lazyhome         reviews         hype         webboard                interviews

Son Ambulance

Son Ambulance: Déjà Vu All Over Again

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: July 10, 2008

Son Ambulance
w/ Jennifer O'Connor, Oui Bandits
July 11, 9 p.m.
Slowdown Jr.
729 No. 14th St.

Son Ambulance
w/Jennifer O'Connor, AM Revival
July 12, 9 p.m.
Box Awesome
815 O St.
Lincoln, NE

So what happened to Son Ambulance after 2005?

The band released its second full-length album, Key, on Saddle Creek Records in the fall of 2004 and supported the record with road work that included a tour of Europe. But then, slowly, the band just sort of disappeared.

"Europe was great," said Son Ambulance mastermind Joe Knapp from the couch of his mid-town rental. "We had some good shows, but… it was tough."

One by one, he began to lose his band mates, each taking on other projects or full-time jobs, doing what was necessary to pay the rent. "Everyone just kind of really got busy, and so I was the only one left," Knapp said. "I also started working at Liberty Elementary. It takes a lot of time to make a band work. Not everyone will take that risk."

As a result, momentum never built behind Key, despite the fact that it was lauded as one of the best Omaha-produced albums of 2004. With its booming, '70s-influenced set pieces, like the roaring rocker "Paper Snowflakes" and sprawling epic "Sex in C Minor," fans thought the record could push Son Ambulance into that next level of indie stardom enjoyed by Saddle Creek stars like Bright Eyes and Cursive. But it never happened. The album sold a mere 5,400 copies. Some blame Creek for taking the band for granted. Knapp disagrees.

"I think Saddle Creek has been good to us," he said. "It was a matter of what we (as a band) are able to do. We have to do the work. It's all up to us."




But beyond early touring, the work was never done. The band fell dormant. Long-time Son Ambulance member Jeff Koster moved in with Knapp in late 2005. "I noticed that Joe wasn't doing anything musically," he said, "except porch songs."

“Porch songs” were fun-loving free-form kitchen ditties that evolved from banging pots and pans. The duo liked the improv approach so much that they wanted to move it out of the kitchen and onto the stage in the form of a new band called Cherry Papers. But after only a couple gigs, Cherry Papers also fell to the wayside.

Instead, Knapp and Koster began working on a series of demos recorded in their living room using a lap-top.

"It gave us an opportunity to do some unconventional things," Knapp said. "For instances, some songs had no drums. Instead, we tried some different percussion techniques, like hitting a tarp with any kind of object or using brooms to make sweeping sounds."

The odd instrumentation heard on the demos would wind up being recreated in ARC Studio with the help of producer A.J. Mogis. In December '07, Knapp, Koster and Mogis pulled together a small army of musicians that included members of The Faint, Shiver, Shiver and Tilly and the Wall, as well as the team that comprises the current live line-up of Son Ambulance: Koster, vocalist Jenna Morrison, multi-instrumentalist James Cuato, Joe's brother Daniel Knapp and veteran bassist Dereck Higgins.

The product, Someone Else's Déjà Vu, is Son Ambulance's third full length and first recording in more than three years. The 13-song opus takes Knapp into slightly different sonic territory, but stays in the same general vicinity that he's been traveling most of his career.

Perhaps more than any other Saddle Creek artist, Knapp has a knack for simple, whimsical folk melodies. On his 2001 full-length debut, Euphemystic, Knapp's personal, singer-songwriter fare was cast with echoes of '70s FM superstars, most notably Simon and Garfunkel. He would stretch that sound even further on the trippy Key. Déjà Vu, however, takes it to a whole different level.

Koster and Knapp say the album purposely "steps away from rock."

"I'm so sick of American rock," Knapp said. "I feel like we've gotten off track with music, and it's very evident listening to the radio. I look to other countries and time periods and I see more interesting, imaginative and creative rhythms and melodies, and that's what I demand from music."

Despite that, the influences heard on Déjà Vu have never been more pronounced, and include Elvis Costello, Simon & Garfunkel, Late for the Sky-era Jackson Browne as well as '60s-era Phil Spector recordings of bands like The Shangra-Las. While Knapp mines the sounds of Brazil on the samba-fueled opening track, "A Girl in New York City," and the bossa-flavored "Quand Tu Marches Seul," the record still feels and sounds like an homage to '60s and '70s studio classics, thanks to recording technique that involves placing huge dollops of delay on all the instruments and vocals.

"There were tracks that started out with just three instruments -- guitar, vocals and reverb," Koster said. "We're using Joe's voice as an instrument for the first time."
















Someone Else's Deja Vu album art

"I think Saddle Creek has been good to us. It was a matter of what we (as a band) are able to do. We have to do the work. It's all up to us."
















"In the end, we had way too much stuff, but that gave us more options. When we went to mix, it ended up being one big editing process."

Knapp said musicians were encouraged to "overplay" their parts in the studio. "We over-recorded everything," he said. "In the end, we had way too much stuff, but that gave us more options. When we went to mix, it ended up being one big editing process."

The results were often majestic, like on the epic album centerpiece, "Yesterday Morning," which sounds like Elvis Costello doing a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Its main chorus booms over a wall of piano, guitar, oboe, drums and Knapp's echoing voice.

It's not all drama. The track "Juliet's Son" is pure back-beat, sunset pop, rife with spy guitar and plenty of ooo's and aahs. The lilting, waltz-time folk ballad "Horizons" would make a handsome single on any radio station (that fact, along with its less-than-three-minute run time, helped make it the album's first "focus track"). The only thing missing from the cinematic opener of spaghetti western-flavored "Awakening" is the crack of a bullwhip. Knapp said the song goes back to the days when Son Ambulance was just Ambulance -- the band’s previous name before being forced to change for legal reason. "If I had recorded the song back then, it would have been on four-track and been very plain," Knapp said. "This is more like how the song should be."

Clocking in at just under an hour, it's an album my friends over 40 say they love. But is that a good thing?

"We didn't set out to make rock music," Koster said. "We wanted to make melodies that any age group could listen to. I feel people in our parents' generation will relate to this music more than anyone."

Now the only thing left do is learn how to play the songs. Knapp and Koster were so focused in the studio, they didn’t think about how they’d play the songs live. "We're actually writing new melodies and developing new parts," Knapp said. "Now we need to pull it all together as a band."

It’s a process that began last spring with a gig at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival and leads to a tour that starts Friday night at Slowdown and runs through mid-August.

This time, Knapp said, there will be no letting up. "We have a booking agent and we're working on a West Coast tour later this year," he said. "We have momentum this time. I feel it now."

Back to  huge.gif (2200 bytes)

Published in The Omaha Reader July 19, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.