The Pollocks’ latest recording took an analog path, creating friendships along the way

The incomplete sentence stalled out as Jason Pollock searched his mental database for the wrap-up words he needed.
The Charlottesville native and co-founder of the hard-rock band Seven Mary Three was trying to articulate the struggle he had trying to find his own musical identity after leaving the group in 1999.
“Seven Mary Three was very successful, and had a number-one hit called ‘Cumbersome’ and a couple of Top-10 hits,” Pollock said while perched on a chair in a cozy recording studio in a centuries-old house in Albemarle County.
“I had started playing music when I was 18. After I left Seven Mary Three, I started over. Having never written songs before, I had no sense of lyrics, and I had to teach myself to sing.
“It took me five years to find my voice, find the music I wanted to play and learn how to write lyrics. Learning how to be a writer is almost as painful as …”
After a few seconds of silence, friend Thomas Gunn finished the sentence with, “being one.” The retort brought an eruption of laughter and joyful affirmations that the right words had been found.
That’s not surprising, considering that Gunn and Pollock have been helping each other find the right song lyrics for years.
After Pollock found the musical particulars he was looking for, he started a new group he called The Pollocks.
Initially it was a duo, consisting of Pollock and his wife, Maryline Meyer, doing acoustic gigs in the area. Then, as Pollock’s musical vision began to solidify into a more complete concept, he added a rotating cast of characters.
The band began to take on its current form about four years ago, when Pollock and Gunn started writing together. The collaboration turned out to be precisely what each of them needed to reach a new plateau of creativity.
“I’d been in a multitude of bands through the years, none of which ever went past six months,” said Gunn, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I’d been working on my music and writing for years, but I never co-wrote with anyone until I started writing with Jason.
“It has been a terrific experience. I trust Jason enough to release ideas for songs I have that are still in their infant stages. And so often, the response I get back from a suggestion actually amplifies the initial idea I had.
“At first, I threw songs at Jason — some of which were new, but some had been sitting on shelves for years. In most cases, the songs were brought back to life.”
When drummer Nathan West joined the band, all the needed elements were in place. Pollock and Gunn play guitar and sing, and Meyer contributes vocals and percussion.
One other serendipitous element had to drop into place in order to create the sound heard on The Pollocks’ new album, “Johnny Sunshine and the Rainbows.” That arrived in the form of Tom Phillips, who lovingly assembled an analog recording studio in a front room of his house, which dates back to 1790.
“I’ve been immersed in some sort of music since I was 5,” said Phillips, who produced the new album and also mixed and engineered it with the assistance of Rich Cieslewitz.
“About 10 years ago, Terri Allard invited me to a guitar pull.
“When my turn came around, I started playing this obscure [George] Harrison song and Jason goes up, crossed the room and started playing it with me. I was like, ‘Well, this guy’s got to be all right.’
“We became close friends, and three or four years ago, Jason suggested we get some of my old recording equipment together. The idea was to try to record the old-fashioned way.”
Phillips, 62, had a lot of recording equipment, some of it dating back to when he was a kid, stashed in cases and boxes throughout the house. Cieslewitz had been storing equipment of his own in the house since his recording studio closed.
Pollock also contributed equipment to the project. Creating the studio was about friends having fun together, not making money. Still, the ultimate aim was to make high-quality recordings.
“There’s this thing that the sizzle is just as important as the steak,” Phillips said from a favored cushy chair that’s surrounded by shelves of vinyl records. “The sizzle with this is the stuff that happens among us that makes us laugh and have a good time.
“It’s an organic friendship kind of thing that has to translate into the final product. We started talking about this in early 2011, and it took me almost a year to shovel this room out so we could put in the studio.
“If Jason hadn’t been a very good friend, I would have told him no when he first mentioned the idea. But he is a very good friend, and it was an excuse to hang together and make some good music.”
Phillips explained that because the studio is analog, as opposed to digital, the sound isn’t being doctored or altered by computers or whiz-bang gadgetry.
“Analog gives a recording a compression and a warmth that’s really hard to accomplish any other way,” Phillips said. “With modern digital recordings today, it’s all cut and paste.
“With this, we flip the switch, and if there’s a mistake before the end of the song, we do it again. This gives you an organic, warm feel that you don’t get with digital.
“One of the reasons people don’t do this anymore is because you’ve always got to have pliers, screwdrivers and a soldering iron. The gear is old and it breaks, and tape is extremely expensive.”
If it weren’t for Phillips’ ability to fix darn near anything, the studio wouldn’t exist. He had to roll up his sleeves recently to nurse the mixing board back to health.
“We’d been working for three days on this one song trying to mix it, but there was a problem with the mixing board,” Pollock said. “One of the channels was scratchy, and we couldn’t find out what it was.
“In the middle of last night’s session, we finally found what was causing the scratch. Tom found a spare part, pulled the board completely apart, put the spare part in — and 45 minutes later we got the take we were looking for.
“We never say, ‘OK, we’re just having a good time here; let it go.’ We want to do good work. And we don’t delude ourselves that because we’re doing it this way, what we produce will automatically be great. We still do the work.”
Whether a studio is old-school analog or modern digital, most musicians want it to have a comfortable ambience. Living-room comfy, with soft-tone lighting and cheerily glowing dials and equipment bulbs, is descriptive of Phillips’ response to modernity.
“I’ve attained my goal, because I get to spend more time with good friends than I normally would have,” said Phillips, who is an accomplished songwriter. “All these things that I have dragged back from the grave would still be in cases and cardboard boxes.
“So, to me, this is just wonderful. And because we are all good friends and none of us are in it to make money, if we spend two or three hours and end up not liking something, we still had fun trying it.”
Pollock recorded in some of the best studios on the planet when he was signed with Mammoth and later Atlantic Records. What he said the living room studio provides is a “basic honesty.”
“What this new album is about, and what the studio is about, is a shift in perspective where it’s all about possibilities,” Pollock said. “Doing it this way generates an excitement, because we’re doing something that comes from within.
“Doing it this way requires an immense amount of patience, and the rewards are not immediate. And it requires being able to sit and let things happen naturally, but we have the luxury to be able to take our time.
“It’s not like we’re paying for studio time, and every note that’s played is costing us money. It was just about getting together and having some fun, and it just so happened that some great music is coming out of it.”
Phillips said the new album is creating a buzz among professional musicians, as well as people in the music industry. They’re finding it interesting not because the record is unique, but because the recording techniques used are so dated that they’re wondering how it was done.
“I had a guy call me up and asked me how I did it,” Phillips said, referring to the making of the new album. “This is a guy who has been playing professionally for 50 years.
“He’s asking me, ‘What mike did you use? What amp?’ ”
Phillips is happy to tell anyone who asks what he is using to record. He’ll likely also wish them luck with finding the antiquated gear.
If musicians want to get that “Pollock sound” for their next release, the no-name recording studio is probably the only place in the area to do it. But gaining access won’t be as easy as booking studio time.
“There are other people who I’m working with in the studio,” Phillips said. “But I only do it for friends of mine.
“This started because of friendship, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
The Pollocks’ new album, “Johnny Sunshine and the Rainbows,” is available locally at Plan 9 Music and Sidetracks Music and at the band’s website www.thepollocksmusic.com. The Pollocks will be playing at 6:30 p.m. April 11 at the Batesville Market, and on May 1 at Fridays After Five in Charlottesville.

– David Maurer

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