I was probably listening to too much Esquivel and Tomita at the time,” explains Joe “Guido” Welsh about the genesis of Thelonious Moog. “But I always wondered how Thelonious Monk's music would sound if it was set in Moog-record arrangements.”
The band's outstanding first release, Yes We Didn't (Grown-Up Records, 2003), recalls the best of Tomita and Esquivel, as well as Jean-Jacques Perrey, Gershon Kingsley, and the marvelously tacky Moog-pop records of the late '60s and early '70s. “We definitely picked songs we thought would translate well to this quirky genre,” Welsh adds.
For his marriage of Monk and Moog, Welsh invited pianist Steve Million to join in on the fun. “It was a chance to perform Monk's tunes in a completely original way,” Million explains. “When Guido described the project, I thought it was the perfect fit for our mutual talents.”
Yes We Didn't was recorded the old-fashioned way, using live performances and eschewing MIDI sequencing. Tracking took place in Welsh's Nashville-based studio, Guidotoons, over the course of eight months. The control room, professionally built into his attic, is well appointed, with a Trident Series 80 mixer; an Otari MTR-90 Mk III 24-track tape machine; an iZ Radar 24 hard-disk recorder; and outboard gear by API, Focusrite, Manley, and Neve. Tie lines connect the control room to the kitchen, and a snake feeds the other rooms in the house.
“Although the control room saw most of the action,” Welsh continues, “we cut ‘Misterioso’ and ‘Off Minor’ live in the living room, with drums, a Hammond C-3 going through a Leslie 122, and bass and guitar amps — without headphones. All of the rooms in the house have vaulted ceilings, so they sound big on tape.” Welsh particularly likes to put a Coles ribbon mic in the kitchen and use the room as a reverb chamber. “And then slam the signal into an Empirical Labs Distressor,” he adds.
The stars of the CD are Welsh's vintage synths, including an ARP 2600 and String Ensemble; a Buchla 100-series modular and Music Easel; an EMS Synthi AKS; two Moog modulars, a Minimoog, a Voyager, and a Sonic VI; an RMI Keyboard Computer II; and a Sequential Circuits Prophet Five. These instruments, combined with Welsh's masterful synth programming, make Yes We Didn't an encyclopedia of classic analog timbres.
For example, Welsh painstakingly re-created Tomita's Sound Creature patch on the Moog modular for the melody of “Bemsha Swing” and copped the Japanese synthesist's whistling sound for “Ugly Beauty.” A vocoder also plays an important role in “Ugly Beauty” as well as in “Bye-Ya.” “We See” features a ring-modulated Fender Rhodes. “It's just like 1974,” says Welsh.
Acoustic instruments were also given unique treatments. “For the left channel of the distorted piano on ‘I Mean You,’” explains Welsh, “we stuck an AKG C 60 tube mic in one end of a vacuum cleaner hose and put the other end inside the grand piano's sound hole. We combined that with a Shure bullet mic through a Rat fuzz box, in the right channel.”
Although jazz purists have already begun turning their noses up at the project, Welsh and Million feel their CD has the right spirit — a mixture of seriousness, audacity, and humor. “We took a no-rules approach to the whole project,” Guido points out. “We judged each part or overdub by whether or not it made us laugh out loud, but we also made certain that we didn't get too far-out with the original heads and chord progressions. I think Monk would dig this record!”