Small Sur :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Nearly a decade from the release of Labor, Bob Keal’s Small Sur project has returned with the remarkable Attic Room. Presented is a deeply personal record capturing slivers of life from the father, teacher, woodworker, and songwriter. Keal showcases an ability to take a second in time – “A thundercloud unfolding after the rain,” “I’ll have one last cigarette then lie down to rest,” “the silhouette in space formed by the morning sun” – and expand it into a landscape of abstraction. Choosing to detail endearing moments in as experiential terms possible, a song like “Meadow” starts with a simple concept and evolves into a web of discovery. Perhaps, in fatherhood, the opportunity to see things for the first time resurfaces.

The expansive nature of the recordings come to life, thanks in large part, to the assembly of players on Attic Room. Despite an insular inception in Keal’s songwriting, the arrangement of the songs that build out the record seem anchored in collaboration. Far beyond the loner bedroom-folk so often associated with ‘quiet’ music, songs like “Rays of Light” and “Love” become showcases for both new and old friends. Throughout, we are graced with flutters of saxophone, pedal steel atmospherics, and fiddle drones. Sonically, Attic Room shares a hard-to-pin-down originality akin to the downtempo numbers from John Martyn’s masterful One World. Fortunately, this is not their only similarity, as gratuitous Echoplex graces the LP—another showcase of expertise within the grooves of this record.

We caught up with Keal a few days before the release of Attic Room. The conversation here – edited for clarity and space – explores the creative process that goes into Keal’s Small Sur. | j rooney

Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s get the big one out of the way first. It’s been nine years since the release of Labor. What have you been up to and was there a reason for waiting so long to release Attic Room?

Bob Keal: I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last few years. I tend to get hyper focused on whatever I’m doing, whether that’s teaching, woodworking, traveling and biking, playing basketball, making music. Just any number of things that I love to do–parenting, of course, and lots of other stuff. And so it’s just the economy of time. And also, I think part of it is that I’ve never felt the need to pressure myself into one form of creativity. And so, music was just in the background for a long time while other creative pursuits were more prominent. You know, I’d pick up the guitar on the couch, record demos and ideas on my phone during a coffee high. There was also the EP that I recorded in 2017 with Joe and Matthew (Matt) O’Connell, who make music as Elephant Micah and Chorusing. Those guys invited me down to North Carolina to sort of strong arm me into making some new music. And so we spent a weekend recording a couple songs live that they’d heard me play at shows. It took us like three years to get it together. There was a fried hard drive involved and me being slow about things. But yeah, I just have so many interests and a very limited amount of time. It’s not like I’ve been in some sort of tortured creative space. It’d probably be cooler if it was though.

AD: With all these things revolving around the creation of the record, I’d love to hear about the process of how these songs became fleshed out. In particular, “Rays of Light.” It’s really expanded since the 2017 demo version. What’s it like to live with a song for so long? And do you see yourself in a constant state of revision, or just making tweaks until it all fits together?

Bob Keal: The original version we recorded in 2017, was born out of playing it live with my band here in Baltimore. When we recorded it, it was Matthew on drums, Joe on bass and me singing and playing guitar, all just done live. Matthew’s style is really unique and percussive, and he folded in a lot of cool rhythms. And then Joe’s an awesome bass player and has like a real bounce to his bass parts. So that recording is a little more uptempo compared to the album version. And I think coming into recording Attic Room, Matt and I knew we wanted to record it again and to space it out a bit. He came up here to do the initial nylon string guitar and vocals and overdubs that we did in the basement music room of the chapel on the campus where I teach. This was fall of 2020. We just kind of set up a makeshift studio down there over a couple long weekends. And then of course, the pedal steel is a really fun part of this recording because it goes from a spaced out droney interlude, and there’s just bright light steel that cuts through. And I love that. It’s the only time I told Dave Hadley, who played steel on the record, to really make it ‘country.’

AD: That’s so cool. Most of the record has those heavy atmospheric Jerry Garcia pedal steel tones that beef up the tunes, and on this one, it really is like, ‘alright let’s head on down to Nashville, folks.’

Bob Keal: I just like the brightness of it, and how it lifts everything up. And sometimes, when there’s so much space in a song, my tendency is to keep everything really subtle. And to hide sounds like Easter eggs. But on this song, I wanted something to feel immediate enough to grab somebody’s attention again. Because I’m also doing this thing where I just repeat the verse over again with just a couple small shifts. And I’m conscious of that. I enjoy doing it.

AD: It’s funny that you mention that because I’m listening to a lot of Van Morrison right now and he will repeat the one phrase over and over to the point that it’s obvious he’s trying to do something with it. There’s a moment on “Love” where it does hit those Van Morrison living in Marin County vibes—especially with saxes. The pedal steel throughout the record is great, but you also sneak saxophones in there in a textural way, and on this tune, it’s much more forward.

