Let's go to the Hop
Delays are to be expected in the music business. Even at the lowest level, entire albums can be buried in avalanches of red tape and broken promises, perpetually shelved until everyone involved starts to wonder whether they will ever see the fluorescent light of a record store. Until a band comes along that can write and record its own songs, master and press the recordings, assemble them, and distribute the albums to stores, delays are as inevitable as another losing season by the Dallas Mavericks. People and machines can be unreliable, and so can everything else when something absolutely has to be done yesterday.
Look at Lucinda Williams' recently released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album that went through two record labels, four producers, and six years before it slowly found its way into the bins. Or Peter Schmidt's debut solo album; he lost a year of his life and all of his savings trying to finish a record that could have--should have--been completed in three months. Or the Dooms U.K.'s Art Rock Explosion, the long-awaited follow-up to 1994's Greasy Listening; it has long been put on hold because the band's dollars didn't make enough sense.
With better luck and timing, the three new records on Dave Willingham and Philip Croley's Two Ohm Hop record label could have been released months ago. The records--12-inch EPs by Light Bright Highway ("Moon Glory & the Seventh Sun") and Sub Oslo (untitled), and a seven-inch single by Stumptone ("Circles/ Jeremy Bentham's Boots")--were all recorded more than a year ago. The trip from tape to vinyl for the Melodica Festival all-stars was a slow one, filled with the kind of obstacles that seem to pop up when everything has to be done just right.
"They've been working on getting that stuff out for a long, long time," says Chris Plavidal of Stumptone. "They just want to do it right the whole time. So far, so good. The ones that are finished are just awesome."
It's strange that a quest for perfection delayed the release of the three records; Willingham doesn't seem like the type who sweats the details. In these pages just a little more than a month ago, he said, "Perfection is good, but you can push it a little too far...You should just relax and have fun, and let what happens happen."
It was more than just Willingham's desire to get things right that pushed back the release of the records. His work as a producer left him with little time for the record label, and problems with the manufacturer--a company that had never pressed vinyl before--complicated matters further. Plus, Willingham's ambition got in the way as well; it's hard enough for a fledgling label to put out one record, let alone three at the same time. But that's the way he wanted it.
"I knew that once I got the OK to do it from all three of those bands, I knew that I wanted to do it all at the same time, instead of stagger them," Willingham says. "Kind of make it more of a bang at once. With three things at once, it kind of took a while for it all to fall into place."
Things began to fall into place around two years ago, while Willingham was recording Plavidal's Stumptone project. Willingham had just built his 70 Hurtz studio in Argyle--a short hayride south of Denton--and Plavidal helped him break it in. The pair had worked together before; Plavidal's band MK Ultra recorded a single for Direct Hit Records with Willingham a few years ago. This time, the recordings had no other purpose than to test out Willingham's equipment and Plavidal's songs. Eventually, Willingham convinced Plavidal to let him release some of the recordings on the record label he hadn't yet started.
"I've been recording Chris Plavidal for a long time," Willingham says. "I had always wanted to put something out by him, and he was always [saying], 'Well, I don't know.' He had some other people wanting to put some stuff out. I guess he finally decided it would probably be better if I did it."
"He let me stay out there for so long, I figured he should get to do something with it," Plavidal says.
The result is "Circles/Jeremy Bentham's Boots," probably the most conventional of the three Two Ohm Hop releases, even if it is by default. The clear-vinyl seven-inch alternates between experimental meandering and pedal-pushing rock, but never chooses a side. However, it doesn't necessarily reflect the current version of Stumptone. "It was recorded with a totally different group from what I'm playing with now," Plavidal says. "We play the same songs--well, we play those two songs--but they're really different now."
The band has always had a very fluid lineup because of band members' commitments to other bands and projects. Stumptone has, at times, fielded up to eight members; other times it's consisted of just Plavidal--the only member to survive every incarnation of the band. "It was fun just to try totally different lineups, to try and have as many people as possible and then try and have nobody, just to see what would happen," he says. "Sometimes it was really cool, and sometimes it was moderately cool."
Stumptone's current roster--Plavidal on guitar and vocals, drummer Mike Thronberry, and bassist Miguel Veliz--has been playing together for about a year. Plavidal is eager to get back into the studio with Willingham and the new band.
"I want to go, hopefully, some time next month with the group that I'm playing with now, and record as many songs as possible," he says. "Everything, if [Willingham] can stand it."
