Tag Archives: Rock Music

Local Tunes: Recording in the City

Originally appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2, 2012

Photos by Steven King

Music stores, production companies and recording studios are the adjuncts to the music scene—third-party offshoots that evolve to seize upon the marketable talent of, and/or provide the tools for, the artists who work in the given area. At one time, American bands sought out the major label hubs, originally New York and Chicago, and then Los Angeles, where they could record in fully outfitted studios complete with acoustically tuned rooms, large plate reverbs, isolated control rooms, German-made large diaphragm microphones, and horn-rimmed engineers operating bulky, state-of- the-art mixing consoles. Of course, even then, independent studios existed, making critical contributions to recording arts, and capturing regional sounds that might have gone overlooked by the major labels. The centralization problem was, though, the considerable financial outlay required to design and build appropriate spaces and equip them with the necessary gear.

Of course, technology has, as with many other fields, made the gear ever more available to the consumer, bringing the essential studio outfitting budget from the millions to the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Today, for as little as about $200, an enthusiast can purchase a digital recorder with built-in condenser mics, and software that allows for multi-track recording, and even digital effects, on which she can make her own “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. In fact, there’s an app for that: you can multi-track today on your iPhone!

However, while consumer technology is often advertized as the panacea, the promethean provider of the power of the gods (or at least Rick Rubin or George Martin, in this case), the studios – both major league and minor league – remain open, and even seem to be multiplying in certain vibrant musical markets.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Worcester doesn’t have any high profile, major label- aligned studios. In fact, it has few prominent, full-time studios, unlike Boston. The reasons are many. Not only is the scene significantly smaller, but artists can easily record nearby in Boston, Providence, or even New York. This opportunity is fueled, too, by a perception that big-city studios will offer better results. Studio owners also point to changes in the recording arts industry that have led to considerably downsized budgets for recording and band development, even among national and international acts.

There’s no record-shaped building, or neon-lit recording studio in downtown Worcester. Like most everything else today, especially in this town, you’ve got to use your nose and snoop around a bit. Even then, it can be a bit difficult to find decent recording space.

At the top of the local scene there are essentially two studios: Tremolo Lounge, in West Boylston where for close to two decades Roger Lavallee has manned the helm, engineering and producing the lion’s share of local recordings (or, at least, more than anybody else); and Fontanez Recording and Rehearsal Studio, which opened in downtown Worcester last year, where Alejandro Fontanez has grown an impressive resume of urban artists, including a mixing session for Wyclef Jean.

Beneath them, the drop is steep down to part-time studios and project studios, where bands or artists record themselves and their friends. The phone book lists perhaps a half dozen operations in Worcester and surrounding towns, though even this scant listing is optimistic and a bit deceiving. Many of the listed numbers are nothing more than home numbers to a kitchen phone whose owner has learned not to anticipate any calls from customers.

The market for good studios in Worcester is thin.

The less suspected reason for the scant listings is the nature of recording studios, which, with the exception of the aforementioned major-label variety, can be – for lack of a better term – sort of mom-and-pop outfits, run by—who else?— musicians, who, according to their nature, eschew slick, established business norms and often operate by word of mouth.

Ask Lavallee for a business card and he’ll write his number on your hand. In fact, you can’t even find Tremolo Lounge without guided instructions. There’s no convenient Main Street address, no neon sign to signal your arrival. The studio is a pastoral, converted suburban house annex. And though you have no doubt driven (and perhaps even walked) lower Pleasant Street dozens of times, you probably have never noticed that Fontanez Recording Studio exists there.

The decision for Sam Margolis and Andrew Kramer of Riverview Studios, in Waltham, to go pro, came naturally. Margolis says of their approach, “It’s all been organic, so we haven’t put a focused effort on trying to build a business. The approach has been more networking and community-based and doing projects that we’re truly interested in and have fun doing.”

The need for instruments beyond the range of the band members while recording their own CDs brought them into contact with a number of area musicians, who then inquired about renting the space for their own projects.

Their studio, too, is tough to spot, hidden within a nondescript suburban home along the Charles River.

To find these studios you must actively seek them, and ingratiate yourself to the local scene, unlike Boston and Providence, where a host of trade magazines devoted to the music scene carry ads for highly competitive studios vying for clients.

Some musicians/engineers prefer it this way.

Luke Bass, an area engineer and bassist with a host of local groups, including The Farmers Union Players and Kalifa and Koliba, has what he refers to as “a project studio on steroids” near College Square, where, he says, he “can get the quality of a bigger studio.” He has released a fulllength recording by Kalifa and Koliba; is presently working on a follow-up; and has plans for a Farmers Union Players full length this year. Bass, however, has little interest in being a business owner.

(PHOTO: Zack Slik plays banjo during a recording session at the studio of Luke Bass. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

“I only work with people I like, and I don’t have to make money on it, so I don’t call it professional,” he says. “I keep my day job, and the day job pays for everything, so I only record people I enjoy. But the quality I’m getting is through the roof.”

Guitarist David Stadig, of Northbridge, who runs David Stadig Studios and King Kat Productions, feels the same way about the business end of recording. “If you’re doing that commercial venture,” he says, “then you’ve got to kind of put up with that stuff.” His motives for building the studio, like many musicians, are personal. “I publish my own stuff. My whole purpose was really just as an adjunct to being a lifelong musician.”

