The reasons for moving to Bar Harbor from New York City for songwriter-guitarist Milan McAlevey and vocalist Nina Donghia initially came out of a desire to simply try something different – and a job at Jackson Laboratory, for Donghia, a molecular biologist. Music wasn’t even necessarily in the picture, after McAlevey spent years playing in bands in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. He was burned out on the city.
Several years after moving to the island, however, the pair’s band, Coke Weed, is what McAlevey believes his is best, most focused work yet. Their last album, the atmospheric, punch-drunk blend of psychedelia and folk-rock, “Nice Dreams,” was a sleeper hit of 2012, and their new, as-yet-untitled album is tentatively set for a June release. Their next show is set for Saturday, April 6 at the Rock & Art Shop in Bangor.
“I’ve been writing non-stop since I moved to Maine. I was in New York ostensibly to make it as a musician and I never worked hard enough. Here, I’ve been able to make it my priority,” said McAlevey. “I get up early and coffee up and I write. It’s a simple life style that’s helped me develop a disciplined approach to music. I draw a lot of lyrical content from my observation of folks, and there’s fewer people here, so it’s easier to focus on just a few narratives… It’s a clarity I found here that was impossible for me to achieve in New York. I put a lot of stock in hitting it every morning even when I’m not feeling it, which I suppose is a very Maine attitude.”
Coke Weed started in 2010, after McAlevey and Donghia met guitarist Caleb Davis, and shortly thereafter hooked up with drummer Peter Cuffari and bassist Zach Soares. Soares and Cuffari provide a limber, Rolling Stones-esque groove foundation for McAlevey and Davis, who toss off names like the Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Lee Hazlewood and Phil Spector as influences. On top of all that, there’s Donghia’s entrancing vocals; they give Coke Weed a distinct sound and a throwback kind of sex appeal, like Nancy Sinatra, or French singers from the 1960s, like Francoise Hardy or Jane Birkin.
“I [also] think she’s pulling a lot from weird male singers like Bryan Ferry and Jim Morrison,” said McAlevey. “Nina has very unique phrasing. I’ll think something she’s done is an off-kilter one-off blip, and then you listen to the tapes of the vocal takes and she’s doing the same thing every time. Then you start to understand her interpretation reflects a deeper connection with the material; that’s the mark of a born vocal stylist.”
Coke Weed’s first album, “Volume One,” came out in 2011, followed quickly by “Nice Dreams” and an accompanying national tour supporting the Walkmen and Woods; McAlevey played in several groups in New York with Walkmen member Walter Martin, including Mac St. Michael, recording a one-off album of folk songs recorded in 2008 and released in 2011. The as-yet-untitled new album, mixed by “Nice Dreams” producer Nick Stumpf, veers away from the more folk rock-influenced sounds of the previous records, and towards a heavier sound influenced by Iggy Pop, both with the Stooges and in his solo work.
“We recorded all summer… and then recorded and overdubbed and recorded and then mixed all winter. We put much more care into the performances, and really had a blast exploring different sonics, different amps, a raft of distortion pedals and digital delays,” said he said. “We toured so much in 2012, and figured out that our audiences like to rock out a lot, and so we adapted, became heavier. Nick mixed the new one and he managed to impart this consistent, classic sound to the whole thing. It’s impressive. [It's] a bit shorter and very cohesive as a proper album.”
All of Coke Weed’s music can be purchased or sample at the band’s website, cokeweed.com. In addition to their April 6 show in Bangor, the band will play with O’Death, Butcher Boy and Hyena at the Space Gallery in Portland on April 25, and with O’Death and Hyena at the Lompoc Cafe in Bar Harbor on April 27. Like them on Facebook to receive updates on the release of the new album.