Fading Trails - Pete Schreiner

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Fading Trails - Magnolia Electric Co.

Released 13 years ago today, ‘Fading Trails’ is a collection of recordings from a number of sessions from Molina & company - Originating from sessions with Steve Albini at his Electric Audio Studio, David Lowery at his Sound of Music Studio, and at the famous Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee and the home recordings of the Shohola sessions, ‘Fading Trails’ perfectly captured the vast, varied and prolific world of Jason Molina.

To mark the 13th anniversary of it’s release, Magnolia Electric Co’s Pete Schreiner has shared his memories of the sessions at Memphis’ Sun Studio, as well as some personal pictures of that time.

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Sun Session - Pete Schreiner

“The knife is on the floor,” Molina said, cryptically signalling it was time to do a take. Soon there were two open knives on the floor. We never had hard rules about recording but there was a certain way that Molina liked to work. While blades weren’t always involved, it was normal for him to run roughshod over completely established recording “rules” in an effort to do a song justice and at this session we even broke some of our own. 

Jason Molina, Jason Evans Groth, Mikey Kapinus, Mark Rice and I, walked humbly into Sun Studio on March 12, 2006, and we could tell right away that what you played is what you got. The spartan room is hallowed for the musical magic that happened inside it, and not its purposeful acoustic design elements. 

We had played the Hi-Tone, a favorite Midtown Memphis club the previous day, so adding on a Sun Studio session made sense geographically. What broke the first soft-rule of recording was doing so on the second day of a tour. The standard plan would be to bring Molina’s new songs on the road, work the arrangements into tightness on stage for a month, then record at the end of the trip. We would, however, occasionally book recording time on the road to get something done quickly or if an interesting opportunity came along. Our 2005 album Trials and Errors had come out of a serendipitously-recorded live set so we were basically ready for any scenario.

The band had been in Memphis just six months before and would return six months later. Today it was the first stop on the first tour of the year, following Jason’s February residency at Schuba’s in Chicago. How the Sun session was arranged is still sort of a black box to me. Memphis friends helped get it going although anyone could book time at Sun Studio. Recording at Sun starts at 5pm daily, after the tours are done. I presume we spent the day visiting guitar and record shops and eating barbecue, which would only be possible on a tour day with no driving. 

“The knife is on the floor”

“The knife is on the floor”

As mentioned above, the studio is a simple room. It has square walls, ie. no visible wall geometry designed for audio clarity, and no real acoustic wall treatments. The 1950s era ceiling tile would add some absorption although it was probably just the standard material at the time. 

Though the room is mundane its magic lives on. There were some old amps for us to use and Mark drummed on a house set of Ludwig’s. It felt right to play my 1968 Telecaster bass that I’d purchased in Memphis on a previous tour. There wasn’t much separation of amps or drums in the room so each player’s sound would bleed into the others’ microphones. That’s not a problem so long as you play correctly and don’t need to fix mistakes by punching-in. It also works best if everyone keeps their volume down, which was difficult for our rock-deafened group. We eventually dialled in a nice balance and rolled through the songs, picking notes gingerly and taking cues from one another.

There’s really no wrong way to record, as long as the artist is achieving the sound they desire. For us that meant doing live takes, and keeping the ones which overall, despite minor sonic imperfections, captured a song’s essence to Molina’s enigmatic standards. That’s how we approached it at this session too while breaking three of our normal practices. First, Jason usually strove to record on analog tape but we were recording digitally. I don’t think there was an in-house tape machine so it was an easy decision. Second, there are headphones in the session photos, whereas typically Jason didn’t like singing with cans on and when possible we would opt to simply hear him live in the room. Third and most surprising is that Jason allowed slap-back reverb on his vocals, which I can only credit to the studio’s charm and history because that sort of thing was usually censured. 

We tracked four songs at Sun. The two that appear on Fading Trails, “Memphis Moon” and “Talk to Me Devil, Again” were new tunes from what I remember - we would have learned them at soundcheck the day before. When I listen to the tracks I hear them as new or seeming new. Jason would often switch up his guitar tuning or the key a song was in, sometimes to accommodate a vocal range. That made songs feel new even if they were previously-played. One way or another the songs feel fresh and Molina’s voice sounds woody, clear, and confident; refreshed from a few months off the road and whetted by the acoustic shows over the winter. 