Modern technology has made it possible for the modern musician, like Stadig and Bass, to forego the professional studio and do it themselves. Innumerable others have, too.

Ubiquitous local bluesman, Jon Short, has done lots of his own recording. Of his numerous CDs since 2005, his 2006 recording “Barrelhouse Ramblers,” with Paul Chase (bass) and Josh Teter (drums), “was recorded live here in Worcester with Jonathan (JD) Leary at [Leary’s] home studio”; 2007’s “Three Different Ways,” with Keith Carter (harmonica), “was recorded live at my home studio on Pro Tools”; 2009’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s” “was recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4 and was mixed/mastered by Bill Ryan”; 2010’s “Big Shorty” “was recorded live at my home studio”; 2012’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s 2011” and “34 Special (Limited release)” “were recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4”; and his band Big Eyed Rabbit, with Duncan Arsenault (drums) and Jeff Burch (bass), “just recorded live this past Monday night with Paul Dagnello using a bunch of incredible equipment” at Erick Godin’s Lucky Dog Music Hall.

So, it can be done. And Short’s recordings are hi-fi and clean and professional sounding. Short, however, specializes in a genre of music that values the live over the recorded, the primitive over the complex, vintage over modern, and so, single takes without overdubs, limited effects and editing, and ambience are preferred.

Kramer and Margolis home record, too, except that their home is a studio. They met at the formation of their current band, Comanchero, nearly a decade ago, and, after self-recording the band’s first two CDs, the pair got serious and attended Boston University’s CDIA (Center for Digital Imaging Arts) degree program, applying their newly acquired knowledge to the band’s most recent CD, 2011’s “The Undeserved.”

“I think that recording was just such a natural part of all of our musicianship,” Kramer says. “Sam and I each had our own setup at home.”

Their results, though, testify to the potential quality of “home” recordings. Margolis says that, even with the first two CDs, “a couple of the tracks got some play on the radio.”

“We got great gigs out of it,” he continues.

Fontanez says that the experience of home recording, in addition to being an economic and/or creative necessity, and sometimes a little funky, can be fun. “When I started, I was recording in my friend’s kitchen, on Home Street,” he recalls. “The control room was the kitchen and the vocal booth was the laundry room. We had this joke that the cockroaches were the background vocals. It was a great time!”

“It was still pretty good recording. We had Pro Tools [multi-track software], MBox [digital interface], and a decent microphone, and a nice preamp. It was mostly for practicing. We had a band going. It was more for us, just to see how it sounded.”

(PHOTO: Alejandro Fontanez in his recording and rehearsal studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Fontanez opened his studio after over a decade of travelling as a performer. “I got married, and I started doing a lot of mixing at my house. It got busier and busier, and I decided to open a studio right here in Worcester.”

Lavallee says that brilliant recordings are being made locally, both in the city’s professional studios and in “people’s closets.”

“I’m biased, but I’ll say this: Legendary records have been made [at Tremolo Lounge], whether I’ve worked on them or not,” he says. “There are records that I think that I could play for anybody that have been done here over the last 20 years that would blow your mind. So, yeah, I know that it’s possible.”

Lavallee also agrees that the magic could happen on a home project studio. “I’ve heard stuff that people have done—on their own, in the Worcester area—that is awesome, incredible. People come with demos to me sometimes and they think of it as a scratch demo, and they don’t even realize how great it sounds. I think it happens sometimes by skill and sometimes by trial and error and sometimes by dumb luck, especially if you are writing and creating something that is sort of unique sonically. It’s definitely possible and it has happened where people have made amazing stuff – in Worcester and in their closets, or on their laptop or on their iPod.”

Fontanez agrees with Lavallee, with stipulations. “I think that the technology is such that you can get a good recording sound [at home]. You’ve just got to learn; you’ve got to know what you’re doing recording-wise.”

Stadig further stipulates, “If you’re very meticulous about what you do, you could have a recording that sounds just as good as something that is done in a professional studio with a poor engineer. It still comes down to, even if you’ve got all this great equipment, you’ve got to have someone with great ears, and someone who knows how to use the gear to its optimal effect. I’ve heard a lot of lousy recordings come out of what should be good sounding recordings.”

For their first disc, 2010’s “Live at the Emporium, Greatest Hits, Vol. III,” J. Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty and his band, The Roadkill Orchestra, chose to record on their own at a makeshift studio set up at Gonzo’s Unusual Condiments storefront, because, as Esty says, “It was important for us to record it where we had written and practiced the songs.” So, Esty continues, “Bill Nelson, who had a studio for years above Union Music, was gracious enough to come down and set up a live recording. With the technology we have today, we could go straight to hard drive.”

This approach wasn’t foreign to Esty. “I’ve been recording since the ’70s, beginning in my bedroom with reel-to-reel recorders and razors, Tascam 4-tracks, all of it.” And the experience of working professionally wasn’t always appealing, he notes. “When I was in Europe I recorded in Nuremburg, and every time you’d go in, you’d see that tape, and when that light would come on there was money going down the drain and you had to either shit or get off the pot. And so it was always nerve-wracking to lay it down that way.”

Self-recording, though, wasn’t without its own inherent problems. “We had some separation problems we had to deal with,” Esty says, but the situation brought out an old-school musical toughness that he liked. “You had to bring your A game. It was a Ramones-style thing. We laid down 16 tracks in six hours. Fourteen were keepers and 12 made it onto the disc.”

