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TAKING UP SLACKSHOP
ARTISTRY THRIVING IN A DEMOCRACY)
The deception was unintentional.
A radio station in Mitchell, South Dakota, west of Sioux Falls in the southeastern corner of the state, plays single cut called "i feel" from a four-song EP. The vocalist nearly hits and holds a note in the chorus for four beats before finishing the line. His twang nibbles at a few of the words. His sound borders on nasal, naggingly familiar. Behind him are the crisp punches of electric and acoustic guitars and the snap of a tight snare drum. He repeats the phrase twice more. His voice cracks and flattens as he hits the bridge, before it fades into an echo of overdubs that slide back and forth between the left and right channels, as if the center of his voice had disintegrated and the edges melted off.
The song shakes the airwaves across the Dakota farmlands. Listeners keep the station's phone ringing with questions: "Is this his new one?" "Is it a bonus track or something?" "Well, who is it?" "Who?" "From where?" "So are you gonna play it again?"
"They thought it was the new Tom Petty record," said William Bartley. "People just freaked. I've never heard our stuff compared to Tom Petty. Ever!"
Bartley can barely sit still in his chair as he says that. His voice is electric with enthusiasm. And why not? When a track played from your EP is compared to work from a respected performer – especially when you have yet to release a full recording and make your name known throughout the independent rock scene – you've earned every inch of the tingle you get on your skin when you think about it.
Listeners in the college town of Mitchell, South Dakota know what several other markets are finding out: Louisville's slackshop is a band that deserves attention. Like water seeping though the cracks in a neglected dam, slackshop has the sound that slips through the wall of detritus that has accumulated from over a decade of modern rock.
Far from the modern connotations of the first syllable of the band's name, slackshop is and industrious band with production values that come from a collaborative artistry. No one person grabs sole credit for the way their recordings sound, as shown in the credits for the songs on faint praise and happy accidents, their first complete release, on microdot recordings. Each song lists the performers, the recording engineers, and the mixing engineers. The only name that's missing is the guy who loaded the soft-drink vending machine in the studio. They take a by-the-book approach to post-production: one hour of mixing and remixing for each one minute of tape (and sometimes longer), to the point where the control room is filled with the pinpoint glows of LEDs from every piece of equipment in it.
slackshop typographically signifies itself (and it's song titles) in unobtrusive lowercase letters, like the poetry of e.e. cummings. It reflects the subtlety of the small, the understated. The poetry of cummings was a logistical nightmare for typographers, but the result was astonishment and joy from his readers. It's almost the same with slackshop: late nights to early mornings behind the mixing board to produce music full of rich tones, caliper-accurate rhythms, and vocals that lift into wailing chants and dip into sensual whispers.
"In listening to songs and mixing," Bartley said, "you get to this point where keep refining it. You keep tweaking it and keep tweaking it, then you come back and play through it. There are some songs that happen immediately and reveal themselves. Then there are other songs that you hone and hone and hone. You get hooked on the song and hooked on making it better."
The 29-year-old Bartley, guitarist, part-time drummer, co-founder of slackshop with bassist Glenn Watts and proprietor of microdot recordings, brings his emphasis on post-production not from the neurosis of perfectionism, but from a few intense years working at Stepbridge Studios in Santa Fe, where he did everything from make coffee and fetch cigarettes, to engineering and booking sessions. Slim-built with fine brown hair and brown eyes beneath peaked brows, Bartley, along with his friend Glenn Watts, formed slackshop two years ago.
"We formed the band together when we recorded the first three songs for our EP called ‘Grace,'" he said, which was the recording played at the station in Mitchell, South Dakota. "It was just us two. We had a little hootenanny, overdubbing scenario happening in the studio. Glenn and I had actually met [in 1992] in a band called Poke A Dott. We played modern rock, not totally dissimilar to what we're doing now. We had a lead guitar player – John Krauss – who did these screaming solos. It was fun. We got to play all over town. It didn't work out for whatever reason. So with drummer woes and personnel issues, we decided to call it off for little while. But Glenn and I always stayed in touch.
"I went out to Santa Fe. . .and didn't come back. I was gone for four years."
New Mexico: home to a number of Indian reservations and the birthplace of UFO cover-up conspiracies. It is where the first atomic bombs were detonated and, more recently, where a bureaucrat's uninformed decision about setting a controlled brushfire nearly destroyed the city of Los Alamos. Mysticism is sunk into the bedrock. Many spiritual organizations hold retreats in the state.
Bill Bartley went on a retreat that lasted nearly half a decade.
Bartley's friend Grant Hayunga, a Louisville native, a resident of Santa Fe, and frontman for the band Goshen (whose CD is reviewed in this issue) invited him to the city. "Grant and I have this serious work ethic, and I thought things were going well but not really well [in Louisville], so I thought I'd try things for awhile in Santa Fe. One thing led to another and I ended up playing trap set with Goshen."
Bartley felt the experience would be rewarding for both he and Hayunga. He would help Hayunga give form to his material while focusing on some of his own production ideas. He also learned lighting design and got a job with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where he designed the lighting schemes for concerts by Herbie Mann, Joshua Redman, Eddie Daniels, and a number of chamber music quartets.
Then came the break into production. "I got hired at Stepbridge Studios," he said. "That was just brutal. They were fabulous studios, but all the stories you've heard about doing the really not-so-fun work. . .schlepping tapes around, making coffee, getting cigarettes, you name it. It was just two years of putting my life on hold for everyone else's projects."
The span of time doing scut work in a recording studio brings some obvious rewards. "It was funny because I immediately thought I could really do something with this. The owner was an entrepreneur, very difficult to work with, who had very specific management ideas. I got hired on as the cleaning guy. I studied all the equipment. Pretty soon afterward I did an internship in assisting the recording engineers. The first time I got paid to record was for Robbie Robertson's Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy."
