Ryan SparksMUSIC, ART

YOU ARE NOT LISTENING

Ryan SparksMUSIC, ART
YOU ARE NOT LISTENING

by RYAN SPARKS with photos by RYAN HODGSON-RIGSBEE

ON HIS FINAL NIGHT AS PROPRIETOR OF NEVER RECORDS NEW ORLEANS, Ted Riederer has his arm draped around R&B singer Tank as they both sing along to an improvised song she recorded in his temporary recording studio and record shop weeks earlier.  Both of them have a digital copy and a vinyl record of the track, and they’ve each listened to it so many times since the session that they have all of her dancing notes memorized.  Ted has four days’ of beard going and his hair has fallen out of its normal slick curve.  Dead tired and disheveled, he’s contorting his body up and down in accordance with Tank’s recorded voice, celebrating his wealth in advance like a worker who’s just punched a ticket for a weeks’ worth of overtime at time-and-a-half.  There is a crowd watching him do this, musicians who have recorded with him this past month, his fashionable interns, and other citizens who have been drawn to the shop again and again.  Ted scans the crowd while he mimes lyrics, and his eyes fall on all the accumulated gear, art, and records he’ll have to pack up tomorrow, his anti-business once again overruled and shut down by regular life.

Back on the first day of anti-business, coinciding with Art for Art’s Sake, Ted was clean-shaven and probably as buttoned-up as he gets for an art opening.   He explained the concept to dozens of people who would never be back, dallying wanderers who were keen on concept but not long on commitment.  The recordings are free to the artist, the sessions are open to the public, and you can’t buy anything you see.  Ted hasn’t lowered prices by cutting out the middleman.  He is the middleman.  He is not a vertical operation; he is an elliptical one, a constant feedback loop supplying its own demand.  Still, everyone takes something home, even if it’s the barest speck of record shop camaraderie inadvertently inhaled.  I asked Ted if there was anything stopping someone else from buying a recording lathe and copying his idea.  “No,” he said, shaking his head.  He looked concerned, like he’d never even considered the idea, but then laughed.  “No, but it wouldn’t be as cool.”

Ted relaxes a moment between sessions.

This was back when the store’s inventory was low.  Black plywood record stalls stood arranged near the front of the shop, stocked with vinyl from Never Records’ previous incarnations in Liverpool, London, and Derry, Northern Ireland.  Back when Ted planned on being off two days a week and recording only five sessions a day.  The next time I stopped in, Ted told me, “I’ve already broken my rules.”  His current appointment paused his setup.  “There are rules?” he asked, uncertain.  This seemed to be a laissez-faire locale.

Ted was speaking of his own internal rules of allowance.  How many takes he will give someone, how many sessions he’ll do in a day, how many days off he’ll take, how many bottles of Jameson will bounce into the Rubbermaid.  Ted spoke to me before he even arrived in New Orleans of his inability to say no in London, of stacking sessions deep.  “It’s like an orgy. ‘Who’s next, who’s next, who’s next!’”  He lost sleep.  He lost fifteen pounds.  He lost track of how many people derived some satisfaction from his shop.  That’s why he’s breaking his rules again.  When do you reach the limits of your inclusion? Ted—himself having been included into the community of an infamous Maryland record shop back in the pre-MP3 age—finds it difficult to turn someone down.  Not when you have a wave of musicians swelling and ready to break.

Early in October word of his store got around quickly from Frenchmen regulars to garage hobbyists to Royal Street buskers.   Nothing draws in New Orleans like FREE, but PROVE YOURSELF is a close second.

“I feel like every city wants to be the most unique, but there’s no hierarchy to me.  It’s just all different.  Everyone in New Orleans is like, ‘Yes! We’re the best musicians, right!?!’”  Ted doesn’t answer the question, just smiled his sidewinder smile.  So, now, two weeks in, he feels perfectly fine pushing everyone who comes through his door to alter their perceptions of themselves.  Isidro Robinson, still young and lean and open, composes live electronic music, looping his voice and layering beats.  The song he wants to record is almost perfected muscle memory, from his fader-flicking fingers to his fluxing larynx.  He runs through a couple of takes.  Including the microphone setup, Ted has heard this 8 minute song four times.  He knows he already has a good take in the bag, so he pushes the kid to feel free inside his rhythm and pattern, risk a flub for some dynamics.  Describing one dense section, he asks, “Do you just want to be inscrutable, or do you want to give the listener a reward?  I want a reward, is what I’m saying.”

