If the previous election cycle taught us anything, it's that you can see Mother Russia from the backyard of the Palin house. If that is indeed true, it's only fitting that Kenai, Alaska, residents Nelson Kempf and Keeley Boyle would select a band name from their neighbors to the distant west. While the deep religious faith known as the Old Believers severed from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century, the band of the same name waited 'til 2007 before cutting ties with their homeland and moving to Portland.
"Toward the end of high school I didn't want to go to college, I just wanted to play music," explains Kempf over the phone, coincidentally back in Alaska visiting family. He met Boyle in junior high—her father was his teacher—and the pair's musical endeavors began soon after. "It started out just Keeley and I," says Kempf. "We didn't really have any huge aspirations outside of just kinda fuckin' around." But while the initial musical offering of most teens veers sharply toward popular sounds, the Old Believers traveled an entirely different path of painstakingly deliberate music—rustic country, sparse dustbowl folk, and restrained soul—that softly resonates with a timelessness that unfolds far beyond their limited years.
This vast musical array is precisely laid out on last summer's Eight Golden Greats, gently constructed of vintage folk music intertwined with a pair of coed voices that have been known to tug at the melancholy of old-time country music. At other times, they sway with harnessed Memphis soul. The undercurrent of simmering soul music will be a major factor on the band's new, not-yet-titled full-length, according to Kempf: "I've been listening to a lot of soul music and I think that's mainly what's going to be the influence on this new record, among a lot of other things."
In order to achieve such range without ever wading too deep into unfamiliar waters, the Old Believers' lineup can balloon from the stark Kempf/Boyle duo, to a versatile quartet, and on special occasions, a motley gathering of close to a dozen members. It's in that lineup—the stage a packed assembly of countless instruments and complete lack of order—that the Believers shine. The polar opposite of the lockstep structure of other large-scale musical projects, the super-sized Believers are a loose, playful congregation gathered together to add instrumental depth to the band's barren songs, and to surprise everyone in the room with carefree—yet oddly respectful—versions of the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," or T.I.'s free-spending summer jam, "Whatever You Like."
Coming from nowhere—Kenai, to be precise—the Believers' youthful interpretations of aged music are like an unexpected but entirely welcome gift, one that will keep giving for quite some time: "Eight Golden Greats was like an EP to me," admits Kempf. "It was as long as a full-length but I thought it was an EP. This [upcoming album], to me, feels like our first full-length record."