By Brian Tucker
Before recording songs Brent Holloman said he’ll ask Ben Mabry if he’ll be happy with his lyrics in three years. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop, Mabry thinks about this a pregnant moment then confesses that it probably annoys Holloman. But Mabry says he has difficulty being happy with his work in Beta Radio, a local indie-folk-Americana act releasing Colony of Bees, their first album since 2011’s Seven Sisters.
“There are songs, why did I write those lyrics?” Mabry says. “I think in five years I’ll be happier with these songs than Seven Sisters.
The duo is yin and yang – Mabry is a minimalist, Holloman is a collector. Friends for fifteen plus years, their sensibilities compliment one another, balancing the creative directions. Both are diligent, taking time to get it right, re-recording music without question. Holloman says, “I like to take my time on it because it’s going to last.”
Colony of Bees took two years and three recording spaces to complete. Achieving the timeless sound, the album also taught them a new way to create, especially near the end with the song “Kilimanjaro.” Appropriately, Mabry doesn’t know what it means yet.
“It was probably one of the most fun to write,” Mabry says. “The others were, ‘we have to have it this way.’ This one wrote itself.”
“We had been working on some of these songs, two, three, four years,” Holloman said. “Some were implanted into our head how they should be. It was really hard to break out of that.”
They also didn’t want to make Seven Sisters again. Mabry is somewhat rejecting of his work on that album, more dismissive of himself than those who love songs like “Either Way” or “Hello Lovely.” With Colony of Bees they wanted an album not as accessible as Seven Sisters.
“We knew we didn’t want to write of other (versions of) “Either Way.” I think (now) we want to go a little more in the “Kilimanjaro” direction, perhaps not-as-planned, and let recording dictate where things go. Kind of paint ourselves into a corner because that seemed to work on (“Kilimanjaro”).”
A roaming, textured mini-epic, they wrote three different sections to be combined later. Purposely choosing not to write in a 4/4 time signature, they also wanted to change time signatures and unorthodoxly begin without a melody in mind. The song is Mabry’s favorite.
“It was more, let’s not focus on what the end was going to be and focus on what we can do now,” Holloman says. “Let’s just record it and work our way out of it.”
They’ve got an album that’s more challenging, both to them and the listener (fans will be happy). Though not as catchy, it’s graced with gentler hooks as an album that’s a cross section of feelings. It explores new colors, like Holloman’s restless guitar on “I am Mine” or Mabry’s tender-hearted vocals on album gem “Come on Make it Right.”
Today Mabry received a text from a friend in Palm Springs, California with a video attached that says, ‘I’m in a random clothing shop and “Either Way” is playing. Mabry shows a video taken at a clothing store, sent to him by a friend in Palm Springs, California. The video is of a ceiling speaker, delivering “Either Way” from Seven Sisters, the end result of getting the album on Pandora. The vast majority of fans have been from Pandora and Spotify, some from XM Radio. Mabry thinks the band gets lumped into Americana stations and with folk artists buty also come up on some indie stations.
“We think of ourselves more like indie folk Americana than this new wave of Avett Brothers and all that. I think people think of us along those terms but when we made our first record we’d never heard of Mumford & Sons.”
Internet radio has been good for the band. But with that success (along with contributing music to and appearing in the pilot episode for TV’s Hart of Dixie) Mabry is admittedly nervous about the new album.
“This was a hard record to make,” Mabry says of their need to be in agreement on things. “When we come together we stir it up and it seems to work. Ultimately, this is not the record I would have made on my own. It’s not the record (Holloman) would have made on his own. We’re both trying to guide each other, what our sensibilities are dictating.”
“Colony of Bees” was released on digital and CD formats November 18th. A vinyl edition will follow in February.
How do you look back on the success of “Seven Sisters,” your first album?
Mabry: We just put it out and it started getting traction months later. It was very word of mouth, very grassroots. We both said the reason we’re where we are now in terms of fans is internet radio, Pandora, and later Spotify. I think Pandora has been one of our best friends. There are a lot of people decrying Spotify, but for us it’s been really good.
We didn’t play a lot, didn’t tour. It’s been good for… (internet radio) has done what we could never have been able to do. We hope to tour on this record, which on the last we didn’t. If we didn’t have internet radio sources these copies of (our) records would have been sitting on our shelf. Maybe a 1000 people would have heard it, that’s it.
Mabry: Today got a text from friend in California and he sent this text with a video that says, ‘I’m in a random clothing shop in Palm Springs and “Either Way” is playing.
Were most of songs for this new album Colony of Bees written in a flurry or over time?
