They’re also regulars at local rock clubs—they'll headline the Casbah for a second time on Sunday—with a full-length album to their credit, accomplishments that would be easy to praise even if their music was only OK. But Bittersweet, recorded by The Old Ceremony’s Jeff Crawford and released in February, is more than OK. Rosenblatt-Farrell’s guitar parts rely on familiar patterns, but they’re delivered with conviction. Mead’s voice, rich and mellow with a slight rasp, is delicate and surprisingly mature.
The INDY caught up with the two young musicians over the phone, as they squeezed in an extra practice to prepare for their upcoming concert.
INDY WEEK: You both did Girls Rock NC camps before starting La Bête Magique. What did you gain from that experience?
TEHILA ROSENBLATT-FARRELL: It made me a lot more confident with my abilities with music and also just general confidence.
BELLA MEAD: It was a good opportunity to play on a stage with lights and people and nice venues.
TRF: Yeah, just to see how it would be to be in an actual band. Once we started our own, we kind of took that confidence with us.
So it should be little shock that Miller, never one to idle, recently announced two forthcoming releases. The first, a three-CD collection of Horseback rarities called A Plague of Knowing, arrives Aug. 20 via metal powerhouse Relapse Records. It collects limited vinyl releases, live cuts and new material Miller says will help fill the gaps between Horseback full-lengths. The second, Spirit Signal, is an improvisational collection to be released under Miller's own name by the experimental New York label Northern Spy on Sept. 3.
Recorded earlier this year, Spirit Signal finds the usually meticulous Miller embracing his improvisational impulses, with six pieces that were each developed, recorded and mixed within a single day. The cover, a photo by local artist and WXYC DJ Julianna Thomas, was taken during a period of dense fog in Chapel Hill, at roughly the same time Miller was recording the album.
You can download "Through the Fog" in exchange for an email address:
Or just stream it:
We caught up with Miller soon after he ended a tour with Mount Moriah to talk about compiling Horseback's one-offs and how he's developing a distinct solo identity apart from Horseback and Mount Moriah.
“It was a hell of a shock,” says Monkees singer and drummer Micky Dolenz about the loss of bandmate Davy Jones, who suffered a fatal heart attack in February 2012. But the passing of the British-born ’60s teen idol actually jumpstarted the Monkees reunion shows last fall and the current tour, which brings them to Raleigh tonight.
“He was the closest thing to a brother that I had,” says Dolenz, who shared lead vocal duties in The Monkees with Jones. “No one was expecting that; he was the youngest of the four of us. We all got together in Los Angeles to have a memorial for David, and Mike [Nesmith, Monkees guitarist/songwriter] came down, and Peter [Tork, Monkees bassist/keyboardist] was there…someone suggested, ‘Well we should really do a memorial concert.’ That sort of morphed into that first tour. It certainly was an opportunity for the fans and us to have some sort of closure. There was an homage and a tribute, sort of like a celebration.”
By now, The Monkees’ history has become a success story and cautionary tale, deeply embedded in rock history: Four ambitious young men find fame in the ’60s playing a zany, Beatlesque band on TV that quickly becomes more popular than most “real” rock acts. Then the foursome fights to become a more authentic artistic entity, winning out for before the whole thing goes bust.
The current tour aims to encapsulate the entire Monkees saga. “The show has some structure to it,” explains Dolenz. “There’s four acts, the first one being early Monkees stuff. The second section focuses on the album Headquarters that we recorded all by ourselves when we finally had the palace revolt and got the power and the right to basically control what we were doing. And then the third section is all songs from the movie Head. And the last section would be the later big-band stuff with horns.”
Though there have been several Monkees reunions over the years, Nesmith has generally bowed out. Dolenz is as excited as the Monkees’ still-sizable audience about his lanky Texan pal’s presence. “Because of Mike’s involvement, of course, the set’s weighted towards a lot of his material,” he says. “He and I had a great blend, especially on his tunes—a sort of Everly Brothers thing where I would do a high harmony to his lead vocals, so that’s been great fun.”
Of course, Dolenz’s own airy tenor has been at the center of indelible Monkees hits like “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” and the aforementioned “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” At 68, he can still send the tunes he sang in his early twenties straight across the plate. Dolenz attributes the longevity of his voice partly to the musical theater work he started doing in the early 2000s, performing on Broadway and in national tours for plays such as Aida and Hairspray.
