Peeking into the Rainforest with Marina Orchestra

"I saw a little hole in my life and I just jumped through it"

Left to right: Justin Powers, Ryan Murray, Ashley Shabankareh, and Gia Monteleone performing at 30°/-90°. (Photo by Camille Lenain)


As a group, Marina Orchestra has taken many twists and turns, cycling through 30 different members over the years before landing in its current, full-bodied form. Originally launched in Knoxville, Tennessee after the folding of his college band I Need Sleep, founder Justin Powers has been putting his heart and soul into the project since 2010. Marina Orchestra has transformed itself from a scrappy garage band to a highly coordinated, feel-good group spinning tropical-tinged rock. Pre-COVID, you could find them playing on stages decked out in flowers and leafy palm trees on most weekend nights.

Now ten years in, Marina Orchestra is releasing its third full-length album, Night Life. On a balmy October evening, Powers and his partner Ashley Shabankareh welcomed me into their instrument-packed home to catch me up on what the band’s been creating, thinking, and feeling these past few months. Ashley and I first met circa 2018 while working together at Preservation Hall and its sister nonprofit. Not long after, Justin and I were introduced at the annual Midnight Preserves concert series. Right off the bat, I could tell he was a true leaf-lovereach of the eight nights, Justin came prepared with a different leaf snagged from one of Pres Hall’s courtyard plants, pinned proudly on his lapel. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Ashley and Justin’s talent for optimism and the magical stage presence they create with Marina Orchestra fairly well.

In addition to songwriting, Powers serves as the group’s lead guitarist and head visionary. Shabankareh, who handles vocals and plays trombone and hand percussion with Marina, has brought her myriad experiences as a musician and music education professional in New Orleans to the table since joining the group in 2015. Their relationship has undeniably blossomed alongside the development of Marina Orchestra. Now, the eight-piece band has produced an album that truly captures Powers’ fascination with the botanical, and its place within this chaotic city.

Their musical style—which they’ve been told sounds like “if the Talking Heads and B-52s had a musical child”—combines the lightheartedness of island music with an exploration of brass instrumentals, rock’n’roll, and other tastes. Like many others, Marina Orchestra has, more and more, rejected the notion of genres as it relates to modern music and its experimentalism. “I get it; I get the point of genres. I understand them. But I also feel like genres are constraints,” says Shabankareh.

What feels special about this set of songs, released on October 30, is its pushing of the envelope beyond the borders that the band may have created for itself in the past. Ashley, Justin, and the rest of the group’s quirkiness is part of what makes Marina Orchestra’s band-persona so great. But that’s just my opiniontheir dog, Olive, unfortunately had no comments on Marina’s strengths or weaknesses.


The first thing I wanted to touch on was the cover art for Night Lifeit’s pretty dope. What was the inspiration behind that?

Justin Powers: The cover art was originally the single artwork for [our song] “Armed & Dangerous.” I had talked to Roan on the phone—Roan Smith, he’s the guy who did it. He’s done, like, what? The last five or six things?

Ashley Shabankareh: He’s done everything for this iteration [of the band]. So, starting with the album art for “Before You Walk Away,” up until now.

JP: And it’s all been singles, up until now. But yeah, he’s awesome. And a good friend too, so that helps. We were talking on the phone when we were getting “Armed & Dangerous” out as a single, and I was just kind of spitballing with him with some ideas—and, oh, you know, he wanted to do some sort of wasp, or bug. But we had just done “Let It Roll” as a single and that features a luna moth on the cover. So he was like, “Let’s keep with the bug thing and do a WASP!’ I thought to myself, I don’t want to have a bug thing going on here.

 

You don’t want a goddamn bug theme?

JP: Yeah—I’ll do one bug, but I didn’t want a bug theme. And I knew the album was going to be called Night Life. And I’m like, well, what are other creatures of the night? Well, a jaguar is something in the night. And it’s dangerous, too, so, cool—“Armed & Dangerous,” we’ve got ourselves a leopard. And then, maybe let’s put some frilly stuff around it.

