Michael Ray & the Nasty Notes' moniker sets expectations for their music before you even hear it. Their new record The Higher You Climb has the listener sifting through stories that cobbles together patches of sound to make an alt-country album out of the remains. It's raw and will stay with you after the first listen.
Before the band's album release at Lee's Liquor Lounge, lead singer and writer Michael Ray spoke with Gimme Noise about why he prefers the Cities over Nashville and the tale behind his album.
Band Members: Michael Ray Pfeifer, Casey Smith, Curt Hutchens, Bobbi Miller, Ryan Inselman, Craig Holets, Spencer Lovdal, and Elliott Blaufuss.
Gimme Noise: What is it about the Twin Cities music scene that prompts you to stay here rather than move to a town like Nashville?
Michael Ray: Nashville is such an industry town. The Twin Cities has such an encouraging music community; the musicians and the people working in this scene have been incredibly encouraging to me. It started with me looking for opportunities and asking to open for someone, and once I started to get gigs, everyone has just been super supportive.
Can you tell me more about the writing process behind The Higher You Climb? How long has the project been in the works? Why do you feel now was the time to release it?
Well, I spend a lot of time trying to become a better songwriter. I probably started writing some of these songs three or four years ago. I write songs in a couple of different way -- sometimes I'll hear a snippet or a phrase, and I'll think that could be a good song lyric or title. Sometimes I just find myself humming a little vocal melody. I'll just start building the song around the emotion of those words and melody. Of course, it's about what you are trying to say and communicate, whether it's about someone you know, or someone imagined, or even my dog. One of my favorite ways to write, is to borrow from my dreams.
Take a song like "Hula Hoop Girls." That's totally from a dream where you're flying like a bird, over this beautiful countryside, and you see the girl of your dreams. Or a song like "Hotel Sadie" -- "Bono and Dylan and ladies with babies, all cut a rug at the Hotel Sadie." That's from a dream where I imagined my childhood home as being a juke joint in Mississippi. Dreams are so colorful and vivid, like mini-movies, and they make for great songs.
Did you write the pieces first, then bring them to the band, or was it more collaborative?
At the heart of this record, it's definitely a collaboration between producer Casey Smith and me. Casey is an incredibly talented producer and musician. He's a master arranger, and can think on his feet. I write the songs first, usually on acoustic guitar, and then bring them to Casey. He takes my songs and visions in my head, and transform them into reality. He's got tons of ideas, and can get the guitar sounds I'm looking for, the vibe and feel of the song. It's a great partnership, and it's so easy to work with him.
How did the Nasty Notes contribute to the sound on the new album?
Once the musicians I asked to contribute were on board, each song gained new life, adding in their flavor turned the songs into different and better songs. For example, Elliott Blaufuss added piano and keyboard textures on many of the songs, that just transported them to another place. Carnival sounds, wicked organ solos, crazy, going-out-of-your-mind tones. Bobbi Miller and Bec Smith's vocal harmonies are like the icing on the cake. Casey Smith's production and guitar playing gave the songs a real warmth, punch and sonic liveliness.
How did you meet Casey Smith, and how did you come to working with him? How did he move the album along?
I first met Casey about eight years ago, when I started taking guitar lessons from him. Casey runs his own recording studio in Minneapolis, called KnottBrite Studios. We began working on songs that would eventually end up on my first record, "Fire On The Radio." For The Higher You Climb we had a definite plan and focus to create a gritty, hooky, alt-country/roots-rock album. Because we had so many songs with different touches and styles incorporated into them, Casey had to be a real task-master. In between his gigs and multiple projects, this was a labor of love.
What's the meaning behind The Higher You Climb?
The Higher You Climb is about strength. It's about the strength you need to succeed and attain your goals, to deal with personal or family issues, to deal with ailing loved ones, to make it through the morning commute. Everyday obstacles and the big things in life. The important things in life.
Any favorite tracks?
Well, I love them all, as if they were my children. I like "Gravel Road," because it's so personal for me, and it has a universal message, "Sometimes you just let it go, and get on down that old gravel road."
What can we expect to see at the album release show?
When I play places like the Aster Cafe or the 318, we do our stripped down, acoustic show. At the album release show, it'll be the full band, and it's definitely gonna be rockin'!
Michael Ray & the Nasty Notes will release The Higher You Climb at Lee's Liquor Lounge on Thursday, February 20, 2014 with Mad Margaret.
21+, $5, 9 pm