(PHOTO: Luke Bass in his recording studio near College Square in Worcester. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Bass’s experience with the pros was similar, and he says that the compulsion to self-record “started…because we went to the other studios and I didn’t like the sounds we were getting. When we couldn’t get it, we decided – me and my partner at the time – we needed to build the studio ourselves. That’s when I started buying equipment.”

“Best thing I’ve ever done in music, except [to] start playing music,” he says.

According to Bass, the problem with commercial studios is that most artists don’t get to work with producers. “They work with an engineer and they pay by the hour. And the engineer’s job is simply to get a recording, and I think it’s kind of a cookie-cutter recording. You’re paying by the hour, and you don’t have $10,000 to put into an album, so everybody’s always watching the clock and everybody’s trying to get as many songs in as they can. It doesn’t work, to me, to be a quality album.”

Working in your own studio, he says, is entirely different. “If I don’t like a track, I’ll record it 10 times; I don’t care!”

“Going out and hiring a [commercial] studio,” says Stadig, “would run you anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars an hour, and if you needed players, you’d have to hire guys or try to get people to do things. If you’re pretty prolific at what you do, those kinds of moneys can add up pretty quickly.”

And like his fellow musicians, desperation became, once again, that mother of invention. “At that point I started researching how I could set up a small project thing for myself and that’s how that took place,” he says.

By all accounts, it is cheaper to record at home, and this is probably the top reason cited for doing so. This presents a lethal business arrangement, when the primary market is poorly paid musicians, who no longer enjoy the unbridled patronage of an earlier time. And as noted, an old Tascam four-track can be purchased for next to nothing (in fact, they’re probably being given away today), and you need as little as an iPod with the right app or a basic portable digital recorder.

“Good gear is still expensive. Period,” says Stadig. “But you can do a lot more with the advent of digital equipment and signal processing and all the trappings than you could 10 years ago. I mean, 20 years ago? Forget it!”

“The climate has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Lavallee. “Everybody’s got their own home recording systems, whether it’s Pro Tools or Logic or Garage Band, and they’re able to do really cool stuff.”

So, things have gotten less expensive and more user friendly. Why not just do it all at home? Well, you could also paint your house, repair your own car, service your own computer, home school your children, and transplant your own vital organs (this last one might not be legal). Why hire anyone?

Well, as Lavallee points out, “It’s not immediately apparent to everybody what a large studio—what a producer—can bring to the table. They [home-studio owners] know how to record the stuff, but they don’t know how to mix it; they, perhaps, don’t have the space or the mics or the interface to do a full drum kit, or a full tracking of the backing band.”

The modern compromise, then, says Lavallee, is a mixed effort, whereby artists on a tight budget might track the parts that they feel equipped to handle at home, and hire out the studio for multi-microphone applications, or critical pieces like mixing and mastering, fullband recording, and vocal recording, that require trained, acute ears.

In fact, it’s not only local bands and artists that operate this way. Lavallee says the whole industry does, and that the days of unlimited budgets – even for big-label artists – are long over. Nowadays, he says, signed artists are likely to have a budget of, say $50,000—a paltry sum compared to the heydays of the 1970s, when major bands would wile away a year or more in a studio developing a project. Today, even bands like Wilco and Los Lobos, for instance, develop ideas and track in their own rehearsal studios, before heading to big studios for mixing, overdubs, and mastering.

Still, Kramer points out, “even there, they have engineers on hand to work the equipment and set up all the microphones,” which frees the band up to do what they ostensibly do best: write and/or perform.

And, as with the bands mentioned above, a mixed approach of personal and professional settings suited Roadkill Orchestra’s needs on their first, self-recorded effort. “We did the mixdown at a studio down in Whitinsville,” says Esty.

Moreover, not all exiled recordists are able or willing to invest the considerable time, money and energy required to do it right at home, as Bass has.

“About two years ago I found myself a nice isolated room where I could record anytime I wanted, but it was really small. I moved down the hall and got a much bigger room and was able to put in the extra rooms. I had the gear to do it. I didn’t have what a professional studio would have in the isolation rooms and the windows, so people could actually see each other while they play even though they’re in separate rooms. That was basically the next logical step to getting a better recording: having finely tuned rooms and a real recording environment instead of a band room.”

Another crucial element that doesn’t come – either included or optional – with the purchase of recording equipment, is a producer’s ears, and years of experience.

“To work with a great producer and put real money and real time into an album? I would absolutely love to do that,” admits Bass. “Recording can be a daunting process. It’s a lot of hours of mixing, a lot of hours in the studio. I would love to just be able to walk in somebody else’s studio, lay my tracks, and walk out, and get a great recording. But without having either great people producing it or a lot of money backing it, that doesn’t usually happen.”

“Bands come here just because they don’t want to deal with any of the setup and the tweaking or the troubleshooting, or anything,” Kramer explains. “By the time you’re done getting the sound you like and checking for phase coherency and getting the levels all right, sometimes it’s tough then to go be creative, when your mind is all focused on the technical aspects.”

One additional bit of useful wisdom that Margolis and Kramer acquired during those formative recordings was that “it’s pretty easy to fuck up a recording.”

Fontanez agrees with this wisdom. “When it comes to the engineering part – to mixing – that’s when you need the help,” he says.

