Magnolia Electric Co’s ‘Josephine’ was released ten years ago today on the 21st July 2009. Continuing the band’s collaboration with producer Steve Albini, the album was dedicated to bassist Evan Farrell who passed away in December 2007.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the album, Magnolia Electric Co’s guitarist Jason Evans Groth has shared some of his memories of recording the album.
Jason Evans Groth:
Josephine, to me, sounds like a family celebrating and mourning something that had been loved and had been lost, and doing it together, all as one. Jason dedicated the album to and even said in interviews that it was about our dear friend and one-time bandmate Evan Farrell, who had perished in a fire in December of 2007, just a few months after the one tour he did with us. At the time I was a little uneasy about that dedication, probably because I knew many of those songs had been written before Evan, some had even been played with him. But Jason was right - songs change, feelings about their meaning change, and I was caught up in facts to help suppress the feelings I had about the tragedy. We made a shrine to Evan in the studio. We talked and thought a lot about him. Jason had taken it hard. In the three years prior to this, death had become a tragically common occurrence. In 2005 we were in the studio recording Nashville Moon with Steve Albini when Michael Dahlquist - Silkworm's drummer and a dear friend of Steve's - was killed in an incredibly tragic car accident; Jason lost his mother; our then-new European booking agent, Jens Pape, died suddenly and unexpectedly; and Heath Ledger, who had been working with Jason on a documentary project, died. I know Jason was thinking about all of it - he told me he was - those few years. He told me he thought he was cursed, and cursing other people.
And then it was the fall of 2008, and it was time to make a new record. Jason and Mikey went to Denton, TX to make the Molina and Johnson record (where the original "Josephine" was recorded) and we hadn't toured since Evan died, which was weird for us; more than a whole year off the road. Jason had played a smattering of European solo shows, some with another band. Around April Jason started emailing me with ideas. On tour, he said, he wanted to do anything we wanted to play - "the ancient stuff." He was concerned about tunings but asked me to come up with versions we could use on the road. Tour would happen in the fall, and then we would make the record. Looking back through emails, we talked about tuning a lot. The tour was booked for mid-late October/early November, with recording starting on November 6th and going through the 20th.
We had heard nothing about songs. Eventually, the last week of September, Jason wrote and said he had been "pulling my teeth out here" to get us some demos. Those eventually came, early in October, and were ethereal, haunting versions of the songs that would show up on Josephine (and some that wouldn't). And they were in weird tunings, just like Jason's old days. I felt that he had been collaborating with me without me knowing it, using me as a way to summon up the courage to do things like he used to, things that he did out of necessity then and which seemed mysterious to him now. He told us "I'm not ignoring ELO type arrangements on this record." He told me he wanted to make his version of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. He told me he wanted it to be "less Crazy Horse and more crazy." And what we made probably had a little of all of that. We were working out songs together in the studio, recording them in one or two takes live, with the vocals being monitored through an amp in the room where we all were (which is why they have an extra-ghosty quality to them, I think). And then we were overdubbing like crazy, too. My favorite dubs are the tambourine part in "Rock of Ages" (just describing what I wanted to Steve Albini is a pleasant memory), watching Pete do amazing hand percussion, and seeing Mark play vibes. The "Whip-poor-will" recording - just thinking about it - brings tears to my eyes. Jason and me playing guitar on stools in the drum room at Electrical, with Mikey sitting next to us so we could do those live three-part harmonies, which sounded tighter at that recording than I thought they ever could. My Tele Deluxe - the guitar I played at 99% of the Songs: Ohia/MECo shows - had gotten really sick, and was getting a fret job in Chicago, so I was put in the position of using guitars I didn't understand, and that made me play in a more wild, quiet, and careful way all at once. My favorite guitar tones on the record came out of my wife's telecaster, including maybe my favorite recorded thing I've ever done, the guitar solo in "Shenandoah."
Up until sequencing we all worked on it together. We brought the songs to life and we hung out and worked together and loved being around one another. I still get chills thinking about the hug Jason gave me after the saxophone solo I played for "O! Grace." I'm really glad a lot of the session is captured, expertly, in Ben Schreiner's Recording Josephine documentary.
Josephine was cathartic for all of us, was a truly full-band record, was weirder in a lot ways and more accessible in a lot ways than other stuff we'd been doing, and is a testament to what a family can do if they stick together through the tragedies. I love my Magnolia Electric Co family so much, and I miss Jason more than I can express. I especially miss him when I think about this session and this record, and how much we all felt like one making it.