This past February, 22 local bands recorded an entire album in 29 days.
The RPM Challenge wasn’t a contest. No winners were awarded. It was a challenge aimed at encouraging musicians to just plunk down and focus on their music for a whole month—without the pressure of having to lay down “that perfect album.”
For some of people, the RPM was a month of huddling over a cheap laptop microphone in their living room, laying down a first solo album. For others, the challenge was a reason to get together with friends and just have fun making music. And in some cases, well-known musicians abandoned their mainstay sounds and got to know their alter egos a whole lot better.
What we have on our hands is an explosion of new local music from some people you know, some people you don’t, and some people you definitely will get to know soon.
By Elling Lien and Bryhanna Greenough
Left to right:
It seems like some people just need an excuse to make a great album. The stars seem to be aligned, the elements seem to be all right there, and the music seems to just flow through them.
Mount Pearl indie rock group am/fm dreams decided to participate in the RPM Challenge right after completing their seventh home-studio recorded album.
“We just got together and wrote 11 songs that came right from the moment,” says Damian Lethbridge. “It was great.”
“There are no guitar solos, no frills, no flashy bits, simply because we had no time to over-think things,” he says. “The album really has a feeling of urgency which I guess is reflective of the circumstances under which it was written and recorded.”
Seattle Study is a one man electronic outfit, consistently releasing new songs, remixes and mash-ups on his MySpace page. He’s got the music-making bug, and you can tell. His fingers are in all kinds of electronic genres. Seattle Study’s self-titled album ranges from ambient to techno to hip hop to weird stuff. Epic.
For Vic Lewis, completing an album is practically a monthly occurrence, so when heard about the RPM it was a no-brainer: he knew he was going to take part.
He’s been recording since junior high.
“I get depressed if I don’t work on [a new recording] every couple of months,” he says. “The RPM was unique because it was the first time I recorded for any other reason.”
Lewis signed up in the very last week of the Challenge, enlisting the help of his roommate Adam Cardwell on drums.
“It was really fun to work so fast,” says Lewis. “It sounds looser and more spontaneous than my usual stuff. I’m usually very meticulous.”
Some people just need a deadline—like Kira Sheppard and Black Molly. They’re both serious musicians—classically trained, even—and the idea of recording a pitch-perfect album has just been holding them back.
It’s really weird actually: before The Scope announced the local RPM Challenge, Alison Corbett—AKA Black Molly—had serendipitously already set aside February to record her first solo album. The day Corbett signed on, she booked February 29th at Roxxy’s for her CD release party. On her album Little City, Big Time, Corbett, who is proficient on a variety of instruments, pared down to guitar and a folk pop style of song-writing but invited guests with their mandolins, guitars, voices and glockenspiels to make some noise on the tracks. Twisted singer-songwriter Patrick Canning produced the album.
Back to Kira Sheppard: she’s secretly a forest sprite who plays harp, sings, and writes charming pop songs with titles like “Mall of Avalon.”
She’s been working on a serious album for a long time, but when she heard about the RPM she jumped at the chance. Now with her first album …in pyjamas: 10 songs of february under her belt, she feels like she has a first draft to work from.
Left to right:
Peter King (OhioScream)
Brad Lannon (Balloon Fight)
Ritche Perez (OhioScream)
Stephen Haley (Balloon Fight)
Terry Reilly is the teddy bear man. But by going back to his 60s folk guitar roots—what he calls his “former life”—he’s hoping to shed his reputation as just the teddy bear man. At least for a little while.
Reilly has put together an album that explores the other side of life. The tunes are at times gritty, and even a bit angry. With titles like “Enough is Enough” and “Say What You Want To Say,” you get the picture.
The album, with 20 tracks, is twice as long as was required for the Challenge.
“I had a ball,” he says. “It was a great idea, and I love the fact that it wasn’t a competition.”
Liz Coady, a Kinesiology Masters student at MUN, wanted to expand musically. Typically, when she would pick up a guitar a folky, singer-songwriter-y tune would come out, but for the challenge she was determined to head into bluesier territory.