“Doing eight shows a week,” he recalls, “I had to start training and warming up every night, so that had a big impact on learning some of the techniques of singing: how to save your voice if you’re under the weather, and learning how not to blow your tubes.”
Dolenz also credits his long hiatus from singing,: “After the Monkees, I basically stopped singing at all during the ’70s and ’80s. I was living in England, directing and producing television shows, films and musicals … certainly not doing the club circuit that many of my peers did back in those days. Smoking and doing other stuff, a lot of my peers blew their tubes during those years. My tubes are about 10 years younger than I am.”
The band’s reunion tours have proven that their fans’ zeal has proven just as impervious to time as Dolenz’s vocal chords. “The Monkees original demographic was young girls going into puberty,” says Dolenz, “and those young girls liked to be sung to by young boys. I get asked a lot, ‘Why did it last so long, why is it still going on?’ You’ve got to give credit to all the people involved. Remember, the Monkees wasn’t a band, it was a television show about a band. We had those incredible songwriters: Carole King ['Pleasant Valley Sunday'] and Neil Diamond ['I’m a Believer'] and Harry Nilsson ['Cuddly Toy'] and Paul Williams ['Someday Man']…”
So how does Dolenz keep things fresh for himself while singing songs that have been part of the public consciousness for more than four decades?
“When we get back together in these incarnations, I don’t’ think of these as a reunion. I think of them as a revival,” he says. “I understood from the get-go that when the fans come to see a Monkees show or a Micky Dolenz solo show, they want to hear those songs as they remember them. You owe it to them. We don’t own these songs anymore, they do.”
The Monkees perform tonight at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh. Tickets are $57—$102, and the show starts at 8 p.m.
Sylvan Esso shouldn't sound this confident and cohesive yet. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, the two halves of the bright and purposeful Durham-based electro duo, have known each other for three years, but their collaboration didn't become serious until last September, when Meath joined Sanborn for the last song of his daytime set during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival. They should still be figuring each other out, throwing out ideas—some jewels, some duds. Instead, they have arrived with a pair of near-perfect singles packed onto one 12-inch record.
“Play It Right” and “Hey Mami,” released this week by Chapel Hill’s Trekky Records, find the new outfit connecting multiple intensely popular strains without ever feeling forced. On the first, Sanborn retools the meaty throb he lays down as Made of Oak as the foundation for Meath’s intricate vocal lattices. (He also plays with Megafaun.) “Hey Mami” is both more minimal and more exciting, looping and layering Meath’s luxurious croon—previously displayed in the vocal-heavy Mountain Man—alongside booming bass and a barrage of clicks and clacks. It moves like tUnE-yArDs, but it’s executed with a steely, hip-hop-informed intensity that feels fresh. Both songs are streaming below.
With Sylvan Esso celebrating the release at The Pinhook this Saturday, we caught up with Sanborn and Meath to find out how they arrived at their promising sound and where they will go from here.
INDY WEEK: How did you guys get together?
AMELIA MEATH: We met in Milwaukee at the Cactus Club about three years ago when Nick’s solo project, Made of Oak, was thrown onto a bill that we were playing on. I knew we were friends immediately because of the way he danced while he was playing. When Mountain Man needed a remix, I sent him the stems for a song called “Play It Right,” which is now a Sylvan Esso song that’s going to be released on our upcoming single.
NICK SANBORN: That song just went so well that the next time we hung out, we just immediately started talking about how we really liked working together and wanted to do more pop stuff. We started exchanging tracks via e-mail, and she flew out to Durham last year for Hopscotch and recorded a bunch of vocals. She ended up moving to Durham in January. We’ve just been working even more since then. The more we we do it, the happier we are with the result.
After Southern Culture on the Skids leaves the stage Saturday evening, Raleigh’s Berkeley Cafe will close its larger music room and scale back to its size of 25 years ago, adding a stage and sound system back to its smaller room while serving food nightly. To honor the Berkeley’s legacy and record some of the stories provided by the funky venue and its colorful inhabitants, we spoke with nearly 30 folks that played, worked, promoted or attended shows at the Berk for an oral history that will run in tomorrow’s issue, with an expanded version online.
