I bet if you think back to your high school days you can remember the soundtrack. And I bet that when you hear songs from that era, they often call up old memories. We bond emotionally with the music we hear through puberty and adolescence. As we learn our social roles with a little more sophistication, our tastes form and our identities crystallize to an extent. That soundtrack is likely to remain a familiar comfort through our lives.
Besides the constant rotation of Zeppelin and Sabbath throughout my youth, two bands played incessantly during my high school years. These bands are Pavement and Guided By Voices. Indie rock, lo-fi, and DIY recordings dominated my spare time. When I wasn’t being social, I was in my room listening to one of those two bands. I know every nuance of some of those mid-90s records.
Naturally, I began playing in bands. I felt the need to make music. The standard basement/garage accommodations prevailed, and a lot of my time went into jam sessions, practicing, tinkering, experimenting, and eventually playing shows around Windsor. This just seemed like the right thing to do with my time. Better than homework, anyway. I just wanted to be a part of the fun.
Lots of people get to know rock and roll this way. Like physical maturation, identity as a musician forms during those experimental years. In high school, if you want to play rock and roll, you have to do things yourself. You have to find spare time, people to play with, a jam space, etc. So maybe the amps aren’t crystal clear, there’s bleed from track to track, the vocals are buried and the drummer keeps fucking up. That’s all good because this is the sound of people playing for the sheer love of playing music. If they’re doing it right they aren’t worried about being lucrative or looking cool in those moments; they’re just trying to make something awesome happen.
Guided By Voices typified this ethos back in the day. They had a sturdy reputation as a prolific indie band but they treated music like a hobby and a passion, not like a business. Robert Pollard, the main creative force of the band, seemed unstoppable. He absorbed the British Invasion, classic rock, punk, and the spirit of DIY and subjected it all to a unique, Dayton-Ohio-brand drunken alchemy, rolling out one two-minute gem after another like an assembly line.
Their foray into the commercial industry eventuated in a collapse of the band (this detour arguably started with their album Do The Collapse). But after a headshake and a 2010 reunion tour, the band reclaimed their native sound. Even if they haven’t quite recaptured the magic of the glory days (Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, 1996), Pollard’s output has been downright phenomenal. His most recent solo LP Honey Locust Honky Tonk is a gorgeous, country-infused rock album that proves his total mastery and love of the craft. And he’s not showing signs of slowing down.
As recording and production techniques improve with technology, commercial producers seem to think that in order to deliver the fullest experience of music, each instrument should be recorded maximally for frequency and volume, and they accomplish this by isolating the instruments, generally enriching and rounding out the low frequencies and brightening the highs. This can produce amazing quality productions and songs with such aesthetic impact that you can’t help bob your head. And it all looks good on paper.
But not all music should be recorded this way. To isolate any instrument is to create a sonic vacuum around it, removing it from its environment and stripping it of its natural resonance. Lots of the magic in making music depends on the blending of tones. A musician’s inspiration comes from somewhere mysterious inside, granted, but it also comes from his or her environment, the other people playing, the way the amplifiers reverberate in that weird corner of the room and the resonance the bass picks up through the flue of the fireplace. Even the lighting in the recording space will have an effect on the performer and inevitably, on the recording.
Shut your eyes and listen to The Grand Hour, a 10-minute EP from 1992, and tell me if you aren’t transported back in time, to a magical, albeit dingy basement where some drunken buddies are doing their best to blast out some great rock and roll. Hear GBV’s narcoleptic friend snore through Ex-Supermodel, and try to imagine the spontaneous joy that must have been felt during the recording process. They bring you right into their process and let you share in their enthusiasm.
I enjoy everything from Aerial M to Zappa, but there will always be a special place in my heart for home recordings. My favorite psychedelic gurus Bardo Pond record their albums in their home studio the Lemur House. The sound of the room has evolved along with the band, and by now it’s part of the identity of their sound. The day may still come when I pester Michael Gibbons into letting me record there.
Bloemfontein, the post-rock band I played guitar with during university, jammed in a Windsor basement for years. It wasn’t a particularly good room for sound. It was pretty bad, actually, but we were comfortable there and our performances were enhanced by that familiarity. That basement has seen a lot of creativity over the years. When I think that the house is up for sale, and that I will likely never play there again, a little ironic grin breaks out over my face. I’d still love to do one last recording down there in all its sloppy, wood-panel-reverb, amp buzzing glory.
For anyone whose love of music grew up from the basements of high school friends, GBV captures the spirit of rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. They are a bunch of guys having fun playing music together. If you ask me, the heart of rock and roll is in Dayton.