Stu Downes, a Liverpudlian who leavens Mississippi blues with a folky timbre of Midlands yearning, has participated in each version of Never Records and has as much exposure to Ted’s evolving M.O. as anyone.  “[In New Orleans] the music is more prominent, because it occupies the whole space in the shop, and it’s very clear to see, and I don’t think on any of the previous Never Records it was that obvious about musicians and creating music.  Obviously, when they’re playing in the room it fills up the whole room and when people are passing by—it’s quite random when strangers come in, but it does happen.  Most of the people have been bands who’ve heard from other bands and so that’s the major difference. It’s all in one space and the musical part of the adventure stands out, and that’s ultimately the important part, I think, at his heart.”

Ted repeatedly and vocally denies the title of professional engineer, but rarely says anything about being simultaneously employed as a producer, prodder, and proctor.  As the keyholder to this whole operation, he may or may not see that people respond to him because of his skill in these roles.

“It’s really weird that that confidence shines through.  It’s like riding a horse, like, if you let the horse know that you’re afraid of it, it’ll buck you every time.  But people come in and I’m, like, ‘All right! Let’s fuckin’ do this you sons of bitches!’ [….] Really, it never fails that nine times out of ten the couple of sessions that have been kind of flat, everyone turns the corner sonically, where it congeals.  We figure out what the edge is and it’s crazy.  It’s almost like if you set up the right conditions and you get the right people in the room it’s just going to happen naturally like crystalline growth.”

The right conditions go beyond the gear and the Persian rugs covering the cement floors.  The right conditions exist separately from the walls anyone can write on or the fact that the distribution chain from studio to factory to anti-commercial outlet runs about twelve feet.  The right conditions include Ted’s ability to quickly ascertain a band’s influences and capabilities and the vast cross-genre knowledge that allows him to alter his recording methods for each artist.  The right conditions have everything to do with musicians in eyesight of each other, no one isolated in a booth.  Everyone experimenting without worry because the meter isn’t running on dead air, eating up the credit limit.

A visitor flips through the stacks of local recordings

Justin Windham from the punk rock group Scarecrow Sonic Boombox  told me, “[A]fter the basic tracks were done, Ted asked me to do some atmospheric guitar stuff to lay on top of and bury within the instrumental track.  This is something that I do myself on our home recordings, but I hadn’t mentioned it to Ted.  When we play live, the volume and the amps and the feedback create a lot of overtones, which fills out the sound, but on recordings one guitar track sounds different than it does live.  Anyway, I closed my eyes and blissed out on some space guitar for a bit, and when I turned around, the studio was full of people watching me get lost in sound.  I liked the feeling; it made it seem more organic, the way I feel when we play a live gig.”

Any contention between the musicians and Ted usually dissolves while the record is being cut.  Visitors usually end up gawking at the toys, jawing at the lathe, and feeling up the records.  Aficionados talk shop about needles and microphones.  Ted tells anyone who wants to know about the Germans who made the lathe he uses: jukebox mechanics turned vinyl suppliers, paranoid intellectual property mavens who gave him instructions in broken English, who still call from time to time because they assume he is recording half the nation.  All the elements of Ted’s story are crammed haphazard into a hard shell distro case.

Ted explains the process because the science means something to him, because he wants them to respect the record, because it is one of a kind.  Lathe 101, he calls it, an overview in waves, pistons, and membranes.  Once he’s done mixing and compressing the audio with ProTools on his MacBook, he sends the signal to the lathe.  It starts cutting, and the cast off excess vinyl gets sucked through a hose into a trap.  This is the silence being stripped away as the stratified grooves are left behind.  Ted pulls it out of the trap and hands it around, a spongy white filament responsive to your fingers.