Tonight, though, the Berkeley’s big room will hold its last open mic jam. Many of those we interviewed—like American Aquarium’s Bill Corbin and Chatham County Line’s John Teer—mentioned the jams for their significance in helping local musicians develop their ability to play in front of crowds, as well as for the often unusual performances the open mics attracted.
“It was such a great experience for someone in middle school and high school that was learning to play,” Corbin remembers. “You could see amazing bands, terrible bands, maybe a crazy guy with a pan flute that he had made himself or someone who might recite poetry. You never knew what you were going to get, but the best part was that you could jump up and play with any of them if you wanted.
Josh Preslar—who co-hosted the open mic with Turner Brandon for nearly a decade years between 2000 and 2010—tells of his experiences below the break. Preslar and Brandon return for tonight’s jam, which will get rolling around 8 p.m. and run until about 2 a.m. Don’t be late if you plan on signing up to play.
Now is the moment for Japandroids, and their lyrics reflect that carpe diem attitude. But just as “restless nights turn to restless years,” a band’s second album turns to album three (if they’re lucky). Drummer David Prowse doesn’t feel he and guitarist Brian King can continue indefinitely with this teenage esprit. Hell, even the Ramones had their Phil Spector moment. He has no interest in repeating himself perennially.
“I don’t know if we can keep making records that are as similar as Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock,” he says of the band's 2009 debut and its 2012 follow-up, the tour for which brings Japandroids to Cat's Cradle in Carrboro tonight (Wednesday, June 5).
“We had played so much more and become so much more experienced as musicians that I think we could take the same tools and record in the same place, but make a record that we thought was a considerable step up without having to change the formula," Prowse explains about how he and King approached their second album. "But I think when it comes time to make another record, there will be a lot more question about where we want to go and what we want to do.”
It’s not unusual for bands to stretch out and explore stylistically on third albums. A level of success and security encourages acts to test their boundaries, frequently resulting in exciting and enduring albums. (To wit: The Clash’s London Calling, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Mastodon’s Blood Mountain.)
One of Japandroids’ touchstones, the Stooges, recorded their piece de resistance, Raw Power, amid lineup turmoil and David Bowie’s meddling. Iggy Pop stepped up his writing, invoking the “streetwalking cheetah with a heartful of napalm” on “Search & Destroy” and coming up with a magical chorus on the title track: “If you’re alone and you got the shakes/ So am I baby and I got what it takes/ Raw power will surely come running to you.”
“I think we’re still learning who we want to be as a band to some extent, as well as what kind of songs we want to write, Prowse says. “We keep refining that and just improving. It’s not an exciting answer, but that’s how we approach the band.”
Prowse notes there’s only so much they can do with the sound as a duo. It’s not like they’ll bring in James Williamson to play guitar (see: Raw Power). A good guide might be sonic older brother No Age, whose moment in the spotlight presaged Japandroids’ emergence. The duo’s third album, Everything in Between, while not as incendiary as its 2007 debut Weirdo Rippers, was a more polished but still powerful disc that made room for a jangly ballad (“Common Heat”) and textured drifting piano/feedback fugue (“Positive Amputation”).
Japandroids’ lyrics, while still reliant on repetition and clipped phrases, definitely expand on Celebration Rock, yet sonically the album is just as noisy and rambunctious as Post-Nothing. Of course, by Chapel Hill band Superchunk’s fourth album, Foolish, more baroque arrangements began to sprout and the band started to transform. It’s hard to tell what direction Japandroids will go, but it’s fun to speculate.
“It’s challenging, for sure,” says Prowse. “That’s something I think that keeps us excited, in the sense of how do we continue to improve as a two-piece with the limitations that that has.”
About a month ago, the crowd at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem was treated to a far different Lost in the Trees than anyone had seen previously. Playing the city's third annual Phuzz Phest, the Chapel Hill outfit—known for swelling strings, complex arrangements, and the uninhibited emotions of frontman Ari Picker—debuted a new line-up. There was no cello. No violin. No French horn. No orchestral instruments of any kind. Joah Tunnell—once Picker's bandmate in The Never, now the husband of keyboard player Emma Nadeau—added guitar, filling the gap left by departed members Drew Anagnost (cello) and Jenavieve Varga (violin). The five-piece reveled in distortion and rhythm, fuzzy guitars and synthesizers piling into art rock every bit as meticulous and as the Trees' string-fueled numbers.