AS: He just knocked it out of the park.

It seemed to me that there were nuances of mystery put into this album, maybe more so than your previous stuff. I feel like that comes through in a lot of the song titles and other aspects as well—the lyrics, but also sound-wise. It seems like y’all tended to play with maybe a bit of a darker sound, mixed in there with the really upbeat content as well.

JP: Oh, yeah—that was definitely a decision that I made to write darker-sounding music. For a while, I was like, “[sighs] Everything I write is so happy! I just gotta write something that’s not so happy all the time!” So, I really was trying to push myself to write moodier music and explore some different kind of moods. And that’s stuff like “Down With That,” and “Alligator,” that have all those minor parts in it. And, I guess “Armed & Dangerous,” that’s got kind of more of an attitude.

 

I would say “Survivor,” too, I felt that.

JP: Oh, really? Well yeah, totally—I mean, even though that’s all major chords. [laughs] But if the vibe is coming off—it’s a little slower, a little more meditative.

AS: I even wonder if part of it is your [to Justin] time here in New Orleans. It’s like—and this is me doing a deep analysis on part of the fact that these are songs you’ve written here in New Orleans—but, it’s like New Orleans has this gritty undertone that people don’t always get to see. And so it’s you getting to reveal a little part of yourself in your songwriting being here, and being part of that grittiness. You know, the parts that people don’t get to see if they don’t live here.

JP: I mean, it’s probable. Most probable, because I wrote all this stuff when I was [first] living here, and getting my bearings, and meeting new people, and just getting a sense of the city. So, I mean, yeah, it’s definitely in there.

 

So these are songs that have kind of been brewing for you for a while, then?

JP: Yeah. I think the only [one that’s not]—“Lost Loop” was an idea I’d had since before I moved here. And of course, that’s a remix of a song on our second album, so, there’s a little tie-in there. But then, “Armed & Dangerous,” is the only other song on the record that I had started writing before I moved to New Orleans. But I finished it here.

 

Are the lyrics to the song “Alligator” a euphemism for anything? Or what was the inspiration behind that one?

JP: Ignoring responsibility until something bad happens as a result. But it’s all pretty vague and up to interpretation. I’ve been seeing it as a metaphor for living the Western lifestyle and ignoring nature. [The] “Alligator” being nature coming and biting you when you’re looking the other way.

 

We’ve talked before about the role of genres in how music is presented to us, as listeners and consumers. I think it goes back to the human nature of wanting to put labels on things and categorize them.

JP: Yeah, it absolutely is.

AS: I think my other challenge with genres is there’s this concept that some genres are superior to others. So then I come up with this other challenge—like the whole YouTube video that came out which also perfectly summarized everything, called “Music Theory and White Supremacy” by Adam Nealy. I feel like he kinda hit the nail on the head, in terms of our conception of genres being based around 18th century, Eurocentric music.

JP: Well, that’s what we’ve been educated to believe. That’s been the basis—you’re always like, “Oh, what’s the pinnacle of music?”’ Well, it’s classical music. But, according to who, again?

 

Justin, Ashley mentioned to me the other day that this album is really inspired by your move to New Orleans. I know that you started this band in Knoxville. Is there anything you’d like to expand upon there?

JP: I was in a band called I Need Sleep for a really long time. It was the band we started in high school and I was in that band through college. We went on all these little tours, and played in Chicago—because I grew up outside of Chicago. And then we moved—and when I’m saying “we,” it’s [myself] and two really good friends of mine, so the three of us: DL Bergmeier and Tim Eisinger who were in I Need Sleep. There were other people in I Need Sleep, so it was always kind of this rotating cast. But me, DL, and Tim were always around in some capacity or another. In 2010, we went to Austin, Texas. We went for SXSW. We weren’t playing there, but we went to just scrounge up some shows. And we did—it was a lot of fun, but it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back with I Need Sleep. So, that band broke up. And I was like, what am I going to do now? I need to play music—live mostly. And then, I was like, oh, I guess I’ll start a band. I’d never had my own band band. So, I got some friends together and it ended up mostly just being people from I Need Sleep! [both laugh]

 

So that’s how the beginning of Marina Orchestra came about, right? Was that what it was called, originally?

