First time’s a charm for Gerycz/Powers/Rolin trio
‘Beacon,’ initially released on cassette in March 2020, gets a newly mixed vinyl release this week
The life cycle of Beacon, the full-length debut from musicians Jen Powers, Matthew Rolin and Jayson Gerycz, stretches the entirety of the pandemic.
Recorded in a single day late in December 2019, the album was initially released on unmixed cassette in March 2020, right as COVID-19 hit the U.S., a development that forced the trio to cancel a planned show in Cleveland opening for Laraaji, a multi-instrumental ambient artist who has recorded alongside Brian Eno. Now, a year later, with a coronavirus vaccine being distributed and a sense the pandemic could finally be entering into its last stages, the newly mixed record is getting a vinyl release via Centripetal Force/Cardinal Fuzz on Friday, March 12.
“Looking back on Beacon, it’s interesting to see it in a new light now,” said Powers, who joined Rolin for an early March Zoom interview. (The musical couple also performs together as Powers/Rolin Duo, which has a new record, Strange Fortune, coming this spring on Astral Editions).
This "new light" was further bent and colored by a second trio recording session that took place in October 2020, when Rolin and Powers stayed in Gerycz’s Cleveland home while attending a family member’s wedding. At the time, the three musicians, all of whom had extensive tour plans obliterated by COVID, were equal parts stir crazy and mentally exhausted by the pandemic, and those tensions exhibit themselves in the recordings, the results of which will surface on a forthcoming, still-under-wraps trio record.
“We were all feeling pretty fried, and we were all very pro- not going to friend’s houses and pro- not going to restaurants, so we were all very hungry for any interaction with friends,” said Powers, who plays hammered dulcimer, an instrument she picked up on a whim six years ago. “And I think that general anxiety carried through the second session. There’s a tension there, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. It felt more like a catharsis.”
The comparatively tense second go-round contrasted heavily with the looser, more playful sessions that yielded Beacon, which essentially serves as a field recording of the musical introduction between the three musicians, all of whom had at least some degree of familiarity with one another entering into recording. Guitarist Rolin, in particular, had played extensively with both Powers and Gerycz, a drummer best known for his work in indie-rock pummelers Cloud Nothings.
“I’m originally from Cleveland, so I’ve known [Jayson] forever, because we were all in 30 bands and would play together all of the time,” Rolin said. “But, honestly, when we did Beacon, there was no name for it. There were no expectations. Nothing. We were just going up there to jam with our friend Jayson.”
This lack of expectation lent a sense of weightlessness to the sessions that bleeds into songs like “Uphill March,” a percolating wonder of finger-picked acoustic guitar and billowing dulcimer that manages to suggest the sensation of primitive stars being born.
Befitting the casual nature of session, at one point late in the day the trio roused Cloud Nothings singer Dylan Baldi, who was in town visiting family for the holidays and sleeping up the stairs from where the three were recording in Gerycz’s house, inviting him to play saxophone on the chiming, album-closing “Velvet.” “I think on the last song with Dylan we were like, ‘OK, just play one note for a long time,’ and that was it,” Rolin said, and laughed. After he finished recording his part, Baldi retired upstairs and resumed sleeping.
Throughout the recording, Gerycz, one of the better drummers in modern rock and someone who generally comes on like he’s part wolverine when playing with the more aggressive Cloud Nothings, shades and colors the tracks rather than forcing the action, blending into the proceedings as seamlessly as a veteran character actor.
“Jayson never once plays a 4/4 [beat], and he never really keeps the time, which is generally what the drummer does,” said Rolin, who also has a new solo guitar record, The Dreaming Bridge, coming April 30 via Feeding Tube Records.
“It was interesting to hear him be more of an impressionist than a time machine or a metronome,” Powers said.
“He doesn’t even hit the kick drum on the entire record,” Rolin said.
While displaying a more subtle touch, the presence of Gerycz still proved enough to shake up the musical dynamic developed between Powers and Rolin, in which one will generally create textures while the other builds a melody, roles they intuitively trade off and on while performing.
“Adding that third person, I think it just opened up so many possibilities and combinations,” said Powers, who is drawn to the uncertainty of improvisational music, as well as the idea that the next step into the unknown could yield something entirely unforeseen. “It’s really freeing and it’s exciting and the potential risk of it not working out is more than worth it.”
“And if you’re recording improv music and it ends up sounding bad, then just don’t put it out,” Rolin said. “You can erase the tape and record again, and maybe that next time it’ll sound cool. We just got really lucky, I think, that it sounded good the first time.”