It all starts with the foundation, in music as in architecture. Or at least when Kate Lamont and Vess Ruhtenberg talk music.
We excerpt here from an informal lecture by Ruhtenberg, a student of both music and architecture, delivered from a control room couch at his Queensize Studios: "In architecture, as in music, you have a plinth or a bass line that everything sits on and stabilizes. Then, on top, you have sibilant features - tambourine, a line of flagpoles, a frieze or cymbals. In the middle we have windows and guitars or columns and piano. It's structure either way: a stack of bricks or frequencies."
These architectural comparisons might seem a little arcane, but they work for Lamont, the singer-songwriter heard in projects like Blueprintmusic and Mab Lab, and Ruhtenberg, a co-owner and producer at Queensize Studios. Both have spent time in architecture schools, and remain passionate about, for instance, the vintage furniture on sale at Midland Arts and Antique. They joke about moving Queensize to Midland; there's plenty of empty space, after all.
But don't get Ruhtenberg started on other topics: magnetism as a mysterious force of the universe, ever superior to the man-made ones and zeros of digital; Todd Rundgren as God in this analog cosmology.
Over the last year and half, the two have had plenty of time to philosophize while working together at Queensize on Lamont's first solo record, After the Traffic
, which will be released later this month on local digital label Audio Reconnaissance.
It's a bit difficult to find Queensize. First you search for a crumbing office building somewhere along East Washington Street. It's hidden among a police station, a park, a bunch of glorified Quonset huts; if you hit the railroad tracks, you've gone too far. Once at the building, you'll note that the doors aren't labeled, making that address nothing more than random numbers.
So it's typically the initiated who find their way in. Once you've found the right door, you're ushered into a spacious but intimate space, dim but not dark, walls hung with sheets to dampen the sound, modernist furniture (original Bauhaus designs) in a reception area, storage space in the shadows lending a mysterious vibe. There are a few other mysterious notes, namely a suit of armor resting against a maroon wall, a slightly menacing sight. The eye is drawn to it first, and it's been photographed for a few stories, including a Spin
profile of Margot and the Nuclear So & So's, who recorded two albums at Queensize.
And there, on a day when both their schedules allow for studio time, you might find Kate and Vess.
Lamont, picking out chords on a grand piano, graceful, elegant, slight but strong. Her elegance not inconsistent with dresses and pearls, but not requiring them either. Her grace and peacefulness embodied in a voice pristine, a step lower than a soprano, able to inspire catharsis in the listener, wringing tears even with commonplace lyrics. And a casualness, pronounced in aloofly drawn-out syllables, that's consistent with her Midwestern, neo-hippie background.
Ruhtenberg, the king of his domain, lording over his Cadillac of a mixing board while seated in his $2,000 modernist chair, his long hair making him seem both preternaturally youthful and hip, a loquacious gabber raised in rock bands and none the worse for wear.
A record in fragments
Vess and Kate, sharing the ease and comfort of a couple, though with a distance that allows them to actually work together. They end up opting for, to use an old saw, a less is more approach, resisting the urge to add guitar or drums when the opportunity arises. The result is a pared-down, stark, ballad-driven record, a little cold, but intimate.
They have time to experiment, so even if they won't use every instrument, on every track, Lamont still wants to work with a few new toys, or tools. A vintage drum machine. A xylophone housed in a side room that's been dubbed the LonPaul Ellrich Memorial Space, after the Queensize co-owner who passed in 2008.
And of course, the keyboards. Lamont uses the grand piano for most of the songs. And an organ provides the bass tracks.
"I did all of the bass tracks on the foot pedals of the organs in here," Lamont says, sitting beside Ruhtenberg on the control room couch. "I'm not an organist, really, so doing it with my feet would have been really awkward and the timing would have been bad. So I got down on the ground or squatted, and hit the keys, sometimes with my fist, sometimes with an open palm. But it sounded really cool; some of the most surprising sounds we got were the bass sounds, because it's subsonic at times. Those organs have such a huge range. That was a surprise to me; that the style of the album was partially shaped by the way that we chose to do the bass."
"It's an intimate record except it has an almost hip-hop low end," Ruhtenberg adds. "I think that's a better way to entertain people, because they're used to having this throbbing low end, so my idea was to create this beautiful cloud low end that, if you have a good stereo, you can hear it well. And everything just floats on that; again, the plinth of the building."
One might liken Ruhtenberg's role to that of a midwife, a wise, empathetic presence helping Lamont to realize her ideas. And sometimes Ruhtenberg knows best: He doesn't always erase when Lamont tells him to erase, because throwaway tracks can be the more revealing or energetic, despite a flubbed note or two, or a musician's temptation to avoid revealing too much.
Besides, it takes more than the click of a mouse to erase a track in the magnetic shrine that is Queensize. Ruhtenberg and Lamont worked with only one reel of tape during the whole of the recording. Sometimes, even when they resolved to erase a track, there still remained a ghost of the previous song on the tape, the slightest hint of a drum beat or bass line that hadn't quite been erased.
You don't realize just how muted, soothing and self-contained Queensize is until you step outside hours later, and are hit by the bright light of the sun, street noise, sirens pealing from the nearby police station.
A wandering life
It's probably unsurprising to hear that Lamont's mom was a singer. Not professionally, but, "When she lived in France as a young adult, she was asked to join a traveling Gypsy band," Lamont says. "They loved her voice so much, they wanted her to be a part of their group. Her eyes still light up when she talks about it, and naturally she had an amazing voice, but didn't take the same path I did."
Born in Birmingham, England, while her father was getting a doctorate, Lamont and her clan moved around the country upon their return to the states, starting in the Northeast, stopping over in Orange City, Iowa, eventually landing in Anderson, Ind., where Lamont stayed until her college years.
