Lisa Tenzin-Dolma interviews Trebor "Big T" Lloyd about City Canyons, trans- Atlantic music-making, and generally the story leading up to the release of The Peter Ulrich Collaboration project release - The Painted Caravan
Trebor, can you tell me how you came to set up City Canyons Records?
Many years ago I had been in theatre, an Equity actor and sometime playwright, but had left it all behind to follow, eventually, a career in law, primarily as a copyright/trademark lawyer. While I enjoyed the practice of law, I missed the creative process. So I got together with a musician friend of mine to write a musical about an Oklahoma cowboy who comes to New York City, the East Village of Manhattan in the 1970s and finds a heady, edgy world of love danger and music. The idea was to use a modern, non- Broadway musical idiom of rock and R&B to tell the tale. Early productions of the show, staged concerts in a Tribeca bar, were marvelous. But frankly, the final fully staged production turned out to be very much of a disappointment for a variety of reasons. I didn't find the purely theatrical side of things to be much fun. On the other hand working with the musicians was terrific; I felt a true collaborative spirit. I decided to continue with my work with musicians, which finally led to the establishment of City Canyons Productions and City Canyons Records. And the name of that failed musical? City Canyons of course!
City Canyons is well established now. How long did it take for you to build up the company to the position it has now?
Well bless you for saying that but we were always very much of a micro-label though we've been around for a while. Our first release was Jen Elliott's "The Secret's Out" back in the fall of 2003 so it's been (oh my!) nearly ten years. Later we added Sara Wendt, David Steel, Valerian, ANEMO, The Velmas, The Alrights and, of course, Peter Ulrich. It made for an interesting blend of rock, pop, R&B and world music and we got some quite nice reviews for much of our music and charted well on college radio. However, for a lot of reasons, some business but primarily creative, City Canyons is going in a different direction now. Rather than representing an array of different musical styles, we will strive to speak with a single, unique voice and rather than operating as a record company, we will primarily operate as a production company aiming to license to suitable partners. This is what we have done with our new partner Market Square Records in the UK in the case of our upcoming release The Painted Caravan by The Peter Ulrich Collaboration. There's a hunger in sophisticated music fans for really unique and eclectic voices now. I think that's the reason for the perhaps surprising popularity of bands like Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists, Beirut and others. I've also noticed a resurgence in interest in bands like Dead Can Dance, and the Cocteau Twins that reflects the thirst for really unique music. Peter actually became aware of this quite early on, calling my attention to some of the bands I named above. Luckily Peter Muir, the head honcho at Market Square Records, has an eye and feel for emerging trends, especially those that are of the "back to the future" kind, where music revisits its roots while adding new nuances. Our first step in our new direction, as I just mentioned, is The Painted Caravan – a musical collaboration helmed, of course, by Peter Ulrich and featuring Sara Wendt, David Steele, Jen Elliott and an enormously talented group of featured and session musicians plus some terrific songwriters and a slew of special guests.
You work with quite a range of exceptional musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. How did you gather together your stable of artistes?
In the past I'd go to clubs in New York or to industry showcases to listen to music and also quite diligently comb through unsolicited submissions. It really didn't matter to me whether the submissions were from New York or Finland. I was just looking for an interesting mix of music for the label. Today my approach is different. I'm really interested in collaborative ventures with artists (although I still might now and then seek to license individual albums by artists) so I'll just look for stuff that captures my attention where I think there might be unique synergies and where the artists are interested in exciting collaborative ventures. Often I'll even meet really interesting artists through social networks online. In fact, I'm already engaged in some work and/or exchanges of ideas with several artists I met via Facebook! I should say that not everyone is good at collaboration or wants to collaborate.
Who created the concept for The Painted Caravan, what did you have in mind for it, and how did you develop it?
