Ben Metzger, left, and Dave Trenkel at Unity Studios.
Three masked men stand in the mid-Willamette Valley’s most productive storage unit. Instead of family ephemera, however, it’s packed with microphone stands, a drum kit, instruments, and amplifiers, with a Logic Pro X system in an upstairs control room to monitor the magic. Formerly operated by attorney and musician Waylon Pickett, the room has served as both a studio and band rehearsal space. It’s been Unity Studios since June 2018, overseen by Corvallis musicians and engineers Dave Trenkel and Paul Kincaid under the auspices of Live Sound & Light, LLC, which provides sound for local events. It’s the perfect setting, on a side street unencumbered by residential homes and fully capable of vacuum-packing its activity inside. Albums and singles have flown out these doors at a prodigious pace.
Today, Trenkel is tracking vocals for two Citizens of the Universe (for whom he plays keyboards) cuts slated for release as a two-sided record for eventual inclusion in a planned singles-set project. The man in question is the gregarious Ben Metzger, also known as Monk Metz, Future Metz, and any and all imaginable Metzes. He’s served as a lethal resident verbal assassin for various instrumental cosmo-funk cruisers for 20-plus years, including Eleven Eyes, Xenat-Ra, Audial Assassins Oscillate, and Top Dead Center. Basically, he gives rapid-fire voice to sounds demanding syllables.
Dexterous of tongue on and off the mic, only Metz will shed his mask this Saturday evening. The rest of us suckers communicate through layers as his flow sprints nekkid about the space.
The Citizens have staggered their sessions after the coronavirus invasion. Initially, they’d planned to record the full band live sans vocals on March 28, following their March 19 showcase at the Whiteside Theatre with hip-hop pioneers Sugarhill Gang and the Furious Five, one of the city’s most inspired bookings this decade. However, the arriving pandemic scotched the performance, shuttered venues, and forced the 'zens to reassess a situation that now called for social distancing and put myriad creative endeavors involving groups on hold.
So they’ve recorded their instrumental parts piecemeal over the last several months, never with more than six of its eight members in the studio at once. The veritable who’s-who of local luminaries also includes drummer J.D. Monroe, guitarist Curtis Monette, bassist Page Hundemer, tenor saxophonist Matt Calkins, baritone saxophonist Peter Argyres, and trombonist Bruce Green. (Percussionist Joel Hirsch passed away in January.) The horns required separate sessions due to conflicting schedules: the first with Calkins and Green, the second with Argyres.
In the upstairs control room (air-conditioned for our pleasure), Trenkel’s already streamlined the individual layers into a pair of funky tracks, “Gratitude” and “Loudmouth.” The first opens on a raunchy blast of horns atop a sinewy organ seethe before tumbling into a raucous reggae-party drive and an extended instrumental jam in the final 2 of its full 6 minutes. “Loudmouth” finds the brass crawling over a percussive-fronted bottom of burbling musical chatter. Both feature reference vocals from Metzger, but today he’ll fill them with more developed verses (he’ll amplify the “bidda-bom” scat sections in “Gratitude”; they work) and trade improvisations with his weeks-old self as needed.
The process takes little more than an hour. Trenkel is seated comfortably in the control room’s captain chair, microphone at his left to communicate with Metzger, a mixing board with faders and balancers below (“It also acts as a 32-channel interface to the computer,” he said of the piece, “and it’s a controller for the software.” He and Paul Kincaid also use it to mix live sound. ) his left hand and two computer screens before him. This is the Logic Pro X digital audio workstation, first released in 2013. Trenkel prefers it to ProTools for professional recordings.
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Metzger absorbs the previous version of “Gratitude” through a headset in the studio space below. Flanked by instruments, he hovers over a music stand with the recording mic at lip level to his immediate right.
“How far do you want to go in one take?” Trenkel asks.
“Why don’t we just do every little section separately?” Metzger replies. “Do the ‘didda-da-boms’ separately. I’ll end before the chorus. Just like that throughout. I’m going to try to separate the ‘didda-da-boms.’ It’ll be way cleaner, rather than having to catch my breath after a ‘bom.’”
“OK,” Trenkel says. “I just got a second track set up so we can balance between them. Want to give the first section a shot?”
Metzger chills before launching into "Loudmouth."
“All right. Here goes.”
Back to the top we go and Metzger enters on cue, “bom-didda-bomb”-ing like a champ in two takes.