The additional two songs were definitely not new but got a fresh spin. Our group of players had performed “Hold On Magnolia” countless times on stage but had not recorded the version released on the Magnolia Electric Co. album. Here we had a chance at it and got a nice sweet take. “Trouble in Mind” was one of the occasional cover songs that would come out on tour. Covers were ephemeral and wouldn’t necessarily ever get a studio treatment, so this arrangement of one of Jason’s favorite tunes is a gift. 

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The Sun Session is by far the shortest disc of the Sojourner set. Still in many ways it captures the spirit of the Magnolia band the best—flipping the switch from club mode to studio mode and making music that was unique to the time and place the band was at. Molina’s timeless songs were a perfect match for the classic Sun Studio and it was a really special session for Jason and the band. Afterward we folded the knives, packed the van, and proceeded on down the road. Mixing would be done later in Chicago and I may not have heard the final songs until they came out in the Sojourner box, which was itself a surprise, and a story for another day.

Sojourner - Ben Swanson, Secretly Canadian

Magnolia Electric Co’s 'Sojourner' boxset was released 12 years ago this month. The expansive and ambitious release was the accumulated work of thirteen musicians, five locations, four recording engineers, three filmmakers, two designers and one songwriter.

To mark the release of this incredible collection, Secretly Canadian co-founder Ben Swanson has shared his memories of putting the boxset together

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Ben Swanson, Secretly Canadian:

Sojourner was born out of one of the most prolific periods of Jason’s career. He’d constantly be setting up new sessions, or sending us new records - not recordings, but fully conceived records - out of the blue. He even sent one cryptically as a demo and then got upset when we didn’t find it amongst the pile of other demos (that record eventually became the Molina & Johnson record). It was extremely exciting but admittedly a bit stressful from the label perspective. We were sensitive to the Prince dynamic with Warner; of not being able to keep up and do justice to the work. Jason was also - actually not unlike Prince now that I think about it - in the midst of this transformative period away from the old Songs: Ohia moniker and material into a new, more expansive name, Magnolia Electric Co (at the time, he had the idea of a multi-headed beast. Several different “Electric Co.”s coexisting). We desperately wanted to keep pace with Jason but could never catch up. Eventually we landed on the idea of leaning in to the situation and suggested we put all this material together in a box. At first it was purely a practical innovation to reset the clock, but eventually came to find the opportunity to showcase Jason’s range. My memory is he loved the concept out of the gate and immediately began dreaming of a box stuffed with music, a Ouija board, a constellation map and a chicken bone. Tokens from his universe. In hindsight, Sojourner ended up as the most complete representation of Jason’s expansive world that rewards repeat listens. At some point we’ll have to put it out on vinyl. Maybe there will be room for the chicken bone.

Secretly Canadian announce 'Love & Work: The Lioness Sessions' release

The Lioness is the first Jason Molina project to fully turn away from the battlefield folk and deconstructed Americana of earlier Songs: Ohia recordings. At the dawn of the 21st century, the album felt modern. It aligned Molina with a new set of peers — Low, Gastr del Sol, Red House Painters and, most importantly, the influential Scottish band Arab Strap, whose producer and members were crucial in the creation of The Lioness. The avant-garde tones and arrangements of Arab Strap are absorbed here into Molina’s songwriting to create what would become, for many acolytes, the archetypal Songs: Ohia sound. Love & Work: The Lioness Sessions, the box set reissue, will serve as the seminal log of the era, complete with lost songs, photos, drawings, and essays from those who knew Molina best.

