Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Andy Bean of The Two Man Gentlemen Band Offers "Two at a Time"

The Two Man Gentlemen Band are songwriter and tenor guitarist Andy Bean and his partner, upright bass player Fuller Condon. With only the two instruments between them, the boys deliver irresistibly catchy tunes rooted in Pre-War American jazz and western swing.

The two are respectfully and unmistakably influenced by the duo traditions of such legendary acts as Slim & Slam, but make no mistake: The Two Man Gentlemen Band are no nostalgia act or period piece. Their tunes combine the stylistic and groundbreaking swing, bounce, and pep of their musical heroes, with Mr. Bean's own unique brand of nimbly witty lyrical references to prescription drugs, pork chops, chocolate milk, pool parties, and Applebees!

The two have an extensive catalog of albums and years of live performances to their credit, and have been winning over audiences with songs that go down almost-too-easy. They are an act not to miss, and one that compels every listener in the room to tap their feet, crack a smile, let out an inescapable laugh, and even raise a celebratory glass.


The duo's new album, Two at a Time, was funded by an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, with the goal of crafting an album without any digital production whatsoever. Upon successfully raising the cash to make their new record online, the boys turned off their computers, began playing live into their 1940's and '50's microphones directly to analog tape, and capturing it all with Wally Hersom (seasoned operator and collector of vintage recording equipment and former longtime bass player for Los Angeles contemporary rockabilly legend Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys).

When the recording was finished, the two even collaborated with Stumptown Printers of Portland, OR to have the album artwork hand-printed without any digital processing techniques, making Two at a Time a hand-made recording in every aspect. It is a philosophical and artistic statement that needs no embellishment. This time, actions speak louder than words, and as a complete work, Two at a Time is one that is hard to put down. I bet you can't listen to it just once!

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Andy Bean about the band's history, the duo's collaborative spirit and artistic philosophy, and the making of Two at a Time.

Before we dig into the new album, I'd like to ask you a few questions about the band's history and previous discography:

First, how and when did you meet?

Andy: Fuller and I met at an audition for a mediocre college rock band in New York City. I'm proud to say we both passed the audition, the first official public affirmation of our abilities, and spent a few semesters making mediocre college rock. We began The Two Man Gentlemen Band a few years later when, unable to find a suitable drummer to accompany us, we decided to do something just the two of us. 

What was it that drew you together, and what has kept you connected artistically, personally, etc?

Andy: The Councilman and I first bonded, as young men often do, over a mutual affection for the drink. This was supplemented quickly by a shared love for older American styles of music, and a lasting man-relationship was born.

Over the long run, though, I attribute our longevity as a band to our ability to sit in a minivan silently for 8 to 10 hours at a time. Were we incompatible minivan travelers, we would've hung it up long ago.

Can you briefly describe your recording history?

Andy: With a few exceptions, some forays into the world of overdubbing and such, our goal for all seven Two Man Gentlemen Band records has been to capture as accurately as possible what we sound like at that time, what kind of songs we're writing and how well (or poorly) we're playing our instruments.

To that end, nearly everything on all of our albums was recorded live in a room. I don't love every song on our older records. There are some cringe-worthy lyrics and some clunky playing.  But they're all honest documents of what we were doing, and we're proud of that.

We began making records and touring, in my opinion, before we got any good at playing or writing.  So, taken as a whole, our catalog tells the story of two guys trying to figure out how to play and write the kind of music we wanted to play and write. And I'd say that these days, with Two at a Time, we're pretty close to sounding like what we wanna sound like.  

What would fans be most surprised to learn is in your own record collection?

Andy: I listen to Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" at least once a day. And I like Gordon Lightfoot.

Can you describe your experiences using Kickstarter to help fund the new recording?

Andy: My initial response to bands using Kickstarter was "get a f*cking credit card."  That's what we did for our first six records. We went hopelessly into debt to record and promote an album, then hit the road for a year and hoped like heck we'd sell enough of them to make it worth it. But, we've changed our tune about it.

Having made a handful of hasty, ramshackle recordings in the past, we wanted to get the budget together to do something a bit less hasty, and a bit less ramshackle. And with our credit card companies more wary of us than they once were, and our fan base having grown enough that we wouldn't have to hit up family and friends to contribute (which would make us uncomfortable because our families don't particularly like the band), Kickstarter seemed the best way to get that budget together.  

