Two pieces, one sound

Two Piece Fest VI, a festival showcasing exclusively two-piece bands, will return to Philly on Feb. 2.

Kevin Keenan (left) and Marcus Denke will play Two Piece Fest VI as The Joint Chiefs of Math on Feb. 2 at PILAM. | KATE McCANN TTN
Kevin Keenan (left) and Marcus Denke will play Two Piece Fest VI as The Joint Chiefs of Math on Feb. 2 at PILAM. | KATE McCANN TTN

While few find inspiration in KFC’s menu, Philadelphia has Colonel Sanders to thank for Two Piece Fest.

Peter Helmis and Craig Woods were booking a show at their former house on Spring Garden Street when they realized the four bands they had set to play had something in common — they all consisted of only two members. Helmis and Woods decided to continue booking exclusively two-piece acts for the show, titled ‘Two Piece and a Biscuit Fest.”

“I think the following year, 2008, we came up with the idea that we would do all two-piece bands in a larger festival outside of our house,” Helmis said.

Two Piece Fest is an annual festival exclusively showcasing two-piece bands. Two Piece Fest VI will be held at PILAM on Feb. 2 — the date of the original show. Helmis and Woods, who are in a two-piece act themselves called Peter and Craig, have kept Two Piece Fest’s details in numerical ordinance with the show’s title — 22 bands play on the second day of the second month.

For many two-piece acts, Two Piece Fest is a launching pad for their new music, record or the band itself, Woods said.

“Two Piece Fest is kind of the culminating event of the year for a two-piece band,” Woods said.  “I’ve heard many bands say, ‘We’re going to release this record at this show’ or ‘This is when we’ll play our new songs.’ These bands look to this date as the start of something new.”

Two Piece Fest was the start of experimental band The Joint Chiefs of Math’s project.

“Two Piece Fest II was one of our first shows,” drummer Marcus Denke said.

“We recorded this album in fellow two-piece band 1994!’s basement,” guitarist Kevin Keenan said. “In that same weekend, we finished the record, mixed it, got CD’s duplicated and then did this weekend tour to York and back and ended up at Two Piece Fest. That was like the finale of that weekend.”

Although Helmis and Woods had to reach out to bands to participate in the first Two Piece Fest, bands now offer themselves to be put on the bill.

The Joint Chiefs of Math used a little detective work in its attempt to play its first Two Piece Fest in 2009.

After hearing that Woods was the person to talk to, Keenan took matters into his own hands by finding out who Woods was friends with and contacting them via Facebook.

“I found them and told them, ‘You tell Craig Woods that Joint Chiefs of Math wants to play Two Piece Fest,’” Keenan said.

Joint Chiefs of Math has played every Two Piece Fest since — not including Two Piece Fest IV at the Ox in Old Kensington, which was shut down by police.

Fellow Two Piece Fest veterans Slingshot Dakota of Bethlehem, Pa., have played every year with the exception of Two Piece Fest IV.

“Two Piece Fest is the best,” singer and keyboardist Carly Comando said. “There are so many cool genres and styles of music that can be created by two people.”

Two Piece Fest VI plans to be no exception to that standard. A band generating lots of anticipation is Cat Jack from Washington, D.C., set to play first.

For a band that’s causing a lot of excitement, it’s unusual to think they’re playing first — until one hears the age of its members.

“It’s two brothers — one is 10, and one is 8,” Woods said. “They play the most awesome, sincere punk rock and I’m super stoked to see them play.”

The excitement surrounding Two Piece Fest expands beyond Philadelphia’s borders, with copycat festivals happening as far as New Zealand, Woods said.

“I reached out to them because I was excited to find it [through Facebook] and the guy was stoked to hear from me because he said he based the entire idea of the Two Piece Fest from our Philadelphia one,” Woods said. “It’s really cool — he even invited [Helmis] and I to go play theirs one day out in New Zealand, which is really neat.”

The original mission of Woods and Helmis is now being spread across the world with other Two Piece Fests.

“We’re learning more about the two-piece thing, and other people are more excited about playing with just one other person,” Helmis said. “We try to promote that celebration in Two Piece Fest.”

Woods knows firsthand the benefits of being in a two-piece band from working musically with Helmis.

“Because of there only being one other member that you have to deal with, it’s easier to organize and easier to come together and get stuff done,” Woods said.

However, there are some clear challenges to face when relying on only two people to create a complete sound.

“There are a lot of sounds that are less taxing to produce with more people,” Denke said.

However, being in a two-piece band isn’t always an uphill battle, Helmis said.

“Usually you divvy out the responsibilities evenly, but with just two people you can achieve all that, and a lot of bands do,” Helmis said. “You just have to achieve it in a different way. It’s almost like giving yourself an obstacle to overcome. Once you figure that out, something really cool comes out of it.”

“Working with less will bring out more creativity,” Woods said.

Comando expressed similar sentiments.

“I think with a two-piece band, you get to be more creative,” she said. “You’re trying to fill the sound space that four people fill, or you could be embracing the lack of other instruments present.”

Members from all three two-pieces expressed that there’s one thing you just can’t get from a traditionally sized band — the special connection of being onstage with just one other person.

For Slingshot Dakota members Comando and drummer Tom Patterson, that connection is deeper than most.

“We knew each other as friends and band mates first and then realized through touring that our love went much deeper,” Comando said. “I think that us being in a relationship calms us down a bit when we make mistakes or get nervous, because we know each other so well.”

Comando also added that she treasures her and Patterson’s pre-show “huddle sesh,” which calms their nerves before a performance.

“It always reminds me that I’m playing music with my best friend and there’s nothing better than that,” Comando said.

The members of The Joint Chiefs of Math also share a deep connection as close friends.

“I don’t think I’m closer to anyone else than [Denke], because we’ve been playing music together for a long time,” Keenan said. “I definitely feel a symbiotic flow of energy between us. We try to console each other and try to psyche each other up for what we need to do.”

That special bond is what made Woods and Helmis begin Two Piece Fest in the beginning.

“We’ve both been in bands with six-plus people,” Helmis said. “It’s great, but it’s so different when you’re just in a band with one other person, and that’s really the reason why we do Two Piece Fest and not Three Piece Fest or Four Piece Fest.”

Jenelle Janci can be reached at

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