MELODY CHEBRELLAN

>>>>> What was your first instrument and when did realize you could sing? Are you classically trained?  My first instrument was definitely my voice. My mother always said that I was singing before I could talk. When I was four, we were living in San Francisco and she brought me along to an audition for Beach Blanket Babylon’s twentieth anniversary show. She was auditioning but I apparently told the director I wanted to audition too and he ended up creating a role for me. I was little Snow White and sang “Let Me Entertain You” in the San Francisco Opera house to a crowd of about 3,000 people. I’ve basically been performing ever since; doing musical theater, a cappella, and singing in bands.

>>>>> Who were your favorite artists growing up and whose on your island cloud today?  Again, my mother was so influential in developing my musical taste. She was the lead singer in an alt-rock band called B.B.M.T in the early 2000s, and I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by musicians, artists, and eccentrics, and all of their eclectic listenings. I was surrounded by so much music that I still love today, from Beck to John Coltrane, Billy Idol, Nina Simone, Queen, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, the Gypsy Kings, and Joni Mitchell. Having just moved to Austin, I have been exploring local bands like Matt the Electrician, Shinyribs, Dana Falconberry, Shakey Graves, and Little Mazarn.

>>>>> Did you plan to release a full-on record when you started recording the songs featured on Comets & other drifting bodies?  Yes and yes …I began this project with the intention of doing a full record. I had released two shorter EP’s in 2016 and 2016, one by myself and another through a side project called Little Hermit. I was writing feverishly at the time, but wanted a bigger production, so I started looking for collaborators. I submitted “Often Unrequited” to a database for sound engineering students at dBs Music School Berlin, which I wasn’t sure would amount to anything, but a few weeks later I got an email from a student named Joao Fronesco. This was the start of a great friendship and fruitful collaboration that resulted in Comets & other drifting bodies. Once I got Joao on board the project took on a life of its own and we spent the next few years writing, recording, assembling session musicians, re-recording, both of us moving continents (me to Austin and Joao to Hong Kong), then mixing, mastering, and finally releasing the album!  It has been a long, arduous labor of love.

>>>>> The production on the disc is stellar, at times sounding like a multi-million dollar major label effort:  how did you do it?!  I have to give full credit to my amazing sound engineer Joao Fronesco who recorded the full album and to the very talented Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders who mixed and mastered it. When I started recording I had zero budget for studio time or to pay an engineer, so I specifically looked for talented students who might be interested in my music. Joao was perfect because he is bright, focused, and wanted to produce an LP as his master’s thesis. He also knew a ton of musicians with whom he was often trading favors. It was totally symbiotic. Once we were in the studio, my main role aside from performing was recognizing who was really talented and giving them opportunities to explore their creativity.

>>>>> You cop a lot of different but notably comfortable feels on the album, from minimalism to wisps of jazz:  are we hearing your band or are there several line-ups of musicians on the album from song to song?  Haha yeah! As I said, I love all different types of music and the muses were pretty generous during this period. I brought the best demos to Joao, who was excited to work on a myriad of different genres and flavors. He was instrumental to transforming my rough demos into what you hear. We approached each song individually and tried to make each track the best it could be. Then we brought in friends and fellow musicians (bribed with favors and trades) and encouraged them to bring their own flavor and talent to the song. Berlin is super international; our session musicians came from Bolivia, Israel, Germany, the Philippines, Portugal, Brazil, and Hong Kong. Everyone was invited to add their own styles which added a great deal of texture and variety to the tracks.

>>>>> How does a song begin for you?  I wish I knew the formula but every song begins differently for me. Some I have to really muscle through to finish, while others like “I’ll Never Fall Apart” seem to fall out of me whole. With that song, I was walking around my neighborhood singing to myself and when I got home, I hit record on a tape recorder and it was all right there, scat included. A few years went by and I didn’t know what to do with the recording; then one day I played it for Joao and he thought of his friend Adriel Bote in Hong Kong, who is an outstanding jazz pianist. We sent him a recording and he sent back the amazing piano part you hear on the album! It was like magic.

“Losing Touch” was a collaboration with my friend Ben Pfister who is also a talented pianist. He had a chord progression stuck in his head for months and I wrote lyrics and a melody on top of it. We actually recorded that one in the studio twice, because we couldn’t get the right rhythmic shuffle on the chorus. It was sitting half finished when two session musicians picked it up and ran with it, the guitar part was created by Hannes Petri and the drums by Roy Salmon. The two of them really took the song to the next level. I think my best songs sort of strike like a bolt of lightning, but there’s this great Mary Oliver quote that I love about how you have to show up for your muses.  I lean heavily on writing practices that pull me through stretches of writer’s block and put me in a receptive place for inspiration.

>>>>> What song on the disc do you think best represents what you are about today, musically & otherwise?  After shepherding this project for so many years, I am thrilled to have what feels like a clean slate. I don’t know what direction my music will take and that’s very exciting for me.

