By Jesse Jester
It may have been a Sunday night, but I was treated to a musical church service last week at Rumba Café. It was Ex-Nihilo’s first ever headlining show, and the crowd was buzzing from the get-go.
The opening act, alternative hip-hop group Jocef Michael Band, had the crowd hopping. The second band, The New Schematics, brought a mix of Sanctus Real and Jason Isbell from Nashville with a message of forward facing hope. The stage was set for the Columbus quartet, pronounced Ex-nah-hee-lo (a Latin phrase from Genesis meaning “out of nothing”).
Ex-Nihilo is a 4 piece act featuring singer/keyboardist Austin Hafner, guitarist Joel Sheppard, bassist Matt Brooks and drummer David Sadowski. The boys came together in 2015, and just recently released their self-titled debut EP in November. Brooks cited Coldplay, Two Door Cinema Club and Switchfoot as their musical influences.
Rumba was dark as we waited nervously for the action to begin. One by one, each member of the band took the stage as they played a snippet of their song King. Hafner ran out of seemingly nowhere to join the rest on stage as the lights flickered on, and they immediately kicked into the song Industry, which opens with the line “It starts with the melody!” Sheppard’s guitars bounced around while Brooks’ chunky bass was forefront as Hafner criticized the music industry in America.
“We opened with that song because it always helps to calm our nerves” admitted Sadowski. They definitely could have fooled me if they were at all nervous.
Can’t Marry This opened with a soaring guitar intro that wouldn’t have been out of place on a 80s U2 record, and featured pummeling drums from Sadowski. Every head around me was bobbing as Hafner pranced around the stage and delivered a signature wail that showed true vocal talent.
The band mixed it up a little with their next (and newest) song, Invitation. Sheppard kicked off the tune with some funky grooves while Brooks laid down another heavy bass track. I asked them about the switchup and they said that they had been jamming to Kool and the Gang and Ohio Players while on a road trip and wanted to experiment with a funkier sound. It worked out wonderfully and was well received by the crowd as well. The next song, Light, almost felt like a filler track that a band throws in a record/set. Not much of note there.
Up next was a cover of the hit song Bad Blood. Not Bastille, but Taylor Swift. Yeah, you heard me. A Taylor Swift cover at a big rock show. “We all love pop music” agreed Hafner and Sadowski, “and 1989 is probably the best album we have heard recently”.
“I told them I’d agree to it under two conditions” quipped Brooks “1: that we made it our own, and 2: that we did it in a minor key”. It ended up feeling like a Father John Misty song, and I guess if you didn’t know it was a Taylor Swift song, you might not even recognize it.
After that, Hafner and Sheppard ran out into the crowd for the acoustic first half of Zoning Out, a song that felt like a mix between Two Door Cinema Club and Miike Snow, if Miike Snow had a good singer. Unfortunately the acoustic side of the song kind of took away from the fun, kicking element that happened when they rejoined their band-mates on stage. “I lose touch when the music starts” is another brilliant line from Hafner, who really shows a flair for working the crowd and reaching inside to pull out the best of himself.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the next song, Enemy. You wouldn’t know this was their first headlining gig with the amount of composure and charisma they showed on stage as Hafner again danced around and belted out line after line. Sheppard’s guitars almost knocked the roof off of the Rumba as Brooks’ chunky bass grooves mixed perfectly with Sadowski’s cymbal pummeling and bass kicks. It was unquestionably the best song I heard all night and I was humming the tune all the way home.
The boys finished with a reworked version of Light, which actually ended up working in their favor. Standing alone, the song seemed dull and drawn out, but with added keyboard, bass grooves and electronics it actually became a pretty cool tune. Not a single person who was left in the Rumba Café was standing still as the song came to a close.
Needless to say, they considered their first headlining gig a success. They will take the stage again on Thursday, April 27 at Spacebar, in support of North By North and She Bears. Check em out!
- King* (intro snippet)
- Can’t Marry This
- Bad Blood (Taylor Swift cover)
- Zoning Out*
- Light (reworked)
*- Featured on their debut EP Ex-Nihilo released November 2016.
Ex-Nihilo – Zoning Out