The road leading to the Vanilla Milkshakes’ new album, Tall People Have No Feelings, was like something out of a DIY rock-band biopic, and it all started with an unlikely meeting between like-minded musicians.
Before releasing the album How to Ruin Friendships and Influence Douchebags, singer David McGhee struck up a correspondence with well-known indie imprint K Records. Label head Calvin Johnson offered to work with the band, and McGhee convinced partner, bandmate and drummer Frank Registrato to work toward that possibility. Registrato, a live-music veteran, hadn’t recorded in an all-analog studio in several years, and the project piqued his interest.
“That was a different world for me,” Registrato says about K Records. “Once I started reading about it, it was intriguing. It was an older studio where you need air cans to spray out of the faders.”
In March 2015, the Vanilla Milkshakes made the trek to Olympia, Washington, to record at Dub Narcotic Studio for four days. The aging, hodgepodge space was like the recording-studio equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, each piece of gear an artifact of Pacific Northwest music history. Yet Johnson and his associates were the relic’s able navigators and engineers, and they handled any challenges with aplomb.
“[They] told us they had full backline, but we [got] there and we had to piece together a drum set from four or five different sets that weren’t working but together made for an interesting set,” says Registrato. “I think it added to the sound. Had I played on my own set, I don’t think it would have sounded as cool.”
As a producer and engineer, Johnson, with the aid of assistant Paul Krogh, was equally idiosyncratic and unorthodox — yet effective. “He’s kind of a backwards producer,” says McGhee.
“With Calvin, at least how he interacted with us, he helped us to acknowledge what we wanted to do,” says bassist JanKarl Hayes. “He reflected back and forced you to think about what you really want to do. Every piece of equipment had a story, and Calvin knew exactly where he got it, whether it was a yard sale or at a radio station.”
Before going to record the album, McGhee tracked down the contact information for Jack Endino, one of Seattle’s legendary underground recording engineers, a figure who ended up mastering the new album and who is tapped to record the followup in mid-2017.
“On [Endino’s] website, it says that if you follow the trail of breadcrumbs, you’ll find him,” says McGhee.
“And I did. I told him, 'Here’s my story, here’s my band, we’re coming to Washington, want to meet up?' He said, ‘No, I don’t want to meet up with someone I don’t know. Also, it sounds like you don’t need me, because Brian [at Dub Narcotic Studio] is pretty kick-ass.’ Closer to the date he said, ‘You guys are actually kinda good. I could see working with you guys.’ The day we were there, I e-mailed him and said, ‘It’s now or never — are we having breakfast or lunch together or not? Because we’re only going to be here for two more days.’ Then he e-mailed me his number and told us to meet him at a certain cafe.”
Endino was responsible for some part of the Sub Pop sound of the late ’80s and early ’90s, having been the recording engineer for early releases from Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Denver band the Fluid. Upon meeting, he and the Vanilla Milkshakes hit it off. Endino regaled the musicians with stories and invited them over to the studio where he currently records. “He told us how some bands have paid him in clothing from certain manufacturers,” says Registrato. “I asked Jack what size shirt he wears, and he said not to send a shirt — if anything, send pants,” says McGhee.
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What started out as a casual meeting has since turned into a friendship, and McGhee often sends Endino text messages at random times of the day. “I send him a text with something really stupid, and he responds with something equally stupid.”
The Vanilla Milkshakes have experienced some ups and downs in the past two years, including Hayes’s departure because of an ongoing issue with his hearing (though he recorded on Tall People). But the music that charmed Johnson and Endino made it easy to recruit new guitarist Max Points and bassist Jeff Brink, and the Denver band continues to make noisy punk songs with melody and wit.
“[Johnson] said we sounded like Nirvana with whoas,” says McGhee.
Vanilla Milkshakes album release
6 p.m. Saturday, December 3, Lost Lake Lounge, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, 303-291-1007, $5-$8, all ages.