Chapter 3: The First Rehearsal
On the 3rd morning we all awoke very early. We had to drive Lauren to the train station so she could go back back home to KCMO. The Chicago train station wasn’t too far from out place, so we thought as an act of solidarity we’d all go and see her off.
The train was departing at 7.30 am. So I was up already. Joe and John, not used to being up that early were suffering a bit. We all hopped into the car and made our way to the train station. We weren’t in the car for more than 3 minutes when Joe almost got into spectacular rear ending accident. We were going downhill on a freeway ramp. Joe was groggy from having just woken up, he barely noticed that traffic had come to a dead stop at the bottom of the ramp and the freeway was not moving. Joe was accelerating down the ramp just as the car ahead of us began a quick brake. John screamed from the back seat first “JOE!!! Watch out!!” I was looking away and felt my heart stop as Joe locked up he brakes and came within inches of driving us into the stopped car. We all woke up fast at that point.
It was Monday morning and we quickly realized after that it was going to be a bit more challenging finding the train station as it was morning rush hour in downtown Chicago. After consulting 4 cell phones and traversing the one way streets of downtown Chicago we managed to find the station (as it turns the wrong entrance though). Our team solidarity goodbye turned into more of a: “open the door – leap out – see ya Lauren!!” farewell as the morning work traffic was awful.
After we dropped her off, we made our way back to the house. Because we had shopped the day before, we decided to have breakfast at the Air BnB. It was pointed out to me the John Agee is the Sandwich King. He has a gift of making something out of nothing in regards to sandwiches (and as it turns out frozen pizza). So John was on breakfast detail that morning. Joe and I stayed out of his way and began organizing all the gear we were about to transport to the rehearsal space. It was Day 1 (of 2) for our only rehearsals, for the 12 songs we were about to record.
John constructed 3 epic sandwiches as Joe and I packed up his computer, the guitars, bass, my laptop and Ukulele. There was a bit of anxious air about, as one can’t help but be a little nervous about how the first jam is going to go with the band before recording, and having been off for more than a year.
After breakfast, we packed the car and began our trek to the studio. As it turned out the studio was in Des Plaines, Illinois, about 30 mins north of the city. The Breakfast Club was shot there. We had discussed the best routes to the studio when we were searching for Air BnB locations. We determined if we wanted to stay in the city, there was always going to be a commute.
We arrived at the studio last.
It was a really unique spot. The building itself was run by a guy named John Drugan. He and his Brother owned a vintage drum boutique beside the studio. In addition to having their storefront and house on the same plot of land, they also had the studio. They rented it out for lessons, and one of the studios to Allen and Eric to rehearse and record in. We quickly unloaded all of over gear, and Johnny set us up in the big rehearsal room. After we set up, John and Chris took us on a tour of the drum basement / storage of all the vintage kits. It was amazing to see all those beautiful drum kits that were over 60-80 years old. All in pristine condition. After the tour of the studio, this where things took a slight detour. We were given an enormous joint to smoke pre-rehearsal. Up until that day, we only had access to small amounts of pot. So we were ready to sit back and take a bit of the constant “go” of the previous days off.
Well, what happened (for me) was slightly unexpected. I got completed fried. Like Grade 10 Stoned. Like that first handful of times you get high, and then it gets on top of you and you think, should I call an ambulance, is this the end? Except I was a grown adult, and knew too many things (which exacerbated it). So as we walked back into the rehearsal room, where Chris was waiting, I was quietly thinking: “Fuuuuck, I don’t know my parts…I’m gonna play horribly, I’m going to forget everything!!!” All the while, I knew it was just the weed getting on top of me.
I got quiet. Actually, everyone was. As we plugged in, set up pedals and eq’s. No one said much of anything. Once everyone was ready, we all turned and looked at Chris and asked what he wanted to start with. He thought about it and then suggested the song ‘Commodore’.
All my concerns disappeared by the second verse. We were plowing through it without too much issue. ‘Commodore’ itself, is somewhat straight-forward. It’s very indie rock (like Sebadoh) but with an exaggerated sway groove. The end has a deviation/coda that the song rides out on. We managed to play it through without too much issue. This was the start we needed. Even though we’d all been practicing these songs during the weeks leading up to these rehearsal sessions, you just never know what it’s going to sound like all together, and you only have 20 hours to fix whatever is broken, then you’re recording it. So getting started on firm ground is very helpful.
We ran through ‘Commodore’ a second time, getting a little hung up on the outro/coda. But we worked through any challenge with that section fairly quickly.
We decided to play ‘Spider & The Fly’. This song is about our most straightforward song. The closest thing we have to a desert rock / stoner rock song. We went though ‘Spider & The Fly’ fairly quickly too. I can’t explain the feeling one gets when they have been listening to the same songs over and over again for months, with the same fake drums, and demoed guitars. The same layered tracks. Once you are all together in a room with real instruments and amazing players it all comes to life in a way you would never had imagined. All the demos are heavily layered affairs, lush with multiple tracks of keys, superfluous piano lines, multiple guitar tracks. In the room it all gets stripped down to the essentials. 2 guitars, a bass and some drums. It sounds more intense and direct in that format. It’s also always a treat to hear what Chris has done with the drums from the demos. He tries to keep the heart of the original idea in there, but he takes it to a new, far more interesting place.
