Regina Chellew is sitting in Tami Thomsen's office at Last Beat Records on Commerce Street, talking about her new album. It is her solo debut, released under the name Chao, and, for the most part, it is a true solo effort, with Chellew recording almost every note on the disc. But from what she says, it's clear that the album she's talking about, Hitsthemiss, isn't new at all. Not to Chellew, at least.
Chellew played almost all of the 11 songs on Hitsthemiss, at one time or another, with her band Captain Audio, and most of them, she explains, existed long before there was a Captain Audio. She's had them with her for a long time, carrying them from project to project, like an unpacked box that moves from apartment to apartment. They were songs she sketched out at home and left there, more often than not. Even the pair of tunes she covers on the disc, Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" (a duet with Pleasant Grove's Marcus Striplin) and a codeine-coated take on The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," were there--in theory, anyway--for years. While Captain Audio performed some of them, the real versions stayed in her head, the only place where they sounded right. Once other people got their hands on them, they weren't Chellew's songs anymore.
In a way, then, Hitsthemiss is something of a reclamation project rather than a solo record, a chance for Chellew to take back all of these songs and do them the way she always wanted to, get them out of her system before taking her next step. Hitsthemiss isn't the next step it appears to be at first glance; she didn't write these songs with the intention of turning them into a solo disc. Chellew only started to head in that direction when the group didn't want them.
For example: One of the songs on Hitsthemiss, "Bugs," appeared on a five-song demo Captain Audio sold at shows in its infancy. Chellew wasn't completely satisfied with the rough version the group laid down, and the band never made another pass at it. When Hitsthemiss came about, Chellew finally had a chance to finish it, to make the sound on the tape match the one she heard in her head.
"It's something I wrote in 1992, '93, so I've had it for years," Chellew explains. "And it's gone through all kinds of different changes and evolutions, and it was just something I needed to do. I wanted it done. I'm tired of it, really. A lot of the stuff on the record, to me, is really old. I have a lot of new material. I'm ready to move on and do other things. It's a good place to start, this record. A good place to put that song."
If things had gone another way, the place to put those songs would have been on one of Captain Audio's two releases, 1999's My ears are ringing but my heart's ok EP or last year's full-length LUXURY or whether it is better to be loved than feared. Hitsthemiss certainly sounds like it could be a Captain Audio record, which just shows how much Chellew brought to the group. Like Captain Audio, the songs have a simple complexity, an ability to play by the rules and ignore them at the same time. Chellew glides from genre to genre with the ease of a CD changer, each step as logical and unexpected as the one before it. Yet even with its eclectic nature, the songs on Hitsthemiss manage to cohere into a seamless whole, not unlike Legendary Crystal Chandelier's similarly diverse Beyond Indifference. The disc may flirt with other styles of music, but they remain true to Chellew's personal vision, a trick that manages to make even the cover songs sound like Chellew originals.
While the fingerprints of Captain Audio are all over Hitsthemiss, except for "Bugs," the band never got around to recording any of these songs. It was frustrating for Chellew, watching some of her songs fall by the wayside. And that's the problem when three talented musicians try to squeeze themselves into the confines of a rock band, even one as loose and liberal as Captain Audio. The group--on indefinite hiatus as Brandon Curtis and Josh Garza play with their new group, The Secret Machines, in New York--always had more ideas than enough time and space to explore them. My ears are ringing but my heart's ok and LUXURY or whether it is better to be loved than feared sounded like mix tapes made by someone with a perfect record collection, selections from the five-disc boxed set that existed only in the group's rehearsal space. Trying to fit everything they wanted to do on one album or into one show was a bit like breaking into a bank vault with only enough time to take what you can carry. Inevitably, some treasure is left behind.
"There were some differences of opinion, different ways of doing things in Captain Audio, disagreements about songs to record or shows to play, things like that," Chellew says. "So at that time...there were just some things, personally, that I wanted to pursue. They were things that, in Captain Audio, we played them together from time to time. But when it came down to actually picking songs for recording, a lot of them didn't make the cut. It was, like, a different direction at the time, when we were putting concepts together. It was disappointing in some ways, but at the same time...you're like, well, I'll just do this other thing."
Doing this other thing doesn't mean Chellew has walked out on Captain Audio for good. She says she's been talking to Curtis and Garza about doing a run of shows featuring Chao and The Secret Machines, along with Captain Audio. "Just have one long set, basically, with rotating members," she says. "That would take a little bit of rehearsal and stuff to get into it, but that's something we'd all look forward to doing. And we'd love to break in and make another record. It's just not on the calendar right now."
Originally, Chellew was supposed to go with Curtis and Garza to New York. The plan was for the band to move up there for short periods of time, to facilitate touring along the East Coast. "But when it came down to it, I really wasn't ready to move," Chellew admits. "It was just perfect timing to do a Chao record."
Timing is something Chellew brings up often while discussing Hitsthemiss, and it does seem as if the project was supposed to happen, that everything fell into place without being forced there. Captain Audio's sabbatical is the most obvious example: She needed time to pursue a solo project, and then Garza and Curtis left town, freeing up her schedule. But there are subtler instances, like the inclusion of "I Wanna Be Sedated," retitled "Something for Joey," in honor of the late Joey Ramone. "I had done a version like that years ago, just playing around in the studio," Chellew says. "And that was something that Tami had remembered when I was getting this together. He passed away in April, and that was the week before I was going into the studio, so it was kind of like, yeah."
Once Chellew got into the studio, she quickly decided to shoulder most of the load herself, rather than trying to explain what she wanted. And even though Chellew handled most of the instruments--Earl Harvin and Vibrolux's Trey Pendergrass play drums--there are times when it sounds like there's a full band in the room, playing off one another, watching each other for the changes. Chellew laughs a little when she's told this, because nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, anytime Chellew was in the studio a full band was in the room: She just couldn't play all the instruments at the same time.
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"That was just the way it turned out, really," Chellew says. "Never really done any of these songs really with other people, so to speak. It's all been stuff I've done at home, and I just kind of had all the pieces in my head. It's hard to try to convey that to someone else. It's just easier going in and trying to get it yourself. I'm not really good at playing the drums and stuff; I played live drums on one track. It takes a long time to do all the instruments. Because you have to run into the control room to listen to it, and then you have to run back in there and try to do that."
Chellew played at the North Texas New Music Festival, backed by Striplin and Joe Butcher and drummer Tony Barsotti, yet she doesn't plan to turn Chao into much more than a studio project. Counting the first Chao show last December, she's only performed four times and doesn't expect that number to increase much. She has ideas for different performances, though they don't necessarily include more Chao shows. And she's also already planning more studio-based projects. She talks about taking a break, but as the ideas pour out, it's hard to see that actually happening.
"I want to keep busy. I want to keep things going out," she says. "There's an idea for a remix record for Hitsthemiss. Got some people in the works to do some remixing, so I want to get that out pretty soon. And I'm going to take some time off and just really put different shows together. Different players, different lineups, different executions of the set--you know, electronic shows, acoustic shows. A lot of it's really conceptual; I haven't put it down yet. But I want to do some electronic shows where there's all just kind of chaos happening, whether it's me doing it physically, with sampler and keyboards or drum machines and things like that, or I have people contributing."
She pauses, thinking about all the projects she's just mentioned, all these plans that exist in her head and heart. All these ideas that need a group of people to speed them along. A band. She finally continues, sighing, "It's really frustrating sometimes being totally solo, because you can't do all these things."