Sunday, June 6, 2010

Spotlight - Pittsburgh Local Artist - Ursa Major - Edition 4

This month's local spotlight falls on Ursa Major. Below are a few streaming tunes with an interview we conducted with lead man Steve. You can find more information about the band on their site at

How did the band come together? Were you all friends that went to school? or?

This is a long and complicated story and not as exciting as I wish it was. Essentially Ben (guitar/keys/vocals) and Jimmy (banjo/keys/guitar/vocals) were playing music together back in eastern PA , where they’re from, during the summer. I was going to school with Ben in PGH, so we were doing our own thing. We put it together as a threesome for a tour in Summer ’08. I actually met Jimmy for the first time like two days before we played our first show. Tim (bass) went to school and lived with us here in Pittsburgh and joined on last year. It took some convincing to come along for all our grifting, but he’s the best damn bass player I know. We actually met Kyle, our drummer, on that Summer ’08 tour, when he was touring as a solo folk-punk act.

Please Dear by Ursa Major

How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?

Our sound has evolved so much since we began playing two years ago. The three-piece of Jimmy, Ben and I was pretty much straight bluegrass, cow punk, train-ridin’ stuff. Since we got our funky rhythm section I’ve traded my mandolin in for a guitar and we’ve added keys to nearly every song. While we still have our folky roots in our blood, we’ve definitely moved towards a real doo-wop sound, which we like to call New-Wop or Blue-Wop or Doo-Grass. I just made all those up, but I think that’s how I would put it. It’s a bitch to classify your sound. You is what you is. Everyone likes to tag a band as “indie” or whatever, but that holds very little real significance...that’s more about a classification of who is playing in the band more than the music.

Are you all originally from the Pittsburgh area? Families here as well?

Actually...none of us are from Pittsburgh originally. We’re all done with school n’at, but we love it here so we stayed. Ben, Jimmy and Tim are all from far-east PA, I’m from an undisclosed location in the Midwest and Kyle was reared in the depths of Hell.

Do you all create music full time or is this more of a part time venture? Do you have day jobs?

Well some of us work more than others, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in PGH who is a full-time musician. Jimmy is training to be a taxidermist, Ben is a farmer, Tim is an aristocrat, Kyle is a full-time grifter and I write commercials.

How do you create your music? What is the song writing process?

Jim, Ben and I all write songs. They all sound completely different, too (which is why it’s so hard to classify our sound). Sometimes we write a song together, but mostly it’s an individual thing where someone says, “Hey, turkeys, I got a new tune.” We’ll play it out, but it’s not really one person’s song because we all add our own styles to it, our own touches. It’s a pretty organic process of development and it works really well for us because a song rarely ends up how it sounded when whoever first wrote it.

Cabin Fever by Ursa Major

What are your goals for the band? What would you like to accomplish? Are you trying to get signed to a label?

Time to plug! We actually just got signed to a local label who is new on the scene, ULJA FACTORY RECORDS (pronounced yooliya, it was Warhol’s mama’s name). We ain’t delusional about getting far on music, we just have a helluva time doing it and we enjoy putting on shows for folks, and we hope they get the same feeling from us. But yeah, baby, we recorded an album in March and it sat on the shelf because Jimmy’s taxidermist training sucked up all of our money, so we were rather broke after paying the bills for recording and then Darrell Workmen, owner of Ulja Factory and an outstanding fellow, came along and wanted to work with us on getting it out. It’s called “Great Big Light” and it’ll be out around August 1st. After all this time, we’re excited to finally put it out there for all to hear.

Have you all toured nationally? Or do you usually stay more regionally?

As a three-piece in Summer 2008, we did a short spell out east in NYC and Boston, etc., before heading through the Midwest—basically Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Chicago, St. Louis, and finally back to PA. Then last summer (2009) we did a little New England ramble for a little over a week. It was a damn good time. Since then we tour what we call our “One-sylvannia” home. Basically just a back’n’forth between Pittsburgh and Philly for weekends. We actually run a house venue here in town called The Doo-Wop Mansion. We have a lot of awesome bands from Philly come and play (great bands like Da Comrade, Hezekiah Jones, Motorcycle Maus and This Frontier Needs Heroes---they’re Brooklyn, though), and then we will go do shows with them in Philly. Philly has a lot of good music coming out of there right now and we admittedly love playing and hanging out with them.

Two Eyes by Ursa Major

Being in the Pgh area, do you find it more difficult to try and succeed? What are some of the obstacles you face trying to create some 'success' in Pgh?

Pittsburgh has a funny music scene. There’s a lot of talent around, but no real “sound.” Most of the “larger” groups in the area do a lot of folk-rock stuff, which we tread on a bit, too, but the problem is that often times bands rarely work together. To be honest we don’t meet many of those acts because we don’t play constantly in Pittsburgh. There isn’t that regular music-going crowd in PGH that there is in Philly, NYC, Austin, etc. A lot of times it’s only people you know. We don’t want to make our friends come out for shows over and over again. These days we’re starting to get some recognition outside of that and get our own draw, which is a nice thing and something we want to keep pushing. But it’s awfully rare to get a big draw of people you don’t know in Pittsburgh. I think any local band will attest to that.

Is there a venue you have enjoyed playing more than others in the area?

We played at the Brillobox last week for the first time with Toy Soldiers, The Armchairs (both AWESOME Philly bands, check ‘em out!) and our good friends from NYC, Ball of Flame Shoot Fire. They are originally PGHers but moved out about a year ago (they’re perfectly in-sync with each other as a band now, the sound is just so good at this point, definitely look them up, too). It was, as far as the bill goes, the best show we’ve been a part of—every band was absolutely incredible—and we had a lot of fun. We also dig Sonny’s Tavern on Millvale, it’s right around the corner from where we live and the owner enjoys having us bring some heads in; that’s really our more intimate stuff where we gather a bunch of crazies in a dive bar and go nuts. Good times had there. We have to be partial to the Doo-Wop Mansion, though. Yes, it’s our house, but, man, when we get a whole lot of music-friendly folks to cram into our basement and hear some great bands...that’s as good as it gets.


  1. the one thing i like about going to shows in pittsburgh is that i usually dont have to worry about sold out shows.

  2. is that really a good thing?