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A rite of passage in Vail

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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How to explain the sound of The Passage Project. Hmmm … electronic-breakbeat-jazz-funk-fusion? Organica? It’s really hard to define a style of music that blends heavy doses of dancefloor electronica with ambient grooves and elements of structured free-form jazz. To Tyler Unland, the creator and driving force behind The Passage Project, the only thing that matters is his music creates a party atmosphere wherever it’s being played.

“The focus for most of our songs … is that they have to make people dance, they have to make people want to have fun. So at shows we don’t want any music that’s going to be putting people to sleep. We want everyone up on the dance floor just moving around with as much energy as possible,” Unland said.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Unland moved with his family to Colorado when he was 15. After sustaining a knee injury during his senior year of high school, Unland knew his short-lived career as a competitive snowboarder was over so he decided to focus on music. Unland said he never realized how important music was to him before his injury but once it became clear, he pursued it with a frenzy.

Although he is a drummer by trade, Unland started writing music as a teenager and is a master at electronic mixing and creating synthesized effects and loops ” all of which figure heavily into The Passage Project’s sound.

So who are the other members of The Passage Project? Well, that depends on what day you ask Unland the question. He is the only constant in the band while a rotating cast of musicians join him from show to show. Unland enjoys playing with as many artists as possible, which is why he keeps his options open, allowing an evolution of style and sound that would make most professional musicians shudder with fear.

When The Passage Project plays the Sandbar on Saturday night, the lineup is Unland on drums and computers, Michael Bernier on the Chapman Stick, Jeremy Kurn on keys and Zach Rothenbuehler on guitar. Of course, the next time you see them play the lineup will probably not be the same.

“It always gives the music a breath of fresh air,” Unland said.

This musical freedom has allowed Unland to work with some very well-known and respected artists. On his forthcoming debut release, “That Ill Note,” musicians such as Tony Levin (former bass player for King Crimson), John Medeski (of Medeski Martin and Wood) and Danny Louis (of Gov’t Mule) make guest appearances and Chris Athens will master the album. To steep himself in a more engaging musical culture and community Unland moved to Woodstock, New York to record the album.

According to Unland he wanted to place himself in a strange new climate in hopes that the emotions and ideas that emerged from such an act would lend themselves to innovative ideas in the studio.

“I think that the music was affected by that very well. I feel like the music really came out find(ing) a really good balance between organic and electronic,” Unland said.

The finished album took over eight months to record and will be released to the public in May.

“It (was) almost like telepathy in the studio you know. Everybody kind of knew what everybody else (was) thinking a lot and, you know, it made for just a really solid production,” said Paul Schiavo, manager of The Passage Project.

There is a contrast in sounds that Unland likes to give his music. He said that while a bass line in one of his songs may sound dark and dirty, the melodies playing over the top of the bass will be smooth and clean. It’s this intentional design that makes his music that much harder to define. The noticeable lack of vocals also draws attention to the deeper elements of the music, like the texture and layering of many sounds in one song.

Unland plans on going back to New York as soon as he wraps up his tour in support of “That Ill Note.” Band manager Schiavo said they’re planning a Passage Project EP and of course, getting more gigs around the city with various artists.

“For me, I would say that my biggest long-term goal is to just share the music that I or whoever is in the band at the time create with as many people as we possibly can,” Unland said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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