Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three

See, I’m getting old, so it was already odd that my pregnant wife and I were at a show above a printshop in what seemed like the most frozen, abandoned part of Rockford, IL. We were there to see some local bands—Brontosaurus, Warren Franklin and Parker, and the briefly reunited El Oso—but also see some friends, like we did when we were young.

But then a odder thing happened. I was chatting with my friend, El Oso frontman Jim Hanke, about the Promise Ring, who had announced their reunion a week before. “You know,” he said, “A Switchboard Session with the Promise Ring would be awesome.”

“Yeah, man,” I replied politely, aware that my website, with all its misplaced ambition, was probably not important enough to swing such an interview. “It’d never happen, but that’d so cool.”

That’s when Jim said, “I can hook you up with Davey, you know. We could probably get something going, if you’d like.”

Weeks later, I found myself on the phone with the Promise Ring’s guitarist and singer Davey Von Bohlen as he ate dinner with his family. His sons chirped away in the background contributing to the interview and interacting with their dad until they got bored and started playing basketball with a nearby laundry basket. Later, Von Bohlen performed four songs just for me from the quiet privacy of his bathroom.

I learned a lot about the Promise Ring during the interview, but, more importantly (to me), my conversation with Von Bohlen reaffirmed a realization I had when I started the Switchboard Sessions: That musicians are humans with families, with day jobs, with dusty guitars—humans who eat dinner at a dining room table, who fold laundry, and need to play their guitar quietly because it is almost bedtime for their children. It’s this humanity that I have always hoped to convey through these recordings.

It’s a realization that was validated again four months later when I talked to Brendan Kelly. “Will this interview appear in audio?” he asked me toward the end. “Because, if it is, I want to make sure you hear my kid screaming in his room. He just woke up from his nap.” Ten years ago, Kelly was a symbolic figure—just punk-rock personified, but also a reminder that some kid from the Chicago suburbs (like me) could make meaningful music for (more or less) a living. Now, he serves as a different (and more important) sort of symbol.

This year was the heaviest one I have ever experienced in my life. My son Emmett was born (the Sidekicks' “1940’s Fighter Jet” was playing the moment he was delivered; now, the mere thought of the song’s first quiet chords bring tears to my eyes). My wife and I bought and improved a foreclosed house. I persevered through an overwhelming first semester at my job as a high school English teacher, and a stressful round of graduate classes.

But, somehow, I also managed to conduct some of my most meaningful Switchboard Sessions. I interviewed unknown musicians that will change lives when audiences discover them, bands on the cusp of scene and mass popularity, bands that released critically acclaimed records in 2012, and bands (like the Promise Ring) that have achieved a sort of legendary standing. Some recordings, like the one by Crazy and the Brains, resonate with the abandon of a impromptu party while others, like the Sidekicks’, tip-toe with finesse and diamond-like delicacy; some, like Mockingbird Wish Me Luck’s and Kite Party’s, seem too enormous, too expansive to be melodically constrained to a landline phone; and some, like Candy Hearts’ and Ex Friends’, skip and shuffle with a listless energy.

And one recording may have been the musician’s last. 

I do think that The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three captures a sort of humanity. Though I still don’t suppose anyone would want to download and listen to this collection front-to-back as a true compilation (let alone burn it onto a disc and stick it into a tangible sleeve, though this download gives you materials to do so), I can think of no better way of honoring these musicians, these songs, who deserve not only sincere appreciation, but also awe. My philosophy from the start is this notion that, when one stripped away a polished production, songs show their true beauty; this collection demonstrates that notion.

Whether you have been a regular reader or are a newcomer, thanks for appreciating this experiment, which may have outlasted its novelty at this point. And my sincerest thank you to every band who has ever shared their music with me; your melodies make my life (and countless others’) meaningful. Please, be sure to buy their music and support them any way you can.

It is these rare appearances at cold local shows that make me feel old. It’s difficult for me enjoy sliding against a sweaty shoulder, the smell of spilt beer on my shirt, some kid’s screaming overpowering the singer on stage. These days, I’d rather be teaching my son how to high-five or singing him Yo Gabba Gabba songs, basking in the melody of my wife’s calming company (which is becoming rarer and rarer), or losing myself in a haze induced by words and caffeine. During a time when I feel like I need to connect to music more than ever, I'm finding fewer meaningful opportunities to do so. Listening to music isn't enough, and buying CDs (my preferred medium) only makes me feel older.

But, then, odd things happen. Friends send emails and, suddenly, I’m talking to one of my favorite songwriters. Suddenly, I am able to see that he is me. Suddenly, the songs that spoke to me speak to me in a new way. And, suddenly, I feel connected again.

1. “Follow Me” by Kite Party
2. “Moonchaser" by Living Room
3. “Keep Dreamin'" by Diamond Youth
4. “Skips a Beat (Over You)" by the Promise Ring
5. “Ignescent" by Mockingbird Wish Me Luck
6. “Sinker" by Souvenirs
7. “The Things that Keep Us Whole" by Signals Midwest
8. “Circumstance" by TS and the Past Haunts
9. “Hair" by Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds
10. “A New Name for Everything" by Candy Hearts
11. “Swingin' Party" by the Sidekicks
12. “Punk Rock Wedding, Punk Rock Divorce" by Ex Friends
13. “Give HIm a Great Big Kiss" by Crazy and the Brains
14. “One Minute More" by Fiction Reform
15. “I Must Be Hateful" by Joey Cape
16. “Rocca Ave." by Downtown Struts
17. “Damn Near By Beer" by Timeshares
18. "Discomfort Inn" by Tony Sly

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