We arrived late and it had started to rain, this being the night of the much-ballyhooed double rainbows in Oshkosh in early June.
Then we couldn’t find the door for Rock Garden Studio at a sprawling former industrial facility in the river bottoms just south of downtown Appleton, and thought for sure we’d missed the schmoozing hour and start of the show. And we were excited about this show, which promised to be quite unique, as it would feature our friend Stephen McCabe and an extensive supporting cast playing his concept album in a small space.
So, my wife Courtney and I were relieved to find some familiar Oshkosh faces outside the door, and then Stephen and his wife Beth taking tickets inside. The schmoozing hour (perhaps more like a family reunion of sorts) was still in full swing.
We said hello and wished Stephen luck, then joined our friends Andy and Miyoko, who were not late and had carved out prime real estate in the front, near the string section. Andy was psyched about all of the legends of local rock that were together in this one place.
The performance space for this recording studio—which has become the place to lay down tracks in the Fox Valley in the last several years—was filled with chatting revelers, horn and string players warming and guitar players tuning up, all in close proximity, and a hip soundtrack emanating from the speakers.
After pausing to simply take in this scene for a bit I said to Andy, “This seems like a ‘be-in’ or a ‘happening’ from the ‘60s”—not that I’m old enough to know. But I did know that we had entered an unusual and exciting moment in space and time.
Instead of acid being passed around by young people getting down to psychedelic rock, this scene involved an older, more sophisticated set (McCabe is an English professor at UW Oshkosh in his early 40s, after all) noshing on artichoke hearts, Italian cold cuts, and cheese, and washing it down with wine or microbrew from a keg, who were anticipating a one-of-a-kind performance of a not-yet released indie rock record.
Behind us, past the sound proof glass lay The Console, the famed sound board used by Rock Garden owner Marc Golde, which on its own makes raw tracks sound “crazy” good according to McCabe. Installed and customized by audio genius Deane Jensen (founder of Jensen Transformers) at Indigo Ranch Studio in Malibu, California, it has over 100 hit records to its credit, from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beach Boys, Pearl Jam, Fishbone, Motley Crue, and Megadeth (though the latter two examples make McCabe cringe). It was purchased and painstakingly restored by Rock Garden in 2012, and the presence of The Console added to the mystique of the evening.
Only monitors and chairs for the wind and string ensembles on stage right and left separated the 90 or so audience members from McCabe and seventeen other musicians, many of whom were former bandmates of McCabe and had contributed to the recording.
One drum kit and keyboard was set up in the center, with rigs for three guitarists to stage right of that, marimba and another guitar/accordion set up on the flanks, with a Fender Rhodes and double synth in place in the back, stage right, another drum set in the center back, and yet another kit and laptop in the back left. The stage was set. The collective anticipation was buzzing loudly.
But let’s back it up to how we got there.
McCabe sat down with me the other day, over a PBR and under the Acer Rubrum on my patio in which birds were sweetly singing, just up the street from his own house on Oshkosh’s east side, on a beautiful afternoon in which to chat about the origins of the record, the connection between his songs and his literature, the relationships tied up in the project, the arc of life, and the story of this epic night in Fox Valley music.
Inside Voices started out as a second solo record for McCabe, this time under the moniker Redshift Headlights. McCabe began playing guitar in 1994 upon arriving here to attend UWO and thereafter played and recorded with numerous bands, including Cookie Bug, Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot, and The Willis. His last record, however, was D The, a digital-only release of his solo, looping material (under the name Attack, Octopus) in 2008.
According to McCabe, Inside Voices is comprised of elements of thirty partially finished songs that he had been working on for about five years, compositions with placeholder lyrics and parts that he liked but none of which were good enough on their own.
After spending the last several years raising his five-year old son Addison, teaching English at his alma mater, and working on a novel, “it just felt like time,” so McCabe started pulling apart these thirty songs and demoing various versions in a home studio on January 1, 2015.
“Kind of like what Brian Wilson does, this modular composition where he takes a bit from one piece, then changes the key and brings it over to another,” McCabe said of the process. “That’s what I started doing. Taking these, something like, ninety parts and seeing what could go together.”
