[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been working on this post for a month and a half, it’s become a bit of an albatross. If you were thinking about getting that next cup of coffee, I highly encourage you to do so prior to reading. Consider yourselves warned.]
Six weeks ago, I released my first album.
Let me say that again.
I released my first album.
Hot dog. It still doesn’t feel real. I still don’t know how to fully express just how good writing that first sentence makes me feel. Even though I’ve been making music for over ten years (twenty if you include adolescent piano and saxophone lessons), this is the first time I have put a collection of my own music out into the world.
That said, I don’t know how much I can really call it my music. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote the songs, I arranged, produced, and played many of the parts on the record, but there’s no way I can take anywhere close to all the credit. There are so many people that deserve recognition for encouraging me, inspiring me, collaborating during the recording process, and just being supportive of my dream. Call me the quarterback singing the praises of his offensive linemen. Here’s to my tackles and guards for keeping me centered (yikes, let’s work on those analogies, Fletch).
First off, thank you to my parents for signing me up for the aforementioned piano and sax lessons, and for forcing me to sit on the carpet square-laden piano bench and practice when I had just about thrown in the towel. Like anything worth doing, music takes hours of playing, practicing and also just plain failing to really begin to hone your craft.
The rewards are immense. I remember a time in the fourth or fifth grade when I had just gotten home from school. It had been a really bad day, and the second I walked in the door I reached for my saxophone. As I played my first few notes I started to cry. My mom asked me what was wrong, and I told her “I just want to play, it makes me feel better.” It did then, and it still does. Some days I just need to strum chords for a few hours to lift my spirits.
On second thought, this might not be such a short post after all.
Barb Harvey was my music teacher in elementary school, and for all the Seward alums that are reading this, I’m sure this will resonate with you, too. Barb has an infectious love of music, and she has a gift of sharing that love with her students. I started going to Seward in the middle of fourth grade, and she immediately welcomed me with open arms. In one of my first music classes, I remember my classmates shouting out a request for “Fifty Nifty United States.” Imagine that for a second. A bunch of inner-city public school fourth, fifth and sixth graders who were excited to sing and participate in music class. Nobody was “too cool” for Barb’s music class. Not even the cool kids. I can recall a number of times when Barb would stop the class midway through a song, overcome with emotion, needing to tell us how beautiful we sounded. Barb’s passion, dedication, and love of music is something I carry with me to this day.
Those of you that have known me for a while probably know about my metallic past. In high school, thanks in no small part to my history teacher Brian FitzGerald, I fell in love with my first band: Metallica. Fitz was playing …And Justice For All before class one day, and since he was the hip teacher (still is), I knew I had to check it out. There was a special mix of attitude, technicality, and raw power (as well as my own hormonally driven teen angst) that made Metallica resonate with me, and I quickly sought out other fast, rude bands to fill out my CD collection. I never would have dragged my father with me to see Anthrax when I was a minor or driven solo to San Antonio to see Iron Maiden if I hadn’t met World War II historian and consummate metalhead Mr. Fitz in Humanities class in 2003. My pops may not thank you, but I do.
Now, for those of you that read my blog but haven’t heard my music, I challenge that you probably don’t exist. However, if you do, you may be surprised to hear that the music I make bears little resemblance to that of Megadeth, King Diamond, or Morbid Angel. While I would venture to guess that at least a third of my music collection still could be classified as metal, the music I write is rooted in country, folk, and gospel. How did a young, long-haired, leather jacket-wearing punk turn into a pearl-button western shirt-clad troubadour? Who convinced me to trade my “Ferrari Red” Jackson Flying V for a “grandpa’s guitars”?
The answer is a long and multi-faceted one. There are whole lot of folks that broadened my musical horizons past the desolate plains of thrash, black, death, and doom. My hetero life partner Danny Shaheen deserves a lot of credit for turning me on to My Morning Jacket, The Band, and the immortal Neil Young. Listening to ‘Cortez the Killer’, ‘Down By the River’ and the fuzzy stoned thunder of Crazy Horse was a slower, somehow heavier experience than the metal I loved, but it was hearing bootlegs of Neil playing solo at the Cellar Door that got me thinking that acoustic guitars could be used for more than just the intros to ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and ‘Battery’.
In 2007, Danny and I went to see Wilco play an outdoor concert in Duluth, right off of Lake Superior. I was still pretty into metal, but my college roommate John Foecking got me listening to their then-new record Sky Blue Sky, which was about as un-heavy as it gets. A light rain fell for most of the show, and it was just chilly enough to see your breath. My eyes never drifted far from Nels Cline, who was an absolute shredder, but dressed like a hipster and played a Jazzmaster instead of a pointy B.C. Rich. His off-kilter playing perfectly accented Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics, and he added a technical, oddball slant to Wilco’s laid-back alt-country sound.