JP: Marina Orchestra, yeah. The Marina part [of the name] comes from the name of the house that we were living in in Tennessee. We called it “The Marina.” Just for fun, we named it, you know? …With Marina Orchestra, I really wanted to start a street band and do busking. That was me already looking at New Orleans and being like, man, New Orleans is cool.

 

This is the city to do it, or at least, usually.

JP: Definitely, yeah. But we were in Knoxville. And we were not street performers [laughs]. We never got to that level. We had all the gear for playing garages and basements and stuff. There was no way—unless we put our minds to it and got our acoustic guitars out and stuff like that—we were going to be street performers… When Marina first started, it was guitar, bass, the drum kit, and three people playing just random trash on the ground. [both laugh]

 

Was it like, trashy tambourines? That was my first thought.

AS: Trashy tambourines, yes—

JP: It is. Like a broken cymbal just sitting on the ground. And somebody just [going] tick-ey, tick-ey, tick-ey! Well, we got to play Bonnaroo. Pretty quickly, that happened—we got the first album out just in time. We had worked on it for a year and got it out right in time to play Bonnaroo. So that was a ton of fun… but yeah, it was broken toms, broken cymbals, literally just trash on the ground.

 

So how did you make the transition to New Orleans, then?

JP: The band had been through a number of members while in Knoxville, and we were losing another member. It was happening again—we were going to have to train somebody all up again. And I kind of just got sick of it. I was ready to leave Knoxville, anyway. I still love it; it’s a great city, but I was ready for a change. I just needed to get out. It felt claustrophobic. And I had nothing else going for me—I didn’t have a job. So I was just like, fuck it—I saw a little hole in my life and I just jumped through it.

 

Well, why New Orleans specifically? What drew you here?

JP: I mean, any music, food, or culture fan will have New Orleans on their list of places they either want to go or live one day. I was always listening to New Orleans music and [was] just in the whole vibe.

AS: And now he’s here. And that’s where I get to pick up the story—right? Can I?

JP: Yeah, have at it.

AS: [laughs] So, Justin and I had been emailing back and forth, because at that time I was in a band called The Local Skank. And he had messaged me because in his band, we had a common friend that was playing [in Marina Orchestra in Knoxville] that I went to college with, so [Justin] reached out…

JP: It was Jamie Hogan.

AS: Yup, Jaimie Hogan. Jaime went to Loyola with me, we knew each other, [so Justin] reached out about us playing a show together in March of 2015. And then, I remember getting this email saying, “change of plans, don’t worry about booking a show, I’ve decided that I’m moving to New Orleans instead.” Actually, let me see if I can find this… Here we go, found it: “Ashley! I’ve decided to move to New Orleans in April! I’ve always been infatuated with that town and now I want to experience it for real. Anyhow, I don’t know many people there, so I thought I’d hit you up about any leads on jobs and/or places to live. I’m looking to get into anything. Eventually I want to pursue music and stuff. I hope you’re well. —Justin Powers.” So, I ended up sending him an email back with a bunch of job leads and with places to live.

JP: I remember that. Just being like, “What? She’s going so out of her way. That’s so nice!” But yeah, that’s just how you are.

AS: So he messaged me back. I remember he posted a photo on Facebook on one of the first days that he moved to town. He was like, “I’m in New Orleans!” And I was like, “Oh cool, well if you want to hang out, hit me up.” So then, he sent me a message, and it was the first day of the Music Box—the original Music Box in City Park. So, Justin met Gia [Monteleone, Marina Orchestra vocalist and keyboardist] and I in City Park for the first Music Box.

 

How was that?

AS: It was great, it was a great show.

JP: It was surreal.

AS: Really, it was beautiful.

JP: And it’s like, hey, move to New Orleans. Hey, go to City Park—it was the fourth day that I lived here.

