Rhode Island’s local music community is very diverse when it comes to style and genre. If you’re looking to listen to a specific kind of music, chances are that an act that calls Lil’ Rhody home is putting their own spin on it.
The beginning of the past decade saw a rise in folk and blues, the middle years saw hip-hop, garage rock and jam bands make a resurgence, and by the end of the 2010s, experimental, progressive and math-rock acts made their presence felt.
One of those bands in the latter group are Warwick’s Strip Mall, a rad power trio consisting of Nick English on bass, Jack Anderson on drums and Vinnie Ortez on guitar and vocals. They got noticed by playing at a bunch of Providence’s many music venues before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and their support has still maintained since.
I had a chat recently with English, Anderson and Ortez about what each of them were doing before they started the band, the effect of the current crisis, a couple singles they have out and what we can expect from Strip Mall in the near future.
ROB DUGUAY: I know before Strip Mall started, Nick was playing drums in a few bands such as Songs To Drive Cars and Thug Honey. Jack and Vinnie, what were you each doing musically before you guys got together?
JACK ANDERSON: For the past several years I have been involved with another project called Boxelder with my buddy Mike Nelson. Mike is also our beloved audio engineer and has mixed and mastered all of Strip Mall’s recordings thus far. Boxelder has been mostly virtual with us sending files back and forth until we piece a song together, as Mike and his studio Parkridge Recording Company are located in Knoxville, Tennessee. Boxelder has music up on all the usual platforms, with more to come out, and we hope to someday coordinate shows. Mike and I met around 2012 before he moved South, playing on a small tour with another local act.
Vinnie and I have been friends since junior high school, but started playing acoustic shows around 2015 or so. We’d play a mix of covers and originals Vinnie wrote, with him on guitar while singing and me playing cajon or a stripped-down kit. We decided to mess around with a full kit and loop station one day and Strip Mall was formed. We quickly got Nick involved, as Nick and Vinnie had played together in Thug Honey and were later roommates for a while.
VINNIE ORTEZ: Like Jack said, I was just playing solo at any open mic or café under the name Pretz for a while. I would beg Jack to play cajon with me any time he could and that was my outlet. I was also lucky enough to play with Nick in Thug Honey for a little while just before we started forming Strip Mall.
RD: What influences the band’s math-rock style?
NICK ENGLISH: To be honest, I hadn’t listened to much math rock or anything adjacent to that sound before this project. I liked stuff like The Fall of Troy, American Football and Marietta, but that’s about as close as I had gotten. I mostly listen to technical death metal and Djent while trying to get Vinnie and Jack to listen as often as I can, but they're usually not having it (laughs). As I’ve gotten into more of that scene, I’ve tried to blend the two types of music into my playing.
JA: I feel like there are many roads that lead to math rock. I was really into post-rock music in high school, which eventually got some more emo and metal bands on my radar. I can specifically remember Vinnie blasting The Fall of Troy’s album “Manipulator” through his parents’ house one summer (laughs). Then we started discovering bands like Maps & Atlases and TTNG, and were just mind blown at the way they approached writing music and their technical ability.
I don’t think Strip Mall is actually all that mathy, but we try to add a little flair here and there where parts could use it to keep things interesting. We really just have fun playing the songs, and there is a certain type of sound that seems to develop organically as we write. Usually Vinnie will bring a riff to practice, we’ll jam on it in a bunch of different ways and try to find a nugget of something we really like. Then we’ll expand on that until we feel some sort of cohesive song has formed.
VO: For me, I’d say it’s all feeling. I get inspired from whatever I’m currently listening to and from the bands around us. I’m not the most shreddy guitar player, but I like to keep things full, emotional and rhythmic while throwing in some twists and turns to keep it fun.
RD: How has COVID-19 affected each of your lives? Has it been drastic ever since the pandemic hit or have each of you been holding up OK?
VO: I’m holding up better now that things are somewhat normal, but it was a struggle when things really hit. I have been working throughout this and with my girlfriend working in health care, it’s been a lot.
NE: The pandemic has affected my life pretty drastically. I sterilize surgical equipment at Kent County Hospital. We don't deal with patients directly but we do go around to the emergency room and intensive care unit to collect dirty instruments and respirator masks. We’re also exposed, while wearing proper personal protective equipment, to instruments contaminated with [the virus] and we have to sanitize them. It’s been tough, but we’re getting through.
JA: Honestly, the biggest bummer for me is that we had to cancel a bunch of shows. We had built up a little steam and had a solid stretch of shows coming up through the spring and summer that were all just tossed out the window. Our last show was March 11 and basically a day or two after that everything shut down really quickly. I would love for Strip Mall to play some sort of outdoor shows later this summer, if things are safe enough to do it and we can find a suitable venue to do so. I really miss playing, but I miss going to see shows a lot, too.
It pains me to think about how long it might be until we can see live performances of any kind again and until clubs and venues can reopen. I was doing contract work for an audio-visual company and let go at the start of the pandemic, so for now I am just collecting that sweet, sweet unemployment, living my best introverted life and trying to keep track of what day, week and month it is.
RD: Earlier this year, you guys released two singles with “We All Have Plus Things” and “Reverse The Curse.” What was the experience like recording both songs?
VO: Jack recorded all of our takes for those and he’s been recording me the same way for a couple years. What was different this time was having his friend Mike Nelson do the mixing and mastering at his studio in Knoxville. Never in my wildest dreams did I think something I made sounded that good. He really understood what we were going for and I can’t praise him enough.
NE: Recording for me is always fun in all honesty (laughs). It’s the time when all the practices and hard work come to fruition. Jack puts so much time and effort into his takes to make sure they're perfect that it makes my job easier. It’s just like we’re jamming live when I listen to his tracks.
RD: Can we expect an album to follow up the singles at some point this year?
JA: We are definitely working on finishing up what will be either an album or an EP, it’ll definitely be of those. Drum tracking is nearing completion, so we should be able to get Vinnie and Nick recording their parts soon and plan to debut an album in the fall, which those first couple singles will be on as well. Then we can get back to writing and have some new music for our fans that we like to call the “Mall Rats,” once shows are back on schedule.