Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tony Sly and Joey Cape

After the release of their Acoustic split in 2004, it took six years for Tony Sly and Joey Cape to actually tour together. Of course, that's not entirely true; No Use For a Name and Lagwagon, their respective bands, played together repeatedly during that stretch of time. Still, it took until 2010 for Sly and Cape to step onto the stage with nothing except their acoustic guitars and each other.

When the frontmen finally did, they clicked is if they had been performing side-by-side all along. “Every night, we'd play more and more songs together because we knew each other's music,” Cape recalled. “It got to the point where we'd just stay on stage together the whole time and switch off. I would play on his songs and he would play on mine.”

On this 2010 tour, Cape and Sly performed many of the songs that they recorded for Acoustic. Sly translated his galloping No Use tracks into stripped down sing-alongs that were no less energetic; “Not Your Savior”, which careens with a precise and powerful intensity on 1999's More Betterness!, bounces on Acoustic as Sly's voice soars over his resonating and rollicking strips of guitar. Cape's Lagwagon tracks became darker and more delicate; “Move the Car” bucks wildly on 1995's Hoss, but its complexities are more apparent on Acoustic, where Cape's softer croon and gentler guitar allows the song's details to bubble to its surface. Between these and other classics, both sprinkled new songs into their sets and experimented with material that would later appear on their solo releases.

It didn't take long for Cape and Sly to see how well their songs complemented each other and how well they complemented each other as musicians. “I think we realized pretty early on [during that tour] that we should probably do another volume of that split that we did before, and just do the exact same thing,” Cape said. Together, they made plans to record another Acoustic-style split—this time, though, they would record in the studio together and contribute to each other's songs.

I think Joey and I had talked about the possibility of that happening again for a while,” Sly remembered, “but it never really came to fruition.” Instead, both Sly and Cape went on to release new albums with their bands and as solo artists; Cape released Bridge in 2009 and Doesn't Play Well With Others in 2011, and Sly released 12 Song Program in 2010 and Sad Bear a year later.

A couple of years after the tour, when Fat Wreck Chords asked them whether they would record an Acoustic Volume Two, the opportunity seemed too predestined—too perfect—to pass up.

The process of putting together their respective sides of the split, though, was more difficult than either musician expected. Sly hit a wall while selecting songs, so he decided to crowdsource his tracklist. “I went on my Facebook site and let my fans pick,” Sly said. “It basically took off from there. There were a lot of responses; people got really into it. And, at the end, I just counted the five songs that had the most votes.” The songs that Sly's fans selected appear on an array of No Use records—from 1995's Leche Con Carne to 2008's The Feel Good Record of the Year, the band's final record.

Sly's side of Acoustic Volume Two is more dynamic and developed than those on the original split. On “Under the Garden”, for example, he reinterprets No Use's original—a roller coaster that dips and rises, veers and dives at dizzying velocities—into something quieter, more intricate. As Sly finger-picks his strings, a brook that babbles continuously in the background, a piano accents each step of the song while a cello bellows and accordion breathes in the background. The song slowly turns as Sly sings of responsibility and responding to the realities of the world. “And so we live under the garden where we can hide,” he belts in long, harmonized lines, “And not smell the dregs of earth / Beneath the sun of the same planet / Inherit wealth, inherit dirt.”

I didn't think that song could be done like that, in a totally stripped down manner,” Sly admitted. “For some reason, though, that song just fit in with the finger-picking thing.” It works because the power of “Under the Garden”, like all of Sly's songs, comes from its melody, particularly Sly's bold and bright voice, which never loses its footing as it climbs across the chords beneath. Though the charging, chasing drums and layers of screaming distortion may be stripped away, these songs manage to capture the same strength of their full-band originals.

Cape had a harder time selecting his songs. Not only had he re-recorded so many of Lagwagon's songs already (on Acoustic, on Bridge, on splits with singer and songwriter Jon Snodgrass, and elsewhere), but he also wanted to select songs he could transform rather than simply perform acoustic. “I kind of can't stand that,” Cape admitted. “I don't like when it's pretty much the same thing as what your band did but, instead of drums, you have a shaker—And I've done that! I probably did that on the new split. I much prefer when a song's very different but somehow maintains the melody and gains a new power from being more dynamic.”

