Concert Preview and Exclusive Video Premiere: Lizard McGee
The principal singer and songwriter for renowned Columbus band Earwig is making his solo debut at Big Room Bar this Saturday. Columbus Underground readers are also getting an exclusive first look at the video for the set's debut single, "Silverheels."
Columbus indie rock stalwarts Earwig released their long-awaited sixth studio album, Pause for the Jets, in October 2016. On his blog, Night Cusser, front man Lizard McGee candidly discussed how the project’s lengthy mixing process had derailed its original timeline, and the absence of a finished product eventually took a toll on him personally.
“I started to sink into depression. Often when I’m working on a new project that gets hung up, that’s the way it goes. For better or for worse, everything is pulling me toward a bright-white vanishing point on the horizon and that’s all I can see.”
But McGee’s impatience with the album’s stall would cede to inspiration, prompting him to reinterpret the set’s tracks without his band mates in a night-long, single-take recording session in his bedroom. The result: his first solo effort, Spooky Jets At A Distance. No elaborate mixing, no mastering — just McGee’s distinctive, agile voice and an acoustic guitar. Despite its lack of technological complexity, the album is a beautiful, compelling piece of work that brilliantly captures the singer-songwriter’s vulnerability.
From McGee’s perspective, breaking down the songs that were at the heart of his creative frustration at the time was good therapy.
“I’ve been known to fixate on the smallest details when recording, and it can be very frustrating for sure,” he explains during a conversation we had earlier this week. “It also drags out the process but sometimes it can be fun and revealing.”
“Recording [the album] in one night with basically one take for each song was incredibly freeing. I didn’t worry much about making mistakes — they’re in there. It helped me relax and understand these songs in a different way than how I approach them on the fully produced album. This solo album is very ‘of the moment’ and it felt great to finish it quickly and then not stress about it. It was good therapy. It’s the best most connected and fully realized recording I’ve ever made.”
Spooky Jets At A Distance debuted as a digital download on McGee’s Bandcamp site on May 15, giving Earwig fans an intriguing alternate take on the already released full-bodied version to compare and contrast. McGee has also mounted a limited solo tour to accompany the project, which will begin this Saturday, June 10 at Big Room Bar. He will also be venturing to the United Kingdom at the end of June for a set of engagements in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Leeds.
And today, Columbus Underground has the exclusive premiere of McGee’s music video for the album’s first single, “Silverheels.”
Certainly releasing this complete acoustic set is a first for you, but how much of Earwig’s material actually gets worked out with just you and your guitar? How do your songs typically come to you and take shape?
“I usually write by myself on acoustic guitar, so this process felt incredibly natural and easy. There are two songs from Pause For The Jets that we wrote as a band. ‘Bring Yrsrlf 2 Me’ is one of those songs and the solo version is vastly different from the band version. It’s almost a totally different song. The other song we wrote as a band is ‘All My Sins Are Blotted Out,’ and it came out really well too as a solo song.”
You recorded these versions at home, and it’s really interesting to hear how you’ve incorporated ambient sounds from your surroundings into the recordings. You and Earwig are quite proudly a local band — how does being from Columbus inform the soundscapes you create? Is there a point of view there?
“The ambient sounds were recorded with a mic in my yard. It’s just the sounds of what was happening outside while I was inside recording. You can hear the cicadas and my chickens. Living in the Midwest, specifically Ohio, breeds certain musical idiosyncrasies and I own those 100 percent. Guided By Voices, Ugly Stick, The Breeders, Devo, The Pretenders…I hear a thread running through all of those groups that sounds like Ohio. I’m really proud to feel like Earwig is part of that heritage and fits in and relates to it somehow. I think one big trait it brings is a strong sense of do-it-yourself determination and a desire to ‘make your own fun’ that drives us.”
I’m always interested in what tools musicians use to create. What kind of acoustic guitar are you playing on this record? You also used Pro Tools on this particular recording — how did that figure into the process?
“I recorded these songs with a budget Studio Projects C-1 microphone, through a Joe Meek pre-amp/EQ/compressor and directly into Pro Tools. I really squashed the takes to bring up the delicate, quiet bits in the recording and room sounds. Then I added a good bit of digital reverb too. My acoustic guitar is a crappy off-brand model from the pawn shop. I don’t even know the make — I don’t think it says. But it’s very special to me because it was bravely given to me by my best friend after I recklessly smashed my last acoustic to bits on stage during a show at Bernie’s Bagels.”
So this is a bit of an unusual take on a first solo record in that you’re reworking material and not recording something you’ve done independent of the band. Do you foresee this opening the door for material that you’d write and record completely on your own in the future?
“I saw this as an opportunity for a solo album, so I jumped on it. There probably wouldn’t be another fully produced Lizard McGee solo album, because everything I do is just Earwig. I don’t think there’s a way or a reason to separate the two.”
After your show at Big Room Bar, you’re headed overseas. What was the impetus to take most of your first solo shows far away from home?
“I’m a huge fan of British bands. I love The Smiths, Oasis, and Echo & The Bunnymen. Recently my whole family has been into The Maccabees. They broke up recently and my wife went online and bought tickets to their farewell show in Manchester. So basically we got tickets to go to a concert in Manchester at the end of the month and the trip to England was based around that. Then I decided it would be a great opportunity to play some shows so I started setting up gigs and it coincided with my solo record. Hooray for synchronicity!”
This record demonstrates that you can really capture emotion and a series of moments without a tremendous amount of production. When you’re recording a record more conventionally with a band — instrumentation, studio manipulation, and so forth — how do you ensure the emotion translates?
“In the studio, Earwig usually starts with a live basic take so that everybody feels connected and in the moment. Then we build on top of that. With Pause For The Jets, we spent a lot of time building on top of the takes and adding cool extra jazz.”
I’m actually really intrigued by the unfinished novel you mention in your blog. Do you have plans on publishing that at some point, or is it a perpetual work-in-progress?
“I’m writing a novel called My Own Secret Service, which is a rock ‘n’ roll memoir that details the true origins of Earwig and follows the band as we battle demons from alternate universes and eventually save the world. The book is based on an extended dream sequence that I had which was quite fantastic and I kept track of in a dream journal. I have written a good bit of it. But I have a long way to go, it should fall into the trap of being and ongoing work in progress. I was contemplating making it into a comic book to see if I could actually finish it faster.
I still really like that idea, though it opens up a can of worms that I would actually have to find artists and all of the other stuff that goes along with making a comic book. But it’s still a fun idea and I might do it. I also was thinking about just writing the book and publishing it on my blog as I go. There’s just not enough time. You know what I mean?”
Lizard McGee will kick off his solo tour in support of Spooky Jets At A Distance this Saturday, June 10, 9 p.m. (doors open at 8 p.m.) at Big Room Bar, 1036 S. Front St. in the Brewery District. Special guests include Chuck Cleaver, Kyle Sowash, Sue Harshie, and Kyle Melton. Admission is $6 at the door. Music downloads and other information can be found on the artist’s official website and their Bandcamp site.