Picker wrote these songs while touring behind last year's A Church that Fits Our Needs, finishing them last fall. After the heavy themes of his last batch, which celebrates the life and afterlife of his late mother, he meant to allow himself a break from writing, but the freedom spurred a creative outburst. With the new songs in hand, Lost in the Trees have played a small number of tour dates, road-testing the material before heading off to Asheville's Echo Mountain recording studio later this summer. This will mark the first time they have played an album out before recording it.
The INDY caught up with Picker earlier this week to gain some insight into the outfit's creative shift.
INDY WEEK: What spurred the transition to the new line-up?
ARI PICKER: My muse, I guess. [Laughs]
I quickly wrote the next record. We go in and start recording that in a few weeks. I just wanted, for the first time ever, to take advantage of the opportunity to tour the album and play it out live and try to see if some of that live energy could make it onto the record, just learn more about the music, instead of doing it all in the studio and then learning it live and then playing it for a year and realizing all of the things that could have been done better on the record.
I felt like the last record really did what it needed to for me, and we toured it for a year. I just happened to write the next one really quickly and wanted to do something really different, so here we are.
Jack Spicer wrote that a poet is a “counterpunching radio.” He also could have been talking about Madison County ballad singers. Just as poets are speakers through which the broadcast of language flows, so are ballad singers like Donna Ray Norton, who gives a free performance Saturday at the North Carolina Museum of History. They are transmitters of a musical tradition much bigger than any one voice or personality.
Norton herself puts this better: “My mom says that she’s passed the torch on to me. Whenever my time’s done, I’ll pass the torch on to my daughter or my son.”
Ballads aren’t just old songs; they’re historical documents unto themselves, and of the ilk that’s not set down in textbooks. When Norton fetches the soulful voice from deep in her chest to sing “Young Emily,” the first ballad she ever learned, she doesn’t just tell a tragic story; she becomes a surface upon which an otherwise lost slice of everyday life from early America is reanimated.
“I sing that song so much, sometimes I feel like I am Young Emily,” Norton offers. “I can feel her emotions in that song. I can really feel her hurt.”
In the ballad, Emily loves “a driver boy” named Edmund, who “drove in the main for some gold to gain/way down in the lowlands low.” But Edmund is murdered after a night drinking in Emily’s father’s “public house.” She accuses her father of the deed, and he tells her to keep her voice down. The boy’s gold, after all, is now open to be claimed.
These people, places and situations have been largely forgotten by popular culture. But in Madison County, the handing down of these ballads holds cultural homogeneity at bay.
“I sing it a lot, and people ask me to sing it a lot,” Norton recalls, “and it was really hard for me. I couldn’t get the tune of it the right way. I listened to Sheila [Kay Adams, Norton’s second cousin] over and over and over and could not get it to sound like she did it. And this lady named Mary Eagle, who’s a really good friend of my family, she recorded herself singing it for me, and sat with me and taught me how to move my voice. It worked for me.”
In ballad-singing circles, in which everyone can generally recall who taught them each song they know, pedigree is important. Norton’s family goes back eight generations in Madison County—those would be original settlers.
Although Donna didn’t start singing seriously until after high school, her household was always set on musical simmer. Donna’s mother, singer Lena Jean Ray, and second cousin, singer and storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, are still her most present musical influences, passing on the old-time music with subtly new variations.
Both Adams and Ray have enjoyed long recording and performing careers, and were recognized with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award in 1997 and 1999, respectively, a family tradition Donna seems destined for after receiving the Lunsford Youth Award in 2005. As Donna sings, she hears the voices of Adams and Ray in her head, so she just follows along.
Norton’s extended family tree reads like a musical heritage listing for the state. One of her grandfathers was legendary fiddler Byard (pronounced “Bard”) Ray, who started out like most traditional musicians did—sneaking off into the Sodom Laurel hills as a kid with his parents’ instruments until he could get a good noise out of them. He found his way into a pretty conventional musical career during the folk revival in the 1950s. Ray cut records with his cousin Obray Ramsey (a banjo legend in his own right) and the Laurel Mountain Boys, took mountain music on a European tour and even played for television commercials before settling in to teach at Warren Wilson and Berea colleges.
