Percy Hill is Reelin’ in the Years
Over the past few years short two to three night runs have become Percy Hill's modus operandi. The band will suddenly pop up for a weekend or two of gigs, and just as suddenly disappear again. Or rather, the band members disperse to their various other creative venues: guitarist Joe Farrell is thriving as music teacher in Maine, drummer Aaron Katz has toured extensively with his own Aaron Katz Band and become a music producer, and keyboardist Nate Wilson and bassist John Lecesse have been part of one of the most important musical resurgences in the jam community as members of Reid Genauer's Assembly of Dust. Each time they come together, along with AOD guitarist Adam Terrell and founding member of Percy Hill, percussionist Zach Wilson, it is like a bright flash of slick, funky grooves. Unlike other bands that play similar schedules, Percy Hill masterfully makes every show count. They hit the ground running, devastate packed houses with an onslaught of dense, joyous sounds and leave fans begging for more.
But talk to any member of the band, and he'll tell you that Percy Hill is most at home in the studio. In this way, they are a nearly unique anomaly in the jam world. In 1998, the band recorded the highly acclaimed and award-winning Color In Bloom, an album that was on Home Grown Music Network’s Hot Sellers list for years, and is still required listening for anyone trying to pin down the essence of jambands. It is an album in the truest sense- cohesive, sonically brilliant and most importantly, absolutely addictive. Now, six years later, Percy Hill has re-entered the studio to record the long-awaited follow up. While the band is remaining secretive about some elements of the project, like the album title and a complete track listing, fans can expect to hear some unreleased songs that have became Percy Hill staples, along with a number of more recent, and recently unveiled, tunes. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nate, Aaron and Joe at Waterway Studios in New Hampshire and talk about the album, intentionality and the aesthetic sensibilities behind the grooviest vintage sounds.
Jambands: Why record an album now? We’re six years away from Color In Bloom.
Nate: Well, we did a live record two years ago, so in between there we had a release. We've had a lot of time to have all this material codified. We've all been doing different things. I'm really glad that we've taken as much time as we have to get back in the studio because I think the more experience you have and the older you get, the more you start to realize what exactly it is you're going after, especially in the studio. I think right now we have more of handle on what we're doing now than we did, certainly than when we went in for the first time to do Color In Bloom. We all feel strongly that this project is going to at least live up to the standard that we set, if not surpass it. A lot it has to do with the fact that we're older now and just know what we're going for.
Joe: We have the confidence that even though we're not all in the studio at the same time, like we were for Color In Bloom, for six solid weeks, we have confidence that what is going on in there is going to gel.
Jambands: What was concept behind the three Percy Hill 2002 shows, the last of which became Percy Hill Live?
Nate: It's something that we threw around for a long time. We're a band that thinks about the songs first, and when Aaron and I write and conceptualize ideas, I think in general we were hearing a larger soundscape than what we were capable of creating as a four piece. Something that we always talked about trying to do if we ever had the time and energy was putting together a band that was big enough to fulfill the whole concept. A lot the music that influenced us and music that we aspire to…
Aaron: We wanted to bring it all together.
Nate: Yeah, we had a fourteen piece band. We had a horn section, percussionists…
Aaron: Background singers…
Nate: Every part that we could think of was covered. For us, it was bringing our studio concept to the stage. We'd love to be able to do that every night, but logistically it would be a little hard.
Jambands: Did you go with the intent of taking the album out of it?
Nate: Absolutely, yeah. That was something we considered from the start. We weren't absolutely wed to the idea. If something had gone horribly wrong, we obviously wouldn't have put anything out, but fortunately we nailed it on that particular night.
Jambands: How has an older perspective influenced the material you’re producing, whether collectively or in terms of song writing?
Aaron: In the writing, I think we better understand the Percy Hill style, so we can create accordingly.
