Black Diet's long journey to Find Your Tambourine
Black Diet have band practice every Tuesday evening at the south Minneapolis home of bassist Garrison Grouse, fondly dubbed the "Grouse House." The event feels less like rehearsal and more like a weekly family reunion, complete with home-cooked food and playful bickering between bandmates.
Grouse has prepared a yellow Thai curry that sits simmering on the stove. Vocalist Jonathan Tolliver paces, his tall frame seemingly too large for the narrow dining room, and his signature untamed dreads tower higher still. "I see that guy from Black Diet walking downtown all the time," a fan once said of Tolliver. "His hair is epic."
Last summer, the band released a self-titled split EP with Southside Desire. Since Radio K and First Avenue selected Black Diet as one of 2013's best new bands, bookings to play several local music festivals this summer have followed, and there have been few dull moments for Black Diet since.
At the time of their sit-down with City Pages, the band prepares to leave town again for a week-long Midwest tour fresh off the heels of performing in Austin at South by Southwest. To top it all off, this weekend's show at Hymie's Vintage Records will herald the release of their long anticipated full-length, Find Your Tambourine.
"I think one of the funniest highlights was seeing Macauley Culkin," says keyboardist Sean Richard Schultz of the band's time at SXSW. "I don't think anyone noticed, but I saw it. He brushed by Mitch. Mitch touched Macauley Culkin!"
"I had no idea," admits guitarist Mitch Sigurdson, who was standing in line awaiting entry to the Totally Gross National Product Showcase when the alleged Culkin sighting occurred.
Back in Minneapolis, the band members are finally able to enjoy some quality time together without worrying about recording. When asked if he is nervous for the new album's reception, Tolliver cracks, "I'm looking at David's Facebook wall, and his friends seem to like it."
Drummer David Tullis laughs. "Well, okay. Here's the deal," he says. "Friends whose music tastes I have historically not liked — those are the people that are saying they really like our music."
"Oh, great," guitarist Mitch Sigurdson exclaims, shaking his head.
"That's the fucking weird thing," Tullis continues. "Like, you were into Mumford & Sons when they came out, and now you like our music. I don't know how to interpret that, but... I'm super flattered.
"Your friends are going to hate you now, by the way," says Tolliver.
Following dinner, while kicking back with some beers in the production room of Grouse's basement recording studio, the members of Black Diet reminisce about the process of creating Find Your Tambourine. After agonizing for months over digital recording and re-recording the initial versions of the album, the band made the decision to switch over to analog.
Tape can be precarious. This antiquated method of recording demands that the artist accomplish perfection within one single take, but also provides a means of emulating the vintage Motown style that Black Diet blends so seamlessly with its modern garage-rock vibes. The sound is entirely raw and organic.
"I think every song of ours is about death or sex — two sides of the same coin," says Tullis.
During their digital recording sessions, the musicians were overwhelmed by the accumulation of tracks on each song. "There would be 30 Mugsys," Sigurdson says. "30 Mitches!" shoots back vocalist Margaret "Mugsy" Keller, the band's leading lady.
"There was one track, when I was recording for the previous incarnation of the record, that literally had 86 tracks," says Grouse. Using tape rendered this method impossible. For example, the first track off Find Your Tambourine includes a four-part vocal harmony that was recorded in one take by an omnidirectional microphone.
Each band member has a specific bone to pick with the final material. Tolliver is upset with the initial bar of his vocals on "Don't Sleep Alone." As the opening chords sound over Grouse's system, he stands abruptly and says, "I'm going to get another beer."
Tolliver's voice is almost always best in its casual, flawed moments, and his ability to soar into a startlingly higher register in songs like "Cry" are an indication of years spent cultivating his natural talent with jazz-style vocal training.
"It's No Secret" best captures the band's natural chemistry. A trippy instrumental track found halfway into Find Your Tambourine, the song is actually a jam session secretly recorded by producer Mike Wisti.
"We were playing for a while, and he just hit record," says Schultz. The echoing guitars and chilled-out drumbeat soothe like moving water.
Schultz looks over at Tolliver. He smiles and says, "And in this song especially, we all fuck up."
The album is quite a joyful body of work for a band named after a method of prison torture. "I'm over it now," says Tolliver of his obsession with death.
"I'm excited. I'm not very nervous," he adds, regarding the album. "It's finally coming out, and we're kind of looking past it in a lot of ways, because this thing has been a long time coming."
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