Mabry: Some of those are four years old; some written as Seven Sisters was being released. Some are brand new as others were being mixed – like “Kilimanjaro,” The last song we recorded. We wrote that song thinking, we got to do something different. We stayed late one night in our studio and intentionally said, whereas the other songs their very inspired, we said we need to painted ourselves into a corner. We said we’re going to write a song that’s not in a 4/4 time signature, it’s going to change time signatures and normally we have melody in mind before we record.
We started without any melody in mind. We recorded the song in pieces, it was three different movements. We recorded the beginning and then the middle part without knowing how we were going to marry them all together. They were written separately but were able to marry them together. It’s my favorite song on the record.
What does it mean to you?
Mabry: That one, more than any of the others, it was written to have more of a feeling than a meaning. I feel like it elicits, to me at least, it was written in such a flurry, I’m still processing it. The other songs we’ve lived with for years. (Brent’s) lived with them for years. “Sitting Room” is probably the oldest. This is probably a pretentious thing to say, but I don’t fully know what it means. Maybe it’s a good thing.
Is it hard to play live?
Mabry: I don’t know. We haven’t done it. All these songs, a lot of them would be hard to play live. We wrote everything, and recorded everything.
Brent: Other than drums, trumpets and violins. The last album we recorded at my house. This one was recorded in three different studios. I moved in the middle of it. We started in my old house. I moved and we recorded some there. The last bit of Amanda’s (Holloman’s wife) vocals was recorded there. And some at his house.
Mabry: The bulk of it was recorded at my house.
Brent: At my house we had a laptop, a self-bought in-box for recording, and inexpensive microphones. The room was a cave, and it was hot. It was downtown.
Mabry: We would have to re-record because we would get noise, we would get trucks. His neighbors were crazy. They would be screaming, I haven’t thought about that in forever. We wouldn’t get anything done.
Brent: Some nights we couldn’t record because they were watching action movies. They would leave the windows open and listen to R&B music really loud, really sexual R&B music. We had to ask them to turn it down.
Mabry: This is our new recording space. We dedicated a whole room to a studio in my house I rent. We outfitted the room with panels and equipment. The studio set-up is a lot of the reason the reason it sounds the way it does. We didn’t have to write songs and then go spend time in someone else’s studio and record. The money we would have spent on recording time we were able to put into our own equipment and be real specific about the sound we wanted.
Brent: Having it set up all the time really helps. I don’t have to wait until my kids go to bed or ask to not have the TV on so we can record.
Mabry: It gets really hot in there in the summer. In the old box, in January, I’d bring shorts and sit in there and sing and sweat.
You haven’t really played live yet?
Brent: Yeah. Just a wedding for a friend.
Do you enjoy being a studio band more than a live band?
Mabry: I definitely like recording. Live shows end. Recordings are forever. There’s something about recording that’s eternal to me.
Brent: Its something I like to take my time on because it’s going to last. Live shows you do them and they’re over.
Mabry: That being said, since the last record I really want to play live. Whatever we have to get the songs heard because I’m really proud of them.
What were concerns around a new record?
Mabry: We knew we didn’t want to do Seven Sisters again. Maybe this one didn’t have as many hooks, but there were other things we wanted to do. We knew we didn’t want to write a bunch of other (versions of) “Either Way.” I think we want to go a little more in the “Kilimanjaro” direction, perhaps not as planned and let the recording dictate where things go. Kind of paint ourselves into a corner because that seemed to work on the last (song).
Brent: I enjoyed it, it’s a fun process. There were a lot more songs for this album (a total of 17) that didn’t make it compared to the last album. Two were some of our favorite songs but didn’t fit on the record. The ones we realized weren’t making it we gave up on I guess, didn’t waste a lot of time on.
Mabry: We had one song we tried so hard on, a couple of them. One was called “The Wrestler” we recorded ten demos of that song and there were so many versions of it because we couldn’t wrangle it to submission. That one pre-dates “Sitting Room.”
Brent: Its one of the oldest songs for the album. Four years ago we were thinking this was the sound of the next record.
Mabry: The next record was going to be about this wrestler, it was a concept thing that never got realized.
Why a wrestler? Metaphorical?
Mabry: I guess. I don’t really have an answer.
The sound, is it what the record is now?
Mabry: Well, there were so many different versions of it. We tried to come back to it when we were at the end with “Kilimanjaro.” We had been coming back to that song for years. Trying and trying and trying. We finally realized this song was never going to be written.
