Reviews

Heavy Hands

Author: Tim McMahan
09/21/2006 | The Reader | www.thereader.com | Feature
"The deal with Saddle Creek Records," says Ladyfinger (NE) drummer Pat Oakes, "is that someone has to solicit for you to get inside."

"It's like becoming a made man," adds frontman Chris Machmuller before going into a spot-on impersonation of Marlon Brando as The Godfather. Leaning back in a rickety chair in the screened-in porch of drummer Ethan Jones' midtown house on the wrong side of Saddle Creek Rd., Machmuller doesn't look much like Brando, not with his curly hair and Midwestern fashion sense. But his gestures, his build, his posture, all are a perfect match. You could easily envision him on stage yelling "Stella!" at the top of his lungs with hands clinched into fists.

Instead, Machmuller will be doing a differing sort of yelling in the near future -- not lines but lyrics to his band's forthcoming full-length, Heavy Hands. And he'll be doing it as a proud member of a Nebraska music scene La Cosa Nostra that includes such hitmen as Conor Oberst, Tim Kasher and the infamous Baechle brothers.

The story of how Ladyfinger (NE) (henceforth referred to without the distasteful state abbreviation) received an offer that it couldn't refuse begins five years ago, and involves two of the scene's more vicious acts. Jones and Oakes were members of brutal metal-noise band Putrescine, while Machmuller was in the equally chaotic Bleeders for Treats, which he described as being "a little more schizo than Putrescine, more disjointed but not as angry."

"We knew each other from getting drunk and listening to music together," Jones said. "We wanted to do something just as heavy and loud as those bands, but more melodic. Ladyfinger was going to be a side project."

But it ended up being the centerpiece when a few months after Ladyfinger formed as a trio, Putrescine and Bleeders both unceremoniously broke up. Jamie Massey, a member of the band Race for Titles, would enter the picture in December 2004 when Machmuller was looking for someone with Protools to help record vocals. A month later, after Machmuller complained that he wished that they had a second guitarist to allow him to focus more on vocals, Massey's name came up. He played his first show as a member of Ladyfinger in November 2004.

By then, the band already had earned a reputation as one of the hottest acts in the Omaha scene, earning an opening slot for Cursive at Sokol Auditorium while playing occasional weekend gigs at O'Leaver's where Machmuller tends bar.

Their sound was as shrill and aggressive as anything they had done with their previous bands, but with a new style that incorporated anxiety-driven riffs, huge breaks and nerve-wracking rhythms coaxed around a distinctive groove that recalled old-school Omaha punk bands like Mousetrap and, more pointedly, Ritual Device. Ladyfinger music was like the soundtrack to an underground action flick -- a montage of chase scenes, knife-cuts, building-jumps, fist-to-cuffs and ticking timebombs ready to explode, all shot at night. Machmuller's and Massey's guitars were groaning electric buzzsaws, Jones' metronome bass provided the band's constant searing tension, while Oakes' clench-fisted drumming felt like a knee in your back.

Ladyfinger was setting itself up as the tough-guy enforcers in a scene filled with pretty boys too well-heeled to get their hands dirty. In the middle of it all were Machmuller's vocals. At once smooth and controlled -- like a negotiator talking a jumper off a ledge -- moments later, throttled up harsh and piercing, providing a necessary push over the edge.

Within a year, the band had begun to outgrow small stages like O'Leaver's. Pushing the band forward was a 4-song demo EP released in early 2005 that had taken them eight months to record and mix. "So many people had their hands in that demo, it was a clusterfuck," Oakes said.

It wasn't long afterward 'til Saddle Creek Records came into the picture. Then-label executive Chris Harding had offered to help the band shop the demo to different labels. "We knew if we sent the CD out, that labels wouldn't listen to it, but if it came from someone at Saddle Creek, they might at least give it a spin," Oakes said. "We also hoped someone at Creek would listen to it as well. I honestly didn't think they'd do anything but help us get it to other labels."

Ladyfinger also sent a few copies to labels themselves. The predictable outcome: "No one gave a shit," Oakes said. "We did a lot of waiting."

Even the folks at Saddle Creek kept them hanging. Then in September 2005, Ladyfinger went out on Cursive's "secret band" tour -- a series of dates in which Cursive played under assumed names like Flippy and Hambone, T Lite & the Heavies and Jazz Hessian on their way to a gig at the College Music Journal (CMJ) festival in New York City.

Shortly after the tour, Saddle Creek made their first advances toward Ladyfinger, offering to pay to rerecord the demo along with enough new songs to fill out an LP. The label would listen to the final product and either put it out or help the band find a label to do it instead. Oakes said the loudest voice rooting for Ladyfinger from within the Creek family was Cursive's Matt Maginn. "He really pushed for us to go on that tour with them, and he was behind the whole recording idea," he said.

"We were originally supposed to go to Presto! and have A.J. do it. Then Saddle Creek told us to come up with a dream list of producers and engineers."

Like everything else that's involved Ladyfinger and Creek, the album's production took a unique turn. Historically, most Saddle Creek albums are produced by the dynamic duo of Mike and A.J. Mogis at Presto! Studios. Saddle Creek wanted to try something different for this project.