“The desire to write and play my own version of the blues has been lurking in the background [for a while],” she says, “But I didn’t feel like I had it in me.”
”Using this challenge to really push the boundaries of what I’m used to seemed like the best way for me to get the most out of it.”
Throwing caution to the wind, Coady, who used to only break out the guitar at parties with her friends, tried out some of her new songs at the RPM finish line party at Roxxy’s a few weeks back. She’s now performing almost every weekend at bars around town.
Listening to Ohio Scream or Balloon Fight’s RPM submissions probably won’t give you any clues as to what other local band these musicians have been a part of. The music sounds more like a soundtrack to a movie or video game than what’s typically performed on a rock stage in town. Bleeps and bloops, squeals and zings, clicks and clacks, and no lyrics.
Peter King and Ritche Perez, erstwhile of rock band John Kenneth Wilkes, have come together to form OhioScream.
“The trick was really not to think too much,” King says.
“We were kind of in a rut with what we had been doing for a while, so the challenge motivated us to try something else,” says King. “It was a good excuse to try something new, like playing around with samples and with synthesizers, and it just evolved from there.”
“It was awesome to do things we don’t normally do, and it’s cool to actually have completed an album at the end of it all.”
Balloon Fight, featuring Brad Lannon and Stephen Haley of the local indie rock band The Human Soundtrack, grew out of a love of retro video games.
“We’ve always loved oldschool games and the way the music would loop over and over again,” he says. “A month or two ago I was playing Earthbound on the SNES and Stephen picked up his guitar and started playing the background music to the town Onett.”
For the challenge, the guys busted out an 80s Casio keyboard and a BOSS RC-50 Loop Station pedal, and constructed an epic soundtrack of heroes battling their way across a fictional world, with hearts set on defeating the evil “Malus.” It’s goofy and really fun.
This is unprocessed music. These three guys reduced this challenge to its bare essentials.
These original songs are presented to the listener as a real document of a particular moment. Honest, raw, and freckled, the songs come to life.
When Neil Conway heard Alison Corbett was throwing the RPM finish line party, he signed up to release his CD at the same show even though he hadn’t even started recording it yet.
Holed up in his bedroom, Conway recorded his songs live, and all in single takes.
“I mixed my voice, foot tapping and guitar by placing stereo condenser mics near my vocals and putting the guitar amp on the other side of the room,” he says. His album Cover Me was recorded in three days.
Approaching his album in this way, Conway was able to bring together folk, ska, hip hop, reggae, metal and punk and let them all, comfortably share a single home.
“One way to make something eclectic like that flow is to record them all the same way,” he explains. “The only way to do this in a day or two is to record it live.”
“It turned out really intimate and quirky.”
Al Drysdale’s album is also what you’d call downright and unapologetically lo-fi. To put his sounds on disc, he relied on a BOSS BR-1600, a mixer and a cd burner.
By recording songs in a stripped-down way, he says he has more control over the process. He says he has worked with producers and technicians in the past and they’ve done great work, but by recording everything himself he has more freedom.
“I really enjoy being able to record anytime day or night without restriction.”
By taking the RPM Challenge Drysdale was able to overcome some of the obstacles technology posed.
“I had some trouble mixing the songs and I was a little unfamiliar with multi-tracking although I worked out the problems and enjoyed the results,” he says. “The Challenge was a burning torch to my recording ambitions.”
CBS RPM participant Thom Coombes took one last kick at the lo-fi folk can before moving up in the world.
“Up until now I only had a 1-track and a 4-track,” he says. “I just bought a Mac, a preamp and some condenser mics… [but] I’m just doing one more really homemade album.”
The tracks on his RPM album, Answering Machine Messages, really do sound like answering machine messages, and the scratchy tape sound adds texture.
Left to right:
Curtis Kilfoy (Mopey Mumble-Mouse)
Tom Davis (Mopey Mumble-Mouse)
2-D Bart Pierson (Mopey Mumble-Mouse)
2-D Drew Heggie (The Domestics)
Sandy May (The Domestics)
Ian Cornelissen (The Domestics)
There is nothing quite like the experience of making good music with other people, and these four bands definitely had a lot of fun recording these albums. Each one has a certain spirit that no amount of money or studio time can buy: Friends, partners, classmates… this February they spent time together working to build something greater than their individual selves, and they did it for fun.
The Domestics are made up of a couple and a third wheel put to good use. Sandy May and Ian Cornelissen met at a Clash tribute in Halifax, fell in love and got married. They met Drew Heggie while studying at MUN and they all bonded over Springsteen and scotch.
“Homework was put away and instruments were wielded,” says Cornelissen. “We all had some songs we had written, we played them, and it was fun.”
It was an RPM marriage made in heaven.
Their album was recorded in the proverbial basement using the proverbial laptop with a cheap microphone. The result is a wonderful mix of country, rock and pop tunes.
How many friends can claim they met in a David Bowie chatroom back in the nineties? Mopey Mumble-Mouse front men Curtis Kilfoy and Tom Davis claim this as part of their story. When Kilfoy put out a solo record in 2004, he asked in the liner notes for people to come forward to form a band. Bart Pierson and Steve Alwyard stepped into position to form this energetic art-punk band.
According to Davis, a typical recording session involved “take-out chips, boozing, and fooling around like a bunch of weirdos.”
“It was just plain fun,” says Kilfoy. “Our ideas came together relatively quickly, and we didn’t have time to get to self-conscious or precious about them.”
“In a way it was like hanging out but we have this music as a by-product at the end.”
Counter Destroyer is a group consisting of a Dave, a Sheldon, a Zach, a Jarad, “and a supporting cast of aliens and zombies” from Long Harbour. You can tell they had so much fun making this album, despite the album’s description of “pain, pure recorded pain.”
Guitar, bass, keyboard, computa, and fire hazards are the listed ingredients.
“We want to push the limit of what music is,” says Dave.
And they definitely do.
Judy and Reg Cantwell have been married for twenty years.
“We had always shared and loved music, and we finally decided to try to do something about it,” she says.
In their debut album together, The Smallest of Pushes, The Cantwells have noticed love emerge as a theme—but not the “purple prose of puppy love,” says Judy.
“These are intimate and universal views of relationships about and for people who’ve been around the block, with the scars, secrets, bite marks and well worn t-shirts to prove it.”
Judy’s strong voice paired with Reg’s careful treatment help keep the album feeling really down-to-earth.
Recording after work and on weekends within the constraints of a tiny apartment meant continuously setting up and moving gear around.
“We’ve got so many instrument cables on the floor that a night time trip to the bathroom requires a miner’s helmet,” say Judy. By the end of the challenge, their apartment was a bit of a disaster area…
“The laundry is piled so high we can barely see over it, and with no time to get groceries we’ve been surviving on carpet lint, cat hair and coffee,” she wrote in her liner notes.
Left to right:
Martin O’Driscoll (The Cause)
Snowden Walters (Alive Underground)
Kevin Browne (Krestfjall)
Whether it’s because of weird work schedules, hatred of other human beings, or the personal nature of some people’s music, some RPM participants decided to ride the challenge solo.
Creating an album on your own is quite an undertaking. There’s no one there to encourage you (or shame you) but yourself, and there’s no one else to sort out any technical problems that arise. So how and why did these people do it?
For Martin O’Driscoll AKA The Cause, the reason is simple. “Musicians are jerks and I’d rather work alone,” he says.
A typical recording session for him involved sitting on his bed, strumming his guitar, while he simultaneously tried to keep the microphone in place with his foot. Then the vocals were added.
“All in all it took 25 minutes or less to record a song,” he says.
Mellow guitar, keys, and layers of recorded vocals mix. The music is both personal and honest.
Talented vocalist Tim Barnes loves to write and record on his own, so when he heard about the challenge, he thought to himself, “I could do that.”
