This, thought Rosavelt, is the way to make an album. For four glorious days last fall, the band members ensconced themselves in a cabin on the banks of a lake in Michigan. With little more than an eight-track digital recorder and a vintage microphone, guitarists/vocalists Chris Allen and Kevin Grasha put down the heart of the band's new album, Transistor Blues, over the basic tracks drummer Miles Loretta and bassist Keith Hanna had previously recorded.
They didn't have to worry about clocks, girlfriends, or day jobs. Bulbous tomatoes growing in a garden outside the cabin were crushed into pasta sauce and salsa. Red wine and beer flowed liberally. Miles from city lights, the stars in the sky looked close enough to swallow.
Allen and Grasha put in sixteen-hour days in the cabin. They'd move their guitar amps around the room, searching for the spot that bounced off the best acoustics. "After that," says Allen, "it was our incompetence that kept us up until seven in the morning."
Rosavelt would have liked to have stayed in the cabin, owned by Allen's girlfriend's parents, longer. But the band had a show to play, an awful money gig that paid for a bulk of the recording--the St. Ignatius High School homecoming dance. "Every time we play in front of a high school crowd, they get very confused unless we bust into the Violent Femmes' 'Blister in the Sun' or Van Morrison's 'Brown-Eyed Girl,'" Allen says. "We were hated." Between sets, the band retreated to the nearby Great Lakes Brewing Co. to rinse away the rejection.
Rosavelt isn't likely to ever capture the attention of the pimple-faced demographic that spends the most money on CDs and concerts. A favorite with the local press and club owners, Rosavelt makes records and plays shows that have about as much to do with today's chart-toppers as does Jack Klugman. Transistor Blues, which Wilbert's Records will put out, is a window-shop through forty years of American music, from the antiquated structures of '50s rock pioneers, through Dylan, and onto his sires Tom Petty, the Replacements, Freedy Johnston, and Wilco.
Transistor Blues is more of a rock record than its predecessor, the folky Carp and Bones. Split nearly down the middle between Grasha's free-associative mood pieces and Allen's Westerberg/Tweedy-freckled road tunes, Transistor Blues has no gimmicks, and the only pop-culture references are literary. Grasha says that the first track, "Channel 1," borrowed a bit in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, about a television show that addicts--and eventually kills--those in its clutches. "Wellville" takes its cue from T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville. The closer, "Releasing the Stars," is Allen's homage to John Ed Bradley's novel Tupelo Nights. Fearing the band's enthusiasm for dog-eared paperbacks might make it seem too highbrow, Hanna says, "A lot of Miles's playing was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien," and everyone around the table at the 5 O'Clock Lounge in Lakewood laughs.
Allen, Loretta, and Grasha met at Miami University. Allen and Loretta played in an Oxford band called Two Doors Down; Grasha was a member of the like-minded Newspaper Taxis. Between gigs with their regular bands, Grasha and Allen played acoustic shows together under the name the Wendel Brothers. About the time Two Doors Down broke up, Grasha moved to New York City. "There really was no reason," Grasha says. "I just went there." He and Allen stayed in touch, trading tapes, talking about songs. Grasha would occasionally return to Cincinnati (where he and Loretta are from; Allen and Hanna grew up around Lakewood) to play with the Wendel Brothers, which eventually evolved into a full band with Loretta, a female singer, and a number of bass players. Allen and Grasha were just happy to make music together. "We probably weren't that good," Allen says, "but this is what we were waiting for. It's like, Wow, we're playing out."
The skyscrapers of New York were closing in on Grasha, who started having panic attacks. "I couldn't go on the subway without getting a paralyzing feeling," he says. Deciding the Wendel Brothers had finished their run in Cincinnati, Allen and Loretta moved to Cleveland, and Grasha joined them. The band changed its name to Rosavelt (the Wendel Brothers, Allen says, "was a dumb band name to begin with") and hooked up with Hanna, recently sprung from Garage Sale America.
Allen and Grasha coexist peacefully as frontmen. Song writing is exhausting enough that the two don't worry about whose material steps into the elevator first.
"I have to work really hard anyway to write a song; I don't even think about it," Grasha says.
"I'm pretty painful my own self. I don't think it'd matter if you were around or not," Allen says to him.
The band's chemistry has been road-tested; no fistfights or long stretches of silence. Allen and Loretta have been roommates off and on for nine years, but they don't seem ready to leap at each other's throats. "We've gotten used to it," Allen says. "We have a yearly blowout where we tell each other when we're being dumb-asses." All four guys seem at ease with each other, but the relationship is not so familiar that their conversations are not burdened by inside jokes and remember-whens.
Says Allen: "We all love sports. We all love cooking. We all love rock and roll."