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Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

Chris DeMay and His Ephemeral Backing Band

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Since his alt-country band West of Rome slowed down toward the end of the decade, Milwaukee singer-songwriter Chris DeMay has reinvented himself as an eager free agent, recording a 2007 solo album, I Won’t Be Me, playing shows with songstress Michelle Anthony, joining the Americana ensemble Juniper Tar, co-founding the annual Neil Young tribute concerts at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn and playing out here and there, rarely with the same backing band for more than a few times in a row.

“I was in West of Rome since 2000, and maybe because I was in a band situation for so long, I’m now really enjoying getting out and having the chance to play with different people and see what they’ll bring to my music,” DeMay says of his many collaborations. “The downside, though, is most of the people I play with have their own bands and projects to deal with, so I don’t always have a steady lineup to do shows with.”

DeMay has a reputation for hastily recruiting his backing bands, but inspiration is often born of that haste. One of DeMay’s bands clicked in particular. For the annual Kneel to Neil fund-raiser in late 2008, he was joined by Quinn Scharber, Allen Cote (of The Championship), Ryan Stang (of Dustworks) and Joe Kirschling (now of The Celebrated Workingman).

“We only practiced a couple times, but the performance went over really well,” DeMay says. “It felt really right. I was thinking about doing some recording, and after playing with those guys I knew who I had to get into the studio with.”

Before the lineup was lost to history, DeMay booked them for a weekend at Howl Street Recordings with producer Shane Hochstetler. On paper, that seemed like an unlikely pairing: At the time Hochstetler, of the indie-punk band Call Me Lightning, was best known for recording punk and metal groups. Though DeMay and Hochstetler were both vets of the Milwaukee music scene, their paths had barely crossed.

Before their sessions together, the two got to know each other over dinner and, like so many of DeMay’s collaborators, they bonded over a shared love of Neil Young.

“We talked about some of our favorite recordings,” Hochstetler recalls, “and we found that we both really like the same qualities in recordings. My favorite way of recording is capturing a band live, staying as true to the actual band as possible. Sometimes a singer-songwriter will come into the studio and want to lay down the bass, drums and guitars separate, doing a lot of layering, but I still think there’s no substitute for a real band tracking everything all at once.”

That live sound drives DeMay’s resulting recording, Bigger Than Small, a hearty six-song EP that clocks in at nearly half an hour. The EP hinges on the interplay of its players. Even its most mournful, twangiest numbers are enlivened by electric guitars.

“Though these are Chris’ songs, he gave the band freedom to play things however they wanted,” Hochstetler says. “That makes this so much more than just another singer-songwriter record. The players weren’t just hired guns; they were really a band, basically.”

DeMay will release Bigger Than Small this weekend with a 9:30 p.m. show at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with opener Conrad Plymouth.

Some of the players and guests on the EP will join DeMay for the show; others won’t. In the time since recording Bigger Than Small, DeMay has continued to find new collaborators—the most recent of which is Hochstetler himself, who will be drumming for DeMay at the release show.

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