Charlie Chesterman – High octane revisited
Following the split, Chesterman briefly resurfaced with the short-lived Harmony Rockets (not to be confused with the Mercury Rev offshoot that shared the same moniker). The band’s recorded output was relegated to a lone three-track single on Rockville Records released in 1993, with bandmate Mike County taking all three songwriting credits (“he was doing a better job writing songs at the time, and those three songs are really good,” Chesterman says).
The band didn’t stick, but the concept for the project did. “It was a weird thematic thing,” Chesterman explains. “What I was shooting for at the time was to write a bunch of really short, kinda fast pop songs, like the Ramones stuff, as that was what I was listening to at the time. I thought we could be this really great super-condensed pop band with super-sweet fun songs that were really short.
“So I started to write songs along those lines, and when I came up with one that was appropriate and short enough, I labeled it a ‘harmony rocket,’ with the idea that there would be a dozen of them and they would eventually comprise an album. Well, then the band doesn’t exist anymore and I got a couple of these things under my belt. I’ll just carry the theme through until I get a dozen.” (Two more of them show up on Dynamite Music Machine: “Go Go Li’l Fairlane” is subtitled “Harmony Rocket #6”, while “Big Hairy Eyeball” carries the subtitle “Harmony Rocket #7”.)
Chesterman took a couple years off after the Harmony Rockets dissolved before he returned to the recording studio. When he did it was as a solo artist, with the autonomy to record his vision. He refers to the creative process that bore From The Book Of Flames, his 1994 solo debut on Slow River, as “trying to figure out how to be in the studio by myself with some friends and trying to get it together.” Those friends included Scruffy alumni Fredette and Stanfield as well as present Motorbike guitarist Andy Pastore; there was even a reunion with Hutchison when Chesterman traveled to Seattle for a little session with fellow Fellows Scott McCaughey and Kurt Bloch.
The record was a solid representation of where Chesterman had been and, more importantly, where he was going. With all its tracks recorded on either the first or second take, Book has a loose, homey ambiance that works well as a backdrop for his unaffected vignettes steeped in romantic naivete. Musically, the horn charts on “Hello Judy” and “Got You Bad” were his first flirtations with brass (more have since followed), while plaintive guitar-and-vocal tracks such as “Pink Lemonade” and “On A Stack Of Bibles” laid the groundwork for the brilliance that followed in the form of Studebakersfield.
It’s obvious after talking to Chesterman for a bit that Studebakersfield was, and still is, special to him. The antithesis of Dynamite, the record has a soul, as opposed to just having soul (if that makes any sense). It’s a work of beautiful melancholia, with Chesterman’s heart sewn squarely on the sleeve of his motorbike jacket. The frailty found in songs such as “Trash” and “Truth Stars” is underscored with weepy steel accompaniment, while “Mona’s Prayer” and “The Confession” (Harmony Rockets #3 and #4, respectively) digress from the “loud fast rules” aesthetic to present arguably the two strongest tracks in that conceptual series to date. It’s a lovely record that, when finished, took Chesterman completely by surprise.
“When [producer] Pete Weiss and I sat down to start working on this thing, we actually were shooting for Nashville Skyline,” Chesterman says. “And actually, in a weird way, that’s what we got. We listened to that record as a reference point — do the drums like they did and get the guitars sort of like that — until it just took off in its own direction and wound up being something completely different from what Pete and I first talked about.
“That album involved a lot of other personalities and a lot of other musicians, all for the best. Everybody that played on that record brought something to the songs that made them much better, and that much more beautiful and that much more like how I had never imagined my songs could sound. It became something that I hadn’t even thought I could do or be a part of, and it definitely turned into something I hadn’t planned on.”
All of which probably explains why, when asked if that guitar-and-vocal record might be on deck in the recording circle, Chesterman instead throws out the possibility of placing those songs in a band setting and making “a mellow, sweet record in the vein of Studebakersfield.”
In the meantime, he’ll be doing what he can to support Dynamite Music Machine, including some gigging up and down the East Coast before possibly venturing a little further away from home in the new year (maybe a road trip back home to the Midwest). But all that depends on schedules, as jobs and mortgages and adulthood can sometimes get in the way of stuff like rock ‘n’ roll. What a drag it is getting old.