By: Dennis Cook
You'd be hard pressed to find five more gifted, organic, flexible musicians than Railroad Earth's Tim Carbone (violin, vocals), New Monsoon's Jeff Miller (guitar, vocals) and Phil Ferlino (keys, vocals) and The String Cheese Incident's Keith Moseley (bass, vocals) and Jason Hann (drums). Each is a fixture on the jam circuit, yet their new project together, The Contribution, is strikingly different from the bands these players have emerged from. Their debut, Which Way World (released March 30 on SCI Fidelity), is a fully fleshed rock album in the classic sense, where the songs and playing take one on a little trip, often to places deep inside we might not have reached without a little melodic greasing. One picks up on this different vibe immediately in the three-part harmonies and hand clapping snap of lead-off track "Come Around," but the aura of difference – in a wholly positive way – lingers on every cut of this record birthed in the tall trees of Northern California where three friends discovered a profound musical bond.
"The three of us [Ferlino, Miller and Carbone] agreed from the beginning that we wouldn't write unless the three of us were all in the same room. These songs are total collaborations," says Carbone. "This might sound weird, but this is the only record in my entire career that I go back to and get goose bumps. This one, I want to put it on again and again."
"I was thinking about the process that me and Phil and Tim went through to filter down to these tunes. People had a few ideas, but when we opened up the notebooks, got out the guitars and a couple bottles of wine it all magically emerged," says Miller. "One of us would have a chord progression that complimented another's lyric, or Tim would pull out a random line he'd written months ago and it would fit perfectly into something Phil introduced. We batted the ball around in this triangle, and it's such a great way to write. When I'm writing by myself I'm my own worst critic instead of having someone there to help me shape and edit things. That's part of what makes us such a great writing team, and we haven't even explored writing with Keith and Jason, which we'll do on the next record. Having someone there you trust to say what works and what doesn't, to edit on the fly, makes things so much better."
"Phil is, by the nature of his personality and instrument, more of a background processing type of guy. He's like the Spock of the operation back there figuring out chord progressions and things. To have Phil as a component of any writing process is amazing," says Miller. "Then Tim comes in and he's a catalyst, a spark with all kinds of creative ideas. He'll pull his iPhone out and laptop and do searches on Buddhist words and things. It's cool, man. He's like a Buddhist in a coal mine [laughs]."
Which Way World is some of the most controlled, beautiful playing any of these musicians has done on record, and an album that explores the potential of the studio as an invisible but palpable member of a band.
"Jeff and Phil and I produced it together, but I sort of led the way since I've had a lot of experience producing records – bluegrass records, rock records, blues records [31 albums by current count, starting in 1986] – and each one you approach differently. With this one we went in with the model of a modern rock record - don't be afraid to layer vocals or have multiple guitars doing things. Of course, we'll have to sort that out live, but we'll work it out," chuckles Carbone. "We mixed it with Phil Nicolo [John Lennon, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan], who has an amazing pedigree. We told him exactly how we wanted the record to sound and as soon as he heard the tracks he was gassed. 'Whoa, this is a fuckin' rock record, man!'"
"This was the most fun I ever had making a record," says Carbone. "I loved every single minute of it, and that includes the writing of it. Phil and Jeff and I are just such a great writing team. We're just very comfortable with each other, and we allow ourselves the latitude to make mistakes. And everybody can say anything, including, 'That sucks.' It's a fine line. You can't go in without ego – just to do the stuff we do, you need a certain amount of ego just to pull it off. You can be as humble as you want or appear to be but the bottom line is, I don't care who you are, you need ego to pull this off. That's what it takes. However, to an extent, you have to check your ego at the door doing this kind of writing project, and we were very successful at doing that."
"We talked about who we'd like to play bass and drums. I had been doing some playing with Jason, where he and I did a percussion-violin improvisational show after we'd done Nershi's jamboree in Costa Rica, where we were basically pushed out onstage by Nershi and we crawled inside each other's brains. I'm a very rhythmic player; I play drums as well. So, by virtue of me playing with Jason a bunch and feeling like we had a real rapport and always liking Keith's playing and Keith as a person – and during the Summer Classic, Phil and Jeff had developed a really nice relationship with Keith – that we thought, 'Why don't we get those guys down to be the rhythm section?'" says Carbone. "They were totally into it, but scheduling was very, very dicey, especially because EOTO is so freakin' busy. Believe it or not, the drum tracks were created and recorded in five days. Jason is an extraordinary drummer, and what's beautiful about him was how he completely got the songs, which are the amalgamation of the three of us [Carbone, Miller and Ferlino] and our experiences as musicians. There's so many different influences, even within a single song, but Jason seemed to tap into all of them and emulate the favorite drummer you could imagine on a particular tune. On the opening track, 'Come Around,' he's totally fuckin' John Bonham! Then, the next track he's channeling Jim Keltner. Sometimes on the record it feels like he's Ringo Starr or Keith Moon. Jason isn't a copycat drummer but he's so fucking good he knows exactly what to play in each situation AND make all the tracks on the album feel of a piece."
|Jason Hann :: 04.03.10 :: SF by Weiand|
"The band developed an identity quickly, and I can't say enough about Keith and Jason coming into this process with Tim that has been going on for four or five years. It's like they'd heard them their whole lives. They put together bass and drum parts so quickly and so much better than anything I could have come up with. We'd sit in the control room and listen to what they came up with and say, 'Wow, where did these guys come from?' And even as individuals they are the right guys for the job. We'd all loved their playing, professionalism and vibe for years and felt lucky to have them involved," says Miller. "Where I felt [The Contribution] was truly magical was the night Jason and Keith flew in to record with us. We went straight to their hotel room with a couple bottles of wine and a case of beer and sat there and played the tunes. Jason played on his knee with his hand and Keith just sat back against the headboard with his bass, and it just instantly gelled, even without real instruments. Sitting there in the hotel room it just seemed too easy, and we realized the easy part is everyone is seasoned and experienced. The level of professionalism is exciting."
The entire ensemble plays to the strengths of each particular song. Each man could command the spotlight with their soloing abilities but there's a shared zeitgeist to The Contribution that blurs individual lines beautifully.
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