U.S. Elevator press release ~ FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ~ August 29 2015
U.S. Elevator will transport you. And not just up and down but to enchanting musical places near and far. Their music is filled with loving and wily winks at the visionary forces of the 1960s and 1970s—The Beatles, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Gram Parsons, and The Hollies, for starters—and is at the same time thoroughly original, contemporary, and richly melodic. .
The Santa Barbara-based band is the brainchild of Johnny Irion, musical partner and husband of Sarah Lee Guthrie. Following Sarah Lee and Johnny’s fifth album together, 2013’s acclaimed Wassaic Way (recorded at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago, produced by Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone, and released on Johnny’s Rte. 8 label) and two earlier solo albums, Johnny assembled U.S. Elevator as the rocking alter-ego to the couple’s eclectic and unbounded folk music.
The genesis of U.S. Elevator dates back a couple years to a conversation Johnny had with longtime friend Zeke Hutchins, who manages various acts including Deer Tick. “After we made the record with Jeff and Pat,” Johnny recalls, “Zeke suggested that Sarah Lee and I make a pure folk record without the rockier element that I bring. I took it pretty hard because I felt that Sarah Lee and I had found a sweet spot with our music. Though he agreed, he was saying, ‘Why don’t you put your rock stuff somewhere else and make a folkier record with Sarah Lee.’ So that was brewing in my head, and it opened a pathway for those tendencies to shine, in addition to being more folk-focused with Sarah Lee. Plus, I think a lot of my friends wanted to see me get back to my younger roots. They kept saying, ‘Don’t forget, you rock, Dude.’”
The next piece of the U.S. Elevator puzzle is put in place when Johnny meets Alan Kozlowski, renowned filmmaker, cinematographer, and photographer whose impressive list of credits include co-producing In Celebration with George Harrison—a four-CD collectors’ edition of Ravi Shankar’s works—and producing Jackson Browne’s TV documentary Going Home. Johnny and Alan met serendipitously in the Winter of 2013–2014 when Sarah Lee and Johnny were living in Montecito, California, and their daughters attended the same school as Alan’s daughter. Not only does Alan have a studio filled with guitars but he also has a vintage 1,000-pound 24-track Studer A-80 tape machine. Johnny and Alan become fast friends.
One evening, Alan goes backstage at a Sarah Lee and Johnny concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara and invites them to his studio a few blocks away. “I have a fairly substantial collection of old guitars and other instruments that inspire collaboration and interaction, so we had a great connection around that,” recalls Alan. “Johnny talked about wanting to set up somewhere and record an album, I said I could help with some gear, and the pieces just came together. I had the Studer and another board and it was kind of like the old Mickey Rooney saying: ‘Let’s make a movie!’”
Enter bassist Nate Modisette, who played in a band with Johnny back in 1997, with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes producing. It was through that band experience, back in the day, that Johnny met Sarah Lee. By day, Nate now runs BoMo Design, a world-class company building and designing homes and high-end furniture. And one of his colleagues is drummer Erich Riedl. Add guitarist Anders Bergstrom, pianist Brett Long (who also engineered U.S. Elevator and recently toured with Sarah Lee and Johnny), and guitarist/pianist/album producer Tim Bluhm (Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, The Mother Hips), and the U.S. Elevator parts are in place.
Tim is the perfect person to produce the album. “Everyone knew Tim’s presence would make us rise to the occasion,” Johnny asserts. “He is so respected in our world and in many others. And he knows how to run a Studer! His songs are amazing, and his guitar playing is sick! Tim’s harmony singing, songwriting, and lyrical ideas make this record really cohesive. Tim was Walter Matthau, and we were the Bad News Bears.”
They first play some of Johnny’s new songs together in the Spring of 2014, at Erich’s rehearsal space, “the Riviera,” in Santa Barbara. “It’s about a mile from the beach, right on North Milpas, right across the street from a famous Mexican place, La Super-Rica Taqueria. So there was such a vibe there,” says Johnny, smiling. “I left that night thinking, ‘Wow, we might have something here.” In October 2014, “we went down and actually got Alan’s Studer, which had been in Jackson Browne’s studio. So Alan offered us the Studer and the guys in the band, mostly with non-musical day jobs, were up for the musical adventure. For the band, I wanted guys who weren’t looking at the clock and just wanted to have fun. So everybody rallied and that’s how the record took shape.”
Flash forward to February 2015, when U.S. Elevator sets up shop in Nate’s Santa Barbara cabin in Mission Hills, with that glorious 15-ips Studer and its “fierce low-end warmth,” as Alan describes it, and other state-of-the-art recording equipment. In turn, Johnny calls Alan, “the heart of the album. It just would not have happened without Alan.”