Ultimately, musicians must face this truth. “I am a composer and a performer. I am not an engineer,” says Esty, whose second album “was designed to be the next level up, a studio one. We were fortunate enough to get into Tremolo Lounge.” The benefit, he says, was in the engineer. Lavallee’s abilities, he says, are “phenomenal. He hears every fucking note! His musical knowledge is so vast. You say, ‘I’m trying to get this sort of a vibe, this sort of a feel, in this kind of a color, and the sound of the ocean,’ and he knows exactly what you’re talking about. He’s been around long enough so that he can get any kind of a sound. And, plus, with the gear that he’s got there….”

Ah! To have a professional, who has been through all the trials and errors, and has spent years developing an ear for recorded music.

“You just go in there and play and that, for me, is the essence of making music, says Esty. “If I had unlimited resources, I would ensconce the band in the recording studio and never fucking leave!”

Studios stay alive because some artists are simply baffled and overwhelmed with the prospect of outfitting a studio, mastering a litany of highly technical devices, and devoting years to developing the subtle hearing skills required of good recordings. And all agree that Worcester has studios that offer this professional experience.

“There are very good studios in Worcester,” asserts Bass. “You definitely do not have to go elsewhere. No matter what your style is, there’s someone out there that has a decent enough studio that can record you at a much better price than you can get in Boston.”

Kramer at Riverview Studios says that they’re doing very well west of Boston, and that business is increasing. “We’ll have maybe five ongoing different projects, where we’re mixing one project, we’re recording another, we’re coproducing another. It’s basically two to three nights a week we’re working on other people’s stuff and one night a week we’re focusing on our stuff.”

Still, Margolis says, it’s not enough to go full-time. “That’s where the day job comes in,” he says. “I think we could [make a living on the studio], but we’d have to work our freaking asses off, networking the hell out of bands around here.”

(PHOTO: Leighton Kennedy plays the saxophoe during a recording session at Fontanez Studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)

Fontanez says of area studios, “We are cheaper than other cities. We get great quality here. There are people who have been to Boston who now know about this studio and who now come out here.” His optimism is buoyed by the movement of Boston’s Bristol Studios, which opened a voice studio with him and are now training singers here.

This trend makes him hopeful for the future. “Hopefully in five years – 10 years – we’re going to need more studios to open up to handle the business. Right now, it’s not a big music scene in Worcester,” he says. “There are a lot of great artists, but Worcester is that type of city where you have to push people to get them involved.”

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5th Paulie’s NOLA Jazz and Blues Festival, Worcester, MA, June 22-24, 2012

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Roadkill Orchestra’s Sonic Shower

From the June 14, 2012 Worcester Magazine

Read my April, 2012, interview with Roadkill’s Stu Esty here.

See my slideshow of photos from Roadkill Orchestra’s April Vincent’s show here.

by Matthew Robert

Most of you who have been paying any attention in recent years know Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty, the giant of a man who cuts a big figure on the local scene, whether it’s his bigger-than-life personality, his landslide-inducing laugh, his big stature, or his big hands pounding out big bluesy, gospel-tinged tunes on the piano backed by his big, big voice, which you could hear in his ubiquitous appearances at any local club with an upright or a stage, or at his former lair, Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments, where he holds down his straight job (ha!) conjuring up mustards and relishes and other ungodly concoctions meant to test your molecular fortitude, all the while bringing big-time cheer to the “hysterical courthouse district.”

Expect big-time energy and funky, up-tempo boogie music in the vein of Little Feat and Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” as Esty’s Roadkill Orchestra holds a CD-release party for its latest effort, “The ‘B’ Set from High Atop the Secret Underground Laboratory,” on Saturday, June 16, at Ralph’s.

The show will also feature Providence’s Kevin Williams and the Invisible Orphans (introspective power rock) and Worcester’s What (loose-limbed, Dead-inspired rock), all emceed by Worcester’s own comedian/late-night host, Flip McClane (Shaun Connolly).

“I’m hoping that folks can make a conscious decision to just put [all their cares] aside for even an hour or two,” says Esty. “Music is a powerful medium and everyone needs a little downtime or escape from the norm. Consider us as a sonic shower or bath that you can use to wash away some woes. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

The new CD finds the band in its best form to date, with a great, complementary lineup, featuring Esty on piano and vocals; Austin Beliveau on drums; James Bennett on saxophone; Jerry Maday on bass; and Darren Pinto on guitar; and with a slew of material, some from Esty’s recent creative hot streak, and some dating back to the ’70s and ’80s.

“I’m currently going through an incredible creative spurt,” Esty says. “I don’t know who I’m channeling, but I’m writing more lyrics than I can shake a stick at – on the back of Dunkin’ Donuts bags, bits and pieces of trash….I’m just writing lyrics all over the place.”

The new album, Esty says, was helped along considerably by his long-running “Turd (third) Thursdays Songwriting Challenge, a monthly event Stu has hosted at Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments storefront for years. This was a place where local musicians could try out material composed along a series of alternating themes and guidelines.

“These events were a lot of fun (and well attended) and a lot of good music came about because of the event, mostly because we had a deadline,” Esty says.

“The first song on this CD, ‘Norton 850,’ was actually a product of two months’ worth of challenges. The first was to write about a moment in your life where an experience changed your life’s path or direction (the summer of ’68 when I first hear the rumble of an English two-cylinder bike). Found that I had the idea but the story and hook just did not reveal itself to me in the time frame. The next month’s challenge was where the tune’s hook and feel came from.”

