Tales of Mighty Antietam

by Jon Langmead

6 Jul 2008

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell 

The fact that Opus Mixtum, album number eight from the New York by way of Louisville rockers Antietam, is a double album is perhaps the least interesting thing about it.

That so many reviewers have gotten stuck on the album’s song count shouldn’t cause it to be easily dismissed. Wide open and generous, Opus Mixtum is the band’s most fully realized, richly detailed, and complete statement. From their self-titled 1985 release on Homestead to 1994’s Rope-A-Dope, widely considered their masterpiece, they made giant leaps from album to album, adding and subtracting members, beefing up their attack and harnessing an explosive sound centered around Tara Key’s gut-tearing, emotionally main-lining, guitar work (In 2005, the Village Voice called her the best guitarist in the world). Part AM pop staple and part sprawling guitar slurry, Antietam fully coalesced on Rope-A-Dope, leading the Trouser Press at the time to call them out as “a juggernaut capable of tearing the roof off any venue on any given night.”

Antietam, as a recording concern, then went quiet for almost a decade (though an album of un-released material was recorded around 1997) before returning with 2004’s Victory Park, missing nary a beat. “When rock critics say something like, ‘Since they only put an album out every 4 or 5 years ...,’ they are missing some big elephants in the room,” writes bassist Tim Harris. “It sounds like we have the same resources as Radiohead or U2. It is a little like National Geographic writing about the wonders of China in the late ‘40s without ever mentioning the revolution. Throughout our career there has been no surety about when we will have the next chance. This is much different than say a tenured professor plotting publications from a stable position.  When people start discussing the aesthetic decisions they think we made (like, ‘let’s not put another record out until the next century’), they need to broaden the view. Some meanings come from things the artist put in; others from the fact and context of the work of art, from outside of it. It’s funny when reviews reduce a couple of years of your life to a paragraph and gratifying when people listen a little more closely.”

With 26 songs packed into 100 minutes, Opus Mixtum is Antietam’s defining moment. Though jam-packed, the album is actually lighter on its feet than any of their past albums: shifting tones and moods and crafted with a compelling level of confidence and craft that is immediately tangible. Long revered for their live shows, Antietam has finally come fully alive on record. It’s all in the way that you glide into the album’s second-half on the expansiveness of “The Moor”, in the late-album stomp of “You/I”, in the neat pop-perfection of “Turn It On Me”, in the soft-touch overlays that add-up to the full picture on “The Gate Closed”, in the kick-ass drive of “Arrowhead Syrup”, and in the gorgeous outro of “Shipshape” that takes the song to a place that is so staggering that it seems to even catch the band by surprise. 

I exchanged emails with Key and Harris over several weeks and it quickly became clear that the best way to write about this band was to allow them to do it themselves. They offered incredibly deep, concise, honest, and pointed insights on subsisting as a band for over twenty years, on crafting a life around music that never stops growing, and on struggling to create and maintain space to explore creativity in the face of hard financial realities and life changes. “I think the most important and exciting thing about the present for us,” writes Key, “is that our means and our drive and our focus and our honing and our evolution and all the detours and blocked shots and recalibrating have joined in a nice big fat power chord (I believe it’s an E) and it feels like a powerful moment—a booster rocket (Saturn V) at this stage of the game.”


So, I think the first question relates to something that Tim said to me when I saw you at Cake Shop in January. I had commented about how good the album sounds, in that it feels cohesive and it has a variety of sounds and kinds of songs but also that it just “sounds better” than your past albums. He said something to the effect that for a long time people had said your live shows have always been much a better representation of the band than your recordings and that you wanted to try and change that with this album. Did you make any conscious decisions for this recording that were maybe different than ones you’d made in the past to get a recording that you felt would be of a higher quality, in every sense of the word?

TARA KEY: There are two points I’d like to make to set up the rest of my discourse. Ever since I started to take the act of making records seriously I have been trying to make a pop record that is the equal of the Raiders’ Spirit of ‘67 and a guitar record the equal of [Neil Young’s] Live Rust. That may not be the way the world has taken it, but that is the blueprint in my brain. I would also say I enlisted in this life’s work to be a lifer, so I have never felt that there was a limit on how long I would be in a band before I had achieved X, Y or Z and then would be the end of it—and I still am not sure what X Y and Z are! It has always felt like we are growing up in public to me, for better or worse.

Our entire career we have been fortunate in some ways and hampered in others. Every time it seems that we have been on the side of the road wondering what’s next, a kind and supportive presence has appeared. Often those ambassadors were long on spirit and short on funds! And the list of people who have recorded us have been phenomenal, but always under Dollar Duress. Couple this with the way it was for bands prior to the do-it-yourself-with-quality technology of the last 10 years and it seemed our whole career was spent with all eyes on the clock whenever we were recording. What worked live for us, our joy and abandon, was also a little harder to
capture when we were limited by, say, all chips riding on everyone being at their best between 4 and 11pm on April 6th, 1995 and not taking too much time to get it right. In fact, I always felt a pressure before Victory Park when I was recording to “get it right.” Because I knew the opportunity to be in a studio was not an everyday thing for us and the chance to do it again rode on how well we did it at that moment.

There was a point during the recording of what is our “lost” album from 1997 or so that I felt I needed to do several things. I needed to learn what I wanted from my sound and take responsibility for asking for it, or take charge of figuring out how to get it. I needed to create a space for the three of us to catch lightning when it struck, instead of spending what time and money we had forcing square pegs in round holes. We have always had structure and respect for form, but we are all capable of doing spontaneous and astounding things left to our own devices. I needed to find a way to give us the opportunity to do that outside the consideration of fiscal matters. And since no one was beating down the door to throw Major Dollars at us, it seemed like we would have to invent that for ourselves.

