Strangefolk has been rather busy this summer. You may not realize it since the quartet has been out of the spotlight (a number of fans have lamented the fact that the band was unable to join its friends on the Summer Session tour), but in fact the group has been in and out of the studio, working on its follow-up to Weightless In Water. This release, which is tentatively scheduled to appear in late January or February is being produced by noted musician and studio stalwart Nile Rodgers. Strangefolk will return to the live setting with gusto on September 4th and 5th, hosting its fourth annual Garden of Eden festival (for more information visit www.strangefolk.com). This year’s event will be further enlivened by a performance from Vermont’s acclaimed Bread and Puppet Theater as well as music from the Gordon Stone Band. Guitarist Jon Trafton took a few minutes to speak about Strangefolk’s studio efforts, Eden and also to reflect a bit on the group’s origins.
DB: Let’s jump right into it. The band is in the studio right now with Nile Rodgers. How did that come about, how did you select a producer?
JT: What we first did was we assembled a list of people that we would like to work with. We listened to a bunch of albums and received a whole lot of suggestions from friends who would say “I checked out this album and I think that the sound was particularly cool and I could hear you guys translated through that medium.” So we sent our press kits to producers or their managers and received calls back, or not, and proceeded from there. Then we set up meetings. We narrowed it down to a few people, met them on the road, had dinner and chatted. They were all really great and they all had their own assets and attributes. It was really difficult but in the end it came down to the person with whom we felt the best, and that was Nile Rodgers. Actually, his involvement began as a fluke. A friend of ours, Pete Shapiro [owner of the Wetlands], called him up and asked him to check out a show when we were in the city. He came out and liked what he saw, and the energy of the crowd. He was really enthusiastic and it felt really good to hang out with him to hear what he had to say. He also has an impressive track record that covers all sorts of different styles so we were excited about that. When he expressed interest in producing the project we pretty much jumped for that.
[Nile Rodgers first became known for his work as songwriter and guitarist for the band Chic. He went on to produce a number of works by varied artists including David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Madonna (Like a Virgin), Jeff Beck (Beckology), Stevie Ray Vaughan (Family Style), Mike Jagger (She’s The Boss) and many, many others.]
[In terms of his involvement, Shapiro explains- “What happened was one day I just happened to be watching VH1 and I saw Nile talking about his background. I knew that Strangefolk was in the process of finding a producer, and I thought that this would be an interesting combination, to bring together his sensibilities which are grounded in 70’s classic funk but obviously extend much further, and mate that with the grooves of Strangefolk. So I contacted him and invited to join me at Strangefolk’s next show which was at Bowery Ballroom. He wasn’t sure if he was going to make it because he was playing on Letterman that day but as it turned out he was able to be there, we saw the show and he just got it.”]
DB: What do you feel are his strengths as producer? I’m sure you’ve heard any number of jokes about the next Strangefolk album being a disco disc.
JT: Nile makes some really good suggestions, and he’s also a really good coach and an inspiring character to be around. He has such an amazingly good ear, as does his engineer, so I trust their judgment. The most important thing may be that they are just so enthusiastic. I remember when Luke was laying down some stuff on drums, Nile would just sit down next to him, bob his head and listen “yeah, yeah, right on, that’s it.” There’s something about that- he’s definitely a good coach and an inspiring figure.
DB: What specific impact do you think he’ll have on particular songs?
JT: We’re still only about halfway through so it’s hard to get a sense of the final results but so far what I think people will notice is that he’s a really good vocal arranger. There are some really cool subtle harmony twists that he suggested that I think really accentuate the vocals. But there haven’t been any compositional arrangement changes or anything like that.
DB: I heard that when you went in to lay down the basic tracks, most of them came in on the longer side.
JT: I was surprised with that. Nile is known as being this hit-making guy from some of his earlier work, and I was thinking “this is going to be quite a pairing, here we are a band that plays fifteen minutes tunes on stage, going into the studio with him.” But when we went in there, he wanted us just to play how we play. He told us not to cut anything short, and not to do anything different, just to go in there and try to capture what it is that we do.
DB: Philosophically, what’s your attitude towards creating a studio album? I think that at times fans can unfairly criticize a band for going into a studio and not stretching out their songs the way they do in the live setting.
JT: My philosophy is that it is a studio, it’s not a stage. The stage is the place where we can really step out and let the song breathe. You always want to do that but the studio is more about trying capture the magic that a song hopefully has, and translating that. Anybody who writes songs can hear the whole song and all the parts in their heads, and being in the studio allows us to make that happen, to realize some of the things that we would have liked to have done or would like to be able to do. That’s kind of nice.
DB: I would imagine that it becomes harder to translate a tune that is open-ended in the live setting but nonetheless at its core is a good song. Have you encountered any issues along these lines in the studio this time out?
JT: “Walnut” is one that comes to mind. It is really long as it stands. When we play it live there are some parts where we go, where the energy comes out, and now I’m trying to think of those and get something going, to express all the best parts. I will admit that I am slightly apprehensive about going in an taking a seven minute solo, I am trying to be a bit more concise and focused in my playing rather than just taking this long journey unless it’s really worthy.
DB: Have you been recording older songs or newer ones?
JT: We have a few really new ones and some older ones too because there are so many of those we haven’t recorded. We like to dip into those.
DB: Here’s a basic question which one of your fans asked me the other day. Why does it take so long to record? Why can’t you create an album in a day or two?
JT: The drive for perfectionism. The whole premise of the studio is that you’re in there trying to create something that is a permanent record, and there is sort of a desire to reach a little bit higher level since it’s something that you’re going to have to remember yourself by and that others will remember you by. Also being more of a live band there are some days when we might be tighter than others, and when you put that under the studio microscope you might find that the kick drum and the bass were just a little bit off. Between capturing a performance that’s right on and a performance that also has a lot of magic and power, that can take a while.
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