The beast is slowly awakening…

November 1st, 2010

New album: This Year’s Epiphany March, 2011
New single: “Goodbye, Memphis” 11/16/10
Now on twitter: @amateurhourmuse
Updated: www.myspace.com/amateurhourmusic
New webpage: here, soon…
Shows: 12/13/10 Solly’s U St. in DC, more soon…

I went down to St. James Infirmary…

July 29th, 2010

 Things have this funny way of finding you sometimes.

Check this: St. James Infirmary by Charlie Shavers

This version of “St. James Infirmary” is from a recording labeled “At A Famous Jazz Party: 1958,” credited to Charlie Shavers and Coleman Hawkins. You can buy the record; it’s issued on the Jazz Factory label, but it’s basically a recording from a jam session at a home in New Jersey.

Jam session. Huh? Musicians getting together just to play and listen to each other; to show off a little, to learn… to cut and be cut. This musical dialogue made the music a living, breathing entity subject to the whims of the players and the mood of the moment. It forced musician and audience to engage in real time, to converse, to respond. Very intangible, this music; played once (from where?) and gone, vanished into the air and the memories of those who happen to be there.

Thank god the tape recorder was running at Art Ford’s in Newark in 1958 to capture this version of St. James Infirmary. It is stunning music. “Gut-bucket” doesn’t come close to describing the grit and earth and fire in this performance. Shavers’ vocal is pure blue, a wrenching and intense top-of-the-range baring of the soul full of wracked vocal-cords (yet pitch-perfect – he’s a horn-player afterall, a musician of high order!) and trumpet interjections. He name-checks drummer Sonny Greer (“she’ll never find another mother-man like Sonny Greer and me”), who is the other star of this performance, playing malleted tom-toms and cymbals and balancing and counter-commenting and instigating at every dynamic shift from whisper-quiet to full-on New Orleans brass rage. Sonny was Duke Ellington’s drummer in the 30s and 40s, a master orchestrator and, in the tradition of the best musicians, a terrific “of-the-moment” improviser.  All the while, an active and engaged and enthusiastic audience sings along and shouts their approval.

I think this performance could go a long way toward dispelling some myths about jazz as cerebral music, and certainly about “perfection” as the high goal of a recording or performance.  This is as intense, as emotion-packed, as passionate as any music before or since. It is not intellectual or detached. It is not ironic (not in the modern way).  Nor is the song (which has been recorded by tons of people, from Louis Armstrong to Lou Rawls to the White Stripes) particularly biographical or personal.  Yet, the performance is transporting, placing the listener in the midst of a band singing and playing compelling music surrounded by an awed, encouraging and appreciative audience.  It’s fucking magical. 

Sometimes when I think about all the music available online (including some of my own) that only exists in digital code as mp3s or on someone’s iTunes playlist, I worry about the intangibility of it.  Does not being able to hold an artifact in your hand – a cd, a record (of an event, as Ani DiFranco said) - make it less meaningful, less real?  I worry that consuming music mostly individually through ear buds or as ring tones on cell phones or background noise at restaurants and clothing stores (“life-style acoutrement” – now that’s something you can put a price on!) devalues the art somehow, divorces musician and audience, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to hear real live music.  I worry about the loss of the collectivist spirit among musicians and listeners that produces magic music like this ”St. James Infirmary.”

But things are as they are and I’m not trying to peddle nostalgia.  It’s awesome that through modern technology I can upload this song and share it with you online.  It’s awesome that the tape machine was running to capture it in 1958 and that someone at Jazz Factory took the time and expense to press it on cd and release it in the 2000s, even though the audience for it is miniscule.  It’s awesome luck that I happened to check this record out of the library and hear the song at all.  Things have this funny way of finding you sometimes…

Feeling Yourself Disintegrate

July 14th, 2010

We made it. More soon…

Two days to record/Six months In the Making, and Tough Choices…

June 30th, 2010

We’re now a little over a week away from our trip to Junxt Studios in Brooklyn to record This Year’s Epiphany. Preparations for this record started in earnest with the addition of our new guitarist Tom Quispe in January. At that time, we knew we’d record to analog tape, new we’d try and do the instruments live off the floor, knew we’d be doing it in the summer, but the work was just beginning.

Over the next six months, we recorded nearly every rehearsal to listen to and critique. We started with a list of 18 songs and narrowed down to the strongest ten. Once the songs we’re chosen, we began honing arrangements and practicing without vocals to duplicate recording conditions. We were very, very hard on ourselves; there were conflicts over arrangements, song choices, harmonies…  But making these tough calls and cold-light-of-day assessments made us a better band, and it sharpened our vision and forced us to choose a direction and follow it.

It might seem gimmicky to choose to record music this way. Avoiding Pro-Tools and editing and plugins and click tracks and auto-tune may seem like a deliberate way of thumbing your nose at modern trends (not even trends, more like de facto standards),  and trying to be hip-vintage-cool or something.

