Here's how Ryan Olson describes talking to his 22 bandmates in Gayngs over the past few months: "Remember that night you came up to my bedroom, and we got stoned and did some recording?"
They certainly will remember it now. From that hazy inception to what could be an even stranger pair of prom-themed CD-release shows Friday night at First Avenue, Gayngs has become the Midwest indie-rock equivalent of a Robert Altman movie. It has an interwoven all-star cast, improvised and experimental performances and a stylized concept that you either get, or you don't. Oh, and some of the participants were under the influence of something.
As the producer/ringleader, Olson crafted much of the album in his third-story bedroom in northeast Minneapolis. The Eau Claire, Wis., native, 33, recruited old hometown pals along with Twin Cities cohorts, whose names read like Midwest indie-rock royalty. The music is unlike anything any of them had ever done before: ethereal, silk-pillow-soft, '70s/'80s-style soft-rock and smooth-R&B, all set to the same rhythmic time of 69 beats per minute -- slow-jam tempo, baby.
The truly seductive and surprisingly rich results can be heard on Gayngs' 11-song album, "Relayted." Released nationally on Tuesday, the disc is the focus of Friday's two parties, "The Last Prom on Earth." Here's the semi-fantastical story of how this otherwise informal music affair came to be.
- Ryan Olson (Digitata, Mel Gibson & the Pants, Building Better Bombs)
- Adam Hurlburt, Zach Coulter and Shon Troth (Solid Gold)
- Justin Vernon and Mike Noyce (Bon Iver)
- Brad Cook, Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund (Megafaun)
- Michael Lewis (Andrew Bird, Happy Apple)
- James Buckley (James Buckley Trio, Mystery Palace)
- Stefon Alexander (aka P.O.S.)
- Maggie Wander (aka Dessa)
- Maggie Morrison and Grant Cutler (Lookbook)
- Ivan Howard (Rosebuds)
- Jake Luck and Nick Ryan (Leisure Birds)
- Channy Moon Casselle (Roma di Luna)
- Joe Mabbott (producer)
- Katy Morley (Olson's friend)
- Danny Kryzkowski ("a guy I work with who was always narcing on me to get me fired," Olson said)
- Xander (?)
Olson says the primary inspiration was the sparkly, grandiose 1975 soft-rock hit "I'm Not in Love" by 10cc, which he heard on his alarm clock via cheeseball station Love 105.
Ryan Olson: "I had a definite, violent sense of, 'I love this song!' I was just entranced. That made me start paying attention more to that station and that kind of zone. And then I started jamming with Adam and Zach.
"We started last February, using the 69-beats-per-minute thing as a foundation. It seemed kind of funny -- 69, you know -- but it also felt right. It seemed like something we could work with."
Zach Coulter: "We were just sort of joking around at first. Then one night I went over to Ryan's and we started writing, and it quickly became kind of serious. Slowly, we wrote a batch of songs, and after that people started slowly hopping onto them."
Olson: "A lot of the basic tracks were done over a three-month period. Maggie [Morrison] was living here then, so she threw down some vocals in that time. And as soon as I had like six songs, I had Mike Lewis come over to do his sax thing because I knew that was crucial, like a beacon."
Maggie Morrison: "All the recording sessions were so casual, I never fully believed they would be part of the final product. I recorded my part for 'Faded High' through a microphone fashioned out of an old rotary telephone in Ryan's room."
Michael Lewis: "Ryan approached me somewhat -- and probably tactfully -- ambiguous about what he was doing. He played me the tracks, which at that point were pretty bare-bones. We listened and were like, 'Should we go get a drink?' We walked up the street to a liquor store and downed some gin and tonics. I don't even normally drink gin and tonic, but it seemed perfect in this case."
THE WISCONSIN BLITZ
After laying basic tracks for three months, Olson wanted certain parts played by his old Eau Claire cohorts in Megafaun (now based in Raleigh, N.C.). Arrangements were made to meet up at April Base, a house outside Eau Claire that Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and his brother Nate are converting into a recording facility. This got Justin involved, while Nate would later become Gayngs' manager.
Nate Vernon: "Megafaun was coming through Minneapolis and had like 28 hours before they had to drive to their next show. Ryan came with the songs all laid out already, which allowed these guys to have a musical track-and-field day."
Olson: "It's a country house at the end of one of those long-ass country driveways. It's like a split-level house, but it has this indoor pool that's a great room for recording. It's like a bass pocket in there. So they had that [28-hour] window, and we pretty much used it all up."
Olson spent the next six months adding extra layers, often pushing friends to work outside their usual boxes. Among the ideas was having P.O.S. (credited as "LeRon") sing like a Teddy Pendergrass-style R&B crooner on the track "No Sweat."
