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Aaron Comess calls on trusty players for new instrumental album

Aaron Comess_photo by Mark White.jpg
For his third solo effort, Blues for Use, Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess once again recorded with guitarist Teddy Kumpel and bassist Richard Hammond — the same players featured on Comess’ prior album, 2011’s Beautiful Mistake. But there’s nothing “same old, same old” about the end result or the way they prepared for the sessions.

By playing gigs over the past few years, Comess says they’ve really gelled as a band. Those shows also gave the instrumental trio the opportunity to test out and shape a lot of the textured Blues for Use material in a concert setting before entering the studio — something they didn’t do with the songs that ended up on Beautiful Mistake.

The New York-based Comess checked in May 5 to discuss Blues for Use and what the immediate future holds for him, Kumpel and Hammond. When we spoke in 2011 about your Beautiful Mistake album, you talked about writing the melodies and chords on acoustic guitar and coming up with the arrangements before even thinking about drums. Did you take a similar or different approach with the material on Blues for Use?
Aaron Comess: “You know, I would say the majority of it was that same approach. I tend to do most of my writing on acoustic guitar, and then I’ll demo things and build from there.
“There are a few examples on this record where I did a different approach. The song ‘Hard Ball’ actually started with a rhythm. I kept hearing this syncopated rhythm in my head, and then I sat down at the drum kit and figured out the rhythm. Then I took that rhythm and wanted to put a riff to it. … Then I had this cool riff and rhythm, and I needed more to it, so I came up with a couple more sections on the guitar.”

Talk about how playing concerts regularly with Teddy Kumpel and Richard Hammond since the release of Beautiful Mistake influenced the way this album was made. Did you make mental notes about things they did live and subsequently ask them to take a similar approach in the studio this time around?
Comess: “I think the main thing that was so great about making this record with those guys after having a couple of years playing live was we’ve really gelled a lot as a band. And also, when we did Beautiful Mistake, even though we’d played together in a different context, it was the first time we’d played as a trio. And we didn’t play any of the songs live before we made Beautiful Mistake. I basically sent them the demos, I got together with Teddy, and then we went into the studio and recorded everything, so it was really fresh.

“On this record, we had the opportunity to play a lot of this material live at gigs before we went into the studio. So I think it gave the songs more of a chance to develop as a group as opposed to last time, and I think that shows on the record.

“And also, after playing with those guys: When you have a band, you tend to get to know the musicians, and you have them in mind when you’re writing. So I think I wrote more with this particular group in mind, [unlike] last time, it was really having this collection of songs and I thought to myself, ‘OK, who would be my favorite guys to get to do it?’ ”

You liken albums to movies, in that “each song is a new scene.” That said, do you usually provide visual scenarios for the musicians you work with as a way to convey the feel, mood and dynamics you’re trying to achieve?
Comess: “Not necessarily. I’ve always thought of songs in terms of colors and shapes and things like that, and I’ve always thought of full records as something that presents itself from start to finish — having this collection of songs that works together, but I like it when it takes you to a lot of different places: a new color, a new mood and a new scene.

“It’s always been something that I’ve strived for when I’m working on my own music, when I’m producing or when I’m working with the Spin Doctors. Anytime I have a strong creative say in what’s going on in the process of making a record, I try to look at the big picture like that. … Ultimately it’s always about serving the song, but it’s also about creating a mood and a color within that song.”

Your calendar is quite full into August with Spin Doctors dates. Will supporting Blues for Use be one-off shows, or are you planning to carve out a block of time later this year to do a series of solo shows with Teddy and Richard?
Comess: “Our initial plan is to do a show at World Café Live in Philadelphia on May 7, and then we’re doing a Rockwood Music Hall show in New York on May 9. I definitely would like to do more shows. We’ve been playing about once a month for the most part over the last couple of years, and I’m sure we’ll continue to do that. I would love to try to carve out a little window at some point later in the year and do a little run.

“My main goal with this group has been to make really strong records every couple of years and really make it a fun thing. Obviously I’d love to see it grow. We’ve got a nice following around New York, and the records have been getting great response. But it’s hard: I’m so busy doing other things, and the other guys are busy, so it’s hard to carve out a lot of time. I would ultimately like to spend more time with it because it’s such a good, creative project.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Photo by Mark White