Austin Marsh, 19, is the oldest member of the band The Union Project. The other four members are still in high school. But don’t let that fool you. Though they’ve only been a band for a couple years, The Union Project have amassed an impressive resume of gigs and appearances on the strength of a repertoire that might cause lesser bands to give it up.For their recent date with WBOI’s Meet the Music, Marsh and his bandmates opened with Deep Purple’s “Lazy,” then went on to play a selection of covers and originals are equally complex. But The Union Project made them sound nearly effortless.
Marsh plays guitar and sings. His bandmates include Sam Byus on guitar and vocals, Jake Allen on keyboards, Lance Roberts on bass and Colton Conrad on drums.
Classic rock has never really gone away. In fact it seems more prevalent than ever. It’s nothing to wander the aisles of your local grocery and find yourself humming along with “Stairway to Heaven” as it wafts over bins of broccoli. So maybe it’s not a surprise that a group of young musicians might take to the format.
What is surprising is the skill with which they play it. Jon Lord and the rest of Deep Purple were in their late 20s when they recorded “Lazy,” a seven-minute hard blues epic with enough Hammond organ to fill a shopping cart. Not exactly the stuff of your average teenage garage band. But then The Union Project aren’t your average teenage garage band.
“All of us have different influences,” Marsh said in a phone interview. “Deep Purple [are] a big one. Cream, Eric Clapton, R & B and other stuff from the 60s. We’re open to that kind of music.”
Marsh said his dad was a big REO Speedwagon fan and would have that and other music of the period playing around the house. Marsh liked it.
“I eventually found my own niche, which was Eric Clapton and Cream, the blues, stuff like that,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to play. I listened to a ton of blues, a ton of psychedelic rock, stuff like that. Rock 104 is what really got me to want to play.”
The guys in The Union Project met through Sweetwater Sound’s Build-a-Band program. Marsh was in one band while Byus, Roberts and Colton had a trio going. Though they all came into the program at different times, they all got to know each other through it.
“Sam and Lance called me one day and said their trip was getting more complex than they wanted it to be.” The solution was to add members and The Union Project was born.
From the start the band embraced the more complex aspects of blues/rock and jam band compositions. Marsh said while simplicity is nice, the real meat for him and the others is found in music that requires more thought, more effort to wrap your head around and play.
“There’s beauty in simplicity, but not in every case,” he said. “A lot of interesting things can happen when you sit down and write a really good progression.”
In addition to Deep Purple and Clapton, The Union Project cover songs such as Cream’s rendition of “Outside Woman Blues,” “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers, “Rockin’ Horse” by Gov’t Mule and several Hendrix tunes, among others. Marsh said the band has a solid two hours worth of material and more songs coming all the time. Marsh said they plan to add the Doors song “Riders on the Storm” to their list.
Their setlist has certainly struck a chord with area festival planners. Last year the band played Ribfest, the Three Rivers Festival, Taste of the Arts and the Chain O’Lakes Festival, which they’ll be headlining this year.
“We’re playing at Wooden Nickel for Record Store Day on April 18, and we’re hoping to get back in with Ribfest and the Three Rivers Festival,” he said.
Songwriting is becoming more of a focus for the band. Though it’s always been a goal, with half a dozen originals thus far, they are getting close to having enough material for an EP. Marsh said they are so close in fact that they will be heading to the studio soon to start laying down some tracks.
One original composition, “Can’t Take It,” is reminiscent of “Purple Haze” and “After Midnight,” a nice intersection to be in. Marsh said songwriting is proving to be one of the bigger challenges facing the band. Learning the balancing act of promoting your own ideas while keeping an open ear to differing opinions is tough to achieve with any group endeavor.
“We already have a lot of common ground with the band,” he said. “The hardest thing for us is finding that natural give and take when it comes to writing music because it’s easy for someone to get carried away and take the lead in it and not ask for input. It’s really about being considerate and making sure everyone is really cool with it. It’s not about ego. Whenever you have multiple opinions on something, you have to work at it. It’s like a relationship with a girl or something. You can’t have it one way all the time.”
An even bigger challenge is coming just around the corner, after high school graduation when plans for college come into play. Long-distance relationships are tough to maintain, no matter what form they take. But Marsh said they’ve talked about it and everyone is committed to keeping the band together no matter what.
“We have two seniors getting ready to graduate,” he said. “We’re all trying to plan ahead to the future but we still want to make this work. We don’t want to let that go. We all worked really hard to get where we are. We’re not just going to give it up like it’s nothing because it’s not. I know we’re going to make it work. We’re all committed to the idea of this band.”
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