Self-Styled Heirs To ’70S Arena Rock, Karmella’s Game Aren’t Playing Around
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“Do not tour Vermont in January,” Katie Ostrosky says, shaking her head. “Have you seen our van?”
She’s not kidding. Ostrosky—aka KTO, the 22-year-old singer/keyboardist of Karmella’s Game—and her band mates are unwinding after a barnstorming set at the Talking Head. Sporting thrift-store garb and gabbing over the bar’s noise, they look more like impish indie kids than grizzled road warriors, but their van bears the scars of hard-won experience. It sports an assortment of nicks, scrapes, and dents, though the crowning jewel is the sunken roof, a souvenir from a January tour through Vermont in which the van hit a patch of black ice and flipped several times.
“It was scary,” adds drummer Joe Ostrosky, Katie’s 20-year-old brother. “We were stranded and we had to eat one of our members to survive.”
Well, not quite. Escaping with only a few bruises, the Ostrosky siblings and company—20-year-old bassist Mandy Koch and then-guitarist Steve Snyder—avoided resorting to cannibalism when they were rescued by tour mates Second Saturday, a synth-rock quartet from Nashville, Tenn. The van was hauled off for repairs, but instead of taking a moment to catch their breath and count their lucky stars, Karmella’s Game soldiered on to the next gig. “I mean, we were all OK,” KTO shrugs. “It’s not a big deal.”
Car wrecks and brushes with death may spook some people, but it’s all part and parcel of rock ’n’ roll, and Karmella’s Game knows it. The rigors of the road are already second nature to the band, which has already made several jaunts up and down the coast, from Buffalo to Pensacola, and plans to stay on the road consistently through next fall. “Of course, things get shuffled around a bit, but we’re sticking to our schedule as much as possible,” says KTO, the band’s lead mouthpiece both on- and offstage. “We planned it out a year ago.”
It’s a plan that’s working so far. Typically, a band barely into its third year, with a mean age of 21 and no booking agent, could expect to spend half its waking life e-mailing and phoning venues in search of shows. But the members of Karmella’s Game have created such a demand for themselves that most of their shows are offered to them by clubs and other bands. “Unless it’s with specific bands, for a tour, or friends coming in from out of town—you know, ‘We’re coming in this day, can you help us with the show?’Other than that, we never book [shows],” KTO says. “We turn away a lot more shows than we could ever play.”
To draw at will is an enviable position for any band to be in, though it’s hardly surprising to anyone who’s witnessed a Karmella’s Game live show’s giddy frenzy. Sporting matching Catholic-school uniforms, the quartet races through anthemic power-pop bursts. Stadium-sized guitar riffs nip at the heels of KTO’s rippling synth runs, while Koch and Joe Ostrosky’s tourniquet-tight rhythms propel the songs into flight. The vocal hooks, belted out in four-part harmony, would make Rivers Cuomo want to destroy his sweater. And while a certain blue album is a favorite of the folks in Karmella’s Game, they secretly prefer the bigger, bolder rock of 1970s arena giants.
“We love Journey,” Joe grins. “We’ll be driving in the van, singing along to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ with one person doing the lead and everyone else doing harmony. It’s awesome.” Such influences haven’t been lost on critics who hear hints of not only contemporary synth-rockers like the Rentals and the Faint but also Supertramp and Cheap Trick. Smart songcraft and sing-along choruses never go out of style, and Karmella’s Game has already made an admirable contribution to the canon. Its 2003 debut EP, What He Doesn’t Know Won’t Hurt Him (Speedbump), was one of the sharpest, most entertaining records to come out of Baltimore in recent memory—all the more impressive considering it was the band’s maiden voyage in the studio.
“It was intense, it was really scary,” Koch admits. “But once we kind of got over it, it was a lot of fun. Mike [McAree, producer/engineer] was awesome, just a great producer. We just had a lot of fun.”
Heading into the studio as a quintet, the band shed its second guitarist shortly following the EP’s release, returning to its original four-piece format. Then, on the eve of a summer tour, guitarist Steve Snyder quit.
“I guess it’s a thing with 26-year-olds,” KTO says. “That once you turn 26, you have to quit the band. The first guitarist that left the band—he quit right when he turned 26. Steve turned 26 three months before he quit.”
Playing through the summer with a temp guitarist, the band recently welcomed 22-year-old Damian Napulos as its new six-stringer. Having spent the past month woodshedding with the self-proclaimed “resident metalhead,” Karmella’s Game is already so comfortable with its newest member that it’s plowing through demos for an upcoming full-length. Though they balk at predicting how the next record will sound, everyone is confident that it will be better for having Napulos in the fold. Tonight’s set at the Talking Head was his inaugural performance, and by all accounts it went very well. Napulos has earned the right to don the band’s trademark red cardigan.
“I like the uniform,” Napulos smiles. “It adds something to the performance, it makes it a real show. Seeing them play, even before I was with them, it seemed like a fun band. It kind of crosses over. No matter who was there in the crowd, even hardcore fans or metal fans, people were just having fun.”
“Baltimore’s been really good to us,” KTO says. “We play a lot, and I can’t remember our last bad show in Baltimore. There are lots of bands we like playing with, too, like Avec or Two if by Sea.”
Koch jumps in. “There’s not a whole lot of bands, especially around here, that are like us,” she says. “They’re not as poppy, or as straight rock, or whatever. But we love playing with all kinds of bands. We’ll play with hardcore bands and have the greatest shows. It’s cool that we can float around and do pretty much whatever we want.”