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The bands record their Afternoon Songs

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John Jerry
Owls drummer John Jerry listens to bandmates talking about the creative process.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson


The Roe Family Singers are at the 331 Club in Minneapolis. They play here every Monday night, but tonight is a little different.

Quillan Roe, the leader of the group, is meeting with each member of the eight-piece band. He's giving them the words and chords to his version of Afternoon Song. Rich Rue, who plays the dobro, is squinting at the music sheet.

Roe Family Singers
The Roe Family Singers take the stage at the 331 Bar in northeast Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

"I should have brought my glasses," Rue laughs. "I don't even know if I can read this, to tell you the truth. I'll just play a G note all the way through and I'll probably be fine."

He and the rest of the band don't seem worried at all about playing a song they've never heard before in front of a crowd. In fact, they're not really even looking at the music.

"I'm better off on a song like this just closing my eyes, and tuning in on what Quillan is doing and hopping on the bus," says Roe Family guitarist Dan Gaarder.

"Just by looking at the chords, I can't really tell what the melody is going to be like," Gaarder remarks. "So we're gonna be riding by the seat of our pants when he starts singing it tonight. So that's the fun of it. That's the beauty of music."

We're gonna be riding by the seat of our pants when he starts singing it tonight. That's the fun of it. That's the beauty of music."

A few minutes later, the Roe Family Singers take the stage. The eight-piece band fills up all of the tiny stage, and much of the floor space around it too. About 20 minutes into the show, Quillan leads into Afternoon Song. He seems a little nervous about playing the song, but his bandmates look ready.

At first, the members of the band are silent. They listen to what Quillan Roe is playing. As the song carries on, they figure it out and they start filling in. Everything clicks, and the song comes off sounding natural.

After the show, Roe is glowing with excitement.

"I loved it," he exclaims. "They're all excellent players, but I wasn't prepared for how well they'd do with it."

From the start of the project, Roe has felt the songs lyrics are too sunny for the band's style. And even though he feels like they got it right, he's still not ready to abandon the band's darker sound.

"There's nothing wrong with writing a happy song. It's something that I wish I could do. I wish that there was a part of me that said, 'OK, let's write a happy song, and let's be OK with it now.'"

Quillan Roe says that for him, Afternoon Song isn't really finished yet. The band will settle on a structure, but the song will sound a little different every time they play it live.


The Owls' approach is a little more deliberate. They're meticulous collaborators.

"I think that 'why' is still a little awkward for you to sing, and I wonder if one of us should sing it?" asks Maria May, vocalist and pianist with the band.

Allison Labonne
Owls' bass player Allison LaBonne listens to bandmates during rehearsal in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

The Owls are at their St. Paul practice space a week before the project's deadline. They're almost done writing their version of Afternoon Song.

But they struggled to get there. One of the main rules of the project is bands can't cut words from the lyrics. So when Brian Tighe brought his song to his bandmates John Jerry, Maria May and Allison LaBonne, the first task was to make the sheer volume of words more manageable.

"And that was where Allison's suggestion of having a counter-melody over the chorus, where she took over the chorus I was singing before," says Tighe.

"Brian was singing all of these 'take one, take two, and then take 10, we make construction paper chains,' but now it's like he skips this line and we sing it. All the lines are in there, but musically it condensed the chorus," LaBonne explains.

It was a start. But LaBonne still had to make the lyrics match the structure of the song.

"What was so fun about this was getting to see The Owls as this machine, almost, this kind of machine that's -- hey, it's working pretty well."

"I want to fit the lyrics into the chorus -- that's like 'take one, take two, and then take ten, But it's the wrong length, the line is the wrong length," she says.

So, still sticking to the rules, LaBonne manipulated the words like magnetic poetry on a refrigerator.

"That's what I was thinking. I was like, if I scramble them around I can get the right length lines for the musical part that we have."

And even though the lyrics were difficult to deal with, LaBonne and Tighe agree that struggling with them was an important part of their songwriting.

"It definitely gave us more challenges, but maybe it made us write a more interesting piece," says LaBonne.

"Because it forced us to write a whole new melody, and maybe that made the ending more exciting," Tighe added.

For Allison LaBonne, this project was about more than just putting words to music.

"What was so fun about this was getting to see The Owls as this machine, almost, this kind of machine that's -- hey, it's working pretty well."


Matt Wilson had a problem with the rules. In fact, he broke one of the primary ones when he cut out some of the lyrics from Stephen Burt's song.

Matt is over this. This is ancient history -- he is long gone as far as that's concerned.

Matt Wilson on the keys
Matt Wilson plays the piano while composing music for "Afternoon Song."
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

Wilson is at the studio phase of his particular journey. In the studio, he has four hours to craft this particular song, and he is both worried about that and psyched.

"It's fun to have a gun to your head and just record it now," he says.

Wilson called on an all-star cast of musicians to back him up, including Adam Levy of the Honeydogs on guitar, Eric Fawcett on drums and former Trip Shakespeare and Flops bandmate John Munson on upright bass.

The song he brought to the studio was the same one he hammered out at home, but with one new wrinkle. Wilson recorded friends and relatives reading the words he had orginally eliminated, and created a spoken word montage to be inserted on the fly after the first chorus.

"I just grabbed the lines that I just didn't feel like I could say," he says.

The musicians didn't hear the song until they came to the studio. After they got set up, Wilson taught them the chords, and things immediately started coming together. Wilson was probably most surprised by what drummer Eric Fawcett came up with.

Piano man
Matt Wilson still seems ambivalent about Afternoon Song. "Is there something there, really? Or is it just kind of a nice scribble?" he asks.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

"Eric played this really authoritative, simple part, and I was expecting something a little more ornate and diddly, but it was very convincing and so I went with it," Wilson says.

The other member of the rhythm section, John Munson, gave Wilson what he wanted -- a steady, deceptively simple bass line.

Meanwhile, Adam Levy experimented with guitar leads almost right up until the last take.

They settled on a straight-ahead, uncluttered mid-tempo rock song. And they all liked it.

Wilson says the project didn't inspire any revelations. But he says it reminded him of how he's loosened up as a songwriter.

Years ago, he probably would have been too self-conscious to take part in the project. His feelings are mixed on the actual song he came up with.

"I write lots of songs that are kind of like this one, where I'll finish it to a point where I can say, 'Yes, that's a song,' and I can sing it through and it has some internal sense to it," he says. "But is there something there, really? Or is it just kind of a nice scribble?"

Wilson says his Afternoon Song is more than just a scribble. It's a shiny object. He says he'll put it away for a few weeks before he decides whether to polish it into a gem, or just leave it alone.