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Second Set: The cassette tape as memory machine

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - Having a tape player in your vehicle might be considered more curse than blessing, but for those of us a certain age, there's some value in being out of date. My truck's a 2000 model, equipped with a cassette player and a pair of truly substandard speakers. Altogether, it's an audiophile's nightmare.

Over the years, I've found myself driving a steady progression of fine, pre-owned vehicles, all of them possessing the dreaded tape player. This reality has kept my tapes in more usage than those of most folks. True, a good 90 percent of my collection is in a pair of big, plastic storage boxes in the basement. But every so often, those boxes get skimmed and a few tapes escape for a ride in ol' pickup. And in a few of those cases, the cassettes cause me to fall in love, all over again, with yesterday's bands and songs.

Example A: The tape "Alright Tonight" by the band, AOK. The group was local and made up of seasoned, young pros; their only tape was recorded and released in 1997. The release is 10-songs long, with a black-and-white cassette cover featuring the image of lead singer/songwriter Joe Thebeau's one-time rag top, a 1969 Mercury Cougar. A few of these tapes are probably flying around town, getting an occasional listen; but most are probably locked up in basements, too. That's even where Thebeau keeps his stack of old stock. It's been awhile since someone's come over to pick one up, but that's just what I did a couple weekend back, asking him to fire up the speakers in his comfortable basement studio, to talk me through the lead cut of "Alright Tonight," a winning pop song called "Thanks to Gravity."

The song would morph in later years, becoming, literally, two completely different songs for his most recent project, Finn's Motel. I like both of those versions. But I love (just love) the AOK version and have since it came out. When this one escapes the storage bins, it stays in rotation for awhile, with the pure power pop of "Thanks to Gravity" never getting old.

"With (my previous band) the Finns, the one thing that was crazy is that when we stopped trying so hard to do major label stuff, these weird, little power pop labels started coming out of the woodwork, asking us onto compilations," Thebeau remembers. "We had a few songs come out on the Not Lame label and then we split. It seemed a natural idea to just do power pop."

Thebeau began to assemble AOK by continuing to play with his longtime partner in the Finn's/the Finn Brothers, bassist Jon Ackley, aka Jonny Bitch. Dennis Williams, who would go on to later, long runs with the Ded Bugs and the Trip Daddys, came in on drums. And a coup was scored in adding Mo Cooksey, who played guitar for the popular Big Fun and, as Thebeau says, "seemed a really good person to do that with, because he was there the first time around. Bringing on Mo was something that I'd thought about a couple of different times. When we did road trips with Big Fun, we had long conversations about doing original music, instead of covers. I was wanting to completely indulge the power pop thing, without any apology."

Shifting Dreams

Before fronting AOK, Thebeau (then known as Joe Finn) headed up both the Finn Brothers and The Finns, both groups containing a mostly similar membership and a love of pop music, with Cheap Trick always-and-forever cited as a key influence. The band had a pretty good following, with no small amount of fans among other local musicians; in fact, the Atlantic Records-signed Pale Divine long featured The Finns' song "Burn Down the Sky" in its own live sets.

Despite the general good will at home and willingness to go out on the road for even modest payoffs, the band's luck never quite matched their talent. Unable to secure a deal, the group eventually called it a day, leaving behind a handful of solid recordings among their varied lineup-and-name configurations. (A brief version of the Finns as Pyschviolet was also mixed into their timeline, with a four-song ep and a toughened-up, glammed-up sound the short-term result.)

AOK, in some respects, was set up as the natural follow-up to those acts and with the well-known Cooksey on board, along with a hot, new drummer in Williams, it appeared that the future would be a solid one, too. The band worked up a set, played a few shows, then booked themselves a weekend in the DeSoto studio of former Finns guitarist Matt Meyer, who was renting space in his mom's home.

"There weren't a lot of overdubs," Thebeau says. "We did almost all of it in the better part of that weekend. Matt's mom's place is where he was set up then; and it wasn't like we could just drop in for an hour, or two, when we wanted to. I don't think we did a lot of fixes. We did guitars, bass and drums together, then added some solo guitar stuff."

Taking in your own material, years after producing it, can be a strange experience for anyone, no matter what form of creativity they employ. For Thebeau, "I have to say that when Matt sent the master over again, I was glad to say it doesn't suck. I'm not embarrassed by it, or anything.

