The Making of 39 Summers
It all started with a friendly email sent around Halloween of 2012.
“Hi guys, hope all is well,” it read. “Wondering if you two would be interested in doing some BGVs for a local talent.”
The email was from Ray Gagliardino, the owner of Studio 825 in Wilmington, Delaware. After we figured out that BGV probably meant “background vocals” (a process that took roughly a half hour), we agreed – especially after learning the “local talent” was our buddy Brene Wilson, an amazing singer-songwriter we met years ago.
“Great!” he replied. “As a kickback I would like to record three of your originals here.”
Studio 825 was well-known to each of us, mostly because the Joe Trainor Trio recorded Twelve Stories, their latest (kick-ass) album, there. Jill and I went in separately to contribute to that Joe Trainor Trio album; Jill sang, I played sax. And we were both wowed by both the capabilities of the studio and Ray’s relaxed but focused approach to producing. It had been a year or two since we’d been in a studio (Jill records and tours with The Industrial Jazz Group), but we immediately fell in love with the glory and romance of working in Ray’s studio in particular. Both of us love the process of recording, of building music, and making music in Ray’s studio filled us with excitement.
And we knew that it was time to record an album.
It’s not like we hadn’t recorded as Hot Breakfast stuff before – we recorded and mixed our self-titled EP over the spring and summer at Knappshack Studios (i.e., Jill’s living room). With a simple Tascam interface, Cubase 6, a few half-decent mics and cables, and a willingness to take chances and make a lot of mistakes, we came up with six recordings we were relatively happy with (turns out, a few people agreed). Most of the songs on our EP were strictly acoustic, but “It Only Takes Two to Rock” was filled with drums, electric guitars, basses, overdubbed vocals, and surprise percussion. Building that song was a pleasure, and it filled us with the desire to record more tracks with a hard-edged, rock sound – just the way we’ve been hearing them in our heads.
Now, even though Hot Breakfast! is an acoustic duo, we like to think we’re a full-on punk/hard-rock/pop band. Sure, we perform with one guitar and two voices, but we hear electric guitars, drums, basses, keyboards, a backing chorus – the works. (We should probably seek help.) And we really wanted our first album to capture that feeling that only existed in our minds, that encompassing, joyful caterwaul we sacrificed somewhat when we decided to perform as an acoustic duo.
Basically, we wanted to rock.
Now, when he made his offer, Ray believed we wanted to record as an acoustic duo. Full-band recordings take a lot more time and planning, and for a studio, time is money. His offer was generous, but he hadn’t intended on being quite that generous. So when we went in to sing on Brene’s songs (which are awesome, by the way – he’s one of our favorites), we told Ray that yes, we absolutely want to record at his studio, but we want to pay his regular rate, because we wanted five songs – three with a full band.
A few looks at our schedules, a very kind agreement on rates, and a handshake or two later, and we were on the calendar to record at Studio 825.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – Delaware is currently the home to an incredibly talented and welcoming community of musicians. The folks making original music around these parts aren’t just some of our favorite musicians – they’re some of our favorite people. We help each other out, we support each other, we look at each other as peers, not rivals. So when it came time to find musicians to join us in the studio, we didn’t have to look far.
For “Defender” – a song I wrote back in the 90s, when people were just learning to walk upright, the choices were easy: Joe Testa on guitar, Kevin Niemi on bass, and Jeff Dement on drums. No question. Kevin and Jeff are, of course, the rhythm section of The Joe Trainor Trio, and you won’t find musicians who rock harder. Joe Testa, who has been one of my best friends for many years, is simply one of the best rock guitarists in the area – a monster player with amazing versatility.
We took a different approach for “39 Summers” and “Act Surprised,” mostly for scheduling reasons – we needed a drummer who could record in the morning, leaving us the rest of the day to work on guitar, piano, and vocal tracks. Enter Ritchie Rubini, a Delaware legend who played with some massively popular and successful local bands, including The Caulfields, Matt Sevier, and Angela Sheik. Ritchie is a wonderful drummer and producer (more on that later) and, much to our delight, agreed to play drums on the songs.
We don’t know what’s going on in this video either.
There were two tunes we decided to record at Studio 825 – “Gravity” and “Hole in Your Pants” – with only our voices and my guitar. So there it was – five songs, two Hot Breakfast!ians, and a whole lot of backing talent. It was time to go to work.
