When LUTHI began making inroads into the East Tennessee music scene, the initial reception was a modest one.
Roughly 30 people were at the band’s first show at Preservation Pub, band founder and namesake Christian Luthi remembers – not a bad turnout for a Nashville ensemble playing in Knoxville for the first time.
Fast forward to this year’s Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival Saturday night show: LUTHI closed down the night, capping a whirlwind weekend of band shows and a guest slot with DK the Drummer (Darren King, formerly of MUTEMATH) on the stage at Barley’s in the Old City, where hundreds of fans screamed, danced and lost themselves with wild abandon in the band’s brand of R&B-heavy rock grooves.
“People take a lot of joy in spreading the word about good music in Knoxville, and they take a lot of pride in helping others find us,” Luthi told BLANK Newspaper recently. “There’s just a really cool thing going on there, and it’s definitely been an evolution for us. We’re looking forward to continuing to come back.”
They’ll do so on Aug. 18 as part of the Second Bell Music Festival, presented by this publication and featuring a host of eclectic artists and bands that will turn South Knoxville’s Suttree Landing Park into a free-fire zone of good vibes and tunes. LUTHI is built for both, and it could be argued that the band’s namesake has been training for those times since childhood.
Originally from Hartford, Wisconsin, Luthi started tinkering with music when he was just 5 years old; he was in school for vocal performance, however, when he decided to pull up stakes and head south to Nashville, where he hooked up with guitarist Taylor Ivey. The former’s whimsical nature charmed the latter, and almost immediately they began collaborating on a new project, starting out playing house shows for friends and dabbling in a sound that, at the time, was considered Americana.
The evolution into LUTHI was an organic one, initiated by Moon Taxi member and Knoxville native Wes Bailey. A friend of a friend, Bailey was invited to add some synth to the pair’s project, and the addition of keys added a groove that changed the entire dynamic. Fans started to dance, the music gained a healthy dose of muscular soul and Luthi began to see that his band had room for all of his influences. Growing up, he listened to everything from the Talking Heads to Bob Marley to the Rolling Stones, but once in Nashville, Ivey and other friends introduced him to artists like Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield and the contributions of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. A participant in musical theater growing up, turning to funk allowed Luthi to tap into elements of showmanship and stage theatrics that aren’t necessarily crucial components for straightforward rock bands.
It all gets brought to the forefront on “Stranger,” the full-length LUTHI debut that was released earlier this year. The record is a collaborative collection that gives each member a chance to shine onstage and that allowed for band-wide contributions during the conceptual phase.
“When we got together with a couple of different folks in the band, everybody had a million different ideas and we picked some of what we thought were the best,” Luthi said. “Half the crew went out to Denver and laid down a platform for some of the songs. Then we brought a bunch of material back here to Nashville, so it was recorded in different spots, and some of the small nuances have been cool. We recorded wherever it felt right – sometimes in the studio, sometimes not. Another huge part of it was just everyone trying to make it cohesive but also not stressing about that.
“We wanted to put things on there that spoke to us instead of worrying too much about whether it didn’t fit. There’s a line that draws through all the songs, but we wanted to make it a different album – hence the name ‘Stranger.’ There’s definitely a little piece of something for everyone on it. We just wanted to make the songs individually do the whole thing justice as we saw fit instead of just changing it up, and I thought that was a courageous move that was encouraged by everyone and the producer.”
It’s a precise record, with each instrumental addition adding a layer of nuance that makes for a more complex sound than previous LUTHI EPs. At the same time, Luthi and his bandmates were keenly aware of the need to replicate the songs live. The studio allowed for modifications and embellishment that aren’t always easy to replicate in concert, but half the fun of performance, he added, is taking the songs in new and exciting directions, based on the energy of the crowd.
“There’s a halftime part at the end of ‘Stranger’ [the song] where we started screwing around and putting this in half-time in the studio; it was late at night, and I don’t think we thought we’d keep it, but it ended up sounding so trippy and so perfect,” Luthi said. “Now, it’s part of our live set because it sounds so right. There’s just so much room for improvement on certain sections of all the songs. We had a blast doing them in the studio, but we weren’t trying to make things seven-plus minutes on the record.”
Those jams, he added, are relegated to the live show. And in doing so, a LUTHI experience becomes quasi-relligious.
“‘Back to You,’ that song goes on for like 10 minutes, and I wrote it in Minneapolis in a very short amount of time on my brother’s porch, on an acoustic guitar,” he said. “Right after I wrote that song, I got up early and went over to this Baptist church, and there was this incredible energy there. The way the guy was preaching and the way everyone felt like they were a part of what that was, that’s what it feels like.
“With that energy, the more the audience gives, the more it kind of affects everything that we’re doing. At the same time, any good preacher is going to have the same tenacity without there being a million people out there, but when your hair is standing on edge and you have goosebumps, it blows your mind. That’s a big reason why we haven’t stopped, and I don’t think we will anytime soon.”