The project is special even for veteran producer/engineer Paul Mahern, who has worked on recordings with far higher profiles.
'I actually think it's one of the better records I've ever made,' he says.
But no one has more hanging on this disc than bandleader Vess Ruhtenberg, the singer-songwriter and ubiquitous session guitarist who has been a presence on the Indiana music scene for half of his life. He has spent nearly two decades playing punk rock and power pop across the Western world, gaining indie credibility and sometimes critical acclaim but never any commercial response to speak of.
Now in his mid-30s, Ruhtenberg hears the clock ticking. 'It's not exactly cool to be an old guy in rock 'n' roll,' he says.
And he's not afraid to admit it: He's ready to sell some records. 'It's not a crime,' Ruhtenberg says. 'I've been poor for a good long while, and I think I've paid my debt to society.'
Sharing that dream are the other two pieces of The Pieces: Devon Ashley, a drummer and vocalist of precision and soul, and Heidi Gluck, a petite 23 year old who sings and plays bass and keyboards as if nobody told her it's supposed to be difficult.
After joining forces little more than a year ago and developing their sound on a series of experimental EPs, the trio released a 12-song disc on April 1. Now, for them and their label, the big push is under way.
The parties involved say the product - a self-titled collection of bright pop gems and understated R&B ballads, stacked with sugary vocals and crunchy guitars - lives up to its mission.
Ruhtenberg, best known as guitarist for the Zero Boys and Datura Seeds and leader of the United States Three, said the material represents his first deliberate effort to address an audience beyond his circle of hipster friends. 'In the United States Three, we were pleasing ourselves. I was making myself happy,' he says. 'But in this project, the idea was always, 'We're facing the world.' We're not turned inward, we're turned outward. We're sharing something with the world, and we want them to respond. 'Selling out was never an option, but selling to people was.'
Gluck elaborates, 'Not that we made radio music, but once we heard how much money and effort was going to be put behind this record, we just had to make something really great, because we knew what the stakes were.'
Ashley, whose presence in the band is both unlikely and crucial, is equally proud of the results.
'If I didn't like this record, if I felt like I was making a big compromise, I wouldn't do it,' he says.
Actually, neither the band members nor their label would mind if these songs became radio music. Benchmark initially sent the disc to nearly 700 stations nationwide, most of them college-affiliated. Between the in-house staff and a contracted independent promoter, someone calls each of those stations every week to nudge that disc onto the airwaves, Baker says.
'We're busting our butts, to say the least,' he says.
More than 100 stations have added the album so far, sparking a No. 85 debut last month on the College Music Journal's Top 200 list.
'That's a big step in our second week out,' Baker says. 'Basically, we're just trying to build an underground buzz for the band right now. A lot of that starts at the college and independent level.'
This month the first single, a riff-happy alt-pop tune called 'The Wait,' will be touted nationwide to new-music specialty shows, such as the local Hangover CafÈ or Edge of the X.
Next, Benchmark plans to work market by market, hitting commercial AAA and adult contemporary stations with 'Soda Machine,' a folky number, and 'Lauren,' an irresistibly groovy tune with Gluck on lead vocals that would nicely fit a Sheryl Crow-shaped niche on a playlist.
The Pieces are a rock band at heart, but the target market skews a little older for a disc like this one, Baker says.
'It's not really a modern-rock record. That's for the Stainds and Nickelbacks of the world,' he says. 'It wasn't made with great big thick driving guitars and muddy vocals. It's kind of like a breath of fresh air.'
Benchmark has made a splash in the city with its special events. The Midwest Music Summit, a combination industry convention and band showcase patterned after South by Southwest in Austin and CMJ Music Marathon in New York, is gearing up for its third year. The local Battle of the Bands is now beginning its second year, with weekly competitions at the Patio.
All that effort was leading up to The Pieces' debut, Baker says, which will pave the way for other local releases to follow.
'This is the one,' he says. 'We've laid the groundwork with the Midwest Music Summit and the Battle of the Bands and other things to keep our name out there and continue to support local music and try to drive interest in the city, but we've always known that our goal is to be putting out records.' In May, The Pieces will tour Europe for two weeks, opening for Evan Dando. After that, they plan to play North America as long and as hard as necessary, hitting both coasts and everything in between.
