Matthew Kowal sings and plays like a man with a cultivated, and old, soul. Forged, bent and shaped by the 29-year-old's vision, the music of the Denver based band, The Reals, is a hothouse of delicate melody and brilliant compositions. Complete with a package of careful arrangements and vibrant textures, The Reals are a band that has managed to create an honest soundtrack of this majestic American West.
With his smoky, throaty vocals, Kowal writes with a lyrical, and sometimes poetic economy, often reaching an astonishingly intimate place where you can visit a man struggling with a multitude of dichotomies: of leaving and left. Of right and wrong. Then and now.
From "Anchor": "Lately I'm aware of the fact that/ You seem to have some kind of magnet/ I'm caught in your field/ Just like I was made out of steel"
In everything that The Reals seem to do, it's about the space between. Me and we. Loud and soft. The band and the audience. Fast and slow. Universal and personal.
And the mingling of these forces is what makes The Reals work.
Kowal's voice, coupled with his lyrics, leave it as no stretch to call him a poet troubadour at times. The proof? Undoubtedly it is in the band's second album, Majestic.
Aptly named, Majestic is a collection of bright and sometimes sparse, introspective songs. Here, not only Kowal's songwriting aptitude is evident - but the entire band's dexterity is discernable. On Majestic, each instrument works in concert with the others - as if each piece is carrying-on all those love lost and love won conversations. The conversations that you meant to have with yourself years ago, but never did.
After Majestic, you won't have to say a word.
Trying to classify The Reals' sound is difficult. And, as they all admit, they pull from nearly every tradition. From Rhythm and Blues to Americana and Roots music, to just plain old Rock 'n Roll, they even reel-in a slightly gospel sound.
And while Kowal is the cornerstone for the band's sound and inspiration, as well as songwriting duties, he could hardly go at it alone. The Reals' chemistry as a six-person ensemble in undeniable, in the studio - or the stage. There's Chris Budin's percussion and sweeping brushes, as well as Steve Millin's spacious and generous bass rhythm. Tom Zingaro, a near factotum moves fluidly from mandolin to slide guitar. And then there's John Horan spitting his western dust through his harmonica trills.
The soft compelling corner of The Reals however, is the sometimes haunting but always beautiful coos of Matthew's sister, Cheyenne Kowal. Her vocals are large and soulful. Other times, her voice is suitably scarce and airy. But on all occasions, Cheyenne's vocals seem to be making an honest attempt to pry some battered and torn sweetness from its source. At times she takes the lead, but for the most part she remains right behind her brother - providing a nearly necessary and perfect harmony. On stage? Whoa. She's raucous and fluid - a gorgeous whirlwind of a sight to behold.
The Reals are a very conscious band. And you can hear it in all of their arrangements and instrumental intent. As Cheyenne noted, The Reals' chemistry is predicated on, "Keeping an eye open to what's going on around you, honing that and trying to figure out a way to display it that's honorable and authentic."
In their recording sessions, as in their live shows, The Reals are all very conscious and careful about their approach, and their balance. They aim to know, "when it is about me, and when it is about we," Matthew stated. And it is evident in their songs: The Reals explicitly explore the fluidity between the parts of all the players; and the vernacular of the deeper places around them.
Cheyenne equates their aim of intentional movements to the act of each of them giving and taking. And knowing when to do each. The illustrations here are abundant, and human. Like a conversation. And knowing when to speak and share, and hold back a hair. Possibly, the intent is even a little psychedelic.
The Reals work from little mantras. In the recording studio, or on stage - the words are the same: Listen to each other. Play to the room. Play and sing what you feel - not what you think. Give the song what it wants. Give each other the chance to bring out the best in this music.
"We're not going on Sundays, so this is our church," Matthew stated. "This is what we do to connect with the spirit in ourselves, and others that hear the music."
The Reals are a band that spends their time in the living tension between the decisions and choices that they make as musicians, and as humans. The line between The Reals as a band and The Reals as humans in the world is very thin.
In composing their works, The Reals flirt with the notions that people carry with them: of thinking they know what they want and being sold a different way. And discovering that they enjoy what they're given, even if they didn't know it was something they wanted. Or, that it was available. As Matthew stated, "We do a pretty good job, I think, in meeting a crowd where they're at, in some ways. We don't expect them to come all the way to us."
So, sometimes they will come to the audience. All the way out to the audience. As the drummer, Chris Budin commented: Often the band will feel-out a room and if the swagger isn't there - if it isn't in everybody's hips, Budin's drum feet will get real heavy and he'll force everybody to pick-up the tempo. The Reals like seeing a crowd shake its ass.
Listening to Majestic, it's obvious that the music is, at times, lighthearted and playful. They have noted how children have enjoyed their music - and their simple, catchy melodies. But once again there's the other end of the spectrum - it's also very intense. This notion being best illustrated in a story the band mates relayed - about two soldiers that brought Majestic overseas, to Iraq. Upon returning back to the states, the soldiers stated how they religiously listened to the album. And how profoundly that album helped them get through their long, sandy days.
The Reals are a complete outfit, from their big, rich tones that leap from the fingerwork of the strings sections to the charging percussions and open space in between. Like it was all prairie and mountain, and the Kowal's saw this much. It even seems that they went to the extent of legislation - by saying forthrightly that there would be nothing built here; there in those spaces between.
It is strange how a band can be aptly named. But for The Reals, it is apparent that their name fits. In a very honest way they are a band that knows their limits and the tension within all the choices they make, as musicians and humans. And for this reason, they are not interested in being teased into the possibility of success. Rather, they are simply interested in the practical elements of their near-future: of playing music, finishing their new album and getting out on the road again.
They are adeptly human, and it shows. With Matthew humbly playing-down his ultimate role as songwriter within the band and instead, making sure to note that much of the credit for the success of Majestic goes to their engineer, Scott "Scooter" Smith. They speak of the community around them and the 500+ people that cycle through their shows. It is evident that this is a source of pride for the band. Likewise, the band has managed to attract many local musicians and artists in town. Some have even pitched-in to assist. For Majestic, The Reals' received an award for its design - a design that was produced by the phenomenally talented Rick Griffith of the Denver-based company, Matter.
Reaching out across the space between the actors and the audience, The Reals are getting at everything that is more deeply true on a human level, than personally true to each individual. With a realistic head for the future and the long, often torturous road of the music industry - The Reals are certainly the kind of band that Denver would be proud to set on the national stage and call it one of its own.