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Mal Madrigal: Bartolomei's Folly

story by tim mcmahan
photos by bill sitzmann



Lazy-i: December 20, 2007

Mal Madrigal
w/ Ted Stevens, Orenda Fink, Dan McCarthy
Dec. 22, 9 p.m.
729 No. 14th St.


More Mal? Read the November
2004 Lazy-i interview

Mal Madrigal frontman Steve Bartolomei must seem like a relic in an era when bands rush to record their latest songs in their digital home studios, quickly tweak those recordings to a fine sheen using ProTools before immediately uploading the digital files onto their MySpace pages for anyone online to hear.

By contrast, Bartolomei has taken two years to record his debut albums using old-fashioned analog tape recorders, only to make them available as two separate vinyl record albums.

Where it's not uncommon for small punk and indie bands to release singles on vinyl, it's rare to see someone release two vinyl LPs without offering the recordings on Compact Disc. Such a move by a modern-day indie band seems downright insane, especially when most of its potential audience doesn't even own a record player. Bartolomei knows this.

"Everyone in this band wants to make music that sounds the best it can," he said. "Vinyl seemed like the natural solution. As for the commercial considerations, I buy music from my favorite bands mostly on vinyl. That's the way I like it. I wouldn't spend my own money making CDs. I don't know if that sounds crass, but since I'm funding this record, I want to see it finished a certain way."




It sounded crazy to me too, until Bartolomei dropped off copies of the Mal Madrigal records -- Life Among the Animals and The Road Is Glue -- on my front doorstep. While I receive a half-dozen CDs in the mail every week, I never get records. There is something special about pulling that slice of 180-gram vinyl from the record sleeve, placing it on my Technics turntable and dropping the stylus on the groove. Unlike CDs, there is a sense of permanence to vinyl, as if you're playing a document that will outlive you. Though I can't hear any real differences in sound quality on my inferior stereo beyond the occasional crackle of dust on the needle, I know records sound better. I can feel it. That alone makes vinyl a better investment than a CD. Suddenly, Bartolomei's folly made perfect sense.

His records are certainly worth the investment in a turntable. Life Among the Animals is the moodier of the two, mixing layers of textured guitar effects beneath Bartolomei's introspective folk ballads lovingly performed by musicians that include guitarist Mike Saklar, vibraphone/keyboardist Ben Brodin, drummer Eric Ernst and bassist Ryan Fox (Chris Esterbrooks handles bass for live performances). It opens with the acoustic love song "Close to Me" that's introduced with a sample taken from a 78-speed record of Irving Berlin's "When I Lost You," sung by Bartolomei's grandfather, Frank Pane -- one era of vinyl reproduced in another. The record ends with Bartolomei lamenting "The world is not my home," followed by a noise collage that sounds like he's trying to conjure the ghosts of music's past.

The Road is Glue, on the other hand, is more of a Bartolomei song book, a collection that includes rerecordings of three songs from his unreleased 2004 CD. Bartolomei never considered releasing the two records as one double album. "I hear them differently," he said. "I didn't want to do them as a pair. Double CDs or LPs ask a lot from a listener. I wanted specific liner notes and art work for each. That's the beauty of doing it yourself; you don't have to answer to anybody."






" I wouldn't spend my own money making CDs. I don't know if that sounds crass, but since I'm funding this record, I want to see it finished a certain way."












"When I press 'record' on my tape machine, it records almost every time, and when it doesn't, I just need to dust off or jiggle something."

The analog concept was core throughout the entire project. The tracks were recorded at a studio in D Rocks, a music store where Bartolomei and Saklar teach guitar. "We recorded this the way records used to be recorded," Bartolomei said. "We all set up in the same room. We played at the same time looking at each other. No one wore headphones. There were no digital manipulations; nothing was auto-tuned, the drumbeat wasn't synchronized to a clock. We recorded to 1/2-inch analog tape on an 8-track machine."

The limitations of having only eight tracks prevented the project from being completely analog. Eventually everything was dumped into ProTool. "Analog recording isn't perfect," Bartolomei said, "but it's simple and reliable. When I press 'record' on my tape machine, it records almost every time, and when it doesn't, I just need to dust off or jiggle something."

The analog process ultimately came down to engineer Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Services painstakingly cutting the vinyl masters by hand. "It's an art form," Bartolomei said.

From recording to tape to vinyl mastering to pressing the final product, the entire process was much more expensive than merely burning CDs. Bartolomei said he pressed 500 of each album and is hand screen-printing 150 of each album sleeve. The records will be sold for $15 each or both for $25 during Saturday night's release show. Each also will include a CDR so listeners can download the albums onto their computers and iPods.

With plans to reenter the studio this summer, will Bartolomei go "all vinyl" again? "It depends on the finances," he said. "I never expected to make money or break even releasing records. This is an historical document of what we did at this at this time in our lives. For me, it's worth it."

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Published in The Omaha Reader Dec. 20, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photos by Bill Sitzmann, copyright © 2006. Used by permission.