In 2008, I was playing lead guitar in a rock band with my friend Ivan Prushnok. He’s the kind of guy that probably should have been born a couple decades before he was; his songs would be right at home on a 70’s Warner/Reprise Loss Leader psychedelic rock compilation. Ivan changed my life in a couple ways, namely by throwing me headfirst onto the Pittsburgh Penguins bandwagon, and, more importantly, by introducing me to the music of Gram Parsons. At one of our rehearsals, Ivan showed the band a song he wanted to cover: Wilco’s electric shuffle version of “One Hundred Years From Now”, a Gram tune from his time in the Byrds. This was really my first experience with Gram’s music, and it wasn’t long before I started scouring record bins for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Gilded Palace of Sin, and Return of the Grievous Angel.
Gram Parsons’ music stands up on it’s own, I’m not going to say too much about his work here (talk to me in person and you won’t be so lucky). What I do want to briefly touch on is why his music matters so much to me, and what his influence has been on my writing. Gram popularized the term Cosmic American Music, which is basically the blending of seemingly disparate genres and tones, and channeling them through a country music lens. For Gram, that equated to a fuzzed out, psychedelic pedal steel guitar, rock and roll drumming, and funky James Jamerson-style bass. Over the years, as I wrote the songs that eventually ended up on Became a Stranger, I tried to leave room for sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being part of a “country” song.
I don’t think I can overstate the importance that Thomas Maddux had in the completion of the album. Thomas is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, but it’s his drive that sets him apart from anyone else I’ve met. When he started El Le Faunt, he released the first EP mere months after he wrote the songs, and maybe three weeks after we finished recording them. There are a few more warts on that disc than I was comfortable with, but Thomas reassured me that it was more important to capture that moment in time, put the record out, and see where the project went. After four years and 300 plus shows, I’m inclined to agree with him.
I’ve tried to adopt a similar philosophy when it comes to recording, that being: No amount of tailoring or tweaking will make a record perfect; an album is a snapshot, a document of the moment in time that it was recorded. Listen to Charlie Parr’s Jubilee (recorded in two days) to hear it done right, or Guns ‘N Roses Chinese Democracy (10 years and $12 million) to hear it done so very, very wrong. Sorry, Axl, I’m not even giving you the benefit of a hyperlink for that.
It took me a while to figure that out. I am something of a perfectionist in the studio; there is a reason that my first demos of “Caroline” and “Oh, No!” date back to 2009. After banging my head against the desk for the hundredth (thousandth?) time, I started to figure out what I was doing wrong. All of my attempts at capturing the essence of these songs were done on my own, with little to no outside help. I played acoustic, electric, bass, drums, sang lead and harmony vocals, and did all the snaps, handclaps and percussion by myself. While songwriting has largely been a solitary practice for me, I realized that to give these songs the energy they needed, I had to collaborate with others when recording them.
Many of the folks that worked with me on Became a Stranger have been my friends and collaborators for years. My friendships with Marc Bromaghim-Oropeza, Danny Shaheen, and Emmalyn Kayser date back to kindergarten, and I was making music with all three of them in different capacities for years prior to this project. I cannot stress how much it mattered to me to have my friends on the record, not just because of their incredible talents, but also because this was a moment that I had been looking forward to for my whole life, and I really wanted to share that with them.
Danny has been my best friend for 23 years. I’ve heard from other folks that maintaining a relationship for that long is rare, but it’s never felt like anything other than natural. We’ve had a few rows over the years to be certain, but what old married couple hasn’t? There isn’t enough space to properly gush about Danny’s influence over my life, but I can say that he saved mine once in the fourth grade, and that’s good enough for me.
The story between Emmalyn and I is a funny one, one that I would have imagined was concocted for a digital-age romantic comedy had I not lived it in real life. Emmalyn and I met in Ms. Emi’s kindergarten class, and we were tee-ball teammates as well as classmates and friends. I said my first swear (it was shit) in front of her, hiding under the playground after (or perhaps during) one of our tee-ball games at Morris Park. She repaid the favor by referring to me as the Michelin Tire Man due to my oversized gray puffy coat the following winter. Sadly, Emmalyn and her family moved to Iowa when she was in the fourth grade, and I never saw her again.
Or, rather, that would have been the case had it not been for Mark Zuckerberg and The Facebook. To make a long story short, we reconnected via cyberspace about fifteen years after having last seen one another, and as luck/fate would have it, we took to each other like beans and rice. Emmalyn has been many things for Fletch over the years. The official positions she has held are vocalist, manager, percussionist, and banjoist. The list of non-denominational roles she has taken on is stranger. She’s been my cheerleader when I needed a little encouragement, my asskicker when I just needed to get out of my head and move, and just generally a believer not only in this project, but in me in general. I’m not sure there’s a way to give Emmalyn as much credit as she deserves for making this album a reality, but I can say that without Emmalyn Kayser, there’s a pretty good chance that Became a Stranger would still be nothing more than an idea percolating inside my brain.
