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Ted Stevens and Mayday

Mayday: Beyond a Lullaby

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: June 12, 2002

 

Catching up with Ted Stevens isn't easy.

Stevens has been a busy guy, dividing his time as a guitarist for Omaha rock band Cursive while leading his own project, Mayday, not to mention briefly filling in on bass earlier this year in Tim Kasher's other rock band, The Good Life.

"I'm desperately in need of a break, but I can't stand still," said Stevens June 5, only days after getting back from a fun but brutal Mayday / The Good Life / Bright Eyes tour, and only a day away from hitting the road again on a three-week Cursive West Coast tour (which would end up being cancelled when Cursive frontman Kasher suffered a collapsed lung).

"It's really affected my brain in the past year," Steven said. "The momentum is there and you long for a different city every night and hitting the interstate. Coming home is hard; leaving is easier. But at the same time, you feel the wear and tear. Tim and I have been gone so much between the two bands that it's not even worth having a home. Then you get this feeling of total displacement, having no place to put your feet up."

Stevens had planned to look for an apartment between Cursive's West Coast tour, which was slated to end in late June, and the band's tour of Japan in mid-July. Now with Kasher out, Stevens will get an extended break, whether he likes it or not. His hectic lifestyle is in pointed contrast to the ethereal, rustic, paint-faded music he creates with his band, Mayday, his latest project in a long, successful string that includes the gone-but-not-forgotten Lullaby for the Working Class, a band whose ashes Mayday rose from.

"This project grew out of the most prolific time for Lullaby, around 1997 and '98, when we were in a lull releasing our second record and writing our third, " Stevens said of Mayday. "There was a ton of material that we never released. I was writing stuff that wasn't pop, but more experimental and noise-oriented, a lot different than Lullaby."

 

 

 

But Lullaby fans will likely view Old Blood, Mayday's just-released debut on Saddle Creek Records, as merely the reincarnation of that seminal band. In addition to including core Lullaby members A.J. and Mike Mogis, Mayday also follows in Lullaby's diverse instrumental footsteps, sporting guitars, vibes, strings and banjo, along with a cast of guest vocalists. But at the center of it all is Stevens and his unique style of songwriting that bends the limits of acoustic sound, taking traditional melodies and forcing them into experimental settings that are at once familiar and disquietingly dissonant, soothing and uncomfortable.

Missing, however, is the last core Lullaby member, drummer Shane Aspergren, who lives in Paris. Stevens said when Mayday is on the road, it's Lullaby that the fans remember him by. "The unanswered questions (about Lullaby) have bothered those fans," he said. "I'm a prankster or trickster at heart and I've always been elusive with an answer. I have high hopes that Shane will come back in country some time. But if we played together again, I can't say that it would be Lullaby for the Working Class. It's a different era, so it would be a different band."

Whatever happened to Lullaby has long been an unanswered question. After releasing three critically acclaimed albums on Bar/None, three EPs on Saddle Creek and a Rykodisc Europe 4-song EP, the band unceremoniously faded away after their last full-length, Song, came out in 1999. Stevens said he's played an active role in perpetuating the band's mysterious end.

"We just never made a decision on doing a fourth album, and by doing that, I guess I made a decision," Stevens said. "As far as Lullaby disappearing into the ether, I guess that was my goal. It became clear that most of the band was moving to Chicago or abroad, and people were getting married and having normal lives. November 1999 saw the band decaying and I made up my mind that if Lullaby went on hiatus, it would be very non-spoken and I would let that mystery hang, if only for the drama."

Stevens said the process of putting together what turned out to be Lullaby's swansong recording also contributed to the band's demise. "At the end of the Song record, there was a lot of disagreement about how to approach the singing and writing between me and the label and the people working overseas," he said. "What it came down to is that I cracked under the pressure and had a really terrible experience finalizing the record. The end result was that it was our best record by far, but the process was excruciating."

In addition to friction in the studio, Stevens said it was evident that the band was about to be dropped by its label. "I found out later that the label was bought out and had to live up to a different standard," he said, "but I still took it personally. 1999 was my belated coming of age, and as a writer, I fell apart totally and couldn't write songs anymore."

It took joining Cursive as a second guitarist and vocalist in the summer of '99 to get him out of his funk. "Watching them work together helped me," Stevens said. "I needed to see them writing songs. Writing is an inherit skill that you don't forget, you just have to take a break from it."

 

 

Mayday "Old Blood"


"November 1999 saw the band decaying and I made up my mind that if Lullaby went on hiatus, it would be very non-spoken and I would let that mystery hang, if only for the drama."


 

Ted Stevens


"I cracked under the pressure and had a really terrible experience finalizing the record. The end result was that it was our best record by far, but the process was excruciating."


