The Essential Machine Story

An Indie Rock Family Band

There’s some precedent for a married couple comprising a good indie rock band: You’ve got Low, for one thing, and The Weepies, and there’s Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina’s duo The Evens. By the same token, there have been some decent acts involving a parent and their child: Jeff Tweedy took dad-rock to the next level when he and son Spencer teamed up as Tweedy. But when you venture into forming a band that includes mom, dad and son—well, you’re treading on thin ice. The phrase “family band” often conjures something hokey, like the Partridge Family setting out on the road in their multicolored school bus.

Essential Machine, it’s safe to say, doesn’t fit the profile of your standard family band. The indie three-piece, which calls the Pittsburgh suburb of Greensburg home, has always been the vehicle of married couple Karen and R.J. Dietrich; they put out their first record under the moniker in 2009. But a funny thing happened in 2014, after the duo had already been recording and playing together for years: They incorporated son Robert into their act, on keyboards.

It’s worth noting, when we discuss Essential Machine as a family band, that it wasn’t created by a musical mom for didactic purposes, or crafted by a stage dad looking to establish a pop-music phenomenon. It was established by Karen and R.J., for Karen and R.J., and happened to grow organically to include their son.

The core of the band still revolves around lyrics that both bring and melodies the two craft. Karen is a published author of poetry and a memoir, and her first novel is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in March 2020. (Now, as a three-piece, the band's writing process is more diffuse, but the primary duties remain largely the same.)

Essential Machine’s latest effort, Wildfires, released April 2019, marks a milestone of sorts for the band: Recorded with Jake Hanner from Donora, in his project studio, the LP is the first full length record for Essential Machine. The tracks are cinematic in tone and texture, no doubt the result of Hanner’s craft and influence. Robert’s synth work features prominently within the soundscape of Wildfires. This expanded timbre, laden with warmth, creates movement throughout the album.

When you listen to Wildfires, you’ll likely get lost in the world the band builds with music; one thing you probably won’t be worried about is whether the band shares a last name. It’s one thing to be a family band, with all the trappings that might entail (the matching outfits, the bonding on the road, the Partridge Family bus, if that’s what you want). Essential Machine, though, could be considered something else: a band that also happens to be made up of a nuclear family.