"I was pleasantly surprised how solid we were playing," he adds. "With The Finns, we were always rushed, edged-up. This is right in the pocket. I think I was also surprised in that there are a lot of productions that make you regret the recording. The second Finns album has so much reverb on it, I can't listen to it today, even the good songs. This is very solid. The bridge, when we played it with other people, was overdone or underdone. Dennis did a really good job. When it comes back around, it feels resolved. The bridge was my real 'Dream Police'-type bridge. I love the chorus. I'll give you more fodder: The chorus for the song is like a Bob Welch song, you know 'Sentimental Lady' or 'Ebony Eyes.' I was big time into him. But like I said, everybody's playing is solid here. No over-reaching, or anything like that."

While a few cuts on the tape would go on to additional life in future projects, the majority of cuts are one-and-done with this release. The band, itself, was destined for a quick run, owing to the usual slate of personal and playing differences. While it was a tough blow at that moment, Thebeau rebounded with a group called The Rayburns; he'd also play guitar and bass as a support member of the bands Prisonshake and the Treeweasels. And over the past decade, he's been creating music as Finn's Motel, with drummer Patrick Hawley and bassist Steve Scariano the primary constants; a record, the understated "Escape Velocity," is their one release to date.

Which brings us back to Joe's basement.

Inside Mission Control

Since 1998, Thebeau's lived in a cool, 1945 ranch house in Affton, with his lovely wife Gina Dill-Thebeau, son Alex, daughter Paris and a trio of amusing dogs. Upstairs, you have a neat mix of elements, combining suburban cool with the necessities of a family abode. But the basement's where Thebeau slips away to both escape and to work, with a good chunk of the downstairs turned into a recording studio, replete with a vocal isolation room and a mixing space/storage area. On the door to that one is a small, taped sign, "Mission Control," as good a name as any for this sound sanctuary.

Down in his Affton basement, Thebeau's been working on a handful of projects, all of them in varying degrees of completion. Recently, he's been taking night classes at UM-St. Louis and that's been taxing his time. He has teenagers in the house, which obviously equals more commitments. When able, though, he's spent time in his studio with bands like the Love Experts and songwriter/one-man-band Erik Voeks. While those recordings are now stretching into years-long sessions, the Treeweasels also came through, knocking out some scratch demos. And then there's the next Finn's Motel album, which has been simmering on a back burner for almost four years.

Thebeau played some of those to a small audience a couple weeks back: myself and painter Dana Smith were on the studio's comfortable couch, avidly listening to song after song. To a degree, the album's been slowed by some of the reasons noted above. Also, his primary arranger, guitarist Robert Griffin, simply decided on a non-performance, non-playing life, which changed the group's dynamics considerably. There's also the matter of Thebeau having a perfectionist streak.

In talking about the different ways in which "Thanks to Gravity" has been recorded, he opened up an interesting riff on how modern recordings differ so greatly from when he and The Finns came burning up I-55 for a decade's worth of live shows and recordings in St. Louis.

"The opening riff of 'Thanks' and some other little pieces wound up in another song for 'Escape Velocity,'" he says. "Another chorus and the same verses were used for a new version, which never made the cut, for whatever reason. When I start playing with parts of it, which one winds up being the one? I ask around and, at first, I might not agree with them; it depends on the person who says it. Maybe there's something I've missed. I just don't know, I have to indulge myself by listening to all three versions and wondering.

"The danger of doing your own recordings is this," he warns. "We all built these things is our basement. I know I didn't even spend that much, maybe $5,000, but I can make things sound good here. When we recorded in studios, you could hear the clock ticking on the wall, and that'll drive you crazy. But the other thing is that you can sit down here forever and just keep working on the same song. How can you ever know? So you just keep trying stuff.

"Half the time you don't know what to call yourself," he muses. "Producer? Maybe it's project-coordinator. I might track some stuff here. Then Matt masters it; he's getting really good at that. And that work might be done on Matt's laptop. It's a lot different than the old record days."

Some of the old Finns material is now being sold via bandcamp.com. And he's open to the fact that the next round of Finn's Motel might be offered digitally, instead of as a hard-copy CD. The industry, of course, changes constantly. Likely, though, these songs won't be released on cassettes for old cars, though I'd personally be thankful to hear Joe's new material any day, on any medium.

"Maybe I should see them that way," he jokes, looking at his boxes of tapes. "Cassettes are back, right?"