Sonos: Glitchy A Cappella, Live At NPR The Los Angeles-based singing group combines glee club harmonies with novel vocal techniques and electronic manipulation. The sextet visited NPR's Studio 4A to perform its versions of songs by Fleet Foxes, Chris Isaak and the Jackson 5.
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Sonos: Glitchy A Cappella, Live At NPR

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Sonos: Glitchy A Cappella, Live At NPR

Sonos: Glitchy A Cappella, Live At NPR

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's been said that voice is the original instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And the a cappella group Sonos has taken this idea to a new level.

(Soundbite of music)

SONOS (A Cappella Group): (Singing) Again. It's a shame. It's a shame. It's a perfect shame. Creep under my door, and we do it again, oh, oh.

HANSEN: Sonos isn't your typical glee club. Aside from their novel vocal techniques and even some electronic manipulation, they've also cultivated a modern repertoire that includes unique renditions of music by Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, Bjork, Imogen Heap and more. "SonoSings" is the name of their new and first CD, and the sextet has traveled from their home base in Los Angeles to perform for us here in Studio 4A.

So, let me welcome each singer. Ben McLain, welcome.

Mr. BEN MCLAIN (Musician): Hi.

HANSEN: Katharine Hoye, welcome.

Ms. KATHERINE HOYE (Musician): Thanks.

HANSEN: And Jessica Freedman, welcome.

Ms. JESSICA FREEDMAN (Musician): Thank you.

HANSEN: Rachel Bearer, welcome.

Ms. RACHEL BEARER (Musician): Thank you. It's great to be here.

HANSEN: Paul Peglar?

Mr. PAUL PEGLAR (Musician): Yes.

HANSEN: All right, and Chris Harrison.

Mr. CHRIS HARRISON (Musician): Yes, hello.

HANSEN: Chris, let me just start before we hear some of the music, because you've done a lion's share of the arrangements for this new CD, "SonoSings," first song we're going to hear is one called "White Winter Hymnal" by the group Fleet Foxes. Let's just hear a little bit of the original so we can compare and contrast.

Mr. HARRISON: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "White Winter Hymnal")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) I was falling in the, I was falling in the, I was falling in the, I was falling in the, I was falling in the, I was following in the pack all swallowed in the coats, with scarves of red tied around their throats.

HANSEN: Now, Fleet Foxes has really recently become popular. They're a new band. So, typical question, but how do you decide which groups and which songs you're going to cover when you make a CD like this?

Mr. HARRISON: That's a great question. Yeah, when the project started, we basically made kind of playlists or mixed CDs and our manager and business partner, Hugo Vereker made the same and we would trade and listen to each other's stuff. And we're, like, we think these songs are really cool and could be especially cool with voices, and he'd make us listen to some things.

And "White Winter" actually was one that I had never heard, I don't think any of us had heard before because it was, I think it had either just come out or was about to come out or something. It had come up on Hugo's radar and he brought it to our attention and said, hey, I'm thinking this, but, you know, like a hymnal and stuff like that, you know, a Beach Boys tune. So, what if we reworked it that way? And we did and it came out pretty nice.

(Soundbite of song, "White Winter Hymnal")

SONOS: (Singing) I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied 'round their throats to keep their little heads from falling in the snow, then I turned 'round and there you go, and, Michael, you would fall, in turn the white snow red as strawberries, in the summertime.

HANSEN: That's "White Winter Hymnal" performed in Studio 4A and it's actually a cover of a song that was originally done by Fleet Foxes.

What's it like for you guys to perform live in this era of Auto-Tune?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: It's really fun. Well, it's interesting 'cause Auto-Tune, you know, Auto-Tune 10 years ago existed, but was a secret, you know. It was something that made it so really, really pretty people could have singing careers, who maybe wouldn't have otherwise. And since then it's being exposed as, like, a tool. It's kind of become like a musical toy or, you know, like things that...

HANSEN: An effect.

Mr. HARRISON: An effect, absolutely, yeah. Cher kind of blazed the trail there and then, you know, Kanye's favorite thing now is to put Auto-Tune (unintelligible).

HANSEN: Sure. And you can't hear Will.i.am without...

Mr. HARRISON: No, you sure can't.

HANSEN: ...Auto-Tune. But you do use some electronics.

Mr. HARRISON: We do, yeah. Nothing that fixes what we're doing, just things that augment what we're doing. The thing I use most often is an octave pedal.

