Tom Catmull’s already gone electric. So why not release his new music digitally?
When it came time to put out what would be his eighth album, the longtime Missoula songwriter and performer decided to forgo a physical release and post tracks online. Once a week, he, drummer Travis Yost and bassist John Sporman will have new recordings on their Bandcamp page, radiostatic406.bandcamp.com.
It’s a way to skip the old, time-consuming model. Recording. Tweaking. Spending thousands upfront for a physical CD. Holding a release show.
“We just want people to listen to the music. It’s not even about buying it. How do we get them to listen to it?” said Travis Yost, Radio Static’s recording engineer and an all-around gear junkie.
And the band has avenues out there through radio stations like The Trail 103.3 and public radio, Catmull said.
“It should be handed to them as soon as possible,” said Catmull.
The 11 new tracks and electric sound are born of a yearlong refurbishing of Catmull’s music that began after a close bandmate, steel guitarist Gibson Hartwell, departed the group.
Deciding to continue as a trio, they dropped the Clerics name and dubbed it Radio Static.
The format gave Yost and Sporman, who write and perform live scores together as NextDoorPrisonHotel, musical space to make new contributions. Both fans of rock, and its attendant gear and pedals, they helped steer the music in a new direction.
And Catmull himself, an acoustic lifer, would bring a new song or two to the weekly rehearsals penned on a different instrument.
“I’ve been writing on electric, which creates different songs for me, which has been a jolt of energy,” Catmull said.
The instrument has its own sound and tones, “which in some strange magical way lead you to new themes and new melodies,” he said.
Over the course of the winter, the three would arrange and flesh out the words and basic framework Catmull brought in.
“Sporman is a great arranger,” Yost said. “A great chemist when given basic tools. And he’s a good cutter. A good fluff cutter.”
They embellished a catchy, wide-open tune, “Evergreen,” with bright electronic tones from Sporman’s keyboards and Yost’s AniMoog iPad app.
“I’ll Never Know Why” shifts into a descending guitar line that wouldn’t ever register as a Clerics song on a blind test; on “Find You,” his Texas tenor vocal is compressed into something more plain-spoken and menacing.
Some of the tracks, all recorded and mixed by Yost, have delay or doubled vocal tracks.
“I like the thickening agent,” Catmull said.
The set list had to be revamped because some older songs from the catalog didn’t work on electric. As Catmull put it, the working band “dropped a ton” of tunes. A few, such as “Bernadette,” were reworked live and on record with a chugging, rock rhythm. They arranged a plugged-in version of “Malady,” from Catmull’s fall 2013 solo album “Words & Malady.”
There was also a conscious desire to escape the dreaded Americana label.
That broad-tent genre once served him well because of its accessibility as a working musician and original songwriter, Catmull said. Now, the genre has faded from popularity.
“Stylistically, I think we had to change just for survival,” he said.
For his part, Yost said he doesn’t want to be compared to the Old 97s anymore.
“I like staying up to date. I don’t want to follow trends, but I don’t want to be participating in a musical trend that reminds me of 1995,” he said.
The shift required a bit of “a leap of faith” for venues, Catmull said. What works in some won’t in another, but they still keep a busy schedule, including a gig at the Red Ants Pants Festival outside White Sulphur Springs in July.
The shift was all somewhat complicated by his various projects over the past year – an acoustic album in October and an acoustic trio performance on Montana PBS’ “11th & Grant” that drew them positive attention. Unfortunately, by the time the episode aired, they’d already begun building something else.
“It’s good news and it’s awkward for me. You’re trying to create something, but you’re all over the place in terms of people’s perceptions,” Catmull said.
“New venues and new audiences have been the experiences of 2014,” Yost said. “Old people following, new people coming in.”
Catmull’s music already can be found on Pandora – he’s received random fan emails from around the country. Bandcamp, however, is a new experiment for him.
The site, launched in 2007, allows artists to create their own pages and post individual songs or full albums. Listeners can sample full tracks and purchase them at a price set by the artist.
Some musicians set the cost at $1 a track, about the going price on iTunes, and others simply set it to “name your price.” Fledgling artists may choose to simply make the full album available for download.
According to Bandcamp’s site, it’s now host to 1.4 million albums and 10.7 million tracks. There’s a wealth of material from Missoulians on the site, everything from experimental acts like the Shahs and Javier Ryan to electronic producers and hip-hop artists.
The only thing they have in common is that they aren’t waiting for a record label to post music.
“You record it, and you put it out,” Yost said. “In that order and in that time frame. You don’t work it to death, record it, tweak it, debate it. ... You just run into a dead end.”
Depending on the response, they may put out a CD in late summer or fall. Some people still like a physical product, they said, and it’s also beneficial for touring.
But they’re more focused on a new direction anyway.
“I would rather we keep the tunes coming and a half-year from now we’re over these tunes and we’re onto the next tunes, and maybe the previous bunch made enough to print something on vinyl,” Sporman said.