Listen to enough musicians talk about being musicians, with their anecdotes about shows with a dozen people in the audience and broken-down vans in faraway places and scraping up enough cash to record a few songs, and it won't be long before you've heard them all. Fact is, there aren't very many to hear; the same set of stories has been circulating since there were bands around to tell stories about being in bands.
Spend enough time listening to these tales, and it becomes a bit like watching a television show you've seen dozens of times, hundreds maybe, one of the shows that's on an endless loop of syndicated reruns, repeating at all hours of the day on a handful of channels. You can watch 10 episodes in a row and never once see a plot you don't know better than your own name and birth date. Watch another 10 and you can beat the jokes to their punch lines without breaking a sweat.
Every once in a while, an ace appears from the middle of the deck, and you're sucked into the game against your better judgment. Most of the time, however, you end up last in line, expecting to drink from a well that's only deep enough for a single sip.
Which brings us here: Sitting around a table at the XPO Lounge on a Thursday night, a round of beers in front of them, the members of El Gato--singer-guitarist John Vineyard, guitarist-keyboard player John Eugene Burgmeier, drummer Kevin Dotolo and bassist-keyboard player Evan Hisey--talk about how long it took them to record their first full-length, We're Birds. How they went into a studio in July 1999 and didn't have a finished album in their hands until a year and a half later. How they disappeared so deeply into that studio, and a couple of other ones in the area, even some of their friends didn't know the band was still around. How they weren't sure themselves if the group would make it through the recording sessions.
"I knew it was gonna take a lot of time to record, but I didn't think it would be so spread out," Vineyard begins. "We had problems getting back into the studio, you know, it being booked up. And also, we didn't have enough money to get back in. We didn't know it would take a year and a half, but once we kind of got going on it a little bit, I think we started realizing that if we keep going at this pace, it's not going to be out for a long time."
At first, the story Vineyard and the other members of El Gato are telling doesn't seem as if it really belongs to them. Not if you pay attention to it closely, think about it with all the names and dates removed. If you listen only to facts of the case, it could be any number of bands and musicians in the starring roles, not just Vineyard, Burgmeier, Dotolo and Hisey.
If you keep listening, it becomes impossible to separate the story from the tellers. Because it wasn't just anyone working full-time jobs during the day so they could be a full-time band at night. It wasn't just anyone turning paycheck cash into studio credit, or driving back from a show in Oklahoma in the middle of the night so they could go to work in the morning. If things didn't work out, if they couldn't find enough money to finish the record the way they wanted to, if they got too frustrated to continue, it wouldn't be someone else's failure. It would belong only to the four guys who call themselves El Gato.
More than anything else, the four members of El Gato were the only ones who had to wait four years between records, all the while believing they had good songs, and they had a good album, if they could only finish it. They'd quickly moved past the five songs that turned up on Everybody's a Piñata in 1998. Letting people know about it was something else entirely.
"It was a big disappointment," Dotolo says. "Last South by Southwest, we applied for it last year, and we didn't get accepted. And it was almost like, why would they even accept us? We don't have anything out. Yeah, it was very discouraging."
"And we knew we had the songs under our belts," Hisey adds. "But we didn't have a way to prove it to anyone."
"Not that we didn't want to sell our old CD, but we'd play all these new songs, and people would come up and be like, 'Hey, I really liked that last song you played. Is it on your CD?'" Vineyard says. "And we'd say, 'No, it's on our next one. Should be out in about a year and a half.'" He laughs. "So that was really frustrating."
They concede it was worth the frustration, and it's not hard to agree after hearing the results. You can hear every second of studio time on the 14 tracks, each song bringing down an avalanche of sounds on top of the strong, simple melodies, closely resembling the "pianos on crutches playing crippled music" that Vineyard sings about on "Pianos on Crutches." The crippled music doesn't just come from the pianos, but the guitars and keyboards and more guitars and more keyboards and more everything that El Gato drapes on each song. It all collides on the way to the choruses, the bass and drums showing everyone the way without sticking around to hold their hands. We're Birds is a breathless album, with the naïveté of a kid singing along with his favorite song and the confidence to pile an orchestra on top of the Marshall stacks, Rock and Pop written in capital letters on a billboard.
Guided by Tripping Daisy and Polyphonic Spree bassist Mark Pirro, making his debut as a producer, the band bent and shaped each song until, occasionally, they were almost unrecognizable. They used the studio as a fifth member and another instrument, letting it contribute as much as possible to each track. It was a process that started at home, where the group would break apart Vineyard's songs and rebuild them piece by piece.
"I'd kinda lay something down, and then Evan would go in, and then I'd come in and just be like, 'He's totally ruining my new song,'" Vineyard says, and they all laugh. "Euge would come in and save it. Kevin would come in and screw it up. It was a lot of that going on, where we would do a lot of experimenting at home before we'd go into the studio. So we kind of knew what we wanted to do."
"There are a couple of songs that sound like the demos we did, that didn't change that much when we got into the studio," Burgmeier explains. "There are some that sound a lot like how we play them live. And there are some, like the first song on the record, that sound almost nothing like it sounded when we did it before. We got in there and started experimenting with the different things we had at our disposal, and not only that, Mark got in the habit of pushing us: No, you're not there yet, guys. Lay something else down. You come up with a part, you come up with a part, you come up with a part. Before you know it, we had 20 more tracks on a song.
"We basically went in and said 'no holds barred,'" Hisey says. "We're gonna take as much time and as much money to get this thing done."
The group members credit Pirro with helping them use the time and money wisely, looking to his experience when tempers started to flare.
"When we did the EP, we got into some fights," Burgmeier says. "Yelling at each other over some really small stuff. Just the addition of an outside party in the room, who's willing to voice an opinion, you find yourself arguing about this stuff, and you see him looking at you like you're an idiot." He laughs. "You realize just how petty the stuff you're arguing about is."
The band was soon facing something that wasn't quite so petty as some of its studio arguments: how to do it all onstage. Some of the songs had changed to the point where they weren't sure if they could play them anymore without adding new members--an idea they've discussed but decided against. In the end, the group decided to work with what it had, using the situation to its advantage instead of figuring a way around it. Just as the studio gave the band a chance to experiment with the songs, the stage turned into another laboratory, letting the group figure out a way to play the songs without merely resorting to stripping away the recorded finish. "We're really challenging ourselves live, trying to incorporate as much as we can on the album live," Vineyard says. "See how much we can pull off."
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"For a while, we were talking about working with prerecorded tracks in our live show, but no one really wanted to do it," Hisey says. "And we kind of stuck it out."
Sticking it out has become something of a theme with El Gato in the past year or so, especially as the album neared completion. Because, after a year and a half, they weren't sure if people still remembered them, since their shows had become less frequent while they spent more time poring over tracks in the studio. Vineyard has called it "the rebirth of El Gato," and in a way, it is.
"I remember about six months ago or so, I ran into a guy I've known from Denton since way back in the day," Hisey says. "He's in another band here in Dallas. We just see each other every once in a while. And he asked me if El Gato was still around. That's when we were so involved in the recording process. That kind of brought me down. It was like, 'Oh, we're going to be starting from scratch now. We've put so much into this album, and people have just forgotten about us.'"
If nothing else, We're Birds is a good way to say hello again.