The Foreign Arm formed in 2015, shortly after Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson and Nick Blevins met at an open-mic event Vocab was hosting to recognize local talent. The band, which also features George Garza Jr. on bass and Omar Rosel on drums, mixes traditional soul and poetry roots with a blend of modern influences, creating a sound entirely of its own.
We sat down with Vocab and Nick to speak about their influences, plans for the year to come, and their upcoming performance at the Indie Overnight Spring Showcase on March 7 at Paper Tiger.
So to start this off, how long have you all been playing together, and how’d you meet?
Nick: Well, like three years. It’ll be four in August, which is nuts. That is crazy. Four years, my goodness.
Vocab: So, I host a poetry spot called Jazz & Poetry with a Purpose, and it has a live band. It’s kind of like a feature showcase full of artists in the city, and there was this guy named Jamal that was a poet that lived here, and he was also Nick’s roommate, I believe. And they had a set that they were doing, Nick playing and singing on guitar and Jamal doing poetry, and I was like “That guy’s good.” And so I put together a showcase at this place called the One Drop, and they asked if Nick could do a set, and I was like “Absolutely.” It was kind of an emerging artist showcase. So Nick was up there doing a set, and I had a set, and I had some musicians there. George was there, and a couple other musicians, and as Nick was playing, they were all coming up to me and saying, “Who’s that guy? He’s really good. I want to work with him.” It was like three different musicians that all came up to me and said the same thing, and I was just like “We should start a band. We should ask him if he wants to be in a band.” I literally said that, and after the show that’s kind of what we did.
You have the Indie Overnight showcase coming up, and then a performance at the Tobin Center. What else do you have planned for 2019? Is your EP releasing this year?
Vocab: The album.
Nick: Yeah, we have our collection of songs coming out. Just a few days ago we were in the studio mixing them, Omar and George and I. Just putting some final touches on it. That’ll be out in probably three or four months, just as we package it up all nice.
Vocab: Yeah, we gotta do press releases and all that stuff. We want to make sure we have our ducks in a row before we start releasing music all willy-nilly, since we spent so many years working on it.
Nick: That’s right. And we also have shows, like Imagine Fest coming up.
That’s going to be such a good show.
Nick: Yeah, and the flyer! That flyer is nuts. But yeah, that’s right around the corner. And we have shows coming up at the McNay, we’ll be playing out on the garden. We did that this past year, and that was a lot of fun. They had food trucks, and the vibe was real nice.
Vocab: It was a great audience, and we had a whole bunch of fun. There were toddlers who wanted to come dance right by the stage. Yeah, it was super cute.
You both did a lot of art and music stuff individually, before you started playing together. Can you talk about that, kind of how you’ve grown as musicians before and since forming The Foreign Arm?
Nick: Before The Foreign Arm, I’d played a couple open mics and stuff, and I was doing that here and there, but it wasn’t anything like what we’re doing now, at all. Mostly, I wrote songs just at home, you know, and I just always had a song that I was working on. After that show with Jamal, my roommate, we started playing together as a band, and at first it was just Vocab and I.
Vocab: Yeah, we got the fellas in after a few. Let’s see, me as an individual. I started rapping when I was in high school, and that was in the late ’90s. I’m an old lady. So, when I graduated, I continued and got into the open-mic scene around 2001. I did slam poetry from ’05 to ’08. Around 2006, I started throwing showcases. I’ve always had a fascination and a passion for emerging artists, just capturing people when their stuff is still raw and not quite figured out. Seeing the potential in people, you know? Everybody needs a platform. It’s so hard to figure out, how am I going to approach venues and get stuff out? So, I try to do that and just keep it fresh. I’ve hosted open mics in the city for, God, a good 12 to 15 years. I’ve just been doing stuff like that for a really long time. I am blessed to have Nick in my journey of musical collaborations and things like that. I’ve done quite a few collaborations over the years, but this one is extremely fulfilling, and his work ethic and his openness is just really great. He’s a very humble guy, but incredibly talented.
When you work together, do you typically write songs individually or together? And can you just talk a little bit about that process?
Vocab: We do a lot of both, yeah. Sometimes, he has a whole song all completely fleshed out, and then sometimes, it’s out of the blue. One day, we were up in Houston visiting my best friend, and we were super hungry, and we were like “Yo, let’s write a song.” And we literally just wrote a song, took a break, got some food, came back, and wrote the rest of the song. You never know. We keep it super organic.
After the two of you have the song how you want it, is that when you bring it to the rest of the band?
Vocab: We take it to them after it’s mostly fleshed out. We’ll be about 70, 60 percent on it before we show it to them, I think.