Running the campaign, though, wasn't a terribly pleasant experience. Asking your fans once every couple of days to throw you money for a record they won't get for six months is a sure fire way to annoy some people. And I'm sure we did just that. But, for the most part, our fans got excited about it.

We were only going to be able make this all-analog, computer-free record if we were able to raise enough money up front. If we fell short, it was back to the ramshackle, hasty stuff. I think our supporters understood that and genuinely wanted to hear the record. 

I read that once you obtained the funding through Kickstarter,  the goal was to make the new record without any digital processes (recording, artwork, etc).

What compelled you, philosophically and artistically, to go in this direction for Two at a Time?

Andy: The Councilman and I are not orthodox retro, "if-it-ain't-old-fashioned-it-ain't-good" types. (We present our songs about Prescription Drugs and drinking at Applebee's as evidence). We don't pine for the past. But, we do prefer the sound of old records to the sound of newer ones.

Above all else, we wanted to make sure that we liked this record. So, it seemed natural to us that the best way to make a record that we were going to like was to use older equipment, which meant no computers or digital stuff.

Our idea behind the packaging was similar.  All our favorite record covers were designed and printed before the computer age.  So we figured we'd print 'em and design 'em like they used to.

Ironically, the result is an album that sounds and looks less "vintage-y" than it would have if we'd try to simulate an old feel with recording and graphic design software. You know, like using an "am radio" filter on the music or applying some sort of digital "weathering" process to the design files. The 40s and 50s era recording gear we used is pretty darned hi-fidelity.

And the packaging, though it was done on older presses using nearly obsolete techniques, looks brand spanking shiny and new.  It's good to remember that old records didn't start off looking or sounding old. They just got old.

What were the biggest similarities and biggest differences between the making of this album, and your previous ones (specifically, utilizing non-digital processes)?

Andy: Our approach in the studio was largely similar to what we'd done before. We played live with no overdubs. The biggest differences came on the post production end. On this record, there are some pops, crackles, sour notes, and spots where something is louder or quieter than it should be.

If we'd had the option (if we'd recorded with a computer) we'd have been tempted to scrub over some of those spots digitally. But our only option was to play the whole tune again. So, unless we could muster up a superior take, the pops and crackles, sour notes, loud spots and quiet spots stayed in.  


Can you describe the recording set-up?

Andy: It was all pretty simple. Ribbon mics for our voices and instruments and one tube-powered condenser for the room. These all ran through a late 40s console and washing machine sized tube limiter and straight to 1/4" mono tape.  With the exception of a few minor mic positioning changes from song to song, we just set it up and played for 4 days til we had takes we liked.

The recording was done by Wally Hersom, former longtime bass player for Big Sandy & His Fly Rite Boys and all around good guy, at his garage studio in Pasadena, CA.

Were their specific artists and/ or records that inspired you for this recording?

Andy: We've been very into our own "duo-ness" lately, as evidenced by the title Two at a Time and the various celebratory references to "two man music" in the liner notes (not to mention the band name itself).

So we spent a lot of time listening to Slim & Slam, the greatest hot swing duos of them all. And a lot of time looking at Hall & Oates album covers, hoping some of their two man magic would rub off on us.

Can you talk about the artwork and printing processes for Two at a Time? How did this connect with the mission to create a completely non-digital album?

Andy: This was the most exciting part of it for us because we had absolutely no idea how it would work.

The wonderful folks at Stumptown Printers in Portland, OR, who've printed all but one of our albums, partnered with us on this and did all the heavy lifting. We just sent them some text, hand written layout ideas, and photographs (dark-room film prints, of course) and they did the rest.

From what I understand they used a combination of hand-set type and a giant linotype machine (that uses molten metal to make a stamp for each line of text) for the layout, shot film of the layout, then printed it on an offset press. It turned out great but took everyone way longer and cost way more than anyone was expecting. I guess that's why people started using computers, huh?

Beyond the technical side, CDs and LPs are darned expensive to buy, and we make our living off of nice people buying them from us. So, we feel like we owe it to those folks who support us that the music comes in something that's worth holding onto, something made with care and in limited quantity. Otherwise, I can't think of many compelling reasons not to just download the digital version of the album.

One of the aspects I have really enjoyed while listening to your songs is the balance of your lyrical humor with the swing, bounce, and appeal of your instrumentation.

