By Cristina Schreil
Bonanza Jellyfish—also known as Sydney Shepherd—is a New York City-based cellist, vocalist and actor, and member of the acoustic indie pop band Bandits on the Run. The trio, also comprising guitarist Adrian Enscoe and percussionist, xolophonist and resident toy-player (yes, as in children’s toys) Regina Strayhorn, plays an eclectic blend fusing multiple genres and flavors. They all sing and bring a theatrical feel to their performances, too.
Shepherd got her start in classical music. She remembers being enraptured by cello at a young age, around seven. “It was the instrument I was really fascinated with and bugged my folks about getting lessons for years,” Shepherd recalls. After playing in youth orchestras and a string quartet, she realized she could unite the cello with her love of indie, folk and alternative genres.
Shepherd sat down to speak about Bandits on the Run’s latest EP, “Live at the Power Station,” recorded over one whirlwind evening at the Power Station recording studios and which includes interesting arrangements for cello. They aimed to capture a live feel, as if transporting listeners to one of their concerts.
Tell us about how the cello fits into Bandits on the Run.
It’s sort of this fourth member of the band, almost because it’s such a human sound, the cello.
My cello has become an extension of myself and my style. The wonderful thing is I have that classical background so I actually have the tools to know what I’m doing and make the sounds I want to make.
Can you describe Bandits on the Run’s sound and tastes?
We call it serendipitous train pop or neo-gypsy cowboy rock. There’s a lot of different influences, a lot of stuff stemming from the ’60s, intricate harmonies and sort of this Beatles mentality of using heavy strings as part of the fabric of the arrangement. I’d say it’s a fun off-kilter, but still really accessible and digestible sound.
Can you speak about your arrangements and how you write on cello for the band?
I feel like the way I play the cello in the band has evolved. For this record especially, it’s a very foundational instrument. We have an interesting arrangement: our guitarist plays the suitcase drum with his foot, so we have a guitar and a drum foundation. And, add our three voices. Our third member plays a lot of different toys. A lot of the job with the cello is to hold down the role that a bass would play. A lot of the arrangements come from the knowledge that I need to fill up the low end but because it has this beautiful high range I utilize it where I can, sort of carve out spaces in the songs for it to come to life.
[My cello] is sort of this fourth member of the band, almost because it’s such a human sound.
What’s a specific track that showcases this?
In our “Back to Black” cover, I use the cello as more of a bass and percussive instrument, with pizzicato and double stops. There’s a bridge in the middle where our voices are interweaving and becoming chaotic and so the cello in turn is doing arpeggios up and down. I like to use it to complement whatever the voices are doing and to fill in the gaps where we can expand the voices even more.
How did this latest EP come about?
It came about in typical Bandits fashion—sort of serendipitously, happening very fast and excitingly all at once. Our friend, producer William Garett who produced our first record, we released it in 2017 and last summer we were all brainstorming. He said, “I want to do something that captures you live and in your element.” Our first record sounds cool, but it doesn’t quite capture what we do live. It turns out, a friend of William’s had been working at the Power Station as an engineer. We dropped him a line: “Can we come in in the off hours?” . . . . We came to the Power Station around 9 p.m. one night and set up three mics and banged out the whole album in one night. It was insane because this place is a very iconic space where David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen had made some legendary records. It felt so funny that the three of us kind of stole our way into this legacy.
It really is a nice reflection and snapshot of what we’re like live, but also a good relic of those first few years of Banditry.
What experiences in your classical foundation gave you specific tools on how to complement these other instruments?
I think mostly working with my string quartet was the key foundational element. I had a cool quartet growing up. We all had this theatrical bent. We were really interested in watching how quartets breathe and have eye contact and interact with each other. I think because that’s what we were aiming for, I’ve carried that over into the band. Bands and quartets are so similar. Everyone has their role they play, personality wise and musically, in the band. But also, coming from a classical standpoint, there’s more focus on specificity and dynamics and what everyone is doing together and really honing in on specific moments. I think that I’ve been able to bring that into a group where the other two artists aren’t classically trained and inform them with those skills.
What kind of cello do you play?
My cello is a William Harris Lee, a luthier in Chicago. The cello was made in the early ’90s, which is also when I was born. It feels like a partner as well. I bought it from my cello teacher that I had when I was a teenager and was ready to get my full-sized cello. He’s very, very tall, 6 foot 6 I think. The endpin is very long. It’s perfect because now I play almost entirely standing up. That has been so invaluable to have this really long endpin.
When we play in concerts I have a Realist pickup.
The band started out subway busking. What’s your advice for buskers?
It’s funny. I started busking by myself for a little bit, but once I started working with the band we busked as a group. It’s really scary to busk as a solo artist . . . I would highly suggest finding someone you want to play with, like a violinist or a singer. Someone you can collaborate with and try it that way first. I find a lot of comfort in having someone else there.
But, busking by yourself: It’s really satisfying the first time you go out there. It’s terrifying, but once you’ve done it you’re like, “All right! I feel like I can do anything now!” Remember that no one is expecting to see you there. Also, you’re giving them a gift. At first I was like, “People will be annoyed, they don’t feel like listening to music” and more often than not, people are more open than you think they are. Know that it’s actually a cool gift and a fun thing that you’re doing. Reframe it in a more positive light.