Taj Raj go back to basics

"I was full of anxiety after every show for a long time"
colin kopp photography

Two years ago, Taj Raj were at a crossroads. The band had just released their poppy, country-tinged debut, Your Thief. But then their bassist quit, and not long after, their keyboardist went abroad for months. It was nothing short of an identity crisis.

"I don't think any of us were particularly inspired by the sounds we were creating," says singer/guitarist Ben Burwell. He and his bandmates are huddled around the coffee table with drinks in hand in the living room of his south Minneapolis duplex. "It made me uncomfortable. I specifically remember being full of anxiety after every show for a long time."

Almost by accident, Taj Raj turned a corner when they were invited to play a stripped-down acoustic set at a benefit show last summer. It was a eureka moment. "It was like a lightbulb went off," recalls lead guitarist Chris O'Hal, with a snap of his fingers. "Like, 'Of course! This is what we wanted to do all along.'"

That newfound inspiration is readily apparent on the six-song EP Fine Hearts Alive. With hushed vocals, breathy harmonies, and plenty of warm, echoing space, it feels like the work of a band that's found its footing. "We're all huge Bon Iver fans; I'm a huge Low fan," Burwell says. "There's this kind of big amount of space that these artists are filling that seems so somber and cavernous and beautiful."

Burwell and drummer Jake Wallenius met while attending law school at St. Thomas a few years ago, and initially envisioned a low-key, acoustically driven band. But in the process of assembling the rest of the group, and recording their first album, things gradually went into more of a hard-hitting, rock 'n' roll direction.

"As soon as we started practicing [as a band], we started recording," says Wallenius. "We were bringing in people after the songs were already written." In an effort to recreate the sound they'd made in the studio, with its layers upon layers of instruments and overdubs, the band found themselves playing over each other in concert — and not really playing to anyone's strengths.

So when Burwell and Wallenius got together last summer in Burwell's living room to flesh out the demos for Fine Hearts, it was a matter of learning how best to play off of one another. And that, in turn, helped everyone to establish a more defined role in the band — in particular, Jake Pavek, who had come in on Rhodes so late on Your Thief that his contributions were basically an afterthought. This time around, his shimmering keys on a song like "Emily" and elliptical mandolin on "Romani" play a crucial role in defining the space where this music exists.

The group recorded Fine Hearts in the basement of Pavek's house in Hudson, Wisconsin. Pavek's dad — who's played bass in the same cover band since he was a teenager — even lent a hand, dropping by to lay down tracks. "They call him Tequila Tom," Pavek says proudly. "He came in on a Saturday night, brought a bottle of tequila, got us all loaded, and laid down his tracks. It worked out great."

And yet, going small-scale with the music has also led to some of Taj Raj's biggest moments — take, for instance, Burwell's forceful vocal on a song about ditching the confines of small-town living, "Begging the Devil." It's a song that sounds much bigger in the context of what surrounds it, which says plenty about how far Taj Raj have come. "Arcing concepts don't sound appropriate when there's only five tracks — just me and an acoustic guitar," says Burwell. "You need a big guitar and lights."

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