Derek Smith began writing and performing under the moniker Rice Cultivation Society in 2007. It stuck. “Growing rice requires a lot of group coordination, so the idea is that in societies where rice is the main staple crop, that coordination is reflected in the way that the music is structured,” Smith explains.
“I started using the name when I was in college playing as a solo act, somewhat ironically, but partially because I’ve always tried to incorporate lots of different elements in my writing.”
Since Smith’s college days, Rice Cultivation Society has evolved into a four-piece band with an EP and a great full-length record to their name. That record, Leaves Again, was a local success that established the band’s plugged-in folk sound. The latest incarnation of the East Meadow-based band consists of Nick Lee on guitar, John Carbone on drums and Joe Sanders on bass. “John joined before recording our previous album, and Nick joined just before the release. Joe joined while we were making the rounds around Long Island and NYC,” Smith says. The band expands on Smith’s arrangements in a live setting yet somehow retains the lo-fi feel of the recordings. “That lo-fi sound is intentional. I liken it to older films where you can’t quite see everything that’s going on. There’s a mystery there.” That mystery is what makes Rice Cultivation Society so interesting; there’s a depth that you can interpret and take something from.
The band’s sound, anchored by Smith’s fingerpicked guitar, draws on many influences while still sounding unique. The songs echo the hushed feel of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, which are then presented in true A Ghost Is Born-era Wilco fashion. The drive of indie rock bands such as Yo La Tengo can be heard in the live arrangements. The dual guitar attack of Smith and Lee recalls the best moments of Television’s Marquee Moon and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. The rhythm section provides a solid foundation with plenty of rock edge.
Their new album Sky Burial expands on the sound of their previous efforts. The dichotomous title is partly inspired by the tale of Icarus, the son of Daedalus who flew too close to the sun. “The new album is more complex, and we had more time to write and record,” Smith explains. “We have a better recording setup, and there’s more band involvement this time around.” The tracks were mostly played and recorded by Smith himself, with the other band members lending their talents when needed. The new album promises to have the same memorable moments as Leaves Again, an area in which Smith and his sympathetic band have excelled.
The track “King Midas” is a perfect example of the band’s complex sound. This hushed acoustic song erupts into a celestial jam, with trance-like drums and a guitar riff that seems to stretch high up toward the heavens. “Church of Love” features Smith’s signature fingerpicked guitar over a drum machine and bassist Joe Sanders on lead guitar. The song has a unique groove that is unlike anything the band has recorded before. “You Oughtta Don’t Know” is punctuated by staccato piano rhythms and a smooth violin section. “Fading Stars,” an instantly familiar melody, is ushered along by Smith’s acoustic guitar. The song drops off into an a capella verse in which he proclaims: “Don’t be afraid of your desires.” The guitar soon comes back to great effect, changing the context and meaning of the lyrics. “When I write, I pull from as many parts of life as I can, whether it’s from a personal perspective or just a musical idea,” Smith says. “There’s some false idea that certain things aren’t supposed to go together, I try to keep it all together musically.”
Rice Cultivation Society signed with Mecca Lecca Recording Co., a label based in New York City, to distribute the new album. “We’re very happy to be on a label with some great artists we love,” Smith muses. “Bands like Howth, The Sanctuaries and Christopher Paul Stelling are all worth checking out, as well as the Long Island bands Family Lumber, Vision Through Sound and Helicopter Goes KABOOM!” As an active participant in the indie-rock scene on Long Island, Smith has a lot to say regarding the state of music here. “It’s a shame that bands are expected to do the jobs that promoters and venues should be doing, when they should really be focusing on their craft.” Rice Cultivation Society has steered clear of these problems by winning over fans the old fashioned way: Touring and making great records. With an album under their belt already, Rice Cultivation Society seem poised to break through with the release of Sky Burial.
Rice Cultivation Society will be among the 20 bands performing Mr. Beery’s annual Band Battle to End Cystic Fibrosis benefit concert on February 17 at Mr. Beery’s, Bethpage.