(Author’s note – subsequent days will be less verbose, as back ground is needed to give context)
Let it be known: I hate flying. I hate the whole deal, start to finish. I hate the subway to the airport. I hate the inevitable wait for the boarding. I hate the moment the airline representative comes on the intercom and tells everyone there are mechanical issues with the play, which then sends my internal voice into a downward spiral “Ummm… change the fucking plane?! I’m not getting on that shit! Too many movies are based around the decision I’m going to have to make in 7 mins!!” Then the announcement comes 47minutes later: “Thank You for your patience. We are changing the planes. We will update you when we it is ready and we are prepared to board.”
2 hours later, new lorazepan and a stale cookie later, I’m on the flight, highly aware of every bump, noise, and bounce, until we arrive in the Kansas City airport.
The second I’m off the plane, all irritation and discomfort are immediately replaced with a quasi-disconnected but highly energized sense of awareness. I see John waiting at the gate. He’s standing with his girlfriend Lauren. John is one John Agee – bassist, guitarist and one of two singers in Vast Robot Armies. I’m quickly reminded why the past 6 hours ordeal was worth it.
Let me backtrack here. I’m Jason Thomson, the other singer, guitarist and keyboardist of Vast Robot Armies, and I’m here to meet up with two thirds of the band and rehearse (sans drummer) for only the 4th time ever, then drive up to Chicago 2 days later, meet up with our drummer, Chris Metcalf and rehearse with him for the 1st and only time before we begin to record our follow-up record the day following that.
The drive from the airport takes me down memory lane, as I’ve spent much time in Kansas City before with my former band (Sometimes Why). The nervous energy from the flight has been replaced with a new, more positive anxiety. The thought all the hard work and conceptualization of the previous 8 months is bearing fruit. The beginnings of the idea of a non-standard band first came to be shortly after the release of the first Vast Robot Armies record (Goodnight Myopia). Previous to its release, a friend from the KCMO area turned me onto a band from there called Sundiver. I listened and I loved what they were doing from moment one. After the release of Goodnight Myopia, on a whim and partially on the off chance that correspondence might lead to interesting things, I reached out to John Agee. Basically an email saying I was a fan of what they were doing and a general “kudos!” To my surprise John got back to me shortly thereafter and explained he was surprised and happy I reached out to him as he was also a fan of the Vast Robot Armies record.
The one (negative?) thing I took away from making Goodnight Myopia was the overarching sense of isolation and absence of comradery that often is associated with band endeavors. Being a one man band has its pluses, but there are points (recording for one) where you realize there is ‘too much of you (me)’ in the big picture. I’ve learned long ago it is often best to be a seedling writer in that you begin the base/structure but allow others to add and offer up landscape perspectives. Additionally never having a “day-off” in the studio while you are recording a record can create an odd perspective, in that you have no idea where you are going. So having these thoughts in my mind, I just straight up asked John if he would be interested in being a part of the “band”. John was quick to jump aboard. I sent him some demos of what would become some of the songs for Little Creatures (thank you David Byrne for the title inspiration –please don’t sue me). John got back to me in a day and said he learned ‘Foxtrot’ and additionally had another member in mind to possibly join the band. I was all for it. Enter Joseph Wells, the brains behind the operation. Also the source of all the teasing which is somewhat counter to his large stature (Joe has a good 4 inches in height on me, yet I have no qualms in taking him to task as you would a younger brother). So there was the new Vast Robot Armies. Jay, John and Joe. For the next 6 months songs began to take shape in Toronto and found their way to KCMO. Once 10 were decided on and demoed, we began to plot out the recording logistics. Being a drummer for all of my bands and on the last 6 records I’ve done, there was something about these demos that made me doubt my ability to give them the justice they were due when it came time to record them. As luck and a well-timed The Life and Times tour would have it, this would not be a problem. At The Life and Times show in KCMO, John had a talk with Allen Epley. He introduced himself and mentioned he was looking forward to recording in October. The conversation turned to drums and the logistics of recording, at which point Allen suggested enlisting Chris Metcalf to be the drummer on the record. When I found out this was a “thing” and “possible” I was delighted, Chris having been a long favorite of mine from an execution and stylistic perspective, I was more than happy to hand over the duties to him.
2 countries, 3 cities, 1 band. That’s Vast Robot Armies.
We arrived at John’s house in Overland Park and settle into his rehearsal space. This is it, the real “first practice”. We had all independently been jamming to the demos for the last 6 months, but that is in no way a good indication of how making a record will go.
It’s an interesting thing hearing music you’ve been working on for the first time (without a drummer) that is not the same demos that you’d spent listening to. On one hand there is an energy and colour that is unearthed. But also there is an imperfection that you tend to be at odds with, a constant internal reminder that “Ok, we aren’t recreating the demos, this is a new entity that is being created.” This constant internal war is something I would be battling for the next 13 days.
I felt bad as I caught myself slightly concerned with what was unfolding within that room. It was good, but it also had looseness, and to be accountable I was part of the problem. One of the interesting challenges for this record was the members were switching instruments up from song to song, and technically we had no “bassist”. John and Joe were splitting duties, with John taking the lion’s share on bass; I’ve always maintained that the bass is the hardest instrument to master as it’s a delicate balance between melody and rhythm. He was doing a very good job, but having grown up with some seriously talented bass players (Rob Higgins – Dearly Beloved) I was unfairly putting him under that microscope. Further to that, I felt I didn’t have a leg to stand on, as I didn’t feel I was helping the matter with some of my execution on the guitar. Being a drummer for over 20 years, I felt I too was not playing in my familiar sandbox. The jam went well enough. Not great, but not bad. It’s in my nature to carry a certain amount of worry and the jam didn’t leave me absent of it.
Well, train is rolling and there is no stopping it. On to Day 2…
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson