Matt Arthur & The Bratlanders + Rice County Records = Heavy On My Mind
I had a chance to hook up for a cool beverage at The Tavern to chat Doug Bratland, the bass player with Matt Arthur & The Bratlanders, about the band’s collaborative experience with Rice County Records in the making of their recent album, “Heavy On My Mind”.
AMY SMITH: So I was checking out your Facebook page during your recent tour, and I was thinking “How awesome is that?!” When you released “Heavy On My Mind” did you know that doing a tour was in the works?
DOUG BRATLAND: Ahh…that’s a good question. Yes and no. I kinda feel like I need to back up to the whole recording project, which means I should tell the story leading up to it….
It’s a long story, but I’ll try to cut to the chase a bit. We sort of started playing as a band about ten years ago. We got together in the Fall of 2003 to do a Johnny Cash tribute show at the Contented Cow, just a couple months after Johnny died. That first show was Matt Arthur on vocals and acoustic guitar, me on the bass, my brother Don on electric guitar, and our sister Bev on drums. And it was pretty awesome. It was so much fun we decided to keep playing together to see what might come of it.
So…fast-forward about 8 or 9 years later: we’re still at it. We’ve just finished a year-long standing gig, playing every other week at the Cow. We’d done a few Twin Cities shows, and we were starting to sound pretty darn good. We’d done a couple recording projects over the years, but they were all kinda half-assed. We succeeded in documenting some of our songs, but the recordings were nothing that we were really proud of.
But we’d got ourselves to the point where recording an album was really the next step for us. Bev had moved to England, so we’d talked our friend Joel Beithon into being our drummer. And we lucked into finding Pete Christensen to play keyboards—something we’d been looking for for years! So we’d settled on a great lineup, we were writing new songs, we were getting great responses when we played out, and we were ready to put a little more effort into the band.
DOUG: In the past we’d always done things cheap and fast. We’ve come out of every recording process with a sound that’s basically exactly what we put into it, and nothing more. So what we decided this time around was, “Well, we’ve been playing together for years. We don’t really know if our songs are any good, or if our friends are just being nice to us when they say we don’t suck. We need someone with a different perspective than us.” We wanted to make a REAL album…something that we would actually want to listen to. We wanted to do this like if this were 1979 and you were going into a recording studio, how would you do it? Well…you’d need a producer.
AMY: Off of that, finding that right person in your musical genre, in this community…is it hard to find somebody who has that domain knowledge? I know you worked with Michael Morris….
DOUG: We absolutely lucked out on working with Michael Morris. I was at the Tavern Lounge one night, and I ran into Michael and struck up a conversation. He’d been to some of our shows at the Cow, and he seemed to like what we did, so he was somebody I would just chat with. So that night at the Tavern I said, “We really want to record an album. We’re thinking about going over to Cannon Falls and working with somebody over there. Don’t really know much about this guy, do you?” And he said, flat-out: “I can record you.”
That wasn’t really the response I was expecting, but I was intrigued. So I said, “Well, here’s what we’re looking for…someone to come in and say ‘have you ever thought about doing this, or rearranging this?’ We basically wanted someone to tell us what to do. And Michael was all over that. I didn’t know much about him when we had that conversation, and I didn’t quite know if he was going to be the right fit, but I got a really good vibe from him.
AMY: So how did you vet him? Does it become a leap of faith, or are there ways you test one another out?
DOUG: We just had some conversations, the whole band and Michael. We aired our thoughts on what we wanted to do and listened to what he wanted to do. From the initial conversation he had a real vision for what we were doing. The way he talked about our music was the way we felt about our music…but didn’t really know how to put into words. He had a bigger context in which to place our songs. And it made us really excited to work with him.
We knew he was also running an indie record label (Plastic Horse Records). He said: “Well… your music isn’t really the type of music I’m putting on my label, but I’ve been thinking of starting another label that’s more rootsy Americana music. I would release this record if you guys wanted to do that.” So then it became a really different thing. Instead of going into some studio with a producer you’ve got to pay a bunch of money to, and then he says, “OK, here’s your recording…good luck with that.” The fact that Michael knew about releasing things, distribution, and more pieces of the puzzle…that was something we just jumped at.
AMY: I remember the first time I sat down and listened to the whole album in one sitting, and it had this really warm, mature, full sound. But what was the sound like during recording? Did you take a listen to it right away? When did you do a gut check saying, “This is awesome!”?
DOUG: The room that we were in really had a lot to do with the sound. It’s this old space with wooden floors, brick walls, high wooden ceilings…kind of like an attic of a space. Michael calls it The Barn. And it’s all analog. There is no equipment that is newer than, I think, 1977. He uses real Hammond organs, old pump organs, vintage amps, tape machines. Our band has sort of an old pre-digital sound, so having that kind of gear really helped capture the way we hear our music in our hearts.
Michael also brought in some amazing extra musicians—pedal steel, pump organ, piano, cello, violin, harmony vocals—to fill out the sound. That was another whole new concept for us, and it added all this incredible depth to the recording.
And finally there was the mixing process. Michael, and Tyler Cook, the recording engineer on the album, spent a marathon weekend working on mixing the album. Now we weren’t there to witness it, but Michael described the process as basically another performance, where they are controlling all the faders and saying, “OK…NOW, here’s the point where we want everything to drop out.” Hearing the first mixes, with the string arrangements and all the dynamics, is when we realized that we were involved in something really amazing. There’s just this huge emotional jolt when you hear some of these things. I just gotta say I’m still kind of blown away by the album. I listen to it a lot, and I get goose bumps every time.
AMY: So bringing things up to date…you’re playing a “Rice County Records Showcase” during the Defeat of Jesse James Days. Tell me about that.
DOUG: We’ve played every DJJD weekend since 2005, so I guess this is our 9th annual appearance during the festival! We’re super excited to be playing with our label mates this time around. Rice County Records is all about great regional Americana music, so the show opens with Little Omar, a great local banjo player who joined us on our tour. Then there’s Wesley Church & The Fabulous Vanguards, playing original country rock. We’re third on the bill, and the night closes out with the Rice County Roosters, which is a flat-out-fabulous country cover band. It’s going to be the best night of music Northfield has seen in a long time. Or at least OUR idea of the best night of music, anyway!
AMY: So what’s next after this…?
DOUG: We’ve got a really busy fall lined up with a bunch of shows in Northfield and Minneapolis, and we’re hoping to get going on our next recording soon. The tour has got us really energized and thinking differently about what we’re doing, and we’re looking forward to playing more out-of-town shows. We’re really excited about where we’re at and where we’re heading!