"I feel like my brain is vibrating all day long," says Reid Genauer, the singer/songwriter behind Assembly of Dust, discussing the band's new album. "It's hard to sleep, I'm so excited. I feel like Lex Luthor, or that Mike Myers character, Dr. Evil. I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs, dreaming up this demonic scheme, getting ready to release this germ on to the world."
While "demonic schemes" may not come to mind when you think of Assembly of Dust, Genauer's post-Strangefolk crew since 2002, his band's latest album does have the feeling of something remarkable being unleashed. The record, recorded over two years, showcases Genauer's maturation as a songwriter, as evidenced both by the material and the all-star collaborations that dot all 13 tracks. It's rare to hear something so massive in scope and ambition, and yet so intricate in the tiny details.
"I wrote the songs, and a couple with [co-producer] Nate Wilson, and then had the idea to get guests," says Genauer. "I had to think about who would make sense, who I aspired to play with, and who had similar musical aesthetics." To that end, the band was able to rope in a who's who of classic and contemporary artists, including Richie Havens, Phish's Mike Gordon, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Martin Sexton, and Grace Potter, among others. Adds Genauer: "It ended up being a lot of time and energy and dealing with managers and explaining my vision and in a few cases even who I was. But it was worth it."
Despite the number of guest musicians, AOD's second studio record is incredibly focused, and one that deservedly earns comparisons to The Band, Neil Young, recent Wilco and even The Beatles (the latter two cited by Genauer as strong inspirations on the group's new material). And it's a daring album, showing off both their singer's lyrical acumen and the band's ever-expanding musical palette. The easy-going country rocker "Arc of the Sun," a track that's popped up in the group's live set for a few years, features a searing psychedelic guitar solo from Phish bassist Mike Gordon that Genauer accurately describes as "weighty and dark, two things we're not known for." Meanwhile, "Edges" and "Light Blue Lover" float by on gorgeous melodies, contrasting nicely with the bluesier, almost grimy feel of "Pedal Down" and "Borrowed Feat."
Lyrically, Genauer's moved beyond his self-described "1920's Dust Bowl kind of blue-collar Americana" vibe of the band's previous record, Recollection, and into a more contemporary voice, albeit one that stretches in several directions. "In the scene I've been associated with for so long, lyrics are not necessarily the focus," he says. "That's fine. It's usually the guitar. But I've always been lyrically driven. And this time out, I tried on some different characters and moods."
To that end, the singer touches on both the personal (the birth of his son), the abstract ("All That I Am Now," inspired by Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree") and the pointed, as in "Straight," featuring Theresa Andersson. "I was going to call it 'Lech'…it's inspired by a lot of musicians I know who chased empty dreams," he says. "It's a pretty dark tune. And I get where it's coming from. Artists, successful or not, seem to be really troubled in a lot of ways. Their art is their by-product. It works that way for me – I have a lot of pretty intense thoughts. And this is a way of vetting them, or releasing the demons."
Although he acts as the band's primary songwriter, Genauer credits his AOD bandmates for shaping the record. "It's not like we went from bluegrass to heavy metal, but we all took a bit of a turn," he says of his peers (who were once mockingly described as "[not] the worst batch of musicians you'll ever hear"... you can find that on their MySpace bio). "The songs were loose to start with – we banged out some rough recordings on a digital recorder. They were skeletons – the band delivered the flesh and muscle to the songs. Andy and John did some stuff they had never done before, and Adam, he really stretched his musical vocabulary on this one. He and I spent hours listening to records together, coming up with an overall vision."
It's a vision the group plans to bring on the road for much of the next year. Much like Strangefolk – the groundbreaking folk rock group Genauer helped start in 1991 and stayed with until 2000 – Assembly of Dust has earned its greatest accolades in concert, having captivated fans everywhere from Bonnaroo to Carnegie Hall. (Want proof? Type the bands into YouTube and spend a few days going through the hundreds of fan-shot live videos). Seeing that early versions of several of the new songs were tested out live over the past few years, the band is eager to debut the finished product.
"I want to play new stuff," says Genauer. "It's like wanting a new sweater for the fall – a new piece of clothing renews the wardrobe. That's what new songs do for performance"
In the end, AOD's new "germ," as their singer puts it, isn't some diabolical plot for world dominance. It's simply the creative culmination of nearly two decades playing music and being one of the music world's most respected (if slightly under-the-radar) musicians and songwriters. "I'm excited by this record because my friends and heroes are on it," he says. "Being embraced by my peers... that's a really rewarding experience. It's a milestone in my life, like graduating high school, college, or getting laid for the first time. It's a momentous event for me."