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A composer for This American Life will play at The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts on Saturday

Three musicians standing oudoors under a cloudy sky with telephone wires visible in the background.  Two of the men wear fedoras. They all look deadly serious.  The man on the right, the bass-player, is wearing shades with his fedora and standing next to his upright bass.
Stephen Ulrich
Big Lazy, from left: Yuval Lion, percussion; Stephen Ulrich, composer and guitar; Andrew Hall, bass

Some of the music to be performed at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College on Saturday might sound familiar to public radio fans. Among the performers will be a musician whose tunes have popped up on public radio, PBS and HBO.

This American Life commissioned me to write 10 pieces,” said Stephen Ulrich of Jersey City, New Jersey. “And they knew what I did. They knew my style. So they just said 'Do your thing, and we will tweak it a bit for the show.'"

Ulrich said he wasn’t writing for specific episodes of This American Life. He was just composing music in the style of the show.

“They actually use it on multiple episodes,” he said. “I hear it all the time in my car. And my kids are like, ‘Dad, is that your song?’”

Ulrich turned those songs for the show into an album, titled “Music from This American Life.”

Stephen Ulrich

He lives in New Jersey now, but Ulrich grew up in New York City, and studied jazz guitar for a while. His music, infused with elements of rock and jazz, can have the feel of an old Hollywood black and white film score. It gets dark and mysterious at times.

“It’s been called 'crime jazz,' and 'guitar noir' and 'rock noir,'" Ulrich said. “They’re all pretty accurate. The crime jazz label I guess comes from the fact that the music can sound like a film noir soundtrack.”

Ulrich is no stranger to soundtracks. He said he’s best known for writing music for the series “Bored to Death” on HBO. His songs have also been licensed for use between the stories on NPR news shows, and he wrote music for a PBS documentary called “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

“Since it was about comedy, there was a lot of iconic silent film images," he said. "And I got to re-compose for that. So it was a blast.”

When he’s not writing for TV, radio or film, Ulrich is songwriter and fedora-wearing front-man of the band Big Lazy.

“You know, you’d go to a club in New York in the early 80s and there’d be experimental rock music and free jazz happening at the same time,” Ulrich said. “So that’s where this band came out of.”

When you hear “front man,” usually you think of a singer. But Ulrich is the band’s guitarist. The songs he writes for Big Lazy have no lyrics.

“They feel sort of narrative without having words,” Ulrich said. “The music is telling a story. And the interesting thing for us is that people get to write their own script. They get to right the story, and we really just kind of supply the palette.”

Back in the 80s, Ulrich’s music did have words, and his band did have a singer. But that all ended abruptly one night when Big Lazy played a gig at CBGB, a club in New York City that was part of the punk and new wave scene.

“And our vocalist didn’t show up. And it just seemed like OK, we’re working without a net here. Let’s just go and play without the singer. It was the best show we ever had. The guitar melodies became the singer, so to speak.”

Big Lazy has been on that less-traveled instrumental path ever since, blending film noir music with rock, jazz and other influences.

“Part of the tone of this music has something to do with early rock n’ roll – you know, Link Wray, rockabilly, surf music. And the other aspect of it has to do with suspense music and kind of film noir. And I think that the tone of Big Lazy is sort of the melding of those two things: this kind of raw rock & roll energy with a sort of more cerebral, cinematic imagery.”

Big Lazy seems anything but lazy. So how did the band get that name?

“Originally the band was called Lazy Boy,” Ulrich said. "And what happened was we were on this show called “Homicide: Life on the Street.” This is like prime time NBC. And we were in an episode playing our music. And we had our name on a red curtain behind the stage: Lazy Boy, in like gold sparkle. And the La-Z-Boy chair company found us.”

Ulrich got a cease and desist letter. So a friend of his suggested “Big Lazy,” and they changed the band’s name.

“You know in the end it worked out for us. NPR did a story on the band, on the name change.”

The band was interviewed about the name change on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Liane Hansen in 1999.

“You know the cool thing about the name Big Lazy is that it sort of feels like it could be like a western ranch: The Big Lazy Ranch. Or it could have the tone of a noir or something," Ulrich said. "It sort of seems to straddle both places.”

While he writes all the music for Big Lazy, Ulrich praises the skills of his band mates, who help bring it all to life.

“Yuval Lion plays drums and Andrew Hall plays bass — brilliant people who are responsible for two thirds of this band. I do write all the music, but I’ve had a long running band. And it shows: when we play live we’ve played thousands of shows together.”

Among those thousands of shows will be a gig at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Big Lazy will play at 6 p.m. Saturday night at 3 Dots Downtownin State College as part of the Arts Festival in conjunction with Gorinto Productions.

NOTE: The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts underwrites programming on WPSU.

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."