He says he’s only ever really played alone, aside from a few random duets downtown. “I write about a lot of personal stuff, and it’s usually easier to do on your own,” he says.
He didn’t begin recording until mid-February, and he felt under the gun.
“The last recording session was on the 29th (thank you leap year!) and it was an all-out fury of writing and recording,” he says. “Actually, the writing was done, but the procrastination of recording had finally come to a climax.”
Courtney Clarke has been playing guitar and singing since she was 11.
“I’ve never played in a band, or with other people, so it just felt natural to do an album by myself,” she says.
Her album Open Book is a collection of 10 folksy songs featuring primarily her voice and her guitar. It’s simple, and it works.
A friend coaxed her into taking the RPM Challenge by offering to help her record this, her first album. Between work, friends, and life, they wouldn’t get around to recording until after midnight, and would have to stop after about two songs.
“Recording was always done late at night and took a toll on me the next day,” she says. “I did have a lot of fun recording though, and hanging out.”
Krestfjall is not your typical solo project. Taking inspiration from “Death, some Rigor Mortis, of bits of Maiden,” his guitar sings monumental songs of destruction and sorrow.
“I heard about the challenge and thought it was a great idea, but had no intention of signing up,” he says. “Then, mid-February I got a distortion pedal with a built-in drum machine in the mail, and had so much fun with it I couldn’t resist.”
He says he doesn’t have much choice but to record alone, because he works up to eight days in a row, often until 10:30 at night. It sometimes takes him 15 tries to get something down right, so working with other people would be a little frustrating.
“A typical recording session was me, hunched over the kitchen table around 1 am, plugged into an old Compaq Amada laptop with headphones on and a cat sticking her ass in my face,” he says.
IN PREVIOUS IMAGE (he’s a Lone Rider too):
Snowden Walters (Alive Underground)
Like a message in a bottle, a folded sheet of paper lay sealed in the case of each of these RPM submissions. Snowden Walters and Adam Baxter could just as easily be writing poetry, or prose, but instead they chose music. Each of them wrote an album based around a story.
Snowden Walters, recording solo under the name Alive Underground, based his album around the idea of Newfoundland and Labrador outmigration.
“The tale begins in the mining towns of western Labrador then progresses through the move away from an island home to the mainland,” he writes. “There are the inevitable vacation returns and romance along the way until finally, after years and many miles, the decision to return to the island is taken and a new beginning is embraced.”
Walters’ lyrics are peppered with the familiar names of island towns. You get the sense he’s not telling one person’s story throughout the entire album but rather the stories of many who have followed a similar route.
These aren’t crying in your beer tunes. The sound is never weepy or very bitter yet there’s a gentle quality to his voice and softness in the guitar.
“I write and play for enjoyment,” he says. “I’m a family man with many lives to negotiate so I take my recording time when I can…as it turns out those moments are usually when no one is around.”
“Having done this disc I’m now planning to spend more time adding instruments and vocals to my songs.”
The storyline for Adam Baxter’s album, Fair Thee Well Tomorrow, was thought up while riding the bus to work one day.
It involves two lovers in a fictional late Nineteenth Century village somewhere in Oregon. When mysterious creatures descend on the village, Lawrence Reynolds plans to retaliate. He is captured and learns his true love has betrayed him. It turns out she’s the leader of the invaders and is responsible for the demise of the entire village.
Baxter says transferring the story over to music was difficult.
“It was out of my usual comfort zone,” he says. “In a way I had to treat it like writing a novel. Lyrically each ‘chapter’ in the story had to be summarized into poetry and then put to music that suit the sentiments conveyed in the lyrics.
Baxter recorded Fair Thee Well Tomorrow alone and in his bedroom. Although he laments the fact professional recording requires more money than he has available, he also says recording alone in a home studio does have a positive side.
“I feel as if it takes away from some of the intimacy of making music when not recording alone.”
Come hear some of the RPM music at the official NL listening party on Saturday, March 29th from 8pm (sharp!) to 10pm. The Ship.