Olson: "Justin said he wanted to mix the album -- a good idea, because he's really good at that. But he was insanely busy, too. So that gave me time to go back and add some things, and bring in even more people."
Morrison: "For Ryan's entire life, he has been a conductor of sorts. His mom told me when he was as young as 3 or 4, he would put on plays with his cousins and neighbors, often bossing around kids much older than him."
P.O.S.: "Most of the people that Ryan hangs out with knew he was making this insane record. I don't know if everybody else is like this with Ryan, but with me he doesn't really ask me to be on projects so much as he just tells me, 'Hey, come over. You're gonna do this right now.'"
Channy Moon-Casselle: "Ryan told me he wanted to put Auto-Tune on my voice in one song, but I am so out of the loop and had never heard of Auto-Tune before. I thought he was telling me I was really out of tune. I left the studio that night wondering if I was going tone-deaf. And then Ryan also asked me to sing 'fuck you' on a track. So I spent a good 10 minutes in his room practicing saying, "Fuck you," into the mike, but I had to give up because I sound ridiculous when I swear."
Dessa: "Ryan explained that I would not be allowed to listen to the song before I sang to it. I would not be allowed to read the lyrics. I would not even be answered if I asked basic questions about the song. I would simply arrive at his bedroom studio, put on headphones, and sing. It was the most secretive activity I've been involved in. He picked me up at my apartment, took me to the liquor store and 45 minutes later we were done."
Olson: "One of the worst Gayngs sessions we had was when [James] Buckley came over, and Adam had gotten a free bottle of absinthe from the bar he works at. We started recording 'False Bottom' with Buckley playing keyboards, and I think before we ever pressed 'stop' once on the record button, we just all blacked out. It only took like 15 minutes for us all to pass out."
P.O.S.: "As far as the song I sing on, Ryan told me it was going to be an instrumental, and I had been fighting him the whole time trying to get him to put something on it. I said, 'Fuck it. I'll take a crack at it.' He loved it, and I hated it, and that's what it is. Leron is my middle-name, but Ryan took the liberty of altering it for the record. That's the kind of dude he is."
THE FINAL PRODUCT
About three-quarters of the way through recording, Gayngs drew interest from the indie label Jagjaguwar. The company provided legitimacy, and is now trumpeting its all-star lineup.
Coulter: "It's a lot of people, but they're all sort of connected: people who grew up in Eau Claire, people Ryan hangs out with now. So it was more a thing like friends getting together than a deliberate 'all-star' project. It was so low-pressure and fun. Then all of a sudden we're signed."
Olson: "I think the attitude going into it was key. It was incredibly fun. Every time I got to work on it, it felt like the most fun thing I'd done."
Lewis: "Everybody involved, I think, knows how to make this kind of music and has respect for it -- they just never find themselves in a context where they get to do it. Ryan's such a good producer and his idea was so earnest, the record came out pretty brilliant."
Nate Vernon: "It's been said, 'Gayngs is so wrong, it's right," which I think aptly describes the obstacles we have to overcome. The challenges are what make it fun and rewarding."
THE LAST PROM
Among the biggest challenges is bringing Gayngs to the stage. They're going to try, though, first by bringing in all 23 members to First Ave. There could be more gigs, too.
Olson: "The core crew is getting together a few days before the show, and then the day before it everyone is going to meet at Justin's place."
Coulter: "It's not like we've all been in a room together, so it's a good question how it'll come off onstage. There will probably be four bass players onstage at one time. We'll probably have to have a 'bass lounge' with a couch and a lamp."
Lewis: "I'm going to try to be there for soundcheck. Dosh plays in Omaha on May 13. I'm trying to take a flight from Omaha so I can get there for load-in and soundcheck, God willing."
Olson: "We're going to give [touring] a shot. It'll be like a 10-piece thing in the fall. The First Ave shows will be completely different from that. They'll be a one-night-only kind of thing. If they're anything like what happened on record, I think it's going to be pretty incredible."
- Art Director: Leslie Plesser
- Photography: Carlos Gonzalez
- Hair and makeup: Kate Erickson
- Styling: Jahna Peloquin
- Flowers: Bastian & Skoog
- Limo: Valley Limo & Coach, Mpls
- Clothing providers: Ryan's suit provided by Via's Vintage; tuxedo shirt provided by Tatters. Maggie's dress, shoes and earrings provided by Blacklist Vintage; bracelet provided by Macy's. Dessa's dress, bracelets and necklace provided by Macy's; earrings provided by Blacklist Vintage; shoes provided by Lula's Vintage Wear.