A hypnotic recording, dense with audio imagery that blends melodies based on Native American music with sampling from natives' voices, Robertson's Contact was the perfect teeth-cutting production job for Bartley, who assisted Tim Stroh on the project. Stroh would later record and/or mix a number of the tracks on faint praise.
Bartley and the rest of slackshop seem to have transferred that recording experience in "how beautiful are thee," the opening track on faint praise. It opens with shakers and steady pats on congas, moaning guitars fade in underneath. The first bass note bends into the key of "om." Bartley's voice comes in softly, evenly in a tone that, as the drum kicks in, gradually morphs into a chant. The song's title becomes an electronic mantra directed toward something or someone beloved: a woman, a life, the earth.
Work on Contact immersed Bartley into the entire production experience, the test that took him from novice through journeyman to expert ("When you can snatch this reel of tape from my hand, grasshopper, then it will be time for you to leave"). "Glenn never held [my years in Santa Fe] against me, so when I came back I had been building up all this material of which the album is made up.
"So I called him and said, ‘Hey, let's get together and do some stuff.'"
With financing in place and a direction set, Bartley formed microdot recordings, slackshop's label. He and Watts then began recording, with drummer Rob Edwards, the initial tracks that were contained on the EP Grace and would later become one-third of faint praise. "I spent a year after I left Santa Fe just talking to people," he said, "trying to figure out what people were looking for. Were people even into music anymore? There was a big shift in the industry with modern rock switching to this hard-edged rap stuff. It wasn't where we were coming from at all. And I wondered who was going to like what we're doing.
"[As it turns out], lots of people like what we're doing. It's a different thing."
With a sound (in one song, at least) compared to a mainstream performer, slackshop may not be too different than other bands, but still not so different that they draw only fans of obscure groups with phlegm-throated singers, names like "Laudable Pus," and guitar riffs that can make elephants' ears bleed. The difference on faint praise is inaudible to the listener.
"I think we have some of those influences," Bartley admitted. "I do appreciate the beat-oriented stuff and using samples. We definitely employed some of that technology. We recorded much of this on DAT. But then there are other tracks we did on two-inch tape. So we're sort of combining the two, trying to bring a little more creationism to that technology, and not depending so heavily on loops. We're trying to keep some of those rhythmic influences and keep a ‘live' feel to it. The record is very ‘live'. There are no looped drums. There are only two edits on there. The only reason they were edited was so that radio would have a better chance of playing it.
"We're proud of that. We feel like we've created a little bit of the old school with the new. It has a little of the modern with some of the old technologies. And we've benefited from that."
Technology has made creating music easier, plus it gives musicians a whole new bag of digi-tricks that can ultimately be detrimental for a band. "We have no pitch-shifting on vocals," Bartley said. "You hear a band now and they've Pro-Tools'd it to death. There's never a missed beat, the singer never sings out of pitch. Granted, I don't like it when a singer is out of pitch, but they pitch-correct each of the choruses, or they find one chorus and dump it every single time. And when you see these bands out live, you hear them and go, ‘Whoah!' I mean, what's the point of seeing a band live? They may as well just be jamming to a karaoke machine."
Bartley feels that a reliance on technology, and even a sole focus on the performer or producer as the star of a project, steals from the totality of a production, which involves everyone from the label's financial backers to the guy turns the knobs on the control board, to the person who takes orders for the recording over the phone. "I have help from all the people we've recorded with, giving us good rates and working with us under odd circumstances and for long hours. I'm a person who believes in artistry thriving in democracy. Without getting feedback from all the people we work with, we couldn't have done what we've done. It's not about me, it's about all of us."
He continued. "I really prefer the faint praise and happy accidents of the world versus the highly homogenized production that you hear. I know what major labels do and I know why they do it. They're making a product that works everywhere. But I appreciate specific regional sounds, the little dialects and various colloquialisms you hear in people's music that doesn't necessarily say everywhere."
In the short span of time between the recording and release of faint praise and happy accidents, slackshop has added one member while replacing another. Drummer Rob Edwards, who was, in Bartley's words, becoming less and less available, was replaced by Jerry McBroom. Alex Laborawit joins the band on percussion. Glenn Watts remains as bassist. They are in the midst of recording their second album, working with engineer Mark Richardson, who has engineered recordings by Smashing Pumpkins and Emmylou Harris. The CD is scheduled for release this autumn. They also have a distribution arrangement with The Orchard, where anyone can go into a music store (not the music sections of Wal-Mart or Target) and order faint praise or the forthcoming release, if they aren't already in the racks. A web designer in Denmark caught their webcast performance during the 1999 Harvest Showcase in Louisville and has offered to create the slackshop website. Entertainment lawyers are calling to represent them. Cats are leaving dead mice on their doorsteps.
In a word or two, slackshop is feeling the rumblings of becoming a successful new band. More than just another group of guys rehashing post-grunge riffs and dreaming of having their music used on Felicity, they are doing what some music entrepreneurs do: find a niche, fill it and get a song of yours compared to Tom Petty.
"The funny thing is," Bartley said, "when we [recorded the CD], I really saw us fitting in the world of modern rock. We don't. At all. We've found through our marketing that modern rock has nothing to do with us. We're fine in our niche, which works out great. We didn't change anything. We just exposed ourselves to enough people to figure out, ‘Oh, this is where it works.' We're getting some success with that.
"We've got some cool stuff going on."
Sample some of that cool stuff yourself when slackshop performs at the next taping of Mid-City Mix on Sunday, June 11 at the Comedy Caravan. Their taping session will begin around 2:30. Admission is free. Children are invited but must stay seated during the taping. Please arrive by 2:00 to get the best seating. The bar will be open and there will be no smoking.