Donna was so young when Byard passed away that she doesn’t remember it, but she’s gotten to know him over the years. Byard died on Donna’s birthday, which she shares with her mother. She didn’t know him well enough to know the famous "nod" he gave. But her mother remembers it as a reassurance, a quiet approval of what he was hearing.
“A lot of times I feel like he’s with me,” she says.” You know, I dream about him a lot. He’s at my shows, just kind of standing off to the side. He’ll give me ‘the nod,’ the go-ahead. ‘It’s okay. You got this.’”
It’s the kind of haunting that ballad singers are used to.
Singing this style of a cappella requires an unornamented evenness, but Ray allows an airiness into her voice like that of more widely popular folk singers of the 1960s. It takes some of the burn out of the moonshine. While Norton sings “Young Emily” straight as a rail, she doesn’t treat every song with such matter-of-factness. She positively belts out “Single Girl,” a woman’s lament about easier and more fun times before the drudgery of marriage. The delivery adds an irreverence that’s equal parts sass and exasperation. In Norton’s voice, the song sounds like it could have been written last year as easily as last century.
“I learned ‘Single Girl’ from Mary Jane Queen,” Norton says. “She was a really well known singer from Jackson County. I’m a funny girl. I love comedy, and a lot of times, the funnier ballads are so me. ‘Single Girl’ just sounds like something my grandmother, or the ladies from Sodom, would say. If you could just hear the women talk over there, it’s just right on.”
These songs need no accompaniment because voices from generations past sing in the mind of the lone singer onstage. The music is a living history that flares into the present when performers like Donna Ray Norton open their mouths. That’s when those voices come out.
Donna Ray Norton performs at the Music of the Carolinas series at the North Carolina Museum of History Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m. The show is free.
Ashlie White certainly isn't lacking for ambition. The 30-year-old graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill is also the instigator of Pet-Tich-Eye, a compelling (and confounding) project hoping to bring together local musicians, visual artists and community organizations. Close to many in the Triangle music scene—she's in a relationship with Hammer No More the Fingers' Joe Hall and is a close friend of The Rosebuds' Ivan Howard—White approached 10 of her sonically inclined cohorts, asking them to recruit two more musicians they don't normally work with to record a one-off song together. The resulting collaborations include members of Megafaun, Mount Moriah, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bowerbirds, The Rosebuds, The Love Language, Lost in the Trees and more.
After connecting, the musicians then entered the studio alongside a photographer of their choosing, who documented each trio's day-long session. Each group also picked an artist to create individual album art for each song, which will be paired with the photos in an art book that will accompany the Record Store Day (April 20) release of the vinyl LP. Each group of musicians also paired with a local community organization, which will directly benefit from the album's sales. Every LP will also include a ticket to a party at Durham's Motorco Music Hall the night of the release, which will include live performances from five of the impromptu triumvirates and an exhibition of art work associated with the project.
Late last month, White turned to Kickstarter to help pay for the initiative, but as many in the community quickly pointed out, there were some nagging issues with the campaign. The description states that all Kickstarter funds go directly to paying back the debt incurred in creating the album and art book, but it also claims that $1 from every album sale goes to the nonprofits. Also disconcerting was the massive $14,000 fundraising goal. Having already raised more than $3,000, Pet-Tich-Eye has until March 31 to reach its target, or—as with all Kickstarter campaigns—they get nothing.
INDY Week sat down with White to address the issues surrounding the project.
INDY WEEK: How did this idea get started?
ASHLIE WHITE: Do you remember when Converse did a series where they did these artist collaborations? They got Andre 3000 and James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem and the guy from Gorillaz to do a collab. It was a really funky, fun song, and I loved it. It just made me want to dance in my car. I thought that was a cool idea, but obviously, they did it to sell shoes. I said, "That’s such a neat idea, but they’re selling shoes. It plays in their stores, and it’s on their commercials. Our community’s so intertwined, it would be really cool to do something like that here."
