Sunday, April 14, 2013

Two Bands That Matter

The Clash used to advertise themselves as the only band that matters.  A comment on the limp insipidness of most pop music at the time they were active.  They weren't the only band that mattered but not many did in this correspondent's opinion.  Things haven't changed much regarding the nonrelevance of popular music but there are bands that matter and I just worked with two of them.

Jack and the Bear, based out of Michigan and currently embarked on an extensive U.S. tour, stopped in at Prairie Sun to record their first album about three weeks ago.  They are a family affair.  Drummer, Adam Schreiber, and guitarist/vocalist Brandon James are brothers while sister Christina Schreiber plays trumpet and percussion.  They travel with manager Jake Nielsen who is engaged to Christina and works for nothing save the greater glory to come.  The band is rounded out by Reggie Servis on keyboards/accordian/vocals and Evan Close who holds down the bass.  They are young, in their early twenties and idealistic.  Not only unjaded by the travails and travesties of the road but actually having fun at it. 

I'm interested in band names so asked how they came up with Jack and the Bear.  Bear because it's the first initials of the original members - Brandon, Evan, Adam, and Reggie.  Christina whose silence in the name and trumpet playing role symbolically represents the spirit that guides them.  Jack is the name of manager Jake Nielsen's dog.  I didn't ever get it straight how they arrived there but on their Facebook page they say they were: "Named after an inspirational figure in lead singer Brandon James’ life."  They also say that they have their own superhero so I wonder if that dog might be the same one from the Sufi joke. 

 It's the one where a rich lady goes to the big market in Delhi and finds herself at a stall advertising talking animals.  She asks the dog, "what time is it?"  The dog replies in perfect English, " time for you to buy a new menagerie."  She asks a chicken how she's doing and the chicken answers, "eggcellent."  She continues asking questions of all the different animals there and gets a wisecrack answer in the King's English each time.  So she buys the whole lot and takes them home.  An observing bystander approaches the vendor afterwards and asks, "where did you find all those talking animals?"  "Well between you and me," the vendor confides, "only one of them can talk. You see, the dog is a ventriloquist." 

 A talking dog would certainly be an 'inspirational figure'  yet the true identity of the dog they call Jack seems shrouded in mystery.  But seriously, does it matter?

Their name led me to suggest they read The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor one of the best books on music and expanded consciousness out there.  The Bear also conjures the memory of the Grateful Dead sound engineer/alchemist of the same name who once operated a lab across the street from Prairie Sun.

A couple of weeks before their project was to commence I was getting some things out of storage and pulled out a few cds I hadn't heard in awhile.  One of them was Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album I appreciated for its spatial use of room ambience and natural sound along with the great music. I'd lost track of Springsteen's musical arc after the mega popularity of Born in the U.S.A. but reconnected with the The Seeger Sessions, Bruce's rendition of the folk songs Pete Seeger popularized in his day.  Featuring classics like Jesse James (the melody that Woody Guthrie appropriated for his Jesus Christ labor organizer song), John Henry, Mary Don't You Weep and Froggie Went A-Courtin'.  A great thing about this album is that it has a big, full sound.  Standard drums, bass, guitars, and keys are augmented by banjo, accordian, two fiddles, and a horn section.  Folk songs that rock out in the inimitable Springsteen style.

The music of Jack and the Bear sounds just as big. 

  Jack and the Bear at Prairie Sun

Initially both Adam and Christina told me, separately, that The Seeger Sessions was a big influence on their sound.  The other inspiration they mentioned was Mule Variations by Tom Waits, an album I have some familiarity with.  These references gave me a clear picture for how to record them. 

The Bear ( I'm not sure about Jack, I never met him) were so into The Seeger Sessions  that they flew out Sam Bardfeld the lead fiddle player in the Sessions band to augment their sound.  Jack and the Bear previously had a fiddle player in their band but hadn't found a suitable replacement yet.  Everyone they auditioned was told to play like Sam Bardfeld so when it came time to record someone said lets just call Sam.  Bardfeld was into it and even wrote some string arrangements for a few of the songs along with playing a straight fiddle on many of the others.

 Sam is a real pro.  An inveterate New York studio musician, writer and arranger along with being a member of The Jazz Passengers and Springsteen's Sessions band.  We have mutual friends in guitarist Mark Ribot and horn player Steven Bernstein.  We have also both worked with The Soldier String Quartet.  

