What would become the jangly, densely layered Sorry Vampire (Vagrant, 10/2), the second full-length from John Ralston, began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song.
The record was built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen – you’ll likely never hear this record the same way twice. The final dozen tracks also speak to the ‘luxury’ Ralston experienced by not having time constraints and being able to home record.
The Florida-based musician began work on Sorry Vampire almost immediately after self-releasing his debut, Needle Bed, in 2005, which was picked up by Vagrant and re-released in 2006. When he arrived in Knoxville to record the album and Needle Bed’s producer Michael Seaman, he’d formed his plan: “To make the record sound beautiful, but in a different way than you’ve heard before.” This is when he began experimenting with his songs, tossing out leftovers and writing new parts.
The first song, “Fragile”, was one of the first Ralston began crafting with onetime Wilco keyboardist/engineer Jay Bennett and Ralston’s then-bandmate David Vandervelde. Even though they recorded “Fragile”’s basic elements three years ago he didn’t finish the song until 2007, over the course of three or four sessions. “Oh man, it was something! There are so many tracks and so many songs and so many takes on so many songs,” says Seaman, erupting in laughter. Seaman estimates they took a cumulative six months across their sessions in Tennessee and Florida.
The original version of the deceptively bouncy “Beautiful Disarmed” contained about 20 vocal layers and piano, but it wasn’t until after he added two separate drum takes, a Stylophone, and an ARP Solina String Ensemble to the mix that it sounded “done.” The otherworldly feel of “A Small Clearing,” which began with a loop of field recordings (street noises, doors slamming), was only completed during the very last recording session when the band stopped in Knoxville for 10 days after a tour and their collective experimenting gave the song its signature arpeggiated figure complete with steel drum, tongue drum, and even more sampled noise.
With “Ghetto Tested,” which was tracked a mere two times, Ralston’s orchestra shifts from electric guitar to symphonic strings to mellotron brass. “I can’t tell you how I arrived at it or what it means,” says Ralston of the track. “But I can tell you it was the most challenging for everyone to figure out.” The depth of sounds he used, including instruments like a PortaSound (a $10 Yamaha keyboard that creeps up everywhere on the album), helped make the record sound unique. For as many instruments as he employed, he invited just as many guests.
In addition to his regular band, and whoever else stopped through Knoxville during recording, Miami friends the Postmarks stopped by. Vocalist Tim Yehezkely lent her voice to “I Guess I Wanted My Summer Now” and drummer Jon Wilkins performed on all but two of Sorry Vampire’s songs. “Last time I think I played about 80 percent of the instruments and I’m not qualified to play even half of those,” says Ralston, “so it was nice to have some professionals in there with me.” Wilkins and Ralston got on so well that the drummer took on a co-producer’s credit as he helped finish up the sessions.
To mix the record, Ralston teamed with Grammy-winning mixer Charles Dye (Lauryn Hill, Ricky Martin, Aerosmith), as he had done with the comparatively sparse Needle Bed. The pair whittled down Vampire’s hundreds of layers per song. “He just said, ‘I want it to have depth,’” Dye recalls. “I want it to feel three-dimensional.” The engineer began ignoring his first instincts, making “unconventional choices” to give it the desired 3-D sound. When they were done, Dye decided that this was the best record he’d ever worked on.
Reflecting, Dye says, “It’s an intensely beautiful epic, an amazing collection of songs, brilliant melodies and lyrics, very different sounds and texture. He’s really one of the best lyricists I’ve ever worked with – especially his sense of humor and the way that he plays with phrases. It’s not overt. It’s sort of this wry sense of humor.”
Sorry Vampire and all of its component parts became a monolith of sound. The back of the CD bears a note saying that the record was intentionally mixed quieter than other albums to preserve the original performances’ contrast between loud and soft, leaving it up to the listener to crank it. With so many pieces and nuances working together, this album more than deserves the distinction.
“Little things like that take a while,” Ralston says, referring to the art of creating such a sonically loaded album. “You can’t force them. You just have to wait for them to come to you.”