It’s Thursday night at the Georgia Theatre, and the energy is palpable. Standing behind dueling drum kits, the two drummers (one shirtless, by the way) play a game of musical Ping-Pong, throwing solos back and forth, creating something reminiscent of a tribal gathering. A stand-up bass, electric bass, viola, skinny jeans and a couple of guitars fill the rest of the stage. Before the first song, the band joins in a huddle – this is their family – and the crowd, singing back the lyrics and waving their hands, those are their friends.
For this band, that’s what it is all about.
Friday afternoon at Walker’s Coffee and Pub, Mike Macdonald walks in wearing the same blue and white trucker hat from the night before. JP, Ryan, and Jamie come trickling in after him, all headed for the bar. Two coffees, one black, one latte, a peach ice tea, and an off-brand beer come back to the table … it’s 1pm. A few tag-alongs are hanging around, and it seems as though everyone who walks by knows the band. Walker’s, beer, coffee, plaid shirts, shaggy hair and a mustache: these guys scream “Athens indie-folk-rock band.” So meet the band, all past or present Bulldawgs, and you want to know them – Mike Macdonald (lead vocal, rhythm guitar), JP McKenzie (lead guitar), Tuna Fortuna, yes, that’s his name (stand-up/electric bass), Ryan Houchens and Jamie Rios (drums) and Maria Kindt (viola).
Immediately upon asking what their gig is all about, without hesitation Mike replies, “This is a community thing. We want everyone to be a part of it, to be on the journey with us. That’s what this band is about.”
And they mean it. For them it’s all about the music and all about the fans. To showcase this community vibe, their first gig was a potluck-kegger at the Chase Street Warehouse. The band says about 150 people came out on that early April night to see them rock out with a few other bands including Low Tree Grow Tall from Atlanta. It must have been quite the night, because ever since, Family & Friends has been the new buzz in town.
In music biz terms, they are very young as a group, with all the pieces coming together just this past April. But don’t let their “age” fool you. Their wheels are turning, and they aren’t slowing down. They plan to have their first EP finished by the end of October, and they have a Halloween show planned at the Green Room.
When self-describing their brand, they say it’s still in the making. Ryan says, “The fans shape the brand. That’s what we’re about, the fans.” JP adds, “We’re going for a unique vibe. We don’t want to just be folk.” Mike agrees, “The foundation is folky, but when everything else is added, it’s something different.”
Different they are indeed. Throw JP’s heavier, rock background in with Mike’s “Mumfordy” lyrics, Tuna’s cargo pants/electric bass/stand-up bass combo, Ryan’s high school drum-line experience, Jamie’s conga drums, Maria’s viola expertise, and you’ve got a pretty unique sound.
The band cites The Avett Brothers’ live performance energy, Modest Mouse’s songwriting, Reptar’s influence on the local scene and Typhoon as a few main influences.
What it boils down to for this band is the community. “Music is a spiritual connection between people,” says JP. “We are nothing without each other,” adds Ryan. What Family & Friends is really about is just that, family and friends. The band acknowledges music’s ability to bring people together, and its inexplicable way of bringing joy and building community. Their ultimate goal is to grow their band into a touring act, but for now you can find them rehearsing in the warehouse where the door is always open. Mike sums it up nicely, “If we play music at the warehouse and no one hears it, did we make a sound?”
Did they? Guess you’ll have to pay them a visit and find out.