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Russ Christiansen on Surplus Cheaper Hands

When Russ Christiansen wanted to develop his skills and confidence as a songwriter, he went straight to his peers. For more than a year, the former Three Miles West frontman has spearheaded the Surplus Cheaper Hands Collective, a studio project that's seen input from a slew of local musicians. The Hollyfelds' Tim Mallot, Robert "Goose" Guzman from Mighty 18 Wheeler, the New Ben Franklins' David DeVoe, John Waggoner and many others took part in recording the collective's debut album, It's Your Parade.

We caught up with Christiansen to talk about the recording process, writing the tunes for the thirteen-member collective and the band's release show this Friday at the Soiled Dove Underground.

Westword: Where did the idea for the collective come from?

Russ Christiansen: I was migrating toward being a solo singer-songwriter rather than a band person. When I first started writing music, I did the Three Miles West project. It was always a band concept, even though I was doing the songwriting. That ran most of its course, and I just wanted to go that route, but I didn't know how to go about it.

So I just reached back to John Waggoner and a couple of other friends to just help me get going. John and I had talked about this for years; we'd talked about doing the collective process. I think that was the first spark -- we had that first session in 2009. We said, let's get Eric Shively in to do a remote location recording; let's get Tim Mallot of the Hollyfelds. John got Tony Burke, who he played bass with.

We just did that first session. That was in the spring of '09. It was quite a while back; it was just, 'Let's get this going, let's do it.' We got "I'm Your Man," which is the first track on the record. John had heard that song once before -- he said, "That's the one I want to work on." That's how we got that going. I think we intended to keep periodically recording songs in that style.

So why the delay between that first session and the upcoming release of the album?

RC: Well, John moved to San Diego with his now-wife. That left me saying, 'Okay, if I want to do this, I have to reach out to other people. That's where it went, and why there was a hitch in the giddyup. I didn't know what to do. If I could do an album where I could play eight instruments on it, I would do it. I'm just not at that level of musicianship. There might be a cool indie-rock thing with a glockenspiel here and there, but it would have been nothing but acoustic guitars.

Can you tell me a little bit about the contacts you drew on after John left for California?

Yeah, the New Ben Franklins were a band with David DeVoe that played in the alt-country genre, similar to Three Miles West. I really liked their music, but I'm also more people-centric. They were some of my favorite players in town.... I just reached out to them and other people I had met in the music scene.

I reached out to Todd Davis, who plays for Something Underground and used to play for the Trampolines. He's kind of a star keyboard guy; he plays for everybody. He ended up being the surprise: When you don't know somebody well enough, you don't know how talented they are.

Also, Todd Divel, the guitarist for Three Miles West, that's who I got after John Waggoner and I parted ways for the project. Todd had begun getting into Macy Sound Studios; he restored old soundboards and equipment as an engineer. I got to meet John Macy and Nick Sullivan through Todd. I just really liked their concept of music and recording; that was probably in the fall of '09.

Did you always have the goal of making a full album in this collective style?

I did, but I wanted to recapture the feel when Eric Shively came in and did an on-location recording. At first, I approached Macy Sound Studios to do that, because they had a mobile rig. I wanted to do it up in my cabin in South Park. People were interested, but the long and short of it is, to get the people to come and do the sessions at the same time was almost impossible. So the romantic side of that I kind of had to dump and just go for: "Let's set a date. Let's book two whole weekends at Macy Sound and just do these sessions with rotating musicians." Then it became a studio project. But I wanted to keep the spontaneity there, as if we had gone to the cabin.

How did you maintain that energy in a studio setting?

The ground rules were...[laughs]...You can ask me why I decided this, but I don't know. I liked what happened with the first track. Those guys didn't really know the song, and it came together. I said, let's just do that. We'll have these guys in the studio. I'll walk them through the song on acoustic guitar, and let's just hit "Tape." Let's just do. That's what we did.

We booked some studio dates, and I didn't even know who would be on hand every day. I just sent out invitations to people that I admired, that I liked to play with. There were some people I'd never been on stage with -- we just knew each other. That was it. That's when I adopted the idea: This is what the collective is going to look like. It's going to be friends coming in to record songs that I write.

Was the idea always to have the collective performing your original songs?

Originally, I wanted to have four or five different people writing songs and we would come out with a compilation album. I didn't find very many songwriters willing to have their stuff thrown into the fire like that. Nobody came forward, even during the collective. It became a lot more about doing my songs than I think I originally envisioned it would be.

Was it tough for you as a songwriter to have your tunes 'thrown into the fire'? To have them up for interpretation and evolution at the hands of the other musicians?