“Norton 850” is a good representation of Gonzo and RKO’s work: rootsy and rocking with a narrative teeming with humor and shades of meaning, hidden beneath progressive blues-rock rhythms, blistering lead guitar and jazzy sax lines.

“My intention is to write songs that move me but have a broader message that will resonate outside of this moment and have a story line or hook that will appeal to a larger audience,” says Esty. “The tune should move you physically and emotionally and might even have you humming it in quiet moments. I make an attempt to incorporate different levels of meaning into the lyrics, so that if you have the time and inclination, you can read into the tune and enjoy it on another plane.”

RKO plans to work more of the new CD’s material into the current lineup for its slew of upcoming shows, which includes its usual spot at the annual Paulie’s NOLA Fest, in Worcester, in June, and its monthly second Saturday show at Vincent’s. They also hope to sneak in some recording dates.

“We have an aggressive June schedule—you can spend the summer following us in your VW bus,” says Esty. “And we’re planning on capturing two or three of the new tunes, hopefully again with Roger [Lavallee, of Tremolo Lounge Studios, where “The ‘B’ Set” was recorded], and releasing them as singles over the summer.”

Check out the RKO CD-release party on June 16 at Ralph’s Diner (95 Prescott St., Worcester, ralphsrockdiner.com), become a fan of the band at Reverb Nation (reverbnation.com/theroadkillorchestra), and pick up a copy of the new CD at an upcoming show, at Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments (at its new location at 90 May St., Worcester), or online at music retailers like CD Baby, Amazon, Spotify, Rhapsody or Googleplay.

 

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The Stu Esty Interview: Part I April 14, 2012

Q&A: Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty

2012-04-14 Vincent’s

I caught up to Stu on the occasion of The Roadkill Orchestra’s monthly residency at Vincent’s, on Suffolk Street, in Worcester. (They play on the second Saturday of each month.) At this point the band had cemented its lineup (Stu Esty – piano, vocals; Austin Beliveau-drums, James Bennett – saxophone; Jerry Maday-bass & Darren Pinto- guitar), and Stu was well into renovations at the new location of his shop, Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments, which had relocated from the north end of Main Street, Worcester, to a more discreet setting at 90 May Street, Worcester.

Me: Tell me the abbreviated biography of Stu Esty.

Stu: Oh, Jesus! There is no abbreviated biography. Even the “Hemingway” version could take up volumes. My grandmother taught piano. I spent a lot of my infancy in a bassinette underneath the Steinway Grand Piano as she taught a parade of  six, seven and eight year olds, who were killing the Thompson’s registry. [Thompson’s is a popular set of teaching method books.] Rumor has it that even before I could speak I was climbing up onto the piano bench and finishing phrases that they couldn’t handle, because I just knew how to play the friggin’ songs.

I started taking lessons at the age of six with Phoebe Yassyr, a fantastic Egyptian woman of small stature and immense patience. I did not know that I had dyslexia, so the notes flowed for me on the page. It was my interpretation of classical music for almost ten-eleven years. All I really wanted to do was to play rock ‘n’ roll.

Me: But the reading was tough?

Stu: I could see where things were supposed to go, but the notes float on the page. So, for me, it was always in my interpretation. I learned to play by ear, and this gift has allowed me to play with others (although I do love running with scissors).

[I formed my first band when I was seven, in our music room in our house, called the Esty’s Pesties. We were going to take on the elementary school and birthday party circuit. I paid my best friend Chet Brett, a quarter to be our front man (booking and promoting), because he was tone deaf. So, I gave him a quarter and he went and spent my hard earned money on penny candy at the Buffalo Store, in Southboro. So, I lost that investment. That was my first lesson in dealing with the harsh reality that is Rock and Roll.

Me: And was all this in Southboro?

Stu: No, inFramingham. Right on the Ashland/Southboro line.

So, I formed my first rock ‘n’ roll band when I was seven, learning how to deal with other musicians and their personalities and emotions. Had a friend in the neighborhood named Allan who begged to be the rhythm guitarist. We tried jamming but he just wasn’t up to the task (we were freaking seven) so I called in my friend, Billy Carb who I had played with in church. When Allen realized that he was not going to be playing lead he had a slight melt down until we had him switch over to bass guitar. No one told me that there was more to just playing music when you’re starting a band. It was another life lesson and pretty steep learning curve when you’re seven or eight years old and writing your own material.

I remember writing my first song when I was four. It was about what I was gonna be when I grow up. My nursery school teacher stumped me. She asked me what I was gonna be when I grow up – on a Friday – and I thought about it until the enc of the day and then remember that asked if I could think about it some more. So, I spent all weekend dwelling on the subject. The whole conundrum – I wanted to be a captain on a whaling vessel, but I knew that Moby Dick was out there. I wanted to be a cop, but there were robbers. Be a robber, there were cops. Be an Indian, there were fucking cowboys. Be a cowboy, there were Indians. Be a game hunter, there where rhinoceri. So, I figured out early on I wanted to be a milkman.

Me: Milkman?

Stu: Yes. You get to hang out with dairy animals. Go to work early. You’re out of work by noon. They give you your own truck to drive around, and everyone was happy to see you. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about adultery, otherwise I would have had to rethink that one, as well.