When Sam came to the studio for the first time he walked up to me and asked if I would take a mic request, "It's probably the one you already chose," he said.   I replied yes, definitely, because I feel it's important to make the artist comfortable even if it means using a mic that might not be the best one for my tastes.  However, Bardfeld was right, he requested a Neumann U67 which was the mic I'd allotted for the violin.  It's one of the only times I've been able to use the 67 on violin. It's a vintage mic, relatively rare in my experience.  I noted the coincidence.  

The song Jack's Flying Theme (this dog apparently not only talks, it flies) is one with an evocative string arrangement that helps create tension and sets the mood for a song about humanity on the threshold of the next evolutionary step in consciousness, or so I interpret it.

Sam plays a killer solo on The Atrocious Tale.  He also contributed some general production advice including suggesting a tremolo guitar part for Back to Despair which worked out well

Some noted musician, I forget who, once opined that every band has a music boffin, one member who is an expert in music theory and arrangement.  Paul McCartney was the muisc boffin for The Beatles.  Keyboardist Reggie Servis seems to play that role for Jack and the Bear.  He also contributes lead vocals and wrote a few of the songs including Eris.

Eris is the Greek Goddess of chaos, strife and discord and serves as the chief deity for the Discordian religion/anti-religion.  Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge has this to say:

The religion has been likened to Zen, based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school, as well as Taoist philosophy. Discordianism is centered on the idea that both order and disorder are illusions imposed on the universe by the human nervous system, and that neither of these illusions of apparent order and disorder is any more accurate or objectively true than the other.

Discordianism was most prominently brought to the public eye by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their magnum opus The Illuminatus! Trilogy.  As such, it's well known to me.  Servis hadn't heard of Wilson, Shea or Illuminatus!  Another weird coincidence.

Christina Schreiber contributes trumpet parts sometimes reminiscent of the Spanish/Mexican stylings of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  Her tone is very bright and clear.  Her pitch is dead on.

The rhythm section of Adam Schrieber and Evan Close create a solid foundation for the songs to groove upon.  Schrieber also instigated some Tom Waits style found percussion sounds - not that it was ever lost, found percussion means using unusual objects for percussion instruments like banging on walls, sliding screechy doors and scraping on gutted piano harps.  Prairie Sun just happens to possess one of the latter courtesy of Mr. Waits.  The idea to incorporate that came from studio head honcho Mooka Rennick who took a special interest in the band.

I've not seen Jack and the Bear perform live but can tell from his work in the studio that Lead Vocalist/Guitarist Brandon James makes for a compellingly entertaining frontman oozing charisma and soul.  He sings so passionately, putting it all on the line, that you sometimes wonder if he's going to spontaneously combust.  For some of the songs he requested a vocal treatment ala Chocolate Jesus (Mule Variations).

I got the sound they were looking for using lots of natural room ambience, analog tape delays and dark EMT plate reverbs.  It was helped by the fact that we tracked it to 2" analog tape.  At my recommendation, they mastered it with Doug Sax (Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Ray Charles, etc. etc. etc.).  Afterwards, Sax wrote me expressing his appreciation for this record.

This band, Jack and the Bear,  has a bright future.  They are still searching for a name for the album. Perhaps they need to consult with their canine oracle who, I understand, doesn't tour.  I'll let you know when it's released.

Another coincidence I'll note came from discussing other contemporary bands.  The Bear mentioned admiring the production values of an album called Fate by the popular indy band Dr. Dog.  I would imagine Jack would be into them also, same species and all.  This release got mixed by an old student of mine, Bill Moriarty.

 * * * * * *  

100 Watt Mind is the second band that matters I recently enjoyed the pleasure of working with.  They were brought to Prairie Sun by producer Milan Nikolic.  Milan owns a full scale recording studio in Manhatten, AM Studios on 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues that also rents out rehearsal rooms.  He relocated with his family to Southern Oregon a few years back where he met 100 Watt Mind.  

My involvement with 100 Watt Mind almost didn't happen.  I'm extremely glad it did.  Milan became ill the night before we were to work and had to postpone.  They had scheduled 2 days to mix a 7 song ep Milan tracked up in Oregon.  He said that he'd been working with them for the past year.

The sessions were rescheduled to immediately follow the 10 day project with Jack and the Bear.  10 consecutive days of 10 hours a day begins to wear down this biological machine's 53 year old mainframe but I was up to work two more even though I knew nothing about 100 Watt Mind apart from their name.  A couple of days before we were to start I was told I would have to vacate the plush suite Prairie Sun generously provides due to returning indy rock star royalty - Eric Gales, Thomas Pridgen et al.  I was ready to go home and leave the mixing to one of Prairie Sun's extremely competent staff engineers, Matt Wright, Isha Erskine, or Timin Murray.  Fortunately, studio manager Andrew Mastroni had wisely apprised Milan of the situation who had already rented a suite of comparable luxury in Santa Rosa.  The sessions were on!

