Jay Bennett and Edward Burch: The Palace at 4am (Part I)
Let's be clear about a couple of things.
First, this article is about Jay Bennett, Edward Burch, and their intriguing debut album, The Palace at 4 am (Part I). If you don't have a copy yet, you should because this is easily one of the most compelling albums of 2002, one that begs for repeated listenings.
However, this article will also find its way through Wilco, a band Bennett belonged to until last September, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Although Bennett left before YHF was released and the much-ballyhooed label change, he was an integral part of it -- you don't have to listen to much to figure that out.
The press surrounding YHF has tended to focus on the soap opera of Wilco's personnel changes, often at the expense of the music. Our concern here is with the record, not the personalities, though Bennett made clear he would willingly discuss any subject. However, at this point, more interesting than his falling out with Jeff Tweedy is Bennett's relationship with long-time collaborator Edward Burch, their music, and Bennett's musical detour via Wilco.
"I'm heavily into de-mystification", Bennett says. "I like everything explained and revealed. I'm a very pragmatic person."
And so, we begin de-mystifying.
The Orchestra of Two Warms Up
Jay Bennett and Edward Burch have been friends and collaborators since the mid-'90s.
"I met Jay, I think, right around the time I started grad school at U of I [University of Illinois at Champaign], and he was just finishing", Burch remembers. "We lived next door to each other in these little, cheap rental houses, and his house had a porch that was open; my had a porch that was enclosed, so I'd always end up over on his porch, hanging out, talking, and we found shared musical interests. We started playing together, and then seven years later, we've come out with an album".
Burch, who's also worked with Bob Egan and the Handsome Family, says, "The record sort of began when I just had finally figured out that I wanted to do music, that I wanted to pursue it. So Jay and I broke out a tape recorder and started the beginnings of some songs, a couple of which ["Forgiven" and "My Darlin'"], those actual recordings formed the basis for a couple of tracks for this record. It was pretty much just this off-and-on thing where we'd accumulated a lot of songs over the years whenever he would get a break from Wilco or something like that. So as far as this record in particular, we had a lot of songs to choose from, and we just thought, Well, let's pick some songs that are good as representative sampling".
That made for a nice mix of pop songs, ballads and some, as Burch puts it, "weird-sounding songs".
He continues, "When you're making that first record, you tend to show off the various different things that you do, so I wouldn't say that it was necessarily as focused other than we just picked a lot of the songs that we liked and hoped that they would work well together". (It's worth noting that Bennet sings lead on eight songs; Burch on five; on two, they share the lead.)
You may already be familiar with "My Darlin'", a song Bennett wrote for his niece that appeared on Wilco's 1999 album Summerteeth although on The Palace the original version is included.
"I think I'll clarify that", Bennett chuckles. "Wilco redid 'My Darlin'".
According to Burch, "[Jay] brought it to Wilco, and they decided to do a version of it that got lyrically altered somewhat and musically altered somewhat . . . the version we have on the record actually does pre-date the Wilco version".
Bennett and Burch's writing process is highly collaborative.
As Burch explains, "Usually, what we'll tend to do is, Jay will start off with either a lyrical idea, a musical idea, both, maybe a verse and a chorus for a song, maybe something close to a finished song, and he'll get somewhere with it and then sort of hand it off to me, and then I'll go at it, and then we'll come back and work on the song. Usually the test is does the song work if it's just us, sitting on the couch, playing it on acoustic guitars. And if we get it to gel at that point, then the rest is gravy once we start figuring out interesting musical textures and ways of putting a song together".
Bennett's composition process begins, he says, "With an acoustic guitar, with the TV on and the sound off, late at night, with my brain as fried out as I can get it - without using drugs because I don't take drugs - or maybe wired on coffee, and I can't get to sleep, but I try to get into a how-shut-down-can-my-brain-get-? mode. And then, once I grab an idea or something - this is how I wrote 70% of what I write - and like I said, I rarely complete things. Edward is really a huge part of that, lyrical or musical. But something, an idea that seems worth developing; then my brain clicks in a little and starts going, 'Okay, where do we go with this'"?
Bennett quickly clarifies, "I'm not a total believer in this mystical, like songs-already-exist-and-you-just-pluck-'em-out-of-the-air bullshit. I mean, I put a lot of hard work into them, but that initial spark is always what I'm looking for because once you have that, it might be some time until you've hit a homerun, but you know you're gonna. You know you just made a good contact with the ball, and then you kind of go, 'Oh, shit! Now I've gotta run'".
Then Bennett interrupts himself: "Wow, sports analogies. What have I come to"?
Complicating the songs are Bennett and Burch's fascination with musical textures.
Burch explains, "There's so much that we have that are laying around, and Jay's really good at a lot of those instruments, and I can pluck away at a few of them, so we'll just start throwing [stuff] out. . . . I love when you can guess a combination of a few different instruments that you wouldn't necessarily think of putting together, but then when you put them together, they make this nice, weird sound - or pleasing sound or some kind of fun sound".
(As a case in point, Burch cites "Talk to Me": "I love it so much where you have the banjo leading right up to the chimes and the weird Neil Young guitar on the solo", he says. "That's just a bizarre combination that makes me smile every time I hear it".)