Me: Or Monty Python. Bring it to the present. How did you end up in Worcester?

Stu: Early ‘90s we moved up here.

I left New England in the ‘70s – late ‘70s – lived all across theUnited States– out west, down south. Moved overseas. Lived in the Orient for two-and-a-half years; lived in Europe for three years, trying to replicate what we have here inWorcester, and I couldn’t do it.  I’m a thirteenth or fourteenth generation New Englander, out ofFramingham, and it’s in my blood. I need the weather changes, I need the people, I need the diversity. But I can’t live in suburbia. I need an urban environment. Our family has always been Worcestercentric. My father worked for Norton Company for twenty-four years; my grandfather had a paper distribution house down where the Centrum [now theDCUCenter] is; my great uncles all taught at WPI, and so we’ve always been Worcestercentric. And you can’t replicate what we have here anywhere else.

I moved back to NewEnglandin the early ‘90s, specifically here in ’92-’93, doing a triple-decker existence with a young bride.

When my boy was born, back in 1999, I was out playing five nights a week. The Roadkill Orchestra was one of the projects I was in, with Austy – “Tuna”. [Austin Beliveau, current RKO drummer] Tuna and I (and a series of folks) tried doing this and for three years we failed to find the right people to fill out the band. But the music scene back then was different. Everybody was still looking for that golden carrot, and there was a lot of competition instead of cooperation.

Nowadays the music scene has changed as has the industry has changed, as you know, and it’s a lot more cohesive. It’s cross promotion. I’ve found that (at least here in Worcester) more people working with each other instead of against each other, and I’ve studied the music industry all my life, and whether it’s Detroit or Athens [GA] or Muscle Shoals [famed Alabama recording studio] or Seattle, there are hotspots popping up all over the place. The industry is always looking for the next hotbed, and there’s so much talent here. There’s so much talent in this town. The depth and breadth of talent here is – I can’t turn around without stumbling upon somebody who is an artist, spoken word, a writer, a filmmaker, a musician – it doesn’t matter. All my friends are incredibly talented. I feel blessed to be here. I really do. You can get more shit done inWorcester than in anyplace else in the world, I’ve found. You want to get something done fast? Come toWorcester. But don’t tell anybody that, or else they’ll all show up.

Me: Tell me how you got down onto Main Street with the business [Stu relocated his Uncommon Condiments Emporium to 90 May Street, Worcester, in the spring of 2012 from 122 Main Street.] and the modern version of The Roadkill Orchestra.

Stu: I took a look at my life, in 1999, and I was out playing five nights a week, and I had a young family, and I really had to take a hard look at where my priorities were. So, I put a suit and tie on, and I gave it [music] up, with the exception of a gospel choir. I wasn’t the same person. I tried putting it away, and I’m not the same person. I work out a lot of my demons through my music. I leave most of my emotions onstage, and I’m able to deal with life that way – in my lyrics and in my performance.

When things fell apart in my personal life, I made a commitment to get back to music, and part of what I’m doing with my condiment business is to create a community. The things that bring us together as a species, in my opinion – in my experience – the three things that bring us back together after everything is tearing us apart is music, art, and food. Those are the three unifiers that I’ve found, and what we’re doing with the Dr. Gonzo product is all three of those things. OnMain StreetI had the ability to play music and open up the doors and just blast it out ontoMain Street, just because of our location. If I had tried doing that anywhere else, I would’ve got into a lot of trouble. But because we were innorth Main Street, a virtual ghost land, we were able to do that.

To get my writing chops back up to speed, I forced myself to have the Turd Thursdays Writing Challenge, and I would have challenges put out there once a month that sometimes I even couldn’t come up with. I’d say, “This is easy.” It wasn’t. But it got me to write again, which was very important, and a lot of what you hear on the first album and the second album are from the Turd Thursday Songwriters’ Challenge.

I’m currently going through an incredible creative spurt, over the last month. I don’t know who I’m channeling, but I’m writing more lyrics than I can shake a stick at – on the back of Dunkin’ Donuts bags that I rip open, bits and pieces of trash…I’m just writing lyrics all over the place. I was sitting in Beatnik’s [rock club, onPark Avenue,Worcester] listening to my friends James Keyes and the Ten foot Polecats, and I ripped out some more lyrics sitting at the bar in front of Chris. It’s amazing how much good talent is out there.

So, we’re doing our CD release party on [Saturday] June 16th, and I’m afraid that these boys are going to have to learn another twelve or fifteen tunes before then. I might not even play our second album when it comes to our CD release party.

Me: And where is the CD release party?

 

Stu: it’s gonna be at Ralph’s with Kevin Williams and the Invisible Orphans, out of Providence [RI]; with WHAT, a fantastic jam band out of Worcester, featuring Jay Kelly and the boys; and the ever popular and ever hilarious Shaun Connolly, a.k.a. Flip McClaine. He’s going to be our emcee for the evening.

Me: Tell me a little bit about the new lineup of the band.

 

Stu: Fantastic lineup! I’m totally blessed! Life has gotten in the way of a lot of our prior lineups, but this latest lineup is spectacular. Austie is still with us. We picked up James Bennett on tenor saxophone last March. He’s a perennial favorite; he’s the eye candy of the band. Jimmy the Lid. We also have Jerry Maday on bass – one of the most talented amateurs I’ve ever run into –multi instrumentalist who studied theory and composition. He’s coming up with bass melody lines that are absolutely spectacular, which frees me up to do other things. We also have the right reverend Darren Pinto on guitar, who at one point in his stellar career toured with George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers. And this evening we also have our former bass guitarist “Magic Don”, who is also a killer guitarist – sitting in on second guitar!! He’ll always has a seat here with us. Anytime.

