High and Mighty
Over the phone lines between Denver and Nashville, a distinct buzz can be heard -- and it's got nothing to do with faulty fiber optics.
"I'm pretty out of it this morning," says Kerry McDonald, singer and guitarist of the Mighty Rime, from his home studio on the outskirts of the Country Music Capital of the World. His voice is high, reedy and just a little bit hazy. "It probably doesn't help that I've already smoked a bunch of weed." He laughs, the sound trailing away in a wisp of smoke. "You've got to open that third eye for recording."
To McDonald, the act of recording music is a ritual as sacred as passing the peace pipe. A Denver native, McDonald moved to Tennessee last year and set up a recording studio that winds through every room of his house, outfitted exclusively with antique, analog-tape machines -- the kind used by such famed '60s rock producers as George Martin and Phil Spector.
"Those old records are the ones that sound good to me," says McDonald. "I like those simpler, older values. When I put on most new music, it just sounds so processed and compressed. I truly feel that most music being made today is pretty miserable-sounding stuff. It's weird, because now all this other shit is exploding, the Strokes and all that. But I feel like that's just fake lo-fi garage rock. It's like recording in a million-dollar studio and trying to make it sound like an old four-track machine.
"I'm not shooting for a retro sound, exactly," he sums up. "It's more of the retro idea."
Far from straight garage rock, the music on the Mighty Rime's eponymous debut disc draws upon a number of sources -- country, folk, indie rock, '60s pop -- yet winds up sounding damn near unique. Tanner Royster's nimble bass lines and James Medlin's fill-heavy drums augment McDonald's whiny drawl and brittle, raw guitar. The overall approach recalls classic rockers like Neil Young as much as modern luminaries Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel and Elliott Smith. McDonald has something of a pedigree of his own: As the bassist of the lauded mid-'90s band Christie Front Drive, he helped pave the way for the emo boom of recent years. The group is usually mentioned in the same reverent breath as Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World -- a band Christie Front Drive once shared tours and a split record with.
"After Christie Front Drive broke up, I was a roadie for the Promise Ring. This was about 1996, 1997. That's when it kind of seemed like everything was exploding," McDonald recalls. "I made the conscious decision that I was going to move to Chicago to play music, to try taking it to the next step. But when I got there, it was total overload. Music was all anyone cared about out there. After a few years, I felt like I was falling into this cycle where I was playing music, drinking every night and then working a shitty day job. I felt like I was getting locked into that lifestyle. I got really disenchanted about playing music."
A brief sojourn in Philadelphia helped McDonald put things into perspective. "In Philly, I was way happier," he says. "My friends there were really into music, but we never went to shows or played together. We did other shit, you know. We got into motorcycles. We'd build decks and do carpentry, just normal guy things. I feel like I was able to step back and look at music from something other than a musician's standpoint. I started buying and listening to records more, getting into all this old hippie shit, writing songs on my own. By staying away from music, I was able to get excited about it all over again."
McDonald returned to Denver in 2000 and soon joined Esperanto, an instrument-heavy group that leaned toward the convoluted atmospherics of Radiohead or Mogwai. He enlisted Esperanto's rhythm section of Royster and Medlin to help him nail down a few songs that he had been fiddling around with on his acoustic guitar. "I had written all these really simple, sappy folk songs, and I started thinking, 'Fuck, if I don't do this now, I'm never going to do it,'" he says. "I just realized I wanted to play this raw, simple-sounding music, this simple-ass '60s songwriting."
Soon the Mighty Rime was booking time at Pet Sounds, the renowned studio run by Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo. A champion of both home recording and vintage pop, Schneider helped produce what would become the Mighty Rime's inaugural album. Caulfield Records -- the independent Nebraska label that Christie Front Drive once called home -- agreed to release the disc. Bolstered by this sudden momentum, McDonald and company hit the road for a cross-country tour.
"The bar shows were weird. We're so quiet live, you could totally hear the crowd talking over us. It would have been better if people either booed or cheered. Either way, at least you'd know they were listening," McDonald says. "It didn't matter if we were good or bad. We were just filling up 45 minutes of people's lives while they were sitting at the bar. I felt like I was in a paid wedding band.