These tracks became the foundation for the album, as keys were changed and parts revamped, with the original thirty pieces eventually being dissected, rearranged, with different speeds and tempos, and drum beats and rhythms. He did this obsessively, spending around 20-30 hours a week demoing songs until he eventually stitched them together into ten complete songs in November. McCabe then set his sights on completing the album at Rock Garden.
He didn’t know Golde, but when his drum tracks for another local artist were re-mixed at Rock Garden, he was sold; simply running them through The Console improved their sound remarkably, giving it that “weird, magic sheen,” said McCabe.
After a cd containing McCabe’s final arrangements of each song turned out not to work for Golde—whom McCabe called “an amazing engineer and producer, and a really sweet guy”—he decided to start recording what he had anyway, getting feedback from Golde and his fresh mental palette as he went.
On December 8, 2015, McCabe formally started recording at Rock Garden, tracking all of his drum parts on that day. From there he worked methodically, strategically, and in a unique fashion over numerous 8-hour days. “I wanted to finish something,” said McCabe.
According to him, “Marc discovered the songs as I tracked them. He had no idea what the songs sounded like. First I did drums, then guitars, then Rhodes, then auxillary percussion and synths. He didn’t even hear melodies until February. So, he had no idea what he was hearing. He just focused on getting the best performance out of me in each session and somehow trusted me. I have no idea why.”
Once the final songs emerged, McCabe focused on the lyrics, which he generally doesn’t start until the end. Many of the songs began as “flash fiction” pieces, really short stories that in this case are about various characters in particular times and places, and from different vantage points. Each song introduces a new character, starting with a lost 18-month-old toddler and ending with a grandmother speaking her last words. Inside Voices explores 10 identities, genders, cultures, and sexualities. “Safe in America”, for example, is about Abdul, a 36-year old immigrant fleeing the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
“They’re all telling very different stories of their American experiences,” said McCabe. “Some are positive, and some aren’t so positive. My hope was to tell a story of what it’s like to be alive, I guess, but I was uncomfortable with trying to tell one story from one particular identity, and so I wanted to de-stabilize that identity and have multiple and sort of fragmented stories that have a culminating effect.”
Some songs developed out of lyrics that surfaced when McCabe was creating the music, and what were originally merely placeholders became the bases for self-contained stories. One example he gave was the line, “Wish I done a better job as a wife.” The words came out of the blue; “They came about that way partly because the melody pulled out the lyric,” which he called a “striking, startling line.” The words were provocative, so he followed them, as he does when writing novels as well, where he tries to uncover his characters and allow stories to emerge. The result in this case was the lyrics to the song, “What I’d Like to Bring”, which fleshed themselves out around that initial line.
Like eight of the ten tracks on the album, there is a short story (about 1,200 words) that goes alone with this song, and McCabe plans to write stories for the other two. In “The Orange Light”, an elderly farm wife in the 1930s reflects back on her life. McCabe noted that, “I didn’t stick religiously to the story—just tried to capture some essence of the story without much exposition.” Here is an excerpt from this one:
Hiram’s on his way in. I can see the orange light of his pipe moving out there like it’s floating on a invisible river.
He always makes some racket when he comes in. Figure he don’t want to sneak in on me or maybe wants to wake me. I sleep most of the day and night anymore. Not much wake left for me. The door creaks open and his bright red face is there, eyes wide such for a minute I can see the schoolboy he was, upside down in that tree. Then he got some face on him once he get a better look at me and come sit beside on the bed. I open my mouth to talk, but can’t. It comes and goes.
“Sil,” he says.
I try again, but nothing.
“I get you water.”
He’s gone again and then back with water. I think I fell asleep a moment, there.
He props me up with the sofa cushions we use for that. Not sure what he sits on out there anymore. Rocker’s in here too. He puts the glass to my mouth. I sip and sit back.
I can feel my throat loosen and I start the words slow. “Wish I done a better job as a wife,” I say.
He gives me that same look from before. “You done fine,” he says and sets the glass down.
