Creative process for 2019 Band to Watch involves everything from Memphis soul to Nashville phonograph recording booth
After working a late shift at one of her two jobs, Carly Fratianne came home exhausted, sat on her bed and grabbed a guitar. Lazily strumming a couple of chords, a lyric popped into her head: “I wanna feel like death in your arms.”
“I hadn't even actively thought it until it came out,” Fratianne said. “It just flew out of my mouth.”
That brief, groggy moment led to the song “Death,” one of three tracks on SICK/DEATH/AFTER, the new EP from avant-pop trio wyd (a 2019 Band to Watch). Over the course of months, through a combination of artistic exploration and circumstantial serendipity, “Death” took singer/guitarist Fratianne, singer/multi-instrumentalist/engineer Maddy Ciampa and drummer Courtney Hall on a journey that would incorporate a legendary Memphis soul producer, Bruno Mars' trombone player and a phonograph recording booth at Nashville's Third Man Records.
While on tour last summer, wyd stopped in Memphis to play a show at Bar DKDC. After the gig, the bandmates loaded up their gear and headed out, but later realized they were missing one XLR cable, so they went back to the venue to retrieve it.
“This guy walked in, dressed to the nines,” Fratianne said. “We were like, ‘Whoa. Who's that?'”
The door man filled them in: It was Boo Mitchell of the famed Royal Studios, where Al Green recorded hit after hit in the 1970s, along with Ann Peebles, Bobby Blue Bland and modern-day hit makers like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk” came out of a Royal session).
Mitchell happened to notice Ciampa carrying the XLR cable.“She had it wrapped around her shoulder really perfectly,” Fratianne said, “and he was like, ‘You must be an engineer. That's a really nice wrap job.'”
The musicians exchanged numbers with Mitchell, and Ciampa ended up traveling to Memphis twice for an engineering assistantship at Royal Studios. Meanwhile, wyd continued working on “Death,” which started as a stripped-down guitar and vocal track initially intended as a demo. That first take was too good to discard, but it needed something more.
“I felt like there was something else to say,” said Fratianne, who added a guitar solo after the reprise. But still something was missing.
“Then I was like, ‘I feel like “Death” could use some horns,'” said Ciampa, who called her new friend Boo Mitchell. “I was like, ‘Boo, can you write an arrangement for this song?' He's like, ‘I could, but I saw Bruno Mars the other day, and horns came on, and I was like, ‘Damn, that's a Memphis sound!' He realized he knew the dude playing — this guy named Kameron Whalum, a trombone player that tours with Bruno Mars. … So he talked to Kameron, and he wrote an arrangement for ‘Death,' and then Boo recorded it. So that horn section is a Memphis horn section.”
To join the first section of the song with the guitar/horn outro, wyd dipped into a past trip to Nashville, where the band made use of the phonograph recording booth at Jack White's Third Man Records to make a scratchy, lo-fi demo of “Death.” The musicians took the vinyl to Hall's fiance, Joe Camerlengo (of Blanket Boys, Van Dale, Classical Baby), who sent the recording from a small, suitcase-style record player to a tape machine. In the process, the record started skipping in bizarre, fascinating ways.
“It was the kind of stuff you couldn't do intentionally but was so perfectly weird that we were sitting there, like, ‘Is the devil in here right now? Do we need to hide?'” Fratianne said. “So we re-sampled that and layered it into the track.”
The origin story of “Death” is only slightly abnormal for wyd. Fratianne and Ciampa started the band as an experimental studio project, and from the beginning the pair followed their instincts and whims to craft captivating, densely layered music (one song contains 140 tracks). Sometimes inspiration comes from random objects in Ciampa's studio.
“Usually the initial idea is just Carly finding shit and banging on it,” Ciampa said.
“For one of the tracks we're working on now, we tracked some auxiliary percussion with a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, a can of LaCroix and a bottle of tequila that had some ribbed edges on it,” Fratianne said.
Both wyd co-founders also pointed to the addition of Hall on drums as a creative boon. On EP track “After,” for instance, Fratianne changed the entire key of the song based on the distinctive beat Hall came up with. And onstage, Hall is the lynchpin in transforming wyd from an insular studio project to a visceral, communal experience.
“When we play live, that's when I get to shine. I get to be more of a creative force in the band,” said Hall, who will sit behind the kit during a slot at the forthcoming Nelsonville Music Festival and at a June 15 Rumba Cafe show with Night Moves. “It's packaging ‘wyd the production' as ‘wyd the rock band' — a show that you wanna go see, and not this highly produced, glamorized version of what you're listening to on your phone.”
SICK/DEATH/AFTER is out digitally now, and eventually on cassette, and the trio is also at work on more new material (including a cover of Drake's “Passionfruit”). But Ciampa hesitated to put edges on what will come next.
“We're experimenting with weird thoughts,” she said.