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Chain, Keep Us Together

Meagan Duffy’s emotive songwriting gets sonic support—and national attention—with her latest band, Hand Habits

by Raurri Jennings on June 26, 2013 · 1 comment


It is June 14, and the window for interviewing Hand Habits is closing rapidly before the band embark on their first multistate tour from New York through the Midwest. They have been very busy, playing gigs at area venues like Tierra Coffee Roasters, Valentine’s, the Spotty Dog, and, most recently, Art on Lark, where lead singer and guitarist Meagan Duffy played a trifecta of sets with MaryLeigh Roohan and Bear Grass in addition to Hand Habits. The band also are recording their debut EP as a four-piece in anticipation of the tour. When I arrive in Saratoga to see them play with Party Boat at Bailey’s Café, the happy-hour entertainment is winding down. A guy in his mid-20s, wearing a Guinness baseball jersey, flip-flops and cargo shorts plays an acoustic medley of Bob Marley and Sublime.

I’m grateful when our conversation moves to the quiet of the barroom.

Through the reverb: Meagan Duffy. Photo by Julia Zave.

The EP is 85-percent done; there will be either four or five songs; and it is currently without a title. “We have until Thursday,” jokes guitarist Craig Dutra. “But the last 15 percent will be done a lot quicker than the first 85 percent.”

All of this uncertainty is rendered inconsequential dust when the band take the stage on the patio. They open with “Enough Is Enough,” the first song off their EP, which eventually will receive the title Nameless Lust. Duffy triggers a shimmering guitar drone, fattened by Michael Cox’ pulsing bass and Stan Francois’ kick drum. The haze is punctuated by snare and guitar hits until Duffy’s quavering voice weaves the line, “Rain, rain on the day you die,” into the song’s dynamic system of crescendos and come-downs. When Duffy delivers the chorus in double time with Francois building a cymbal rush to a dead stop, the air returns to the crowd’s lungs in excited yelps.

Regardless of what the EP is called and in what state of completion it will be by next Thursday, there is no escaping Hand Habits’ emotional heft and psychic powers on stage. Later in the set, Duffy asks, “Can you guys come closer?” I have seen her do this at every show I’ve seen over the last two months. To my knowledge, it has worked every time.

Hand Habits began as Meagan Duffy’s side project between gigs with her many other bands including Careers, Better Pills and MaryLeigh, to name a few. Her first EP, Pinky Demos, was recorded by Emily Sprague in the home of Eric Margan, of the Red Lions, and included Sprague’s voice on a few tracks. Her promising debut revealed songwriting that is, at turns, confessional and surreal. To complement the confessional elements of the material, Duffy set out to create a more “impersonal” identity within Hand Habits, one where the raw emotion of the music was foregrounded but not so stark. A rotating cast of musicians, including Dylan Perrillo of the Dylan Perrillo Orchestra and Way Down, James Gascoyne of Railbird and Party Boat, and Duffy’s younger brother, Chris, played one-off shows, but left due to other engagements.

In the fall of 2012, the current line-up of Duffy, Dutra, Cox and Francois solidified. It was then that the dreamy vibe Duffy envisioned for the band was made flesh by an unlikely cohort of musicians from punk, post-punk, post-hardcore and post-rock bands.

“I brought my strap up, cleaned all the blood off my bass, started playing with my fingers,” jokes Cox, of punk band Caleb Lionheart. “I pluck a chord for four bars, and that’s my part and I love it.” Cox’s pocket is deep and his focus, along with that of Francois, maintains the continuity of the band’s spell on the audience.

Francois, the drummer for post-rock band Life Among the Trees, has similarly “always been in more aggressive bands, so it’s nice to do something that’s more chill.” If this were Pee-Wee’s playhouse, “chill” would be the secret word, but rather than screaming every time it was uttered, as in the playhouse, a nod would do.

