The burden of expectation has sunk many a would-be great record. With the clock ticking on expensive studio time and songs that have been honed over months of practice forced to take definitive shape on deadline, it's easy for inspiration to play second fiddle to aspiration and anxiety. So perhaps more bands should take their cues from local duo Ten Centuries, a band that casually recorded its excellent debut album in a cabin over a 10-day period before they were even sure they were a band, let alone a band making an album.
"It helped that we went in not expecting to make a record," explains the group's singer/guitarist, Bill Caperton, formerly frontman for angular indie-rock quartet Ela. "From the start, this project was about getting back to what I really enjoy when it comes to making music and jettisoning some of the trappings of the past I didn't care for."
Caperton's serious about the jettisoning, and any ardent Ela fans expecting Ten Centuries to be a extension of that group's driving and expansive rock sound will be in for a surprise. Gone are the jagged electric guitar shards and muscular rhythm section that defined Ela, with gently strummed six-strings and warm keyboard tones taking their place. The nine tracks that make up White Pines stick to mellow, melodic terrain, most moving along at a mid-tempo clip, with the focus squarely on Caperton's haunted tenor and oblique yet hard-hitting lyricism.
While the musical landscape has mostly been miniaturized, the lyrics have grown in the opposite direction, with Caperton moving beyond the matters of the heart that typified Ela's early work and expanding the scope of his writing to tackle the big issues—family, religion, rebirth—via striking imagery more indebted to Beat poets than to indie rock contemporaries.
"Books and poetry are a huge part of my life," says Caperton, while discussing the inspirations behind his campfire sing-alongs for the deep-thinking set. "I'm studying psychology now, and it's definitely influencing my songwriting. What I think about is what I write about; I've never been able to separate the two. Then again, I don't think I'm necessarily a strong pop writer. It's not something I've ever felt like I had a handle on. My interest in poetry and esoteric psychology links up for me in my songwriting in a way that makes sense and feels like an effective platform for my own ideas. I've definitely always felt that interplay between what I guess you could call my academic and musical lives."
A subtly seductive album that takes its time getting its hooks into the listener, White Pines has an austere aesthetic that ultimately proves gripping, the ideal contemplative companion for a walk through winter woods—which only makes sense considering its origins. "The space was a part of the process in a really big way," says Caperton of the secluded cabin where White Pines was recorded with bandmate/engineer Mike Gunnerson. "I've been going to this place since I was four years old, so I feel like I have a lot of ghosts floating around the place. Every time we went up there I would have the most intense dreams, and those often fed into the songs, and I think that was a result of me having so much history there. To be making this document in that place resulted in weird layers of resonance happening."
"There's a personal element to the process when you've got all the writing and recording happening in one room, without other people around second-guessing," offers Gunnerson. "The cabin gave us the ability to record, walk down to the lake, and think without being obsessed with the song we were working on at the time. It was easy to clear our heads and come back with fresh ears to take things in different directions."
Chances are that for at least the next decade, whenever an indie rock musician in the Upper Midwest retreats from larger society and returns with an excellent folk record, the words "Bon Iver" will be thrown around. In this case the comparison makes sense, as artfully layered harmonies and hard-to-place but easy-to-love ambient backing atmospherics are some of the key elements that make Ten Centuries so mesmerizing. Whether or not the group experiences similar break-out success, however, Caperton and Gunnerson appear content having found a new model for their artistic pursuits that works on their terms—they've already made multiple follow-up recording trips to the cabin since White Pines was put to tape this fall.
"My personal music-making motivations are different now than they were 10 years ago," admits Caperton, who is 29. "We've both done the whole guy-in-a-band life and toured the country. This is more introspective—it's about the process of making music with friends and less about trying to make it big. Music's become less of a crazy driving force and settled into more of a core part of who I am. I'm excited about the possibility of making a lot more records this way."
TEN CENTURIES play a CD-release show with Roma di Luna on THURSDAY, JANUARY 28, at the BRYANT LAKE BOWL; 612.825.8949