.MAJK: Santa Cruz’s Crazy-Talented Up-and-comers

When up-and-coming local band MAJK practices, they sometimes make room at lead singer Kelly Koval’s house. But usually, they’ll end up cramming into cellist Alexis Hawks’ studio apartment, with Jeff Kissell lugging over his upright bass, and the other band members crowding around.

“We’re all tied up in a knot, and I’m chewing on Jeff’s bass scroll, and my strings are ringing in Kelly’s face, and Alexis’ bow is poking Jeff’s belly,” says guitarist Matthew Harmon. “It makes for a good intimate space.”

“We’re practicing, but mostly just trying to knock each other over,” says Koval, “or poke each other’s eyes out. You can’t focus on anything but each other, because you’re risking your life, and you can feel each other breathing.”

MAJK, which plays the Do-It-Ourselves Festival on Saturday, has gotten so used to these close quarters that when Harmon gets onstage, he’ll sometimes find himself skirting around microphones and cozying up to Koval, as if trying to replicate that comfort of Hawks’ home.

The fifth annual DIO Fest starts Friday night at Camp Krem in Boulder Creek. The event raises money for the camp, a summer destination for kids with disabilities, supporting the nonprofit’s music therapy program. This year, the festival brings in some bigger names, too, including Bonnie Prince Billy, Possessed by Paul James, and Y La Bamba.

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In concert, Hawks’ cello provides a mournful sway, as it has in other bands like the Spurs that she’s played with. Harmon’s plucking and strumming—known best from the band Matador—move songs forward. Meanwhile Kissell, formerly of Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra, punctuates tunes with bass lines that keep everything together. At times, he’ll pick a bow creating an additional drone, complementing the cello, and Hawks will occasionally switch to banjo. Koval, who was in Audiafauna a few years ago with Hawks, soars over the top of it all with her powerfully smooth, yet gentle, vocals.

This year, the festival brings in some bigger names, too, including Bonnie Prince Billy, Possessed by Paul James, and Y La Bamba.

Members of MAJK struggle to define their sound—reluctant to be lumped in with genres like “Americana” that are so all-encompassing as categories that they come off as unwieldy, maybe even a little lazy. When pressed, Hawks calls their style “pop-folk-chamber,” and band members sometimes joke among themselves that they are “mellow-comma-dramatic.”

Although it first formed more than a year ago, the band has been a little slow to play shows, putting a premium instead on writing and recording—although that hasn’t moved ahead at a rapid pace, either. A lot of times when the group gets together, they don’t even end up playing any music. The talent-packed quartet is “more than a band, but it’s also less than a band,” Kissell says.

“There’s always an expectation that if you’re in a band, you do band things,” he explains. “We don’t really feel that drive, necessarily, to do that. Maybe that will happen if we get a record deal. I really just enjoy this as a musical project.”

On a recent Saturday night, Koval, Kissell and Hawks are all at the Crepe Place, listening to DIO Fest booker Jeff Wilson spin an old-school vinyl blend of country, bluegrass and funk, as friends and fans discuss the upcoming festival.

Hawks and Kissell played earlier in the night, backing up singer/songwriter Stevee Stubblefield, one of the event’s founders. His back to the rear wall, Kissell is mulling over MAJK’s uniquely laid-back style—different from bands he’s been in before—as Koval periodically chimes in. All of the members write songs, Kissell notes, and they are all direct with their feedback and receptive to input—a combination that can push tunes in new directions.  

“Do you think we’ll ever get another band name?” Koval asks, referencing a moniker that comes from the first letter of all four first names, kind of like NSYNC.

Kissell shrugs.

“I was the one who was most against it, and the way I feel about it now is that if I start to care about something, I just decide to let it go.”

The Do-It-Ourselves Festival is Friday, April 28-Sunday April 30 at Camp Krem in Boulder Creek. Tickets are $85 for a day pass and $135 for a weekend pass.


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