Nick: Yeah, usually the song has the bones already. Lyrics and rudimentary chord structure, basically. And then we’ll take it to the band, and Omar will start doing some beats over it, and George will get some little bassline going, and it develops more nuance as practice goes on.
What genre would you consider yourselves to be a part of? Or do you have a sound that you’d use to describe your music?
Vocab: We’re going to say two different things, but go ahead.
Nick: No, you go first. Actually, we’ll just say it at the same time. One, two, three.
Nick: Indie soul.
Do y’all have shared inspirations, then?
Nick: A lot of the time, we’ll find that we’re listening to the same new stuff. Someone will be like, “Have you heard this song by this artist?” and someone else will say “Oh, yeah, I’ve been listening to them a lot. You heard this one?” “Yeah!”
Vocab: Yeah, we like similar stuff. His stuff is a little more out there and eclectic, but then if there was a Venn diagram, we’d have shared stuff in the middle, and then we’re each individually into some weird stuff. Let’s see, my influences. I don’t know, man. I like Meshell Ndegeocello, I like Tom Misch, I like a broad spectrum.
Nick: For me, my fundamental, like I can break it down by artists, my turning points, and one was The New Amsterdams, which was an offshoot of this band called The Get Up Kids, which was like emo before it became like an aesthetic genre. It was more like a punk-centered type of music, and they were doing that in the mid-90s, along with Built to Spill, bands like that. Before that, I listened to like, 3 Doors Down, Nickelback, then it just turned.
Vocab: Nickelback! You see those Nickelback memes? People are like, totally back on them, and I’m like, “What’s wrong with Nickelback?”
Nick: There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just—
Vocab: Nineties alt is great. They’re like adult alternative.
Nick: And then Nujabes, really took me in a different direction. And that took me to the instrumental, lo-fi, like down-tempo jazz-hop, stuff like that. And then there’s also been like, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Boys of Canada.
Vocab: Look at him namedrop all of this crazy stuff.
Nick: I’m just saying.
Do y’all have a favorite San Antonio band? Someone you either really love playing shows with or that you guys listen to sometimes?
Nick: We played a show with Mirame recently.
Vocab: I’m a big fan of 16 the Olympus. I know they’re on the bill. All I want to do is play shows with 16 the Olympus. I’m like, can we get more of that in our lives? I really love them, and one other band I’m going to shout out, I’m on their album, but not only that, I’m a big fan of them, is MC².
Nick: MC², they are ridiculous, so good. It reminds me of like the ’90s hiphop, where they go back and forth, and they both have really pronounced, distinct voices.
Vocab: Very jazz-influenced. Like Guru and J Dilla’s stuff, with good jazz samples and straight, just soulful chords. So those are a few people we can shout out.
Nick: Mr. Pidge is always fun.
Vocab: We should stop. You should stop us now. We love a lot of bands, and they’re very good friends of ours. It’s like when they get on stage, we’re front and center. And when we get on stage, they’re front and center. It’s love. It’s a lot of love.
Nick: It’s a lot of good people, and they happen to make music as well.
A lot of those bands are playing Imagine Fest. It seems like the whole Imagine crowd is its own little mini scene.
Nick: Imagine is a really good venue. I love it because it’s on the same level as the people, and they get in real close.
Vocab: Very intimate. It’s like a Tiny Desk Concert.
Nick: The energy’s always real positive. We’re about it. You can have, like, a noise band go on, and then we’ll go right after them.
Vocab: Which, for a bookstore, is kinda crazy, that you’re at a record-slash-bookstore, and you’re being loud, and it’s great.
Nick: Our first show, by the way, was actually at the BiblioTech, which is a digital library. There’s like no books.
Vocab: It was our first show with the full band.
How’d that come around?
Vocab: Our music was so not worked out. We were like super fresh, but we were making it work. It was a little bit more hodgepodge-y. You know me, inserting myself. I didn’t quite know… Nick is really cool. He lets me figure out all my harmonies, all my adlibs. If there’s supposed to be, he’s like, “I imagine you could rap over this part of the song, but if you don’t want to, don’t.” He’s just very chill, and he respects my space in the band, and I try to honor what he’s presenting to me. I don’t want to walk all over it. It’s like, there’s a lot of harmonies in our songs.
Nick: I went running today on a trail, so maybe that’s why I’m thinking this way, but the songs are like an unpaved trail. We have to find the path together.
Vocab: Yeah, I think so. All our songs are about discovery in one way or another.
Do you guys have a song that you’ve worked on that you want to dive into a little bit?
