We've been fans of Chicago duo Josh Moshier and Mike Lebrun and their piecemeal EP, The Local Colorists, for some time now. On the eve of the completed, remastered short album (and their long-awaited addition to our Nextbop ranks of artists), I spoke with the pair over GChat on the process of making this album and why it's been about two years to put this all together. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Nextbop: Normally, I try to start off with process. This EP was about two years in the making, right? How did this come about?
Joshua Moshier: That's right -- the quartet sessions were back in 2010. Mike, do you remember the original impetus?
Michael Lebrun: That's a good question, I think it was just a natural extension of what we had previously done, a way for us to take a bit more liberty with the same core sound.
Josh Moshier: Right -- we already had some new material in the works when Joy Not Jaded came out.
Mike Lebrun: And give a chance for some new group members to shine, both in their playing and writing.
Josh Moshier: That's true -- this is the first time we've released anything without you and I as the only songwriters. I remember we also went into the studio with less concrete structural ideas on some of them.
Mike Lebrun: Exactly, Joy Not Jaded was all about execution in the studio, this was far more exploratory.
Josh Moshier: Yep.
Nextbop: Is that also why there's more electronic touches throughout this?
Josh Moshier: That all started with using the gear at this particular studio.
Mike Lebrun: Yea, I think Josh just started messing around on this Casio on "Hometown Marvel" and it captured a sort of vibe, so we just went with it.
Josh Moshier: Actually it was Whitehall Grand Prix (Sorry that I know that).
Mike Lebrun: lol
Josh Moshier: That was super fun! It's this old keyboard that has spring reverb built in.
Mike Lebrun: That's right.
Josh Moshier: So we played this line that [bassist John] Tate wrote and then added a delay.
Mike Lebrun: Yeah, and then after we all failed, [drummer Jon Deitmyer] improved a sweet electric beat on top of it.
Josh Moshier: Well, first he played a groove by hitting the top of the keyboard with timpani mallets. So you literally hear the spring in the reverb! And then we moved over to a Yamaha CS-50 (sorry again) and overdubbed a groove with that.
Mike Lebrun: That's right.
Josh Moshier: I think the patch was "hip hop drums".
Mike Lebrun: I think after that experience, we both started thinking of other ways to add post-production layers to what we had already laid down for the other tunes...
Josh Moshier: The original session was an overnight -- we were in and out in 24 hours which gave us some time to just mess around.
Nextbop: So in a sense, "Hometown Marvel" was the springboard for the approach for the rest of the EP?
Mike Lebrun: I would say so. It made us think of what we were recording as less of a finished product and more of a framework to work within.
Josh Moshier: That's true. And it opened up the door to letting the process go on... and on... and on...
Mike Lebrun: Haha, that's for sure, this one took a bit longer than planned.
Nextbop: I was wondering about that
Mike Lebrun: I know at least with "We Will Go And..." I would touch it for a month, let that sit for a few months, then come back to it, and keep iterating like that with plenty of time to let things settle. Sometimes what you thought sounded good 3 months ago sounds like garbage with fresh ears.
Josh Moshier: There definitely was not an axe hanging over our heads during any of this except when I would announce "we're putting this out on Tuesday!"
Mike Lebrun: Yeah, Josh ran a pretty tight ship... lol.
Nextbop: That was ultimately this last track or when you finally put out each track?
Josh Moshier: Do you mean - did we do revisions?
Nextbop: I mean when you put your foot down on when you released tracks-- was Tuesday just the Tuesday for each track or are you talking about next week's "alright, it's been two years, I think it's time to put a bow on this thing"?
Mike Lebrun: I think we were pretty loose with the schedule, but once we felt good about the material, we would just get it out there.
Josh Moshier: Originally, the idea was that we would put out one song a month on SoundCloud. We did pretty well for the first two... then it went to two months... then maybe 3?
Mike Lebrun: Exponential decay-- I think we both just got really busy and didn't want to rush through it just for the sake of sticking to some arbitrary schedule that we didn't have to answer to.
Josh Moshier: But sometimes the arbitrary schedule would save the day! I like the arbitrary schedule...
Mike Lebrun: True, it helped a lot to set deadlines, or else some of it may have never gotten out there.
Nextbop: Sometimes arbitrary schedule is the only thing keeping folks in check.
Josh Moshier: I think as our ears have grown over the past two years, we've been reaching for a higher level of production value.
Mike Lebrun: It's funny, I'm actually a project manager for my day job, but I try to separate that as much as possible from my musical life since it's my "escape". Good point Josh, it's certainly been an evolution
Josh Moshier: We want to have a level of sonic movement in the sound of the band that you would hear in any other music produced in 2012.
Mike Lebrun: I think we're both obsessed with the type of sound we are getting, both in our playing and in our production aesthetic.
Josh Moshier: There's a delicate line between spontaneity and the level of finesse those values demand... that's what we're learning to navigate. Does this sound pretentious yet?
Nextbop: No more than any other jazz musician
Mike Lebrun: Haha
Nextbop: It would seem, though, that y'all are reaching for that "not just limited to jazz" ideal. Am I gathering that right?
Mike Lebrun: Absolutely.
Josh Moshier: I want it to be as exciting to someone who loves jazz as it is to someone who knows nothing about jazz. And I want it to sound like it's 2012!