Closer to Halloween this material becomes a substitute spider web decoration, suspending rubber arachnids from a “Now Recording” sign placed directly in the eye line of anyone walking through the door.  I never saw anyone pay attention to this sign, lit or not.  Visitors’ eyes go to the center of the room, to Ted, to the giant Never Records logo on the wall, to anyone holding a guitar or trumpet.  We can’t be at fault for this.  Television and experience have taught us to visually judge the frontman before we listen to him.

Recording in the back of the shop

Ted knows this about us, too.  Never Records posters and fliers bear the slogan, YOU ARE NOT LISTENING.  Arturo Vega—the artist and designer who helped express the Ramones’ musical aesthetic visually—has worked with Ted in New York and offered the tagline.

“Arturo is still a bit of an instigator even at the age of 64.  So I think he was contributing it in a kind of bratty ‘fuck you’ kind of way, but I adopted it wholeheartedly because I think no one is listening anymore.”  Ted can easily rejoin the snotty punk tread, especially if someone he’s just recorded starts exhibiting an upturned nose at artists from other genres.  I watched him blast honky tonk, folk, and alt-country tracks at a pretentious electro kid after their session was finished, prying at his edges.  Eventually Ted just turned the volume up for his own amusement, saying, “These are all bands I’ve regarded!”

After the kids has packed and left, Ted tells me, “It doesn’t matter if you have a voice if no one is fucking listening!  You can have the most articulate voice, but if no one’s listening […] it’s like, the voice doesn’t matter.  You gotta listen.  Someone has to listen, and this process I take very seriously.  If the person is doing armpit farts, it’s like, ‘I can throw a mic up your butt and one on the side, and then I can get the juice…’and I can get into it.  I don’t care what it is.  And that’s like, I am listening, you know.  It’s really valuable.”

To my knowledge Ted never recorded armpit farts in New Orleans, but he listened to a lot of people.  Where they came from, where they liked to play, why they started this band or left another one.  He listened to people overthink their solos.  He listened to people complain about ruthless landlords.  The microphones were cold.  The lathe was still.  He listened to lingo brave and contradictory.  The nights got long.  He listened to his interns describe their neighborhoods and share their specific histories.  He listened to the press paraphrase his agenda back to him, seeking confirmation.  He listened to his laptop whirr, compiling the accumulated tracks.  Over 120 recordings.  At least 300 people.

Micah McKee, singer/songwriter for Little Maker and guitarist for the High Beamens , described the shop by saying, “The energy is palpable.  Walking in you can just taste the fact that there are hundreds of musicians who have been through here, you know?  You can feel it.  It’s such an encouraging, wonderful thing.”

The opening night art installation façade is buried under a month’s worth of accumulated photos, graffiti, Pallbearers stickers, and dog hair.  Empty cups, pizza crust, magazines, robust newspapers.  Records in cardboard flaps leaning on each other, some names familiar on the Livewire, others obscure.  Don’t forget the markers, cards, and resin.  Piss spittle on the toilet rim, loose notes, errant fingerprints.

McKee said, “I’ve been going through a rough emotional time in my life lately, and the timing of this was incredible.  It was just what I needed and it very much feels like a support group.  When it’s gone, I’ll just kind of walk these streets and try to soak up any kind of nostalgia I can get out of the building.”

Sidewalk superjam on the last night of /Never Records

After any recording session, time-permitting, Ted would play songs from his archive for a group while they packed up and debriefed.  His eagerness often got the better of him, so he would he play thirty second samples of song after song.  A measure or a note from one reminds him of another and he’d be compelled to move forward, work the scroll, click-click and sing along.

Monday night, the final night, a group of French gypsy buskers retire from the listening party.  They step outside and set up in a circle, tapping tambourines and generating exotic chants.  Other musicians eventually join in until the PA inside is turned off and the listening party is now a performance party with banjos, guitars, and fiddles being passed around and drumsticks tapping window frames.  Those with nothing either sing or clap.  Ted hugs a tom drum, directing them all to the last, ordering shifts in scope.  He calls on people by name, coaxing solos.  He preaches and builds chants.  The night is one long song that turns and learns, hearts recording never-ending.

documentary about NEVER RECORDS has been released and shown around the world.  Ted has also launched a new website describing the history of the project and posts podcasts with selected recordings on a semi-regular basis.