“If you’re not friends, burning bridges for something musical makes sense, but we were friends first.”
Stephen Till is reflecting on the life — and death — of one of his many Denver musical projects. Known as Hearts of Palm and as Nathan & Stephen, the big indie ensemble with the even bigger sound became well known in the Denver music scene from 2006 to 2008 for its ecstatic live shows, memorable pop songs and Partridge Family vibe. And as Till thinks back on the band’s heyday, it’s clear he’s even more excited about the reunion that is currently in progress.
Nathan & Stephen began as a collaboration between longtime friends and songwriters Till and Nathan McGarvey. Since both were active in the Denver music community (especially Till, who was probably best known as guitarist for celebrated post-punk breakout act Black Black Ocean), interest was high early on.
Before long, the duo was joined by Till’s saxophonist wife, Leanor Ortega Till (best known for her time in popular ska band Five Iron Frenzy, his brothers Matthew (guitar) and Jonathan (bass), keyboardist Justin Croft, trumpeter Phil Donovan, singer/guitarist Dan Craig and drummer Stephen Brooks.
In a way, Nathan & Stephen/Hearts of Palm was the culmination of a lifetime of bands. Stephen Till, McGarvey and Brooks had played in Boys Who Like Audrey, and later in Barbazon, with Justin Croft. Jonathan Till and Brooks both played in Porlolo. Jonathan even played with Stephen, for a time, in Black Black Ocean.
Though both the lineup (Brooks was later replaced by Black Black Ocean drummer Jared Black) and the name changed (Hearts of Palm was chosen when the joke of a nine-piece band called Nathan & Stephen wore thin, especially for the other seven members), the outfit’s live performances — characterized by McGarvey’s melancholy, smoke-scarred baritone, bright horn lines from Leanor and Donovan, and impassioned vocals shouted by all nine members (and most of the audience) — evolved into a nearly religious experience for those who saw Hearts of Palm’s frequent shows during its brief life.
“There was this sense of chaos, which was the appeal,” Till remembers of those performances. “It wasn’t just a lot of people standing there.”
Maintaining the energy and focus of nine people, however, turned out to be too difficult. In 2008, as Black moved to New York, Hearts of Palm unceremoniously disappeared. The band resurfaced for an official farewell in November 2009, with Rob “Number 3″ Burleson (of d. biddle and Lion Sized) taking Black’s place behind the drum kit, but then quickly left, with only two EPs (one as Nathan & Stephen and one as Hearts of Palm, both available as a free download bundle here) and the memories of a rabid following remaining as proof of its existence.