The Copper Field
December 29, 2010
Aster Cafe, Minneapolis
Michael Grey's voice is not exactly beautiful. As he sits on the stage at the Aster Café, acoustic guitar settled against his chest, microphone at the ready, he is very much the picture of any other guitar-strumming indie folk rock artist--that is, until he opens his mouth and sings.
[jump] You will recognize Grey as one of the members of Mercurial Rage, though in this new, acoustic project called the Copper Field, the departure from that high-energy electronic pop is glaringly apparent and obviously deliberate. Grey's voice is powerful in a way that surprises you; it has a gritty, hard edge to it, far more callused and unpolished than what you would expect for a guy with just a guitar and a microphone. It's not unpleasant by any means--it's interesting, which is what Grey is going for, anyway.
Grey's vocals range is wide--from soft, almost whispered lyrics on the slow-burning "Radiant" to a countrified, searing twang on "Desire" to a robust, shudder-inducing chorus on the ballad-like "Desperation #9." Somehow, Grey manages to draw listeners in and keep them; it may be that on stage, he seems as approachable as he would if he were sitting at a campfire, singing some songs he made up just then. The sound of the Copper Field is stripped down and honest--fans of Low, Iron & Wine, and Mason Jennings will all find something to like in this new band.
Joe Christenson, the other half of the Copper Field, is Grey's collaborative partner in crime. He sits along side Grey on stage, guitar in hand, occasionally backing up Grey on vocals. Playing together, there is a decidedly improvisational feeling to their set; it's as though the two of them are just jamming out in their living room with some friends instead of playing on stage for an audience. That was certainly the vibe as Grey, between songs, took the time to answer questions and joke around with the crowd as he tuned his guitar.
I snuck up on Grey and Christenson after their set and got the skinny on this brand new collaboration. When I asked Grey how long this project had been in the works, he explained that "some of these songs have been around for five years, some for only three or four months," and that he and Christenson had been playing together with the Copper Field concept in mind for about half a year. The sound, too, was so radically different from what both Grey does with Mercurial Rage and what Christenson did back when he played with White Light Riot.
"I wasn't trying to make something that was blatantly folk or singer-songwriter," said Grey of this decidedly stripped-down project. "But Joe kind of motivated me to keep things going. He was like, 'these songs are good, they need to be put out there.'"
All of the songs for the Copper Field have been recorded at home, using GarageBand for the most part. It is a very lo-fi approach to making music, which is exactly the kind of sound that Grey is going for. The point is not to make it perfect, but to enjoy it.
"It's being in the same room with people, and never playing the same way twice. Tonight we did things that we had never done before. Mercurial Rage is a calculated performance--everything is so lined up," explained Grey. "With [the Copper Field] you can just keep going. And with Joe--it's like he reads [what I'm doing] and just keeps playing."
"We want to be able to have some structure, but still be able to keep it loose," said Christenson.
The Copper Field is planning on recording and producing a four-song EP in January and releasing it sometime in Spring 2011. They had planned to record at Eric Lovold's Instrument Control Studio, but following the news of the devastating Christmas Eve break-in (where Lovold's studio was pillaged), they area re-evaluating their approach. The plan now is to record the entire EP at home with some borrowed microphones and whatever software they have--very lo-fi indeed, and just the way Grey and Christenson like it.
"I'm afraid of working in something bigger than we want it to be. We are just working with what we have," explained Grey, staunch determination in his voice. "We have to not make it too big--that's the mistake this project could be."
"If you have unlimited resources, you're almost guaranteed to make bad decisions," said Christenson, who clearly shared Grey's vision of keeping things small and close to the heart. "Now, we have to make good decisions."
If last night was any indication, the Copper Field is right on track with their decision-making abilities.
For sample tracks and demos, check out the Copper Field on Facebook.
Critic's Bias: None. Wasn't even prepared to write a review--but not halfway through Grey's set, it started to seem like there was no way I couldn't.
The Crowd: Filled with friends and fellow musicheads who were at least somewhat acquainted with Grey's sound, and who were enthusiastically supportive of it.
Overheard In The Crowd: Cheers, affirmations, demands for one more song... lots of laughter as Grey teased Christenson over his brooding good looks (but for the record, it's true).
Random Notebook Dump: Worth mentioning is Walker Fields, Brad Senne's new project. He was the opener for Grey, and his set recalled a lot of Bob Dylan.
Love Song (Cure Cover)
Don't Wanna Know Why (Whiskytown Cover)