Not long into a June 4 live performance at Rock Garden Studio in Appleton of a new album by one of my favorite Wisconsin musicians, I was reminded of the scene in the movie High Fidelity when record store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) gets everyone’s head bobbing to the catchy Beta Band song “Dry the Rain.”
Everyone in the studio seemed to be bobbing their heads to the music, and, I suspect, especially to the insistent rubberiness of Stephen McCabe’s guitar.
In an interview after the show, I tell McCabe I think I could now pick out his guitar sound from among a wide variety of guitarists.
“I think it’s probably that I’ve been using the same guitar and amp all these years, and maybe I haven’t matured much as a musician,” McCabe said, laughing. “Those three things together.”
But, no, it’s a sound I have enjoyed in his various projects, which include Cookie Bug, Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot and The Willis (The Willis album Bathtub. Lightbulb Heart Attack. remains one of my personal favorites – the first song on that record, the hilarious “Jimmy Fallon: The Plan,” got the band an invite to play a Fallon test show just before Fallon debuted on the late night show in 2009, with an important element of the song censored for sensitive TV audiences).
McCabe’s latest effort is called Redshift Headlights and the resulting record is titled Inside Voices. McCabe said what began as a small, solo recording project blossomed into a project for full band, as well as horn and string sections, with McCabe himself playing at various times electric guitar, drums, keyboards, a looping machine and marimba.
“Originally it was supposed to be a little solo record,” McCabe said. “I was going to record it in one day. Just do it myself, but then I started adding and adding and adding and decided to put horns and strings in.”
The songwriting for the record began five years ago and was inspired by McCabe’s imminent fatherhood.
“I was contemplating new life and stuff like that,” he said. “I ended up writing about 30 songs with different lyrics. They were OK, but only two of them felt really finished.”
Being a fan of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys (the previously mentioned Willis record includes a roaring punked up version of Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”), McCabe used Wilson’s modular approach to songwriting on his new record.
“I just started pulling choice parts out of each song and putting them with other choice parts from other songs, reconstructing what became these 10 songs,” he said. “Once I felt I had the 10 songs and there was a kind of feel to them I liked and I didn’t have any real lyrics, then I started to write lyrics and put an arc together, a kind of concept together, what the music was evoking.”
His first idea was the story of a single life, from childhood to death.
“But because of the way our country is right now, I became uncomfortable about writing a single personal identity,” McCabe said. “I feel like everyone is in these little weird bubbles where everyone is saying, ‘Here is what I think’ and ‘Here is what I think’ and nobody is listening to each other. I wanted to construct a more collective story of life. I decided to make each character different in each song and telling about that stage of their life from their own unique identity.”
To pull that off, McCabe called on another aspect of his abilities. When not making music, he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
“I was having difficulty writing the lyrics, but writing fiction comes a lot easier to me,” he said. “So I sat down and started to write flash fiction pieces – two to three page stories – and the arc really quickly formed that way. I could write those pieces in an hour, hour and a half and have the whole story. From that I constructed lyrics. I would derive the lyrics from each flash fiction piece. It was a complicated process, I guess.”
For the live performance, McCabe supplied the string and horn players with a 100-page score. For the three other guitar parts, he videorecorded himself playing the parts and provided them to the other guitarists to learn.
“It was a fun process,” he said of putting the show together.
The next step in the process is finding a label.
“I’m shopping it to labels. Just in the last month I have approached a number of labels and am kind of waiting to hear back from them. A few have expressed positive interest,” McCabe said. “I’m just looking for a small, independent label with some distribution to put it out so I don’t have to pound my way through more doors than I already feel like I’m pounding my way through. Put it out hopefully this fall.”
He also plans to put together a small band to tour behind the record, and also plans to do some small solo shows with both electric and acoustic looping versions.
For more information on Redshift Headlights, visit redshiftheadlights.com.