Once he had the narrative arc of the story, he took it back to complete the song. McCabe also noted that while this song and story may feature the lament of an elderly woman, it is also about him at this particular point, “wishing, hoping I’ve done a good job as a person, as a husband, as someone living a life.”
As the fully formed album came together, what started as another lo-fi recording of his looping and layering of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and vocals had turned into something else. Some of the finished album features tracks that indeed have this quality, being recorded at home by McCabe with help from Beth and Addison, who moved the dial on an a.m. radio to create white noise for one track, with all three being involved with recording the sounds of breakfast being eaten by a family. These were two examples of how the recording process intruded into his family life, about which McCabe noted, “let’s just say it’s good to be done with it.”
By the end of his booked studio time, McCabe began to realize that what started as a simple indie rock project now called for more. He started by scoring some string parts. “That got out of hand, too, so I ended up with a hundred page score with strings and horns,” with additional layers and flourishes added to his batch of poppy (in that indie way), yet complex songs. To fulfill the vision, McCabe invited a number of people to the studio to record instrumental and vocal tracks, which led to a lineup that is a veritable who’s who of local music history, at least from the recent past to present, including the following players:
– Timm Buechler: Bass (2016 WAMI Bass Player of the Year; Bands: ReBeL WaLtZ, The Nerves, Paul Collins Beat)
– Eric Van Thiel: Vocals, clarinet (Bands: Haunted Heads, The Willis, Drop Dead Giants, Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot, Shelflife)
– Stephanie Tschech: Cello and vocals (2016 WAMI Strings Player of the Year; Band: Auralai)
– Jeff Mitchell: Accordion, guitar (Bands: Field Report, Jackson Street Polecats)
– Andy Mertens: Upright Bass (WAMI award winner; groups: Jazz Orgy, Salsa Manzana, and many others)
– Mark TeTai: Baritone Sax (WAMI award winner; groups: UDUUDU, The Arrangement, Salsa Manzana)
– Adria Ramos: Violin (WAMI award nominee; bands: Adria Ramos and others)
– Dean Hoffman: Vocals (bands: Spy Vs. Spy, Southside Stranglers, The Willis, Cookie Bug, Redhorse, Lost Toothbrushes)
– Emily Selk Loper: Cello (bands: Inkwell Collective and others)
– Emma Young: Violin (band: Sheamus Fitzpatrick and the McNally Boys)
– Jeffery Verner: Trombone (bands ReBeL WaLtZ, Andy’s Automatics; also the founder of Garage in the Sky recording studio, which basically recorded every Fox Valley band through the 90s).
– Justin Mitchell: Trumpet (bands: The Angry Seas, Airborne Burn Victims, This Bright Apocalypse)
About the cast of characters involved in the project, McCabe said, “I’ve been in bands with many of them and played with them before, and we kind of grew up together here, musically and in age too.”
One of those characters is Van Thiel, co-lead singer of vaunted local band Haunted Heads and bandmate with McCabe in two previous outfits (including the one that made it on Jimmy Fallon). According to Van Thiel, “A Steven McCabe project is always an adventure. There will most undoubtedly be homework. But I always know that it will be great. I think the Redshift Headlights album is my favorite by him, though, and that’s saying a lot. I’m a big fan and have been for a long time.”
“I think this record is about temporal kinds of things,” said McCabe. “Mortality, I guess. That conceit, that I could write about the arc of life, when I’m right in the middle of it.”
He may not feel fully qualified to do so, but he did it, and it now has a life of its own.
To preview the record, McCabe posted videos of song samples for several weeks leading up to the concert, including for “Safe in America”, one of the more poignant tracks, which highlights Tschech’s clear, sweet vocals. McCabe also shared with me a bit of video taken by Golde while the strings were being recorded for the same song.
While Courtney was reminded of The Shins when hearing it, I have had a difficult time conjuring up particular bands in relation to Inside Voices. Because of the instrumentation, emotional depth, and stories contained in the lyrics, I suppose it could be compared to Sufjan Stevens’s work, but with larger doses of pop, noise, and punk a la Pixies, Replacements, Radiohead, and Guided by Voices, and interesting, and at times arresting, shifts in tempo, instrumentation, and style.
