Curt Brewer is a familiar face in the local music community: he plays guitar with the raw, bluesy quintet Kentucky Knife Fight, lays down 1920s-inspired jazz licks in Two Swingin' Picks, and sits in as a gun-for-hire for wedding bands, fill-in gigs and the like. This Thursday night, however, he'll be at the helm of a different project, one that marries his words and music with the voices of some of St. Louis' best-loved rock and folk singers.
Along with Chicago resident (and part-time KKF pianist) Nathan Jatcko, Brewer leads Yankee Racers, and its album Duologue is being released this week with a special show at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue, 314-773-3363). For the disc, Brewer and Jatcko asked a whole bunch of local musicians -- including the Blind Eyes' Seth Porter, Old Lights' David Beeman and John Joern, So Many Dynamos' Clayton Kunstel, Travis Lewis and Nathan Bernaix, Cassie Morgan and Bruiser Queen's Morgan Nusbaum, among others -- to sing and perform the band's original songs. The result hews much closer to radio-ready modern rock than any of the players' native bands, and hearing familiar voices in a new context was one of Brewer's main aims with the disc. Over a late lunch at South Grand's City Diner, Brewer discussed the origins of the project and how Yankee Racers facilitated some uncharacteristic collaborations.
Christian Schaeffer: This is kind of a bizarre project in the sense that you have two guys that write and perform these songs but don't sing on the bulk of them.
Curt Brewer: The biggest thing about this record is that we wanted to use people who do what they do. I could have recorded this at home on my ProTools set-up. We had Chris Turnbaugh engineer, who runs Studio CTS, and he just finished working on a record with Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Darin Gray for their On Fillmore project. He's been working with these serious people; Chris knows what he's doing and has been doing it a long time.
The whole thing was using people for what they're good at, and that's why I wanted to use these singers because they rehearse and practice singing. I use certain bass players on certain songs because there would be no guesswork on what they were doing. I didn't know what to expect when I got the record. I know you from Knife Fight, and Cassie and Beeman and the others from their bands, but it's totally different from a lot of what's going on around town. I'm wondering where the songs and the ideas came from.
Nathan and I, through the nature of our work, get recordings on a Thursday that we have to perform on Saturday. It's the first dance at a wedding or something like that. Just by the nature of that, he and I have amassed a large repertoire of different styles. We have a large palette of things we've learned that we have a lot to choose from on things we can use. They all influence us. We don't work on a certain sound or follow a certain path - we're kind of splayed out. The advantage of that is having a very encyclopedic approach. And then, specifically, with the performers, having them doing something different than they're used to - I purposefully tried doing that. So how did you choose the musicians to play on these songs?
I did have a bit of help with the Knife Fight connection - it wasn't like I was cold-calling Cassie Morgan. I had worked with her before, so it was clear for Cassie that I had an "in." Almost all the people were through associations from Knife Fight, but a lot of guys - Nick Jost and Jerry Mazzuca for instance - I knew through the jazz world. Someone like Morgan Nusbaum I didn't know as well. She was the one I had to cold-call. I knew she would knock it out of the park.
I listened to all the performers' YouTube videos and their records, and I noted their ranges. I knew that they could do it. And I purposefully said, "I know Cassie normally plays slow songs, let's put her on a fast song. If Beeman plays more acoustic-oriented, I'll put him on something more electric-oriented." To hear you say it, it's almost like you're a coach who wants to push these singers further. When you were making the record, how much of it is like you're a director behind the lens?
Nathan and I took a very clear-cut director's role, where we know we want this thing. But when Beeman got up to bat, I said "don't take out your Beemanisms. I'm using for a reason, but I'm not trying to make you sing just like Jeff Buckley." I knew he could do what I was looking for, and both Nathan and I wanted to be clear about what notes we were shooting for, but we weren't gonna stop tape if they wavered.
You talked about having a big repertoire of music to pull from. What were some specific sounds or artists or themes you were channeling in making this record?
There aren't many guitar solos on this record, which is different from my first solo record. So I thought that was an interesting step forward towards having a more modern radio-airplay kind of approach. We don't hear many guitar solos on the radio anymore.
Or guitars, period.
The album is guitar heavy, but guitar solos, per se, are not really around. I really wanted to focus on melodies and chilling out on the guitar solos was a step. I have plenty of songs that necessitate a guitar solo, but if it's not needed, it's not needed. I think that's what made the album more digestible, and it made the songs shorter.
I was pushing for a sheen on this album. It sounds a lot fuller and bigger. It's very much produced - this wasn't a live capturing of a group as they are, because we're not really a group. This was a recording project, and it will probably continue to be a recording project. I have my live band that is better seen live than heard on record. I already have the live experience and I enjoy that. The idea was to make a really great recording, and the quality of that makes it sound more modern airplay than others.
And probably the themes, too - there are very clear-cut themes of love and loss. I normally wouldn't write those types of songs, and this album gave me a chance to explore what that's like. And I had a lot of love lost this past year, so it naturally flowed that way.
Is there a narrative you're pushing for?
Not totally. My girlfriend thought that whole record had an apocalyptic feel to it. I had a similar thought - there are wars on either end of it.
The seventh track is called "All the Ashes," and John Joern signs on it. That one is very clearly about the apocalypse. No doubt about it. The obvious other step-outside for this project is that it does not lend itself to touring. What's it like to make this document that isn't going to have legs on the road?
Even though this isn't the documentation of a live band, it is specifically Nathan and I and our vision. This is us having a one, quick cataloguing of our ideas, that we can do this and make it sound interesting. Our next album could be just a trio that we could travel with. Where do Yankee Racers go from here?
I want everyone to hear this record. I want the guys (on the record) to be proud of it and share it with their fans. I want a copy in the hands of everyone in the city so they know what some collaborations can sound like. I want to get a little confidence in everybody to do that too, and to treat this as a serious community. The difference between St. Louis now and Seattle in the '90s was that everyone in Seattle was telling everyone outside of Seattle how big it was. If we just tell everyone how killer St. Louis, then we're killer. It's all word-of-mouth and perception. Next thing you know, we'll have even more 18 to 26 year-olds moving back to the city.