From far left: Justin Tricomi, Marc Pepperman, Kenn Jankowski, Adam McGill, Ryan Pinkston
Photo: Michael Forester
Kenn Jankowski, singer for The Republic Tigers, knows the taste of major label disappointment. Now he and his band are poised for that rarest of indie-rock feats: the second act.
The Kansas City group's lush, baroque pop, given to moods and melodic twists not unlike The Shins or Blonde Redhead, has earned them slots at SXSW, the Tribeca Film Festival and opening dates with Nada Surf. They secured a deal for their debut, Keep Color (Chop Shop, 2008), with the new label run by noted Hollywood music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas.
Yet only a few years ago, Jankowski's musical ambitions suffered derailment.
“It was a horrible experience,” he says of his brush with major label-dom as keyboardist in The Golden Republic. That band waited two years for Astralwerks to release its debut in 2005. Shaking off atrophy, the band took to the road but faltered, then fractured, after its original bassist and drummer left.
“I suppose that record wasn't as timeless as it should have been,” Jankowski says with some distance. “Maybe they were wise trying to put it out at the right time. But I think we've done something timeless with this record. It could come out at any point and be good.”
Indeed, Keep Color's 12 tracks form a broad, gauzy pop picture connecting the dots between odes to Brian Wilson's awkward longing (“The Nerve”); the darker, minor shades of Radiohead (“Golden Sand”); and the crafted movements (“Weatherbeaten”) that made XTC a household influence.
“Always be writing,” Jankowski says. That's the key lesson he took from the Astralwerks experience. “Everybody in this band writes,” Jankowski says of local guitarist/recordist Adam McGill (whom Jankowski tried to recruit into Golden Republic), guitarist Ryan Pinkston, bassist Marc Pepperman and drummer Justin Tricomi. “I can't believe it. These are four guys who write more similar to my style than anyone I've ever worked with.”
Thick, layered vocals, what Jankowski calls his “gang vocal” vision, features throughout Keep Color. McGill says it happened out of necessity.
“In order to compensate for the inadequacies of our home recording rigs, we would do a lot of layering on our demos,” he says. “If you can't get a good tone out of your $50 condenser, you tend to stack vocal track on top of vocal track. People really responded to those multilayered vocals.”
But the vocals created another production problem. “You have to get really dense with the actual music layers,” he explains. “It sounds really bizarre to have 40 tracks of vocals and then just double-tracked guitars.”
McGill estimates that several songs contain 40 to 50 vocal tracks alone, not counting the floating backing accents — the “oohs and ahhs” — that Jankowski recorded directly onto lead vocal tracks or “anywhere there was space.”
The band tracked basics at a Kansas City loft studio using an MCI (pre-Sony) 24-track tape machine, Electrodyne preamps and an MCI console. McGill wanted the band on its best performance behavior and decided to track to tape.
He'd soon regret the decision though when, through a sync error, the rhythm tracks didn't line up with the sequenced material in Pro Tools, and McGill spent two weeks editing “beat by beat.”
While the band worked on overdubs, Jankowski cut vocal tracks in his apartment on a MacBook with an M-Audio Sputnik tube condenser. Vocals done, the band delivered the session files to mix engineer Mark Needham.
McGill says a key to the Tigers' workflow and output was getting everyone on the same writing and recording platforms: Mac, Pro Tools and Reason. McGill's own rig includes a Power Mac G5 dual 2 GHz.
Jankowski held out, though. Accustomed to recording on a Fostex digital 16-track with a Roland Fantom keyboard, some guitars, and an arsenal of pedals, Jankowski crossed over reluctantly. When he did, it was with the principle guiding bedroom musician/engineers everywhere.
“I like to experiment with as few possibilities as I can. I run things through pedals, reverse them. I like to start from the simplest idea, then be cornered and have to fight my way out with creativity.”