HANSEN: Okay.

Mr. HARRISON: I guess in a sense that kind of fixes what I'm doing. I'm not a bass. Not one of us in this group is a bass. And so there are some notes we want to be able to hit that are really lower than most people can sing.

HANSEN: So, it kind of splits your vocals so you're doing a bass part and another part as well.

Mr. HARRISON: Exactly, yeah. I'm singing a note so it's letting through that note plus a note one octave below, which makes me sound a lot cooler than I actually am.

HANSEN: So, a bunch of bass singers haven't been, you know, trying to knock down the door of your recording studio and say, let me in.

Mr. HARRISON: We know what's going on. I've been complimented after many a show on my incredible low end and I've bowed my head in shame and admitted that it's...

Unidentified Man: Reluctantly.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. I can do a quick demonstration if you want.

HANSEN: Yeah, go ahead. Yeah.

Mr. HARRISON: So, this is my actual singing voice.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. HARRISON: And here's if I add an octave.

(Soundbite of singing)

HANSEN: How cool is that?

Mr. HARRISON: I think it's pretty cool.

HANSEN: Yeah, it is cool. Purists don't mind, though, that you're doing that?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, they do.

Unidentified Woman: Well, some do.

Mr. HARRISON: But we're not really a purist band. We have, you know, we have distortion in our vocals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And you're the only guy I've ever seen sing barefoot.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah.

HANSEN: Which is kind of interesting. Yeah. Feel it from the ground up, huh?

Mr. HARRISON: One of the, a KCRW DJ, an awesome guy who's been very supportive of us and plays our stuff, named Chris Douridas, actually asked me when we went in and set up and everything, he noticed, he was, like, oh cool, you're barefoot. That's like your thing, yeah? And at that moment I thought, yeah, you know.

HANSEN: It is now.

Mr. HARRISON: It is. Now it is. So, thank you, Chris.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right, well, we're going to hear one more performance from you live here in Studio 4A. You do a lot of modern music on "SonoSings," the CD, but this one is really a blast from the past. Let's play the original.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

JACKSON 5 (Music Group): (Singing) Oh, baby, give me one more chance to show you that I love you. Won't you please let me back in your heart. Oh, darling...

HANSEN: And that's the original "I Want You Back" done by the Jackson 5. Classic, bubbly pop, but without giving it all away, this is a little darker version?

Mr. HARRISON: It is. It's a little different.

HANSEN: Yeah. All right, well, let's hear it. This is Sonos with "I Want You Back."

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

SONOS: (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always made you stand out in the crowd. But someone picked you from the bunch, one glance was all it took. Now it's much too late for me to take a second look.

Oh, baby, give me one more chance, won't you take me, please, back in your heart. Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go, but now that I see you in his arms, oo, I want you back.

Trying to live without your love was one long sleepless night. Let me show you, girl, that I know wrong from right. Every street you walk on I leave tearstains on the ground. Following the girl I didn't even want around. Oh, baby, give me one more chance. Won't you take me please back in your heart? Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go, but now that I see you in his arms...

I want you back, I want, oh, baby, come back to me. I want you back (I want you back), I want you back (I want you back), baby, come back to me. I want you back (I want you back), I want you back (I want you back), baby, come back to me. I want you back (I want you back), I want you back, oh, baby, come back to me. I want you back (I want you back), I want you back (I want you back), baby, come back to me. I want you back (I want you back), I want you back (I want you back), oh, baby, come back to me.

Oh, baby, give me one more chance. Won't you take me, please, back in your heart. Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go, but now that I see you...

HANSEN: A major hit by the Jackson 5 transposed into a minor key and through the vocals of the a cappella group Sonos. Great version of that tune.

Mr. HARRISON: Thank you.

HANSEN: The group Sonos is performing here in Studio 4A. Their new CD is called "SonoSings." It's on the Verve label. Jessica Freedman, Chris Harrison, Ben McLain, Rachel Bearer, Katharine Hoye and Paul Peglar, thank you all so much from coming in to play.

SONOS: Thank you.

Our piece was produced by Ned Wharton and engineered by Neil Tevault. You can hear full Studio 4A performances on our Web site NPRMusic.org. And just after we wrapped up our interview, manager Hugo Vereker announced that the group had prepared a special bonus for us.

Mr. HARRISON: Sonos bonus.

HANSEN: Sonos bonus.

(Soundbite of Sonos performing NPR theme song)

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