We got to Ray’s studio the morning of November 26, 2012. By early afternoon, Ritchie had recorded the drums and percussion for “39 Summers” and “Act Surprised,” and man, did they sound sweet. After hearing each song only a couple times, Ritchie nailed the feel we were after – his drumming is both technically brilliant and filled with personality. We loved working with him, and were thrilled with the result. We added some guitar and vocal tracks and called it a (really great) day.
The next night, Jeff came in with his kit, and we knocked out the drums for “Defender.” Jeff just killed it – his style was perfectly suited to the Pixies-like feel we were after. Our only regret is that the song didn’t have more drums, actually. And the next day, when Kevin knocked out his bass parts on all three songs, we were even more excited – Ray captured the sound beautifully, and Kevin attacked each song with his signature playful, thoughtful, hard-rocking style.
The next night, it was Joe Testa’s turn to lay down some electric guitar tracks. Here’s where I was nervous, because in my home recordings I was never able to capture a really strong electric guitar sound – it would take hours of futzing before I got close. But Ray and Joe are two men who know what they’re doing – between Joe’s custom amp and Ray’s skill as an engineer, we had no problem finding great sounds, from clean R&B grooves to super-heavy distortion. There was a lot of tracking to get done, as we had to record lead, rhythm and solo tracks on three songs, but by the end of the night we were incredibly satisfied with Joe’s playing (not a surprise there) and the sounds we captured. Everything was feeling just right – the songs were coming together quickly, and sounding even better than we’d hoped.
The next day was trickier. I was trying to record the lead for “Defender,” but I couldn’t keep my electric guitar in tune. I tried playing it on Ray’s sweeeet Les Paul, but the results were similar – certain notes kept going sharp. Finally, Ray diagnosed the issue: I was so used to playing my acoustic, which requires a heavier touch, that I was pushing too hard and bending the strings – not necessarily an issue for rhythm tracks, but fatal for the naked arpeggios of “Defender.” I was frustrated and discouraged, but Ray had a solution: play the part on your acoustic, he suggested, and we’ll use studio t’chnology1 to make it sound like an electric. It worked, and after Jill laid down a rockin’ vocal, we had a song in the bank.
Over the next few days – right up until a couple days before Christmas – the others started to fill out as well. We were giddy – these songs were sounding good, even better than we hoped. We started to wonder if we should be doing more than five songs at Studio 825.
“Maybe we should hire Ritchie as a producer?” Jill suggested.
Now, Ritchie is well-regarded as an exceptional producer. We’d heard some of the work he did with Angela Sheik and von Grey, and it is marvelous. And we loved the few hours we spent with him in the studio – his energy and humor are infectious. But we had never worked with a producer before. We liked the idea of being in charge, of having the final say, and we weren’t sure we wanted to give that up. But, as Jill pointed out, if at any step of the way we didn’t like the way things were going, we could always either cancel the session or just not include the song on the album. I finally agreed.
We recorded an acoustic demo of “We Are Not Cool” and sent it to Ritchie and Ray. A couple days later, we got a call from Ritchie – he wanted to meet with us to discuss the song and what to do with it. Again, we were nervous. This was uncharted territory, especially for me.
But one visit with Ritchie erased all doubts. Not only did his ideas suit us and our dork-rock aesthetic, but he came up with little touches that we never would have imagined on our own. Also, as we said before, we really liked the guy, and had a feeling working with him would be a rewarding experience.
We got to the studio early and Ritchie immediately got to work on his drum track. Once he had it sounding the way he wanted it, we started layering – acoustic guitar tracks, then electric. Ray laid down the bass, and holy hell, is he one mother of a bass player.
By the early afternoon, the track was already sounding great. But it wasn’t until Ritchie had Jill record backing vocals in the chorus and laid down a keyboard lick that the song really came together. By that evening, we had a rockin’ tune that we loved, one that encapsulated Ritchie’s adventurous, quirky spirit and our signature dorkiness. So there it was – our relationship with Ritchie resulted in both a great track and a joyful experience.