Everybody kept thinking it would be. If you go song by song, it's not like I took the eight best things I was working on and threw them into the collective. I took all the stuff that I thought was pretty solid, and a couple that I was really more particular about. I had to say, 'This is going to go this way' with "Restless Heart." How I cheated that probably was by stacking the lineup on those songs. [Laughs]. It was mostly my old bandmates, and I kind of intuitively knew what they would do with the material. But that became the fun part of it, how differently people hear from the bare bones of a song, if you just play the melody, basic guitar rhythm and structures -- that's the fun part.

Do you think it affected your composition style?

No, I think the bare bones of the song pretty much stays there. To me, it's a test of how well did you write the song. The ones that were kind of hooky really were easier to record. There were less takes.

"Self Portrait" seems like a song that doesn't fit into the straightforward, riff-based category.

That was just torture. It was torture for me as a songwriter. That song I had had for six or seven years at least, and nobody ever got it, because it was in some ungodly Russ time signature. I'm not a trained musician. It wasn't in 6/8, it wasn't in 3/4, it wasn't in 4/4. [Laughs]. It took a lot. This is where you've got to start crediting Nick Sullivan's editing. We just kept laying down stuff. It probably took four hours, which is a big chunk of time, just to get the drumbeat and the raw tracks.

That kind of involved process seems like a big shift from some of the more traditionally structured songs like "Driving Just As Fast As I Can."

After we got laboring with that "Self Portrait" song, I was like, "I want this to be fun for everybody." I would leave the studio -- I was letting go that much, where I'd come and see what they did. I wanted to stay away from it, to not sit there and try to influence. With "Driving," I just said we need to have fun.

I looked around, and it seemed like a roadhouse crew. Dutch Seyfarth was there, Ryan Chrys was there, we had Todd Divel -- just a whole crew of guys that would be fun to do a roadhouse song. I had one that was half written. I just said real quick, "Let's do this." Let's quit everything else that we're working on. We just did three real quick takes of it; they were all out of control. It was a blast. That's why we did that song. It was a true session song. I don't write a lot of songs with six patterns and a turnaround, and that one was.

How did the different musicians treat your material?

One point to get across is how respectful and considerate guys were being. If I do this again, which I hope to do, I want to encourage people to shake, break and remake the song. Can you keep the melody and have a different progression under it? Everybody was so considerate and respectful of what the songs were. I think that's the one thing; when I push the relationships further to a comfort level, those changes would happen more. They went more with mood and feel changes with what they could do.

How does the collaborative process affect your own confidence as a musician?

I think this was about my growth, to get validation by getting a lot of other musicians work on the material. For me, the moment of insight was that there was a lot of validation that the songs are pretty good, or worth working on. All these guys and gals that I really look up to are going to spend time doing it.... It's all part of that process. I hope everybody that was involved recording had their own moments learning from what somebody else did, or about their own artistic level of risk.

That's what I want it to be about. I hope the three guys that played together start a band. I'm trying to keep my motives out of it as much as I can. I didn't go in there to recruit a band or any of that stuff. It turned into this deal, and as long as we can keep it moving, we can do it again. That's as long as I can recoup what I paid to make this record. Maybe I will. It's moving well on Bandcamp now.

Where did the name Surplus Cheaper Hands Collective come from?

I would love to say that I was cool enough to know it was from an R.E.M. song. It's from "Green Grow the Rushes." I like what Michael Stipe said it stood for: disenfranchised migrant workers; I thought it had kind of a collective theme to it. It actually was the name of the alternative newspaper in Milwaukee Marquette University; the students weren't happy with the official school newspaper. I worked at the radio station there; the really cool kids started a newspaper called Surplus Cheaper Hands. It was kind of the Westword of Milwaukee for a while.

For the show at the Soiled Dove, how is the live dynamic going to work? After a studio process that spanned more than a year, how are you going to translate that to the stage?

We've got as many guys as we can rehearsing. We were going to go for the big show, rotating guys that played on every track. But it's really not possible with everybody's schedule. So we're going to rotate a couple of guitarists. We'll have seven people on stage; almost the whole collective will play.

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The ones who couldn't play I added to the lineup. Goose from Mighty 18 Wheeler played on the record, Ryan from Demon Funkies was on the record. For the last couple of jams of the night, they'll come up and we'll have pretty much the whole crew up there.

What have been some of the challenges of working with such a large group of musicians in a live setting?

It can get pretty sonic. We have three guitars going, a keyboard. The collective guys are just over-the-top accommodating. They're willing to play very little, and to play at the right moments to get the dynamic. That's very cool. They all want to play; this requires a lot of people not to play at all times.

I think it will end up sounding very cool. Now everybody knows the material.... We've had five or six rehearsals, we have two more. It's better than the record, because now the musicians have had a chance to rehearse.

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