Bennett concurs: "I don't want to make this sound too thoughtless, but between the two of us, there's never a shortage of ideas in terms of what instruments and textures might feel appropriate on a song. And sometimes we get so many instruments and textures that we realize we kind of made two versions of the song that could live side-by-side. You know, like we could make a mix of 'Drinking on Your Dime' just from the instruments there. So we're perfectly synched up, and we would put them in when they're absent from the mix that you have, and we take them out when they're in the mix that you have, and we could do, like, the 'anti-mix' mix, and that would make whole other songs".
"I think we're both into, like, counter-melody", Bennett continues. "You might notice that a lot of what we throw at the songs has melodic content rather than just what we call in the business a 'pad' or a 'chainsaw', which is just an instrument that is just there to fill in a hole. So a lot of these songs, even if it pulls the vocal melody out, would be left with so many other instrumental melodies because, really, we write too many melodies. We probably have four melodies to each song. Maybe the mellotron flute is taking another melody that could have been sung, and the melody that was sung could have been played with a mellotron flute. A lot of times at the last minute, we'll come up with a backing vocal that's catchier than the lead vocal".
Bennett is quick to add, "Don't get me wrong: I really like sparse albums". He cites as examples Townes Van Zandt or Elvis Costello's King of America.
Then he says, "We're toying with the idea of exploring that side of what we do on the next record. We don't want to make this record again - we already made it. The songs, to a large extent, are what we do - it's our strength. So there will always be elements of this record with us because it's just my and Edward's peculiar, particular upbringings and especially my having worked in recording studios for years being an engineer on top of being a musician. This is where it's led me. It's where I've been led".
Although The Palace is awash in sound, further complicating the music are vocal snippets pasted throughout the album.
"I do so many things that I know I'm going to have to clean up before I mix the songs", Bennett says. "Actually on this record, we wanted to leave a certain amount of things in that one would typically clean up. But we didn't. We wanted - this is going to sound cheesy - we wanted a little bit of a sense of the listener being in the process of making the record - the fun, goofy side of it. And I think that's a lot of what we're all about live is where -".
Bennett stops mid-sentence, the explanation now clear: "Look, the song itself is pretty serious, but that doesn't mean it's not fun and enjoyable. I mean, that's the beauty of rock and roll. It can be extremely serious, but you can dance to a murder song or whatever. But in between the songs, let's have some goofy little noises that are like little warm-up stuff. There's a cough at the start of 'No Church Tonight', and, God, there couldn't be a more serious song".
The decision goes back, at least in part, to Bennett's basic philosophy.
"Now I'm reaching", he says, "but maybe that plays into my need to demystify things. Like, you know, how records sound all new and clean by the time you get them? Well, right before they're made, there's all sorts of people going, 'Cough! One, two, three . . . . No, I fucked that up! Uh, let me try that again'. At one point, we had a lot of that crap on the record, like, far too much. But we wanted to leave a little of the fun in there. Like, hey, this is all the instruments warming up -- it's the orchestra warming up, the orchestra in this case being two people. It's an orchestra of two".
One of the most interesting is at the end of "My Darlin'", when a man leaves what appears to be a message on an answering machine, urging the listener to "write your mother a letter as soon as you can, or send her another tape".
Burch explains: "That was Christmas of 1971. It was my Granny and my grandpa and my mom making a tape-recorded letter to send to my Uncle Bill who was stationed over in Germany. It's just this recording that I got ahold of several years ago and just loved it, so I just took that little snippet and just threw it in at the end of "My Darlin'". He adds, "We found that it worked there because the song, with its lyrical theme of 'We were a family right from the start', and here's this clip of a family that, because of circumstances, are separated for a moment, and that recording was a way of keeping some connection together. It was pure accident, but I ended up loving the way that it worked".
And then there's the album's cryptic title, a reference to an Alberto Giacometti sculpture that Burch once saw on-line.
"For some reason, among his sculptures, that's one that's hard to find a picture of", he says. "The actual sculpture itself is in a private collection, but it's kind of a cool-looking sculpture and just the associations of that title, I thought it sounded great".
But it's more than compelling artwork. According to Burk, "A lot of times, we might be up working until 4:00 am on the record and looking around at this beautiful mess all around the studio, and that capturing some of the feeling of just what it was to just throw yourselves into this and end up with something at the end of the day or the next morning when you woke up, and then you had this song that you were happy with and proud of".
Jay Bennett's Wilco Detour
A logical conclusion would be that The Palace functions, at least in part, as Bennett's reclamation/revision of his time in Wilco. After all, he's included a song first released by Wilco ("My Darlin'), two tracks written with Jeff Tweedy and taken from the "Wilco Trashcan" ("Shakin' Sugar", "Venus Stopped the Train"), done some work from the Woody Guthrie Archive ("No Church Tonight", "Little White Cottage"), and included material recorded in New Orleans with former Wilco bandmates Ken Coomer, Max Johnston, and John Stiratt back around the time of Being There.