Marc and I met at what my small-town cousins used to call “The Rock and Roll Church”. Unlike the rural places of worship where the best you got was a third-rate organist, St. Joan of Arc had electric guitars! And drums! That was my indoctrination into the holy spirit, and while I am no longer more than a part-time Catholic (sorry Grandma), St. Joan’s will always hold an important place in my musical upbringing. It was there that I had my first ever live performance, fronting the piano and saxophone trio Cody and the Crew during St. Joan’s Family Mass. My brother Conor was responsible for the bass octave of the piano while Marc pounded on the higher 76 keys. I, of course, manned the alto sax and pretended I was as cool as Bill Clinton (this was pre-Lewinski and I was nine, ok?). We played one original number, “Numero Uno”, and we brought the house down. The cookies and apple juice in the church basement tasted like victory that day, and from then on, I knew the stage was the place for me.
I met Jordan Hedlund, drummer on seven of the tracks from Became a Stranger, when Marc was recruiting me to be a part of the St. Joan’s house band for their youth group variety show, “Youth Got Talent”. We made it a point of never taking ourselves particularly seriously; there was just something about the vibe that we created in our rock rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and our grunge version of “Let It Go” that told me he would be the perfect drummer for my country album.
My favorite moment with Jordan during the recording sessions was when we were tracking “His Right Hand”. Jordan had been playing a standard kit for the other seven songs, but we knew we wanted some “outside-the-box” sounds for this creepy, “What’s He Building In There?” style tune. To get the off-putting vibe just right, Jordan threw a tiny cymbal on top of the snare to give the drum a funky metallic delay every time he hit it, and we traded the deep, perfectly tuned bass drum for a small, woofy one. The real gem was the music stand that we set up next to Jordan’s hi-hat. Every so often, he would make that poor stand his red-headed stepchild, and I’m pretty sure there are still slivers of drum sticks imbedded in the studio floor. Even though Jordan nailed the part on the first take, he had so much fun on the bastardized drum kit that we spent the rest of the session recording it again and again.
Of course, I can’t write a blog about my record without singing the praises of one Jim May. In addition to siring the “immortal badass bicycle marauder” Annie May, he also co-produced, engineered, mixed and mastered Became a Stranger. I met Jim and Annie when Thomas Maddux told me about a guy who was looking for a bassist to fill out his “space rock opera about aliens falling in love”. How could I say no? And thus, Racing Moth was born. The Moth was active for about four years, and all during that time, Jim and I had talked about making a “California country” album together. I played him basic demos with just me and an acoustic in November of 2014, and over the next fourteen months (give or take a couple when I was galavanting about Alaska this past summer), Jim and I worked day and night, shaping the sounds and tones that came together on the album. For all of the long hours Jim spent turning my little pipe dream of a cosmic country album into a reality, I owe him either my life or my firstborn.
All but one of the songs were recorded between November 2014 and January 2016, with the exception of one. “Bicentennial Celebration” is a live take from the basement of Blackbird’s Music Store in February 2013, back when I was playing the Great Lakes. I was handling electric guitar duties, and the band consisted of Marc on keys, Danny on bass of all things, the immortal badass bicycle marauder Annie May on drums, and Italian Jesus, aka Cole Pulice, on tenor sax.
Cole had pestered me for months to let him in the band, and there were only so many times that I tried to tell him that there was no place for saxophones in country music (Hank Williams bemoans the instrument in “Too Many Parties (and Too Many Pals)”) before I acquiesced. Turns out Hank and I were a little too quick to judge (much like the folks in Hank’s tune), because Cole’s playing absolutely makes the song. When I started recording demos for Became a Stranger in late 2014, I came across this take of “Bicentennial”. I initially thought about re-recording it, but soon realized that this was the definitive version. There was magic in the frigid basement that day, and I’m so glad that we were able to capture the vibe and put it on the record.
If you have a copy of Became a Stranger, take a good look at the artwork. Whittney Streeter is a wonderful human being, and an incredible artist. She is a little quirky, to be certain. For context, there’s currently a horse skull on her mantle and she couldn’t wait to tell me where the crow’s feet she ordered had come from. I first met Whittney during my days in El Le Faunt, when she brought me into the basement of her father’s house in North Minneapolis past the homemade Tesla coil, to the overhead projector, where she proceeded to paint a giant elephant head on my 30″ bass drum. Whittney worked with El Le Faunt for all of our releases and the majority of our show bills and posters, and I was thrilled to work with her again. She took my vision of the Fletcher Magellan character crossing a bridge into the unknown and put her own style and insight into it, much like everyone else that worked with me on Became a Stranger.
My editor [ha!] tells me to wrap this up, so I suppose I had better. In closing, I can only say, once again, thank you. I don’t want to toot HRC’s horn, but it does take a village to pull this kind of thing off. Danny and I just got back from a southern tour, expect a tour related blog or six in the near future. In the meantime, come see us! I have a residency at Reverie Cafe + Bar (formerly the Nicollet) every Wednesday in April. We’ll have more details out shortly, right now I can say that I’ll have the full band plus different special guests each night, and I couldn’t be happier with the groups that we’re sharing the bills with.
If you made it to the end of this behemoth of a blog, you’ve earned yourself a beer, courtesy of one Fletcher Magellan. Tell him the secret code at one of the Reverie shows to claim your prize. The secret code is “Nudie Suit”, and it probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.
That’s all I have (3,381 words later), so much for brevity. Look for more frequent, shorter posts in the near future!