I was in Wilmington at the time, and Ivan Howard is one of my best friends. He also lived in Wilmington at the time. He and Jon Yu were doing this collaborative thing. One night at my apartment, they pulled out their computers and a mic, and they just sort of started messing around with sounds. It was just this really cool thing, and I just happened to be present when they decided to do this. It’s awesome because it's pushing Ivan to be creative in a different capacity, and Jon Yu’s getting to do something that he really loves and see the response that Ivan has. It was all very organic and beautiful.
That feeling kind of carried out, and then I heard the Converse thing. It started as this little thing, and it sort of grew. When I moved to Durham, I had more access to the scene than when I lived in Wilmington. I just called Ivan one day, and I was like, "This is what I want to do. Do you think we could do something like this? Do you think our friends would be into this? Do you think they would reach out of our immediate circle enough for it to even be cool?" He said, [she imitates Howard’s deep drawl] "Hell yeah."
I sort of explored some of the tax options and the financial side of how to donate money, and I found out actually that if you tell somebody that a dollar is going to something from what they’re purchasing, then the person purchasing is actually donating the dollar. It doesn't have to come from us. Any store that has a little jar at the counter, they don’t have to report what goes into that jar as a donation. That’s the way that part of it works. It’s just that we’re choosing to put a dollar into that jar. That’s built into the whole concept. It started from the first record sale. People can interpret that however they want to. I don’t need to run through the street saying, "We’re giving a whole lot of money to people!" We’re not. A dollar is not a lot.
It was a ball of ideas, and it came out to what we have now.
There’s a part in the original Kickstarter description that states that the Kickstarter funds don’t go to the charities, but it also says that a dollar from each record sale goes to the organizations. Where are those sales happening?
So Kickstarter doesn't allow you to donate directly from their platform. Because the project cost more than $14,000, technically, the money we’re raising is going directly to pay off that cost. I’m just choosing to count our Kickstarter pre-sale as a sale. A rewards category is a rewards category. But when it all is said and done, and I’m filling the order for that, that counts as a record sale to me. So I’m going to take a dollar from a record sale and put it toward a non-profit. That’s the way it’s structured. It can’t work any other way, or those first however-many records I've sold don’t count. That didn't seem right to me.
When people start buying records on Record Store Day, a dollar from those records goes to a non-profit, so why not the records sold on Kickstarter? For me, it’s just from day one. If Kickstarter takes our campaign down because I’m saying this right now, it would suck. I don’t get caught up in the semantics of it or the theory of where this money goes. But I also didn't think that I needed to tell the world necessarily. It’s built-in to me. It’s at the core of what this project’s about. I don’t want people to donate to the Kickstarter just because it benefits a non-profit.
So the donations that don’t have an album sale attached to them, they go straight to the project?
And the donor gets to specify which charity, and if they don’t specify it gets broken up by 10 into all of them?
Yup. I don’t want people to invest in the Kickstarter because they think their dollar’s being donated. I’m not trying to raise money for nonprofits through the Kickstarter. I’m trying to pay for this thing to happen. I don’t feel like I’m breaking any rules. And I don’t feel like Kickstarter would either if I have the bills to show that this project cost this much money, and that’s what it’s going back to pay. If I have to donate that money myself from some other account, I’ll do it, but in theory, I think you have to keep it. Those first people who got their record, they didn't get it a dollar cheaper than anyone else will pay at the record store. It’s all going to be the same price, so I want that to still happen. And on release day I want to be able to say, we've sold this many records so far, and here’s the little bit of money we've made for you guys. But we hope this continues to be a viable partnership.
So the musicians are getting paid for their work here. How does that work? How did you decide to do that?
I paid all the musicians. I came to the studio each day on the day of recording with $100. They were paid for their day of time recording the project. Each individual musician was paid or offered to be paid $100. Some of them donated that money directly back to me or refused to take it. Some of them took the money and have since pledged on our Kickstarter campaign. My goal was to facilitate, so they didn't have to think, "Do I have to take off work, and how much money am I going to lose if I take off work today to come to the studio and record in a much longer way?" A lot of times when you go into the studio, you already have your day planned out, but because of the collaborative effort, I knew these were going to be long studio days. I knew they were going to take a lot of takes, and they were going to be challenging. I didn't want that to be an obstacle. Even though $100 isn't a lot of money, it helped alleviate any obstacles of the musicians being able to get into the studio and record the song.