Me: I’ve never seen you with two guitars.

 

Stu: Well, he’s an occasional second guitar. Jimmy the Lid is not able to be with us this evening. [He’s on] that work release program. [Laughs.] He’s back wearing the orange jumpsuit tonight.

Me: You’ve played Vincent’s before.

 

Stu: We scored the Second Saturday Spectacular residency, so every second Saturday of 2012 you can catch our musical mayhem right here at Vincent’s.

 

Me: So it’s every other Saturday?

Stu: Every second Saturday. The Second Saturday Spectacular. It is once a month. Unless there’s three second Saturdays, which, if there is, please let me know, because I have to rearrange my schedule.

Me: On somebody’s calendar. Do you like playing at Vincent’s?

Stu: I love it! I absolutely love it! It is snug, but it is the most intimate venue for the audience to get to know what’s happening. [Laughs.] And also possibly the world’s best meatball sandwich.

 

Me: Oh, yeah! But you’re a big guy and Roadkill makes a lot of noise. How do you tame that here?

 

Stu: We do, somewhat. It’s about listening to each other and being attentive to the audience. It’s all fun. It’s like playing in your living room. You really can’t fuck up here.

 

Me: Tell me about your new location [for Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments].

Stu: 90 May Street! [Worcester– corner of May/Mayfield between the Park Ave. CVS and next door to Big Y supermarket]

 

Me: Same mayhem?

Stu: Same mayhem, new location. The buildout is not complete. When it is finished, we hope to have the first ever in the country at least walk up and possibly drive-up condiment window, where you have to talk into an intelligible jalapeno speaker. We will understand you, but you will not understand us. That, in itself, is worth the drive and price of admission.

 

Me: And will you have the same products?

Stu: We’re bringing our products back in a phased manner, and some of our products will be relegated to a seasonal status. But we’re endeavoring to keep a high quality of consistency and availability to our customers.

 

Me: And any new stuff coming along?

 

Stu: No, we just gotta get our customer’s favorites back first! After that, we’ll talk! [Laughs]

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Roadkill Orchestra – Vincent’s Saturday, April 14, 2012

My pics from Stu Esty and Roadkill Orchestra‘s excellent, high energy boogie show at Vincent’s, where they play the 2nd Saturday of every month.

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Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – Whiskey Bent – The Lucky Dog, Saturday, March 10, 2012

by Matt Robert

“Life is too serious. Rock ’n’ roll is an escape, man,” says Whiskey Bent vocalist, Ray Auger. “We are a band you can have beers with. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we hope the audience doesn’t, either.”

Whiskey Bent brings their good-times hard rock to The Lucky Dog Music Hall Saturday, March 10, when they release their debut eponymous E.P, and open for local rock stalwarts Deep Six (featuring Jimmy D’Angelo) and Mullethead.

If your good times involve crankedup Marshall stacks and Gibson guitars, then Whiskey Bent might just have your number. Whiskey Bent will take you on a trip straight back to late ’80s “Appetite for Destruction” and “Girls, Girls, Girls” unabashed Sunset Strip hard rocking and hedonism. On “Freak Like Me,” from the new E.P., the band welcomes you to its world with a Ramones-cum-Motley Crue gang vocal (“Hey! Hey!”) and a wah-wah riff right out of Slash’s private stash, while Auger sings, “Hot living, sweet sinning. Bet you never met a freak like me,” as he celebrates a night out, full of “Gibsons let out of their cage” and “willing” girls and their friends: the stuff of ’80s MTV videos.

“Narragansett Nights” continues the assault with a touch of Diamond Dave (the band cites both Van Halen and Chickenfoot as influences), as Auger talks to the listener, laughing and invoking the local beer label’s slogan, “Hi, neighbor! What’s shaking? This could take all night,” as the band gets the riff together, announcing that it’s party time. ”You can bet I feel a party comin’ on/The clock stops at five/Living on borrowed time, Narragansett nights,” he sings over a rocking groove that evokes images of stick twirling, and lascivious, predatory looks for groupies in the front row. Later, as dual guitars solo, Auger sets up a tryst with women in a bar, in a gag right out of Roth-era Van Halen. This is arena rock, plain and simple.

“We’re performing in a beer commercial,” Auger says. With this song, they soon could be.

“When we hit the stage everything wrong in the world goes away for 45 minutes and the room becomes a sanctuary from evil forces,” says Auger. “Good times, good friends and good cheer. We do a song called ‘The Legend of Whiskey Bent.’ It’s actual folklore about the rise of Whiskey Bent from rock ’n’ roll scripture. So it is written, so it shall be. We perform it while wearing sombreros.”

“Rips Down,” the third and final track on the E.P., recorded recently at Rocket Dog Studios in Cambridge, takes the listener to a more sober place, but still within the parameters of any selfrespecting, libidinous rock act, lamenting the morning after blues “about my heart getting busted.” Dave Mabardy and Peter Hubbard’s guitars interweave in clean harmonic tones ala Jimmy Page, and Dave’s solo shows unmistakable Page influences in tone and phrasing, while drummer George Moomjian and bassist Glenn Selmi lock on a syncopated twochord groove.

