Two guitars, two voices and a lifetime of stories crammed into a couple years of experience create the perfect formula that makes up the Caribbean-drenched, edgy and folky sounds of Island of Black and White, El Dorado Hills’ own slice of pure musical originality.
The sometimes duet, sometimes quartet is the product of a six-year friendship between musicians Chris Haislet and Jake Brutsche, who met back in 2004 while taking a guitar class at Oak Ridge High School. Brutsche transferred to the school that year, having moved from his native Hawaii.
“When I came from Hawaii I didn’t know anybody and didn’t fit in,” Brutsche said. “When I met Chris, he reminded me of people I knew back home.”
The two were quick to bond and spent much of their free time posted up on campus trading riffs and song ideas. As they put together a catalog of songs, they eventually ventured out into the wilderness of Folsom to play for tips on Sutter Street and at shopping centers, earning a few dollars at one location before dashing off to the next in true guerrilla fashion.
The two stuck close together, developing their signature sound that has them constantly dabbling into different genres like reggae, blues, folk and rock and roll. Their repertoire is nearly a 50/50 split of songs featuring vocals and instrumentals. Brutsche almost exclusively plays guitar in Island of Black and White — he’s been know to break out the harmonica. Haislet mixes things up, adding accordion, flute or piano on occasion.
Two years ago the guys were kicking around ideas for songwriting inspiration when Brutsche had an epiphany.
“Jake said to me, ‘you wanna go to South America?’ I said, ‘hell yeah I do,” Haislet said.
So with little more than their guitars and a few dollars in their pockets, the boys set out on a Kerouac-inspired journey that took them to Santa Cruz, New Mexico and eventually south of the border.
They drove. They sold their car and hitchhiked. They even got kicked off Amtrack (Haislet says for playing music on the train) in the middle of the desert and ended up hopping a freight train for a 6-hour ride to Barstow on a frozen winter night.
They didn’t quite make it to South America, but they did make it to Mexico, writing songs along the way and playing in the streets of Mazatlan and San Miguel.
“We stayed together until we got absolutely sick of each other,” Brutsche said. “We didn’t make any money, really, but we got lots of community support … lots of people let us stay with them.”
After nearly 8 months on the road the boys parted ways. Brutsche returned home to attend culinary school, and Haislet took up playing keys for Walking Spanish.
Back in the saddle
Last winter Brutsche and Haislet decided to resume performing and writing together. They landed regular gigs on Folsom’s Sutter Street and began playing weekly at the now-defunct Cafe Nostra in El Dorado Hills.
More recently, the band has expanded their scope to include playing bigger venues in Sacramento. They’ve added a drummer and bass player for the bigger shows. They also hired a manager — close friend Nawal Al Wareeth — who might argue that sometimes she thinks that “band mom” or “spiritual advisor” might be a more appropriate title.
They also got the opportunity to record in a full-scale studio, receiving funding from a family friend to spend a week recording several songs. However, Haislet said he thought they tried to do “too much in too little time,” and plans to re-record the songs elsewhere.
“Of course we were really grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “Tracking in the studio … it was a learning experience. But it didn’t capture the chemistry between us.”
Al Wareeth agrees, saying she’d like for Haislet and Brutsche to record their songs live the next time around.
Album or no, Island of Black and White is going strong, playing several times a month throughout the area with drummer Peter Ham and occasionally joined by Picchi on bass. You can catch them Friday, Jan. 14 at Borders on East Bidwell in Folsom, or Jan. 21 with Walking Spanish at Naked Lounge Downtown at 1111 H St. in Sacramento.