Local band tries to find niche

Three of the four members of Harmonic Blue sit in Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, eating giant sandwiches on a mundane Saturday in early October. Nearly two weeks later, they’ll headline the Velvet Lounge in Washington. The College Park musicians have elbowed their way past the punks and indie kids to find musical success in the D.C. area.

All they want to do is talk about aesthetic influences. Over the course of an hour-long lunch, they freely reference everyone from Grizzly Bear and Jeff Buckley to Michael Kiwanuka and Jimi Hendrix. These influences, though disparate, are indicative of Harmonic Blue’s style, which ranges from mellow jazz to gritty blues-rock. Yet, in a town full of niche bands, they’ve struggled to find camaraderie with other artists.

“I feel like we’re outcasts,” said lead guitarist and senior finance major Anthony Ajluni. “We draw from such a wide variety of influences that it’s hard to find a good set of bands that have a similar sound.”

Most of this university got its first taste of Harmonic Blue at last semester’s Art Attack, which it played after winning Student Entertainment Events’ Battle of the Bands competition to open for B.o.B.

The same day as the show, the band released Villa Borghese, an album recorded at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County during winter break.

The record touches upon many different musical ideas, which is unsurprising given the group’s diverse list of favorite artists. There’s the Pet Sounds-flourishes of the instrumental title track. There’s the ’90s guitar noodling on “Silver Spoon.” There’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers bounce of “I Go, She Goes.” The conceptual melting pot is vast and impressive.

It was the band members’ experiences in foreign countries that spurred the sentiment behind the textures on Villa Borghese. The record was named after a park in Rome that Ajluni and the band’s singer Zach Field, a senior government and politics and marketing major, visited during their time abroad.

These travels, along with bass player and 2012 alumnus Gabe Bustos’ time in Seville, Spain, shaped the thematic arc of the album, which they consider a series of “letters from abroad.”

“More than music, [we’re inspired] by life itself,” said Ajluni.

But worldliness and artistic soul-searching aside, Harmonic Blue is focused on the financial practicalities of its craft. The band holds regular business meetings, where the members plan for the future and monitor the flow of funds. Ten percent goes to each of the four band members, while the remaining 60 percent goes back into the overall pot for expenses and savings. It’s a system that’s helped them stay sustainable, especially as they face the hardships of being semiprofessional musicians leading busy, independent lives.

For instance, scheduling meeting times presents an obstacle: Bustos has already graduated and lives in Baltimore, and drummer Sam Balcom attends Towson University. While they have no manager, they rely solely on their business sensibilities to keep things running smoothly.

“At the beginning of junior year, we obviously recognized that we had about two years of this fallback, this cushioning, which is your parents paying for your rent and for your food,” said Bustos. “Since junior year, we’ve been very proactive in trying to do as much as we can until everyone graduates, and the real world hits.”

On Friday, at its Velvet Lounge show, the band took the stage to a room full of boisterous, costume-clad College Park students. For a professional band, this had all the fundamental elements of a road gig: chatter during songs and nearly the same amount of people huddled around the bar as in front of the stage. This was music for drinking or grinding but not scrutiny.

But they dared to persist. Field swigged a beer; Bustos shouted the name of each song as if he were standing in front of a packed house; Ajluni closed his eyes and unleashed a wailing guitar solo. All they wanted to do was embody the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

Harmonic Blue plays tomorrow night at WMUC. Doors open at 5 p.m.

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