"We were originally supposed to go to Presto! and have A.J. do it," Oakes said. "Then Saddle Creek told us to come up with a dream list of producers and engineers."

"(Saddle Creek executive) Robb Nansel asked if we ever thought of Steve Albini," Jones said.

"Instead, we decided on Matt Bayles," Oakes said. "Maginn knew him from touring with Minus the Bear, and we knew his work."

In addition to once being a member of Minus the Bear, Bayles had recorded heavy-metal monsters Mastodon, Matador Records' Pretty Girls Make Graves, so-called sludge-metal act Isis, hardcore-metal band These Arms Are Snakes and had even engineered a couple albums for Pearl Jam.

Saddle Creek did the negotiations, and Ladyfinger never even spoke to Bayles or knew what he looked like until they picked him up at the airport. They took him to a show at O'Leaver's Jan. 2 to check out their live sound, and "Things just kind of clicked," Oakes said.

"One of the first nights he was in town we took him out drinking," Machmuller said. "He told us, 'Okay, guys, this is lot of fun, but I'm not going to be drinking (while in town recording). We have a lot of work to do.'" That, of course, went out the window over the following two weeks that Ladyfinger and Bayles holed up in Bassline Studios.

Sessions began at 10:30 in the morning and ran until midnight. Bayles rotated the players in the studio throughout the day -- tracking drums in the morning then working in some guitar and bass later in the day, leaving room in the late afternoon for Machmuller's vocals. The band said for the most part, reports of Bayles' extreme intensity were highly exaggerated. "Sure, he would pull his hair and say 'Do it again,'" Machmuller said.

"He didn't want any interruptions," Massey said. "At one point, we had problems tuning the guitars -- the intonation was off. It stressed him out."

"And he didn't like us hanging out in the control room," Oakes said. "He'd say 'Go get a beer at Casio's or something while I'm tracking Chris.' He's a perfectionist. You have to respect his space."

"Instead of going for studio magic, he goes for performance," Massey said.

"He's a good coach like that," Oakes added. "When it's just you and him in the studio, he coaches you through a part and pulls it together."

After the Bassline sessions, Bayles spent a couple days in Lincoln at Presto! doing the final mixes. Though all four songs on the EP were rerecorded, only stage favorites "Too Cool for School," "Diet Smoke" and the renamed "One Thousand Tongues" (released as One Thousand Tounges" on the EP) were included in the final version of Heavy Hands.

A side-by-side comparison of the two recordings of "Diet Smoke" reveals Bayles' love for precision. Gone is the ephemeral buzzing and the flat, two dimensional, tinny sound of the EP replaced with a tight, three-dimensional capture of the band's throaty growl. The new songs continued in the same direction as the EP. Opening track "Smuggler" is what Nine Inch Nails would sound like if Trent Rezner were 10 years younger and not so self-loathing; the throbbing "Who Believes Enough?" is a countdown to the end of the world; while "…Man, Woman…" comes off like the perfect waltz for an underworld slaughterhouse, climaxing with a back-beat riff stolen from AC/DC.

Heavy Hands isn't the kind of album that you can play on your computer or set as background music while doing laundry. As cliché as it sounds, playing it at 10 rewards you with a whole different experience. "Bayles wanted it so it wasn't compressed like a lot of stuff being released today," Oakes said. "And as a result, it sounds good loud."

After mastering by Doug Van Sloun, the recording was handed over to Saddle Creek in January. The band was kept on pins and needles for two months. "It got to that point again where we just wanted to know what they thought," Oakes said. "This time we were excited to know either way. We had sufficiently prepared for the answer being 'no.'"

Instead, in classic mafia style, Maginn gave the band hints as to what Creek was thinking. "All he said was something along the lines of, 'We have news. We've made a decision." It was very cryptic," Oakes said.

By April, the band was brought in for a meeting and told that the release date would be Sept. 26, on Saddle Creek. Ladyfinger would join a roster of bands that over the past few years has garnered a reputation for being singer-songwriters, not rockers.

"The label's normal fans might hate it," Jones said of Heavy Hands.

"Over the years, Saddle Creek didn't seem like they were interested in rock bands," Oakes said. "Cursive was the label's rock band. With Beep Beep, Criteria and now us, the electric guitars have become more bountiful."

"Who cares if it fits the label," Machmuller said. "We're going to Europe in a month."

And so they are, but first Ladyfinger is slated to open nine dates with Cursive, starting this Saturday at First Avenue in Minneapolis and closing with a gig at Webster Hall in New York City Oct. 1.

"It's a great opportunity for us," Oakes said. "They're friends of ours, and they're fun to hang out with." And, he added sarcastically, apparently the kids like Cursive. "Their fans were receptive to us when we did some dates with them a year ago. It's like 'If you're friends of Cursive, your friends of ours.'"

After that, Ladyfinger will spend three weeks in Europe opening for Los Angeles-based alt-metal band The Bronx and London-based garage-punk band Winnebago Deal -- a tour that was also set up through Saddle Creek (though the band has hired its own booking agent for subsequent tours).

Could Ladyfinger become Saddle Creek's next big band? These wise guys ain't saying. "Our goal is to have some good experiences and get on tours with bigger bands," Jones said.

"We just want to see some places we haven't seen before and record another album," Oakes said. "We're not asking for much."
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