Behind their enthusiasm is the sense that the timing is right and all the pieces, pardon the pun, are in place.
'With all this murkiness on the radio now,' Ruhtenberg says, 'I just thought, 'Here's our real chance to shine.''
For three North Americans of similar age and disposition, The Pieces are a disparate lot.
Ruhtenberg comes from a family of artsy Europeans who fled the Nazi occupation. Before graduating from Broad Ripple High School, he attended private Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. 'They kicked me out for being on drugs, and I wasn't,' he insists. 'It was the first time I learned that life wasn't fair, and that was a valuable lesson.'
Gluck grew up on a wheat and barley farm in rural Manitoba, Canada, where the local radio station played dated Top 40. Her parents were country music fans, Mom a musician and tone-deaf Dad a DJ at barn dances. Staying home and marrying a farmer was nearly as attractive an option as leaving town and joining a rock band, she says. She's glad her brother is taking over the family farm.
'It's nice, because I'll always be able to go back,' she says.
Unlike Ruhtenberg, whose career is pervaded by a Beatles influence, Gluck initially knew the Fab Four's tunes only from a piano songbook.
'When I met Heidi, she didn't seem to know anything about the Beatles, but she seemed to recognize all their songs,' Ruhtenberg says.
Later, Gluck got turned on to more idiosyncratic artists like Joni Mitchell and Perry Farrell. She went to study music at the University of North Dakota but dropped out when the music took over. She and Ruhtenberg met at a show, when he was a stage technician for Dando and her band was the opening act. Eventually, she moved to Indiana to collaborate.
The surprise member of this trio is Ashley, an African-American who spent his early years in the historic but sketchy Near Westside neighborhood of Haughville. Taking up drums at age 7, he was influenced somewhat by an uncle's taste for Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Graham Central Station, but primarily by years spent playing music in church.
'Gospel music is like rock 'n' roll. Everybody's playing hard,' Ashley says. 'People probably wonder how I know how to play this music, and I don't really know, other than gospel, that background.' Though his flawless drumming has lent a funk or hip-hop element to many live and studio projects, Ashley has never before been a full-time member of a rock band. 'When I hooked up with Vess, I hadn't necessarily played with singer-songwriters before,' he says.
Mahern says the drumming is a key factor distinguishing The Pieces from Ruhtenberg's previous bands.
'There is very consciously an R&B element, and that, of course, is Devon,' Mahern says. 'The drummers that Vess has worked with in the past are great drummers, but they're more rock drummers, and Devon has a little bit more of a modern urban and traditional R&B feel.'
Ashley and Ruhtenberg initially met while working on someone else's studio project and vowed politely to play together someday. Later, as Ruhtenberg and Gluck began to assemble a repertoire, they couldn't seem to keep a drummer on board. Meanwhile, Ashley was asking around for gigs.
When they came together in late 2001, everything clicked. 'They're lucky they found each other and they all get along, because they really have a unique set of skills between the three of them,' Mahern says.
'It just doesn't work unless it's the three of us,' Ruhtenberg says. 'I haven't been in a band like that in a very, very long time, where everyone is so important that I can't imagine the band with a different person.'
The combination of backgrounds and personalities is just as important as the musical skills. One need only glance at a publicity photo to see how The Pieces stand out from the crowd, with their elemental, Mod Squad-style visual appeal. Mahern recalls an early conversation with one of the Benchmark partners, who asked if the band had any obvious hook that would be helpful in promoting its work.
'As we were talking about it, he was asking me, for marketing reasons, what's special about the band,' Mahern says. 'I was like, 'Dude, it's a black guy, a white guy and a white girl. What more do you need to know?' This is custom made for our modern times. What more hook do you need? It's all hook.'
Queen and Yoga
The Pieces began recording together with a series of six homemade EPs, dubbing just 35 copies of each. The process, which took most of a year from 2001 to 2002, was as much an internal team-building exercise as it was a product for public consumption.
'It was like an album and a band in progress,' Ruhtenberg says. 'It was all done by hand,' adds Darren Strecker, graphic designer for that project and the new album. 'We all got together every time we did it and cut them out and folded them up.'