All the basic tracks are recorded live, without headphones, no less. “We just recorded each song until we got the right take on tape,” says Johnny. “And that’s where Sonos, the big speaker company came in. They basically sponsored the recording. They came and lined the house with incredible sounding speakers. We could walk around inside or in the yard and listen to the takes. I didn’t want to have a bunch of stuff to comb through. When I heard the right take, I’d say, ‘all right, we’re moving on.’ I call it the Polaroid approach. Then we’d put the tracks into Pro Tools.”
Inside U.S. Elevator
Ultimately, Johnny wrote all the songs, with some lyrical help from the others.
“Tim was very instrumental in a few songs lyrically,” Johnny explains. And on “Can I Make it Up to You” (which Johnny shares writing credit with Nate, Erich, and Anders), Johnny sang “can I make it up to you” and the others complete the call and response. “I wanted to keep it free and open. That kind of thing makes it easier for everyone to be a little more invested in the project. That makes it more fun.” The finished version is a melodic gem: think Zuma-era Neil Young winking at Magical Mystery Tour.
“Pineapple Express” features Tim on a 1920s-era Steinway borrowed from the Lobero Theatre, and invokes the feel of David Crosby’s classic If I Could Only Remember My Name LP. Alan Kozlowski, a good friend of Ravi Shankar’s, sat in on some of the sessions and plays tamboura on these two songs, adding a mystical energy. Explains Johnny, “The ‘Pineapple Express’ is a storm system that moves over your head. At the time I wrote it, there were big storms happening in the Northeast, and I was thinking about my friends back east when I sat down at the piano in California and wrote it. I was manically trying to write just before the recording sessions, and I texted this one to Tim and asked if it was worth pursuing. He said ‘absolutely.’”
U.S. Elevator, the album, is brimming with delicious, provocative original material and Johnny’s dreamy vocals and dazzling guitar. “Ironically, this album was made during the break-up's of Several Relationship's,” Johnny notes. “So the record, and certainly the song ‘Dangerous Love,’ has that feeling. Love lost and love gained… that’s the sense I had while writing ‘Dangerous Love.’”
The infectious melody of “Cry For Help” belies the song’s poignant origins. “It’s about a Friend who continues to go to the bar and do himself harm,” says Johnny. It’s a true story.
With its serious title but disarmingly upbeat chorus melody, “Sleep Ain’t Nothing But Death’s Brother” sports something of a Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers feel. “Sarah Lee and I went to meet Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers about a future musical project,” Johnny reflects. “I didn’t know what I was going to play for Mike when I got there, or if he’d even ask, but it turns out we played guitars all day. And I had a little demo of this song on my computer and thought it would be a good one to play for Mike. It went over well and I realized it would be a good song for the band. Ultimately, we recorded “Sleep Ain’t Nothing But Death’s Brother” and “Wall of Grief” back to back, bam bam, so that was a huge moral booster for the band. Those two songs happened really quick, and things just fell into place after that. I wrote ‘Wall of Grief’ on piano with Sarah Lee in mind and everything she’d gone through with her mother. It’s been a hard couple of years.”
“Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” a moody mid-tempo rocker with some of Johnny’s finest and most limber vocals and electric piano lines reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm,” kind of wrote itself. “That’s one where I woke up in the morning, got some coffee, and everything just fell into place. It started out with the guitar riff and me singing whatever came to mind. I didn’t have everything worked out at first, but it felt good from the beginning. I went with my gut instincts. I had the chords in sequence but didn’t quite have the hook line until a friend of mine who owns a restaurant in Harlem was talking about the restaurant business. He said, ‘You know, that’s where the rubber meets the road,’ and that was just what I was looking for. This was an exercise in me trying to sing lower. I’ve found that new voice for myself which is really fun to do, and I can do it any time I want to.”
The CD version of U.S. Elevator is bookended with a two-part instrumental entitled “Pierre Lafond,” named for a Montecito coffee shop. “I just love the guitar riff,” says Johnny with a laugh. It feels like Santa Barbara to me, it feels like Summerland Beach. It feels like a wave to me. I think of surfing and nature when I play that. I think I wrote it and then went there and got coffee.”
As the opening track, the piece has a gentle, inviting flavor; then the album closer is a variation on the same piece of music but with a widescreen cinematic and somewhat darker Philip Glass vibe to it. “That’s Mikael Jorgenson from Wilco,” Johnny points out. “He does all those crazy sounds for them. I sent it to him and said, ‘Man what could you do with this?’ and he went for it and did a really spirited remix! I love that track. On the vinyl version there’ll be ‘I Remember a Time’ and on the CD version will be that re-mix of ‘Pierre Lafond.’ I felt that was more of a digital approach. I want to vinyl to be a little different from the CD.”
Going up! U.S. Elevator will be touring in the upcoming months and opening a number of shows for Stone Temple Pilots in September. U.S. Elevator, the album, is available on CD and vinyl everywhere Nov 3rd, on Rte. 8 Records.