Recording a new album is a long-term labor of love for the band The Outhouse. For one thing, it’s built on more than a decade of collaborative experience between three musicians deeply rooted in the Lancaster music scene. But the trio of Ryan Overly on drums, Evan Gentry on bass and vocalist Rob Seitz didn’t have to spend too much time recording their studio debut, Thunder.
Overly’s brother, Kirk, who has professional recording experience, produced Thunder in a studio near Fredericksburg, VA, in 2012. The whole thing, Overly says, was done in one 12-hour session, with eight to nine “instant tracks” created in three takes or less.
“We found that [process] really unique,” Overly says, discussing the band’s recording while sitting in a cafe in Lancaster.
Thunder, which came out in 2012, is on sale at local music shops, including Mr. Suit Records and BohoZone as a limited edition series of 100 vinyl albums featuring hand screen-printed graphics by The Left Hand Printing Co. A digital version of the album is available through the music website Bandcamp.
Take the album for a spin, and you get a sense of the energy and edge of the band’s live shows – interesting rhythms, experimental bass work without the assistance of an electric or acoustic guitar and Seitz’s vocals and harmonica.
Overly details how The Outhouse emerged, citing a couple of years in the mid-oughts where he helped to run a local event called “Band-a-Loop” on Friday nights. Out of that weekly event, a few musical relationships and projects came into being.
Overly worked on his “dancy, hip-hop influenced, noise funk” in several bands, while Seitz came to The Outhouse with a range of experiences, including his role as half of the theatrical vocal duo Ghost Orchid, along with Mary Alkons (full disclosure: I played bass for Ghost Orchid). Gentry rounded out The Outhouse’s lineup when he signed up to play a gig at the Chameleon Club’s Lizard Lounge; Overly says the addition of a bass player opened up the band’s sound.
The tracks on Thunder are based on specific music philosophies and techniques the band has developed in its live shows. Overly describes a process he calls “fishing,” where the band will focus on a particular part of an audience, adjusting the beat to achieve a desired effect of movement.
“Most of what we’ve done is born out of improv,” Overly says. “And we’ve crafted music to facilitate audience participation.”
As far as the band’s lyrics, Seitz talks about bringing a creative presence to The Outhouse in the form of poetry. Instead of coming to a practice with fully developed lyrics, Seitz says he builds on an idea over time – starting with a line – and visualizes a story. One example is “The Fire,” which Seitz says started with the story of crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey for a gig. Over the course of several months, he developed a much bigger story about a crumbling society and the hope for rebuilding it.
One of the biggest things that comes through while speaking to the members of The Outhouse is that while many of their concepts are based on being versatile, it’s all a very deliberate process. Overly and Gentry talk about creating song “modules” that allow for a quick re-formatting of a performance, turning a three to five minute radio track into a 15 to 20 minute live jam.
Overly says many new songs emerge during practice when the band gets tired of going over old grooves. And, Gentry adds, because of the band’s trust between members and their history of working together, it’s often easy to communicate on stage without traditional cues.
While their approach to live and recorded music is interesting, you can’t describe what The Outhouse is all about without taking a look at their commitment to social causes. The three members each talk about a number of tracks that weren’t included on Thunder, including two titled “Riverdale” and “Grab the Gavel.”
“Riverdale” has a particular history, based on the struggles of a community looking to avoid being bought out and taken over by an energy company for fracking – the controversial gas and oil extraction practice that environmentalists say is poisoning groundwater all over the country. The band members reminisce about visiting a fracking site in Pennsylvania during an 11-day activist “occupation.” The Outhouse played “Riverdale” live while locals built barriers to try and stop the fracking company. Gentry says the performance was “surreal,” while Overly called the night a “direct reflection” from their typical gigs and parties on Friday or Saturday nights.
The other song, “Grab the Gavel,” is based on an event where an anti-fracking activist took the wooden mallet from a meeting where local government officials were ignoring residents, exploring issues of power and control in communities. The Outhouse’s local show this month is actually a fundraiser for the Shalefield Organizing Committee (SOC), which works to protect human and ecological rights for those living in the shalefields of Pennsylvania.
Moving from the cafe to the band’s West King Street rehearsal space, The Outhouse break out their instruments and vintage sound system – including Kustom tower speakers – going into a live rendition of “The Fire” that features top-chord bass, slow ascending and descending bars and an ambient single-note harmonica sound.
From there, they tackle the title track from their first album, Thunder – a song Overly says was the last one recorded and where the looseness of the band’s mood comes through. The band also powered through their activist tracks, “Riverdale” and “Grab the Gavel.”
As I sit back and listen, I can feel a dynamism and steady, marshaled energy that must have come through when they first performed the song for the anti-fracking activists. Music fans of my generation might associate some of the stoic sounds and transitional audio narratives with those of old Rage Against the Machine tracks that showed pre-millennials how rock can combine with rage. Some of the minimal interstices carried by the drum/bass combo also felt like the stripped-down sound of other “cause music” like Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett playing on Diesel and Dust.
However, the band’s sound is uniquely their own – a sound that translates well to the stage. On “Grab the Gavel,” you get a sense of theatrical dread as Seitz howls the lyrics, “Grab the gavel and run!”
And going through the rest of The Outhouse’s catalogue of songs, you hear a lot more of the narrative sound, from the pared-down riffs on “Bloodhound” to tracks like “Skin,” where Sietz’s stories come through almost like spoken word poetry. Other tracks, like “Chromatic,” rely more on ambient sound and tone. Thunder takes the listener a lot of places, ending up with the live energy of the title track.