Cramped behind a table at Amante's Pizza just two doors down from the Cat's Cradle, Thad Cockrell, Skip Matheny and Timshel Matheny are groping for the essence of Chris Stamey: as a producer, as a collaborator and as a friend.
Cockrell discusses his work ethic, his attention to detail, his drive to get the sound just right. Skip and Timshel--husband and wife since 1998 and bandmates since 2002--can only agree that Stamey is the best thing that has ever happened to their music careers. But it's a tough topic.
Stamey, eating a salad just one table over and listening to every word, doesn't want to hear about himself and about the fact that his involvement over the past two decades with some of the country's best music isn't simply some cosmic coincidence. He attempts to dismiss the question, to turn the attention back to the bands. Nevertheless, the Mathenys, along with Cockrell and the rest of Roman Candle, are struggling for something to say.
Suddenly, they grin from ear to ear. They are facing the door, and the answer to the lingering Chris Stamey conundrum has just bounced in: a 5 year-old named Julia Stamey.
"My day can start now," exclaims Cockrell, bending out of his seat to greet the girl with a high five. "I'm so glad to see you."
When the greetings finally die down and Julia has found her seat with her mother and father at a nearby table, the band continues with the question without so much as a pause.
"She's the smartest and funniest kid I've ever met," explains Skip, as the rest of the band--alt.country veteran Danny Kurtz on bass, Nick Jaeger on guitar and brother Logan Matheny on drums--nod their assent.
"We'll be recording, and we'll be stressing over this song or this note or that detail, and she'll just come in dressed like an alien and say 'I'm going to put on a puppet show for you guys,'" Timshel continues, turning every few minutes to laugh with the giddy Julia. "It's a lot easier then."
Of late, that feeling of shared affection and community between Roman Candle, Stamey and Cockrell has been the norm. The five-member band, the country solo artist and their producer have been behaving more like one band--or even an extended family--rather than a group of musicians who happen to share a circuit and a stage.
Cockrell made his first two records with Stamey. Lately, Stamey has been busy producing the re-recorded re-release of Candle's debut record, Says Pop, for Hollywood Records, a Disney imprint and home to The Polyphonic Spree and Josh Kelley. The producer insists that Roman Candle is so good that he shouldn't be paid for the sessions, and Cockrell bluntly says that the record hit him with more impact than anything he has ever heard.
On New Year's Eve, Cockrell joined with three-fifths of the band to open for The Connells as the one-off Teenage Queen, and, one month to the day later, Roman Candle opened for an elated Cockrell at his first gig headlining the Cradle. These days, Skip is bouncing songs off of Cockrell, who--in turn--uses the Matheny's as a sort of litmus test for his own material. Thad and Logan are roommates.
"Songwriting's a weird thing for me, and I don't think half of what I'm writing now would have happened if it wasn't for these guys," says Cockrell. "It's rare that you actually meet people where you get along musically and you get along personally so that you can work on stuff together like that."
This week, Stamey will get his chance to push record and document the results of this close-knit relationship. For three nights, Cockrell will open for Roman Candle and later sit in with them during their headlining set in the window of The Speakeasy at Tyler's Taproom as Stamey lets the tape roll.
During the day, The Speakeasy will serve as an open control room for the project. The band and Stamey will listen to playback as folks drop in and out, adding overdubs on the spot or making adjustments to the upcoming night's setlist and arrangements based on the recordings from the previous night. The band hopes to capture enough quality takes for upcoming compilations and in order to produce an EP they can sell while touring this summer before their Hollywood debut is released.
But the point of all the work--finding a venue that would allow two bands to turn its front window into a stage, finding sponsors to turn the venue itself into a temporary studio, printing and selling advance tickets--isn't simply an EP.
"We really spent years making our first record, and getting the sound right...We would set up a microphone for hours and then go eat and come back and record some. This will be different for us, a different way of recording the same songs," says Skip, explaining that this time the band will be working more with the songs instead of the sounds.
"This is our first live recording, and we have no idea how it will turn out," says Logan, summing up Stamey after he has spent three minutes presenting and dissecting the musical philosophy of seminal ethnomusicologist Harry Smith and the importance of "capturing the event, capturing something that is really happening." "It will be interesting."