Then he launches into the song proper. “I kick a lot of rhythm and I never fade away,” he calls out, faltering not a word.
“Cool,” Trenkel offers. “That sounded great.”
“Good. Right into it,” Metzger says.
“So you wanna go to the chorus?”
“Yup. Let’s go for it.”
“I’ve got the ‘rona on your headphones already; sorry. Transmitted through ear sweat.”
“Yeah, well. What can you do? Are you ready?”
Into the chorus we roll, Metzger singing his brains out.
The pieces align slowly over the next half-hour, with Trenkel stopping before every section and Metzger subsequently blasting multiple updates out of the park, then doing it again in a more fluid roll through longer segments. He vamps into the instrumental run that ends the song, eventually concluding with, “All right. Good, Dave. Make it so.”
“Next tune?” Trenkel asks.
This time they won’t record in sections, opting to run through the 7-minute-plus “Loudmouth” in slick, extended bursts. “I think I can do the whole song in one take,” Metzger says, and he almost makes it without bending his exhausted jaw in quarters on such verses as “All I got is sunshine on my fuckin’ face / so keep on steppin’ with your yakkin’, yakkin’ ways,” previous “bidda-bom” knotters notwithstanding. He stops to conjure some ad-libs for a horn break. Then he does most of it over again.
“He’s so fast,” Trenkel says after the takes. “I can’t even think as fast as he speaks.”
Masked again, the three of us relax in the control room, digging the fresh cuts. Metzger enjoys what his ears take in. “Sounds great,” he says. “Love it. Sweet. Hell, yeah. It’s good that we got these in the can. It’s like the whole world has derailed.”
“I don’t want to come back and start gigging until we can really start gigging again,” Trenkel says. “I’m not so starving for it that I will play to a bunch of people in their cars.”
“It’s not as fun,” Metzger adds.
“I’d rather just have people out here and do stuff here,” Trenkel says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future because I don’t know how many venues are coming back.”
“With the band, I had actually booked half of 2020 for the first time,” Metzger adds. “I was so proud of myself and then, boom.”
“I think I was just in shock for the first couple of weeks,” Trenkel says of the outbreak. “It was like watching dominoes fall. The day before the quarantine was announced, Paul and I were talking about whether it was feasible for us to do three festivals in three different locations on one weekend. We were juggling this stuff around and realized, ‘Yeah, we could do that.’ We had to go from how thin we could stretch ourselves to nothing. Even if the stuff comes back, as far as the live festival season goes, it doesn’t start until May or June, so we have no income for a year. But for that part of the business, if we’re not doing shows, our overhead is relatively low. So I think we’re going to stay afloat and we’ll pick up next year. Even if I’m not able to bring in clients here, my rent is low enough that we’ll keep it as a rehearsal space and for our projects.
Trenkel helms the Logic Pro X as Metzger rolls through "Gratitude."
“It feels like, if there’s no gigs, is there a reason to continue recording and working on stuff?” he continues. “And the longer this lasts, you have to wonder if people are not going to be comfortable in crowds ever again. I watch concert videos and feel uncomfortable now because all these people are so close together. I’m just happy to have this space.”
“It’s such a back-end hobby for me,” Metzger says of weaving tunes in such turbulence. “I get more out of it in therapy and bro time. We record so sparsely. I record bedroom stuff, so there’s been zero change there. I’ve started to record some live YouTube videos, and that’s been fun, to create a little more content. The band taking a pause has opened me up to creating more promotional content. But I was already focused on marketing and promotion a little more. Since we changed from Xenat-Ra to Citizens of the Universe, I did say, ‘OK. I’ve always been a passenger and it doesn’t really get me anywhere as the frontman.’ Nobody’s like, ‘We’ve got to hit the road and get this to the people.’ But we still need to, for our own sake. What do I want? I want better gigs, more fun gigs. Not necessarily more gigs, but taking it by the horns will have benefitted the band and me, in my enjoyment of it.
“I don’t know. I do terribly miss rehearsal night. That’s a big hole in my week, but I’ve got young kids and I work a lot. Not to downplay it. We’ve been through worse. We’ve been through band changes and breakups. We’ve lost members. But we all keep each other sane, and that’s the main thing.
“If the gigs come back, we’re the best rhythm on the street,” he concludes. “If the gigs come back, we’ll be there.”