Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Sparta Philharmonic

Sparta Philharmonic/Fuzzy Math/RedRumsey -

McCoy's Tavern, Olympia WA, August 22 2015

Story & Photos By Paul Silver

In August, 2010, as happens from time to time, I received some new music from our Fearless Editor, to be reviewed in these august (web) pages. It was the same as countless times before. Except this time, there was a new album from a band called Sparta Philharmonic.

I had never heard of Sparta Philharmonic before I began listening to (trans)migratory birds, their third and most recent release. But it was an album that floored me. Regular readers of my reviews will know that bands that have diversity in their sound generally receive my most favorable reviews. Not that there aren’t good bands that stick to a single sound – there are plenty. But bands that go beyond fixed boundaries are the ones that really get to me. And Sparta Philharmonic definitely go beyond any sort of boundaries.

Sparta Philharmonic began, in a way, in 1998, when Sparta, New Jersey brothers Alex and Greg Bortnichak began playing music together. Greg introduced Alex to Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings,” from the “Never Mind” LP. They played along to the song, with Greg on bass and Alex on drums. Then, in June of 2000, they entered their hometown’s Sparta Day Festival, as “Sparta Philharmonic,” figuring that “if we sounded like it would be something classy, we would be booked,” says Greg. “But, of course, we played the show, and the plug got pulled within fifteen minutes and all the kids kind of freaked out. So the town plugged us back in.” With power restored, they finished the performance, and Sparta Philharmonic was officially born.

Their diversity of sound comes from their natural diversity of influences. They both listen to a wide range of music, including oldies, classical music, DC post-punk, West Coast post-punk, folk-rock, and on and on. That feeds into their writing, creating music with differences in feel, from pop to noise rock to folk to gospel, and everything in between. Their music features intense mood swings and huge dynamic changes. “I think a lot of it was trial and error, with us, says Alex. “We just wanted to make sounds that made sense to us. But, our influences are diverse, so instead of shying away from being diverse with our songs, we just tried to incorporate everything that we could.”

When (trans)migratory birds was released, I gave it not only a glowing review, but also a prominent place in my 2010 list of the best releases of the year. I began checking for tour plans regularly, and even cajoled the band to tour out west. But it was not to be. They did tour intensely over the year following the release of the album, but resources began to run out, and the touring came to an end before they could book a show in San Diego. During the tour, Greg met his future wife, Erin Murphy, “and the connection was very instantaneous,” says Greg, “and we started working on music together in early 2011 (they formed the band, Teach Me Equals). One thing led to another, and I moved down (to Sarasota, Florida) a couple months later in 2011. We were touring pretty consistently by 2012, had a record ready by 2013, and just kept going.” Meanwhile, Alex joined a band called Peasant and toured Europe, but the band dissolved. Alex explains, “I had studied Latin American politics and I had gone down (to Peru) with a former professor of mine, and I really hated my job in New York City at the time, and he said, “Why don’t you come down here and do the same thing? It would be more enriching.” I also met my girlfriend down there; she’s Peruvian. Now I own my own English teaching company down there. So, it was sort of circumstance.” He also has been pursuing solo musical work, playing guitar and drums himself, recording in Peru using an iPhone app.

Fast-forward four years, and Alex had decided to come back to the States for a visit and to record some drum tracks for a new solo recording, using the same studio in which the brothers recorded (trans)migratory birds. They discussed the possibility of performing as Sparta Philharmonic, and Greg told Alex, “Well, you’re going to be here. It’d be fun, right? Let’s see what happens.”

“It made so much sense for it to be here, too,” says Alex, referring to the Pacific Northwest location for the mini-tour, “considering what our influences are, from a very young age. Obviously, we’re playing with Vern Rumsey (RedRumsey), who was a member of a band that inspired us greatly (Unwound). I started sending out feelers for the shows, and the promoters were extremely receptive.”

Upon hearing news of the impending shows, I frantically searched for tour plans beyond the announced four dates in the Pacific Northwest. Finding none, and knowing that I had wanted to see this band for the past five years, I resolved to be at the last show of the mini-tour, at McCoy’s Tavern in Olympia, Washington. This was a show that was five years in the making for me, and there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity.

Vern Rumsey of RedRumsey

The night opened with RedRumsey, Vern Rumsey’s on and off project of the past fourteen years. His back-up band for the night consisted of Greg and Alex Bortnichak on bass and drums, with Erin Murphy on guitar. The music is quite different from what Rumsey was doing with Unwound, with much more of an indie-pop sound, and a lot less noise and mania. There were a few moments of musical tension, courtesy of the Bortnichaks, and some very interesting angularities in the melodies, though the overall sound was generally somewhat calm.

Fuzzy Math

Second in the line-up was local band Fuzzy Math. My two friends that came to the show with me were discussing them after their set, with one describing them as being sort of like Prince crossed with The Ramones, and the other saying they seemed more like Robyn Hitchcock. I think they’re both right, in a way, except for the Ramones part. There’s definitely a strong Robyn Hitchcock influence in their sound, while some of their songs have a Prince-like funky underpinning, courtesy of Cosmo Mailhot’s bass lines. Guitarist-vocalist Dominic Jenkins sings with more than a bit of soul and a high-pitched voice, and the drum machine (what? Yes, a drum machine AND a drummer are part of this band) gives that lounge-disco feel. They had brought a contingent of the crowd along with them, who were very enthusiastic about the band’s performance.

At round about midnight, Sparta Philharmonic took the stage. The lonely sounds of “Never, Ever, Ever” from (trans)migratory)birds began to be plucked on Greg’s cello. Through judicious use of looping technology, he was able to switch seamlessly to guitar, as Alex quietly sprinkled in some percussion. The music slowly built in intensity, and as soon as the switch back to cello occurred, and the melody poured out with passion, I knew I made the right decision getting on that plane. The pair played through a forty-five or so minute set consisting of songs from (trans)migratory birds, as well as their first two albums, and even some newer unreleased material. Of course, songs like “Maybe It’s Best” and “Everywhere at Once, And Nowhere to Go” were very welcomed, and the new and old songs that I hadn’t heard before were uniformly good. But their closer, “Homing (Told You So)” sent chills down my spine. The song starts out as a sort of folk song, but at about the halfway mark, it just explodes into a glorious din, then resolves into a powerful noise-rock version of the folk song, distorted guitars throbbing and then soaring. It was the perfect ending to an amazing set.

Sparta Philharmonic

Will there be more Sparta Philharmonic shows? “Well, this is new for us,” says Alex. “I’m south of the equator, and Greg is in no place for very long. He’s constantly on the road. But, what this week has shown is that this kind of model works, musically. In the immediate future, there’s no plan. But this string of shows has shown us that this model can work. We can return when we want, and it can be super cool.” Adds Alex, “We’re going to be together again in January. There may not be totally public performances. But I’m working on a public performance in Florida in January. And maybe we might do a few more, while we’re in the same vicinity.”

And what about those new songs? Greg explains, “There were a couple songs that happened very quickly right after we stopped touring for (trans)migratory birds that we recorded in 2012 and we are working on releasing imminently.”

So, there’s still even more to look forward to. I’m excited for what the future holds. is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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