The process of making music isn't always idyllic. Just ask Jme White. Blusom, the duo he co-founded with singer/guitarist Mike Behrenhausen, just released The Metapolitan, its sophomore full-length on the eminent Kansas City imprint, Second Nature. And while the group's mix of sweet, sad indie pop and warped electronica may sound as lilting and effortless as a spring breeze, its origin was a bit more labored.
"It was grueling," says White. "It was painful. It sucked."
Six months ago, Second Nature's label head, Dan Askew, asked if the band had "any new recordings," White recalls. "We added it all up, and we had 26 songs. We're in a constant process of recording; Mike writes a song a day. We wanted to do a double CD, but Dan didn't want to because double CDs are annoying and cost too much. So we made a version that was sixty minutes, and we even got a little flak about that being too long. So we reworked it again. It was an ugly process making this album, having to whittle it down from 26 songs to forty minutes. That's why we did the EP." White's referring to The Fundamental Drift, a five-song companion to The Metapolitan available only as a download from music websites such as iTunes. "That's the other twenty minutes we originally wanted on there," White explains. "It's kind of goofy to have on online CD, but if people wanted the music, we wanted it to be available."
Blusom's compulsory self-editing was only compounded by its painstaking songwriting method. Rather than jamming in a practice space with a bunch of buddies over a twelve-pack, the band has a much less social modus operandi. White takes his partner's raw, basic acoustic tracks and tweaks them meticulously, overdubbing keyboards and beats that combine everything from drum machine to djembe.
"It's not just like hitting keys on a laptop," reveals White, whose treatments and modulations are abstract, yet catchy enough to recall both Brian Eno and the Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello. "It's almost frustrating when people call it electronic production. Yeah, it's all going on a computer, and I use computer modulations and cutting and pasting. But I'll spend months reworking and experimenting and throwing out ideas. Maybe one in ten will actually make it in the end."
But before White gets his hands on them, Behrenhausen logs many hours alone at home assembling the folky skeletons of the songs -- brittle compositions that vacillate between the grainy swoon of classic Portastatic and the equatorial sultriness of Joo Gilberto. "I write most of it with my ass on the couch, watching old monster movies and strumming," Behrenhausen admits. "Then something I'm playing will draw my attention away from the movie, and I'll be like, 'Oh, that's cool.'
"I never really play with the intention of writing anything," he adds. "But if I pick up a guitar, I just automatically start putting a song together. I can't even play other people's songs."
A lot of his diffidence has to do with the fact that, despite his delicate, alternately tuned sketches, Behrenhausen isn't even a guitarist. Or at least he won't call himself one: A veteran of such near-legendary local acts as Juhl and Maraca 5-0 (White, to his credit, played keyboards in the lauded Acrobat Down), Behrenhausen is better known as a backbone than a frontman. "I'm a drummer," he states simply. "I've always had the philosophy, 'Never let the drummer sing.' Look at Phil Collins, Don Henley. Name me a drummer who can sing."
"He's fucking shy, is what it is," White quips, and he's only half joking. While Behrenhausen's skin-pounding is effusive, even explosive, he's a notoriously reticent singer. After collaborating with White in Disco Volante (a short-lived outgrowth of Juhl) in the late '90s, Behrenhausen threw together a disc of humble solo recordings called Songs About the Sea under the pseudonym Popsloppy. And although White was taken by the sparse purity of the songs, he couldn't help but start tinkering with them in his home studio.
"I've always been writing songs," Behrenhausen says. "I've got tapes and tapes of four-track stuff that I just kept secret to myself. I was in the basement thinking, 'I don't want anyone to ever hear this.' The first time I heard what Jme did to those songs, I was, like, 'Holy shit, what did you do?' Then I slowly came around. We ended up doing ten or so songs."
"I played it for a few of my friends," White interjects. "But Mike wouldn't even play it for his girlfriend. Nobody heard the album."
"It wasn't meant to be a band," Behrenhausen explains, "just a recording project. But for some reason, some guy in Kansas City wanted to put it out."
That guy was Askew of Second Nature. The Blusom disc had been sent by the band to California to be mastered by Pete Lyman, one of Behrenhausen's ex-bandmates from Juhl. A mutual friend passed it on to Askew, whose label is widely recognized for its hardcore and emo catalogues, including releases from such luminaries as Coalesce, the Blood Brothers and Rocky Votolato. Blusom couldn't have sounded more different from them -- and, at the time, the duo had yet to perform a single live show.
The music, though, stood on its own. "A longtime friend of mine sent me five CDs full of MP3s," Askew recounts. "About a month later, I was up working late and just had iTunes on shuffle, and Blusom came on. I was, like, 'What's this?' I found myself listening to the entire album a lot over the next few weeks. I just really liked how they incorporated electronic music, which can be very empty, into these stripped-down, honest and introspective songs to create something with substance. It just worked, you know? I was really drawn in by them, which I guess is why I decided to take a chance on some guys I didn't know prior to hearing their music, which I normally don't do. But when I found out that these were just some bedroom recordings and had no official release, I knew what I had to do. The world needed to hear these songs."
Blusom's debut, Go Slowly All the Way Round the Outside, was released in 2003, two years after being completed. Positive press from around the country ensued, but apart from a short two-week stint, Blusom hasn't followed up with the usual hectic tour itinerary that would be expected of a band on Second Nature. In fact, by White's count, Blusom has played a mere twenty shows during its entire existence -- only six of them in its home town. The group's upcoming record-release show will be its first in more than a year, and apparently stage fright has been a big deterrent.
"As far as singing and being up front, it's way more personal than playing drums," Behrenhausen points out. "When we first started playing shows as Blusom, even with Jme on stage with me, I had to be a little drunk to get the nerve up. It's terrifying. Most of the time, I'm hoping people are focusing on Jme. I just keep my head down and do my thing."
Soon enough, Behrenhausen will be seated more comfortably behind the drum kit. He and White are in the process of readying a full rock band, dubbed Ting!, with the latter as the leader. Even when the new outfit is ready to take the stage, though, White insists that it will approach making music with the same modesty and off-the-cuff integrity that has helped Blusom leapfrog over many local indie bands who are scrambling madly to get signed.
"When I was in Acrobat Down, we got to open up for Eric Bachmann on one of the first Crooked Fingers tours," White remembers. "We all went out to breakfast the next morning, and we were just about to leave on tour. He basically told us that no one's ever forced themselves onto a label. You just have to keep doing what you're doing, and do it better. So I've been doing that ever since. That's the extent of our focus. The bands that are pushing to get on labels are screwing themselves, because they're not spending enough time making their music better. That's really the only thing that matters."
With The Metapolitan's soaring scope and claustrophobic melody, Blusom has clearly been doing its homework. And while White and Behrenhausen hope to keep improving their songcraft, it's just as clear that they don't want to mess with the formula that's birthed such a creative gestalt.
"I do the lyrics, the vocal melody and the guitar parts, and that's it," Behrenhausen says with a laugh. "I bring in these pretty little acoustic songs and give them to Jme, and the next thing you know, they sound like Brian Eno. It's cool, though, to just let the music go like that. It's a team effort."
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