Nate: And actually the songs of the new record actually span a good amount of time. "Door Number Five" is a tune that we wrote prior to Color In Bloom. Joe and I wrote it right around the time that we wrote "313" and songs like that. On the other end of the spectrum you have "Awaiting Our Return" which is a tune that Aaron wrote a few months ago. So you have stuff that’s almost eight years old and stuff that’s brand new. The ideal behind the group has remained pretty consistent to what Color In Bloom is all about, but it's cool because it all gels really well. There is a conceptual continuity to the whole process.
Joe: I think a piece like "Door Number Five," back in 98 we weren't necessarily prepared to take on the challenges of it.
Nate: We actually almost did take a pass at it for Color In Bloom, but I'm glad we waited.
Jambands: Aaron, do you see lyrical differences? Your solo material is quite a bit edgier, maybe heavier, more aggressive.
Aaron: I find Percy Hill to be consistently a positive vibe. Everyone gets together and has a good time, and experiences good feelings together. My solo stuff is more introspective, picking apart my own brain and feelings, whereas this is something we share. We create together; there is a certain energy that we create and the writing reflects that.
Jambands: Nate, are you seeing differences in your writing from playing with Reid?
Nate: It's interesting to see what comes out of you when you put yourself in different situations. Percy Hill is a much more sophisticated pallet in terms of harmonic things. We have all these chord progressions; every song has every note possible in it [laughter] and that's a great situation. And then when John and I play in a group with Reid it's more of a folk-rock oriented group. I've been writing a lot with Reid, and for that band, and you have to explore a different side of yourself. I can't really bring a tune like "Door Number Five" to Assembly of Dust and expect it to come off convincingly. It's almost like you recreate yourself in a different character when you write in different situations.
Jambands: Performance-wise, you’re playing with Adam and John all the time with AOD and then again in Percy Hill. Are there on-stage elements that are different?
Nate: I suppose there must be, but I haven't really thought about it. I do notice that I play differently with Percy Hill than I do with Reid. I think Adam and John would both probably say the same thing. It's like you're speaking a different language, a different dialect.
Jambands: What led to bringing Adam to Percy Hill full time?
Aaron: Adam started playing with us when we did the thirteen piece band and just stayed around.
Nate: We did these shows with this thirteen piece, fourteen piece band and we were so amped about that sound, this huge, enormous sound that we were hearing, and I think that when we went to do gigs after that it was hard for us to think about going back to a four piece. We messed around with different combinations. Like for a while we had one back up singer, a second guitarist and a percussionist, and on these recent gigs we were a seven piece band with two percussionists. And I am really juiced about that. So the four of us are the core of the group, and given certain circumstances, we can augment the group in certain ways.
Joe: Also, Adam is great at finding a part that works really well in a song, so after playing in the thirteen piece group, his parts were wanting to be heard. And also, it's great for me because I don't always have to play. I can just sing a song, focus on the vocal, and have that come across.
Jambands: Is there anything that really shines for you on the new album?
Aaron: I'm happy with the message of "Awaiting Our Return" which is a call back to a more peaceful state of mind, a more peaceful culture, where we're more in touch with our divinity.
Nate: I'm hard pressed to find a tune that I don't really love on the album.
Aaron: "Saint Lucelia" may be my favorite at the moment.
Joe: I think the goal, as I look at the record, is to have people want to listen to it start to finish. I think people said that about Color In Bloom. It was one those where you sit and listen, read the lyrics. So like Nate said, there's not one that I like more than the others, but they all flow as a full narrative.
Nate: You don't want people skipping over a song. Something that I fell strongly about is that when a lot of bands go into the studio, they're looking to put as much material as possible on a record, and there is certainly something to be said for economy. I mean, what is your audience's attention span? How much can they actually digest? Our music is fairly dense to begin with, so I think our main objective is to leave the audience wanting more.
Jambands: That’s also something particular about this scene. A lot of studio albums don’t come out as well as a live album, and no one tours to support an album.
