Front Porch

The Armoires: LA band recalls breakthrough in San Diego

Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome of the Armoires

Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome of the Armoires

In the last 12 months, the Burbank-based group the Armoires have compiled quite a travel itinerary. The band recently played the Cavern Club in Liverpool as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival (IPO) and arranged other shows during their jaunt. But for all the travel mileage and the passports stamped while overseas, the turning point for the Armoires occurred last year during the weekend of July 17-18 in La Mesa, when the band came south to participate in the resurrected International Pop Overthrow San Diego festival, returning after a three-year hiatus.

“We felt like we finally came home to a place where we were playing with people who were like us, and we were like them; we respected them and they respected us,” said keyboardist Christina Bulbenko, describing the scene at the Chico Club in La Mesa. “We stayed the whole night to see the other bands and they stayed to see us… we weren’t even playing the first night of IPO, but we were smiling ear to ear at every act, and they were sort of fascinated by us, the LA band that actually wanted to hear them play? These wonderful artists like Scott Samuels, Super Buffet, Steve Rosenbaum, and Bart Mendoza for god’s sake… who wouldn’t want to enjoy a night like that? And they all talked with us and knew what we were talking about. So many of them came to see us the next night. It was like a veil being lifted. We were a real band… and the people who were telling us so were unbelievably great!”

Rex Broome, the Armoires’ guitarist, said his group “ended up as the only out-of-town band to play (IPO-San Diego) in 2015, which lent us somewhat of an undeserved air of celebrity as we pulled into the Chico Club to take in the first night of the fest, when we weren’t even playing… we were so grateful to be there, eager to hear a night of power pop, in no way expecting the warm welcome we received. It’s falling off a log for us to stay for a whole night of great music, but we hadn’t expected all of the attention we received, from so many people whose performances had bowled us over and accepted us at face value as a real band.”

The Armoires have added greater credence to their status as a “real” band by releasing their debut album, Incidental Lightshow. The album sounds like an imaginary Twilight Zone episode where time is suspended and the late rock promoter Bill Graham has been brought back for one night to book the acts for the Ryman Auditorium. Beneath the influences of folk and roots Americana, ’60s psychedelic imagery abounds and celebrated moments from the ’70s—prog rock’s most prolific decade—are evoked. The Armoires’ debut album is a collection of 12 compositions that reveal deeper audio delights with repeated listenings. Incidental Lightshow is also augmented by an expanded Armoires’ musical family featuring Derek Hanna (drums), Clifford Ulrich (bass), Sean Barillas (drums), Cherry Bluestorms’ front man Glen Laughlin (guitar, bass), Nathaniel Myer (guitar, bass, keys, drums), and Larysa Bulbenko (Christina’s daughter) on viola.

The debut album is dedicated to the memory of Christina’s son, Ian Bulbenko, a drummer who is featured on several tracks and who played an integral part in the early days of the Armoires. Ian died in 2014 at age 19 in an auto-related accident.

Like so many Southern Californian musicians, Christina and Rex’s musical sojourns began elsewhere. Christina grew up “in the Eastern European part of Detroit, Michigan. My parents emigrated from the Ukraine and settled into a neighborhood where they could speak their language, send my sister, brothers and me [my siblings were all at least 10 years older than me], to Ukrainian schools, Ukrainian Saturday school where the lessons taught were completely in Ukrainian, and PLAST, a Ukrainian youth organization summer camp where I was dropped off for three weeks out of every summer. I attended St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Elementary School until 8th grade and then Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic High School in Hamtramck, Michigan, before going to Wayne State University for a BFA degree in theatre. That’s the big picture. The smaller picture and the details are where I lived and thrived.”

Christina embraced the indie rock of the day and performed in a new wave/punk outfit called Breakfast! “My parents hoped that my college career would get me a medical degree, but a dear friend pulled me over to the theatre department, which probably saved my life. It was my friend, Doeri-Welch Greiner, who ended up being the production manager on many animated Disney films and eventually ended up being the recruiter for Frozen… yeah, she’s an amazing person. She gave me my first job in the theatre department, running sound on a show she directed. It was full of Patsy Cline songs, and I was in heaven. After university, I spent the next three years in Kansas City, Missouri, performing in small theatres, dinner theatres, doing voice overs and commercials, earning all of my union cards. Acting, of course, leads one naturally to Los Angeles, where the first two roles I landed were, of course, the Blessed Virgin and a prostitute. Something to do with the Catholic school background? Hmmm… so, of course, I eventually ended up becoming a music teacher, with a few substantial career stops in between.”

There is a more rural element to Rex’s background. ‘’I’m from a very small town called Keyser in West Virginia and grew up very much in the sticks. Appalachia is in my blood, and you can hear it in our songs fleetingly, mostly in lyrics like “Fort Ashby” and “Double Blades,” which are literally about the region. But it was a lot different when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. There wasn’t a great pride in the musical heritage of the region among kids—country and old-time music were the stuff your grandma and grandpa liked and viewed as somewhat of an embarrassment. It was a little different for me, as my dad was a singer in a popular local country band, but for the most part the kids were into Top 40 and hair metal like Motley Crue and Poison. In that context I didn’t fit in at all. I was into postpunk, college rock and ’60s psychedelia, folk rock, and the British Invasion bands, although I already had a deeper affinity for roots music than a lot of my peers. That’s all changed, of course, since O Brother Where Art Thou and the Americana resurgence—now you see people from all over the world laying claim to that mountain music heritage!’’

Rex revealed that he’s “okay with that, I even kind of love it that there are people from Scandinavia, Asia, and all over the place acting as loving caretakers for the mountain soul that we sort of shied away from in those days. They do it better than I ever could. The Armoires are more of a continuation of my early interest in the Kinks and the Byrds, the ’70s CBGB scene, Dylan, Husker Du, the Bunnymen, the Velvets, the Soft Boys—depending on whether you’re talking about the sound or the songwriting, of course, where outlaw and classic country are still guiding lights. Those influences that you hear more strongly in the Armoires I put that together on my own mostly through reading music journalism and special-ordering the albums that caught my fancy. I didn’t really have any peers who shared my tastes. A lot of my early years were spent watching my dad’s band Thunderhill play in utterly inappropriate honky tonks, and I was up there on stage with a plastic guitar or a tambourine or occasionally an Ancient Age bottle that my mom had filled with iced tea, because that’s hillbilly humor! Eventually, I became his bassist and by the time they were celebrating their 50th anniversary, I was flying in from LA to West Virginia to play lead guitar for my dad while my 12-year-old daughter Miranda played bass. Again, in the blood, I guess.

“I moved to LA because I got a scholarship to go to film school,” said Rex. “Secretly I jumped on it because it was a chance to finally go see my favorite bands play live, and that’s the honest truth.”

Other live bands joining the Armoires at IPO San Diego 2016 on July 22 are Super Buffet, Steve Rosenbaum’s Mess of Fun, Scott Samuels, the Paragraphs, and the Hummingbird & Dove. The second night of the festival on July 23 will feature Ships Have Sailed, Math & Science, the Peripherals, Suite 100, My Revenge, and the Forty Nineteens. For complete band biographies, visit www.internationalpopoverthrow.com.

The 2016 San Diego International Pop Overthrow Festival takes place July 22-23, 7:30 p.m., Chico Club, 7366 El Cajon Blvd., La Mesa. Admission: $10 each night. Phone: 619-465-4190 www.chicoclub1940.com

One Comment

  1. Posted July, 2016 at 1:55 PM | Permalink

    Great article, Steve! I love the Armoires and learned a lot! See everyone on July 22nd at Chico Club!

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