Mike Lebrun: I think a lot of people listen to some "modern" jazz the way I look at some ultra-modern art, I just don't know what I'm supposed to think about it. I hope to put something out that anybody can like without somebody having to explain to them why they should or shouldn't like it.
Josh Moshier: I might diverge here a bit, as I don't mind being puzzled or drawn into a mystery but I'm definitely tired of guilt as the primary method of getting people to check out original jazz music!
Nextbop: Oh, most definitely.
Mike Lebrun: I'm not sure we've completely captured that approach with this particular release, but I think we're trying to stretch the bounds of what you can do with a "jazz" album beyond the traditional harmonies and such. You know, just continually coming up with different harmonies to extend the sound of the music, which I think is becoming less of the case over the last decade (a good thing in my opinion). Not sure I said that right (hmm..) I mean we DIDN'T use harmony or metric-modulation as our primary device.
Josh Moshier: Oh, interesting! I guess you're right! Although, there are plenty of metric modulations and crunchy harmonies if you like those sorts of things. I always thought it would be funny to make a trailer for this record, selling all the features that are the least important aspects of the music!
Nextbop: Where would the artwork fit in this hypothetical trailer?
Josh Moshier: I don't know - that's a whole other thing!
Nextbop: It really is quite good; it stands out.
Josh Moshier: Thanks, man. I hope that it grounds the songs a bit - I really dig the idea of associating little stories with each song and the feeling of getting swept up in a piece of album art. I realized with Soundcloud that you could have an individual piece of art for each song, instead of just one album cover, so we thought we'd make that part of the project.
Nextbop: That was really good thinking. It's sort of bringing album art back to prominence where it wasn't so much before, especially with this being all digital. Though, the physical cards are really clever, too.
Josh Moshier: Yeah! An album can be almost ANYTHING now.
Mike Lebrun: I think Brian Mean, our artist, did an amazing job bringing the tunes to life and he had great continuity between the individual pieces, which I think is another important part of putting together an album.
Josh Moshier: The physical download cards were hugely helpful at shows.
Mike Lebrun: Yeah, those rocked.
Josh Moshier: Ha! Sorry, that was a terrible segue. I had that thought when you were typing...
But I think in some ways this project became all about participation because each song started off as a free download and at the shows not everyone can afford a CD, so they can take a card and find the songs online.
Mike Lebrun: And they're much easier to carry around than a pack of CDs!
Josh Moshier: And as the project evolved, more and more people helped us along the way... our violinist, cellist, etc. It's kind of just been a long sharing event where the connections between those participating in making the project are transparent to those following the project (those following the project online, I mean).
Nextbop: Alright, I think I've got one last thing I was wondering about-- This started out as free releases on SoundCloud. So what's the line of thinking about selling this on iTunes and stuff...
Josh Moshier: Ah. For me, iTunes represents a place of finality where the project can live... but most importantly, I wanted to create liner notes to showcase all of Brian Mead's concept artwork and tell the listeners exactly who is playing what on each track and iTunes allows us to bundle a PDF with the album download. Also, each track on iTunes is mastered by the amazing T.W. Walsh (he did [Sufjan Stevens' 2010 album] The Age of Adz among many others) so if anyone had downloaded earlier mixes of the songs on SoundCloud -- these are the final ones.
Josh Moshier: We'll be on Amazon too. And Spotify -- but no individual art or liner notes there!
Nextbop: But if you're hitting up iTunes, you might as well run the gamut
Josh Moshier: How do you mean? You mean, like the Zune store?
Nextbop: oh, wait... because* you're hitting up iTunes... Zune? Psh... and I reiterate, psh.
Mike Lebrun: lol
Josh Moshier: I'm still not sure I know what you mean. (I get the 'psh')
Nextbop: The whole iTunes/Amazon/Spotify route is just the distribution route nowadays
Josh Moshier: Right
Nextbop: Alright, I think we're good
Mike Lebrun: thanks for the chat, and sorry we didn't really give you much of a chance to get a word in...
Nextbop: Do y'all have anything else you'd like to add?
Josh Moshier: I hope we didn't offend any Zune users tonight
Nextbop: It's best this way, I've got a lot to work with
Mike Lebrun: Oh, not sure if we answered this question, but there is one final track 5 coming out along with the iTunes release.
Josh Moshier: Ah, right!
Mike Lebrun: So that's the finishing touch
Josh Moshier: It's by Jon Deitemyer, our drummer. Track 1 is by John Tate, who recently moved to Brooklyn. So each member of the group is represented with an original song.
Nextbop: Essentially everyone of the core group has a composition?
Josh Moshier: Yep!
Nextbop: (And Sufjan Stevens)
Josh Moshier: Yes, the prized 5th member of our band
Nextbop: I'm sure he'd be glad to hear that
Josh Moshier: I'm sure he'd be surprised to hear that. That song ("Sister Winter") has a special place in my heart. I'm really glad to have it in this set of songs
Nextbop: That's my favorite of his Christmas songs, too. I'm really glad y'all covered that one.
Josh Moshier: And it totally works any time of the year, too!
Nextbop: Which is part of why it's my favorite of them.
Josh Moshier: I'm big into the idea of emotional regions in songs, and "Sister Winter" has that great shift at the end. I think it can be instructive to think this way instead of just reducing a song to Verse/Chorus/Bridge or AABA which is how a lot of us learned jazz standards. I digress...
Thanks for chatting with us Anthony. I really appreciate you checking out the music.
Nextbop: Glad to.
Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.