Nate: Put out an album to support a tour. [laughter]
Jambands: So when you get something that is intelligently done and well crafted, it stands out. To me, that’s the legacy of Color In Bloom. And live albums look like their going to disappear. Everyone has a download website, or they’re working with a download company, so it will be the studio work that will stand out as the monolithic documentation of a band.
Joe: Maybe we'll press a vinyl copy. You can't download that. [laughter]
Jambands: Or Wax cylinders. [laughter]
Aaron: I think we just have a deep appreciation for the album as an art form. I remember early on in our experience together, we'd be on these tours and I'd be lying on the back seat of the van in some unknown territory hearing [Steely Dan's] Gaucho from beginning to end, and just that forty-five minute experience stays with you. It resonates.
Nate: In my music collection I have all sorts of stuff, but I find it's the albums that I listen to. I listen to Beatles's albums, The Band albums, Steely Dan albums. These are the things that seem timeless.
Jambands: Right, I think there is an intentionality in an album that isn’t there in a show. Not that there isn’t internationality there, but it comes off how it comes off. Like you said, it’s a story…How is the album being recorded?
Aaron: We're using two different studios. One is Thunder in the Sky Studio in Maine. The owner of that studio is Chris Magruder, who engineered Color In Bloom. We did the bass tracks and the drum tracks there, Nate's vintage keyboard tracks. We're now at Waterway Studios. Waterway Productions is a company that I'm part owner of along with Andy Gallagher, and we're doing the overdubs here, the percussion, guitar and background vocals. We're going to combine the analog and digital worlds in the final mix.
Nate: Chris is a real vintage guru. He's got a big room with all the big, old clunky stuff that sounds great. He hasn't abandoned the analog world. He's like the last beacon. [laughter]
Joe: But he's also embraced the digital world. We've got Andy Gallagher on board who's a master with Digital Performer and Chris is into making the marriage of those two happen, because that's when you have the most options available.
Jambands: The marriage is important. Sometimes you hear an album that is all Pro Tools, like Phil Lesh’s album a couple years ago, it comes off so flat.
Joe: There is so much about how you mix it too. You can get some nice warm sounds with a digital recording. There's no question about that, so it's not just because you're recording to a hard disk that it's going to sound a certain way.
Nate: It also has to do with how it's played too, right? [laughter]
Aaron: We take a lot of pride in trying to keep the true sound of the instrument rather than going for a lot of reverb and going after a specific sound that's trendy at the time. Early on in the drum tracking I was getting the snare drum going, and Chris, just out of instinct, started going for a more modern, drenched snare drum sound, and Nate pounded through the door like a super hero from the seventies, "Hold the reverb!" [laughter] We were listening to some of those early Steely Dan albums and early Jamiroquai albums and going after for those darker, dry martini sounds.
Jambands: Where do see yourselves going with this album?
Nate: First and foremost, we're trying to make a great record. Music comes first for us. We have a lot of reverence for the material and the album art form itself. It's an under-appreciated art form nowadays. Music is such a cheap commodity. People want to do things as quickly and as cheaply as they can, and we are about taking the time to make every sound and every note live up to its potential. Ideally, if we could just do this all the time, we probably would. [laughter] I was thinking about this the other day. I used to come into to people's houses and think, "I'm going to run and check out their cd collection." And now it's at the point where I don't even look anymore because I know that I can get anything I want at any time.
Aaron: There's no mystery anymore.
Nate: Your cd collection is kind of obsolete. I can just go on Rhapsody and listen to any album I want, or just download something from iTunes. It's not impressive that I have some Santana album from 1972 sitting in my record collection because that same thing is out there for anyone to get. .
Aaron: I feel that way about books too, like you can get any literature that you're looking for on the internet.
Jambands: Right. The internet is a double-edged sword. It’s great that performers can get out and promote themselves and function outside the industry, but then I feel the same way about books too.
