After three years of shows and an equally accumulating number of seven-inches, St. Louis folk rock group the Union Electric releases its first full length CD Time is Gold. Members Tim Rakel, Glenn Burleigh, Melinda Cooper and Mic Boshans are more than just St. Louis music veterans; they are staples and creators of the local scene and have been for years. They each individually participate in numerous bands (some of which were playing while Rugrats was still my favorite show on television).
The whole band talked to us about the new album, scheduled for release July 28 at Off Broadway. Mic Boshans worked the coffee house/bar that is Foam, but of course, he popped his head in at our table frequently to check up on us and throw in his own words of wisdom.
See Also: Homespun review of Time is Gold.
Cassie Kohler: What was the directional aim for Time is Gold? Was there something you wanted to change from the Tunnels/An Irish Orphan 7"?
Tim Rakel: This is a collection of some slightly newer songs and some songs that were left off of the vinyl so far. The CD works as an album on its own, but it does have some songs from the vinyl releases and one from a cassette compilation.
Glenn Burleigh: It was like clearing the deck. We've been playing all these songs for years now, and I think everybody wants to do new stuff.
So it's a fresh start?
TR: Yeah, it's kind of like the idea of an anthology. The next record will be all stuff nobody has heard quite yet.
You guys have a tendency to feature other local musicians in your recordings. Are there any guest star on this album?
TR: Oh yeah, Kevin Buckley, who recorded some of the songs, played drums and fiddle. Beth Bombara played keyboard, drums and sings. Dave Anderson from Tenement Ruth played pedal steel. Matt Pace from Rats and People [Motion Picture Orchestra] is on there. Josh Weinstein from the May Day Orchestra plays bass.
Melinda Cooper: We got really lucky. All of them are such talented people and I would pay to get to see any of them play anywhere.
Time is Gold is the first full length CD the Union Electric has released. All previous albums are seven-inch vinyl EPs. What is it about the seven-inch structure you really liked?
TR: It started as a practical way of just getting things out there. We wanted to record something to put out and have to sell at shows. It was a more reasonable goal to set for ourselves.
GB: Also we couldn't afford to record a full record [band laughs]. Spending $1,000 to $2,000 on a record isn't anywhere near our budgets.
What about the vinyl medium versus CD?
GB: CDs are convenient because some people buy them and you can send them across the country. If we had recorded Time is Goldon vinyl, it would have cost us three times as much for a twelve-inch. But, I've always preferred vinyl.
You guys called vinyl "tangible art" on your Kickstarter page for the Tunnels/An Irish Orphan 7".
TR: Yeah I think I said that. Just the idea that there is a record and they have life somewhere. Even if it's sitting in the $1 bin in New Zealand, at least we know it's out there. A digital music server might crash, and all that might be gone. Where as that piece of vinyl will be sitting around until it snaps in half.
GB: If you are going to buy something from a band, for the most part, you are buying an artifact. Vinyl sounds better that CDs and people will pay for vinyl because it is actually a different product than what you get from a download. A download is exactly the same information as on a CD, where as a record is still its own separate entity.
Mic Boshans: Vinyl is charming and it ages. It's also a commitment and means you take [your music] seriously enough to put it out on vinyl.
So, do you guys prefer the single's EPs or full length albums?
TR: I think its a nice pattern to fall into. Put a few singles out and then put together a full length.
MC: A full-length record is exhausting. You get so sick of the songs. We really got worn out on it, but with the few song singles it was like, "Great, five minutes then I'm done."
GB: I think the single versus full length is also kind of a fail safe. We don't have label infrastructure here. If a new indie band is coming out with an album, they usually do a couple of seven-inch releases. There aren't labels in St. Louis that have that kind of cash to invest in bands. So in a way, even though it took us a couple of years, we have done the full product roll out that a lot of bands would have had done by their supported labels.
TR: Yeah, we did, in a course of two years, what Guided By Voices did in the course of two months.
MC: We're not out to make this record that is going to be played on Clear Channel Radio and make millions of dollars. I don't think any of us are out to get rich doing this. This is a lifestyle. This is what we know how to do and what makes us feel good to do. So we are just going to release the stuff as it comes and as we have the resources to do so. In a previous article in the RFT, "Working Class Heroes", you guys mentioned your inclusion of politics into your music. How do political events influence your work?
MC: If you really believe in something, if you need to get something off your chest and you have a creative outlet, it's going to come out of you.
GB: You look at other times like the Depression and Vietnam, and there were huge backlashes in popular music and folk music. The fact that there aren't just tons of bands expressing how angry they are just shows how messed up our culture is. People think we are supposed to talk about interpersonal relationships and that [politics] aren't acceptable within our conversation as music writers. I think it says a lot about our society, if artists don't feel like it's acceptable to speak out against what they see is wrong.
TR: Here, we are trying to talk about things but come from different angles and tell stories, but still put all those political points in there.
MC: There's still an element of poetry to it. Its not just "fight the system." It's, "Look what this guy did."
Are there any examples of this on the new album?
MC: "Necklace of Shoes," case in point.
TR: I wrote a song, I guess it was about four years ago now, when the Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, threw his shoes at George W. Bush. It might be kind of out of the news and not very topical anymore, but it's worth remembering.
GB: I don't think any of Tim's lyrics just fit in the cookie cutter political bag, though. Politics are a part of the lyrics but politics are just a part of lives.
So obviously there are political influences in your work, but you guys have also mentioned that the St. Louis community does the same. Can you elaborate on that?
MC: I mean look around [Foam Coffee & Beer]. You know, there's Kristin and Mic [of Née], our band mates from various other bands. Our music community and the creative community is here [in St. Louis]. When you create, its going to have an influence on everybody.
Where on Time is Gold does this come through?
GB: "Laughing Song" was written by Hunter Brumfield. Hunter killed himself a number of years ago and was in Highway Matrons and a number of bands. There's no way, regardless of aesthetic things, that song could be on the album if we hadn't lived in St. Louis and known him.
What about any influences from what you guys were listening to while writing and recording?
MC: I specifically remember when were in the process of writing "Tunnels." I was doing the Breeders for Undercover Weekend and that's how the base line was written. That slide in "Tunnels" was basically from them. I mean, whatever you are listening to is going to come out in your hands.
TR: As far as "Tunnels" goes, the song is kind of the same political narrative as Woodie Guthrie's "Deportee." The lyrics and chords and everything are all original but the total theme of the song is almost directly inspired for our own purpose.
Did you guys meet your expectations on the final product of Time is Gold?
TR: I think it looks and sounds nice. As far as a CD goes, its better than just a CD-R in a little black case. I think the sequence we came up with makes it seem like its supposed to be an album, rather than a bunch of singles thrown together.
MC: For the most part, it sounds like we sound. So that's what you really want to get out a representation of yourself anyway. You want something that sounds like you sound and this record sounds like that.