Off the bat, The Lioness can be tricky listen. Doom-y elements abound — the chord choices, the guitar tones and the molasses movement of it all. But rather than an album about wrestling some inner darkness, this is a man finding new love. Newly fallen for the woman who would ultimately become his wife, here Molina crafted songs about submission and the rapture of submission. By the time we get to “Being In Love,” the ice has fully melted off a once frozen heart: “Being in love/Means you are completely broken/Then put back together/The one piece that was yours/Is beating in your lover’s breast/She says the same thing about hers.” It is the first — and likely best — love song of the new millennium. It remains stunning that this song, poetically on the level of William Carlos Williams and sonically both industrial and hymn-like, was penned by a 26 year old. It is a crucial piece of the modern lover’s musical lexicon.

Sigmund Freud once said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of humanness.” Say what you may about the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, but this one sticks. Love and work give our lives purpose. And satisfaction from one feeds into the other. We know Molina was diligent in both love and work. He treated songcraft like a job at the mill — an ethos directly tied to his low-income upbringing in Lorraine, Ohio. Up at the crack of dawn (perhaps to capture the lingering fumes of dream logic), Molina would aggravate numerous roommates with these 5 AM writing sessions in the living room or on the porch. His approach to romance was not so different. We know that when he fell in love with his wife, he was dutiful in his adoration. There were strings of love letters and poetic gesture. Included in this edition are replicated examples of this relentless love — an envelope with a letter from Molina, a photograph of Molina and his to-be wife, a postcard, a Two of Hearts playing card, and a personal check for one million kisses. Some of these items were gifts he would send to his new love from the road; others, like the 2 of Hearts, were totems he’d carry with him around this time as a symbol for his burgeoning love. He was a workhorse for art and love.

And so, the head-over-heels, make-out album that is The Lioness has its workman counterpart. Nearly another album’s worth of material was recorded in Scotland during the album sessions. While similar in tone and structure, the songs seem to deal in the grit and dirt of being. Songs like “On My Way Home,” “Never Fake It,” “It Gets Harder Over Time,” and “I Promise Not to Quit” are working man’s blues. These are songs for aching muscles getting soothed in the third-shift pub. But they’re also examples of Molina’s diligence as he constructs what would be the essential elements of The Lioness. In addition to these outtakes, we also have a 4-track session made weeks earlier in London with friend James Tugwell. Comprised of primarily guitar, hand drums and voice, these songs are raw experiments that mostly serve to illustrate Molina’s well of words and ideas. But then, there is the devastating Sacred Harp hymn “Wondrous Love” from the London session. Over the 4-track hiss, a barely audible ghost track and a delicately plucked guitar, Molina gives himself wholly to the performance. While he may have had his new love in mind, one can’t help but think of Molina’s legacy as he softly warbles “Into eternity I will sing/Into eternity I will sing.” You don’t have to try too hard to mythologize Molina. He did all the work for you.

You can order ‘Love & Work: The Lioness Sessions’ here - https://secretlycanadian.com/record/love-work-the-lioness-sessions/

Songs Molina: A Memorial Electric Co announce tour

Songs: Molina is a group of musicians who were brought together by the late Jason Molina, who was their band leader, singer, collaborator and dear friend and brother. Comprised of original members of Molina’s bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., Songs: Molina reunites Mike Brenner (lap steel), Jason Evans Groth (guitar), Michael Kapinus (keys), Mark Rice (drums), and Pete Schreiner (bass) under the spirit of live performance, carrying the torch for Molina’s beloved catalog of songs. For fans who knew and loved Molina during his too-short life, and for those who discovered Molina after it was too late, it’s a rare chance to experience Molina’s songs in his preferred setting, live and onstage, with the people and players who knew him best. 

The group is honored to be joined by guest vocalist Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks. Showalter’s tribute to Molina, “JM,” inspired fans new and old after Molina’s untimely death in 2013. To-be-announced special guests will join the group as well, many unique to each stop on the tour.

The European tour is inspired by a reunion that took place in the U.S. during the summer of 2017, in conjunction with the release of the authorized biography Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost by author Erin Osmon. Songs: Molina, Osmon, and a host of special guests who knew Molina formed for a short run of live tributes where songs were played, short passages from the biography were read, and stories were told. Fans also had the opportunity to share their memories and ask questions about Molina, his life and work. Fans overseas now have the opportunity to experience that same magic, that same celebratory spirit.