>>>>> You lived for years in Berlin before moving to Austin: how do you think that experience there informs your music or approach today?  Berlin is edgy and has this sort of dark disco grungy techno vibe. It also is nestled in Europe, so I was exposed to a lot of international indie folk/rock music like First Aid Kit, Angus and Julia Stone, and Mighty Oaks. As an expat I enjoyed this tinge of never quite belonging, which meant I could live and work a bit outside of convention, both socially and artistically. I have always been a rule follower by nature, but in Berlin I felt free to experiment and this intense drive to do so. I flagrantly disregarded the rules and guidelines about what music is, how a song should be structured, notes that go together, ideas about cohesion and meter and genre. Some of the songs I wrote in Berlin were downright strange. Now living back in the US, it has been challenging for me to keep up this fertile subversiveness. But I am still a bit of a foreigner in Texas, so that helps.

>>>>> The video for “Upside Down” does a great job of matching your energy in a fun visual, did you direct it? Thanks! I am really proud of that video. “Upside Down” is the most upbeat, fun song on the album and I thought the dense imagery in the lyrics would lend itself well to video.  I met Aaron MacCarley, another dBs student in the film school and it was his idea to make it a stop-motion adventure. I’ve loved stop-motion animation and claymation since I was a kid, so I was immediately onboard. We spent a few months in pre-production (brainstorming, story-boarding, creating backgrounds and assembling props, and testing the sequences).  I had no idea how much work goes into a stop motion film, especially a no-budget operation like this one. We tye-dyed the backgrounds, the props consisted of my books, instruments, and Aaron’s roommate’s samurai sword. We hand painted the fish and the planets and drew and cut out each letter of the credits. Aaron found a plank of wood in the alley behind the studio, drilled a hole in it for the lens of his camera to rest in, and we suspended plank and camera across two hanging fluorescent lights. The shoot took four full days, during which I laid on the ground moving incrementally and tensing various body parts for 3500 different frames. It was exhausting and exhilarating and I’ve never been so sore in my life.

>>>>> Since you point out on the record that you’ve taken into account the earth’s wobble on its axis, where does sci-fi figure in to your worldview and did we really put a man on the moon?  I play with sci-fi in both “Upside Down” and “Signs” to explore the absurdity of existence. I always come back to this idea that our primordial experience of life is so ridiculously improbable, for example: how lucky we are that Earth wobbles clockwise around the sun. I was thinking about regret and that naive desire to go back in time, and I remembered that old comic of Superman spinning the earth counterclockwise to physically turn back time. And then that led me to thinking about Benjamin Button, born old and dying an infant. I like writing like this, following my train of thought from one idea to the next and just seeing where it will take me. I’m fascinated with science and the limits of science’s ability to explain reality as we experience it, which is reflected in some of the more sci-fi lyrics in “Signs” about “mitochondrial cults” and “life undermining scientific paradigm”.  If you can’t tell, I love to free associate when I write. As for the moon, I can’t wait to go!  – MelodyChebrellan.com

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JON DRAKE

1.0 – What songs or artists did you really connect with as a kid?

Jim (Drake) and I rocked out to David Bowie “Diamond Dogs”, Dire Straits “Tunnel of Love”, Queen “Bicycle Race”, Bruce Springsteen “I’m on Fire”, The Waterboys’ “Room to Roam” (the whole album) and our beloved The Might Be Giants’ “Flood” in its entirety.  That Waterboys record really struck a chord in me and is actually the inspiration behind that ad I put on craigslist when I set out to build this big scrappy band.  The Springsteen records were also an important piece of the puzzle.  The E Street Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Dire Straits, and even Sly and the Family Stone were gigantic parts of my early musical education on account of my dad.  In the car on the way to the cabin, along with routine family squabbles and threats to stop the whole f***ing thing and turn around, we listened to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and all the Motown hits you can think of.  “Put on your seat belt!” …I love my mom.

