Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One

It's difficult to describe how it felt to wake up at six in the morning on December 12th, 2010, a Saturday, to hear a member of my favorite band play a private concert just for me.

I watched the sun rise over my silent and icy neighborhood in my pajamas from my office in the front of my house, my thumb over the reciever of my phone, and listened to Jimmy Stadt of Polar Bear Club as he strummed an acoustic guitar sang the Jimmy Eat World's "Lucky Denver Mint"; he had just finished "Drifting Thing", one of the most dynamic and moving songs from their 2009 record Chasing Hamburg, and now was playing a classic song by one of my other favorite bands.

I was frozen in both excitement and fear during this and the previous performance; I had never recorded a real musician before, and I doubt very many people have used telephones to do so. Still, the thought that I was the only person in the world hearing this performance, though intimidating, was equally mesmerizing. This is where the Switchboard Sessions started.

I had been itching to begin a music blog since the spring of 2007 when I saw an article in the Chicago Tribune about Eric Mueller's Can You See the Sunset from the Southside. After visiting his site and immersing myself in the culture of music blogs for an afternoon, I was eager to be a part of it. That summer, I started a project called The Music Store Memoirs with a group of friends, but it was difficult to maintain and ultimately flopped.

At the same time, I continued interviewing bands for small music magazines and websites. I would spend weeks researching and going back and forth with publicists; if an interview was arranged, I would then spend hours writing up a feature that captured our conversation. For whatever reason, many of these went unprinted and unposted, and I am still not sure why. When they were, they were regularly torn apart by editors (for length, content, objectivity, reasonable reasons like that) or commenters (for, literally, no coherent reasons, which made me never want to write again). I was somewhat unfulfilled with this music writing thing; it was occupying a lot of time (since I'm an obsessive writer) and did not reward me with anything besides rights-protected copies of records that wouldn't play in my computer or car's CD player.

This is where I revisited the idea of blogging. With a blog, I could set my word count, write according to my availability, interview bands I found interesting, and ensure that what I write is actually posted. I needed a reason for people to visit my blog, though--something that set me apart from what was already out there. The thought of recording bands over the phone sounded really interesting, but I wondered who would want to hear crummy recordings of a band's music. I decided, though, that it wouldn't matter if no one took interest so long as it was an outlet for me; admittedly, the rationale behind the Switchboard Sessions is entirely selfish, but whatever.

When I started to think about which artists I wanted to interview, I wasn't sure where to start, but I knew I wanted to aim high. That said, I'm not sure how I convinced Polar Bear Club to be my first participant. Their publicist hooked me up with the interview, but didn't seem interested in asking them if they would be willing to perform some songs into the phone. When I asked Stadt during our interview, though, he seemed really interested. After our early morning recording, I realized that this could work, that recording musicians over the phone could be really cool for me even if no one else was interested.

I suppose the strangest part of all of this is that people did seem interested. In the past year, I've found some support from quite a few websites, blogs, podcasts, labels, publicists, and regular readers. If you are one of these people, holy shit, thank you for supporting this project. It's weird to say, but it's nice having you as virtual internet friends (and I hope we can become real life friends one day).

I also am overwhelmed by how many incredible musicians I was able to talk to this year. Every musician or band that I included in this project is one in which I truly believe. Though some of them are bands of which I have been a fan for a long time, many others were introduced to me this year for the first time or struck me suddenly, as if they had emerged from no where. These musicians have moved me and are contributing to music in some truly meaningful ways.

When I started the Switchboard Sessions, my intent is to humanize musicians, to tell their stories and reveal them to be regular people who are risking and sacrificing so much to follow their heart. My intent is to also capture what makes music meaningful--not the polish or production, but the actual notes, melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. By stripping away the recording quality, the songwriting quality emerges. I'm not sure if this purpose has been realized or not. I hope it has.

I also have discovered that the telephone serves as a sort of equalizer. Polar Bear Club's heaviest moments are humbled, and Laura Stevenson's delicate choruses are given weight when recorded over a landline; Direct Hit!'s intensity is contained, as are Empire! Empire!'s expansive atmospheres. Though these bands play different styles of music--with different moods and influences and instruments--their stripped down versions verify that they all are, really, in the same place musically.

Enough rambling and reflection, though. Because I'm only alloted a certain amount of storage space, I had to take down some of songs from my SoundCloud profile so I can make room for more Switchboard Sessions. Because I still want to make these songs available, I've decided to put together a collection called The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One. It will contain the music from each band that I've recorded in 2010 (though, unfortunately, not every song that they recorded with me).

Because, unlike most modern music lovers, I'm desperate for tangible music (especially CDs that I can play in my car), I've included artwork for a cardboard sleeve. If you are a little lame (like I am), you can print out this PDF, cut carefully along the lines, fold and glue the thing together, and safely house a burned version of this collection within it. I know; how DIY, right?

Again, I wonder who would want to listen to crummy recordings in compilation form. Honestly, I doubt anyone would, but that's not the reason I'm putting it together. I'm proud of this project, and I want to put it on display. You'll notice that, even though most of the songs were recorded using the same equipment on my end, each song sounds different. I love that each track has character and hope you do too.

I am embarrassed by how much I have written here. Sorry. Thanks for supporting me and I hope that the Switchboard Sessions will have more to offer you in 2011.

1. “Better Like This” by The Sainte Catherines
2. “An Island’s Point of View” by Jeff Rowe
3. “fld ovr” by Everyone Everywhere
4. “Tonight is Alive” by Broadway Calls
5. “Werewolf Shame” by Direct Hit!
6. “Goody Goody Gumdrops” by Dr. Frank
7. “Foster Brothers” by Captain, We’re Sinking
8. “Nevermore” by Kid, You’ll Move Mountains
9. “Lucky” by Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)
10. “I Was a Teenage Poltergeist” by Mixtapes
11. “Holy Ghost!” by Laura Stevenson and the Cans
12. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Murder by Death
13. “All of Life is Coming Home” by My Heart to Joy
14. “Until We Surrender” by Heartsounds
15. “Mexico” by Samiam
16. “Clean Sheets” by Smoke or Fire
17. “In the Flicker” by Sundowner
18. “Lucky Denver Mint” by Polar Bear Club