The truth is my favorite records were made this way, most of them. From the pre-digital days. This was the requirement: you had to be able to write, to sing, to play. While numerous takes could be used, and editing (with razor blade and grease pencil!) could be accomplished, there was an expectation of a certain level of competence.  Think about the group Brian Wilson assembled to play the “Pet Sounds” music: they had to get that music live, together, under the gun in order to be able to overdub strings and the 5 to 8 part Beach Boy harmonies.  Think of the pressure on those musicians!  There are tons of examples of this stuff from earlier days of pop music – MOTOWN! – and look at the classics that were produced.  Why does so much of that music still sound so fresh and shockingly relevant – in many cases better than modern state-of-the-art recordings?

That’s the real reason to do it this way – a band, in a room, with tubes and mics going to tape with no click and no headphones: we just think it sounds better. There’s an intangible element to the results: just like all the weeks and months of hard work tightening our arrangements will make our songs better, real live musicians playing instruments together in room will convey something that can’t be captured over months of editing, tracking, and auto-tuning to a hard drive.  It’s not going to turn our music into “Pet Sounds” of course, but it is a way of dealing honestly with some of those influences, and trying to tap into the strengths of our group. 

So off we go!  I want to use this as a platform to thank my bandmates Tom, Jeremy and Mike for putting their energy and time and sweat and capital into this project. We’re hoping to realize something really special with the results and to enjoy the process too.  For me, I’ve wanted to make this record for 15 years or more, since I was first playing in bands.  Having these guys on my side, along with Mark Lewis at Junxt – an engineer I trust, who always gets incredible sounds and who knows what we’re going for – makes me feel prepared and excited and just really proud as a musician. 

Please stay tuned!  Something special is happening here…

-Dan

New videos as recording deadline looms!

June 24th, 2010

Week 2 of what we’re calling “pre-production” included working out percussion and piano parts for the tunes and some intense (and long) vocal harmony practice. Dealing with limited time we’ll have to nail these parts pretty quickly in order to get everything recorded. Dealing with analog tape means limited tracks to get all our parts down, so group vocals may be required. That means two or three or four of us hitting the right notes at the same time – old school, and not easy!

Here’s a little work-in-progress on our song “Throwing Stones”:

Here’s a sneak peek acoustic version of “Any Other Day,” a song slated for the record:

There are only a couple weeks left until we go to New York, and we’ll be keeping up the pre-production work right until our deadline, with more audio/video to come. 

 Thanks for keeping up with us!
-Dan

New video/mp3 demo/Facebook

June 16th, 2010

We spent this week hard at work on vocal harmonies and backgrounds for the tunes we’ll be recording in July. In order for us to track the songs as we want them to sound in our limited studio time, knowing precisely what we want to record and where is critical. This seems obvious, but you may be surprised how many bands have no vision for how their music will sound and keep trying things ’till something works. Nothing wrong with that, but the upside of our approach is that self-editing results in a more focused track honed down to it’s essential elements.

We’ll have some footage of the vocal sessions soon, but in the meantime here’s more instrumental video of our song “A Temple Is Love.” We think it tells a nice story even without vocals:

Additionally, we’ve jumped squarely into the latter-00s and finally established a page on Facebook. You can find us and become a fan at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Amateur-Hour/104009759648552

We’re currently featuring a full-band mp3 demo of our song “Blown Away” from the upcoming LP only on Facebook.

More to come soon. Thanks for keeping up with us!

This Year’s Epiphany!

June 10th, 2010

Hello, and welcome to the new Amateur Hour website. While the site is under construction, we’ll be blogging about the making of our new album, “This Year’s Epiphany.”

We are heading to a friend’s studio in Brooklyn in early July to record 10 songs “live-off-the-floor” to analog tape. The only overdubs will be vocals and percussion and there will be no Pro-Tools editing, no click track and no auto-tune. With only a weekend’s worth of tracking time in NYC, we’ve really set ourselves a challenge!

In order to meet this challenge, we’ve been pushing ourselves in rehearsals since January, working to hone our arrangements to the essential elements, introducing new songs and simulating recording conditions by recording  the songs without vocals.  This type of pre-production was standard practice in the old days of recording, yielding exciting results by placing a well-prepared band in front of great microphones and capable engineers to capture energetic and pre-edited performances.  We’re hoping for the same results when we hit the studio this summer.

Meanwhile, you can get inside the recording of the album by keeping up with our blog.  In addition to running cameras during the recording sessions, we’ll be updating weekly in prepartion for the recording with some video footage of our progress at rehearsal.  Here’s a sneak peek of the title track, “This Year’s Epiphany”: 

It means a lot to us to be able to share our music with you!  We hope you’ll enjoy participating with us in the process of making this album.   Feel free to post any comments or email us at amateurhourmusic@gmail.com .

More updates soon!

-Dan