Aaron: But when you have the book, it's yours. You walk around with it, put it in your pocket and it's part of you.
Jambands: I will go to used bookstores and small indy bookstores looking for a book, and I’ll spend two or three weeks doing that before I go order it on-line. Just like a used record store. You go there to find that disc you can’t get because it was a limited release or a weird compilation from Blue Note.
Aaron: Part of the fun used to be putting the effort in to finding what you were looking for, but no more.
Nate: And then there was the sense of pride of having all this cool shit, this great old vinyl. You could brag to other musicians, like "Check out this record I found."
Aaron: I remember my freshman year in college with Nate. He had this record collection with all this Stevie Wonder all on vinyl and a little record player.
Nate: I used to have a vinyl problem. [laughs] I actually still have the record player. I still buy vinyl. I have all my brother's vinyl, old Beatles albums. There's something about taking a record and putting it on a record player and getting exactly what they intended. You know, they were making an album to be played on a record player. They weren't thinking in thirty years someone would turn it into digital information and put it out on cd. They were mixing these things for a record player. And the other aesthetic part of it is the fact that album covers went from being real to being tiny.
Jambands: That’s a big deal I think. I was struck by that at the Jammys. Some really cool work was nominated but it was all so small on the actual albums. And SCI, who won for Alex Grey’s painting, they only showed the painting, but not the overlay with cutouts, so it looked like eyes, and then is revealed as the standard Alex Grey psychedelic eye laden people all tied together. The packaging was much cooler than actual painting, but that was lost on the audience.
Nate: It's not an event. You buy a record and it's an event. You go home and read all the lyrics and check out the artwork. I wish it was still an event. And now they've cut production out of the picture altogether so that music exists without any packaging. That used to be a big part of the fun.
Joe: We've got to press some vinyl. Bring it back.
Jambands: It’s all important stuff. It goes along with vintage instruments and an album mindset.
Aaron: Quality. Care.
Nate: There's a reason why things from the past are revered. There was a time when human beings were much more involved in the creation of products. I mean, why does a 1961 Les Paul sound so much better than the one you go out and buy today? There weren't machines making them, or cheap overseas labor that just aren't held to the same standards.
Aaron: And they weren't made based upon the budget. People made things with the best quality steel, the best quality wiring, and everything was about making something to turn your friend on.
Joe: And now they're just trying to make as many as they possibly can as cheaply as they possibly can out of whatever they have available.
Aaron: I drive around in a 1979 Chrysler Le Baron. [laughter] It's about four thousand pounds of steel, vinyl and rubber.
Joe: With eight tracks of Steel Dan blasting. [laughter]
Jambands: At the same time though, I’ve been watching a lot of TV this year, and it’s nothing but nostalgia shows.
Nate: People in our culture are looking back. It's always been big, but now it's even bigger. Last week we were in the studio mixing this live AOD project and our engineer Josh had these old Rolling Stones from '68, '69, before it was even a glossy magazine, more like an old newspaper. I was looking through them and looking at the advertising, and I thought this is so old. But then I picked up a free publication from Boston recently and I saw an advertisement for the band Jet, and it was like a deep Purple album cover. The photos were cut out with a razor and they were definitely trying to nail that aesthetic.
Aaron: That period was such a contradiction to what is popular now, with Britney Spears.
Nate: Like a backlash.
Joe: Also since we've launched into this hyper technological age, it's moving so fast that you almost have to grab on to what was because it's such another world, you feel lost.
Nate: To put a little perspective on it tough, in these old interviews, the people are bitching about the same shit we are. "Everybody's getting away from this and that. The record companies run the world. Nobody can break into the scene." And this is 1968, so it's all the same shit.
Joe: It's all about the money. [laughter]
Aaron: It just had a different face back then. You could wear leisure suits, be fat and have a mullet. [laughter]_Look for Percy Hill’s new album later this year. For summer tour dates, check out www.percyhill.com.