In the greater field of the North Florida music scene, Giraffrica surely prowls wild territory. The St. Augustine trio is skilled purveyors at what could be called math-rock, or prog-metal; although decades ago it would simply be “progressive,” even “art rock.” However you want to describe it, the sound of Giraffrica dips into aggro rock, metal, jazz, and everything in between. But the band uses those styles as seeds to root up and outward into new forms.
With an average age of 31, the band—Miles McLean (guitar/vocals), Dylan Besley (bass guitar), and Christian Ward (drums)—serve up an impressive, aggressive style of odd-time signatures, unpredictable syncopated breaks, and unconventional chords and riffs that are at turns abrasive and spatial.
St. Augustine photographer-videographer Justin Cooler, along with Matt Keene, filmed Giraffrica in full flight where the band puts two of their tunes, “Stallone Ranger” and “Oscar Gone Wild,” through the prog-iverse paces.
Daniel A. Brown: To the uninitiated, how would you describe Giraffrica’s music?
Miles McLean: It’s hard to describe. I like to call it Progressive/Math Rock… not quite metal, but definitely heavy. Heavier than a polar bear.
Christian Ward: All out chaos. It definitely pleases different crowds.
Dylan Besley: Polar bears are endangered.
Tell me about how the band started: How did you guys meet and when was Giraffrica first formed?
M.M.: The band was first formed in 2012 as a five piece: two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. Everyone in the band (including myself) moved out of Florida. When I moved back, I re-formed the band with Christian and Dylan. We have all known each other forever, so band practice is always fun. We just play music and make fun of each other.
C.W.: I have been friends with Miles since high school. We would jam from time to time before we actually started the band. We wrote a few songs together with just him and I; then Dylan jumped on board. That’s when we really got together and started writing as a band.
Historically, power trios—from Cream to the Jimi Hendrix Experience to Rush to Gov’t Mule and NoMeansNo—ask a lot of the players. You have to create an immense, rich sound with limited instrumentation; but not have that similar immensity overwhelm the actual songwriting. How have you three learned to navigate that dynamic?
C.W.: I love seeing such a powerful loud band with only a few members. I grew up listening to Rush with my dad, and thought it was so cool it was only a three-piece band. It’s definitely a lot easier trying to organize practice and shows with only three members.
D.B.: Funny thing! My uncle is Matt Abts; the drummer for Gov’t Mule.
How do you think each of your respective and personal tastes in music and musical ideas merge together to create music as Giraffrica?
M.M.: We all have similar tastes in music, but different musical backgrounds. The combination of our musical backgrounds works well. We just have fun doing it. To me, that’s what its all about.
C.W.: I have played most of my music career as a “metal” drummer: loud, fast and hard. This is the first band [where] I really get to open up and showcase my technicality. I like to add some funky fills and grooves to the riffs to add a different flavor.
The music that you’re playing isn’t typical underground music; it’s innately complex as math-prog-style rock and leans toward the heavy; but is also innately too intense to probably be more accepted “contemporary progressive music.” Has that been a deliberate decision to sort of operate between those two disparate realms?
M.M.: We get a lot of inspiration from different types of music. I’ve never taken guitar lessons, so everything I know is self-taught. In a way, I think that the lack of theory contributes to our unique sound.
C.W.: The part that I really like is how different we are from other bands. People who enjoy heavy music can head bang through the set while we start the party.
Tell me a bit the actual writing of your songs: Do you have sketches that you try to merge together or is it more of a loose, intuitive process?
M.M.: Some of our songs have taken a long time to write and others have been spontaneous. I never really try to “write” a song. I just play riffs that I think sound cool and let Christian and Dylan do their thing.
C.W.: Miles, Dylan, and I really have good musical chemistry. When we get together we just feel the vibe, dig in, and work out the structure. It starts with Miles, then we all bounce around ideas and transition. We’re always working and improving the overall sound.
Is there room for improvisation in the music or is it tightly arranged? If you do improvise in certain sections, how do you as individuals and as a band navigate that kind of openness and return to song form?
M.M.: We have done a little improvisation at shows, but usually we keep a pretty tight set. Sometimes we play, “Wipeout.”
C.W.: As a drummer, I’m always testing the waters with different fills here and there. Sometimes I just feel it and will get a little more creative with it. I always keep the same major rhythms, but I’ll change up my fills if I’m feeling it.
D.B.: I definitely feel Miles and I are more rigid with our arrangements. Christian has a little more wiggle room, with fills and such.
Some of your music, especially with the unorthodox rhythmic shifts and modal and even whole-tone scale qualities, reminds me of Red-era King Crimson. Are you fans of that era of prog-and-art rock?
M.M.: I’m a huge fan of math-rock bands like And So I Watch You From Afar and Tera Melos, but I also love Mastodon and Baroness. I also love Ke$ha.
C.W.: I’m familiar with some of the bands from that era, but it’s not really where I gain influence from.
I first heard your music courtesy of that video session you did with Justin Cooler. How did that come about?
M.M.: I met Justin in high school, we were on the wrestling team together (he used to kick my butt). Since then we have become good friends. He has become an amazing photographer/videographer and we plan to keep doing projects with him moving forward as a band.
C.W.: I also have known Justin since high school. I was so excited to work with him. He’s from the same town we’re from, and grew up with the same friends, so it only seemed right to work with him and support him as a friend.
You guys play locally at places like Sarbez! and Shantytown Pub and last year played the Sounds Like Summer Fest in Sanford. What kind of feedback are you getting from audiences?
M.M.: So far we have had a great crowd reaction. We are happy to have had the opportunity to play at so many great venues. Sarbez and Nobby’s have been great to us.
C.W.: People so far seem to like us a lot! We really draw in the crowd. It’s just one big party. From people head banging to girls dancing with their friends. The music brings all kinds of reactions.
Are there any local bands that you feel an affinity towards, music and aesthetic wise?
M.M.: I personally really dig Reels, and 86 Hope straight outta Saint Augustine.
Any plans to head into the studio and release an EP or a full-length?
M.M.: We are going to record our own DIY EP within the next two months and we’re very excited to release it!
C.W.: Plans of recording have been bouncing around but haven’t actually been executed. In which I’m kind of glad, because the more I play these songs, the more influence and ideas come around to change how we like to play it and what we think sounds better. But it’s coming! We’re just really trying to perfect everything before we lay it down. It takes a lot of time and patience, but it will be worth it when we’re done!
Giraffrica perform with Elders, In Angels, and Terrain at 8 p.m. April 22 at Shantytown Pub, Springfield; $5.
This Arts and Music Feature originally appeared under the headline “Where the Wild Things Are” in Void Magazine, Vol. 9, Issue 12, The Swimsuit Issue.