After midnight on a Thursday, trumpeter and Diverse Jazz co-leader Hermon Mehari is laughing with a group of friends — Kansas City rapper Reach, Hearts of Darkness drummer Brad Williams, soul singer Lee Langston, Good Foot singer Julia Haile — at a beat-up Formica table at YJ's Snack Bar. Scraps of scribbled-on paper are littered around the group. Mehari has partaken in, and partly moderated, a now-waning brainstorming session among this mix of local music veterans.
"We're here pretty much every week," he says of these late-night creative conferences. No one seems low on energy, despite the hour.
A week later, Mehari is back at YJ's for lunch, explaining the evolution of a new musical collective called the Buhs (pronounced "buzz"), set to make its official live debut Friday, October 25. That show, at the Kill Devil Club, marks the arrival of a project that has been more than two years in the making. It started when Mehari and the rest of Diverse began working with other genres — local hip-hop was a big one — and then decided to take on pop.
"Michael Jackson is one of my favorite artists, so we decided to explore that," says Mehari, who scouted the local scene for artists to flesh out the "Diverse Plays MJ" project. "We did the MJ thing a couple times, and I remember after the first show [at RecordBar in 2010], I was like, 'Guys, we have to continue working together.' "
Fast-forward to the Buhs: a pop-centric project featuring that talented group from the midnight YJ's meeting, plus seven more members: drummer Ryan J. Lee, keyboardist Kinyon Price, guitarist Tim Braun, bass player Ben Leifer, singer Anthony Saunders and rapper Les Izmore.
"One of the greatest parts about this is that I am surrounded by the greatest musicians around here," Mehari says. "We've accepted that, with any one of our gigs or projects, anyone within the crew is welcome to come and sit in. I think there are scenes here that are boxed, and there are people that don't go out of that. We've been doing it long enough where people have accepted that.
"I think that the majority of people in these boxes are keeping it [the music] segregated. There are exceptions but not enough to make it a rule," Mehari continues. "It [collaboration] is still a new thing, and I would like to see it happen more often because it benefits everybody to do that. It not only benefits the musicians, but it benefits the community to see and hear more stuff."
For the Buhs, the meeting of 11 inspired brains also means having more ideas and more material. Each member of the group comes from a different musical background — Price's is gospel, for example, and Saunders is a producer who has penned songs for the likes of Justin Bieber. There would seem to be the risk of a "too many cooks in the kitchen" scenario.
Fortunately, Mehari and his cohorts are pros, and the group has three simple goals.
"One is to have some success in songwriting," he says. "Although we're a group that forms original material, we want to write songs that can get picked up by an artist as well. Two, we want to be in an established group, where people are following our music and following us. And three, we want to be a dependable collective, where we're supporting each other and all our individual endeavors. If Les is going on tour and needs a band, well, here is a group that he not only works with regularly but also knows his music."
The Buhs' songwriting leans toward a kind of socialism. Sometimes a piece that one member has written is taken and reworked by the group. Often, though, a song starts with a collaboration among multiple bandmates. Whatever the method, the results are ready to be aired at the Kill Devil.
"This show will be the first time that all of us are together, and we're featuring our original music," Mehari says. "It's pretty eclectic across the board, but this group itself is more pop. There are some songs that are straight-up '80s MJ. There's some that are a couple more rock songs, some hip-hop. There's one small aspect that's jazz, but it's not strong enough to call it that. It's more pop than anything."
With so many members, each a professional musician with other projects going on simultaneously, scheduling shows and booking recording dates can be tough. For now, the Buhs is recording demos and planning to record a full-length album early next year.
"We wanted to put our music out there with this initial debut," Mehari says. "We want to put it out intelligently — we don't want to just throw it out there. We want to have a smart marketing plan. ... I think my part, other than playing trumpet and writing, is just to keep the momentum going."