Bob Keal: Yeah, so I met Andy Abelow back in 2007. He has played saxophone on all my records and been a really important part of them. We’ve sometimes used his saxophone like a voice, and I harmonize with it. It becomes melodic at times in earlier songs, too, but it’s often just been this sort of textural bed. Matt and I were really excited about “Love.” I was in Raleigh, and we were doing the final editing push prior to mixing. We were close, but “Love” wasn’t quite tied up. Andy, the saxophonist, lives in Los Angeles these days. We got on the phone, and he said, ‘I’ve got some time today. So I’ll just send you guys some stuff as I go.’ I remember getting a take, and Matt’s response was, ‘Just crank up the pop.’ I’d been listening to Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark at Matt’s behest, and this seemed like a chance to incorporate some of that feel. When Andy sent us the part that’s on the record, we were just going nuts. We were so excited. It was a fun moment.

AD: It really is out of nowhere. Full-on 1980s style pop sax solo.

Bob Keal: I love it. And what I also love about the sax on this record in general is that Matt ran a lot of it through an old Echoplex tape delay. So that’s where you get that sort of warble, you know? Like on “A Clean Patch of Ground” and “Rays of Light,” it has this real otherworldly feel, and that’s all Matt with the Echoplex. Pretty cool process that he brought to the table.

AD: When recording this, you obviously had the intention of releasing a record. Did you have the label lined up with Worried Songs already?

Bob Keal: I definitely didn’t have that lined up. I sure was hoping somebody would want to put it out, though, because I didn’t have any money.

AD: It definitely sounds like there’s a lot of hard work put into Attic Room. It’s an awesome sounding record, production-wise.

Bob Keal: Thank you. We hoped somebody would enjoy it enough to put it out. I had self-released a few albums before this. And happily. Back then, I wanted a record label to help, but when I started self-releasing, I sort of realized, oh, it’s pretty cool. I loved sending people stuff in the mail, sending an extra CD, or dropping a note in there. It was fun. But with Attic Room, I definitely didn’t want to spend the money to put it out myself. Jeffrey Silverstein, a friend who used to live in Baltimore, had mentioned Worried Songs as a possible place for the album. I reached out to a bunch of places, and Chaz wrote back and said, ‘Hey, I love the record. I’d love to put it out if you’re still interested.’ And I really love the label. It’s been so great working with him.

AD: They’ve really been knocking it out lately. Between this record and the Joseph Allred record. The Ralph White records are absurd. The whole Worried Songs catalogue is just on fire.

Bob Keal: He’s a great guy, too, and really fun to work with. He’s super enthusiastic. And that’s what I’ve always wanted from a label, just somebody who was excited to work alongside. And Chaz has definitely been that and more. I’m really thankful to be putting out this record with him.

AD: I’d love to hear about your songwriting influences.

Bob Keal: I guess the biggest thing is that my lyrics are all autobiographical, and they’re often very, very specific. I think you mentioned at some point that they’re like a moment in time, or like a single experience. I’ve always done it that way. I think I experimented on my very first EP with songs that tread into the storyteller thing like John Prine or Bob Dylan, but it felt wrong. You know, growing up in the Midwest, that’s what I knew, along with radio rock, radio country, that sort of thing. Being in super rural Northeast Nebraska for high school, I just didn’t have access to other stuff. When I got into music in college, there were a few songs that grabbed me. One was this Microphones song called “Karl Blau” from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. It’s just so literal and feels very palpable and actual versus some poetic thing. It’s a simple experience, but it’s beautiful. I felt really inspired by that. And I was getting really into Cat Power and some of her songs felt similar, like real moments. There were others, too. I also just love listening to and writing slow, deceptively simple songs with layers of texture. Low. Dirty Three. Elephant Micah. Little Wings. Juana Molina. I draw a lot of inspiration from the depths of their work.

AD: What are the plans for Small Sur following the release for Attic Room? Any touring scheduled out beyond the album release show in Baltimore next month?

Bob Keal: That’s the only one officially on the books. Been talking with some folks about getting to the northeast over the winter. And then hopefully, if everything works out, next March, Matt and I will head back out to Michigan with Erik Hall, who mixed Attic Room and really just glued the whole thing together, to start making another record. At least that’s the plan.

AD: And that is an interesting note of the last few years of pandemic logistics. It’s odd, because you’re releasing this record and it’s 2022. But it was actually completed a while back. There’s the feeling of ‘wow another record already,’ but really, it’s been a normal amount of time that people put in between LPs.

Bob Keal: It’s funny. And I do want to play more shows. But it’s like, how do I prioritize all of it and fit it all in with everything else? I’m not really sure if I’m doing it right. But I know that if I don’t keep going and making albums when I have windows, that I just won’t do it. It will just fall off. Because, again, there’s so many things I love to do. My intention is to just make it a regular thing. Every two or three years to make an album, to keep pushing myself as a songwriter and as an artist. And to value that part of me: the most direct form of artistry that I’ve got in my life. And because it felt so good this time, you know, making this record with Matt and Erik and everybody else. I want to bottle it up and see if I can find it again.

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