The paint peels in big curls from the siding of the house. The window sills sag a little bit. The shudders and railings need a good scrubbing. From the sidewalk, the two-story house that accommodates local musician and engineer Josh Kaler's Hello Telescope recording studio looks less like a professional facility than a typical historic downtown home — the kind that's slowly aging and happy to provide shelter for shaggy college drop-outs and starving artists.
Inside the main studio rooms, however, the place comes to life. With little bundles of vintage amps, antique bass drums and snares, old keyboards, and a variety of stringed instruments scattered around the rooms, it's a warm, welcoming musician's haven.
The console stands in the middle of things with a plexiglass window facing the recording room, just over the speakers and computer screens. Co-owned by Jay Clifford (of Jump), Hello Telescope (formerly called The Lions Den) is Kaler's headquarters — an all-in-one operation that allows him to both work professionally with local and visiting acts and spend serious time on his own compositions and solo album.
"I'll be very interested to see how people react to and hear what people think of this album," he says of his new collection, Auditorium. He's been tracking, mixing, and fine-tuning the mostly-instrumental, seven-song album for quite a while.
"This collection is definitely a couple of years in the making," Kaler says. "It goes back to when I started recording. It's not like I've got all these songwriter type songs that I wrote with an acoustic guitar. Most of them kind of came from me literally jamming with myself. I would start a loop with my loop recorder, and start layering and layering ... that's how these songs were built. I just wanted to do something kind of different."
A native of Minnesota, Kaler studied music and studio production in Boston at the Berklee School of Music before relocating to Charleston in 2004 and forming the band Slow Runner with songwriter Michael Flynn.
In an additional side project, Kaler played guitar and keys with various incarnations of the popular "Heavy Metal Monday" bands, from its early days at Cumberland's to the recent stint at Wet Willie's.
Kaler started recording bands over a year ago. He engineers all of the Slow Runner sessions, and he produced albums and demos for such acts as Opposite of a Train, The Green and Bold, Lindsay Holler's Western Polaroids, and, most recently, Bill Carson.
"I had some awesome help from Michael, as well as from a lot of really great musicians and friends to make this collection special," Kaler says of Auditorium.
Ron Wiltrout added percussion. Nick Jenkins wrote lyrics and sang on one song. String players from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra joined in with cellist Ward Williams (ex-Jump). Joel Hamilton and Dan McCurry contributed as well.
Whereas Slow Runner is based on a traditional pop song style (verses, choruses, bridges, etc.), Kaler's solo stuff takes a step in a very different musical direction. "It's a drum-heavy record, with a lot of synth bass and keyboards, and ukulele chugging along," he says.
All of the tracks on Auditorium are more textured, repetitive, and experimental than some might expect. Some are downright exotic, with metallic accents and unusual orchestral strings sweeping in and out.
"When I heard the band Battles' album Mirrored, I realized that there was sort of a small movement happening," he says. "There's a lot of very high-pitched kind of sampled stuff happening, and lots of old video game influence going on. When I heard that [Battles] record, it really justified me going in this direction even more. It kind of nudged me out the door even more. Instrumental bands have been around a long time, but, recently, you see them live on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.
"It's an unconventional thing," he adds. "I don't want to say it's harder to make an instrumental song compelling, but if you're not putting the vocals and the words out there, the music will have to speak for itself. It's just kind of a neat thing that omits some of the crap out there."
Some tracks gradually gather steam and blast off with a cacophony of sound. Some bounce with hypnotic rhythms, or rock out to a pounding bass line or distorted guitar riff. The song "Apart from Clouds" initially took shape nearly four years ago as a humble, home-recorded demo. As Kaler became busier with other recording projects, other songs gradually came together, piece by piece. Kaler composed the final track on the disc, "Her Pet Lion," as the project came to a close this summer. Somehow, despite his hectic studio and gig schedule, Kaler maintained a sense of purpose that lasted into 2009, when he finally got to a week-long break.
"Last spring I got to a point where I tied up all my loose ends and wound up with a full week off, so I started writing and finishing songs," Kaler says. "It's a very texture-based, mostly instrumental collection. And I got to collaborate with some really great musicians."
Kaler welcomes Jenkins (billed as Mr. Jenkins) and Jack Burg (billed as Punks & Snakes) on stage alongside him at the CD release show at the Tin Roof this Thursday.
Having top billing is a new thing for Kaler. "I'm so used to being kind of second fiddle and filling in the gaps, whereas this was all on me," he says. "I really learned a lot. As I neared the completion of the record, I did start to get a little panicky about what people might think about it. When you make a record and you literally put your name on it, it's a little scary."