AS: Yeah, so that was the first day that we met in person and I would say that we’ve been inseparable ever since… and I remember a few months into Justin living here, him talking about wanting to get music happening again. And I said, I can do that.

JP: This is what she said—“You want a band? I can get you a band.” [both laugh] Literally, I was like, “Ah, I’m thinking about posting to Craigslist to see if there’s anybody who wants to play music.”

 

And Ashley’s like, haha no, I gotchu.

JP: And she did! Within a few days, it was like, “Oh, I got you a drummer! Oh, I got you a bass player!”

AS: Yeah, so that’s how it kicked off here in New Orleans. I basically just called up people and we made it happen.

 

Are a lot of those original people that you called still in the band, or has it morphed more than that?

JP: It’s definitely morphed. Yeah, Gia is the only one [still in the band since its launch in New Orleans]. 

 

Well, she’s a keeper. 

AS: She is!

 

I also wanted to talk about your image—with the tropical vibe. 

AS: Yeah, I feel like the tropical vibe piece was definitely an intentional shift. Gia and myself I think pushed this one the hardest.

JP: OK, this is what I’ll say about it—because this tropical vibe has always been my inclination

AS: But we took it and ran wild.

JP: When I was a kid, I had posters of the rainforest on my walls. I was like an animal dork. I loved nature, and “Save the Rainforest,” and National Geographic, and all that stuff. And bird sounds in songs—seriously [I was] a big nature dirt nerd.

 

You’ve gotta have that toucan in there.

JP: [laughs] The Rainforest Cafe, man! I mean, like, I was there! 

AS: I love me a Rainforest Cafe.

JP: But when we were in Knoxville, Tim was really averse to using tropical ideas, or tropical imagery.

AS: But the ladies—Gia and myself—we wholeheartedly were like, [chanting] “tropical, tropical!” And actually I’ll also add, when I was in The Local Skank, we used to all coordinate on stage. So coordinating on stage was actually pretty easy for me to do. It was part of my internal mindset. And [it was] almost that same mindset of the attire for New Orleans jazz bands. Like, you come in a uniform, and you come perform in your uniform.

JP: Well, yeah, up until this point we had always just worn jeans and a t-shirt on stage for Marina.

AS: So we made a really intentional transition going from not coordinating [in dress] at shows to starting to coordinate. I think part of it was that we definitely found dresses and clothing that we felt excited about and happy about dressing our bodies in. So part of it was like, “I feel fuckin’ good, so I’m going to show up in this outfit.” And it just kind of morphed. It was a slow transition, but—

JP: Then it goes into the whole vibe of the band, the music is tropical in feel.

AS: We wanted the visual to match the auditory experience.


Gia Monteleone (Left) and Ashley Shabankareh (Right) performing hand percussion with Marina Orchestra. (Photo by Howard Lambert)


Are you guys in any way speaking to what’s happening politically, environmentally, culturally, in our country or in the city right now, on this album?

AS: I would say that as individuals, we all [everyone in Marina] have taken obvious stances against a lot of the serious injustices that are occurring. I’ll first start by saying that as a brown individual, I’ve been doing a lot of work in terms of activism as it relates to the now, and the realities, and the systemic racism that exists within not only our country, but also the racist policies that have been in existence that in particular have impacted New Orleans musicians and culture bearers more than others1Editor’s note: Shabankareh is Board President of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), which contributes monthly articles to ANTIGRAVITY. But as a band, we definitely have taken much more of a focus on environmental justice. It is an area that does still require a lot of love and support, and is an area that as a band, we definitely are passionate about. But individually, we all are taking a lot more of an active stance on the political front. We all have different issues that we feel more passionately about than others and that we feel more confident speaking about. But in terms of the music itself, I would say that it doesn’t always come across musically because I think we always find that the music itself serves as a release for all of the activism and the work that we each individually do. So, it’s almost like our escape moment from the realities that all of us are facing, and the realities of our communities.