That's a tough one in a way since for me, at least, there was no one Eureka! moment. I don't think anyone ever said, here's our concept; let's go with it. I know as the collaboration concept slowly came into being, we had in mind that we were not interested in creating another album of good but similar tracks, variations on a theme. We were interested in creating a musical journey where you felt you set sail at one place and made a voyage, with various ports of call. I know at the beginning that Peter Ulrich and I were rather pumped by the emergence of groups I had mentioned earlier like Arcade Fire, Beirut, Mumford and Sons and also by artists like Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, A Hawk and A Handsaw, DeVotchKa, Johnny Flynn, Alela Diane, Black Prairie and Sea of Bees Although the music of each of these bands is quite different from each other (because they are unique), I think both Peter and I found something that called to us, something compelling in this whole "movement" (I use that term loosely). All or some of these artists shared some features. Just by way of example, there was a "post-rock" use of instruments -- very common to find an electric guitar and a cello on the same track -- and there were often folk and roots music, dark music or old music references. And, perhaps most of all, there was a crazy blend of musical styles that just seemed to work. Just by way of example, Beirut might combine an American rock sound with an Eastern European "orkestra" vibe and really make it work! I think Peter also admired many of these bands because they were as original and eclectic, in their own individual ways as his former band, Dead Can Dance, was original and eclectic in its way (though of course none of them have achieved as yet, as popular as they might be, the iconic status of DCD). Peter and I often discussed how we would like to reach out to fans of these bands, this new hip and sophisticated audience who refused to let their music, or themselves, be jammed into any "genre box". I do know that the real substantial start of the collaboration began with a specific song. I had been carrying around in my head for years a basic melody and lyrics for a song called "The Hanging Man," a sort of neo-folk tale of love gone wrong, murder and vengeance. I think I first sent the lyrics to Peter and he liked them. Then we brought in Sara Wendt who fleshed out the basic melody. Peter did a first cut of the song, I did a second, and Sara sang it beautifully. A second song, Love's Skeleton, brilliantly sung by David Steele soon followed and then we were off sailing to a new world.
How were the tracks put together? You have artistes in America and the UK collaborating on the songs. Was this a challenge, or did the Internet make it easy?
You've put your finger on it. The Internet has really changed everything. It's quite easy to transport large and small musical files all over the world. For example, one of our recent songs, Children of the Rain, had didgeridoo, bullroarer and vocal tracks done by Saskia Dommisse at her studio in the Netherlands, vocals, percussions and various instruments done by Peter Ulrich in his home studio near London, vocals by David Steele tracked by Kingsley Sage (ANEMO) at his Brighton (UK) studios and vocals by Jen Elliott and Sara Wendt plus various instruments added at Engine Room Audio in Manhattan where it was also mixed and mastered. Not too many years ago this sort of trans-Atlantic caper would have been a huge and expensive undertaking but now it's quite doable.
Who wrote the lyrics? Were they all written by you, or did you go about this as a group?
While I guess I might be described as (or blamed for!) being a principal lyricist, I certainly didn't write them all. Peter wrote some of them and Sara Wendt contributed a particularly sparkling set of lyrics to a song titled "Pureland," which will be featured on The Painted Caravan. At this point, I also really must give a shout-out to Anne Husick who co-wrote with Peter and me several of the songs on the album. I have been writing with Anne for several years. She always handles my lyrical contributions with loving care and works them seamlessly into her melodies to form the core of a work. When she hands it back to Peter and me, I like to think we return the favor. Which studios did the recordings and productions take place in? Well as noted above, in the discussion of how we put the tracks together, there have been several studios internationally involved in creating The Painted Caravan. However, the main studio where everything is "assembled" is Engine Room Audio, a world-class studio located in downtown Manhattan. My present sound engineer is my ready, willing and able sonar sidekick Logan Myers and before him Mike Presta. Engine Room Audio owner, Mark Christensen and his able assistants mastered the album.
Who created the cover art for the CD?
Bari Goodman, a talented New York graphic and fine artist created the album cover and also handled overall album design and production.
Are you planning on releasing separate tracks as well as the full CD?
Market Square will handle digital distribution of the album as well as distribution of the physical product. Quite honestly, however, while I obviously don't discourage anyone from purchasing the digital releases, I think the songs are best heard within the context of the album. The Painted Caravan is subtly but definitely a concept album.