So a month later, when I wrote a song called “Underground” and played it for Jill (while she and I were 1700 miles apart – sometimes I love living in the future), we knew what to do – we gave Ritchie a call. Another meeting, another demo, another fantastic, unforgettable day in the studio, and we had a track we loved – one that had the giddy 60s garage-rock sound we both love, and lots of fun little touches. A couple weeks later, a couple days before Easter, we went back to the studio and had Dave Duncan, a fantastic local guitarist, cut an offbeat, whimsical, rockin’ guitar solo. A few more tweaks and “Underground,” the final track recorded on 39 Summers, came to life.
We can’t say this enough – we love working with Ritchie Rubini – he’s everything a dork-rock band could ever want in a producer. We’ve got a feeling this won’t be our last time.
As I mentioned before, I’ve been home-recording for years, even before we made our EP and “An Idiot for Christmas” single. I made cassettes with a 4-track studio in the 80s and early 90s, and I recorded two CDs (2007’s Songs for the Earthbound and 2010’s All This Life2) with Cubase, inexpensive but powerful recording software installed on my laptop.
When you record at home, you’re constantly in the studio. You can record, tinker, mix, remix at any time of the day or night – you don’t have to worry about keeping our engineer from having a nice dinner. We love the freedom of recording at late hours, making different sounds, playing and experimenting, knowing we can always try another take, another patch. But the downside is that we don’t have the equipment nor the proper sound-proofed space that most great studios provide (not to mention the expertise of a great engineer like Ray). If we wanted our home recordings to stand up next to the tracks from Ray’s, we were going to need a little help.
Enter our secret weapon: Stephen Manocchio, the Sound Engineer at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware. Not only is Stephen a great engineer in his own right, but he’s a good friend who made us a very kind offer to record in his own personal studio. That timing didn’t work out, so Stephen did something wonderful for us – he loaned us some of his excellent, studio-quality microphones, which helped us capture clean, crisp vocals and acoustic guitar tracks. We still lacked soundproofing, but we decided it wasn’t the worst thing in the world if the occasional songbird made a cameo.
We won’t bore you with the details of recording and mixing the “homemade” tracks. It involved a lot of recording and re-recording, countless hours of late-night, down-to-the-wire mixing, and tons of second-guessing. But we kept our minds open and an adventurous spirit. On one track, “Maybe You Saw it Too,” we sampled MIDI drums and sounds for countless, fruitless hours until we decided to give up – only to have a revelation during a car ride that gave us the sound we were looking for. We scrapped a fully-recorded, full-band rock version of “Run” because it felt too processed and re-recorded an acoustic version live in one take – all it needed was a bit of percussion and an awesome guitar solo, and Chuck Kuzminski (of CKuz Guitars in Middletown, Delaware) provided that a few days later. On yet another – “It Only Takes Two to Rock” – we decided to keep the version on our EP after some subtle re-mixing and not-so-subtle enhancements.
Okay, so we guess we did bore you with a few details. Sorry about that. The important part of all this is that we had yet another secret weapon in Eamon Loftus, the genius who mastered the entire album – the studio tracks and the homemade tracks. His tireless work and expertise gave the album some coherence. He was able to smooth out the dynamic differences among all the songs, adjusting volume and EQ to find common ground between the loudest rock cuts and the softest acoustic songs.
After a lot of back and forth (which was actually a pleasure – Eamon’s as funny as he is talented), we had it: 39 Summers. The first full-length, original album from Hot Breakfast!. There’s not really enough room here to thank everyone who helped make it possible (hell, there’s barely enough room on the internet), but we did our best on the CD jacket.
Speaking of the CD jacket, we have to give shout-outs to two men who helped make the CD look great – photographer Joe del Tufo and designer George Murphy. Joe’s been taking amazing live concert shots in Delaware and Philadelphia for years – including some of us – and agreed to take cover shots for us. We’ll tell you all about that experience in a different post, but wow, what a day that was. He also designed the cover and gave it a sweet little Easter egg (hint: there is a witness). And George, who also happens to play guitar in one of our favorite bands, gathered all the photos & files we sent him and came up with a layout for the CD case that blew our expectations away – and he did it in a very short time on top of a huge workload. Thank you, George and Joe, for making us look cool.
And since you’ve made it this far in this blog post, we want to thank you too. So here’s “39 Summers,” the first song on the CD, for your streaming pleasure. We hope you enjoy it.
Much Love and Dork Rock,
Matt (the Suburban Legend)
1That’s not a typo, but an attempt to write the way Jack Black speaks. (NSFW language)
2Currently ranked #661,835 in sales. In your FACE, #661,836!