That’s $3,000 paid to the artists on the day of the recordings along with whatever the recording sessions themselves cost, which you got at a discounted rate.
And because of the arrangement, I don’t feel comfortable quoting the rate.
And then about $2,200 for mixing and mastering the thing and a little more than $7,282 to press 500 vinyl copies. And all of this was upfront cost for you?
It’s on a credit card. It’s on three credit cards. One of those credit cards has no interest for 18 months, so we've got 18 months to sell this record. I really feel good about the project, so it’s really not that scary. The second credit card has no interest for 12 months, and I only got approved for $3,000 at that point because I think the credit card companies realized I was taking out a lot of credit. The personal credit card that I already had has the rest of the bulk on it, which I've just been paying off as quickly as I could, so I wouldn't incur interest. I've also balance transferred to the credit card with no interest. Technically, the project isn't currently incurring any interest just because I've played the system a little bit with interest rates and stuff. I just took my savings account and paid off what portion of it was incurring interest. The cost of it isn't growing any more than what it sort of is.
I feel like a lot of people go into a lot of debt for school. I've been working through school. I don’t have any school debt, and I feel really fortunate about that. And I do plan to write my thesis on this project.
The concept here is very much about different people in the community depending on each other and coming together in a way that’s mutually beneficial. But all the risk is really on you. Why did that feel appropriate for you? Why did you feel like that was the best way to go about it?
All of the people involved, the artists and photographers and musicians, they already have enough risk on them doing what they do. They already are in a very high-risk position. If I could remove that risk from them, then I knew we could create something very special. And I believed that it would be special. What would have disappointed me would have been if one of the musicians had said yes and then at the last minute backed out. Nobody said no. No one I asked said no, which is overwhelming. Every single person was like, "Yes, I’ll do this," and no one backed out.
It’s going to be fine. We’re going to be fine. It’s a cool idea, and we have 18 months to really make back everything and sell the record. We’ll break even if we sell all 500 records.
What happens if the Kickstarter doesn't work?
Then it becomes more important for me to work on the structure of it. Maybe we have to rethink this concept. It’s more important that the Kickstarter works in that it will prove that people want this. If we don’t make it, I just incur some debt, and we move forward.
If you're into bands that stay the same with each record they release, Raleigh's Whatever Brains are not for you. In 2011, after a string of compelling 7-inches, the punk pranksters offered their self-titled debut, a marvelous mess of twisted psych-rock detritus that shifted from aggressively mumbled verses to sarcastically epic choruses without missing a beat. The next year, they released another LP called Whatever Brains, not caring one iota that this move might confuse ill-informed consumers. The second album is sharper and more straightforward, getting most of its mileage from the dizzying interplay between guitarists Rich Ivey and William Evans.
In December, Whatever Brains sequestered themselves for three days in Raleigh's Kings Barcade, transforming the rock club—where Evans sometimes runs sound—into their own private studio. If the past is any indication, listeners can expect another stylistic shift that still fits with Ivey's supremely sardonic songs. We caught up with Evans, who produced the Brains' as-of-yet untitled new effort, to gain some early insight into the record.
INDY WEEK: You produced the first two records as well. How was this experience different? You recorded the first two records in your practice space, right?
WILLIAM EVANS: Yeah. We recorded all of the drums for the first record at a house that Matt [Watson, bass] and Rich and this guy John used to live at. They had a big back room with super-high ceilings that was real cool. For the second record, we did some of them in that same room and then some in the kitchen in a little house I used to live in with Evan [Williams, drums] and Cameron from Shards. Everything else was done in the practice space.
For this one, it was different because we got to do everything in one place. We did the drums set up on-stage and coming through the main speakers like I would mix them for a show. It was cool because I could leave the drums set up on-stage with all the mics set-up and then Josh (Lawson), our newer keyboard player, brought in—I think he had a total of 16 keyboards, including a modular synthesizer that he had built himself in his basement. So he had like two or three long tables of keyboards all set-up. He had all of those running into a 16-channel mixer and then running that out to his amp, so he could leave all of his keyboards set-up and ready to go. So if he wanted to do a different sound or get a different keyboard, it was ready to go.
