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The Gleam

9 Apr

L-R Timmy Wreck, Zachary Johns, Ben Smith. Photo via MySpace

Even in the city, Ben Smith likes to feel like he’s in the country. Sitting on his rooftop porch jutting off his wood-beamed apartment, the drummer for The Gleam seems well at home with the tree-tops and Bob Dylan’s warbling rendition of “The Boxer” coming through the speakers as he spoke of the new record Sunrise, to be released this weekend, almost four years to the day since the last Gleam album was put out. (Full disclosure: I worked with Smith when he was a member of Fort Wilson Riot on the stage presentation of the rock opera Idigaragua.) The core of The Gleam, Zachary Johns and Timmy Wreck, had been through a succession of drummers until Smith joined them around two years ago, initially just to sit in on some recording sessions, but within the first session, there was a good feeling about the combination and the band set to work. Known mostly for their fast-burning, hard-drinking country-punk shows, the image of six tallboys of PBR lined up on an amp fits most Gleam shows, but Sunrise contains a lot of surprises, grounded in the ballads of classic country players and even featuring a session player for George Jones, courtesy of producer Rich Mattson at Sparta Studios up on the Iron Range. With a CD release show at the St. Paul Eagles Club tonight and then across the river at Sauce with Crossing Guards and The Rockford Mules on Saturday, The Gleam are set to step back out with their new material and fleshed out live support. Don’t worry, the playing may have gotten better and they may take their time with the songs, but Smith promises they’ll still get rowdy.

Cake In 15: You guys rehearse out in Wyoming, MN, where there’s a Sunrise River, is that where the name of the record comes from?

Ben Smith: Yeah, the name “Sunrise”, there’s a lot stuff up there, the Sunrise River, there’s a Sunrise Factory so there’s a lot of history, that’s one of the things the name references to. It was all written up there. About half to two thirds of the record was written when I started playing with them, just the general songs and we worked on structure like that and then started working on new songs. The song “Dead Boyfriend”, which is now super slow piano-driven song was kind of pop-punk/country, so we just stripped it down. And that’s basically what we spent the last year doing, we were actually practicing in the factory for a while, now we’re practicing in an old chicken coop behind Tim’s house, which is awesome. We usually just go hootenanny style, we don’t have mics or anything we just sit down with brushes and acoustic guitars and work on arranging and writing and getting a feel for it.

C15: When I first threw on the record I was surprised at how some of the songs really took their time to unfold.

BS: I think that’s just reflective of how much time we spent on the songs, that we didn’t really rush anything, even the recording process took almost a year. So we spent a lot of time up to the recording process just working on songs and arrangements and trying different things out. Definitely the Gleam that most people know is just “get drunk and barrel through it”, I think they were trying to get away from that and work on songs and just play well, which hadn’t necessarily been one of the bigger concerns [laughs]. They’re definitely fans of old country and good players and so the focus was that instead of rushing through and recording really quick and not worrying about it, it’s like, “Let’s take time to get it right.” It’s been what, four years now since Lookout for Evils came out and I think it shows, it’s a much more mature record than the last couple, I didn’t play on those but they are some of my favorite local records, and it was really fun to work on the progression.

C15: What were you listening to while making the record?

BS: We were sitting and hanging out we were listening to Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, they would always be on when we were playing.

C15: Do those guys influence Zach and Tim’s singing?

BS: They sing so well together, the blend really well, they’re very different. Tim’s is more of a higher pitched voice and Zach’s a little more of that Creedence-y [feel].

C15: Which if you are talking about trained, “good” singing, like you’re talking about taking the time with the instrumentation, that’s not what it is.

BS: [Laughs] No not at all, but there’s a lot of feeling in it and that’s what carries through most of the tunes.

C15: How did you set up this record to differentiate it from the older Gleam discs?

BS: The sequencing was a hard decision to make. “Rapid Falls” was another one that we thought about opening up with because it’s fast, but we thought that might be too much like the old Gleam, so we thought it be more fun to put the more classic rock, Stones-y folk rocker [“Away Like a Song”,] right away to kind of set the pace. The first lyric is “Ain’t they got no more new ideas?” which I thought was appropriate too, to start.

C15: Is it important to you then that people listen to the record as a whole album?

BS: People can do what they want, but we made it as a record, we made decisions based off of having it being cohesive. Ultimately we would want it to be on vinyl. Money’s a factor there but eventually we want to release it on vinyl, that’s what we’d prefer for it to be listened to because it kind of has that old sound. Both those guys have kids and not a lot of money, we don’t have all that much saved up so that was kind of a decision just to get it out there and see what we can do. We sent it out a bunch of places and if we’re lucky we might get some support from somebody.

C15: Has having kids and making time for that added to the maturation of the sound?

BS: I’m sure, they’d probably have to answer that for themselves. Obviously there’s priorities, we can’t just pick up and tour for three months, we’d love to but were trying to do some more small tours in the summer and fall here. Yeah, but having kids is a big priority over music, but the fact that they’ve persevered and kept up the band after this many years is impressive.

C15: What’s your favorite song on the record?

BS: From the changes, “Ballad of Carlos Avery”. “Damn City Lights” is just a classic country tune. We actually had this guy who Rich knew come in and play the pedal steel; Mike Randolph, he used to play for George Jones. He was this old dude and he just came in one afternoon and sat down and we were all pretty much crying because he sat down and the first time he played on it, it was like, “Holy Shit!” And then he stopped and he was like, “Well, that wasn’t very good.” [Laughs] We did three more takes, and I don’t know which one we took, but it was brilliant, and when I listen to that song I just think about the day he was in because it was so much fun.

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