One method Cape used to select his songs was to pick those that deserved a reinterpretation; “I Must Be Hateful” from 2003's Blaze was one such song for him. “Sometimes when you record a song with a band,” he explained, “it can be a song that you were proud of when you wrote it, but it doesn't quite come out right on the record. It's just the way it is. [“I Must Be Hateful”] was always one of those songs of Lagwagon's. We hardly ever played it live, and if we did people didn't really get it. I don't know. Maybe it was the vibe of the song, but it just missed for me, so I always wanted to re-record it.”

Though “I Must Be Hateful” is may be Blaze's most dynamic track, it may also kick up the most dirt; on Acoustic Volume Two, though, it floats on the air. Cape plucks softly at his strings so that they chime delicately beneath his characteristically curly voice. Later, a layer of piano plinks along with the sparkling acoustic, adding depth and weight to the song as it builds faintly toward its final chord. The song's tumultuous melody captures Cape's songwriting style—one that tilts and sways in unpredictable places, with choruses that mature and resemble verses, with variable moods that change from measure to measure. “It was an example of a song that perfectly translated into an acoustic song,” he added, “and they don't all do that.”

But the process wasn't perfect—or, at least wasn't the perfect vision that they hatched out during their 2010 tour together. Like their first split, Acoustic Volume Two was recorded in separate studios at separate times. “We had a basically a-whole-nother split worked out and each other's parts learned,” Cape said. “But, when it came to actually recording, we didn't record together again and we didn't record any of the songs that we played together live. It ended up being recording in two separate studios—I recorded at my house, and he recorded at Motor Studios, which was five minutes away. A lot of it was recorded at the same time. It's kind of funny.

There's almost no cross-pollination going on the record, though,” Cape adds, “which I think we both regret a little bit.”

The outcome of Acoustic Volume Two, however, showcases something that is perfect. Despite their separate recording and reinterpretation processes, the consistency between both sides is a testament to their connection as songwriters and performers. Certainly, each separate track may make some statement about the transformative potential embedded within any song, but there's something bigger transpiring on this second split: Sly and Cape's respective songs don't simply slide together; they compliment each other, build toward and attain something together that may not have been able to apart.

The record isn't a showcase of two separate songwriters; instead, it's a collection of songs that are meant to mingle, to be played side-by-side, by two likeminded songwriters. “We have this kind of narrow straights, this parallel life,” Cape concludes. “Our lives are so similar, it's odd, and I think we have a sort of mutual respect because of it.”

Cape recorded his tracks early in the summer from a venue in Amsterdam called Melkweg where he and his band Lagwagon would be performing that night. A month later, while on tour with Cape, Sly recorded his tracks from a Sleep Inn in Brooklyn, NY.

Sly died a week later.

“Discomfort Inn" appears on Sly's 2011 solo record titled Sad Bear. “Shortest Pier” appears on Sly’s 2010 solo record titled 12 Song Program.

“I Must Be Hateful” appears on Lagwagon’s 2003 record titled Blaze as well as Cape and Sly’s 2012 split Acoustic Volume Two. “Wind In Your Sail” was originally appeared on Bad Taste Record’s 1996 compilation called Quality Punk Rock, but later appears on Lagwagon’s 2000 b-sides collection Let’s Talk About Leftovers and on Cape and Sly’s 2004 split Acoustic. “Okay” appears on Cape’s 2011 solo record titled Doesn’t Play Well With Others.

Visit the Sly’s Facebook page and Cape's website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

Author's Note: This Switchboard Session had been in the works since the beginning of the summer of 2012 and was posted the day after Tony Sly’s death was announced. It really was an honor to talk to both Cape and Sly, both musical heroes of mine, but especially in light of this tragedy. I hope that this session serves as a respectful homage to Sly and his music, who has inspired me tremendously since I was fifteen, and my thoughts go out to his friends, family, and fans.

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