The guitars we just sort of recorded in the back in a corner. There’s some carpet, so it wasn’t too live. Without people in Kings, it’s real echo-y. We used the men’s room for some pretty cool natural reverb on some bass clarinet that Hank [Shore], our original keyboard player, played and some guitar stuff that Rich was playing where he would play this one electric guitar, but he would be standing in the bathroom with a mic in there and I would mic the amp that was in another room. You couldn't really get an amp in the bathroom, but it was like the unplugged sound of an electric guitar bouncing around.
It was great because I could leave everything plugged-in, everything set-up. We just sort of had to show up and do it. Also, everyone was there at the same time, so we just would take turns while somebody did their part. They could work on their own on headphones, and then I could move onto somebody else with just a push of a button.
How did being able to record all at once together like that impact the sound as opposed to the piecemeal way you did things with the first two records? Did it give you more of a live sound?
I think it did wind up sounding more like a live record even though it’s all done in parts. I think mainly that’s because of the gear I got to use, the Kings board and some of the Kings mics. Cheetie [Kumar, Kings co-owner] let me use a really nice mic. All that stuff and also the room itself led to recordings where I didn't have to mess with as much to get them to sound good. It was just pretty high-fidelity and pretty much what I wanted just right out of the box. I think that lends it more of a live sound.
It definitely happened a lot faster, and that was sort of the idea going into it before we even figured out how we were going to do it. We just wanted to, as Rich said, have like a lock-in sort of situation with as many of us as could be there at all times. That helped me a lot. I slept maybe 12 hours over three days, but it was great because instead of two weeks of meeting up to do a bass overdub for an hour and then like Rich’s guitar or vocal overdubs for a couple hours here and a couple hours there, everyone could do as much as they wanted to or as much as they could at a time. Then somebody else would be ready to do something while the first person figured out their part or figured out a sound. It streamlined things a whole lot.
The last record was very much about the intricacy of you and Rich’s guitar parts. The synthesizers have obviously become a more dominant part of the live show. Is that coming through on the record?
Yeah, definitely. We sort of joke about the second record being the rock record. This record, the keyboard is definitely at the forefront. I think there are several songs without any guitar, maybe just a bass. I think on four or five songs I’m doing auxiliary percussion and not even playing guitar, and Rich is playing really minimal stuff or like a sampler or this noise generator that Josh built. It’s definitely a lot more percussion. Also, I think because of the room and recording in there, the drums come through a lot more, and the drums are a lot more intricate. They have a lot more detail to them. It’s definitely all about what Hank and Josh are doing on keyboards and what Evan’s doing on drums. I wouldn't say it’s a rock record.
What pushed you guys in that direction?
All of the records are usually just a chronological chunk of what Rich has written, obviously, not really in order on the track list. The first record had 17 songs; there are a couple we’d had left over from the 7-inches that we had done that we wanted to get on record that were kind of out of order, but for the most part all of those songs were written in a row. And then for the second record, they were definitely all written pretty much straight in a row, same thing for this one.
I think the major factor of how many keyboards there were was because we had two keyboard players. When Hank came back from Chicago, we already had Josh in the band, and instead of kicking him out or anything, we just added Hank back. Having two keyboards, we had to sort of make room for them in the arrangements, so it wasn't too crowded or messy.
You guys released a few demos on a CD-R near the end of last year and another in a video online. Are all those songs on the album? How would you characterize the sonic improvements to those songs?
I think they’re pretty much infinitely more hi-fi. When Rich did those demos, definitely fidelity was not at all in his mind. I think that’s fine because the sound of them is really kind of cool, and that was something I was nervous about going into the record, like why are we re-recording these when Rich already has a cool-sounding version of them. For one of them, “Eat Forever,” I think we used the vocal takes from the demo. Rich still had it broken up into tracks, so we literally took them from the demo and put them in the song. So it’s like the vocals and vocal effects that he had on them. And he had done a lot of Casio keyboard percussion that was going to be really hard to recreate, so we just used them and then added our own live percussion on top of it.
For a lot of the demos, we used them as a map of the songs for recording, to get like tempos. Evan does the drums on pretty much everything, so it was good or him to just play to that and then we just mixed the demo out because we had other things added in.
Whatever Brains play Durham's Casbah Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. in support of Cusses. Tickets are $7. Octopus Jones and PC Worship open.