July 10, 2014

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Weight of the Sun - Commons (2014)

The making of this album is truly a long story, and I'll do my best to give you my perspective in a concise format.  It goes all the way back a full seven years to when Rob Jones, the bass player, originally started a version of the band with some other guys.  Over the course of time, several members came and left, the music evolved, and even the name changed.  Now we are known as Weight of the Sun, but the band was previously called Chanauk up until early 2014, when we all decided it would be in our best interest to change the name to something a little easier to remember, pronounce correctly, spell correctly, and find online.

From L to R: Rob Jones, Pete Casellini, David Martin, Ruben Gutierrez, Steven Fies.

In fact, to go on a brief tangent, the name Weight of the Sun resulted from a tedious process during which at least 40-50 names were thrown out for consideration.  The band shared a Google spreadsheet online and brainstormed together, then ranked the various names and eventually came to an agreement on this one, which we all liked.

The name Chanauk did not completely die, though, as evidenced by its appearance as a short transition track on Commons:

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In fact, in the final hour of mixing down our album before it went off for mastering, our mix engineer ran out of time and was unable to put Chanauk together for the album.  It almost missed the cut!  With hours to spare, Rob and I ran over to the studio and banged it out in about 40 minutes.  It was just a combination of his bass with some steep flange to it, along with some inward screams that were reversed and time lapsed for effect.  It was fairly quick and easy to mix given how short it was, and we were all happy that Chanauk would still have a place in the Weight of the Sun saga.

But let's back up a little bit and go back to the start of the story.  Well, the start of the story for me and the other three newest members, anyhow.  Hit the play button above to start listening to the album as you read on.

From 2012 Forward

The previous version of Chanauk from 2012 contained guitarist Tyler Alvord and drummer Jeff Konicke.  Tyler and Rob had known each other and played together for years, sharing many of the same musical influences: Isis, Pelican, Mastodon, Tool, Deftones, and more.  Tyler's guitar style was somewhat dark, slow, but very meaningful and melodic.  When Jeff joined the band, he brought a strong energy and desire to speed things up a bit, and brought the drums out front and center in the mix.  There was no vocalist at the time, but the instrumentals were captivating all on their own.  Songs like Informants, Confined to Tight Spaces, and Spitting Image evolved from this time period, and still contain elements from the original parts to this day.

Somewhere around this time, I was at the end of taking a full year off from the local music scene (well, I had been working on building my home studio and doing some home recording work in my "off" time), and was starting to get the itch to play out again.  The trouble was finding the right group of guys with similar interests and a common goal of making a CD.

One night I remember lying in bed awake, unable to sleep, and so I started browsing the Craigslist postings for "guitarist wanted" in San Diego.  I responded to an ad that Chanauk had posted at the time, as they were considering bringing a second guitarist on board to add further dynamics to their sound.  Without thinking much about it, I dozed off and woke up for work the next day barely remembering what I had done.

At some point in the middle of my work day, I received an email from Jeff who wanted to talk more about me getting involved in the project.  After a long phone call in which we connected right away, Chanauk decided to bring me in for an audition.  It went well, and they all seemed pretty stoked about me getting involved.  Likewise, I was really into the music, and was particularly inspired by Tyler's unique guitar style and tone.  He was playing an interesting split bi-amp setup with a 4x10 Yamaha combo sitting on top of an enclosed, 2x12 Ear Candy on bottom, and the sound pressure coming out of the stack was pretty incredible.

Ruben Gutierrez and Steven Fies join Chanauk

Around the same time, though, they had also brought in Ruben for an audition (our other current guitarist), and sometime shortly thereafter Jeff called to let me know they were having a tough time choosing between us.  In the end, the decision never needed to be made one way or the other because we both came on board.  This resulted from Tyler's departure from the band when he moved out of San Diego for work, just a couple of weeks after all of this.  This was lucky for me, because Ruben is a far more talented guitar player than I am at the end of the day, and I think they probably would have chosen him over me!

To keep things going, I learned Tyler's existing parts and began the process of growing into my new role as rhythm guitarist and a songwriter for the band.  Ruben started into the difficult task of building upon what had already been created, and morphed into what most would call the lead guitarist for the band.

David Martin joins Chanauk

Over the course of the next couple of months, we got to a great point with the music but realized it was time to complete the band by bringing in a vocalist.  We cycled through quite a few different folks before finding David, who proved to be a great front man both on and off the stage.  As the band continued writing new music together and reworking the old stuff, David quickly found his voice and settled in.  The effort that he puts into singing and composing lyrics is commendable, and really shines through on our album.  Finally, around the beginning of 2013, the band was a complete and functioning whole.

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Chanauk at the Ruby Room on January 5, 2013.

But not for long, because Jeff had to move to the east coast for work shortly thereafter.  We had only played a couple of shows together, at the Jumping Turtle and the Ruby Room, before Jeff made the big announcement.  We were bummed because it was yet another change in a short period of time, and besides that Jeff was a good guy and a great drummer.  Dedicated to his craft, he was taking lessons up in LA with the drummer from the Mars Volta at the time.  I remember going to NAMM with him during 2013 up in Anaheim, too, where he was summoned to help at both the DW and Bosphorus drum booths.  It was always a fun time hanging out.

But we knew what we had to do, and before long we were bringing in new drummers for auditions.

Pete Casellini joins Chanauk

Pete had a certain energy and vibe about him that no one else had ever exhibited.  His kit was pretty unique, too, as it was a very minimal and somewhat rare Gretsch USA Custom (just one rack tom, one floor tom) and contained no crash cymbals -- only rides, which he crashed out as needed.  We were suspicious at first, but by his second audition we realized something very special was happening with him.  Not only was he picking up all the parts very quickly, but he was injecting a new flare and swing to the music that gave it an impressive amount of depth and dynamic character.  Everyone agreed that he would be an excellent fit, and after our next practice together we had a memorable inauguration at a nearby bar.  His work on Villains, Scared Bird, and Marionette is noteworthy, and alludes to his Jazz background.

Over the course of the next several months, we re-solidified our sound and took on a new character.  With the addition of Pete, the shift was very positive and our energy level was quite high.  The first shows we played with Pete were both at House of Blues during August 2013, one on the stage upstairs and another on the big main stage downstairs.  The sound was incredible on the main stage, and had some of the best stage monitoring I've ever experienced in San Diego.

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Chanauk playing at House of Blues in August 2013.

Let me back track just a little bit though, because just before these shows, we had a unique opportunity arise that put us in a fantastic position to record and complete our album.

Back to Bassics Recording Studio

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The front entrance of Bassics Studio.

Sometime in late June of 2013, we discovered a potential practice spot that would give us much more square footage (for band practice) than our existing location.  The price increase was nominal, so we jumped on the opportunity.  Whereas we had been practicing in one very small room, about 12' x 20' in total size, suddenly we had over 600 sq ft spread across 4 different rooms to work with.  There was also the benefit of being in an industrial business park, and it felt like we had the entire building to ourselves, even though it was just an office space up in the corner of an average-sized office building.

Moving into this space quickly shifted our priorities and made things more serious.  I had finally gotten to a point where my home studio was fairly robust, and Rob had similarly been building up a decent stockpile of recording gear at the old spot.  By selling off some of the duplicate items we both shared, and by focusing on working together to build a professional-scale studio, we eventually reached our goal.  It required a significant investment of time and resources, and in hindsight it was probably a little nuts, but it was entirely worth it in the end.  For example, all the many weekends spent building bass traps, sound panels, and sound diffusers were brutal, but allowed us to engineer a cost-effective solution for the acoustical treatment of the recording spaces.  The whole band pitched in to paint the walls, decorate the place, and make it feel like home.

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The social room at Bassics during a photo shoot in 2014.

We applied a feng shui theme to the entire studio, as well, with different spaces being painted in different colors to elicit different emotions and reactions.  For example, these are the currently existing rooms at the studio:

Entrance Hall - Green, to provide refreshment on the way in and out
Social Room - Orange, for liveliness and to stimulate social interaction
Storage Hall - Yellow, to lighten the mood and keep a positive mindset
Live Room - Red, to create powerful emotional responses for songwriting purposes
Control Room - Grey + Purple, to designate it as a workspace with a hint of creativity and color
Vocal Booth - Blue, to encourage vocalist relaxation and get into the zone for productive recordings

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Recording guitar for Commons in the control room at Bassics during 2014.

Once we finished building out the studio, which took several months, we held an open house in November 2013 and even started inviting other bands to come take advantage of the facility.  It was great to share the space with others and use it as a social gathering spot on the weekends.  And finally, we were able to start into the recording process for our very own album.

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Local bands hanging out at Bassics during its open house in 2013.

The Recording Process

As anyone who has ever been a part of a major recording can tell you, the process was long and arduous.  However, it was made easier by virtue of having our own studio to record in, and despite how much effort went into it, we managed to knock it out pretty efficiently.  For instance, all the drums were recorded in a single session one day, as were all of my guitar parts and most of the bass.  What took the longest was putting the vocal harmonies and effects together, and of course the mix-down itself.

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Pete getting ready to record drums for Commons late in 2013.

