a very broad taste in music. Being honest, almost all of what we like is relatively old. But we like a lot more than just rock and blues. Funk, folk, bluegrass, soul, Motown R&B, reggae, dub, ska, prog rock, grunge, etc… there’s amazing music from all of those genres. We will surely use those influences over time. Our only rule is to not mesh music for the sake of it. We’re not into fusion. It has to sound right, not just novel.
You played your first international music festival this summer–the Bautz Festival in Germany. How was that experience?
Insane! By far our best experience as a band to date. We are really grateful to Hardcore Help Foundation for sponsoring our trip and getting us our first gig outside of Kenya. The audience was incredible and it was really great to see so much interest in our band and the music. When we started the set, there were probably only a hundred people watching. 30 minutes later there were more than a thousand! We couldn’t believe it. If anything, we think it’s proof that people are thirsty for authentic rock n’ roll to come back.
What have you got in your players right now?
This answer could go on for days! We will only mention one artist per band member: Humble Pie, Jethro Tull, John Butler Trio, The Doobie Brothers, J.J. Cale and Sly and the Family Stone.
Since this band is so obviously multi-cultural how has that defined you as musicians and how has that broadened your scope when writing music? What is the writing process for the band?
It has probably defined us quite a bit, but maybe not the way you would expect. As expats that have lived overseas all our lives, it’s pretty normal for us to be around a bunch of kids with different ethnicities, mother tongues, religious backgrounds or whatever. All of our friends are like that, and we are just a bunch of friends that formed a band.
Being expats certainly influences our thinking and how we see the world, and that surely gets into our lyrics. We know we are privileged to live overseas in amazing places like Kenya; and we know we have been given a great opportunity to see and learn about the world’s injustices firsthand. Our parents all work in humanitarian aid and development, and they have taught us a lot about what compelled them to do what they do. We will try to honor that in our music.
The band is named “REFUGE” because it represents what we are all about: somewhere you can go to and escape from the superficial, inauthentic music of the times. We came up with the name very early on. Back then it was more of a joke because we knew we weren’t very good. But we really hated the pop music that our friends always played, and were being a little sarcastic when we said that we were a refuge from all of that. Now REFUGE takes on a more serious meaning. We are seeing our peers come around to our type of music. They understand our obsession with the “feel” and are starting to see how so much of that is lacking in modern music.
Developing a songwriting process has been a process itself. In June 2018, our folks organized a chance for us to record some music in a studio for the first time. We were given just one day, and only planned to record covers. One parent suggested we write an original song but we initially resisted since no one had ever written anything before. But just a week before the studio session, we got together and brainstormed. Patrick came up with a cool riff with a bridge and chorus; Ben moved that into a smooth progression that we could long-jam to; Silas and Gabe threw in a couple of soft drops during the long-jam; Ike filled it up with some trippy organ; and Teresa wrote lyrics. All of a sudden, we had an original song, “Gone Astray” which did pretty well on local radio and TV.
With our EP ‘Haven to a Heavy Soul’, we now have 9 original songs released. In addition, we have about 15 new songs that we are continuing to develop. Songwriting, for some reason, has come easier than expected. We don’t want to hold back the productivity, so we keep writing. The process is usually something like this: Patrick, Silas or Ben bring a concept to the band (usually a riff with a verse/chorus/bridge idea), then we jam it out and have fun with it. Those jam sessions become crucial to coming up with additional elements for a song, and tend to be completely improvised. Then we take the concept home and write lyrics. As we continue to practice new songs, they develop themselves.
Original Song – “Gone Astray”
EP’s, full length albums, local gigs, tours, more festivals, more videos? All of the above? Tell us a bit about your plans for the next few years. Is there a strategy at play here?
Our goal this year is to get more serious. We are ready to take our music to an audience beyond Kenya, and hope to get some gigs and festivals in the US and Europe. Our biggest disadvantage is probably the coolest part or our story (i.e. being based in Kenya) but it also isolates us from the target markets for a rock n’ roll band. We need more exposure, and we know that people are most impressed when they see us live.
We also want to get signed by a respectable record label. We know that sounds really ambitious for a bunch of young teens, but we are ready for this. Our new songs are getting really good, even better than we were expecting. We know they will excite people, young and old.
We also intend to just be normal kids and enjoy life! School, sports, friends and family are what matter to us most. We are not looking to become some cheesy teen band that gets big and burns out fast. We intend to take it easy, continue to develop as artists and human beings, and get better each day.
Then, when the time is right, we rock the world!
Company Name: REFUGE
Contact Person: Joe Sanders
Country: United States
Bautz Music Festival in Germany (www.bautzfestival.de)