At least one other member of Stumptone is already familiar with working with Willingham. Veliz is the bassist and founding member of Sub Oslo, a Denton-Fort Worth band that is credited with (accused of?) getting music fans in the metroplex interested in dub music. Dub is an offshoot of reggae that was popularized in Jamaica in the late '60s and '70s by such musicians as Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby, and depending on whom you ask, it is either really annoying or powerful enough to make a monk shake his tail feathers. Veliz is more shocked than anyone that his band has found a following.
"We figured our friends would show up and say it was cool, to be nice and stuff," he says. "But every show has been great. There's always a lot of people and a lot of dancing and stuff. Everything's been great as far as the response. It's really surprising, because there aren't that many reggae bands around here, and definitely not any dub bands. Everybody just kind of picked up on the vibe automatically."
Willingham was one of those people. He offered to record the band before it had even played its first show, a proposition that was made without the intention of adding Sub Oslo to Two Ohm Hop's roster. All he wanted to do was record the band, no strings attached. The band went into his studio last fall, with dub mixer John Nuckels in tow. Nuckels' presence made the recording sessions unique, because even though he doesn't play an instrument, he's a full-fledged member of the band and a big part of Sub Oslo's sound.
"Basically, his instrument is the mixing board," Veliz says. "While we're playing live, he's dropping things in and out, throwing in samples, putting all this reverb and delay on everything, and just tweaking everything out. So when we recorded live, we decided to have him in the same studio area with us doing live mixing. While we were recording, we had the live mixing on some tracks, and then we had just bare mixing on other tracks. That way we could come back and do traditional-style dubbing on some of them."
The recording went so well that Willingham decided to release it himself. It was obviously a good decision, because the instrumental, three-song EP is the best of the three Two Ohm Hop releases. Each song mutates before it fades away, almost sounding as if it's being remixed around the halfway point. Veliz holds down the low end with his throbbing bass sound, while Nuckels adds more effects to the mix than a summer blockbuster. The second side of the EP--"Science Dub" and "Dubaliscious"--is the real keeper here. It's the sound of a late-night stroll through the back alley behind a reggae club, spooky sounds layered over a pulsating rhythm.
Like Plavidal and Stumptone, Veliz is eager to get back into the studio. The EP was recorded when Sub Oslo was just getting started, still feeling its way around a style of music that had been neglected for decades. The band is more confident in its abilities; they're a dub band now, not just a loose group of dub fans.
If Stumptone and Sub Oslo are impatient to return to the studio, imagine how Light Bright Highway feels. Even though the Denton band has been together for seven years, its new Two Ohm Hop EP--well, it's 48 minutes long, but it's only one song--is the first record the band has ever released.
"It's exciting, definitely," says Light Bright's Trinidad Leal. "But the thing that's coming out now was done probably about a year ago. It's been a while. That's the one thing about it; we've progressed a lot, even since that recording, and we're excited to try to get something else going pretty soon, get something else out real soon."
The song, "Moon Glory & the Seventh Sun," is epic in every sense of the word--as if you could expect a song that is nearly an hour long to be verse-chorus-verse. Nearly 10 minutes pass before the drums even kick in, and when they do, it's a tribal, almost hypnotic rhythm. Guitars dip and dive and disappear before coming back in again. Ambient sounds build on one another until they aren't very ambient anymore. It's not exactly original--Sonic Youth has been doing this kind of thing for years--but it's impressive nonetheless. It sounds like a song that would have taken Light Bright Highway several days to record, but the band nailed it in one take.
"There was no over-dubbing or any kind of sequencing or anything like that going on," Leal says. "What's on that record is what happened in the studio right then and there, which is pretty cool."
While Light Bright Highway was thrilled with the way Willingham captured its sound on tape, the band isn't limiting itself to his studio. The band has been together for almost a decade, but it's just now learning its way around a studio. They want to explore every option, bigger studios, bigger sounds. Even if the band doesn't make its next record at 70 Hurtz, Willingham will still have first crack at releasing it. After all, he was the one who stepped up to the plate when everyone else couldn't seem to find their way out of the on-deck circle. Leal knows that the next time will be simpler.
"The whole logistics of getting a label started was kind of a new thing for Dave--and everybody--as far as getting that together. I think the next time it will be a speedier process." He stops and laughs. "I would sure hope so."
Light Bright Highway, Sub Oslo, and Stumptone perform at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton on August 7.
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