Charleston pop/rock band the Explorers Club transitions from the Pet Sounds devotees of their 2008 debut Freedom Wind to the sophisticated soft-rock of Herb Alpert/Burt Bacharach on the newly released Grand Hotel. The step resembles the big shifts in pop music from the tumultuous late 1960s into the breezier (and slightly sleazier) early '70s. The new songs don't simply reflect the mellow hits on the pop charts of the Me Decade; many elements draw from the dramatic and cheesy TV theme shows, commercial jingles, and cinematic soundtracks of the '70s era — the hooky tunes laden with strings, brass, excessive tambourine, and jazzy drums. Listening to Grand Hotel is a time-warp trip.
"The first record was definitely an experiment where we aimed for a specific sound and kind of ran with it, but it was different this time around," bandleader Jason Brewer says of Grand Hotel. "It's all over the place. I've found that people who liked the first record because it was Brian Wilson-sounding might not like the new one, and there were a lot of people who didn't like the first one because it was too Brian Wilson-sounding."
Well-crafted and meticulously produced, Freedom Wind was a terrific classic pop collection. With its upbeat tempos, sunshine vibes, and goofy puppy-love notions, it rocked like a teenage party record circa 1967. The happy tones of Freedom Wind contrast with the introspective cocktail hour smokiness and exotica of Grand Hotel.
"When we recorded the instrumental title track, I felt like we were a psychedelic rock band jamming with Herb Alpert in a session for the original soundtrack for Casino Royale," Brewer says. "I can imagine some of this music being a TV commercial for an old car or a fancy drink or something. I'm still hoping for an advertisement hook-up."
Over the last two years, Brewer co-wrote all of the songs on Grand Hotel with longtime studio cohorts Ian Troy Stains and Michael Williamson. They worked on arrangements and basic tracks at Brewer's studios in Charleston and Greenville and handled most of the recording at Glow in the Dark Studio in Atlanta with engineer and co-producer Matt Goldman. Stains, Williamson, and Goldman played a slew of guitars, keyboards, and percussion instruments from track to track. Former Beach Boys producer Mark Linett handled the final mixes at his studio in Los Angeles.
"We made a conscious decision to do a lot of the rhythm tracks — the drums, bass, acoustic guitars, and piano — at the same time with the same mics for consistency," Brewer says. "The way Matt recorded things with the mics and preamps and the way Mark mixed it with his old chamber reverb samples and boards helped. They were the right guys to help us go back in time."
Brewer admits that many of the old TV re-runs and movies that he saw as a kid in the mid '80s inspired some of the ideas for songs on the new album as well.
"Right before we started working on this, I'd been listening to old A&M label records and late '60s jazzy stuff from Antônio Carlos Jobim and Bacharach," Brewer says. "That tied into what I liked out of my parents' record collection, which included the Carpenters, Chicago, Leon Russell, and Elton John. My mom really liked Bread, too. All of that crept in for sure.
"I picked up a lot of what the adults around me were into, so I got into that music too," he adds. "I still love the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but the soundtrack stuff was so familiar to me and it felt like a big part of what I remembered about my parents, my grandparents, and my neighbors."
The making of Grand Hotel represents a major change in the Explorers Club's lineup as well. The initial steps toward the sessions started with the original lineup — multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Faust, keyboardist Stefan Rogenmoser, and drummer Neil Thomas — but the band ended the studio work with a new lineup. "That's why you see a lot of names in the liner notes," says Brewer. "I felt like it was always a big collection of really talented people. That feeling has been part of the mentality of this band for years."
The current Explorers Club roster features Brewer on vocals, guitar, organ, and Wurlitzer; Dave Ellis on vocals, guitars, and percussion; Justin James on standard and steel guitars; Kyle Polk on drums; Paul Runyon on organ and piano; and Wally Reddington on bass.
"I think I'm singing and performing better than ever," Brewer says. "I have my confidence level up. Singing with all these great players now, where I finally feel like the Explorers Club is where it needs to be — it pushes me to get better. These guys take pride in what they're doing, and they're well invested in what they're doing, so it's really great on stage right now."