In perfect harmony with the flurry of activity and layering of music inside St. Paul's Fuzzy Slippers Studio, snow fell on the day last month when Rogue Valley passed the halfway mark on its fourth album in one year.
Granted, the sight of flurries was nothing unusual. Minnesota's bitter, soul-sucking winter of 2010-11 actually might have been the final cosmic blessing for one of the more ambitious projects ever undertaken by a Twin Cities rock band. Rogue Valley's seasonal recording marathon winds down with this week's release of the "winter" album, "False Floors."
"If it had started warming up come February, I probably would've lost my steam," admitted Rogue Valley frontman Chris Koza.
In the studio's conference/dining room, guitarist Peter Sieve sat at a table with his Gretsch six-string in hand, headphones on, working on one of the key tracks in the project's 46-song canon, "Onward and Over." His lunch sat beside him. "I've gotten used to doing a lot of different things simultaneously," he said.
In the main recording room, the band's violinist friend Kip Jones fit the final piece to another song, "Shoulder to Shoulder." In the control booth, engineer Paul Marino coached Jones on acoustics but otherwise let him do his thing. Bouncing between the rooms was Koza, who probably should have been pulling out his naturally tousled hair or at least yelling at somebody about something. That's really what the visiting journalist showed up to see. But the guy was as cool as the weather.
"I got a little nuts making the summer album," claimed Koza, who also managed to squeeze in his wedding in June. "But we got a lot more efficient as we went along. We moved quicker without getting too mechanical, or sacrificing the things that make records special."
When Rogue Valley takes the stage Friday night at the Varsity Theater for its last of four CD release parties, it genuinely deserves to take a bow. Granted, in this day and age of hi-fi home-recording equipment -- when 21-year-olds can make super-polished platinum records in their basements in Owatonna -- it's not all that hard to make one album every three months. But it is difficult to make albums like the ones Rogue Valley has delivered, each well crafted, lovingly arranged, thematically tied and consistently enjoyable.
Musically and lyrically, "False Floors" sums up the entire project, which started with the sprawling, youthful, bright-eyed spring release "Crater Lake" last April. In between, the band issued the rawer, rockier, feistier summer collection, "The Bookseller's House," and fall's somber and serene "Geese in the Flyway."
With icy synthesizers and strings and songs touching on life's twilight hours, Friday's finale concert for "False Floors" will be well served by the lingering snow and cold weather.
"I'm the one guy who hoped this winter wouldn't end too soon," Koza said.
But is he ready for this four-album cycle to be over?
"Yes!" he quickly replied, but then tempered his answer. "But I probably won't know what to do with myself for a while."
• • •
After establishing his orchestral-folk and atmospheric-pop trademark with three solo albums, Koza planted the seeds for this past year's escapade on two West Coast tours starting in late 2007.
A native of Portland, Ore., he got swept up in the familiar scenery of the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, new bassist and backup singer Linnea Mohn joined Sieve and drummer Luke Anderson in Koza's namesake band, and the musicians started to bond.
"One of the ways this project has fascinated me was how he kind of fictionalized some of our shared experiences, things we all did traveling and saw along the way," Sieve said. "That all ties in to the idea of the band name, too."
The idea for the four seasonal albums went hand-in-hand with the name change to Rogue Valley (taken straight off the Oregon map).
"I got tired of saying, 'Hi, I'm Chris Koza, and this is the Chris Koza Band,'" Koza said. Once renamed, he said, "I just wanted to do something different to set us apart. I thought the one thing I could really do best is creative content. I'm not some crazy guitar player or a very unique vocalist. What I could do is create a lot of something."
Koza spent months writing songs at his Uptown apartment from 2008 to 2009. A sign of his preparedness, more than half the tracks on the final album were written before the first CD, including "Onward and Over" and the closing song, "The Wolves and the Ravens." Listen closely to the latter, and you might recognize some of the same chord intervals from "The Warming Moon," the song that kicked off the entire project a year ago.
"From the outset, I had an idea of certain songs that could go on certain albums," Koza said. "But I left room for songs to pop up as we went along."
Another highlight of the winter record, "Shoulder to Shoulder" -- Koza called it "the album's 'Stand by Me' moment" -- was just written in January. In that elegant number, you hear references to objects that pop up throughout the musical tetralogy, including books and cars.
Some of the most oft-used images over the course of the four discs include cities and gardens (juxtaposing manmade vs. nature), oceans (symbolic of the afterlife) and moving bodies of water (our present lives). Most prominent of all is the moon -- each album boasts at least one song with "moon" in the title and several more references. Koza actually printed up a "glossary" of the repeated themes.
"You can get pretty geeky with these albums, if you want," he said. However, he had no intention of making things difficult for listeners.
"If someone is crazy enough to sit down and listen to all four albums together as one, that's certainly the ideal situation. But I'm not egotistical enough to think anyone will do that. So we made sure each album can stand up on its own just fine."
• • •
A few days after the final tracks for "False Floors" were sent off to be mastered, Koza and the band met up again last week and let out a collective sigh of relief. The other four members all claimed to have no doubt they could pull it off.
"Knowing Chris, and the way he writes and organizes, I knew we'd do it," Sieve said.
Mohn admitted that things got a little harried when it came time to make the second album. "That was sort of the first taste we had of the deadline," she said, "but by the time we got to the fall record, that one sort of fell into place real easily."
The fall disc was Mohn's favorite of the bunch -- "until I heard the finished version of this new one," she said. Anderson said his preference "might be" the summer disc. They all agree they have a personal stake in these albums that runs deeper than most records.
"It's an autobiographical set of songs for Chris, but for the rest of us it has sort of been the story of our lives this past year, too," said keyboardist Joey Kantor, who joined not long before the first album.
Koza seems to be the only one in Rogue Valley who had any doubts.
"After we played First Avenue in August to promote the summer record, I really was just pissed about the whole thing," he candidly admitted. "Sometimes you work so hard on something, you ask yourself, 'Why am I putting myself through this?' That was my stick-to-it moment. Really, all I needed was to take a couple weeks off, which I did, and came back to it with a fresh perspective."
The band isn't quite yet done with the project. Rehearsals commenced Monday with a dance troupe for Friday's concert (other release shows included a marching band at the Fitzgerald Theater and filmed accompaniment at the Cedar). There are a few leftover tracks that might be dusted off for some kind of bonus set. And after that, Koza said, "We just plan to play a lot." Loose plans call for some kind of four-night stand to revisit each album in its entirety.
"That was one of the downsides: We didn't have time to do as many shows as we'd have liked," Koza said (and the gigs they did take were generally for money to continue funding all the studio time).
One of the upsides, though, was mentioned by Mohn and confirmed by the rest of the band: "It gives you a new perspective on what a year is, and what you can accomplish in one year if you use that as a marker."
Sounds like Rogue Valley has officially thrown out a challenge to the rest of the Twin Cities arts community.
- With: The Pines, Adam Svec, Chastity Brown.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.
- Where: Varsity Theater, 1308 4th St. SE., Mpls.
- Tickets: $11-$14. www.VarsityTheater.org.