For his part, McCabe noted that “from my youth, there’s some REM in there, there’s probably a bit of Beach Boys arrangements and some Chavez from the ‘90s, a little bit, in there. But I’m probably most influenced by my friends’ music, so I think the music that I grew up with as an adult in the Fox Valley has probably influenced me the most, as far as the sound of things. We tend to borrow a lot from each other, those of us who have been making music here for a while.”
According to Van Thiel, one of those friends, “I pretty much came in at the end. I played clarinet with the horn section, was around when he recorded vocals (which was an amazing few nights), and did some backing vocals. The amount of preparation involved for a project this ambitious, though. It’s pretty incredible. Steve has always liked to be adventurous in the studio, and the same holds true with the new record.”
In the end, “I’m happy with a lot of it,” said McCabe. “At its heart it’s just a simple little record. It’s a personal record, but there’s some concepts I’m playing around with. I got it out and I’m ready to move on to the next thing.”
First would come the live performance, though. According to McCabe, “Once we mixed the record at the end, having this pretty layered thing, we said, ‘Hey, it’d be natural to at least do it (the full arrangement) once, live,’ which seemed easy enough. It was tough. It was a challenge for all of us.”
A core group of McCabe, Todd Farber (drums), and Dean Hoffman (bass) began rehearsing for the show in April. They then brought additional band members into rehearsals in May, and then some of the string and horn players in the last part of that month. “Rehearsal was a blast,” said Van Thiel. “It was so good to see these folks every week. The people in the band are all related musically in one way or another in the Oshkosh scene. And of course, everyone was driven to performing the album as best we could. For Steve.”
The only time, however, that the entire ensemble practiced together was the day of the concert, which involved these additional players:
– Andrew Johnson: guitars and vocals (bands: Haunted Heads, Happy, H. Chinaski, Crayonblack)
– Jay Spanbauer: percussion and soundscapes (bands: Dead Horses, Nate Frank and the Wisconsin Magic, The Dynasty)
– Nate Frank: Moog synthesizers, soundscapes (bands: Nate Frank and the Wisconsin Magic)
– Maureen Corcoran: marimba, vibraphone, percussion
– Nate Lehner: Upright bass (WAMI nominee; bands: Auralai, The Guilty Wanted, Jackson Street Polecats and others)
– Jake Crowe: clarinet
– Aaron Baer: trumpet (bands: Dr. Kickbutt and the Orchestra of Death, Sheamus Fitzpatrick and the McNally Boys, Jackson Street Polecats)
– Dylan Chmura-Moore: trombone
– Art Maratos: Baritone saxophone
In the end, after a year and a half of work, ninety song parts reconfigured into ten songs, and the involvement of 22 performers and one engineer/producer, it all came together.
This brings us back to the buzz of the pre-show, as we inhaled some of those hors-d’oeuvres, waiting with excitement to see how it would all play out live. It certainly didn’t appear that the playing of a “simple little record” would follow.
After a brief and subdued welcome from a grateful McCabe, the concert was underway, as he and his cohorts launched into “When I Grab Hold”, a song about 18-month old Timmy, who is searching for the legs of his mother at a party. Like the first several, the performance of this one was heavier on the looping, with fewer of the large cast of characters involved. McCabe energetically sang, and in between sections moved deftly from one instrument to another—quite a sight to behold
“The forethought and planning that had to go into it, with all those musicians, and all the different parts,” said Courtney. “He’d be doing guitar, then he’d switch to keyboards, and then to the drums, and then he’d have them all looping together. That was amazing.”
I asked McCabe how he kept all the parts straight and was able to change instruments so smoothly. For me, this would no doubt simply not compute, due to underdeveloped areas of my brain that allow for multiple activities at once, or something. He attributed it not to different brain wiring, though, but rather playing percussion in high school band. And practice. “There were times when the band director would say, ‘Okay, I want you to play bells here, tom-tom there, then xylophone, all in the same song,” said McCabe. “And even though I might only be playing one note, I found that really exciting. Always doing something, in a sort of frenetic way. I started doing this looping thing, where there’s always something to do, and I better not miss this cue. There’s something really fun about that.”
