Reviews

Fall Back Open

09/02/2004 | Flagpole | www.flagpole.com | Feature
Andy LeMaster has spent his time in the trenches on both sides of the recording booth. As the musical mastermind behind his own group, Now It's Overhead, his presence as a pensive and engaging songwriter put him on the map as the first non-Omaha-based act signed to Saddle Creek Records. But it's his production work with such local and far-reaching artists as Bright Eyes, Macha, R.E.M. and Azure Ray that has put him among Athens' most sought-after music makers.


Ever since he acquired his first four-track recorder in high school in his north Georgia home town of Toccoa, LeMaster has immersed himself in music. His nascent touches can be felt on recordings by his own early groups The Remedy and Drip, as well as scattered offerings from like-minded indie rock acts such as Sunbrain Luxury and a handful of others for Ghostmeat Records. But it was his later endeavors, serving as both a producer and musician on Bright Eyes' records Fevers & Mirrors, Letting Off The Happiness and Lifted… that caused critical acclaim to start adding up.

The self-taught 29-year-old producer co-owns Athens' staple recording facility Chase Park Transduction, and working alongside the label's dedicated producer Mike Mogis, plays a principal role in shaping the sound of Saddle Creek Records.

Taking a break from working on one of two new Bright Eyes records slated for release in January, LeMaster weighs the differences between the role of a producer and that of an engineer.

"The basic difference between the two is that a producer has creative input," he says. "Oftentimes a producer will be an engineer, but an engineer is strictly someone who's there to set up microphones, take care of technical issues, do the recording and know how the equipment works… If you're going to be a producer - someone with creative input and who shapes the way the recording sounds - you should have a background in engineering so you know what equipment makes a particular sound."

LeMaster is comfortable with his role. "I've settled in with the title at this point," he says, "because with what I work on now I definitely have creative input on pretty much all of it. I prefer it that way. Ideally I would only work on things that I like enough to want to have some creative input with it and put my name on it."

BEAT THE BACKBONE

The most representative of his work is Now It's Overhead's second full-length, Fall Back Open. Overseeing the record's construction on every level, including writing, arranging and producing songs like "Wait In A Line," "Profile" and "Reverse" built around an atmosphere of yearning and complicated situations. At the core of each song is an underlying form that resonates with precise clarity and percussive chops that are quite literally as distinctive as his own voice.

"In the initial stages of a song a beat can get me excited about working on it, for sure," LeMaster explains. "It can be the driving force behind a song, but it doesn't have to come from a drummer playing a drum kit. I tend to take some liberties with percussions. Whatever I hear in my head for a song, I'll do it. Generally I like to make the beat complimentary with the vocal rhythm so the two become one driving thing."

PROOF IS IN THE SOIL

In addition to Now It's Overhead, LeMaster has fostered a long-distance relationship with brooding Midwestern crooner Conor Oberst's band Bright Eyes. He has been actively participating as a member of the group, adding guitar, horn, keyboard and vocal parts as well as producing recordings since the mid-'90s. The culmination of his efforts takes shape on the 2002 Bright Eyes release Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. At press time the record's SoundScan sales report more than 165,000 copies sold, making it arguably the most successful project with which he's been involved.

"All of the Saddle Creek projects have been very rewarding in the aspect of my creative input," he says with a tone of understated modesty. "It's very rewarding when you not only record something, but you share ideas regarding the presentation of the songs and such. That's happened with all of the Bright Eyes records that I have worked on. Then of course there's Azure Ray and the Beep Beep record, and the Macha records I've worked on have been totally long hours, but well worth it because of the outcome."

LeMaster was also recently tapped by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe to remix "The Lifting," the opening track from R.E.M.'s 2001 Warner Bros. release Reveal. The track was completed and made available for download from the group's web site at www.remhq.com., and Stipe, whose vocals briefly appear on Fall Back Open, has tapped Now It's Overhead to open several dates on R.E.M.'s upcoming national tour.

Recordings from part-time NIO bandmates Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink's group Azure Ray also bear the mark of LeMaster's production. Azure Ray's most recent full-length, Hold On Love (Saddle Creek), is a labyrinthine collection of songs that build upon the group's trademark style, pushing pop and introspective tones into some very unexpected places. Though the recording and production were shared by LeMaster, Mogis and Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers, LeMaster's vibrant production qualities are unmistakable.

As Fink explains, it's all a matter of philosophy and know-how. "I've never been anything but productive whenever I work with Andy, largely because, as a producer and an engineer, he achieves a perfect balance of earnestness and lightheartedness," she says. "The earnestness gets the work done and the lightheartedness fosters creativity at the same time. He is always open to ideas and willing to work as long as it takes to realize them."

Never one to bog down the conversation with technical talk, LeMaster reinforces the sentiment, explaining that if he were to seek out a producer, he would look not only for someone with technical expertise, but someone who also wants the most important thing in the process to be the final product: the song.


Fall Back Open

Fall Back Open

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