By Matt Marn
Also published in AZCulture.com
Also published in AZCulture.com
Jonathan Sanchez, guitarist, lyricist, and lead singer for The Upper Strata, sits quietly listening to his group’s new album, “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.” His head cocked to the side, he concentrates on the music, hands tapping on the table along with the beat. When his guitar solo comes, he looks to the stereo and smiles.
“Don’t ask me to play that same way again – I don’t know how I did that,” Sanchez said with a laugh.
He passes over a composition notebook full of ideas and early lyrics that would later evolve into “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.”
“It’s funny how these books take on their own life,” he said. “But that’s kind of what the album is about: our journeys this year. Prescott, Bizbee, Jerome… It’s kind of like a little journal.”
That is the point of the album, Sanchez said. It’s hard to define or classify into a genre, because it tells the group’s own story, their growth – something that should never be pigeon-holed into one category.
|The Upper Strata at the Hard Rock Cafe Phoenix, 2-28-13|
Much like the Southwest itself – the mining towns, the former attractions along Route 66, the mesas and canyons – they all figure into the album’s often cinematic tracks, turning the region into a character in the works, Sanchez said. “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes” expands on ideas born from years of traveling, writing, and performing around and exploring the Southwest, and learning from the story it has to tell.
Sanchez, along with bassist and partner-in-crime Regula Sanchez-Schmid, did not want the album to be classified into one specific genre or type of music, since they touch on many styles, and people go by genre and all too often judge based on the cover.
“I read lately in a music magazine, people were ragging on the Black Keys, saying how they were not blues, and everyone was joining in, commenting on the blogs,” Sanchez said. “It was kind of disheartening to have someone define what is good or bad, pigeon-holing every artist or song into a genre, or ‘good music’ or ‘bad music.’ It’s like telling a painter not to use red. Why limit someone like that? Is it even helpful?”
The idea of a “phantom” pigeon-hole, the inability to classify something so easily, stuck with them. So they decided to name the album “Phantastic Pigeon-Holes.”
“Besides, we want to think the album is fantastic,” Sanchez said with a smile.
“We just went nuts,” he said. “We wanted to use real sounds, real acoustics – from recording in the shower, slamming shut a filing cabinet, thumping on a table, or scraping chopsticks inside a wok – rather than just opening a drum preset from some computer program. We tried to use real effects at all costs.”
The group wanted some of the tracks to come off rough and live, without the produced feel you hear in some studio recordings, Sanchez said.
“In the early mixes, you could hear amps crackling, room noise… most of that was lost in the final mastering but some of it still comes across,” he said. “We kept hearing how much better we were live, and why didn't we come across on our CD's the same way? So we tried to get that live quality to be present on most of the tracks.”
The team worked hard on every sound from every track: they got up in the morning, began working on a song, spent all day fine tuning their work, and by the evening, they had come up with a kind of rough copy. Then they recorded it and listened to it through a surround system, as well as putting it onto an MP 3 file and listening to it in the car.
“There were other songs that didn't come together and it had something to do with the chemistry,” Sanchez said. “If it felt forced, we never got anything worth finishing, but if we took it easy and felt relaxed, we got some good stuff. We would throw ideas around, record something, try it again, add something else; in short work in a way you could never hope to in a studio where you pay for every minute. We tested it in so many ways – we analyzed it; this song needs a guitar solo here, pull back on the tambourine there. To do this largely at home – with no studio recording fees, and the freedom to test boundaries our own way; it was much more luxurious. It’sthe process of getting to that point where what you hear in your headphones is what you hear in your mind.”
Whether it is their stories of a building blaze that forever changed a small town, or the story of a little church on a hill built of dynamite boxes, these tales of The Upper Strata’s journey and growth into the powerful storytellers they have become is definitely a story to be heard, again and again.
Check out "Phantastic Pigeon-Holes" on iTunes, or visit The Upper Strata on their website: