Some recording facilities have better amenities than others. And by amenities, that usually means the instruments, software and machinery available for the musicians to use, not something that’s assumed and usually taken for granted — like whether the building has heat.
In tracking nearly all of his DJ Booth album at Mill Street Recording, an abandoned mill in the Philadelphia area, during the winter, Alex Vans put up with several heat-free days in order to capture the room’s natural acoustics. And according to Vans, by bundling up and toughing out the cold to record there, the entire record has an edge.
The onetime Washington, D.C.-area solo-acoustic artist talks about writing DJ Booth while on the road, freezing for the good of his music and other subjects.
Medleyville.us: In making your new album, what did you learn in your attempt “to understand the irrational and fickle nature of pop culture,” as you state in your bio?
Alex Vans: “I learned that there’s no point to try and understand it, and it’s best to ignore it. Just do the best you can, perform your ass off and make great records. At that point, if nobody pays attention, just move on, perform your ass off again and make another great record, rinse and repeat. People will either buy it or they won’t, but trying to predict and manipulate trends will just drive you crazy.
You wrote DJ Booth while touring as a backup guitarist. What were some of the events and incidents you experienced on the road that found their way into the album’s lyrical content?
Vans: “It mostly just gave me enough downtime sitting in a van to crack open a notebook, reflect and write about what was on my mind. I’d been hustling at that point for years, killing myself at open mics, bar gigs where you had to yell ‘Wonderwall’ over a crowd of drunks to get anyone to pay attention, teaching lessons and fielding crooked offers from people who said they were ‘in the industry.’ When I got on the road, it gave me a sense of purpose and peace, and allowed me to channel some of the anxiety and frustration I was feeling in my life at that point and turn it into an album’s worth of songs. Most of the songs reflect this period in my life where I was desperately trying to ‘understand pop culture’ and get my music heard.”
Talk about recording in an old mill.
Vans: “I met a few guys in Philly after a show we played there in 2011. They had turned an abandoned mill building into a small project studio and were just starting to get clients in. I had just finished my album’s Kickstarter [campaign], and I was looking to have the funds go as far as possible and they offered me a great rate, to basically live there with my band for 10 days. It was January in Philadelphia, and the building had no heat except for a space heater in the control room. But I wanted to use the giant main room to track drums, so we bundled up and did take after take for days in order to get that big sound I wanted. We had a lot of fun, though, and recording in that building kind of gives the whole record an edge, probably because after recording and sleeping in the cold for over a week put us all on edge.”
What are your touring plans for 2013?
Vans: “The band has a lot going on in 2013. We are going on a 12-city tour in January to promote the new album. We’ll be hitting New York City, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Raleigh, Asheville, Charlotte, Philly and a handful of other cool towns on the East Coast. There are also some plans for a Florida tour and a South by Southwest visit in February and March. That’s all we’ve been able to plan at this point since the band does all our own booking/management.”
Of the Best New Artist Grammy nominees — Alabama Shakes, fun., Hunter Hayes, The Lumineers and Frank Ocean — who would get your vote, and why?
Vans: “I thought about researching all these artists to I could give a politically correct answer, but that would have been dishonest. There’s only so much time in the day to listen to other bands music, and I spend that time getting into the records of my peers and bands that I work on shows with, and those who listen to what I put out. Bands like Low Cut Connie, The Tressels, Justin Jones, Stone Cold Fox and Kid Architect all made some awesome music [in 2012], and I’d rather get some more folks listening to them.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Alex Vans on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Jan. 9: Sidebar Tavern — Baltimore
* Jan. 10: The Camel — Richmond, Va.
* Jan. 11: Hampton Taphouse — Hampton, Va.
* Jan. 12: Belmont House of Smoke — Norfolk, Va.
* Jan. 13: The Tipsy Teapot — Greenville, N.C.
* Jan. 15: The Juggling Gypsy — Wilmington, N.C.
* Jan. 16: The Garage — Winston-Salem, N.C.
* Jan. 17: Deep South The Bar — Raleigh, N.C.
* Jan. 18: The Gin Mill — Charlotte, N.C.
* Jan. 19: Lexington Avenue Brewery — Asheville, N.C.
* Feb. 1: IOTA Clb & Café — Arlington, Va.
* Feb. 8: The Ottobar — Baltimore
* Feb. 21: North Star Bar — Philadelphia
Photo by Cameron Whitman