A week before his show at the Gypsy Tea Room, Nate Fowler said he was finally "ready to get back in the park and play ball," and many of his fellow players had turned up for his return to the field. Most of them, after all, had suited up with Fowler over the years. To switch metaphors, it wasn't a full house, yet it was close to a royal flush. The Tea Room was half empty or half full, depending on your level of optimism, but the majority of folks there were face cards, so to speak. There were enough stray parts of Dallas bands to make up a pretty strong weekend of shows, or at least one great four-band bill. He may not have really gone anywhere, but plenty of local musicians were still on hand to welcome Fowler back.
The show at the Tea Room wasn't the most enthusiastic homecoming, but then again, it wasn't supposed to be. It was the end of October, and Fowler had just finished his first solo record, after recording for almost a year and thinking about it for even longer. He wasn't looking for a standing-room-only crowd, just a chance to play these songs in public for the first time in, well, for the first time. Even Fowler wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd stepped on a stage and plugged in his guitar. "Shit, it's been too long."
Fowler made up for lost time, shaking off the rust before he hit the first chorus. The band was good, the songs were better and if the local musicians in the room had shown up merely to pay a courtesy call, that pretense disappeared by the time the set was finished. He was back where he belonged, his hands on a guitar, his feet on a stage. You couldn't help but feel good for him.
Nate Fowler's Elixir
Gypsy Tea Room
Every city has someone like Fowler in it. A musician definitely, a journeyman maybe, a guy with a guitar who plays because he loves to, writes songs because he has to, makes records and money when he can, usually in that order. More often than not, he's a sideman, one step out of the spotlight. Fowler has always been that guy, starting with his first real band, Atomic Rodeo, and through his stints with Sixty-Six, American Fuse and Clumsy. Only now, with the release of the self-titled debut by Nate Fowler's Elixir, is he The Guy, the one in charge, the one writing all the songs, making all the decisions, putting his name above the title.
So although Fowler's been around a long time, you might not know who he is. In fact, he expects it.
"I realize that I'm starting completely over again, and right now, I'm totally unknown, basically," Fowler says a couple of months after that first show, sitting in a booth at New Amsterdam in Exposition Park. "For all practical purposes, I'm trying to reintroduce not only a brand-new band, but in a way, myself to my own hometown. I don't know how the fuck I'm gonna fit in, but I'm ready to fit in." He waits a beat, trying to figure out where, exactly, Nate Fowler's Elixir, the band and the album, does fit in. "It's a rock band," he offers.
This is about the only description required. The self-titled debut from Nate Fowler's Elixir is definitely a rock album, in the purest sense of the word; meaning, before rock was hyphenated to death. The songs are simple but not simplistic, unadorned but not plain, to the point but not always quick. On first listen, anyway. That's when songs such as "Japanese Radio" and "Bleeding Years" catch your ear first, songs that could be replacements for the Replacements. "Full," especially, might have been cut by the 'Mats before Paul Westerberg replaced the band with a Memphis horn section.
Listen again, and the record is closer to the kind of albums Steve Earle makes when he's not fiddling around with bluegrass or some such, the kind of songs that showed up on his Transcendental Blues in 2000. In fact, the skinny Fowler even manages to work his voice into Earle's gruff, grizzly-bear territory on songs such as "Anodyne Angels" and "All Saints Station," with the kind of easy phrasing that lands squarely in between making it up as you go along and knowing it better than your own name.
It helps that a talented cast of characters came along to fill in the blanks. The Elixir, on the album at least, is a handful of Fowler's erstwhile bandmates, including Eleven Hundred Springs drummer Bruce Alford (who played with Fowler in Sixty-Six), drummer Toby Sheets (ditto), American Fuse bassist Kinley Wolfe and bassist Tommy Hale (who produced the disc and backs up Fowler onstage). Although it may appear from reading the liner notes that Fowler simply decided to make a solo record and rounded up some of his old buddies, it wasn't that easy.
He first got the itch to make this record when he should have been recording another album with American Fuse. Instead, all the song fragments he was coming up with, all the melodies and lyrics and everything else, wouldn't fit into the box he was trying to stuff them into. They were different, songs that might not be American Fuse material, but they were definitely his. He recorded demos and sketched out the songs at home, yet they never went anywhere. He wasn't sure when they would.
"There were definitely ideas going on, trying to figure out where their home was gonna be," Fowler explains. "Not necessarily a lot of the songs on the record were from those ideas, but there were ideas that had no place to go. The ideas didn't have a place until, finally, I just...I don't know. This friend of mine offered to help out right at the same time I was trying to figure out how to do it. He said let me just get a bunch of guys into a rehearsal room; you bring some songs in and just test 'em out. And so we did. We kind of rehearsed on some things. That kind of developed into just deciding to go ahead and start recording.
"I didn't even have a band," he continues. "If I was going to work guys to learn a song, then fuck, let's go ahead and rent a space, and we'll tape whenever it's ready. And we don't have to worry about a time schedule: If it's not working, then we say fuck it, we'll come back tomorrow and check it again. We ended up getting a whole lot of different guys in there. Eventually it all worked out."
The key word being "eventually." The ad hoc group started recording in one studio--"Just an old shack, a shell of a building," Fowler remembers, "just concrete and dust"--in November 2000, the lack of amenities (read: heat) making it comparable to recording outside. Just when the room began to warm up, the project was forced out of the building into another one next door on Haskell Avenue. The lack of amenities in that room (read: air conditioning) making it, again, comparable to recording outside. But, as Fowler explains, you just have to keep working.
"We were recording one day, and it was just solid with cars and buses going," Fowler remembers. "The owner of the building was doing some remodeling, and he had some guys on the sidewalk laying bricks. I remember looking out the door, because it was so fucking hot we had to have the door open. I was still pouring sweat, and I had the headphones on recording guitars. And the amps were still up louder than all the shit going on outside. It was nuts."
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For Fowler, however, the worst part about making the album wasn't how hot or cold it was in the studio or anything like that. No, working on the album meant staying off stage, a frustrating proposition for Fowler, who's always given performing on stage a much higher priority than performing in a studio. It was a necessary evil but still evil.
"I don't even wanna make a record like this again, if I can help it," he says, "because it just takes too long, you know? But it was good this way, because in a band, it's kind of a team, and everybody's got space to create in. And if somebody has an idea, you kind of have to surrender a little bit of the space to the team, so it has some sort of a stamp as a band. With this, you don't have to share. There was no team. It was just me trying to get the rest of my parts out, write all the parts, get the right bass lines. As much as I could, really. It's great to go and record and be creative or whatever, get your shit down. But I always liked to deliver it to the street, bring it to the people."
Though he's concentrating on bringing the new album to the people, Fowler still hasn't given up being in a band. Specifically, American Fuse. Though the group hasn't played in a few years, and all of its members have gone on to other projects, Fowler says it's not over just yet; they just haven't figured out how to continue being a band. In other words, the keys are still in the ignition, but no one is sure how to get out of neutral.
"We did some demos at the end there," he begins. "And it's not even 'in the end,' actually. I shouldn't even say that. It's just kind of on hold right now. It's trying to go somewhere different, and I think the band is ready to do it. I just don't know how to do it as a three-piece. Those guys are fucking great, and we're all still like brothers. Now, everybody's kind of back in town, so it's cool. I'm certainly focused on this right now. We've just gotta figure out how to pull things off as a three-piece...I'm just hearing more melodies than can happen with three people. There's at least one great record left in that band, I'm sure."