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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sulek Goes Big

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Breaking free from something and pursuit of freedom are not faceless phrases for Sulek singer Patrick Hoctor, his co-singer wife Ruthie and drummer Chris Winberg. It's something quite dear and real to them. Each member has had their own trials or journeys to find their moments of freedom.

It's something evident in songs like “Brother,” from the band's fourth and latest album Unbound at Last. When writing the song, Hoctor was reminded of his younger brother Gregory, who died three years ago in a car accident. While his brother was in jail, Hoctor would receive letters from him, which touched him since they had never been too close. But Hoctor regrets that he never sent his own letter.

“Writing that song released something in me, some kind of weird guilt,” Hoctor says.  “Finally I wrote him one, but out of stupidity and laziness and unthoughtfulness I never sent the letter. I finally found it when I was writing the song and the first sentence was 'Dear Gregory, Forgive me for taking so long,' meaning forgive me for taking so long to give you this letter. That sentence has a whole new meaning now, because, guess what, I never sent it and you've been dead for three years.”

The song grapples with that guilt and tries to find some kind of peace with the past in order to break free from it. Fittingly, the rest of the album finds the band enjoying new freedoms. It's a looser album than even last year's Birds in the Attic.

“As a band we were limited in first two albums as we didn't know anything about being in a band,” Hoctor says. “And for Birds in the Attic, we were dealing with losing two of our members and figuring out how to still be a band without them. For this album we finally felt comfortable with each other and we had something that worked really well. The songs came together fairly easily and we just felt free.”

When his writing partner David Kelly left for a job in South Korea, Hoctor panicked a little, but he soon found Winberg to be more than capable replacement. Now, Winberg writes the lyrics while Hoctor focuses on the music, while Ruthie helps adjusting the lyrics or editing the arrangements. There's a joyous sense of collaboration, something not readily evident on their first two albums.

“The three of us have a hand in every song, a pretty big hand in every song,” says Patrick Hoctor. “This album was much less about solo performances and more about collaborating.”

After plans to record at Howl Street Recording fell through, Sulek recorded Unbound at Last in a chapel near the UWM campus. Within the chapel's wood and brick confines, the band's rich sound that dabbles in pop, rock, folk and classical music never sounded bigger. Instruments like cello, violin, and organ mingled with guitars, bass and drums to create an enormous sound.

“We tried to focus on capturing the room sounds of the chapel because there's a lot of natural reverb that we could pick up in the chapel,” says Patrick Hoctor. “Everything, especially the drums, sounds bigger.”

Of course, the band had some help conjuring that sound. They invited friends from a choir to sing, as well as the violin and drum players from Hoctor's other band, Mike Mangione and the Union. Returning producer Justin Heron also played a big role in bringing a more serious mindset and shaping the band's sound. He upgraded his recording system from 8-tracks to 24-tracks, allowing the band to go to town on the song arrangements.

“At the beginning of the recording, Justin actually told me, 'Patrick I have 24-tracks now, I want you to make the biggest arrangements you can for every song,” Hoctor recalls. “I went to town with every instrument I could get my hands on. It just felt right adding that to the songs.”

Sulek play an album release show on Friday, July 20 at Linneman's Riverwest Inn with Kent Watson and Justin Heron.