The first thing Continental noticed about its would-be recording studio was the emptiness. The second was the rat poop. The office suites attached to the abandoned Newark chemical factory were speckled with droppings, the feces scattered across the dusty carpet like grains of black rice.
Matt Holt, Continental's guitarist/bassist, couldn't believe his good fortune. He -- along with drummer/keyboardist Gabriel Coan, bassist/guitarist Brent Kimble, and keyboardist/drummer Mike Eul -- had spent the previous months searching for a place to record the band's debut CD. Everywhere they'd considered -- their Berkeley practice space, a rented cabin, parents' homes -- had either been too cramped or too expensive.
The idea of setting up shop in the factory came to Holt as he drove by it one day on the way to an East Bay job site. A hydrologist, he had done decontamination work on the factory grounds years before. Through that gig, he'd gotten to know a few people, including the site's caretaker.
When Holt called the factory's overseer that afternoon to see about turning the on-site offices into a temporary recording studio, she was understandably reluctant.
"She got a little bit nervous that she was going to get in trouble," Holt recalls. "She quietly asked around, and then once she got the sense from her boss that it wouldn't be a big problem, she asked us to write up a letter and get it notarized."
The letter guaranteed that there would be no drugs or alcohol on the company property. It also included a list of everyone who would be present during the two weekends of recording, and swore that Holt would be on the premises at all times.
For the space-starved instrumental rock band, all the restrictions were worth it. The isolated location meant they could be as loud as they needed to be. And the mazes of rooms and hallways would give them a chance to spread out and not worry about sounds bleeding into one another during the recording process.
As they began moving their dual drum kits, guitars, basses, samplers, and keyboards into the abandoned offices, though, the band members noticed that some things were not quite right about the space. There were creaking noises coming from the roof, and loud waves of frog song emanating from the weeds outside the building. And then there was a general oddness that none of them could quite put their finger on. No one thought the lonely building was haunted, per se, but Holt still came to dread leaving at night.
"I'd have to turn out all the lights and walk through the whole thing to do the alarm and close the place up," he says. "And I'd always get kind of creeped out."
Despite the creepiness, the space ended up being the perfect recording environment for the band -- a metaphor for production, for the clamorous rending and remaking of the factory floor, for the ghosts that tend to linger in the shadow of invention.
When Eul, Holt, Kimble, and Coan came together in 1998, they weren't entirely sure what they were doing. The million-dollar question was how to integrate their disparate musical interests into a cohesive sound. They all admired indie rock expressionists Yo La Tengo and jazzy hipsters the Sea and Cake, and shared a love for Led Zeppelin and hip-hoppers De La Soul. And another thing was clear: However they put their band together, they'd be doing it without a singer.
Holt, who came on as guitarist after the rest of the band had been jamming for a month or so, remembers wondering about the singerless state after his first practices with the band.
"I was saying 'Do you really think we can pull off the instrumental thing?'" he says. "But there was no question in their minds. Especially Brent's. And that was pretty much it."
Being an unestablished rock band sans vocals, despite the presence of so many fellow travelers such as Tristeza, Japancakes, and Tarentel, proved to be a challenge. Audiences, they soon discovered, had been conditioned to hear instrumental music as a pleasant prelude to a singer's entrance.
"We'd have people come up to us and say, 'You'd be really good with a singer! When are you going to get a singer?'" says Holt of their first shows. "One night we got two offers for singers."
The other problem for the down-to-earth band was avoiding getting tagged with the P-word. "There's a label on instrumental bands of probably being a little pretentious and taking themselves too seriously," laughs Kimble. "People judge you as being pretentious because you're not willing to show a side of yourself [through lyrics]."
Continental rose to the challenge by approaching each song they wrote with the audience's critical ear in mind. Self-acknowledged nitpickers, the foursome spent months developing each new song, working out changes in mood and tempo that would keep listeners alert and involved. The songs often played off Holt's sinuous Stratocaster lines, but the Continental universe had no backup or "rhythm" instruments. Everyone played to the fore.
From their weekly practices, and gigs at the (now defunct) Club Cocodrie and SoMa's Werepad, the band's music began to coalesce. Their nuanced set list blended gentle melodies with raging dark passages, droning straightaways broken by catchy pop curves. The band also kept things lively by swapping instruments, sometimes mid-song. Despite the movement, the roles in the band were generally stable. Kimble carried the low end nimbly, exploring the ringing notes of the bass' upper frets before dropping back down into the thudding notes of the lower registers. Eul, when not facing off against Coan in dueling-drum-kit formation, expanded the songs with keyboard countermelodies and programmed drum loops. Coan slipped crisply through the grooves, using a deft combination of sticks, brushes, and mallets. And Holt pulled electrified notes from the ether, channeling both daintiness and destruction.
Eager to record a CD, but unable to find a suitable space, the band had experimented with 4-track recordings at home in 1998 with disappointing results. Getting free rein of the Newark space early in 2000 was a chance to try again, this time with better (borrowed) equipment and room to breathe.
The quiet expanses of the abandoned factory's offices turned out to be the perfect blank canvas for Continental's first real recordings. Melodies that had hardened from live shows were cracked and reopened in the studio. Songs were decorated with overdubs and accompaniment from violinist Jim Gaylord, lap steel player Scott Simon, cellist Hannah Cox, and trumpet player Liz Albee.
Visits from the guest musicians aside, the factory's removed location and Holt's notarized letter kept exciting distractions to a minimum; all the sober downtime gave Continental a chance to explore its surroundings, incorporating its findings into the record. Old cubicle walls were dragged from adjoining rooms to help channel sound. And the noises that were so unnerving at first -- the creaky turbines on the roof, the chirping of frogs -- wove their way into the fabric of the CD. You can hear it most clearly on "Willow St. 1 a.m." where, mid-recording (with frogs chirping in the background), a fortuitous train rolls by, its horn's wail perfectly in key with the song.
The magic of the self-titled album that came out of the Newark sessions, however, extends far beyond the use of field samples. There's the sublime free-jazz shakedown of "Please Don't Climb on the Captain," with Albee's trumpet sailing over Holt's guitar like an invocation to some post-modern joust. Or the beautiful denouement of "Plankton," with its toy chimes and hesitant, thick-toned strums. Or the saxophone sample on "What Makes Montana," which unravels into a vista of tub-thumping bass and prickly electro-dance synths.
The CD's crystalline sound quality is thanks in part to Internet company Yahoo, who gave employee Coan enough money in stock options to buy his dream mixer, the Panasonic DA7. (Coan will tell you proudly that it's the same machine used by rapper and producer Master P.) Mixing the record themselves on the DA7 gave Continental an invaluable course in sound engineering, but it also delayed the CD release; Continental took almost a year to mix, master, and press.
With the record now safely in stores, Continental has already begun making the trek back to the factory on weekends. They hope to get a new batch of songs recorded and mixed by October. They've also expanded the scope of their concerts, collaborating with local photographers to add a slide-show element to the performances. At a recent Edinburgh Castle concert, a projected triptych of found photos -- old family snapshots, long-ago parades, and 1950s Sumo matches -- bled into the timbre of the music, adding a note of elegy to the wide-screen songs. For a band that set out three years ago to communicate without words, the night's haunting conversations between sound and image spoke volumes about how far it had come in its mission.
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