Recording rock music is a funny business. Though lots of classics have been made in a hurry and on the cheap, getting that sex-and-booze feel on tape most often requires certain qualities of a musician that seem, at first glance, pretty unrockerly: patience, a meticulous attention to detail, sympathy. Unbending support for your bandmates. Willingness to make mid-session Gatorade runs. And the generosity that allows you, on the 15th take, to look a guitarist in the eyes and say, honestly, "That was it. You nailed it...
"Now you wanna try it one more time?"
That's what Jeff Halland just asked Mark Shaw, guitarist for the Cardinal Sin, a local foursome that formed in 2003 following the breakup of three of Minneapolis's most promising bands: hardcore screamers Song of Zarathustra, pop-punks the Crush, and somewhere-in-betweeners Cadillac Blindside. The band is sitting in a closet-sized room in the basement of Twin Town Guitars. Halland, former frontman for defunct local rock exemplars Houston and current engineer for Twin Town Studio, is sitting in front of a soundboard, watching Shaw in the next room through a large window. The rest of the band is lining the wall, cracking Simpsons jokes, trading stories from The Dirt (the raunchy Mötley Crüe tell-all; production of the movie is slated to begin this year), and nodding along while Shaw plays through another take of "Brassneck." It's a cover of a Wedding Present song that the Cardinal Sin will release on an upcoming 7-inch. So far I've heard at least 10 takes of Shaw's part, each one nearly indistinguishable from the next, and each ending the same way: with the guitarist scowling, "I fucked that one up, too."
Shaw's carriage is slight--120 pounds, though guitarist and singer James Russell thinks he's even smaller--a fact made more obvious by his habit of speaking quietly without parting his teeth (lending him the air of a terrible ventriloquist). But if he's shy, his music doesn't show it, and prior to each take he shreds through a different classic metal riff. It loosens his fingers and gets a laugh out of his bandmates. "He's trying to turn us into a metal band," says Jon Ness, the bass player. Ness is probably right. Shaw once used those chops in Song of Zarathustra, the town's hottest hardcore act of the last half-decade. Now he's launching into Ozzy's "Crazy Train." Everyone in the booth laughs and starts singing along.
Recording sessions aren't always like this. Bands, people like to say, are like families. True enough, but if you ever want to tear a family apart, one good way might be to stick them in the same room for three straight days and force them to listen to one song, over and over and over again. It's enough to drive the Dalai Lama to fits of rage. Maybe that's why the hard-partying bands feel the need to spice up the process, to make it a little more rock 'n' roll, a little more fun, and to numb the pain of that 20th take. Mötley Crüe went on regular three-day cocaine binges in the studio, and Nikki Sixx later admitted that he would have OD'ed on heroin during the Shout at the Devil sessions if his arm hadn't been in a sling (due to an injury sustained while driving his car naked into a telephone pole at 90 mph; Sixx wants Brad Pitt to play him in the movie).
By contrast, the Cardinal Sin's session seems like Sunday school, certainly nothing like the satanic birthday party suggested by the artwork on their new EP, Oil and Water (Grey Flight Records). The album's booklet features pixilated black-and-white photos of priests and choirboys, with stark, bloody paint splattered overtop. Then again, the six songs on the album don't exactly evoke sacrilege, either. The Cardinal Sin's sound is a denominator of its members' previous bands. Some might complain that it's a watered-down mix of their prior style, but what they're really tapping into is that emotional strain that connects hardcore with pop punk. It's a rumble of moody energy that, it turns out, sounds a lot like Jawbreaker.
"I have begun to whine," Russell sings on Oil and Water's best track, "Quarter-Life Crisis" (cuing emo-haters everywhere to respond, "No shit"). But Russell, finally stretching his vocal talents after four years of playing backup in Cadillac Blindside, is airing some real concerns about his growing pains. And he's doing it with a refreshing degree of self-criticism--I'm only 25, he's saying. What the hell do I have to complain about? Jawbreaker disciples, usually too self-absorbed to be self-incriminating, are rarely blessed with such perspective.
While the Twin Town recording session isn't exactly an orgy of gluttony, vanity, sloth, or any of the others, the Cardinal Sin are no saints. Just last night the quartet was up till five in the morning laying down tracks and mowing through a liquor supply that would give Vince Neil the shakes. After the second bottle of Jameson, Halland threw Stone Temple Pilots' Purple on the CD player. It's his latest pet recording, the one he makes everyone listen to for its studio nuance. "Man, this is pretty good," said drummer Becky Hanten, holding the headphones to her ears. "It's really fuckin' good!" said Halland with a smile.
Russell, meanwhile, was on the couch, staring at a spot a few feet in front of his nose. Suddenly he came to, looked around the room, and declared, "I bet I can make you all sing." Then he slumped back down on the couch.
Tonight, Russell laughs off his pie-eyed proclamation. "I don't know what the fuck I was talking about." Shaw, however, is getting everyone to sing; now he's tearing into "Plush," the early-'90s Stone Temple Pilots hit. "I still hate that fucking band," he says, before laying down the final "Brassneck" take. It sounds just as good as all the others. Halland tells Shaw not to worry, he's got ProTools and can splice together a decent guitar track out of the ones he laid down. Shaw shrugs his approval.
There's a reason the Cardinal Sin can get along in the studio: They avoid the tense, dramatic conflicts that have become rock cliché. That's because they've done it all before. They've all been in bands that have succumbed under the weight of egos and personalities that mix, as their EP puts it, like oil and water. "In Cadillac, there were two different visions," says Hanten. "So we opted out. Now we're in a band that shares a vision."
"We take music very seriously," Shaw explains, "but we don't take ourselves seriously. It's disturbing how peaceful our tours have been."
Later, Russell pulls out his camera phone and shows me a picture he took at the Mötley Crüe show a few weeks earlier. He's about 15 feet from Nikki Sixx. Seeing the picture, I'm struck by how much the Cardinal Sin's no-ego philosophy clashes with the hair-metal gods they can't stop talking about. Russell confirms my theory. "It was a good show," he says, "but Tommy and Vince really hate each other. They don't even look at each other offstage. It's like, yeah, guys, way to be a band."
Indeed. Tommy and Vince might know something about packing stadiums, topping charts, and leading a life of sin, but the consequences are laid bare with one look at their onstage chemistry. (Or Vince's beer belly, for that matter. Or his criminal record). The Cardinal Sin's collegiality, while not the stuff of bestsellers, at least gets them through the session with smiles on their faces. It won't land them any book deals, but the amps are on, the tape is rolling, and tonight, that's all that matters.