Alameda album liner notes

The songs on the Alameda record range in birthdate from sometime in 2006 (Wolves) to 2017 (Vagabond). Some took minutes to write (Moving Day, see below) while others, like the Busker, took years of tinkering and revising lyrics, recording fails, and suffering through on-stage learning experiences. Many more that I’ve written- or tried to- didn’t make the cut, sometimes because I couldn’t finish them or didn’t like them anymore, but mostly because I never had a chance to play them live with this band. That’s the real story about Alameda. I wanted it to sound live, and I wanted it to sound like this band.

In 2016 Hannah Read asked me to sing harmonies and play guitar on a record she was working on with bassist Jeff Picker and producer and engineer Charlie Van Kirk, which later became her album Way Out I’ll Wander. Jeff introduced me to drummer John Fatum and we started doing shows at Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook and Skinny Dennis in Williamsburg (non-Brooklynites please read on). Hannah joined us on fiddle and vocal harmonies and Alec Spiegelman brought out the bass clarinet and alto flute.

I didn’t have any money to hire a proper engineer to record us because I’d already spent it all on my own equipment, mostly microphones. I like them old and banged up and needing to be fixed and invariably the person who fixes them lives far away, and you may have that last independent clause for your Tinder profile. For acoustic guitar I knew I wanted a pair of Neumann KM54’s, the same kind Gary Paczosa used on Anais Mitchell and me during the Child Ballads sessions. For vocals I bought an old Soviet-era Neumann CMV563 and had it hot-rodded and restored. East German microphones can still be approached, money wise, on the vintage market. Western ones cost more than a new kitchen.

We moved everything into a big room called Lethe Lounge, up near Columbia University. Lethe is a recording and performance space built by musician and erstwhile carney, Mark Ettinger. It has double high ceilings and a control room. Mark let us use his space in exchange for free reign of my gear for his own projects. The only downside was that getting home to my apartment in Red Hook, South Brooklyn was actually impossible some nights. Even with the 1 train running, which it sometimes did, I spent far too much time in unwilling self-reflection, pressing my guitar into a carful of antagonists. I slept in the studio a lot.

The first recording sessions took place in March during a blizzard. For all the congestion and walk-ups and parking hassles and other inconveniences, New York City is a fine place to weather out a snowstorm. Takeout and Modelo are just a tromp away. We recorded the title cut Alameda first. I was self-engineering the session and made some technical mistakes on the drums that I didn’t catch until later on, during the mixing. For reasons I’d rather not get into here (trust me on this), the floor tom condenser microphone had picked up all the cymbals, inducing certain sonic vertigo in one ear. The only fix was to lift the drummer into the air and spin him around ninety degrees, quite a physical challenge in real life, but easy enough with sound using my little Neve mixer. For all ye of the vintage, picture Tommy Lee keeled over in his flying drum cage, high above Worcester Centrum on Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood tour.

The last night of the session we had some friends over for a studio party with candles and incense and a selection of inebriates. I asked Patrick Seargent, saxophonist with Fatum in The Rad Trads, to play piano on my song Moving Day. I’d written it at my brother’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town back in 2008, just a few months after I’d moved to the city from Boulder, Colorado. It took me all of fifteen minutes to write- at 5 AM- but I hadn’t had much luck recording it before the Alameda sessions. Patrick was happy to play the piano, Mark Ettinger took up the accordion, and we all set up live in the room. Everything went great except for the fact that I put the accordion next to the upright bass and wound up with two accordion tracks, one of which also had some bass in it. We made lemonade later that spring, rerecording Moving Day at a sober hour, with Jim Fitting, my bandmate from Session Americana, playing some lovely harmonica.

During this time Joyce Hamer, my Grandma, passed away. Her memorial service was held near Mt. Dora, Florida, and the family spent the night before creating a collage of family photographs. They were from different times in her life, some color and some black and white, glossy and tactile. We arranged them on a large poster board and had a family disagreement about whether they should be straight or fixed at angles. One that caught my eye was a solo portrait of her, riding up a single chairlift in Jackson, Wyoming in the summer of 1954. Growing up in central Massachusetts I was obsessed with skiing and hiking, and here was Grandma in her early twenties looking very much like someone I had descended from. With the family’s permission, I used this photo as the cover of the Alameda album.

I hope you enjoy the songs and stories.

Jefferson Hamer, Brooklyn, October 2018

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