Milan and the whole band trekked down from Oregon to participate in the mixes.  I asked them if they had any references for their sound and they mentioned Led Zeppelin, particularly Led Zeppelin II.  I had reacquired that cd just two weeks before after not listening to it for years.  It was a top favorite in my High School years.  Yet another coincidence that seemed to suggest we were on the right track.

Like Zeppelin, 100 Watt Mind is a 3 piece rock dynamo, drums, bass, and guitar with a powerful lead vocalist.  Based out of Ashland Oregon, they consist of lead vocalist Brynna Dean, guitarist Skyler Squglio, Nathan Hurlocker on bass, and Robert Morris playing drums.   Dean and Squglio seem to be the main writers.  Their music ranges the gamut from high energy hard rock, funk rock, rockabilly to a softer, more sensitive side.  Other influences include The Cramps, Santana, Johnny Cash, The Doors, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Hank Williams.

100 Watt Mind

Brynna Dean could very well be Oregon's best kept secret in the rock singer department.  One can hear traces of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Patti Smith and Robert Plant in her singing combined in a style all her own.  Her voice has a pure quality, like a glacial mountain stream, that sounds cleaner, less raspy than those artists but just as strong and passionate.  She has been modelling and acting from a very young age, experience which no doubt contributes to her undeniable ability to work a crowd judging from the videos I've seen.

Dean also gets deep inside a song and won't be satisfied until it feels completely right.  I found this out when she requested to retrack a lead vocal to a song called Color of Soul.  Both Milan and I thought the vocal she already had sounded great but something about it didn't sit right with her.  As time was of the essence - 7 songs to mix in 2 days cuts it close - Milan told me to only spend a half hour getting a new vocal.  If we didn't have it by then, we would move on.  We didn't tell Brynna this stipulation - no pressure.  

My favorite mic for female vocals, the U67, was in use in another room so I set up an M49 which I thought might be better for her high decibel vocal delivery.  Both are vintage Neumann tube mics, the 49 has a larger diaphram.  I chained it through a vintage Neve mic preamplifier channel strip and an old Urei LA2A tube leveling amplifier, ie a compressor.  

Searching for that missing ingredient in the earlier takes I asked her about the inspiration behind Color of Soul or if there was anything she could think to do to get into the mood for this performance.  She surprised me by saying that Edgar Allen Poe was a huge influence then recited one of his poems from memory:

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
    Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,
    The weary way-worn wanderer bore
    To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
    Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
    To the beauty of fair Greece,
And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo ! in that little window-niche
    How statue-like I see thee stand!
    The folded scroll within thy hand —
A Psyche from the regions which
    Are Holy land !

I thought this must be related to the color of her soul.  I didn't know Poe wrote poetry much less a masterpiece like this.  It definitely worked.  Dean sang the song three times straight through.  We did a quick vocal comp (taking the best parts of each take) and ended up with the definitive performance.  Milan was good with it too, and it did only take about a half hour.

Later, I noticed she was wearing a long necklace of greyish stones with an old key on the end.  I asked what the key was to.  She said she didn't know, maybe the Moon.  Then I saw a small moon at the end of the key.  She said the stones were Labradorite and volunteered that her number was 3.  Labradorite denotes good luck according to the book Curious Lore of Precious Stones.

Milan and the band left me alone to mix for the most part.  I would play them the track when I was ready then make any adjustments if they wanted any changes.  For the most part they went with the first playback unaltered, pretty much loving the sounds issuing forth from the speakers.  On one track Skyler arranged a guitar solo that had layered parts.  It came out sounding like something Hendrix might have done.  

Both Milan and 100 Watt Mind felt so good about the Prairie Sun experience that they decided to book more time and expand the original ep into a full length cd.  This time I'll be recording as well as mixing their songs under Nikolic's production guidance.  I'm looking forward to it.

The last strange coincidence to note happened when I checked out of my suite in Santa Rosa.  I noticed an expensive looking truck parked beside my humble blue Subaru with an ornate stylized logo on the side that said ESP Pros.  No idea what company acronym ESP stood for, probably not extra-sensory perception unless I slipstreamed into a Philip K. Dick novel and experienced a future time overlay.  You never know.

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