Fully Conscious – Pajamas Revitalizes Improvisational Spirit on ‘You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound’ EP

Graham Low, Dan Schuler, Nick Orr and Owen Kellenberger of Pajamas. Photo by Toko Shiiki Santos

Pajamas magically revitalizes the improvisational spirit on their latest EP, You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound.

The Ann Arbor rock-funk quartet seamlessly blends extended guitar grooves, proggy keys, crashing cymbals, rhythmic drums and driving bass into a fluid four-track jam session on their optimistic, improvisational EP, which dropped in January. You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound is a tantalizing live soundtrack that seeps into the unknown spaces in between dreams.

“The overall lyrical message in my opinion is about accepting the things you can’t control and being happy with what and who you are. We played all of them live before releasing the EP, and I even rewrote good portion of the opening track after playing it out live for a while,” said Graham Low, drummer and vocalist for Pajamas.

“Overall, I want people to feel some emotion when they listen to our music. I’m not going to defy the moniker of ‘jam band,’ but I hope people hear ‘jam band’ and understand that to be a band committed to live improvisation and purposeful exploration, not just a bunch of spacey noodling. I think this project sheds light on our songwriting and shows glimpses of the many places we can take our music.”

Recording ‘You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound’

“You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound” EP artwork by Abbas Husain

Pajamas’ hypnotic eight-minute title track opens with an elongated synth that morphs into glistening cymbal crashes, groovy electric guitar and deep bass and slowly explodes into a star-filled prog-tastic multi-verse. Low proudly sings, “You’re awake, you’re alive/And the sun’s in the sky/Stop the hate and the cryin’/There’s a light inside so shine bright.”

“‘You’re Awake’ took me a really long time to write and a long time to rewrite. I’m really pleased with the end product, and I think the recording that we captured was one of the best takes that we’ve ever played of that song,” Low said.

Low joined Pajamas bandmates Nick Orr (guitar, vocals), Dan Schuler (bass, vocals) and Owen Kellenberger (keys, vocals) to record You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound during a single four-hour session at the iconic Willis-based recording studio last year. They teamed up with Jim Roll to mix and engineer the majestic live project as a follow-up to 2018’s genre-defying, full-length debut, Onesie.

“Jim Roll is a freakin’ magic man. He dialed in each of our sounds and captured everything that makes our timbre unique while also isolating and getting a really clean overall mix,” Low said. “He’s been doing this forever, and it shows in his ability to get great results every time.”

That sonic magic also appears in the jazzy, spatial EP closer, “Align,” which fuses steady drum taps, intergalactic synth and vibrant electric guitar into a soothing escape jam as Low sings, “Take me out of this state of mind/You’re the reason I’m up tonight/Take me to where our dreams align/Or let me go by the riverside.”

‘Align’ is a super weird song with a bossa nova intro followed by a brief section with lyrics and then a long-building melodic section packed with key changes that follow a repeating pattern. The track ends with a really interesting and very musical synth outro full of longing,” Low said.

You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound also includes captivating companion videos for each of its four tracks by Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti filmmakers Toko Shiiki Santos and Donald Harrison. Together, they beautifully captured Pajamas’ beautiful performance during their one-day Willis Sound session.

Each video allows fans to vicariously experience the live beauty of Pajamas’ improvisation, experimentation and exploration at Willis Sound. All four videos for “You’re Awake,” “June,” “Round & Around” and “Align” are available as part of a multimedia experience on YouTube.

“They took time to pick apart the songs and figure out where essential shots would land. Every time Graham or Dan took a fill, Toko was right there. Every time Nick tore into a solo, Don was right there. Their choreographed effort was really a performance in itself. I think watching their excitement was really inspiring and had a positive influence on our playing,” Kellenberger said.

Forming Pajamas, Releasing ‘Onesie’

Pajamas has recorded four companion videos for “You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound.”

As the band’s newest member, Kellenberger adds jazz, rock and prog textures to Pajamas evolving, multi-genre sound. He joined Pajamas last year after listening to Low, Orr and Schuler practice regularly in their basement. Kellenberger also knew Low and Orr when they hung out with his older brother and attended Dexter Community Schools.

“I think my playing sonically fills the cracks. I play a lot of patches that add glue and try to be as musically supportive as possible,” said Kellenberger, who started composing and recording music at age 14. “I think it’s in my nature to try to redirect people’s energy into something positive and productive whenever I can.”

Before Kellenberger’s addition to the group, Orr, Low and Schuler formed Pajamas in 2015 as another outlet for performing live improvisational rock, funk, blues, jazz, hip-hop, and psychedelia to a growing local and regional audience.

They’ve joined the impressive ranks of fellow Michigan “jam” counterparts Chirp, Desmond Jones, Liquid Thickness, Ma Baker, Stormy Chromer, Paddlebots and Biomassive.

“We didn’t talk much, call chord changes or even pick songs. We just played nonstop for hours, and it was the best musical experience I had up to that point in my life. As the last notes of the jam session lingered in the air, I knew that playing music in that manner was something I needed to keep doing,” said Schuler, who discovered his love of music while playing the “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” and “Rock Band” video games in middle school.

“Within the next year, we played as Idle Hour at the farmer’s market and various small venues and parties. After I left for school and came back for the summer, we had become the trio Pajamas and started laying the foundation for our sound that you hear today.”

Being part of a supportive “jam” scene allows Pajamas to thrive on and off stage. Their multi-genre exploratory sound is born from a cohesive, everlasting musical partnership that’s influenced by Phish, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Snarky Puppy, Dave Matthews Band and Toro y Moi.

“We wanted to keep playing, so we originally started Pajamas as a trio that would get together to play shows whenever we could. We’re all local to the Ann Arbor area too now, so not only have we gained a fourth member, but we are finally on a fairly regular practice schedule and get together almost once a week,” said Orr, who started playing guitar at age 17.

By 2018, Pajamas released their elaborate, improvisational masterpiece, Onesie, to introduce multi-genre “jam” fans to their flowing, funky melodies and instrumentals.

Recorded at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, the album features an array of groovy, soaring tracks, including the rejuvenating “Empty Your Eyes,” the funkified, “What to Do,” the catchy instrumental, “Soothe Your Groove,” and the adventurous “Zuko.”

“The album was really a documentation of what we’d been creating since the band started. We recorded the entire thing in a couple of days and had a blast doing it. We tracked the instruments live and dubbed the vocals over,” said Low, who started playing drums in his sister’s band at age nine.

“This was recorded in the period where we weren’t playing out much because we lived in different cities. The tracks on this album are the foundation for our live show and have become vehicles for a lot of musical exploration.”

Since releasing Onesie and You’re Awake: Live at Willis Sound, Pajamas continues to write new music and share it with local and regional live audiences. They also relish sharing the stage and performing with musical friends Chirp, Paddlebots, Stormy Chromer, Liquid Thickness and Biomassive during live shows, including the upcoming Summer Camp: On The Road Tour.

The March 21 Blind Pig show was postponed after coronavirus cases started surging in Michigan and temporarily shut down live events locally and nationally.

“The talent, passion, work ethic and magic of this community are growing. The key is always a willing audience. Any band on the list named above will tell you that a show is only as good as the people in attendance. I cannot wait for the inevitable success of so many bands in this scene,” Low said.

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