By Elena Schiano
Photograph by Ben Rosser
Live by Music. These are the words that not only make up Akie Bermiss’s social media hashtags, but are also his way of life. Bermiss (pronounced Bur-meese) is the front man of the ever-popular Brooklyn-based group Aabaraki, and though he grew up in a very musical family, he had no intentions of becoming a musician. “Everyone sings in the family, so it wasn’t any big thing that, ‘Oh, Akie can sing.’” A self-proclaimed “super nerd,” Bermiss went to high school for computer science and saw his future in programming. That is, until the age of seventeen when he got the lead in a musical and, as he puts it, was “cool for the first time ever.” Life changed for Bermiss then and his days as computer nerd (for pay, anyway) were numbered.
His college years offered musical exploration – everything from an eight-piece funk band called Mother Ming to two following projects, The Foundation and The Mimetiks. After some downtime Aabaraki formed, which “started really organically,” he says. The name for the band was simply a mash-up of the original four members’ names: Aaron Steele (drums), Brian Forbes (guitar), Ari Folman-Cohen (bass), and Akie on keys and vocals. Drummer Aaron Steele has since moved on to other successful projects and was replaced by Aabaraki’s current drummer, Attis Clopton, who is a perfect fit with the group.
Regarding the name, Bermiss himself did not think it would stick. “I’m sure it would have been easier to have something people could spell easily and find online, but we didn’t think it would ever take off.” During shows, Bermiss affectionately tells the audience to try and remember them by “Abba, a great band, and Rocky, a great film.” Hey, whatever works. And take off, they have. New Yorkers can be tough and getting them to a music venue is often a challenge, while filling that room can be near-impossible. But filling room after room is exactly what Aabaraki does with their hard-to-define sound. A bit rock and roll, a bit R&B, and a bit soul – with maybe some psychedelic-jam-session sprinkled in. Bermiss offers, “It’s the energy of a rock concert, but it’s got deep, funky roots.”
Bermiss is aware of the determination it takes to build a band from the ground up. “If you’re going to get any traction, national or international, you have to build the buzz yourself. You have to treat the music like it’s a small business. You have to make your own buzz with social media and use word of mouth to put yourself out there. Play the show and rock the show. Sometimes you’re gonna rock for ten people and sometimes it’s going to be a crowded house, and that’s true for everyone. We have to be ready to play our asses off. There are no guarantees in this industry.”
One thing that is guaranteed at an Aabaraki show is the dapper-dressed front man. Bermiss plays every show in a full three-piece suit, throwing off the jacket only when he dances behind his keyboard and lets loose. He traces the habit back to his first professional gigs with older musicians who “just weren’t into showing up [on stage] the way they’d been dressed all day.” He also credits Kurt Elling, who blew him away with the first track on The Messenger. “Hearing that,” Bermiss says, “it was the first time I thought that a guy can sing and be manly, and it made me say ‘Yeah. I’m going to wear a suit and sing a song.’” Inspiration aside, dressing up for the gigs has a transformative element, like a suit of armor, and adds to the creative energies of the show.
Attending an Aabaraki Show might be the most fun you’ve had in while. They’ll start slow, easing into their groove with the soulful “Karate.” The lyrics “Your booty/Your body/It hits like/Karate” toe the line between sexy and playful, and help set the tone for the show. Dancing takes over during the appropriately titled, “Dance-Shee” and, if the audience is lucky, they’ll hear a mash-up of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me” that causes the audience to completely lose themselves because it is just that good. They end with the show-stopping “Terrified,” leaving concertgoers out of breath, wanting more, and possibly needing a stiff drink.
At the core of Aabaraki music is Bermiss’s voice. Drawing comparisons to music legends such as Stevie Wonder, his vocal talent begs the question, “Why the hell is this guy not a superstar?” And unfortunately, in this world of YouTube sensations and reality TV pop stars, it’s tough to admit that odds aren’t necessarily in his favor. But Bermiss is not deterred, and when asked about that battle he says, “If everyone is looking in one direction, you can sneak up from the other direction and make a pretty big splash, and that’s what we’re trying to do. If you have a lot of fortitude and time, you can grind the pavement. Play Rockwood Music Hall as much as possible, play in Brooklyn, get out there, sell your own records…those things don’t work immediately, but they are consistent and they can work.”
On top of playing shows with Aabaraki, Bermiss keeps himself busy teaching vocal and songwriting lessons at Long Island City Academy of Music and can often be found playing solo shows, serenading late-night audiences behind the piano at Rockwood Music Hall’s intimate Stage 1. He also makes time for his pet project, a twenty-song movement called “Alien Love Songs.” The Romeo and Juliet-style love story between an alien and a human combines Bermiss’s love of science and music.
When asked about his oft-used hashtag #livebymusic, Bermiss reveals it came from a Ralph Ellison quote: “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.” Like Ellison, Bermiss has chosen to live.