By Melanie Stangl
Our Best of 2016 Awards are coming up on Saturday, February 11th, and anticipation is running high. Of course, the event itself is about reflection—celebrating the best of the past year, both with the awards themselves and the lineup of performing artists. Our headliner, Meeting of Important People, released their album Troika last February to great reception, including commendation from WYEP-FM as the Top Local Release of the year. It’s one of the many great singles, EP’s, and albums to come out of 2016, with genres ranging from experimental space rock, shimmering electronic, modern soul, gritty grunge, and more.
The scene didn’t become this diverse and dynamic overnight. 2017 marks a decade of MOIP’s existence as a band, and frontman Josh Verbanets has seen firsthand how this community has evolved. “When we formed MOIP in 2007, things were just beginning to get really fun for us and our friends in town,” he says. He and MOIP drummer Matt Miller originally became acquainted in the folk-rock band Lohio, which began gaining traction via features in City Paper, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and radio play on WYEP. “It was the first time that people outside of our immediate circle were becoming interested in what we were all doing,” he adds. “[It led] to a little community of other bands all hanging out and playing.”
Thanks in part to media coverage in outlets which are still going strong today, gigs at house parties, bars such as Brillobox, and art galleries evolved into larger concerts, including a slot at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. “I had been playing in bands around town since I was a teenager, but this felt to me like that first time that a wide variety of genres were all interacting well together and were all true friends, doing what they could to relate to the audience,” Verbanets says. “It felt very different from many of the bands I had known about in the early 2000’s in the area, which were I felt to be little more stand-offish and insular.”
Part of that shift from closed-off to supportive had to do with the maturation of the musicians themselves, as well as their surrounding supporters. “A lot of our community from that time started to grow up a bit, start families, and of course, things were really changing around 2010-11,” Verbanets continues. “For MOIP, we started a whole new chapter around that time, when we launched a Kickstarter campaign for our second full-length album, and found ourselves lucky to engage in a whole new and wider community around the region. We were now playing not to just our friends and people our own age, but families and folks of all walks of life.”
With increasingly diverse and interested audiences came new outlets for them to hear, see, and support the acts they enjoyed. “I think the combination of young professionals in the area (more than had ever been here before), plus new attention and support from larger outlets like Randy Baumann and WDVE, alongside the development of great hometown festivals, really started to kick into gear around 2013,” says Verbanets. “And it’s been an absolutely incredible thing.”
The glitz and glamour and big shot names of scenes in cities such as New York, L.A., and Nashville might be harder to find here, but Pittsburgh is rich with something more authentic and homegrown. Verbanets elaborates: “I’ve played in other regions and countries, and for me, the things that stick out the most here are: People take their friends seriously as artists and performers, and seem to want to engage in the community even as audience members. Meaning, people will actually stick around and make a night of it here, whereas in New York, you would probably go see ‘your friend’s band’ and then leave the venue the second they are done playing.” (As someone who has frequently seen band members in attendance at their friends’ and acquaintances’ shows around the city, I can confirm that this is true.) Dismissive comparisons to larger, more well-known artists are also exceedingly rare; everyone involved recognizes the legitimacy and obvious talent of local acts. He continues: “We now have an amazing population around the region of people who take ‘hometown artists’ just as seriously as they would Neil Young, going to support them at live events and listening to their music in regular rotation without thinking they are ‘less than.’” The huge, enthusiastic turnout for events such as the Rock All Night Tour, Deutschtown Music Festival, and other large-scale concerts is a testament to this.
Throughout the past ten years of changes and growth, Meeting of Important People has remained a standby in this community. “The same three people have been through all sorts of different stages of life already over this decade,” says Verbanets. “When we started, we were in our early and mid-twenties, wanting to be a touring indie band. Then we started getting married, buying small houses in town, having kids, and realized that we were so lucky to be part of an amazing regional thing.”
Their brand of thoughtful, fun pop rock with a knack for storytelling has certainly been a notable contributor to that regional ‘thing.’ Troika is in the running for our Album of the Year Award, and has been recognized by outlets big and small around town, including the Frick Summer Concert series, as well as the Carnegie Museum of Art. Verbanets describes it as “the best work we’ve ever done,” adding that “people have been unbelievably nice about it.”
“2016 was just an amazing year for hometown music,” he continues. “I was absolutely blown away by so many of the artists around us, people of all ages: Morgan Erina’s amazing EP [Lady, a nominee for our Best EP Award], The Commonheart developing so quickly into just a huge group of performers reaching such a vast audience, the friendship of Randy Baumann and his guidance over the summertime Hartwood Acres hometown extravaganza…”
Of course, naming every single local act to release killer music last year would be a daunting, if not impossible, task. But we here at Sound Scene Express gave it our best shot. Come out to the Awards at James Street Gastropub this Saturday, February 11th; catch a performance from MOIP, Emerson Jay, Daily Grind and more; and help celebrate the amazing musical community that thrives here in Pittsburgh. Tickets are $10 at the door, which opens up at 7 PM with the show starting at 8. Find more info at the Facebook event page here.
“We love music as a chance to be together and express ourselves, to interact with the people around us, and to help support our families,” Verbanets effuses. And as for the future of MOIP? Well, that family is about to get just a little bigger. “At the moment, my wife and I are expecting our first baby, so I’m probably going to be taking it a little easier in 2017 and learning how to navigate that world as best I can,” he reveals. “But don’t worry—we have so many new ideas for music! I think our next material will be more natural and acoustic vibe-y.”
He concludes with a sentiment that, with luck, can be applied to the community at large: “I don’t see us ever stopping.”
The first night of MOIP’s “Troika” release show at Thunderbird Cafe