Kelley Stoltz is sitting on the floor of his Mission District apartment, slipping copies of his new Sub Pop album, Circular Sounds, into their eco-friendly, all-cardboard, recyclable sleeves. The do-it-yourself role isn't anything new for the multi-instrumentalist. But even with the backing of Sub Pop these days, Stoltz is still waging an uphill battle for recognition — most recently, at a showcase sponsored by Microsoft, Sub Pop, and video-editing software company Avid, at the Sundance Film Festival.
"The crowd was supposed to be music supervisors and other people who could get our songs into movies and TV shows, but they were mostly toasting their own power and success and money.," Stoltz explains as he piles CDs up around him. "They weren't paying too much attention to the music. Scarlett Johansson didn't show up either, which broke my heart."
Stoltz certainly paid close attention to the music on Circular Sounds, which was recorded in this very apartment, with Stoltz playing and singing almost every note on the album. The process undoubtedly added to the music's organic feel. "There's a Laundromat below us, no apartment above us, and my roommates all work regular jobs, so during the day I can make as much noise as I like," he says. "I have an eight-track, reel-to-reel, quarter-inch analogue tape machine, a piano, my guitars and basses, and a drum kit. I record everything on tape, then send it over to the computer to add the salt and pepper. I've tried to record directly into the computer, but I usually wind up writing down-tempo, shoe store music. I think I need the finite quality of real tape to spark the creative process."
The album took nearly two years to assemble, but Stoltz likes working at his own pace. "I'm recording all the time," he says. "I try to work every day, whether it's going well or not. It's fun to think up a drumbeat and a bass part and then solve the musical arithmetic problem that creates. It's boring to play guitar all day. I like to work with tactile objects in different ways, probably a remnant of only-child syndrome."
Stoltz grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, where "the winters are killer and you sweat and suffer in summer." When his stepbrother left home, leaving Stoltz alone with his parents, he bequeathed him a pile of LPs that changed his life. Sitting in his room listening to records, he began dreaming about being a musician. He moved to New York City and worked briefly as an intern for Jeff Buckley. "Then I realized I wanted to be a musician, not the employee of a musician. I borrowed a four-track and spent a lot of years writing and recording bad songs. I wanted to be sure I was good before I played in public and was very cautious about sharing songs with friends." Eventually, Stoltz came to San Francisco and put a band together. When local songwriter Chuck Prophet caught one of his shows, he helped Stoltz get a record deal — in Australia, where he still has a large cult following. Sub Pop discovered him a few years ago and the label's name recognition gave Stoltz a national boost.
Like his previous four albums, Circular Sounds is full of pop confections that fill your head with love and sunshine, although it's a bit darker than 2005's piano-dominated Below the Branches. "Everything Begins" is a giddy celebration of love with a delirious lysergic lyric and layers of twinkling keyboards. "Morning Sun" salutes the new day optimistically despite intimations of hangovers and the promise of another working week. "The Birmingham Eccentric," which could be a blurry portrait of a homeless man or a teen lost in the urban wasteland, rides a rhythm of pounding piano triplets accented by sonically varied guitar stabs. Stoltz' open, friendly vocals are complemented by his Phil Spector-meets-Brian Wilson wall of sound production, although it's a wall of sound built on a restricted budget, more lo-fi than hi-fi. "My first stuff was made on a four-track with an acoustic guitar," Stoltz says. "That was lo-fi, even after spending nine years with my headphones on learning how to make things sound good. By the time I made Below the Branches, I had better mikes and more experience, so that was mid-fi. I think this one is actually mid-hi. If I have the money, I might even try to make the next album a real hi-fi one, on two-inch tape, in a studio."
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