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Tip of the hat

Local band Top-Hat Confederacy releases first studio album


by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Josh Clark and Alex Koehler are co-leaders of the band Top-Hat Confederacy, which released its first studio album earlier in January. Before there were any members, before the first gig and the practice sessions and the Kickstarter-funded studio album, the band needed a name.

Alex Koehler was on a middle school field trip to Seattle when he and his friends started tossing around possible names. It had to be classy, they decided, but also identify clearly as a band name.

At some point, Koehler’s friend Josh Grelewicz came up with “Top-Hat Confederacy,” and it was decided.

“That was the only thing that really stuck,” Koehler said.

Since that day, Koehler — a West Linn High School graduate who is now a senior at Lewis & Clark College — has been a constant presence in a band that has taken many forms through high school and now college. With as many as 15 members spread across the country at different universities, Top-Hat Confederacy operates at full strength only during winter and summer breaks, but that didn’t stop the funk and R&B fusion band from recording its first professional studio album this past summer.

The album, entitled “Savage Journey,” was financed primarily through the online funding tool Kickstarter and formally released in early January.

“It’s kind of a concept album,” Koehler said. “It progresses musically and phonetically. ... Rather than one song being an individual story, it’s kind of one long story that progresses.”

Koehler, who plays bass and writes all of the band’s music, said the album was inspired by the Steely Dan album “The Royal Scam.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Josh Clark and Alex Koehler hope the new album will lead to new opportunities for live shows in the Portland area.

“(‘The Royal Scam’) has this concept where it’s like little vignettes about criminal activities,” Koehler said. “And we thought we would just extend that to one large album.”

Koehler has studied music since elementary school and considers himself a “co-captain” of the band alongside guitarist Josh Clark. Clark, himself a WLHS graduate, also stayed local at Clackamas Community College, allowing him to team with Koehler in the mixing and editing process for the album after most other band members returned to school last fall.

“We had two days with the rhythm section live in the same recording room,” Clark said, “then two days with the singers recording over that, and two days with the horns. By then, summer was pretty much over and we were left with these raw tracks that we kind of had to play with until they worked together.”

It was an arduous process, but Koehler and Clark drew on the chemistry they’ve developed since Clark joined the band in high school.

For what amounted to the band’s first real gig, Koehler decided to play at a peace festival put on by the high school’s Young Advocates for Peace group — of which he was a member.

“I wasn’t in the band at that time,” Clark said. “But I played in the show with a different band, and I remember thinking how cool it was. ... The next year, I went on to play with them.”

“It was the first time anyone in high school had seen a band with horns in it,” Koehler said. “So, they were kind of taken by surprise with that.”

Since then, the band has played a number of shows at Jimmy Mak’s jazz club in Portland and recently headlined a concert at the Hawthorne Theatre.

“We want to keep promoting this and hopefully get some bigger gigs,” Koehler said, “and maybe tour at some point — if we could play the (Portland) Blues Festival or Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, it would be a big step for us.”

“Savage Journey” is available on iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/album/savage-journey/id796492142, as well as through the Spotify streaming service.

For more information about the band, visit facebook.com/thetophatconfederacy.


By Patrick Malee
Reporter
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