The songs, some of which appear in different form on the album, were moody and experimental, traits shared with the third and last United States Three album, 1999's Watergate. After a year of evolution, The Pieces decided they were ready to go for broke, though the eventual product would be much sunnier and more accessible.
Ruhtenberg's earnest voice is the lead on most songs, and his name appears on all the cuts, with the bandmates sharing credit on a couple. The lyrics are witty and relationship-oriented, though sometimes obscure. Gluck's contributions are many: McCartney-esque bass lines, lap steel glissandos, gentle electric piano and eerie washes of organ, Moog and Mellotron. She and Ashley recorded the backing vocals simultaneously, around a single microphone. Joshua Silbert and Demian Hostetter of Johnny Socko contributed sax and trumpet, respectively, on two cuts.
Easy reference points span the power-pop spectrum from the confections of Squeeze and Matthew Sweet to the harder edge of Cheap Trick and Big Star. A pleasantly surprising centerpiece is a back-to-back set of minimalist R&B lullabies, 'I Just Wanna Be Loved' and 'Good Question.' Even more surprising is the influence of a certain pretentious, operatic hard-rock band.
'We kind of used Queen as a template for this record,' Ruhtenberg says, and he's not joking. 'It's just a band that we can all agree on that we really like. It kind of became equal ground: 'Well, let's make a decision. What would Queen do? WWQD?''
One reflection of that philosophy was Ruhtenberg's return to the guitar, a tool he had grown bored with. Paul Mahern, a longtime friend and collaborator, liked the band's EPs but was shocked to hear the lack of six-string action. 'I was like, 'Why have you forsaken the guitar? It's what you do, and you need to re-embrace it.' And that's all it took,' Mahern recalls. 'So he comes back, and he's got this whole Queen thing going on.'
Aside from occasional outbursts of harmonized guitar leads, ý la Queen's Brian May, The Pieces were inspired by the British band's ability to make elaborate, ambitious records without losing the rock 'n' roll excitement.
Another factor was a series of individualized pep talks from Mahern, whom The Pieces considered a leader and unofficial fourth member on the project. Mahern likens a good record producer to a basketball coach. 'I had worked with everybody in the band before on other projects, so I had a really good sense of what their talents were,' he says. Only later did the band members realize they were being manipulated - for the better. 'Psychologically, he played us a little bit, but it worked,' Ruhtenberg says. 'He'd kind of jab a little bit, but he'd kind of get you going.'
Then there was the whole yoga thing. Kundalini yoga, a spiritual practice that involves meditation and breathing exercises, has been a growing interest for Mahern. Friends and clients say the technique has brought him a new clarity. Some, like drummer Kenny Aronoff, have taken up the practice themselves, as have Gluck and Ruhtenberg.
'When we were doing vocals, we'd chant for a couple hours first,' Ruhtenberg says. 'Part of me would almost want to keep it a secret and not mention it, but it was a big part of it.'
On projects like this one, in which the yoga plays an integral role, Mahern's production work is credited to 'Mahan Kalpa,' a spiritual name given to him by an Indian yogi. He doesn't always use the name.
'I'm in the process of mixing a John Mellencamp record, and it will say 'Paul Mahern' on it,'' he says. 'It's not being made in the same method, and therefore it's not being made by Mahan Kalpa.'
Ashley chose not to join in the yoga sessions.
'I don't know exactly what he thought,' Mahern says, 'but whatever he was doing was working anyway.'
The drummer says he has his own form of meditation, which involves video technology: 'I play NBA Live.'
For musicians, Mahern says, spiritual practices like yoga can help synchronize mind and body and unleash that intangible quality that makes for great work.
'Every musical or artistic endeavor is part math and part magic,' he says. 'We're not taught, in Western society, methods to stimulate our magic. What I've learned through this kundalini yoga is that there are solid methods that you can use that will help you exercise your magic.' Heady stuff, to be sure. But if ever there was a time to pull out all the stops, Ruhtenberg says, this is it.
'I just feel like we could bust through,' he says. 'We could maybe - I don't know - 'save radio' or whatever noble act you want to call it.
'It just doesn't seem like it's impossible.' Scott Hall is music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org.