Home / Local Music / The Long Path to John Stano’s ‘Caribou Bar & Grill’
Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010

The Long Path to John Stano’s ‘Caribou Bar & Grill’

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His grandfather played horn in an oompah band, and legend has it that one of his relatives wrote “Silent Night,” but otherwise there was no family background to hint that John Stano would pursue music. Still, the Bay View resident caught the guitar bug in the ’60s.

“Channel 36 had guitar lessons on television,” Stano recalls. “I think Peggy Seeger was the instructor. You would get a book and follow along.” After that start, Stano mainly taught himself—drawing from favorite songwriters like John Prine and Mississippi John Hurt—until he entered the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s finger-style guitar program in the ’80s.

Stano remembers his first time in a studio, recording at Madison’s Smart Studios with Butch Vig in the early ’80s.“It was $50 per hour, no second takes,” he says. “My goal was to get some demo tapes to get jobs. I knew I didn't have the money to do a record. I thought you needed a record company for that.”

By the mid-’90s, that was no longer the case. Recording technology had advanced to the point where Stano could release his own music. Stano describes his 1995 debut album, Playing in Deep Water, as a solo project, but says his new Caribou Bar & Grill is more collaborative. It began in 2007 as a recording project at the Engine Room with Willy Porter and Al Williams and was finished with Mike Hoffmann at The House.

While acoustic guitar and harmonica remain Stano’s stock in trade, Caribou’s title song crosses Nick Lowe and Los Lobos, thanks to drummer Reggie Bordeaux and Hoffmann on bass. The rust belt blues-memory of “Pontiac’s No More” recalls the working-class grit of Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty. Many of his tunes draw from real life.

“I would say that they mostly all start from an autobiographical perspective and some songs stay on that road,” Stano says. “But some songs take a left turn for the sake of the story or the lyric. Sometimes things that I've experienced or that someone I know has experienced become part of a different song character's story. So it is biographical, but not in a completely literal sense.”

Stano is quick to credit Porter and Hoffmann as co-conspirators in the project. He explains that when he was recording the song “Soul Is…,” “I was really digging into the guitar and probably over-singing the vocal too, because the song was new and I was really feeling it. I remember him (Porter) telling me that he thought hearing that song felt like being in church and I should ease back. I did and am really happy with the result.”

After a break in the first stage of the recording project, Stano began work with Hoffmann, who was recommended by Paul Cebar (Hoffmann recorded Cebar’s recent acoustic solo album One Little Light On). Hoffmann’s enthusiasm and imagination paid off with production touches not normally seen in the singer-songwriter realm. Hoffmann crafted a sonic mosaic that allowed Stano to seize a moment of opportunity.

“I got to use some home recordings, an old radio and a turntable to get the feel of an old record in ‘Other People’s Blues,’” he says. “That song was inspired by my love of old country and urban blues and how you used to have to repeatedly pick up the needle and put it back over a passage to decode a riff or a lyric.”

John Stano plays an album release show at the Sugar Maple on Friday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m.

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