JP: I was watching some debate when I was a kid, some presidential debate and I was like [does Justin-as-a-small-wide-eyed-child impression] “Why aren’t they talking about de rainforest???” [Switches to normal Justin voice] “Why aren’t they talking about climate change?” or whatever they called it then—global warming. Because I remember, National Geographic would always have all of these articles about the future and [pictures of] like a city that was just all red with cars everywhere. And I was a seven-year-old kid being like [Justin-as-a-wee-babe voice again] “I like the rainforest, and it’s dyyyyyinnnnng.” So I’ve been an environmentalist my whole life… I’ve got some kind of vision for this ability to connect with nature in a way that’s more than just like, “Oh, well, I’ve got some house plants, and I’ve got a cat, and it was a nice day so I went outside.” There’s got to be more of a connection than that. Looking at the lyrics that are on this album, clearly a couple of them are love songs or whatever; but the rest of them, there’s definitely some sort of longing to connect with nature more. I think that’s a common theme throughout.

 

Yeah, I definitely felt that. In “Dream Life,” I felt like you were speaking to that. And maybe in “Survival” as well. I was looking at the lyrics of that song, and I thought they were really interesting, especially the part where you talk about it “being a tribal war,” and “it’s just survival,” and “the miles and miles away, the wandering and dreaming.” In that stuff, it really feels like you’re talking about a landscape.

JP: Absolutely, yeah. When we were talking about influences earlier—the phrase “Tribal War” is totally from the band Third World. They have this song called “Tribal War” and I think that’s awesome. But yeah, I feel like the thread that I’ve been pulling recently, like the past few months, since the album has been written and recorded and everything, [is that] I’ve been working on how people can connect with nature on an individual level that’s more profound and actually beneficial. Not just for themselves but the world at large. And I’ve started writing even more—the new songs that I’ve got coming out that are all about this stuff. About growing things and being with the earth and helping things grow—figuring out ways that we can manage our ecosystems in a way that we can all live together. Our whole modern life is built with the exclusion of nature, we are not part of nature, we are superior to nature, we have evolved out of nature. It’s all wrong. We have to be a part of nature. Like I said, the thread that I’ve been pulling recently—well, just to give you some context, we’ve got this new raised bed that we’ve started. And let me just tell you, apparently soil is really important. But when you go out to anywhere, like the neighborhood here, and there’s just grass everywhere—that’s not good soil. It’s not healthy soil. It’s probably managed with chemicals, too, which is also not good. But, when I mean garden soil, it’s just full of life. You know, like Disney’s “Circle of Life” and it’s like, animals and everything? Well, that’s happening in the soil, too. It’s a whole life cycle of different microbes and bacteria eating each other, and, you know, pooping—the soil is alive. The ground is alive. Well, the ground should be alive. And it’s not. And we did that. People did that. So, my whole big thing is, if I’m going to be worth anything on this planet, it’s going to be somebody who’s going to be helping soil. Because everything comes from the soil. Everything we eat comes from the soil… And that’s where I’ve been at in my head. And listening back to the record, it tracks. I didn’t quite know what I was talking about when I was writing these, but I had urges for something. And I feel like this whole idea of individual action—one person being able to make a change on a local, hyper-local level you know? Like, start with your backyard. Change the environment around you. That’s a great place to start. Because once you do that, you can help somebody else out.

 

I really do think that shone through. And it speaks to your overall theme [as a band]—that tropical-ness comes from somewhere, that’s an environmental fascination. 

JP: Right. Yeah, absolutely. Well, what’s a bigger sign of life than a big, lush tropical forest full of animals?

AS: And what’s a bigger sign of life than the lungs of the earth?

 

Right, and I mean New Orleans is a little bit of a microcosm of that. We are swampy, but we are subtropical.

JP: We definitely have an interesting climate here in New Orleans. I think the bowl aspect makes the atmosphere here a little different. The air is a little heavier.

 

One other thing that I wanted to talk about with y’all is that I know you were supposed to have a really exciting spring season, show-wise. You were supposed to play your first-ever Jazz Fest set, and you were supposed to play Festival International again, and French Quarter Fest. How did you guys switch gears after all of that?

