In 2004, Gordon Zacharias released his second full-length, Homeland, as Fan Modine, the recording and performing alias he'd used since 1998. A homemade set of orchestral indie pop that skirted Scottish twee and The Magnetic Fields' winking charms, Homeland came out on Grimsey Records, at that time home to the likes of Andrew Bird and Damon & Naomi. The record earned key critical plaudits—Pitchfork assigned an 8.0—and announced Zacharias as an up-and-coming songwriter whose future was as bright as that of his labelmates.
Zacharias had plied his trade in Boston and New York before moving to North Carolina in 2001. Within weeks of those accolades, he assembled a five-piece band of notable area musicians including Ash Bowie (Polvo), Jeremy Chatelain (Jets to Brazil, Cub Country), Chuck Johnson (Shark Quest, Idyll Swords) and Lee Waters (Work Clothes). They alternated rehearsals with recording sessions in Zacharias' old Carrboro millhouse, prepping basic tracks for what would become the next Fan Modine LP.
But in a plotline familiar to many independent artists struggling to make music while making a living, the project stalled after a year of sporadic recording. Whatever momentum there was—online or otherwise—evaporated; it would be seven long years before those songs came to light as Fan Modine's new record, Gratitude for the Shipper. Even then, if not for the intervention of a few key figures, the listening world might still be without Gratitude's luscious blend of paisley '60s psychedelia, blue-eyed soul and guitar jangle.
"[The record] sat in my basement for years, and I tinkered with it but didn't really have the time or focus to devote to fully realizing the album," says the 39-year-old Zacharias, who finally owns up to being a perfectionist—as if the whopping six years between his debut, Slow Road to Tiny Empire, and Homeland didn't suggest as much. "It takes me that long to get something where I like it, while doing other things in life. It's the most natural time frame for the type of records I've been making."
Or at least that was the case until Triangle notables Jefferson Holt and Chris Stamey got involved. A mutual friend introduced Zacharias to Holt, who'd been R.E.M's manager for 15 years; in the spring of 2009, Zacharias finally passed along his songs. Holt was smitten, declaring they "gave me visions" of John Cale's orchestral pop classic, Paris 1919, and Procul Harum's A Salty Dog.
Holt—whom Zacharias deems "a rare breed of angel"—immediately vowed to help out, acting as mentor, consigliere, ATM and go-between. Or, as he himself puts it, he would "dial a phone, pay a violin player, loan a guitar, make suggestions, executive decisions and the like, get food, insist on a pedal steel, hover, be ignored, sis-boom-bah, bring in the Wizard."
The Wizard was dB's founding member Stamey, who's worked with Holt on a number of records during the last 20 years. He counts among his production credits Yo La Tengo, Matthew Sweet and Tift Merritt. For Fan Modine, Stamey's daunting task was to sift through what Zacharias had accumulated over the years; some songs had bloated to more than 100 separate tracks.
"It was a lot to sort through," Zacharias says, chuckling and conceding sheepishly. "I was pretty lost sorting everything out and finding how these tracks should come across."
It helped knowing that Zacharias and Holt had an orchestral sound in mind, Stamey reckons. He'd find the core of the song and arrangement—the "infrastructure," he labels it—and start trimming or adding from there. Through his connections, Stamey brought in a parade of his own contributors, including string players from the N.C. Symphony, horn players from Triangle salsa band Orquesta GarDel and old bandmates and chums Peter Holsapple and Mitch Easter. A chorus that included Konisa Rhone, Jeff Crawford, Django Haskins, Wes Lachot, Brett Harris, Doug Edmunds and Ivan Howard joined, too.
"The idea," says Stamey, "was to bring his vision into Technicolor."
The payoff is multi-hued, up-tempo indie pop with enough space to highlight moments of stunning beauty. On the stately "Cups in Canarsie," for instance, horn fanfare announces an out-of-nowhere nylon-string guitar solo that concedes to a lonely, lovely organ-blue. Sweeping strings and steel guitar lift the chugging pop gem "Julu Road" to a crescendo splashed with festive church bells.
With song textures that read like relief maps, Zacharias' elliptical imagery offers various reading routes. The title track—initially inspired by the analog transfer producer Brian Paulson did for him on the cheap—bobs and swells through various pop tempos, suggesting sea craft on white-capped oceans. That technique offers the basis for a nautical metaphor Zacharias uses to express his thanks to those who helped him finish the record. In a pleasing near-falsetto that splashes above the piano's buoyant chords, he sings, "I want to thank the ships and vessels that do carry me/ through the endless tide."
"I ducked my head out for a few years, and when I came back I find there's a real camaraderie now," Zacharias says. "I feel like I have finally found a rhythm for more consistent output. Partly due to advances in technology but more so by working with talented and experienced people like Chris and Jefferson, and letting a momentum to the process develop. We've just begun on a follow-up, so the prospect of not waiting another six years before releasing another record is also exciting."