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Second Set: Weber's return reinvigorates love of music discovery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2012 - It’s not true for everyone, but for most of us, there’s a point at which your consumption of new music begins to wane. Even if hours of your life have been spent happily scouring dollar bins, or treating yourself to the self-satisfaction by buying 45s from the bands at their shows, there’s an nearly inevitable slowdown. It happens. Slowly, but assuredly. When this mode begins to strike you, there’s nothing better than people you trust laying some tracks on you.

Over the holidays, James Weber Jr. was back in St. Louis. A long-time musician and clerk at Vintage Vinyl, Weber set off a couple years back, briefly alighting in New York, before settling in New Orleans. There, he manages and spiritually guides a Euclid Records outpost, which established a retail beach-head in NOLA’s Bywater district. As record stores go, the New Orleans’ branch of Euclid is as authentic as they come, a movie set waiting for a camera to roll.

To secure a digital download (or to buy the cassette) of “The Museum Mutters,” visit: http://laterecordsusa.bandcamp.com/album/the-museum-mutters.

It makes perfect sense that if James Weber were in New Orleans he’d be heading up that locale, found just minutes from his house, in a neighborhood that oozes unassuming cool.

But when he’s in St. Louis, there’s a good chance that you’ll find Weber flitting through his old haunts in South City, especially along the South Grand corridor. This past winter holiday, Weber granted me a true gift, indeed, in the form of a purple cassette, the self-titled “The Museum Mutters.” Within an hour of the tape’s being in my possession, I’d isolated something special: the first three tracks on the “J.H.” side (more on this naming later) were quickly identified as having all-time-favorite potential. Not to suggest that the rest of the cassette doesn’t have merit; it’s a helluva rock record, from start to finish.

The three lead songs, though ... wow. This is how you front-load an album.

James Weber Jr., that imp, had written a masterpiece, sat on it for a bit, then released it in a form that few people listen to anymore. Typical. And possibly a bit genius.

An exit strategy

For much of his playing life in St. Louis, Weber fronted The Julia Sets, a group that morphed through a variety of lineups and songwriting phases. They released a good number of songs (on multiple releases over several formats, including cassette tape) and had a stellar rep among other bands, but they never fully cracked the popularity that could’ve come their way locally. When that band finally ceased operations, Weber started playing with friends and associates, and before long, The Museum Mutters were born.

Asked about the specifics of that band’s existence, Weber says, that was “seven lifetimes ago, so hard to remember dates. Was playing some dates as a part of John Hardecke's ‘Parker's Back’ improvisational group. Erik Seaver had been in bands off and on with John for many years and was also in Parker's Back. I had a handful of tunes in a notebook, thought I'd like to record them, figured John and Erik would be a great rhythm section. I sort of hinted around the idea, they jumped on board. This was 2007, I think? We dissolved shortly after finishing the record. I'd had a July 4th, 2008, revelation on top of an apartment building by the Grand water tower, and it was time for me to move on from St. Louis for awhile, to learn some new skills to bring back home. John and Erik weren't particularly interested in touring at the time, so the finished record sat in a closet. I moved away.”

The recording of the work, though, brings back clearer memories.

“It's recorded at the third version of Penny Studios,” Weber says. “The one a block east of grand South Grand. I'd been making records at various Penny incarnations going all the way back to 1999 or so, when it was in the old Globe-Democrat Building downtown. It sort of made a nice end to that decade of making music in St. Louis for me. It was also in some ways Mario (Viele’s) St. Louis swan-song, as well; he left in February 2009, for an NYC adventure. Mostly I remember the excitement of finally recording the kinds of songs I'd been trying to write for a decade, recording them with two musicians I respect and consider close friends, with my BFF Mario behind the boards. Jason Hutto had a never-ending supply of coffee from Mangia. Jason Rook cracking wise.

"Didn't feel so amazing then, but I suppose time and 679 miles gilds the memory. Or maybe it just frames the events with the context they should've had to begin with. One track didn't make the cut, could've if I'd listened to John and fixed it, but I'm frequently a stubborn ass.”

As turned out, several technical incidents changed the way the album sounded. As noted above, Mario Viele, another St. Louis scene stalwart, perhaps best-known for his part in the Sex Robots, was turning into a valued studio voice around this time. But the glitches that hit the recording session brought in a pair of  fixers in Jason Rook and Jason Hutto, and it’s in their honor that the cassettes sides aren’t A and B, but J.R. and J.H. 

Viele’s take on the session runs like so: “James is very into spontaneity in the studio, and is really into happy accidents. A good example is on ‘All Operators of HAM Radio,’ I think, where the computer glitched ... the take of the band jamming out. Instead of recutting it, James said ‘cool,’ and now it is a badass moment of the album. Also, the computer then went totally down. So about a third of the album was tracked to tape and flown in later for overdubs. Jason Rook helped save the day on that one. I'd never cut to tape. And Jason Hutto saved the day with his insight on overdubs and production, too. 

“The main note of importance from me,” he continues, “is it’s actually good this thing never came out until now, as I was still cutting my chops as a mix engineer and I always felt it was muddy, even though the guys were very happy at the time. They all got the gold star, but I didn't. The original mastering guy did a great mastering job, but in truth the mixes needed a hardcore stereo facelift, which we did and remastered it last year with newfound insights. My final suggestion to the listeners to be is the digital files are good but the cassette is the way to do it. It's saturated to rock’n’roll perfection. Happy accidents all the way to home plate. A home run ‘round the bases backward.”

The cassette mystique

It’s not considered a benefit in most circles, but one of the great things about driving an old vehicle remains: that ready access to a tape deck. If I were riding around town in a newer sled, replete with CD player, I might’ve pocketed Weber’s tape, to play it back ... when? Aside from some audiophiles, or those with older boomboxes tucked away in the garage, few folks are rocking out to tapes, whether at work, home or play. But, yeah, having that old ride made Weber’s music immediately listenable. And lovable.  

Asked why he chose to release this music, a few years on, in this format. His answer is simple, “I love them. Ten years ago they were not so hip and I had a dream of a cassette-only label that never coalesced. Found some cheap sweet purple ones, so...”

He says that timing was right for those songs to be written and recorded. “Finally convinced myself I could sing,” he says. “Really, it's the songs. Just a level of maturation, a plateau, I suppose. And then it was time to pull up stakes and find new ways to write.”

Viele praise? “It’s 10 solid jams,” he says. “It’s a St. Louis record with St. Louis songs, played like wild demons. And there are great quiet moments to remind you how loud loud is. Erik Seaver and John Hardeke are heavy-handed aces.”

He remembers the studio as a part of that process, too. 

“That was the first record done in that space by me and probably the first full length done there,” he says. “It had a control room looking down on the tracking room from the second floor, through a window like Abbey Road. It was in an old carriage house and the rest of the second floor was gutted for a high ceiling. All brick building. Great vibe.”

Hopefully, it sounds not so much immodest as coincidental to say that my own family owned that building in the mid-’00s, selling it after only a few months to a married couple, both musicians. The studio and rehearsal space are in a venue that I used to walk through and imagine turning into ... what? Something artistic, but commercially untenable, no doubt. It was fun to dream, though, for those few months. Imagining what cool things could exist, or be produced, there. 

How strange for someone to hand you a purple tape. Made in that very space.

A very St. Louis moment, that. One that make this place so weird and livable. 

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