Neutral Uke Hotel: A Visit to Daytrotter!

Daytrotter (read more about them on Wikipedia) has been one of my favorite web sites since, about 4 years ago, Andy and Jen from Band In Boston (another really great sessions site) told me about how they modeled their Flophouse Sessions after the Daytrotter Sessions. That first time I visited Daytrotter’s site, I pretty much downloaded every session they had. I really loved discovering new artists as well as getting a real taste of what artists who had relied a little more on studio production could and would do in a setting with no overdubs. I discovered that I loved some bands I had dismissed and that some bands I loved weren’t really very good in that context. Regardless, every session was a fascinating case study in musicianship, songwriting, and performance.

I’ve dreamed for years of paying a visit to Rock Island, IL to set foot in The Horseshack and when I finally had the opportunity last month, I was not disappointed. Shawn Fogel, Josh Cohen, and I had been touring for a few days prior as Neutral Uke Hotel, leaders of Neutral Milk Hotel sing-a-longs wherever we go (the band also includes Matt Girard and Andrew Laubacher).  We’re all quite busy with numerous musical projects and various forms of employment, so the performances end up being Shawn accompanied by whatever set of the rest of us is available.  For our visit to Daytrotter, the three of us were Neutral Uke Hotel.  While we love playing the brilliant songs of Neutral Milk Hotel, we really haven’t totally come to terms with performing the songs outside the context of a live sing-a-long.  We did have a great first taste of it when we did the Take Away Session back in June, but it still feels kind of strange to play the songs without an audience.

So, it had been arranged that we’d pop in to record the Daytrotter Session and record a couple of Neutral Uke Hotel (or Neutral Milk Hotel, to be precise) songs, but then also do some original material as well with stripped-down instrumentation and reduced-sized bands.  The staff were super nice and really friendly about accommodating all of our needs in terms of gear and gear switching as we rotated through permutations of the bands of the members that make up NUH.  We were given a two-hour time constraint and decided it would be totally feasible to get set up and crank through two Neutral Uke Hotel songs, two Golden Bloom songs, and two The Motion Sick songs.

The instrumentation ended up as follows:
NUH – Shawn – electric tenor ukulele, vocals; Josh – Melodica; me – baritone ukulele

Golden Bloom – Shawn – electric guitar, vocals; Josh – electric bass

The Motion Sick – me – baritone ukulele, vocals; Shawn – drums, vocals on “30 Lives” and electric tenor ukulele, vocals on “Winged Bicycle”; Josh – organ on “30 Lives” and melodica on “Winged Bicycle” – I think maybe we got Josh to sing a little bit on “Winged” as well

From Daytrotter’s “about” page:
“These fine people – as they’re traveling through America’s heartland – take two hours out of their travels between shows to stop in for a Daytrotter Session at The Horseshack in downtown Rock Island, Ill. The name of the city is not ironic. They use borrowed instruments, play with their touring mates, utilize an often unkempt toilet, eat some food and then cram back into their vans for the last half of the drive. What they leave behind is a pile of ashes, sometimes a forgotten stocking hat and four absolutely collectible songs that often impart on whomever listens to them the true intensity that these musicians put into their art, sometimes with more clarity than they do when they have months to tinker with overdubs and experiments. These songs are them as they are on that particular day, on that particular tour – dirty and alive. We want you to make this your new home as it is ours. We promise that you will love it here.”

I think their colorful description captures precisely what the experience was…a group of musicians touring together performing songs as they existed at that very moment, in that very configuration.  I sort of wondered what it might feel like to play songs by The Motion Sick in this setting without the rest of the band.  While none of the other members of The Motion Sick were present, for that moment, this was the act traveling around playing a couple of songs by The Motion Sick each night as part of the NUH tour.  This was the representation of The Motion Sick that was active in the world and it was interesting to record a session capturing that brief representation of the band.  The performance also embodied parts developed by everyone in the band and was an expression of each person’s contribution to the music.

Of course, the Daytrotter representation only exists within the context of Neutral Uke Hotel, which I find even more interesting.  What fascinates me about the sub-band, super-band hierarchy of sorts in this case is that Neutral Uke Hotel really allowed me an opportunity to work with Shawn and Josh in collaborative ways that would otherwise be difficult.  The fun we had at the Daytrotter recording session was a beautiful documentation of that experience and the inclusion of six songs that would normally fall under three unique artist names just highlights the joy and the success of the umbrella.

Here’s a video preview of our time in the studio.  We very much look forward to the release of the audio sessions: