The debut album from Chicago's daring Sinister Luck Ensemble, Anniversary, offers listeners tight orchestration combined with improvisation and breaks down boundaries between chamber music, pop, indie rock, and jazz. Anniversary features an eclectic collection of mostly acoustic instruments that were recorded in a pair of home studios.
Musician and composer Charles Kim formed the Sinister Luck Ensemble with friends and associates from diverse musical backgrounds. The group comprises Kim on guitar, pedal steel, and dobro; Jason Adaciewicz on drums and vibraphone; Robert Cruz on accordion; Kent Kessler on upright bass; Glenn Kotche on drums and percussion; and Diana Parmeter on cello. Anniversary also features guest performances from Andrew Bird on violin, Rob Mazurek on trumpet, and Ken Vandermark on alto and bass clarinet.
The album realizes “a nice balance between spontaneity and arrangement,” says Kim. “Behind every piece is a story or a theme or something visual.” Compositions began as improvised exchanges between Kim on guitar and Adaciewicz on drums, which were tracked in Adaciewicz's home studio onto ½-inch analog tape with an 8-track Tascam 38 reel-to-reel machine.
“Basically, we were looking at each other five feet away with the idea that we would try and get a really good sound and performance with just those two instruments,” Kim says. “My theory was you can pile on top of that, even if you have multiple overdubs. Because this music is very cinematic, it was the most feasible approach.”
Kim transferred those sessions from the analog machine to his ADAT and moved the project into his personal studio, The Garden, located in his apartment. The Garden includes a modest Pentium III/100 MHz Dell Dimension PC and a Digidesign Digi001 digital audio sequencer with Pro Tools LE software. Kim's outboard processors consist of an Aphex Model 107 2-channel mic preamp, a Lexicon LXP-1 digital effects processor, a Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI box, and assorted guitar stompboxes. Kim relied heavily on his Røde NT1 for miking instruments and used his Shure SM57 sparingly.
“I used a lot of plug-ins,” Kim says. “I wanted this record to have the punch of a rock record [with] the acoustic grain of a chamber record or a jazz record.” He tried to maintain a consistent aural depth while recording each instrument, “and not have trumpets that were two inches away and a pedal steel that was five miles away.”
Kim scored parts for the other instruments to play during overdubbing sessions. “The aesthetic of this band is we let the melodic stuff on top — which is all scored and arranged — be much more orchestrated,” Kim says. He adds that having a personal studio gave him the flexibility to arrange sessions around the other musicians' busy touring schedules.
After overdubbing, Kim developed thematic continuity by cutting and pasting parts in Pro Tools. For example, he says, “I took the first melodic theme from ‘Reservation Dream’ and made that into ‘Anniversary.’ You hear that same theme on ‘Channel.’” Kim describes this as a painstaking process: “Like trying to make a chocolate Easter bunny out of scraps left in other people's tinfoil.”