Brent: It had a lot of potential. It had a lot of really good lines in there that were liked. It could have been a short song, it could have been a long song. There were so many options for that song we thought about have a recurring theme throughout the album. This melody for this one song would back over and over again.
How did you get out of that trap with “Kilimanjaro”?
Brent: I don’t think we really got stuck on that song. It was more just let’s not focus on what the end of the song was going to be and focus on what we can do now. Let’s just record it and work our way out of it. It wasn’t like how is this song going to end up. What are we going to be, what are the melody lines, all this additional stuff, like we usually do. We usually try to figure out this is the structure, the length, the melody line, we usually figure that out first.
I think one of the things about this album is that we had been working on some of these songs we had been working on for two, three, four years. Some of them were implanted into our head how they should be. It was really hard to beak out of that.
Mabry: They had been in our consciousness for years before they actually got recorded. Once they did it couldn’t change.
Brent: We had a month left to record. We said, we can be done in a month, and had a friend come over and listen to the whole album and make notes. I think helped to have a new ear on it.
Mabry: I feel like “Kilimanjaro” might not exist if he didn’t come over.
Was this a difficult album to make?
Mabry: This record was a hard record to make. I’m really glad we did it but it was not easy. It took a long time. The reason I think our music is what it is because of our sensibilities. When we come together we stir it up and it seems to work. We both had to be in agreement on stuff.
Brent: There was quite a bit where we were butting heads and how we thought it should be.
Looking back on Seven Sisters what do you think about it, about yourselves?
Mabry: We recorded it in the winter of 2009 and the spring of 2010. Brent didn’t have any kids. There were a lot of question marks in my life. I’m very proud of that record and wouldn’t want to be where I was then. I wouldn’t want to make that record again. We’ve evolved as musicians, as people, and we’re not in that head space anymore.
Interesting, given on the Seven Sisters album cover you were the guy with a gun pointed at you.
Mabry: I think this record is definitely more mature. I don’t know if it’s as easily accessible as Seven Sisters. It’s palatable and it doesn’t challenge people I hope the way Colony of Bees does. Colony of Bees is not as accessible; it requires more of a listener. We also realize if we want people to hear the record we have to have a song with a hook. I hope we’ve got it. We knew we were going to have to have a quarterback on this record.
Is that “East of Tennessee”?
Mabry: Maybe. We hope. Last time it was “Either Way.” We’re nervous about it.
Brent: We thought it was going to be “Brother, Sister” last time (On Seven Sisters) and we had no idea it was going to be “Either Way.” We were actually very surprised that was the song everybody gravitated towards. We thought it was going to be “Brother, Sister” or “Darden Road.”
It seems you’re inclined to be hard on yourself.
Mabry: I do and we talked about working quicker on the next record. “Hello Lovely” I recorded the guitar and wrote lyrics in fifteen minutes on my phone. I emailed it to Brent and he loved it.
Brent: We’ve given ourselves constraints and have been surprised by what we can get done.
Mabry: We talked about giving ourselves a 72 hour window. I’ve proposed to Brent we give ourselves three days to write and record a song and at the end we either keep it or delete it. That’s where we get stuck, that we can come back to it. Giving ourselves the ultimatum of going in there and just deleting the song…
Brent: This is something I can show my kids when I get older. What I’ve done in the past.
Mabry: If no one ever listens to this record, if no one cares about it, the two years won’t have been wasted. There are songs on Seven Sisters I wished I had done differently, but it’s something I wanted to do my whole life. We finally did it. I wanted to write music my whole life and we’re doing it.
Brent: One of the things we differ in is I don’t dwell on things much. I’m a perfectionist but not in dwelling on it until it drives me mad. I can let things go if they’re not perfect.
Mabry: I have a hard time doing that.
Brent: That’s what makes Beta Radio Beta Radio. If it were my album, some of the stuff wouldn’t have been tweeked as much they have been or something. For me, I just like creating in general. I have to be working on something. It’s about creating and moving onto next thing.
Did you consider not pressing physical copies of the album?
Mabry: It crossed my mind but I felt you wanted to do it.
Brent: If something’s not printed it isn’t real to me. I have to have a physical item in my hand. Putting it online, to me, it doesn’t feel like we made an album.
Mabry: Which is another way we’re different. That appeals to me. I’m a minimalist. When I ever get rid of stuff I feel a little bit of euphoria. Brent likes stuff, I like less stuff. I’m whatever the opposite of a collector is. I have three vinyl records, one is ours Beat Radio, one is Steve Martin, and a Johnny Cash I found in the house.
Brent: His house is very minimal. He lives in three different rooms.