Nick: Favorite song, let’s see, that was really fun to develop. “Freedom” comes to mind. I remember a lot of sessions where we were, you know, all of us together.
Vocab: Yeah, man, we spent a lot of time on the song. I think a song that surprised me, that I ended up loving a whole lot was “A Light.” I ended up really really taking to that song. But my favorite song of all our songs is “Libraries.” Hands down, that is my favorite song, “Libraries.” You probably didn’t even know that.
Nick: I think you mentioned, you really felt that, you know?
Vocab: That’s a goodass song, and I had nothing to do with the writing of that song. That’s all this man right here. He writes some really great songs. It’s very imagery-heavy. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our first song was at a library, we wrote the song “Libraries,” now you work at a library.
Nick: I will become a library.
Vocab: Yes, you will turn into a book.
Nick: “Libraries” was great because that one did come together because of like a dream, you know. So a lot of dream imagery and stuff, and it is really moody, and then it has a very specific tone, and that’s of like, being alone at first and kind of blinded in a sense, and then you discover what existence has to offer.
Vocab: You’re so deep.
Nick: It’s always about trying to nail down a feeling, and whether or not I do that is up to the listener to decide, but I really try and make it tangible to myself, and that way I feel like it’ll be tangible to everybody else.
Vocab: I’ll tell you one more thing before we move on from this question, because you’re asking some great questions by the way. What I was impressed with by this song is that he went very experimental towards the end when you hear the recording, and it’s a direction that I would love to see us do a little bit more of that in the future. I think this song really lends itself to the vast variety of influences that he has musically, and I feel like he showcased a lot more of that and really let his vocals do a lot of awesome things on this song. I was like, “Okay, Nick, I see you.” I haven’t even told him some of this stuff, but this is just how I feel. We don’t just sit and talk about this.
Nick: “Yeah, so what’d you think about that one song?”
Do y’all have something that you don’t always get to talk about that you like to talk about with the project or music in general?
Nick: Hm. I think the pathos, trying to find what drives people to do that. Because like, “What drives you?” That’s a very fundamental question. But I don’t think people take the time to you know, “Where is this coming from?” The songs, where is this coming from? Why are you doing this? I feel like I can always get that out of people. My initial reaction when I’m meeting people, maybe this is a lot of people’s, but I always reserve myself until I get a better idea of who I’m talking to, who I’m with. Maybe everybody’s like that. But yeah, just trying to figure out why people do what they do.
Vocab: Nick, you and I have completely different approaches to people. I think the methodology is what matters. The end result is that I want to see people come out of their shells and talk. I like to know someone’s processes and what they’re thinking. Some songs I just straight up ask him, like, “Nick, what is this song about to you? What does it mean to you?” Because if I’m going to contribute something to it, I need to know where you were, where your headspace was when you did it. And I love those shows, the stripped down shows, where people can speak in between. I think George is really introspective in that way, our bass player. Like this man puts a lot of thought into everything.
Nick: All deep.
Vocab: Super deep. And he can very much articulate to you from not only the reality standpoint of the living but how it translates through chords and progressions and structure.
Nick: He has a language, and that’s another thing I’ve been trying to learn, too. If you want it to slow down and be softer, how do you convey that directly and quickly?
Vocab: And through chords. From minor to major, you know, diminish to all of that.
Nick: And nothing about it feels like “this is this, and this is this.” Like, every time I learn music theory, it’s like a lightbulb moment. That’s how my music theory knowledge works, like lightbulb moment to light bulb.
Vocab: Like you do it, and you just do it, it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like somehow, we pick stuff up, we don’t even know that we pick stuff up from the things we listen to, but you obviously do it well. And then someone tells you, “Hey that’s what you’ve been doing.”
Nick: It’s like doing a puzzle backwards and then you flip it, like “Oh, okay, woah. I see.”
That’s all I’ve got, but feel free to talk more if you want to plug.
Nick: We’ve got an EP coming soon. You can keep an eye on our website, theforeignarm.com, Facebook.com/theforeignarm, we have Instagram. We have a Twitter, but we don’t use it a lot.
Vocab: We should start beef with our Twitter. We should target very big corporations and start crap with them, that would probably get us more followers.
Nick: We always kick around ideas, here at The Foreign Arm.
Vocab: Watch this week, Ima start something with Wendy’s. I got beef.
Nick: Why you got that square burger, y’all?
Vocab: Your burgers ain’t taste the same since the nineties, yo. Taste like garbage now. It’s never too late to be what you might have been. That’s the philosophy inside my tea. It’s inside. It’s called Honest Tea.