"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.