Sycamores – Out of the Paisley and into the basement
Not everyone has the luxury of recording their first album at Prince’s state-of-the-art Paisley Park studio, as Frank Randall, Dave Downey and the ever-evolving lineup known as the Sycamores did on their self-titled debut. Spending two years in a friend’s basement recording your follow-up on a vintage eight-track is an even more unusual choice.
Recording at Paisley Park, Randall explains, “was an amazing experience, but I don’t want to make an album like that again. It’s well-recorded and it sounds really good, but it sounds a little like the playing is aware of the clock ticking in an expensive studio.
“[Working on the eight track], you have to give up a little in terms of fidelity, but you have unlimited time and control over your results. You can do as many takes as you want. It’s not Paisley Park, it’s your basement.”
After two years, Randall and company emerged from the basement studio of local musician Mike Wisti with their second album, Listening Skills Program (Veto Records). “I really wanted to get closer to The Basement Tapes and Exile On Main Street…. sort of feel records that are a little rougher sounding, and the thing you love about them is not necessarily precision and performance, but the overall effect,” Randall says.
Listening Skills Program is an intimate, homespun piece of Americana that deeply reflects the laid-back recording process. Randall’s acoustic guitar and Dylan-meets-Farrar vocals, along with Downey’s straight-ahead country and rock ‘n’ roll drumming, blend perfectly with the bass of long-term collaborator Paul Novak, the pedal steel of Jim Johnson, the organ playing of John Duncan (from Martin Zellar & the Hardways), and the guitar work of Slim Dunlap (ex-Replacements) and Jaques Wait.
As a songwriter, Randall draws secondhand country roots from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, but he seems equally influenced by the local musicians he’s grown to know since moving to Minneapolis from New York in 1988. The Gear Daddies, the Replacements and the Jayhawks were all rolling when Randall moved to town, and the Sycamores carry on that Minnesotan feel. Still, it may be what Randall refers to as “the oddball songwriters” of his youth that give his songs their unique edge; he cites Robyn Hitchcock, Loudon Wainwright III and Alex Chilton as major influences.
Ultimately, Randall is reluctant to categorize the Sycamores’ music. “I don’t see this band as country music,” he says. “As far as my influences go, I’m more influenced by the Velvet Underground and their acoustic music or noisy music as opposed to whatever country band. It sounds a lot like country music, because when you write a song on an acoustic guitar, get friends of yours to play along, and you make a record of it in Minnesota with people playing vintage electric guitars through old amps in tubed-up studios with real organs and real pianos, things sound a little country. To me, that’s a good sound.”