May 2 2012 12:41 PM

Folk-rock project evolves from an idea into a full band

Alfred Howard (left) teamed up with Heather and Johnny Janiga (center and right) to form The Black Sands.
Photo by Lara Michelle Stucki

Early in April, Alfred Howard asked the universe for a sign. His puffy afro had started turning into dreadlocks, and he was considering whether he should cut his hair. His answer came swiftly, in the form of a photo he received via text from his friend John Meeks, a local country singer.

“It’s a photograph of his bathroom floor with all his hair on it,” Howard recalls. “I just wrote back, ‘Solidarity,’ and I just lopped it all off that night.”

Howard, the prolific, 34-year-old songwriter and percussionist who plays in local bands The Heavy Guilt and The Black Sands, is big on synchronicity. When he met his estranged father for the first time in 1999, he noticed that they had similarly styled fisherman’s hats. When he first met his half-brother—Ishmael Butler of the celebrated hip-hop groups Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces—he discovered that they’d been geeking out on the same Radiohead track. Not long after Howard got his new ’do last month, Black Sands keyboardist Tim Felten showed up to band practice with a shaved head.

“A lot of weird, beyond-serendipitous stuff has happened to me in my life,” he says. “Every time it does, it seems to get me to the next point.”

It’s no surprise, then, that The Black Sands—who celebrate the release of their debut album, 1977, this week— were born out of similarly serendipitous circumstances.

A tireless creative who works at the Cow record stores in Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach, Howard always seems to be working on a new project. In 2010, he embarked on a mission to start a band that merged the brooding psychedelics of Radiohead with the folksy Americana of Gillian Welch.

All he needed was a female singer. His search didn’t take long. One night that November, The Heavy Guilt played a show at Winstons in Ocean Beach. The opening band was Podunk Nowhere, a husband-and-wife duo that plays swooning alt-country. During their first song, Howard took one look at singer Heather Janiga and thought, Oh, there she is.

The Black Sands are dark and moody, but also quite catchy. While the band piles on dense layers of guitar, keys and bass, Howard beats the hell out of tambourines, clanks on chains with homemade stomp pedals and draws squeals from boomboxes with doctored circuits. With so much going on, it’s initially difficult to make out the hooks in Janiga’s vocal melodies, but they gradually sink in and get lodged in your head.

These days, the band features Janiga on vocals and her husband Johnny on guitar. They’re joined by Howard on percussion, Felten on keyboards, bassist David Lowie and Heavy Guilt members Sean Martin on guitar and Jenny Merullo on drums. On 1977, a large cast of contributors also joins in, including Meeks and guitarist Chris Davies from The Penetrators.

The band likes to keep busy, but it doesn’t seem like they’re about to blow up in a major way. They’ve been playing at least once a week, but most of them are also busy with other bands—Felten also plays in The Fire Eaters, Stevie & The Hi-Stax and Pocket. Howard says he’s interested in getting 1977 to the right people and maybe bag a licensing deal, but he acknowledges that he has no idea how that would even happen.

“I’ve gotten to a point where I’m happy making music that I like,” he says. “That’s the goal.”

Howard’s lyrics on 1977 have a hard-bitten, disenchanted feel, brimming with lost souls, rustic landscapes and obscure bird references (Howard’s an avid bird-watcher). Smoldering and volatile, “Hard to Remember” makes for a literary anthem to the recession: “Was it ever / Better than this?” In the wintery ballad “Still in Colorado,” a desperate escape from small-town life ends with a fatal car crash: “Windshield / White out / Brake lights / Pause now,” Janiga murmurs serenely, as though death was the plan all along.

Janiga’s voice makes a perfect fit: It’s confident and cutting, but she has a way of closing verses on an airy note, betraying a hint of vulnerability. Originally from Indianapolis, she knows what it’s like to be “waiting tables in Midwest hell,” as she sings on the album’s title track.

“I love writing my own stuff, but whenever I heard these songs, I just fell in love with them,” she says. “I feel like they’re my own.”

When the band first started, they had plenty to work with: Heavy Guilt keyboardist Josh Rice, Howard’s longtime collaborator, had written a bulk of the band’s songs, and Howard had a Microsoft Word document filled with 900 pages’ worth of song lyrics (he’s since written 400 more pages). They made their live debut in July 2011, at the CD-release show for The Heavy Guilt’s album, In the Blood.

“The Black Sands thing just kind of started in our living room with Al singing demos, and then we would talk every day at lunch about how stoked we were how it was coming out,” Johnny says. “Slowly but surely, it turned into making a record. And then it was like, ‘Oh, let’s get a band, play some shows.’”

On a recent Thursday evening, the band got together for a laid-back rehearsal in the garage at Howard’s retro-looking house in the College Area, where he lives with Heavy Guilt frontman Erik Canzona and his wife. Just big enough to fit the whole band, the muggy room was filled with amplifiers, instruments and Howard’s massive collection of percussion objects. A couple of mosquitoes buzzed around.

As they ran through their set, they played some new songs, including two takes on “Rose Blooms.” In the classic style of The Heavy Guilt, “Rose Blooms” runs like one long crescendo, its winding, ascending riffs giving way to screaming guitars and crashing drums. Their first take at the beginning of the night was light and unhurried, but when they played it again toward the end of the night, they seemed to fall into a deep trance. Their eyes closed, sweat beads on their faces, Johnny instinctively leaned toward Heather, as though he was about to embrace her.

“I cannot drive forever,” Heather sang in a dissonant, keening voice. “It wouldn’t bring you back.”

Ask Howard about synchronicity and he’ll tell you all sorts of heady stories. It could very well be that all those signs mean something. But “Rose Blooms” was something else entirely. For six minutes, it felt like particles were fusing together, forming a whole new compound.

The Black Sands celebrate the release of 1977 with The Heavy Guilt, The New Kinetics and Dark Thirty at The Griffin on Friday, May 4.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.

Correction: The original photo caption in the online version of this article incorrectly identified Black Sands members Alfred Howard and Johnny Janiga, saying Howard was on the right and Janiga on the left. The reverse is true. We're sorry for the error.