Her parents were supportive of her work - and still are, if a bit critical, Mom calling up to say that Kate's criticism of the U.S. is too broad on the new album. Mom taught Lamont and her sister how to sing, and she made her first recordings with her family, Christmas music cassettes.
Lamont spent a year and a half studying architecture at Ball State before transferring to music, but she found neither major appealing. "I was already experimenting with bands, and realized that I could improv and that was way more interesting to me," she says of her time in the music program. "I had already taken twelve years of classical music lessons."
Her first successful band was the Stonepickers, which she formed with longtime collaborator Doug Sauter, with whom she would eventually play in the progressive bluegrass group Blueprintmusic. The Stonepickers started out acoustic, but because, according to Lamont, everyone was into Frank Zappa at the time, it took a turn towards progressive rock, a change which helped them build a fan base and finding paying gigs. Lamont delivered pizza by day and played by night in the two post-college years she spent in Muncie.
In January 1999, she made the move to Indianapolis, where she started working with drummer Eric Brown, now owner and proprietor of Audio Reconnaissance, and with whom she eventually formed the trip-hop ensemble Mab Lab. Brown and Lamont began writing and improvising together that year, working from a small apartment in Woodruff Place they called the lab because, says Lamont, "it was just this little bubble where we couldn't play loud," just a place where the two could experiment with new musical ideas.
Finding peace, feeling good
Lamont remembers being groomed for stardom while with Mab Lab, making trips to Nashville and Champaign-Urbana on spec deals, leaving with nothing more than the tracks they laid down, many of which were collected on the anthology, A Mab Mab Reader
, which served as the group's final testament until last year's reunion.
And with Blueprintmusic, the chamber folk ensemble she formed after the breakup of Mab Lab, "There was this thought that if we keep going or plugging away, eventually we'll be able to do this as a living," although she jokes now that progressive bluegrass isn't the most lucrative genre.
Lamont says she's not jaded with the music industry, but success - as defined by record sales and fame - is no longer her goal. "I feel really successful right now, really happy about the people I get to play with. It just feels good. It feels fine to be here."
And here is often with members of former bands: "It's a real testament to the friendships and musical relationships that I've had in Mab Lab and Blueprint Music that we're all friends and still like to play together."
Could one call Lamont's output eclectic? "Oh yeah, it certainly is. I need it all: gospel, hip-hop, I need the... I'm not really into bluegrass, to be honest...I think (Blueprint) only ever recorded two bluegrass ditties."
She even needed African drumming for a few years: "It taught me so much about rhythm." She learned from Ivory Coast master drummers, and emphasizes that "The Ivory Coast is notorious for having the most ridiculous beats... I don't want any free-flowing drum circle vibe. I wanted to learn exactly what they were doing."
She sat in with a drumming group during the opening of the African galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. She notes that the guys were impressed, not only because a white person was playing those beats, but a woman. "In Africa, the women dance and play certain drums, but they don't play the dunduns. Once again, it was the girl with all the guys, doing the guy stuff."
Passions, new and old
"Earth House was a good excuse for a musical sabbatical," Lamont says. Her job with the collective developed just as Blueprintmusic was falling apart; the band's last show was in June 2008, and the official Earth House re-opening was that September.
As operations manager, she's tried to make Earth House somewhere anyone can take a sabbatical, "a place that practices radical acceptance."
She thinks that by being an outpost for tolerance, empathy, openness, the Earth House can make an impact on the city. "That is a peace movement, because without that radical acceptance, how can there be a peace between people?" Lamont asks.
Lamont, who is a part of the music ministry for the Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church (in which the Earth House is housed) but declines to talk about her specific religious beliefs, emphasizes that the Earth House is a place that feeds the spirit, regardless of what an individual's spiritual needs might be.
Even though she's been busy with the Earth House, Lamont didn't leave music entirely behind during her time off. All the songs on After the Traffic
were composed in the last year and a half.
She's also been busy raising her four-year-old son Noah with her husband Joshua Strodtman. She met Strodtman at another arts collective, United States of Mind, of which Strodtman was a founder, and from which Earth House has inherited some members. (Many of those core members will be gathering this weekend for a United States of Mind reunion at which Lamont is slated to perform.)
Lamont says that Noah has been "a constant source of education and joy and struggle. This new person totally changes your perspective in life, and certainly that's affected some of the music during this time."
She ventures that "There might be a correlation between finally getting the nerve to do solo work and being reinvented as a parent; it certainly lined up that way."
Lamont hesitates to draw a direct corollary between her work in the Earth House Collective and her music. "At the risk of sounding like Bob Dylan, I'm really not trying to say anything other than what I think about things." In other words, she's not trying to change the world with a song, even if she sometimes takes strong political stances, as, for instance, in her denunciation of American over-consumption on After the Traffic
"Visually, I just imagine there must be this surplus of amazing stuff somewhere," Lamont elaborates. "I called it compassion, but it's the idea that all this positive energy doesn't disappear. Somewhere there must be a big surplus, and if we could just drill that."
She recorded one song for the new record at the Earth House, an experience from which she drew the title of her new album. At the intersection of East and New York Streets, the Earth House has the advantage of being close to the city, as well as the attendant disadvantages - traffic noise, for example, during a recording session or a transcendental meditation class.
Thus, when they began each take of "Happy for You," Lamont asked Ruhtenberg if they should start - "After the traffic?" "After the traffic," he replied.
The exchange took on broader meaning when Lamont listened to the tapes. She left it on the record as a brief, revealing moment of studio chatter before the song.
"It represents a pause in this 15 year journey. A lot of things have zoomed past, a lot of lessons learned and then this breathing room; it made sense with the whole album and gelled it together for me."