"It seems like back when I when I was in Christie Front Drive, there was some sense of community, of getting to know people and making friends on the road. I didn't really make a single new friend on our last tour. Maybe it's because of the fact that we're all old and not very hip or good-looking," he says, laughing. "It was fucking lonely. I also felt like we weren't connecting with people, because they've come to expect this certain caliber of musicianship from indie bands. You could sit and watch me play guitar and be like, 'Well, he's out of tune, and he's not very good, and he's only playing four fucking chords.' Nothing we do live will make you sit there and say, 'Wow, now that's some great musicianship.'"
After the tour, it was time for the Mighty Rime to decide its next course of action. McDonald, however, not knowing that his side project was going to become so active, had already made plans to relocate to Tennessee. By the time the group had finished up its record and had it released in the fall of 2002, he was living in Nashville.
"The thing about Nashville is, people here are so geared toward making money, toward making music as a career," McDonald says. "There's no one to play with in this town unless you want to pay them. When I got here, I was looking for just the most basic drummer. I was willing to take anybody, just someone who would hit something, but I couldn't find anyone. It's so bizarre. No one puts on shows. No one plays here. I haven't seen a single show since I moved here. Denver looks like fucking London compared to this town."
With his studio in operation, McDonald has been recording acoustic demos for the sophomore Mighty Rime release. "I've been really concentrating on my singing this time around," he says. "I'm one of those people who connects with the vocals. When a good song comes on the radio in my car, I'm there screaming along. For years I just fucked around with singing, and I always kind of sucked. But I was always like, 'There's so many terrible singers out there who do well anyway. If Shane MacGowan can get away with it, why can't I'?"
Joking aside, McDonald's voice is surreal and weirdly tuneful, sounding like it could belong to some estranged, inbred black sheep of the Carter Family. Just as odd and hallucinatory are his lyrics.
"If you listen to 'Loot'n and Shoot'n,' it's about my dog being run over by a car on Federal. I was in a real foul, sour mood when I wrote that," McDonald says of the dark, driving second track of the first Mighty Rime disc. "If my dog had been killed trying to protect me from a mountain lion while I was camping or something, that would've been fine. I could deal with that. But it's such a tragedy, such a waste of life for something to be killed by an automobile. On Federal fucking Boulevard."
His dog isn't the only departed loved one McDonald has eulogized in song. "I have a new song that's probably the most sincere thing I've ever written. And the cheesiest," he says. "It's about Joe Strummer of the Clash. It's funny, 'cause I actually like Mick Jones's voice and songs better than I like Strummer's. But I think that a lot of what we still hold on to -- being old ex-punk rockers or indie rockers or hardcore kids -- he was the embodiment of. I'm not really all that sentimental or emotional, but I really felt like I lost a friend."
While friends perhaps only in a figurative sense, McDonald does share one deep passion with the late Clash frontman: reggae.
"I had this realization the other day that I would love to do a straight-up roots-reggae band," McDonald says. "That's all I buy and listen to anymore, anyway. It just sounds so honest to me. That's why I like reggae: You can't fake it. To just hash out the chords doesn't take much, but you have to have that Jah vibe, you know? And that's why I like the Mighty Rime. I feel like for the first time, I'm doing something real."
Right now, McDonald is in the midst of assembling his band to record a second full-length disc; it's a geographic juggling act, because the group's new drummer, Joe Burkhart, lives in Detroit, while Royster still resides in Denver. "I think we go about things kind of backwards," he explains. "We did this last tour just to practice songs before going into the studio to record them, rather than the other way around. Usually you practice the songs first, get them tight, go into the studio and then go on tour... I don't know. I think I'm backwards. Am I making any sense?"
"I tend to ramble a lot when I smoke pot," he says, sounding nearly philosophical. "Like, when we were in Esperanto, um, let me get a glass of water here... When we were in Esperanto, let me see... I lost track of what I was saying here... Let me catch my breath. I'm just completely rambling here."
Of course, no thoughtful rumination on songcraft or vintage recording techniques would be complete without mentioning the Beatles -- a group that, until recently, McDonald disregarded. "I always thought they weren't that good of a band," he confesses. "But over the last year, I've really gotten into the Beatles. I picked up George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, which is amazing, and I've been watching that eight-video Beatles Anthology. Have you seen that part about the making of Sgt. Pepper? There's like, this full orchestra being recorded, people dancing around the studio on acid and throwing flowers and shit; Mick Jagger stoned out of his mind..."
McDonald pauses to savor the cannabis-enhanced afterimage. "Dude, that is the coolest thing I think I have ever seen."
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