Music News & Reviews

Bright musical future seen for Sacramento’s Sunmonks

Alexandra Steele and Geoffrey CK are the voices behind the Sunmonks, whose debut album is “In a Desert of Plenty.”
Alexandra Steele and Geoffrey CK are the voices behind the Sunmonks, whose debut album is “In a Desert of Plenty.”

The Sunmonks put rhythm first.

“Everything is a drum – that is the arrangement,” said Geoffrey CK, the Sacramento-based band’s primary songwriter and one of its two singers.

This rhythmic emphasis means an absence of mad guitar riffs, and that Sunmonks songs, while crossing pop genres from indie rock to funk and Afrobeat, share a bounce and lift.

It also provides a nice launching pad for the band’s less-egalitarian elements: multi-instrumentalist CK’s trumpet accents, and his vocal harmonies with bandmate Alexandra Steele. Elements too remarkable to blend in.

The 2-year-old band, which will mark the vinyl release of its debut EP “In a Desert of Plenty” Sunday with a show at LowBrau, began as a duo. CK, 27, and Steele, 25, have sung together casually since first meeting several years ago. Both grew up in religious families in the Sacramento region.

“We both kind of come from families where music is just part of everything,” said CK, whose moniker, unrelated to the comedian Louis, incorporates the first initials of his middle and last names. CK said people too often mangle the pronunciation of his last name, Knecht (hard “k”).

CK’s mother composed music for the Mormon church, he said, and the family once performed together as a band, with his sister on saxophone and him on trumpet. Steele’s grandfather was a Church of the Nazarene minister, and her grandmother was the church’s musical director.

“She played piano and sang opera – she taught me how to sing,” said Steele, who joined CK for an interview last week at Sacramento’s The Dock recording studio, along with Sunmonks drummer Julian Loy, bass player Dave Middleton and Steele’s affectionate 10-month-old Australian shepherd, Rupert.

Steele and CK know enough about traditional music to recognize that they use a “mixed” register, which lies between “head voice” and “chest voice.”

“It’s crooning, like Nat King Cole,” CK said. “It is different from what most people in our age group do. It is not soft and whispery, but it is also not this ‘rock’ voice.”

Whether it is approach or just talent, CK’s and Steele’s voices sound richer than most rock voices, especially in harmony.

They did not perform together officially until 2012. But they were part of the Sacramento scene before that. They have collaborated with local band Life in 24 Frames, and CK played bass for Sea of Bees (Sacramento singer-songwriter Jules Baenziger).

The Sea of Bees gig came via Middleton, who works for the recording-studio publication Tape Op.

Middleton once jammed on drums, with CK on bass, at an underground Sacramento rehearsal space. Impressed, he recommended CK to John Baccigaluppi, Sea of Bees’ manager and Tape Op’s publisher.

Middleton was wowed further when he saw CK and Steele perform together at the rehearsal space – during the month or so between the duo’s stage debut and when Loy and Middleton joined them, forming a band.

“These guys were the best singers I had seen in years,” Middleton said.

Middleton became a key ally, as did Baccigaluppi, the studio guru whose revered warehouse recording space, The Hangar, was forced to close in 2013. After the Hangar closed, Baccigaluppi built, with business partners, the small Dock studio as well as a larger studio in Marin County that has booked such bands as My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses.

He’s a good guy for a fledgling band to know. And he sometimes takes a deeper interest in an act, beyond their studio sessions. After hearing Sunmonks’ demo, he became their manager.

“He is our baby daddy,” Steele said, smiling.

“The demo was great (but) there was just so much there, to a degree that it is almost bewildering, because there are so many ways you can go,” Baccigaluppi said after joining the Sunmonks last week at the Dock. CK is not just a prolific songwriter, he said, but “such a good arranger that he can make a bad song sound great.”

He asked Steele and CK to strip down songs to acoustic guitar and voice. “Not that the songs were bad, (but) we wanted to go through and get the best songs without being influenced by the arrangement, and build them back up again,” Baccigaluppi said.

The EP’s four songs nearly were finished before Baccigaluppi came into the picture, but were mixed with his help. He and the Sunmonks since have recorded four songs from scratch. Baccigaluppi and the band previewed the new tracks last week at the Dock.

They range from 1980s dance pop to a brass-laden song in which horn lines replace guitar leads. The production is tighter and more sophisticated than the EP’s, but maintains that recording’s freshness.

The plan now is to shop the new songs to labels that might be interested in the Sunmonks, a band name chosen more for its sound than meaning. Steele and CK wanted a name that, when uttered, makes use of the whole mouth.

“One of the other (possibilities) was Swarmhorse,” CK said.

He and Steele subsequently discovered the name Sunmonks carried greater resonance.

“Retrospectively, it makes a lot of sense,” said CK, who was raised Mormon but no longer attends church. “I am deeply religious. Not in any sort of Christian way. I am obsessed with mythology and storytelling. The God of the margins – being obsessed with that. I am also serious and overly devout to things I care about, in almost an obsessive, unhealthy way. And Alex is more sort of present, warm, sociable.

“I am the monk, and she is the sun.”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

SUNMONKS’ VINYL RELEASE SHOW

When: 7 p.m. Sunday. Young Aundee opens. (All ages)

Where: LowBrau, 1050 20th St., Sacramento

Cost: Free

Information: www.sunmonks.com

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