While noting that he often makes mistakes, he’s been doing it for eight years and so has quite a bit of practice. He now knows “how to structure the entrances. And I know how to structure the songs. There are some really cool limitations that come with knowing I want to do it as a looping song. I can only have three instruments. I can only have so many parts per section. Otherwise, the song is going to go on five, ten minutes. The live thing is a very weird experience.”
As might be expected from the orchestrator of scores of minute details related to a complex endeavor like this, McCabe had mixed feelings about how the performance—looping, full orchestration and all—went. “I thought it was okay,” he said. “It’s hard to have a lot of perspective on it. But it felt good. It was fun. A few of the songs felt really, really good. A few of them had been better in practice.”
For our part, we thought the whole thing was fantastic. Courtney is typically skeptical of music she hasn’t heard before and generally of things purported to be hip. But, standing in front of me, once the show started she was immediately moving in a way that revealed her approval. I thought the entire thing was very engaging, a spectacle of sight and sound. There was so much to watch; “Okay, who’s playing that now? Can I hear what she’s doing over there?”
And when the entire ensemble played simultaneously, it was loud. Loud in a good way. Not ear-splitting loud like when the lead guitar player in your garage band insists on trying to get his amp to go to eleven, or the Hairball show. But loud simply because so much was going on, with eighteen performers taking up two-thirds of a performance space making a joyous noise together. “I liked how all the musicians seemed to really be enjoying it, smiling and having fun,” said Courtney. “That makes a show really enjoyable.”
Van Thiel was one of the musicians who was clearly having fun. “The night at Rock Garden felt amazing. Marc Golde did an incredible job of manning a 20-piece band for live sound and recording the performance,” he noted. “Steve was relatively calm considering (although I’ve learned that he is the only person I know who can handle such chaos with ease). And as people filtered in and the performance began, I realized I was surrounded by the people I wish I was always surrounded by.”
Courtney and I also agreed that, chaos and all, the ensemble was quite tight. “Under This Carpeting,” was one of the standout numbers. Not many indie rock tunes feature marimba as the lead instrument, but this one does, and McCabe played its haunting, complex lines well, while singing the refrain, “Well, at least I’m not alone.” Alone, he certainly wasn’t.
Even the one time things fell apart added to the enjoyment. After the wall of sound had been stripped down to a sparse 3/4 time section, the band was to come back in after a tricky, break-beat type fill. Not once, but twice, McCabe stopped the action, saying, “let’s try that again.” Because the setting was so intimate, with performers and audience so close to each other (physically, and in many cases, relationally as well), and the vibe a combo of happening and family reunion, this proved to be part of the magic of the night.
On the first re-do, we held our collective breath, anticipating the tricky part and wondering if they’d pull it off. When they didn’t, smiles abounded, and the third time through, the energy was palpable, similar to the excitement that comes at a crucial moment in a sporting event. We were rooting for them to get through it, and that time, they did, and we all shared in the relief and satisfaction, all part of this unique experience together. McCabe felt it too, noting that after the show he discussed it with Maratos, the bari sax player, who had been really watching the crowd during that moment and observed, “They were really right there with us in that struggle.”
The day after the show, McCabe summed it up on Facebook: “It was about connection. I don’t know why I started to think about how few days we have together on this earth while we were playing last night. It’s kind of dark, I guess, but yesterday was one of the good days and I’m grateful for everyone who shared it with me.”
I was only in the audience, but was nonetheless grateful to be part of it, too.
What’s next for McCabe and Inside Voices?
The record: He’s currently shopping it to labels to potentially distribute and promote the album. He hopes to do a tour following its eventual release. Depending upon the result of this search, if he is able to tour in support of Inside Voices, most of it would be solo looping, but if there is funding available, McCabe hopes to bring in additional players.
Gigs: Doing his solo act, McCabe plays on Thursday, July 28th at the Oshkosh Main Street Music Festival and at Fox River House on July 30th with Haunted Heads and Redhawks.
The future, otherwise: McCabe has already started writing new songs and is also seeking a publisher for his novel.