We successfully made our way through ‘Spider & The Fly’ after a couple passes. We took a break outside to get some air and have a beer. We were all pleased with the rate at which we were moving through the songs. Given that there were 12, and we figured we should be able to really nail down 10 of them. It was a decent start. The other 2 songs, ‘No Time Like The Present’ and ‘Weird Things’ were more epic-ey, piano and keyboard based songs that we figured we could work through in the studio.
When we went back into the studio we decided to tackle ‘Mahavolich’. Now this was our most split/divisive song in the band. It had long been a favorite of mine, and I figured the other guys dug it too. Well, when it came time for John and Joe to rehearse this song in Kansas City weeks leading up to the trip to Chicago. It became apparent that it wasn’t John or Joe’s favorite. To be fair, ‘Mahavolich’ is one of those songs that can seem somewhat simple in the verses. That was by design, the simplicity of the groove in the verse helps set up what is -in my opinion- a wide and soaring chorus. But, when you are in another city learning the bassline to a demo arrangement, I can see how it might see repetitive.
Now, Chris on the other hand talked to me a couple days after I sent him the demos, and this was one of the first songs that resonated with him. There’s a certain drum fill in the chorus that Chris wanted to transpose to a double kick pattern vs the tom-tom pattern. Chris thought the song was special and deserved the going of the extra mile on it. It turned out amazing.
So given the dichotomy surrounding the song. I figured this would be one of the songs that took a little longer to get tight. It always seems to be that way with simple songs. You’d think they would be the easiest, but more often than not they require the most attention to detail. It took us the better part of an hour to really get it straightened out amongst ourselves, but by the end everyone was fully onboard with the song. Next up we rehearsed a song called ‘Steel Teeth’, this went much faster as we had found our stride with the work we’d put in with ‘Mahavolich’.
We decided to take a break for dinner at that point. There was an excellent Taco place just up the street so we went up there and had lunch.
Once we returned we dove back into it. We managed to quickly work our way through another 4 after dinner (‘Jack Feels Fine’, ‘Motorhome’, ‘Normal Things’ & ‘Dinner Music’). It was nearing the end of the evening when we decided to tackle one more song, ‘Sailing Stones’. This was one of those unexpected songs. In that, the evening before rehearsal, Chris took me aside and suggested that when it came time to record the songs: ‘No Time Like The Present’ & ‘Sailing Stones’, that perhaps we could run the demos through and try and track to those. He hadn’t had a lot of time to dive into these two specifically and was a little concerned about the vibe and tempos to them, and not having a chance to rehearse them as a band.
During that conversation I agreed to do whatever was required to get it all done. I was quietly surprised though. Honestly i assumed that conversation was going to happen, and I was sure ‘No Time Like the Present’ would be one of those songs in question. I was however, surprised by ‘Sailing Stones’ being the other song. I had assumed that the song ‘Weird Things’ would be the other “At the time of recording…we’ll run it, and see what happens in the room” song.
‘Sailing Stones’ was a pretty straight ahead upbeat rock song. It did have a very obvious swing to the groove, so that might have been the thing to cause some concern. So as we were looking that calling it a day, Joe said “fuck it. Let’s just try it and see what happens”. Well, what happened was in no short order, a quick discovery of our first hidden gem songs. We played it through right off the hop. The second time, we all began to hear what we had. It really came to life in the big room. You never can tell what a song is off a demo, but you can have ideas. Sometimes even when you have an idea, that a song is a good strong composition, you can be taken aback when you realize that song was a lot more that “Deep album track” in fact it’s more of a “feature song” and that’s what ‘Sailing Stones’ quickly felt like. We actually played it 5 more times, just for the fun of playing it. It was 10 hours into the rehearsal day, we were fried, but after that second play through of ‘Sailing Stones’ we all had energy again. The room was a buzz and each person took a turn saying: “OK, OK…one more time.”
After that 5th time we decided to end on a great note and go home. We packed the room up, feeling really good about what we’d accomplished that day. Any of the early anxiety was long gone, and we all felt like we had a handle on this going forward.
As we were planning the next day meet times, standing around the parking lot, a woman was getting into her car in. She began to pull her car towards the exit when she stopped, and turned away from the parking lot exit, circled back until she was right beside our car. Her window rolled down. As it turned out, she was a friend of Johnny’s and had been sitting in the studio/common area outside our room hanging out with some other people while we jammed. Once her window was fully rolled down she stuck her head out the window and looked at us all.
She asked: “Hey, what was that last song you guys just played?”
John answered her. “Sailing Stones.”
She quickly replied with “You guys sound amazing, and that last song was fantastic! Please let me know if you’re playing anywhere while you’re here. I’d love to see it.” We all thanked her for the compliment. Her window rolled back up and she circled back to the exit so she could leave this time. We all basked in the glow of the complement, and good feeling we got from the well timed verification we didn’t suck.
It can be tricky for a band like ours feedback isn’t as readily available as we don’t play together often or shows for that matter, so there’s not a ton of opportunity to get a sense of how it comes across from impartial parties. The fact this lady was almost already exiting the parking lot and on her way, when she decided to circle all the way back and make sure she engaged us to give us that feedback was one of the best feeling we had so far on that trip. You could see how everyone’s step picked up a little after that conversation.
It was the perfect ending for the day, and a nice segue into the next day’s rehearsal.
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson.
Vast Robot Armies Bandcamp. Facebook. Twitter. Soundcloud.