I know I’m far from alone in having a crate of tapes on a shelf at my folks’ house, with labels like “All Along the Watchtower Take 17,” “Magnetic Taffy” and “The Kessel Run (in 12 Parsecs)” scrawled on their inserts. However, not all experiments with the venerable Portastudio end in a cardboard box. Since their introduction in 1980, consumer tape recorders have played a big part in great releases, including Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the early Guided by Voices catalog and the psych-pop masterpiece by The Olivia Tremor Control, Dusk at Cubist Castle.
One local artist we can add to this list is Brett Rosenberg, the man behind whip-smart pop project Quichenight. Tomorrow night at Dino’s, Rosenberg will celebrate the release of the aptly titled full-length Quichenight III (on cassette and as a download, and you can already hear it below), in which little gems of studio weirdness sit side-by-side with nuggets of Rosenberg's own well-crafted, sardonic pop, as well as a few covers. For those unfamiliar with Rosenberg’s style and brand of wit, imagine Harry Nilsson and Lou Reed at a potluck dinner hosted by Alex Chilton, and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store.
I was intrigued to discover that Rosenberg — who has recently joined PUJOL on guitar — wrote, performed, recorded and mixed all of the tracks himself, on his own Portastudio. Even setting aside the great mastering job by Battle Tapes' Jeremy Ferguson, the tracks have a level of polish I wish my four-track work had. To gain some insight into how Quichenight III came to be, I asked Rosenberg a few questions via email. See his responses after the jump.
How long have you been working on III?
Quichenight III has a lot of stuff that didn't make it on Quichenight II, which has a lot of stuff that didn't make it on Quichenight I, which has a lot of stuff that predates the name Quichenight. I record at home for fun. Quichenight is sort of a re-brand of my recording arrangements of songs I wrote, improvised or covered. Once in a while, I make a mixtape of some stuff and think, "Oh, this would make a good Quichenight." I make albums, but I don't make albums. Hmmmm.
Which model of Portastudio do you have (the gray "Guided by Voices" one, the blue one, or another), and to what did you mix down?
It's the gray one. It's pretty fried. I need to find a new one. Maybe it just needs some surface cleaner. I just send everything into the line-in on my laptop, which probably isn't the best idea sound-wise. Audacity is the program I use to capture it. Jeremy from Battle Tapes mastered II and III, and sucked all the sssssssccccccchhhhh frequencies out, which helped. Kyle Hunt, who used to play drums for Dewey Decibel, mixed the first record and he did a wonderful job, because he is a patient genius.
How did you decide to track on the four-track? A lot of artists appreciate how a limited track count affects the decision-making process. Do you, as well?
You might start off with 24 tracks, but everyone ends up at two eventually. I don't think people who listen to Quichenight on laptop speakers necessarily know it's a 4-track thing. I try not to do typical 4-track stuff. I usually want it to feel arranged, to have groove and production value even if it sounds reduced or squishy. The bass always has to be right. If the drums don't have a lot of definition and have the DynaComp squish, the bass really needs to be old-school and intentional.
I feel like the four-track looks at me, watches what I do next. I don't feel that same authority from other devices. It may be just the fact that it's mine, or that I know it very well, or that I've been handling cassettes since I was 3, too, so it kind of takes me back to childhood when music was mythical and magical, but not so personal, because all I could do was make noise. Maybe it's just an Aspergers-y, narrow-interest thing — being really obsessed with recording, but only bothering to learn how to work a DynaComp and a 424, totally disinterested in the gear around me.
With digital stuff, even what you do at home, there's a sense that it's never really done, especially if you have some sort of band democracy and everyone's watched that Wilco movie a couple of times. On the other hand, when you bounce [tape tracks] 1, 2 and 3 onto 4, and record over 1 and 2, and bounce them to 3, there's no turning back. You know you just need to finish it, put some hand claps on, and make it sound groovy. Instead of tweaking for weeks, you can move on and do what's next. I know there are people who record cool stuff in digital all that time, and I use it occasionally. I recorded "L.A. Time," from the first tape, all in Audacity. But I use digital stuff like a big four-track. I always print effects because I don't like the way outboard stuff sounds. I just want one sound, not a sound overlay on top of a sound. This is probably way more than you wanted to know.
If I understand correctly, you write and record all of the parts yourself, and then rehearse them with a mostly different band for just about every show. Any plans to settle down with a permanent band in the future, or does this way suit you better?
The live band keeps evolving, but it's not something I cultivate. I play with people I know, and those people happen to all have other stuff going on, most of which is kinda good and successful, which I'm into because it makes me feel like I play with a bunch of A-listers. I kind of wanna find one place to play where it works and makes money and just have an evolving lineup and play there all the time for as long as it works. Nashville has tons of great singers and players, and I want to play with more of them, develop with them the same rapport I have with the four-track. My biggest fear before a Quichenight show is that the show won't surprise me.
Corey Cox, who I work with at Calypso, has been the one constant member. He made me start Quichenight as a live entity. He's moving to Australia in March, and I'll be touring with PUJOL a bunch, so there may not be a lot of live Quiche in the not-too-distant future.
How did you pick "Let's Dance" and "I Wanna Pick You Up" to cover?
I was trying out a drum thing with "Let's Dance" — using a floor tom as a snare stand — and that was my test song. I think Chris Montez has a really funny voice. Side two [of a record] needs something UP.
"I Wanna Pick You Up" is supposed to be really witty and sweet, but the person writing it — Brian Wilson in 1976 — has no idea how creepy it is. If I'm reading it correctly, the whole song is one very long, fatally misguided pickup line. (I wanna pick you up ... cause you're like a baby. Get it? Here's all the baby shit I wanna do to you ... ) It's also a beautiful song. Learning a song with chords and melody like that permanently changes your internal harmony map. Songs like this are what music is all about to me. I tried to re-imagine it as it would have sounded on Smile, 10 years earlier. Alex Chilton did a cover of it, too. Everyone should buy The Beach Boys' Love You and listen to it 5,000 times like I did.
What's your take on cassettes as a medium for releasing a record?
It's cheap. It's not appropriate for every style of music these days. I can't imagine Masses Beware or Pinkletank doing cassettes, but for something that is lo-fi or cassette-oriented to begin with, it makes sense. It's cute. Everybody likes tapes.