Grey Revell is a legend in my mind and in the mind of many around the world who consider themselves a fan of a little sub-genre called Anti-Folk. This was a musical “style” that, like many genres, is usually confined to a certain time period and geographic location. It all started in the 1990s in NYC particularly at venue called “Sidewalk Cafe”. Like “punk rock”, “hardcore”, “folk” or any contemporary music genre, it’s difficult at times to determine exactly who is “anti-folk” and who isn’t. Rising out of this close-knit, underground, anti-folk, movement came well known acts like The Moldy Peaches, Jeffery Lewis and Paleface.
After his time in New York, Grey went on to New Orleans and eventually ended up near my neck of the woods, Charlotte, NC. He’s recorded many records over the last 20 years and has started producing music during the last 6. Growing up in the local scene I had always heard of Grey Revell and knew a few people that had worked with him. In 2011 I was delighted to get a call from Grey, asking if I’d like to do a record together. That August I recorded Bum’s and Bastards EP at Impermanence Studios, his studio in Belmont, NC.
Last week I was delighted to have the opportunity again to record there for my third go around. I went in with the same work ethic, but a reformed strategy. The two other EPs Grey and I did together consisted of me laying down my parts for acoustic guitar and vocals, then cutting out around 11PM or so. Late at night Grey would have some of his very talented buddies come in and lay down the drum tracks. The next morning I’d come back in and we’d tweet the song, adding basslines and electric guitar riffs. As phenomenol as this process was at letting the acoustic driven songs drift into a more rock sensible record, the song’s structure and dynamics would change with the addition of new instruments, performed by artists who had no real way of knowing what direction I wanted to take the records.
A few days before production began I sat down and worked out how I wanted the record to come together and how I’d like the product to sound. I wanted to know exactly what kind of vibe it was going to portray before we started tracking. The drummer from my punk band, Luke Giduz, is a fantastic drummer and a super cool guy. He offered to learn the songs, help me structure them and record the drum tracks. We thought it’d be rad to have a much more minimalistic approach as far as instrumentation and production. Anyone that has been to a show or two knows that it’s not the Fountain Penn way to show up at venue equipped with a bunch of shredding guitar players and a percussionist on a full size drum set. Historically, as far as full band gigs, a few of my buddies will show up and play power chords and maybe hit a snare drum along to the songs. It never sounds to 40s radio friendly and I’d feel really dishonest if I made a record that was under that name.
Staying true to form, the drum tracks consist only of a kick, snare, high-hat and crash. Luke recorded them in a small closet at the studio. I did most of the bass for the record, which is funny because I don’t play bass. I wrote a cool little line for the two “Shoelaces” verses and Grey did some real groovy stuff in “North & Gray”, other than that I was playing the notes straightforward. The songs, their content and momentum, were left void of any guitar licks or fillers. There’s no auto tune and a very small amount of vocal overdubs or effects. We knew the songs so we just played them how we always do, that way they end up speaking for themselves.
We especially wanted to recreate the classic, lo-fi, acoustic sound, indicative of the live performances I’ve done in basements and coffee shops for the past 6 or so years. At 16 if you would have asked me what a PA was I’d probably, honest to god, have no idea. Hell, I’d waltz on into whatever retail store, birthday party or venue that was chill enough to book me, plug my Martin acoustic right into my tiny little Epiphone amplifier, one of those shit amps they give you as a package deal with your starter electric guitar. Back then my thought process was, whatever made noise would do that trick. I can tell you, I didn’t give two shits about “tone”. So, in an attempt to be sort of unique and a little nostalgic we mic-ed up my neighbor’s beautiful 1970’s, fully acoustic Guild and ran it through a distorted amp, then mic-ed the amp. We cleaned the guitar up for “Crowded Hours” and did a clean acoustic overdub on North & Grey.
The only song that escaped this beautifully juvenile guitar sound was the last track, Passing Trains. The formula really changed up for that one. The guitar for that one, the way I originally composed it, almost sounds like two different parts on two different guitars. During the verse, the open strings provide the rhythm and chord progression. But, the manner in which I move around the chords sounds like I’m playing a riff over the progression. Anyways, I really think it adds a lot of dynamic to the song, so I made sure, especially on this track, that the guitar part was heard over all other instruments. We also went electric for this one, one guitar, one track, one take, all live. I used a Gretch Hollow-body(my dream guitar) of Grey’s because of how distinct a pronounced the part needed to be. After we recorded thr drum and guitar live and in sync, we tried adding bass. The song could be described as….. kinda swingy I guess, sorta jazzy, in that relies heavily on the progression arriving on the 2nd beat, instead of the 1st. The drum beat follows the guitar pattern very, very well(props to Mr. Giduz).
However, the jazzy free-form of the track, with the absence of using a meteranome, there was no definite, 4/4 rhythm for the bass to follow. So, instead of adding a bass line to fill out the bottom layer, why not add a low end piano melody? This was a technique we had used on my last EP, with the song “Don’t Fall Asleep”. I figured, everyone seemed to play favorites with that track anyway, why not use the same idea? Grey called in a friend of his to play piano for the tune. The guy actually owns the house where Impermanence Studios is located. It became apparent to me very quickly after he sat down at the keyboard that this dude was not only classically trained but very innovative and modern in his approach. He learned the song, came up with a part and recorded it all in half an hour. During the mixing he stuck the track way in the background. I’m sure if you were listening to the song in passing you might not even notice the piano. I didn’t want it to lead the song in anyway, that was totally all on the guitar. All it really does is fill out the bottom like we’d hoped. But, if you happen to listen closely you might be like, “fuck man, that guy did a hell of a job.”
It was weird to go from running an acoustic through distortion to having a classically trained pianist come in. Actually, sitting here thinking about that, it’s actually a perfect representation of the contrast in what I do. I’m not sitting down trying to come up with messed up, distorted sounding melodies. I might not aim for sonic beauty, but I tend to write songs that, musically as well as lyrically, play off of emotion. But everyone knows that in both my punk band and Fountain Penn, since the beginning, there’s been something inside of me that needs to sling itself across the stage and make plenty noise and energy. Relying too much on either wouldn’t have been as proper or accurate of a display of what the sound and spirit has been. But I think, on this one, we kinda nailed it. The songs are well constructed and the melodies are catchy and sensible. The lyrics are still reflective, biographic and analytical. But the spirit and texture of it all really radiate the DIY, punk heritage that’s been around for decades, something I’ve truly, always felt akin to.