This is where having an experienced engineer like Matt Murphy proved invaluable, as he was able to trim the fat and craft a sonically superior mix for us.  Not enough can be said for the flattery his creativity and engineering brought to our music and our listeners' interpretation of it.  He managed to bring out subtle nuances of our playing style, let each of us take timely turns being front and center, and apply dramatic effect to certain parts of the songs that were not previously emphasized as such.  Certain intros, outros, and bridges really just came to life with his production work.

Yet he did not interfere with our intentions or alter the music in any significant or noticeable way.  He allowed the music to breathe all on its own, pulling faders down when needed to allow certain parts to come through better, but without rolling any unneeded faders up or adding additional parts.  The notable exception to this would be on our song, Villains, in which Mr. Murphy wrote some fantastic piano parts to accompany the instrumentals.  Ever since the first time I heard it with his piano, I fell in love like the rest of the guys did, and cannot imagine it being any different now.  It's simply brilliant!  I think this is part of what helped get Villains onto 91.X and SD Pirate Radio at the same time on the same night just a few weeks ago.

The Silver Lines story

Matt also had a large influence on Silver Lines, which is the first track on the album.  It's actually a pretty funny story, and if not for a little snafu that he caused this song wouldn't exist!  One day early on during the recording process, he accidentally connected my Mesa Road King without actually hooking up the speaker cabinet, and ended up frying all the tubes in the back of the amp.  Frustrated, I went to Guitar Trader in Clairemont to pick up more tubes in hopes that the new tubes would fix the issue.  I wasn't entirely sure though and was still quite nervous.  Fortunately, when I got back to the studio and replaced the tubes, my amp turned right back on and was A-OK.  Phew!

My inner experience at the time was a unique combination of joy, relief, but I also still had some frustration and nervous energy from the whole ordeal.  In playing through some dissonant chords and progressions that alternated between these two emotions, the parts that eventually became the core of Silver Lines surfaced in a matter of minutes.  After bringing the concept into practice, showing it to the guys, changing some things around, and working together to get the remainder of the parts written, we eventually had a full song out of it.  David wrote fantastic lyrics to the song, and everyone else really nailed their parts, too.  In fact, I really like how David opened up the "happier" part and turned it into an actual chorus, and repeated several times throughout the song.  Originally it was a much shorter part that just teased at the major scale for a second.

The old track order.
Silver Lines used to be called Lucy Lucid, by the way, but we decided to change it at the last minute during the mastering process.  If you know us, you know that it is not unlike us to make constant changes and rearrangements to things until some sort of hard deadline prevents further adjustment (such as having a recorded album!).  This is a good thing, though, and part of what makes our process work.  This is truly at the core of what Commons is all about, as a matter of fact.



The meaning of Commons

The reason we chose Commons as the name for our debut album is because it represents the diversity within the band.  Each and every one of us are so unique and different in our own ways, and outside of the band we all come from varying backgrounds and walks of life.  Different musical tastes, different opinions on politics, and different views as to how to shape our music.  But what we do share in common is the desire to produce excellent music that we all love and enjoy, and this is what chains us together.  This often means lots of reworking to song ideas or parts, and sometimes it feels like the idea can go around Round Robin style for hours before finally reaching a settling point.  But this exhaustive review process is what helps us weed out the crud and only keep the things that are truly special, the things that captivate all of our interest.

As we move into the future and start considering our second album, I'm confident this same process will be at the crux of developing something we are equally proud of once again.  Though it can be tiresome, it really is quite effective for us when going through the creative process.  The way we see it, the more minds and the more ideas that can brainstorm together, the better.  We believe there is more raw material available for consideration and a greater chance of making things come to life this way.

New Transitions

At this point, I want to thank each and every one of my band members for this experience and sharing in so many fond memories together.  It has been a long ride but definitely a fun one, and now I find myself looking forward to what the future holds as I make my own transition to a new place in the near future: Austin, TX.  Yes, approximately one month from now I am moving with my family to the Live Music Capital of the World.  It is painful leaving, but also promising to be going to such a great place.  Moreover, I'm excited for Brian Gould to make an entrance and continue on from where I leave off, he is a great guitarist in my estimation.  Thank you Brian for keeping the ball in the air for us!

In closing, this project was by far the most fun, challenging, and rewarding undertakings that I have been a part of in a long while.  Commons is the result of the very hard work of several individuals.  I must give a huge thank you to our producer and mix engineer, Matt Murphy, and our mastering engineer, Joe Goodwin.  Many thanks go out to others who supported us along the way, too, including Travis Neal and Michael Jackson (no, not the late pop star -- just a really talented guy with the same name, who also happens to do graphic design for the band Rise Against).  The full list can be viewed below on the inside cover art from our digipak.


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