Obviously, humor is an important element of your lyrics. I admire the way that your songs are fun, witty, and smart without being reduced to being "funny" and/ or comedic. How do you decide where to draw the line and/ or strike this balance?

Andy: We don't plan how funny (or not) our songs are going to be. Our approach to making music developed pretty naturally in line with our personalities. We're the sorts of fellas who enjoy bantering about clever things over a few drinks, but we're not "gather round everybody I've got a joke you've gotta hear!" kinda guys. And certainly not the type of fellows who are happy spewing out our deepest emotions all over the place in front of strangers.

It's the same with the songs. They might be about occasionally funny topics (chocolate milk, pork chops, prescription drugs, Panama City Beach) and may have some funny phrases, but no jokes, no "wait for it... wait for it... now here's something funny!" moments. And certainly no navel gazing self reflection. Not that we dislike music that is a bit more serious. But, we like fun music most. And we like making it.

Think of us as dessert chefs, which would make Two Man Gentlemen Band a nice, rich, juicy dessert. You can't live on dessert alone, but it's nice to have it along with a well balanced diet of other musics.

Can you talk about your own sources of inspiration, as well as your influences musically and lyrically?

Andy: My favorite four songs of all time are, in order, Lloyd Price's "Frog Legs"; Jesse Allen's "Let's Party!", Andre Williams' "Bacon Fat", and Johnny Guitar Watson's "I'm Gettin Drunk." The titles alone are a pretty good summary of my lyrical interests. Not that we don't write and sing the occasional heartfelt ballad; we do. But food, drink, and parties are our lyrical bread and butter. 8 out of the 10 originals on Two at a Time address, at least tangentially, one of those three themes.

Your lyrical references seem contemporary, while the music and lyrics connect in a timelessness that exists somewhere between the era of some your influences, and today. 

Can you talk about what you believe it is about the of stylistic appeal of the instrumentation, arrangements, and lyrical content and delivery that transcend nostalgia and remain relevant and exciting today?

Andy: Even though our style of music was more popular 80 years ago, it's what we listen to and play every day. So it feels very contemporary to us. Which is our way of saying that we've never really thought about it, why certain aspects of this style appeal to us or the audience.

Honestly, we're often just singing the first thing that comes to our mind and are thrilled, and not a little bit surprised, when it turns into a song. And since we listen to so many old records, our music and lyrics often lean in the direction of old swing since it's most familiar to us. 

What comes first: music or lyrics? Can you discuss your musical and lyrical songwriting?

Andy: They typically come together. I'm not terribly skilled at picking a topic to write a song about, then writing it. Nor am I great at writing music by itself. So, I just start noodling around and go with whatever comes out of my fingers and mouth.

If I'm playing a little guitar bit and I start singing "Pork chops, my girl tastes like pork chops" well, then that's what the song is gonna be about. I really feel like I don't have much choice in the matter.

Another aspect of the band that I responded to almost immediately, and that continues to appeal to me most is the economy of it all: two guys, two instruments, two voices. 

What is most rewarding, challenging, and unexpected from this way of working? What is most liberating about your chosen aesthetic?

Andy: We embrace the limitations of a two man band. Keeping a show interesting for 90 minutes with only two instruments and two voices is a challenge. It's one of the things that motivated us to get better at our instruments. We've got a lot of time to fill and both have to take a lot of solos. And there ain't no hiding in the back in a duo.

We sometimes long for a third or fourth player, but then we'd have to change the name of the band and get new business cards. And business cards ain't cheap!

And when we perform live, well, there's just two of us. So if any newcomers were hoping that the name is just a joke and we're really an octet, they'll be sorely disappointed. 

What are your plans for 2012?

Andy: We're experimenting with the bi-coastal lifestyle this year, with me in Los Angeles and The Councilman in Charleston, SC. So far, we're finding it easier than expected. We have a folding upright bass and not too much other equipment, so air travel ain't to big a deal.

We've got a full slate of club dates and festivals all across the country, including spots at Pickathon and The Watermelon Park Fest that we're excited about. Should be a good year. Our nationwide Two at a Time release tour starts May 1. 

What have you been listening to lately?

Andy: Today, I'm listening to Carl Sonny Leyland, the best darned boogie woogie piano man in the country. Right here in California.

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