 

Through it all, Stevens continued his "Mayday" project, which he calls a "fly by the seat of your pants band" that played only on special occasions, specifically on May 1 every year for the past six years. In addition to the Mogis brothers, the "cast" on Old Blood also includes Matt Silcock, John Kotchian, and Tiffany Kowalski, along with Cursive cellist Gretta Cohn, Azure Ray's Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, Now It's Overhead's Andy Lemaster, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Dark Town House Band's Renee Ledesma Hoover (Bill Hoover also took part on the recordings, but ended up on the cutting room floor).

The guest support adds color to a recording washed in somber tones, soothing arrangements and Stevens' hushed, breathy vocals. Oberst lends his youthful, jagged voice to the up-tempo, flamenco-flavored "Confession," a song Stevens said he wrote for Oberst during a brief time when he lived with him. "It's one friend singing to another about songwriting," Stevens said. "When I'm singing it, I'm singing to him, and when he's singing it, he's singing to me."

Stevens said Azure Ray helped pull together ideas on "Come On," the lilting, cloudy rocker that also features A.J. Mogis on harmonies. Maria Taylor adds her distinctive harmonies on the quiet, acoustic "I Know Moonlight," while the mysterious, grotto-low voice on "Captain," is actually Stevens doing his best "Lay Lady Lay" Bob Dylan impression. "The intent with Mayday was to hide my identity, to have mystery behind it and not have the limelight on me as a singer/songwriter," Stevens said. "I wanted to blend into the background and make this more of a project."

He said the nature of the collaboration was both ordered and random. "There was a lot of form and structure behind assembling the record, and a lot of accidental shit," Stevens said.

There was little choice, however, in having the Mogis brothers involved with the CD's production. "That's become a Saddle Creek standard," Stevens said. "If I had chosen another producer, I don't think Saddle Creek would have put it out. When I was writing it, they weren't involved. I sat in the studio for a week while A.J. was at the controls and had different players come in, along with all the guest singers. Mike didn't start working on the project until late summer. He did overdubs and mixed it down. Both were very important processes."

There's always a certain amount of mystery as to how much the Mogis brothers add to any Saddle Creek recording beyond their traditional production. Stevens said while Mike Mogis is integral to the band's sound, his contribution comes with a price. "I find it kind of frustrating because Mike can't tour," he said. "How can I go on the road and support the CD without him? We still managed to put a band together and tour, and succeeded with flying colors."

Just as Bright Eyes is a constantly changing band centered around singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, Stevens said Mayday's touring band also will be ever-changing, as will the band's approach to recording.

"I'm working on the next record now, and as far as writing goes, it's more traditional, minimalist and country folk," Stevens said. "It will be more of a solo project than anything -- I don't hear drums or guitar melodies, just sparse vocals, guitar and mandolin. I'm going to ask A.J. to play piano and Mike to play Dobro guitar, and keep the recording confined to kitchens, laundry rooms and basements rather than have a lush studio sound. People today slug it out four and five times and take pro tools and auto-tune the vocals. The recording process used to be more natural and performance-based, leaving in the little mistakes and oddities."

Stevens said his goals with Mayday are different than with Lullaby, where the dream was to eventually get a publishing deal. "We were led along for a long time, all the way to the point where we were at PolyGram, face-to-face with a guy offering a deal," Stevens said. "I feel a lot more comfortable where I am today, and a publishing deal isn't something I look for anymore. The goal was to get Saddle Creek to get me to this level and let me do the rest."

So with the success of other Creek acts such as The Faint, Cursive and Bright Eyes, is there pressure for Mayday to be just as prominent in the indie music world? Stevens says the pressure is only in his mind. "I feel the pressure to go out and support the record," he said. "But I don't intend to achieve Bright Eyes status."

Regardless, he said it's inspiring and a little intimidating when he sees the following Saddle Creek bands have generated on tour, especially compared to the label's meager beginnings, which Stevens said takes him back to the first Lumberjack tapes in '93. "There's a lot more of everything, especially people," he said. "We've amassed this huge base of people who travel with and meet us on the road. As of late it's gotten out of hand. There's a posse in every town of former Omahans or friends of the family and the bands. That's really changed over the years. It's sometimes hard to know how to deal with it, but it's even harder to deal without it."

The label's success continues to be a source of surprise. "I'm still in denial," Stevens said. "Every time we have a great show I'm amazed and say, 'Holy shit, this is really coming together easy.' It's definitely affected all of our writing. It's made us more determined. Working with everyone and seeing them develop as writers and players makes you want to do your best. Everyone wants to keep getting better, and that's where we're all at -- trying to write better songs."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly June 20, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.