Fan Modine: Up From the Basement

By John Schacht

FM

Photo by Michael Traister

Seven years off the musical radar in the current zeitgeist might as well be Siberian exile. So it says something about Gordon Zacharias’ songwriting that, when he finally resurfaced, he found people like Jefferson Holt urging him to get on with it.

Zacharias, who’s recorded as Fan Modine since his 1998 debut Slow Road to Tiny Empire, met the former R.E.M. manager Holt through a mutual friend. He passed along some rough mixes of what would evolve into Gratitude For the Shipper, a luscious set of orchestral rock that had been gestating since Fan Modine’s critically acclaimed (though considerably sparser) sophomore record, 2004’s Homeland. Holt was as “floored” by the songs as Zacharias was by his reaction, and the former engaged in some totally needless arm-twisting to get him to finish.

“‘We’re going to book studio time, we’re going to do this, do that,’” Zacharias chuckles remembering Holt’s enthusiasm. “Obviously that meant a lot to me, respecting him as much as I do.”

Inspired by the feedback, Zacharias decided at “all costs and great personal risk, (to) jump off the cliff” and devote himself to music full-time. Holt stayed involved in a “meta” capacity over the year-long final stages, but it was co-producer Chris Stamey who had to make sense of a project that Zacharias admits had him “lost” after six years of song-tinkering. Gratitude’s basic tracking had been done right after Homeland’s release, in the Carrboro millhouse Zacharias lived in at the time. But lacking the time or focus to “fully realize the record,” he says, the songs began accumulating endless layers — a xylophone here, a few more guitars and keys there — in his basement studio.

By the time Stamey got them, some songs had stacked up more than 100 tracks. (“It’s really not a good way to do things,” Zacharias sheepishly chuckles.) But he believes Stamey was the only person who could have sifted through it all and mixed the record. He cited the veteran producer’s ability to toss out, say, a particular bass line after hearing just 10 seconds of it.

“Chris is really quick at identifying standout performances,” he says. “But it was a bit of a surprise for him just how many different things there were to draw from.”

The process wasn’t just about subtraction, though. Where Homeland sounded like a cheerier cousin to 69 Love Songs Magnetic Fields, Gratitude was inspired by classic late-60s/early-70s records like John Cale’s Paris 1919 and Procul Harum’s A Salty Dog. Stamey tapped into his connections and soon Gratitude’s buoyant melodies were swaddled in elegant strings — courtesy of several North Carolina Symphony members — and horns just jaunty enough to remind one of their origins in Triangle salsa band Orquesta GarDel.

Zacharias added some key guitar heft to counter-balance Gratitude’s lilting melodies and twee-tilting arrangements, lyrics that were deliberately “open-ended,” and his own voice — a wispy and sometimes theatrical vehicle. Triangle guitarists Ash Bowie (Polvo), Chuck Johnson (Shark Quest, Pykrete), Lee Waters (Work Clothes), Stamey and Mitch Easter all contributed parts. The result is a record that also embraces echoes of Big Star pop, late-era Wilco, and even the blue-eyed soul beats of Style Council.

Zacharias has been so inspired by Gratitude’s stretch drive — and the enthusiasm of his collaborators — that those long gestation periods between records might be a thing of the past.

“I’ve written a full record that I could go in and track tomorrow,” he says while insisting that those lengthy percolations were “the most natural timeframe for the type of records I’ve been making.”

“But I’m ready to try something new.”

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