BY ROY KASTEN
Riding up the skeletal freight elevator in the A.D. Brown Building a 100-year-old structure at the corner of Tucker and Washington that once held a defense- mapping agency you look up, see five frayed ropes suspending the contraption, and wonder. For the past two years, the five core members of the Undertow Music Collective Mark Ray and Marc Chechik (of Waterloo), plus Todd Schnitzer, Steve Rauner and Adam Reichmann (of Nadine) have been shuttling amps, organs, guitars, computers and couches from the third to the sixth and, finally, the fourth floor, building a new project studio and establishing a creative affiliation and friendship that has begun to yield some music worthy of note, even as it has evolved beyond initial intentions.
"Originally it wasn't any more than just, "Hey we've got a space; why don't you come use it?'" Ray says. "Two years ago, Chechik had this idea that Undertow would be a place where other artists would come in and we would help them out. That was charitable, but it wasn't very practical. We realized that between Nadine's recording and our projects, there wasn't much time left to open it up. I think Chechik may start to bring other people back in again and supervise that, book those bands, even produce, if he wants to. But what has emerged out of Undertow is a shared philosophy rather than just a shared space."
"The space has also become focused as a workshop," Rauner says. "It's like a co-op sculpture studio where you have a bunch of people who use the same space and the people who come and use it are people you identify with."
Downtown, Saturday, the full-length U.S. debut by Nadine, may or may not be Undertow's first full-blown artistic project, but it sounds like the most accomplished a remarkable fact, given the recording conditions. Depending on whom you ask, the 10 songs took more than a year to record and were tracked on different floors of an edifice that, at times, barely seemed to stand around them. "Did you ever see Hearts of Darkness, the Apocalypse Now documentary?" Schnitzer asks. "That's what our studio was like, though nobody was on mescaline. It was just a bunch of old office spaces, and as we progressed through the record, the floor devolved and walls came down around us and electricity went out. Anything you could imagine that would prohibit someone from recording happened to us."
"We'd come in one day and there'd be no hallway," Rauner says, "or we'd look up and say, "Where's our ceiling?' or "Where's our electricity?' We had to run extension cords from one corner of the building to another. They'd unplug our cord for the air-conditioning, and so our board was cooking at 105 degrees." Reichmann adds, "All those different shifts in perspective in terms of where we were and what gear we were using gave us different environments and experiences."
Although just now slipping into U.S. record stores, Downtown, Saturday has already been distributed overseas through Glitterhouse and Roundtower Records, found some airplay, even earned a citation from Mojo as an Americana album of the month. With that European reception have come comparisons with the usual alt-country suspects Neil Young and Wilco paramount among them. But what's most striking about Downtown, Saturday continued on page 63 KASTEN continued from page 61 is how fresh, layered, inventive and, finally, meditative the album can be. At the heart of Downtown, Saturday breathes and beats an understated, song-based resonance. As it unfolds, the album becomes quieter, more textured and more powerful, eventually suggesting the lyricism of classic country-soul music, achieved not through nostalgic imitation of Bill Withers or Muscle Shoals or what have you but through the hymnlike melodies, the soulful even when sampled rhythmic grooves, Reichmann's steadily maturing voice and the luxuriant, sun-gone-down conversations of a Hammond organ, caressed piano and full, warm bass lines.
Drawing on the spacious, natural reverberation of the Undertow lofts; vintage pedals, amps, keyboards and guitars; the percussion of Wilco's Ken Coomer and Centro-matic's Matt Pence; and engineer/ bassist Todd Schnitzer's skill with nonlinear, computer-based editing, Nadine has shaped a folk-rock sound modulated with R&B textures, Crazy Horse feedback, Lanois-ish soundscapes and even hip-hopesque samplings, all of which somehow remain emotionally and thematically coherent.
"There's more sampling than you would think," Schnitzer says. "I had just started playing drums with this record, so I used the sampler as a tool to help piece together tracks. The record came out very different than I imagined it would be. I thought it was going to be a lot of DJ Shadow- and Wu-Tang Clan-sounding rhythm tracks, and we only ended up using that on the opening track, "Closer.' We originally tried a hip-hop version of "Ready to Go.' It sounded like a train wreck. The songs didn't lend themselves to that approach. We tried it and it just didn't sound right; then at some point I turned on the radio and started hearing white-boy-rap hip-hop songs, and I didn't want to get accused of jumping on that bandwagon."
The growth of Nadine's music is linked with the evolution of Undertow. The collective is self-sufficient, relying on occasional commercial work notably for Jack Daniels and Oil of Olay to buy the gear, construct a studio and realize the members' creative work. "We've been looking at different models," Ray says, "like the Elephant Six or the Tomato Collective in New York. That's a collection of eight people who are graphic designers and musicians who share a loft in SoHo, and they've become well-regarded for their film and music work. They've also done some Nike commercials and things like that to fund their personal art projects, like Underworld (a U.K. techno band). Their records are self-released, and they do some multimedia art projects, all of which is funded through commercial contracts."
For Schnitzer, who has served as engineer on Undertow's ad-related projects, "it's a nice symbiotic relationship. I don't have any qualms about it. I want to do music for a living. The commercial work allows me to do music I might not do in Nadine, like hip-hop stuff, electronica, jazz."
"Some people might be turned off by the fact that, individually, we do some commercial stuff," Rauner says, "but I really couldn't give a shit. What's your fuckin' option? You're gonna sign a horrible record deal, be burdened by an industry that's got some problems?"
Without that self-sufficiency, the patiently sculpted sound of Downtown, Saturday would likely have been impossible. The band experimented for more than a year, teaching themselves digital recording, and completely redesigned their studio using ideas lifted from the Internet. Drawing on Ray's graphic and film background, Nadine also have plans to produce and direct their own video, a project that is almost always financially prohibitive. "If we did this record on a major label," Schnitzer says, "first of all, it wouldn't have taken 11 months, because we would have been dropped by then. And it would have cost $250,000. We would have been in debt forever."
"The worst part was being in the middle of it," Rauner says, "having no perspective, having no idea how much you had done. But one of the amazing things about working over that period of time is the breadth of creative ideas. I worried that it might sound incongruent, but it doesn't. It's also good to have the time to get distance and say, "That sounds horrible.'"
"Too much time in recording can be dangerous," Reichmann adds. "It can affect the spirit of the players and result in inconsistent records. For us, it was a good thing. We could take the time to figure out how the live songs would sound best on record. And because there was nobody breathing down our necks to produce it, having the time allowed for some of the more expressive playing. I think all three of us are going to produce everything we ever do. We have a pretty critical environment; as a result, everybody comes out happy. At other times it was tough, having it just come down to the three of us. There's nobody to blame, nobody to motivate, except us." Nadinephoto by Jennifer Silverberg