2.0 – When did you start writing/singing songs and what is the first tune you ever wrote? 
Jim and I first wrote a killer punk rock song called “Idiots for Spring.” Jim was on drums and I was on a super distorted crunchy guitar my dad bought, running through an absurdly huge solid state amp.  We recorded it on a four track reel-to-reel recorder that our Uncle Walter gave us, through two shotgun condenser mics leftover from 1973, and we overdubbed the vocals with the speaker next to the mic which gave it the coolest slap back delay I’ve heard to date.  The lyrics were simply “Idiots for spring! Idiots for spring! I don’t know what I’m doing! Idiots for spring!”  I remember being shy when I did the vocals, so I faced the wall like a proper angsty teenager. We were 14 and 12.  The song has long since been lost in the shuffle of living, moving, and purging. Damn I wish I still had that reel-to-reel.
3.0 – Are you happy with how recording sessions for the new Jon Drake & The Shakes album turned out? 
The album will be called either “The Declaration of Ulysses” or “Dear Ulysses”. Which one do you like?  We packed up three cars with a studio, and engineer, four musicians and our gear, then hit the road for Galena, Illinois where the elusive and sometimes drunk Ulysses S. Grant retired.  Our gang of bandits included engineerer Joe Gac (Elephant Gun), drummist Dan Dorff, basser Matt Wilson, guitar and keyboarder Joseph Mietus, and myself on bathroom scratch vocals and booze consumption promoter. We set up our studio in a cabin in the hills and worked twelve hour days for five days straight.  Ellis Seiberling (tromboner and co-producer of “Ulysses”) showed up on the second day and worked through each night with us.  We layed down our music the best we know how fueled with booze, love, burritos, soup, pizza, and zero drugs.  We decided to forgo a click track long before we set foot in our cabin (with no running water) in the middle of the stark cold winter. I have dreams of buying out a week in a top notch studio in Nashville, but nothing will ever compare to our sessions in Galena.  We played ELO records, PJ Harvey records, Stacks records, Motown records, D’Angelo’s “Voodoo”, and a bunch of tunes from all our old bands we used to play with. Working with Joe Gac was a real pleasure.  He works hard, has a great ear, and most certainly “doesn’t give a f***.”When we got back to Chicago we went into Nick Broste’s studio Shape Shoppe to track horns, strings, vocals, and my guitars.  The horns and strings tracked live as sections, we did quite a bit of group vocals with hollers and hand claps, and I did a few versions of each tune on vocals before deciding on takes.  Working with Nick was a pleasure and we became great friends.  After tracking, we got into mixing. At this point in my life I had been pouring every ounce of my time and money into finishing the record. I lost my job, there were days I didn’t eat in order to afford transportation, we worked endless hours.  There was on night we were tweaking out over mixes at 6 in the morning. I hadn’t slept in maybe two days.  Nick stayed with me till the end.  The key to our mixing success was this: Nick and I mixed as best we could, then Ellis Seiberling would go in with a fresh ear (without me) and have free range to make any adjustments he saw fit to the songs.  I trust Ellis implicitly and his ear for music, sounds, and mixes is akin to non other.  He’s my brother.Making a record is hard.  It is not unlike climbing a mountain.  It ebbs and flows, and eventually you can see the summit in sight.  Once you finish, turn the page and get drunk.  When you wake up there’s 1000 more things to do.  Such is being a band.
4.0 – Do you record live as an 8-piece or do basic tracks first and then build it piecemeal?
Our next project is a low-fi live EP with all eight of us in a room.
5.0 – How do you guys approach writing as a band?
The reality: writing is hard.  Each time I write a song it is as if I’ve never done it before and I have absolutely no clue what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.  Writing is full of doubt.  It is a massive, unmovable stone slab.  It is not until the block gets chipped away that anything takes form.  It takes sweat and determination.  I get drunk.  I pour all my hopes and fears into a guitar, mandolin, or banjo.  I hit record on a tape deck.  Fingers to the fret board, pick to the strings, open mouth… something comes out.  It begins to take form.At this point I’ve usually finished a pint of whiskey and begin tracking the tune with garbly distorted bass parts, hilarious and swaying drum lines, and five or six vocal parts. Whatever, it’s a tune.  After a smoke break full of self doubt and fleeting melodies I listen to the monster and voila! It lives and breaths! It speaks!I toss it off to Ellis, he nods in approval, and arranges the horn and string parts.  We bring it to the band and as a whole, abandon most of what the demo had, and in the end deconstruct the thing and write our own parts together.  It’s wholly collaborative and very cool.
6.0 – You’re shooting a video for the new song “Charlie”, how did you decide on that one as the ‘single’ and will it be a concept video?

Isn’t every music video a concept video?

7.0 – You have been doing some touring, how does the audience reaction impact you in the moment?
It’s this great thing were we pour our love into our music, which makes the audience high and happy and in turn they pour love and applause onto us.  It makes us high for days.  It’s the best ever and I want to do this for the rest of my life with this group of amazing musicians.
8.0 – Is there a Jon Drake & The Shakes elevator pitch when promoting shows to ‘the man on the street’?
Cute girl at the counter who overheard a few Shakes talking: “What’s your band like?”
Jon or Shake: “We’re an eight piece folk/pop band from Logan Square (Chicago). We’ve got horns, strings, mandolin, keys, guitars, and the like.”
9.0 How do you like playing to strangers on the road versus your Chicago hometown fans?
Chicago is the best city on earth.  Our fans are our friends.  We love it here.  But let’s not forget that each show is separate and unique no matter where you play.  It’s a fragile existence that could fall apart at any moment.  We rely on our faith in each other to keep it together.  Strangers tend to be the most excited, not unlike the best first date ever, and Chicago fans seem to simply be happy that we’re doing what we’re doing.  Either way, both are entirely supportive and amazing.
10.0 – What are you guys listening to in the van?
Heartless Bastards “The Mountain”, lots of punk rock, lots of soul, Ben Folds, Ohtis, Elephant Gun’s new record, and countless others.  At some point Evan put on some cookie monster metal- to which Drew rocked out.