AS: I think pretty early on in this pandemic we all had this, I think, come-to-peace moment—really, really early on. I would say, a couple weeks in we were all just like, we know this is bad. And at this point, it is what it is. Life is what it is. Of course, we can be disappointed and I think that is an understandable thing to be disappointed about, when you’ve really looked forward to something for so long. But you know, we’ve grown, we’ve continued to grow from it. I’m hoping we can definitely kick some ass for future festival seasons! But I think as a band, we all just knew deep down that that was going to be the reality.

JP: I mean, we’ve been rehearsing, I think for our own psychology. And we were doing some live streaming. We took a little break from it, but we’ll be coming back at it. It’s weird, because it’s such great opportunities to do those things and you never know what’s going to come out of it, right? And those shows were the reason why the album happened. We definitely took our time with it after everything got canceled. We were like, well we might as well work on the album a little more, instead of rushing to finish it really quickly. Which I’m pretty glad we did.

 

It’s definitely a silver lining.

AS: Yeah, it is. 

JP: It really is a silver lining. But, where was I going with that? I took a sidebar, and then I can’t remember where the regular bar is…

AS: Here’s the regular bar and here’s the side bar.

 

Do you miss Buffa’s bar?

JP: [laughs] I miss playing not live streams at Buffa’s bar.

AS: I miss playing to people.

 

It’s kind of hard to keep up that kind of performance. 

JP: Anybody could just tune in every week and see it—it’s about going out. And meeting new people, meeting your friends.

AS: I think it’s beyond that. There are moments that would happen just in that reality, where only the people in that room got to see it. And now, I think the one thing that live stream has done—although it has its benefits of being able to play for tons of people all at one time in a synchronous manner—is that you’re missing out on these intimate secrets in that room.

 

I would love to hear about where you recorded the album.

AS: Yeah—our closet.

 

Um… wait, what? Really?

JP: Ummm. Two places. All of the drums are recorded at Kelly’s [Smith, bass player] house. And then most of everything else was recorded in the closet.

 

Like, the closet closet?

AS: The closet closet.

 

Why the closet?

AS: Sounds better in there. 

JP: And it’s cheaper.

 

So you didn’t choose Esplanade Studios, or like—

JP: No, and that’s another thing.

AS: This album is a true labor of love. 

JP: I always like the demos that I come up with. Usually, I’ll write a song and then make a demo for it, and then show it to the band, and we all learn it. And I always like those demos. I feel like they turn out so good. Of course, there’s always some stray hairs here and there, but I know what I’m listening to. It doesn’t have to be perfect just for the band members. So every time we record an album, it’s either expensive, or you have to get in and out really fast and you don’t necessarily get your best takes. So this one was like, for the first time, I was at the wheel tracking everything, recording everything. And I did it like I do my demos—I got it the way I wanted it. I would definitely like to work with a producer one day. But, as for now, I’m pretty happy with the way it came out. We should mention that we had it mixed by the guys who mixed and recorded the first album. They’re in Tennessee and they’re old friends of mine. Once I recorded everything, I sent just the raw tracks up to them, and they zhuzhed it up pretty good. They’re brothers—Jonathan and Fred Kelly. Their studio is called Famous London Recording Studio, just for the record.

 

Famous London—in Tennessee?

JP: In Tennessee. [laughs] They’re big Beatles fans.

 

That’s cute. In closing, one last question: What are y’all hoping to do musically in 2021? Do you have any goals for after this album comes out?

AS: Here’s my personal goal—across the board, things we can do: move away from this reality of needing to work all the time, like having this fast-paced life and really honing in more on how the field of music—and particularly the music industry—can become more equitable. So, you know, not shifting immediately back into our norms from pre-COVID times and thinking more holistically about how our industry can grow, especially here in New Orleans. That is my own personal hope, and dream.


For more info on Marina Orchestra, including their latest album Night Life, check out marinaorchestra.com.

Cover art by Roan Smith.