“Rips Down” provides the necessary balance to what will no doubt be a largely up-tempo, rocking set, full of tight and practiced grooves, screaming guitars, and a general atmosphere of good times and partying.

Whiskey Bent’s crusade to bring a little hard-rocking fun into your life is just getting underway, but they seem to relish being unknown. “There is so much talent out there in our own backyards. How many more butterfly songs do we need from Nickelback? Don’t be fooled by the house on ‘Cribs.’ The true talent lies within the unsigned, baby.”

Yet, the band’s hopes, as you might guess, include playing more gigs, reaching more fans (especially “willing ladies,” it seems) and acquiring a recording contract. “That’s not to say we won’t sign on the dotted line in a second, though. Who wouldn’t?”

Experience the band live with Mullethead and Deep Six, Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m. – 1 a.m., $8. The Lucky Dog Music Hall, 89 Green Street Worcester. luckydogmusic.com, reverbnation.com/bostonbent

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I Want My O-TV!

Orange Television with Minions of Funk: Friday, February 24th, 2012, Beatnik’s Bar, Park Avenue, Worcester, MA

by Matt Robert

Seattle Slew! How about Seattle Stew? On Friday, Feb. 24, ’90s rock will be on display when Seattle-style rockers (via Northampton) Orange Television return to Beatnik’s with Minions of Funk.

“We’re chums with [Beatnik’s] now,” says O-TV bass player and Worcester native, Myles Heffernan. “I like the room a lot. We love the bartenders, and it just seems like an up-andcoming, positive scene.”

Orange Television’s brand of heavy rock (Myles emphasizes “hard rock, but not heavy metal”) fits Beatnik’s laid-back, but often heavy rocking vibe to a T, with liberal seasoning of Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, and Pearl Jam, along with the obligatory Zeppelin influence that underpins all of these acts. The band’s self-identified genre includes psychedelia, which, in this case means black light, ’70s stoner rock more than day-glo jam band, twirling rock, though the instrumental “Bill Cosby,” from their summer 2011 release “Extended Play,” could find a home on a Phish set list, with its intricate, ironic changes and arrangement.

The rest of the album leans heavily on dark and eerie Lane Staley-ish harmonies, tight, in-the-pocket drums and bass, and white rock-funk—pioneered by Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith in the early ’70s—and frequently dodges into shadowy corners of loose, spacey “Seasons of Wither”-like modes. A couple of tunes even step out into more accessible pop, like “What To Do,” which dons a Coldplay suit with light percussion, Rhodes piano, delay-soaked and Wes Montgomery octave guitar, and heartwrenching lyrics about aging and regret.

The new CD is the culmination of several “iterations” of the band, whose lineup has settled into Nate Martel (guitar and vocals), Howie Jay (guitar, piano and vocals), Monte Arnstam (drums, percussion and vocals), and Myles (bass).

The eclectic but unified CD was recorded last year at a western Massachusetts studio run by a friend of the band and then really brought to fruition in the mixing stage under the direction of Alex Chakour, son of local musician Mitch Chakour.

Myles says that the band’s songwriting approach varies by song. “Paper,” he says – citing it as his favorite on the album – was written in about two minutes, after a period of writer’s block. “I had just come back from the bathroom and they were jamming on this cool little thing, and the band got it together,” he says, emphasizing the “band approach” to writing and recording, which seems to infuse their entire musical philosophy.

About the direction of the band, Myles says, “We want it to be anything, as long as we’re all into it. We just do it. It’s just fun, it’s freeing. It’s a fun band to be in.” This, Myles says, doesn’t undermine the band’s craft, however. “Professionalism is part of it,” he assures.

To Orange TV, though, professionalism isn’t about adapting hackneyed stage shtick, but rather getting better at presenting their vibe.

“We try to make our live show flow very well. We’ll play backup loops between songs.” These “pre-recorded, ambient” loops that they present live and similar sonic ear-candy that appears on the new album help to evoke the band’s taste for trippy textures and provide useful segues, too.

This professional attitude has helped the band to evolve quickly from the bass and guitar duet Myles started with Howie as UMass Amherst students in 2008 to the lean, tight and polished act playing throughout New England (and New York) today. It also helps the band to respond to ever-changing club designs, atmospheres and audiences. Myles says that the band likes to suit their material to the particular audience they’re faced with. So, while they may express a strong tendency toward moody, ambient gloom rock, Orange Television also understands a bar crowd’s desire to rock out and to hear familiar songs, and, as such, includes covers of songs by MGMT, Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Aeroplane”), Neil Young (“Down by the River”) and Led Zeppelin (“No Quarter”). (In fact, the band will cover “Houses of the Holy” in its entirety at Northampton’s Iron Horse this spring.) Though, Myles says, the band doesn’t exactly reinvent these covers, they are so close to the vibe of this band anyway that they should blend right in.

Come out and support Myles on his homecoming and what should be night of intense and often powerful rock in one of Worcester’s most live-music friendly venues.

Orange Television with Minions of Funk at Beatnik’s on Friday, February 24; located at 433 Park Avenue, Worcester. 508-926-8877, beatniksbeyou.com. Learn more about the band at orangetelevision.tv and check out Minions of Funk on Facebook.

 

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