The Unbanned rewrites the rules with cello, guitar, keyboards

Erek Kapusta, Noah Figlin and Jonathan Dexter are The Unbanned.
Erek Kapusta, Noah Figlin and Jonathan Dexter are The Unbanned. Photo provided

State College music scene fixture Noah Figlin has come up with a new and exciting musical project, The Unbanned.

The trio’s — Figlin on guitar and vocals; Erek Kapusta on keyboards, guitar and vocals; and Jonathan Dexter on cello — instrumentation makes music outside the confines of a traditional lineup of guitar, bass and drums.

“I think what makes us unique is how we approach the music that we are playing,” Figlin said. “It is the sort of project that allows the listener to really hear the nuances of what we are doing. We’re trying to paint with a lot of different colors and textures and create something that is inviting and vibrant.”

Drawing upon their eclectic musical sensibilities, their thoughtful, entertaining and often unexpected performances already have caught the ears of local audiences, such as at last week’s appearance at the “Bright Side of the Road” tribute concert. The trio is working on a full-length studio record. The trio will perform every other Saturday at the Happy Valley Brewing Co.

Unbanned an outlet for creative ideas

Figlin met Dexter a few years ago after Dexter moved to the area from Austin, Texas. Figlin and Kapusta, who play together in The Nightcrawlers, thought a band featuring cello, electric guitar and piano would be a cool project.

“We set up a jam with the three of us, and immediately we could tell that this was going to be something good,” Figlin said. “Jon came over to my place and plugged his cello into a bunch of guitar-effects pedals and into an amp, and the sounds he created were wild. Erek and I are also pretty experimental musically, and the whole thing just meshed really well. That is one of the reasons that we chose The Unbanned as our name. Nothing is off limits.”

“For me, this group is the first gig where we can try out anything,” Dexter said. “I think that each of us has a list of tunes or creative ideas that didn’t fit into any of the other projects we’ve done, but finally here’s a chance to do the overdue ideas.”

Musical tastes influence a future sound

The three musicians have different musical backgrounds and tastes; Figlin leans towards Americana and world music, Kapusta from jazz and rock, and Dexter comes from a classical background.. They enjoy a lot of the same music, and when they blend all of their styles together it tends to take on a life of its own.

Figlin said he was fortunate to have guitar teachers who’ve helped guide him toward developing his own style. He began playing in bars at age 15 and started a band, No Offense, which incorporated punk rock, blues and rockabilly. No Offense opened for a number of national acts at Crowbar, now Levels in State College.

A staple in the State College music community, Figlin is the founding member of The Nightcrawlers, and performs with The Earthtones and as a duo with Domenick Swentosky.

Dexter started lessons at age 5, and later took music theory classes and cello and piano lessons at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He followed that with performances at summer music festivals while in high school, conservatory training and graduate school.

“My musical beginnings are what you’d expect of a classical cellist,” he said. “I think I’ve been lucky to have been pushed outside my musical comfort zone by circumstance along with my own excitement for jumping in on an idea and giving it a try.”

As a home studio engineer and recording artist, Dexter created string arrangements for the NBC’s series “Smash,” and as a composer, wrote and produced the original score to the short film “Recess,” an official selection for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. He also has performed on various TV shows.

Kapusta started taking piano lessons at the age of 5, so music has been a presence in his life for as long as he can remember.

“As a kid, I guess I had exposure to some pretty weird stuff,” he said. “I think I might have been the only 9-year-old in the world whose favorite band was Yes.”

Kapusta has performed with musical acts, currently with The Nightcrawlers, The Insomniacs and The Cavetones, and has worked fusion outfit Megalodon, Atlas Soundtrack, The Perkolators, and countless jazz and funk groups.

“I don’t necessarily think we make a conscious effort to incorporate different styles into our playing,” Kapusta said. “But I do think that having awareness of those different styles can certainly inform our compositions and performances.”

New record to present ‘best selves’

Currently the trio is recording its first full-length album, with each member bringing his own original tunes to the table; although some of the songs are also being written by the band as a whole. The group is recording in Dexter’s studio and in Figlin’s Attic Light Studios in Lemont.

“This record is going to span a wide range of genres and soundscapes, and we’re having a blast,” Figlin said. “To write a new song and suddenly have it become something tangible is very exciting.”

“It is an exciting process, and this is the first honest studio project that I’ve been involved with,” Kapusta said. “It gives us the chance to present our best selves.”

“This is exciting for us because we’re putting together a record of music we couldn’t try anywhere else until this group,” Dexter said.