What began as lo-fi recordings about a drunk fish became a new Woosley Band LP

Several years ago, singer/guitarist Sean Woosley began recording songs on a Tascam four-track at home and later posted them online as albums that serve as chapters in the saga of Al Keys, an alcoholic former boxer who also happens to be a fish.

“I was getting really out there. It’s very abstract. It’s ridiculous,” Woosley said. “One day while they're cleaning the fish bowl, Al Keys realizes that he lives in a fish bowl, and then he thinks that he's the only one in Dry Town and knows it. … He finds a portal and goes to the other side, and he's taking care of his heroin-addled girlfriend [Miss Guided Isolation], who lives at the hotel.”

Keys also avenges the death of his father, Russ, who was killed by a landshark that also happened to be named Russ. 

Some of those songs — “Courted and Escorted,” “Wishing Your Days Away,” “You Won’t Be Taking My Sunshine” and others — made their way onto the just-released Woosley Band album, I Hope That You Find Love, which the group will celebrate with a release show at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, Dec. 7, alongside Happy Chichester and Megan Palmer.

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But the new record is by no means a concept album. Listeners probably won’t pick up on the fish or the fish bowl or Russ (the father or the landshark) — partially because the songs have changed so much since the four-track recordings, but also because they were intended to be launching points all along.

“I think I come up with those ideas just to inspire some titles and some songs. Those songs obviously aren't just about that. That was kind of a vehicle,” Woosley said. “It's like, ‘How can you write 60 songs in one year?’ Well, come up with some ridiculous concept, and then you realize that these titles just kind of make themselves. Because, I mean, to come up with that, you gotta be really stoned in the first place.”

For the new album, which features the core trio of Woosley, drummer/engineer/producer Paul Abbott and guitarist Paul Gault, Woosley surrendered much of the album’s sonic direction to Abbott. “He's very opinionated, but I like that he's just open and honest,” Woosley said. “I was like, ‘I asked you to do this, so I'm not gonna tell you what to do.’”

Barry Hensley adds pedal steel to most of the tracks (he recorded his parts on his own in Portland, Oregon), and bass players include Andy Hindman, J.R. Fisher and Michael Clark (Dan Spurgeon, who played alongside Woosley in Jenny Mae’s band, will play bass at the release show), while well-known names such as Lydia Loveless, Todd May and Marcy Mays make guest contributions, as well.

For a time, the Woosley Band consisted of just Woosley, Mike Travis and Ben Lamb, and that trio still performs together, at times. “It's almost like blues or jazz. These are the lifers. These guys are always gonna play,” he said.

Being a lifer, Woosley approaches performing with a different mindset than he did in his younger days. “I try to make my sets sound a lot better,” he said. “I got really sloppy, especially when we were playing out a lot, around the early 2000s. I wanted to see if I could black out on stage. And I don't know if that was just this Dayton side of me and Guided By Voices and all that, just to see if I could do it. Or William Blake. Or Jenny Mae, because she thought of herself as my mentor … but she notoriously had hit-or-miss shows. And so I think once I went through that period for a while, now I'm more apt to be like, ‘You know what? Don't even get your first drink till you get onstage.’ And then if I play a great show, have at it and then get an Uber.” 

Reflecting on I Hope That You Find Love, Woosley thinks less of Al Keys and more about the way those lo-fi, homespun ideas transformed into something bigger. “Four-track is not for everybody. … It's almost like, ‘OK, Dad. Maybe get out of the basement and play a real tune,’” said Woosley, who wanted the record to simply sound good, with listenable, sing-along songs that remind him of his onetime friend, bandmate and songwriting mentor. “It's almost like a thank-you or a tribute to Jenny Mae.”