Tim and I began to invest money in great mics and great gear. I took suggestions from all of the amazing people we had worked with. For once I could come home devastated by the death of a friend, be up at 3AM, sleepless, and pull off a hell of a solo that expressed it all without words instead of saying “hold that thought” and trying to recapture the mess and horror in a booked studio four months later.

Spontaneity and recklessness was the linchpin of our touted live persona and this was a way to put that element, missing for the most part, into our recording. But conversely, having the power of the gear ALSO meant that I could now spend weeks working to sing a song as well as I could, or weeks to sing a song badly to get that one 6AM take that would define the vocal forever for me. So I was granted freedom to strike like a viper and freedom to inch like a snail. It just took the clock out of the creative process! The act of recording Victory Park was about spirit and waiting for the iron to be hot and going to different environments and doing sessions until the material was magic. Not just one shot! (Unless that was “the one.”) And in the process of recording Dark Edson Tiger [Key’s 2000 album with Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo] I had learned how to make a record that was about sonics and less about having our age-old dialectic of live vs studio, can sing vs, ummm, not so well, to deal with. Just making good sounds. The combo of these two records put us in a good position to do Opus Mixtum right when the time came …

… and then we met Josh Clark. Tim and I have been blessed our whole career with youth finding us at crossroads. It happened when our 18 year old punk drummer joined the Babylon Dance Band when we were in our mid-twenties. It happened when [Antietam drummer] Josh Madell showed up to make us truly great when he was 20 and we were in our mid-30s. And now with Clark, it has happened again. The idea of fresh ears listening and caring about what we do was like sticking an IV of speed, confidence and enthusiasm in my arm. It also doesn’t hurt that he is a brilliant guitar player, we share some of the same rock touchstones and that we could speak about my playing without speaking.

The Seaside Lounge coming into our life is a huge development too. Because I have always wanted a clubhouse to hang at…I have always been attracted to the idea of a “Stable of Stars” like in Memphis or at Motown. Collaboration and hothouse and support from peers. We felt instantly comfortable there. So on this vector of discovering what we want and how to get it, we fell into this totally comfortable and supportive universe where we found real trust. I could still go home and do vocals in my spelunking way. I could still go home and record insane spontaneous guitar solos. I could go home and take the record’s other side-the material that is the woof of the fabric where the band songs are the warp, bring it to Josh Clark and, through his ears, make it all
a coherent statement of sonics and emotion.

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

TIM HARRIS: After a rush of albums in the first half of the ‘90’s, Burgoo, Everywhere Outside, Antietam Comes Alive, and Rope-a-Dope, plus Tara’s Bourbon County and Ear and Echo and the Babylon Dance Band’s Four on One, we found ourselves in ‘96 and ‘97 with new material to record but no record contract or real support from the outside world. We recorded and pressed a single of our own, which was barely sold, and then recorded the lost Antietam album of ‘97 which was never completed or released and which cost us some money. At this point in history, along with the rest of the world, Tara and I began to invest in our own recording equipment, technology which we used to record both Dark Edson Tiger and Victory Park.

Recording Dark Edson Tiger was an experimental, exhilarating experience. My favorite moment was stripping the bathroom of our NY apartment of every single object – towels, soap, toothbrushes, anything – until all that was left was a tile-lined reverb chamber. This is, of course, most recording engineer’s nightmare, a reverb chamber that you utterly can’t control after the fact, but it worked beautifully for us. We put a mic and mic stand in the bathtub, and then had Rizzo sit on the toilet, closed of course, and play the acoustic guitar. This track was used as background on the radio show, “This American Life”, and their subsequent greatest hits CD. Other pieces on this short eight-song CD were used in a national campaign to finance the World Trade Center memorial, a different charity campaign, and a Hollywood movie. When the latter ran on HBO, it was really weird to watch a movie in our apartment and realize the soundtrack had been recorded ... in our apartment.

When we set out to record Opus Mixtum, we were set on recording the bass and drums in a recording studio. And a couple of other things happened. First of all, our producer Josh Clark of Seaside Lounge, a 20-something who had worked earlier with Madell’s band Tralala, proved to be both a recording studio genius and a sympathetic ear. So he really ended up recording our signature sound—that is, Tara’s guitar—better than ever.

Additionally, I think Tara and I were really quite influenced by the documentary we saw about Tom Dowd and how he recorded people from Bird and Monk to Aretha to the Allmans and Skynyrd. We were astonished to hear that the double leads on “Layla” by Duane Allman and Eric Clapton were recorded from little Princeton amps sitting on a piano with mikes added to the piano strings. We have a little collection of five or six mini-amps and some of these ended up producing some of Tara’s fiercest guitar work ever recorded.

We recorded things like acoustic guitar and cello and violin at home in our apartment (it actually has a great sound) with great attention to mic placement. And many of the instrumentals on Opus Mixtum started with something we did at home and took to the studio. Originally, Tara and I had planned to add a second disc of atmospheric instrumentals to our rock record, but eventually we decided to mix it all up together. We were kind of sick of doing one thing for Tara Key records, one for Rizzo/Key and one for Antietam. One misconception might be that we threw in every little piece we had written in the last few years. The truth is, the instrumentals were selected from a much bigger cache of instrumentals.

We also mainly worked at home painstakingly on vocals. The faults found with Antietam in the past have always been that we are better live than recorded and that our playing beats our singing. So we think we finally got Tara’s guitar in its full glory, showed a different side of us that has always been lurking there with the instrumentals, and if I may say so, I think Tara knocked out the vocals.

Topics: antietam
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