Dutra, former keyboardist for the recently disbanded Albany post-hardcore institution Aficionado, switched from keys to a Gretsch six-string when he joined the band in the fall of 2012, thinking it would be more of a freelance gig than a full-time endeavor. “They let me play guitar, which is exciting,” he says. “I get to use the [guitar] pedals I spent too much money on.” Hearing him tell it in his humble way quietly understates his contribution, between his tasteful tremolo guitar smears, backing vocals and work recording the band’s latest EP.

Nameless Lust is a document of a band discovering a fully realized sound. When the current lineup first started playing and recording together, Duffy brought mostly finished songs to the group, which were then fleshed out by Cox, Francois and Dutra—as well as Duffy’s newly acquired fuzz pedal. Listening to the Pinky Demos and Nameless Lust in comparison to one another reveals the watermarks of post-rock and post-punk, whether in the extended coda at the end of “MYNT” or the insistent repeated guitar lead on “Wonder What.”

The best example of this shift can be heard on the song “I Don’t Know,” which appeared on Pinky Demos. The original is played on acoustic guitar with Duffy and Sprague’s voices under the influence of heavy reverb. The version that appears on Nameless Lust retains the washes of reverb—one of the hallmarks of the band’s sound—but develops the dynamism that was latent in the song’s Pinky Demo form. The electrified version rotates between Duffy’s surreal comparisons, like “You were a drunk driveway/You were a starlit skylight/ ou were a birds-eye breezeway,” and the airy dismissal, “It doesn’t matter now,” that trails into the cathartic fuzz of a towering E-chord. However, the moment the band’s growth comes into sharpest focus is at the end of the song, when Duffy’s voice gets fractured with delay and sent panning through the speakers, heralding a 16-bar guitar freakout before returning to the song’s circuital melody.

As I write that last line, Francois’ voice is in the back of my head: “These are songs, not freakouts,” and he’s right, but I know no other word for what happens when two guitars are played with such volume and intensity. Still, no matter how far the group drift in improvisation, or how dramatic the dynamic swing, Duffy’s songwriting and their collective mission to keep it chill is the locus around which the band orbits.

Days before the publication of this article, a link to the popular indie MP3 blog I Guess I’m Floating showed up on my Facebook feed, featuring Hand Habits’ new ripper “Wonder What.” By Internet definitions of the word, I’d been “scooped.” Such is the downside of working in analog media. But, unlike the world of Spiderman’s Daily Bugle, when getting scooped was equivalent of irrelevance, I couldn’t have been happier to jump on this bandwagon. Only a few days later, a transmission from Duffy’s Facebook page announced that the band had magically scored a gig opening up for the Polyphonic Spree at the Basement in Columbus, Ohio.

Railbird, Sean Rowe and Phantogram have all had recent success breaking through the tricky system of locks that hides the Capital Region’s artistic treasures. Couched in those terms, Hand Habits’ recent buzz makes sense. Although, in light of others’ success and the deep hooks in the band’s music, it is not as surprising as it once was. Seeing a local act gets so much well-deserved attention so early in their career is exhilarating. Looking back through my notes from their show at Valentine’s in May, the young lady in the crowd sporting expensive heels and taking video with her phone does not seem so out of place.

At Bailey’s, I ask the standard question of what is inspiring to the band, and Duffy responds, “People I love. People I don’t love. People who don’t love me anymore . . . and,” she adds for levity, “staying inside a lot.”

Fast forward to their tour kick-off show at Valentine’s last week. After they encore with a bracing version of “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, those words seem an apt description of the territory the band are mining live and on Nameless Lust. Duffy howls the line, “If you don’t love me now, you will never love me again,” with all the daggers that Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks fire at one another on the original, after which Duffy and Dutra shred Buckingham’s one-note guitar solo anew, with Cox howling, “Chain, keep us together,” in harmony with Dutra and Francois. Surrounded by the rhythm section, Duffy shuffles her feet and rocks forward on her toes, in control of her instrument but also possessed of spirit. They feel through the notes, emoting from a place of sincerity, drawing the growing crowd in their swell.