This is a notion Bennett is quick to correct
"It's kinda just what I do", he says. "I don't know if going with the theme of my picking up where Wilco left off or something like that works really. I mean, if to see this record gives some insight to what I brought to Wilco, then that's a worthwhile interpretation".
In fact, his thoughts on the subject are worth citing at length.
"I'm doing what I do, I guess", Bennett says. "I don't know -- and I mean this honestly and in a way that I don't want anybody to see as being derogatory - but I'm just doing what I do, and in particular, I am doing what I do in the presence of that work, which might be slightly different than what I would do on my own. In other words, Edward and I are just doing what we've always done".
He continues, "In a way that doesn't take away from the talent of everybody in Wilco, I'm kind of continuing on where I left off in Wilco, so what you're hearing is a thread, probably a thread of mine that I've brought to Wilco, and it ran through Wilco while I was in Wilco. I mean, I'm trying to be very delicate about this because everything I did, all of my contributions to this record, are very much just what I do, you know? It's just very much what I do, the way I use sounds, and the way I use various instruments, and the way I tend to have fun playing instruments that I'm maybe less accomplished on than, say, guitars".
Bennett is quick to say, "And I'm not, like, claiming territory or trying to overstate my value or anything because everybody in Wilco is amazingly talented on a number of levels, and I'm sure they'll continue to do what they do very well, whatever they choose to do, and I'm sure they will continue to evolve, but in terms of the chapter or chapters that include me, this is probably a little reference book to understand what I brought to the band, positive and negative".
"I'm trying to say this in a very balanced kind of way, you know", Bennett says. "I'm changed by my tenure in Wilco. Not in ways that are really immediate when you first pop on this record [The Palace]. There is definitely a Wilco influence on this record, but you have to go a little deeper to find it".
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Jay Bennett's insights into YHF are compelling and in terms of providing a context for the album in Wilco's musical canon.
According to Bennett, YHF was about doing something new: "Trying to do something interesting and something that deviated somewhat from the things we'd done in the past. I don't know. Maybe like a scooped-out Summerteeth. It's, like, a total studio record -- very few live performances. It's also a very layered and textured record, but rather than have things enter and stay in like they do on Summerteeth, they enter, and they go away. You know: 'Oh, there's that weird, like, banjo part, and he came and visited us on the second verse, and then he went away, and he doesn't need to come back', which is somewhat interesting in pop music because usually when something makes its entrance, it stays. To have an instrument make an entrance and an exit, in particular early in a song, takes some real crafting and attention to sonic detail".
In terms of YHF's sound, Bennett says, "I use the phrase 'scoop it out.' And I think actually what happened, the mixes that happened right before the final mixes were actually maybe scooped out a little too much. And Jim [O'Rourke] came in and was like, 'Hold it, man! You guys have taken out the fucking backbone. It's alright to scoop those things out, but let's put a little backbone and spine back into it'".
"So a lot of the work Jim did on the record", Bennett continues, "is actually counter to what Jim usually does".
For Bennett, a personal favorite is "Ashes of American Flags".
"The first two or three minutes of 'Ashes' is my original home demo with me, like, playing drums and bass and everything", Bennett says. "It's another one of those moments where you get insight into the process of making a record. Like, 'Wow, that was Jay's demo, and now all these other people are joining it'. It's literally my eight-track demo. The drums, you'll notice if you listen very carefully at the start of 'Ashes of American Flags', are the exact same drum sound as 'Shakin' Sugar' off our record because the demo sessions were done at the same time".
Bennett continues, "It was actually Jim's idea at the last minute to, like, start the tune off with my original demo, and then kind of - what's that notion of recapitulation where the evolution of the animals in the embryo recapitulates the evolution of the animal? In the history of evolution, there's a time where the embryonic human looks like a fish, and there's a time when an embryonic human looks like a monkey. So the song kind of starts out like a fish and then turns into a monkey. Once again, I think we're just inviting the listener on the journey of how the track was recorded".
And what about that cryptic title, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"?
"It's an accident", Bennett says. "It's kind of bullshit. It's this six-cd set of what are supposedly these secret-code radio stations. But they're not. It's just somebody taping ham radio. So it's just a cd of a tape of an amateur radio operator saying his call letters, and when we were doing all the noises sections for 'Poor Places', we set about eight instruments up on autopilot -- like we had a piano loop set up and a synthesizer playing itself. I had a guitar with an egg beater taped to it. One of the things I did was I took a cd of the amateur radio broadcast and put it in a cd player and ran it through a Lesley, and it was out there going while all this noise was going, and it just happened to really rhythmically almost synch up right at the end of the song. The piano loop was going, 'Gong, gong . . . Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'. And we were like, 'Well, that's it. That's the name of the album right there'".
"So", Bennett concludes, "once again, one of those beautiful accidents that you can read a lot into".
Fans will be pleased to learn that following their tour, Bennett and Burch will be back in the studio working on "Part II", hopefully sometime in July. They're also working on an acoustic version of Part I, which, according to Burch, will be sold at shows and from their website, but it won't an official release -- "Just a little extra-special something", as Burch puts it.
"A little something special" pretty much sums up The Palace at 4am (Part I).
Don't miss this record.