[Editor’s Note: The following story also contains a song premiere of “A Man Who Believes His Own Lies,” the lead single from Living By The Minute. Find it below.]
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The first thing you notice when walking into a Josh Hoyer and The Shadowboxers recording session is how strange it is hearing the nine-piece soul band flood in from just two speakers.
Even though it’s the studio-quality surround sound system of Omaha’s ARC Studios, you can’t feel the band’s sonic presence thick in the air. Contrast that with how The Shadowboxers seem to balance themselves perfectly on the unforgiving and loud PAs of dive bars.
In the studio, you’re still watching one of Lincoln’s livest bands from behind a glass pane. You can’t help but think, “Those guys are holding back, in some way or another. Tommy Van Den Berg could shatter the glass with his trombone slide, or the frontman Hoyer could easily blow a high quality mic with his superhuman, vein-popping howl.”
The transition to a firm studio setting was something Josh Hoyer thought about after finishing the band’s first record, which was tracked somewhat piecemeal and split between recording at Fuse Recording with Charlie Johnson and Studio F with Sean Beste. After hearing the result and being inspired by the raw, “in-your-face” nature of work from Daptone Records — home to today’s soul stars Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley — Hoyer says he knew the next time around, he wanted to do it live. That’s why The Shadowboxers took it to one of ARC Studio’s live rooms. All nine Shadowboxers could fit inside Room B, and Hoyer could sit in the vocal booth with an organ or keyboard, with full view of the ensemble.
The Shadowboxers host an album release party for their second album, Living By The Minute, this Friday at The Bourbon. RSVP here, and catch them at Slowdown with Funk Trek the next day.
On Saturday, Aug. 30 around 2:30 in the afternoon, Josh Hoyer walked me — and Silver Street producer Sean Beste, who just pulled up on his motorcycle — into ARC’s Studio B. The dirty guitar and bass-driven “Misfit Children” was thumping through the walls. The band just finished laying down the third track of the day, and was taking a listen to a few takes, lounging on the control room’s couch and swivel chairs.
The rhythm duo of drummer Justin Jones and 19-year-old bassist Joshua Bargar, sat in chairs in one corner of the room, discussing rhythm sequences. Saxophonist Mike Dee was nodding his head approvingly to trombonist Tommy Van Den Berg’s just-recorded solo.
I found a seat near the door as the track finished. Audio of Hoyer shooting out comments to the band booming through the speakers.
“I’m a fucking asshole on that track,” Hoyer said. He mocked himself, chanting over his critical points, “Maw maw maw maw!”
The room laughs. The transition to the studio didn’t seem too difficult for The Shadowboxers here. They were relaxed; they knocked that tune out in two solid takes. In the mixing room, it sounded like the crew shooting the shit after a late show at the Zoo Bar.
“I like to fantasize like I’m in Earth, Wind, & Fire on that part,” said guitarist Benji Kushner, referencing the spacey wah-wah playing on “Misfit Children.” “That’s where I’m at. I feel so sexy doing that. I wish I could do that all the time…”
“Technically you can, Ben,” Hoyer snickered.
The jokes moved quickly, with the two dishing gags to anyone in the room.
“Nice flugel,” I heard Hoyer say after a hearing a track playback. I looked up from my notepad, puzzled. There isn’t a flugelhorn featured on any Shadowboxers track. Once my eyes were above the page, I saw the whole band looking at me, laughing. Kushner gave me a high five. I took my praise, then sunk into my chair, closest to the door.
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With just a few days until the album release, Hoyer says most of the folks he’s given a sneak peek interpret Living By The Minute as a fun album. He’s not surprised by that; Hoyer says he thinks the album sounds as fun as it was to make.
Much of the album feels positive, despite some of the lyrics and subject matter.
“‘Don’t Turn Away’ is one of those songs,” Hoyer says. It’s a spot-on album closer. It’s a benediction; positive and uplifting, but not without a proverb at the heart of it.
Hoyer wrote this song while visiting Memphis for the International Blues Challenge last year. When driving through the city, started thinking that Martin Luther King’s dream hadn’t been necessarily achieved.
“[Only] some people aren’t able to participate [in MLK’s dream],” he said. “‘Don’t Turn Away’ is a reaction to that experience. These are the problems we’re faced with every day, so don’t turn away. Because they’re not going to change, unless we make them change.”
Recently, Hoyer worked to see a change with the CenterPointe homeless outreach program in Lincoln. On days he couldn’t handle the stress and frustration of his job, Hoyer would drive up to the top of the P Street parking garage, and just look out. That’s where another song on the album, “Over The City,” was conceived.
“It looks so peaceful from above and you can’t really get a sense of the trials and tribulations from up there,” Hoyer said. “You kind of see … eternity. You see what nature does, and it’s beautiful. On the ground, it’s much different.”
After seeing so many tragic stories play out, and seeing his daily work with the homeless undo itself, beyond his control, Hoyer reached a breaking point. He quit his job at CenterPoint in April to put his time and energy into The Shadowboxers full time.
Four months later, on that last Saturday in August, Hoyer heard “Over The City” in its near final form, played back on tape for the first time.
“I actually burped. I burped that first take. Just a tiny little one,” laughed Hoyer while ARC sound engineer Ben Brodin cued the second take. Once they picked the best take, he said, “It’s a mellow song. It’s putting me to sleep.” On the couch behind him, drummer Jones already was.
After putting years of hard, frustrating work into a song that took another year to complete, the artist can relax and smile, finally hearing it in its complete form.
Saxophonist Mike Dee, stoic and quiet to everyone outside of The Shadowboxers, was caught dancing while playing the New Orleans second-line horn break in “Don’t Turn Away.”
“I got no doubt on that shit,” Hoyer said off the cuff, once the song was over. “We can do another one, but that was fucking impeccable.” The band was already walking out of the room to hear the playback. One take.
The Shadowboxers knocked out all ten songs in two days with an assassin’s precision, never going beyond three takes. They made this creative choice to capture the spontaneity and natural feel of a live performance, but it was also an adaptation to the circumstances. The group only had a weekend to lay down the full album.
I asked Hoyer about the feeling he has to sit with after that last third take.
“There’s no room for editing at that point, so you have to come to terms with what your sound is,” Hoyer said, plainly. “It is what it is. That’s how we sound when we play, that’s how we sound in the studio. Like looking yourself in the mirror after a party in the morning.”
Even if that morning you come down with pneumonia.
All of Hoyer’s vocals had to be redubbed, when by 4 p.m. that Saturday his smoky throat gave in. The Shadowboxers pushed along regardless, with Hoyer speak-singing cues and changes while playing the Rhodes. For a good chunk of those recordings, The Shadowboxers had to play without the livewire set of pipes that practically power every one of their performances. Privy to the raw session recordings, I could sense the Shadowboxers were lacking in gusto. But after hearing the rounded out tracks, Hoyer’s hearty, and healthy vocals pulled it all together.
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Surprisingly, given that the entire album was recorded live, Living By The Minute feels smoother than the Shadowboxers’ self-titled debut. That offering, release January 2014, is punchy with a certain sheen that comes in-part from the mixing and engineering of Silver Street’s production duo of Sean Beste and James Fleege on three tracks.
This new album is less “live” — a word that evokes unrestrained volume and power. Rather, it lives.
In simple words, it sounds and moves like the Shadowboxers sound. Whatever they do on stage, they do on this album. It’s just that the means are different; they sound warmer and are more balanced, giving Hoyer the opportunity to showcase more nuanced horn lines and arrangements.
“On the first record, I felt I didn’t use the horns as much as I could have … I had more time to think about it [for this album],” Hoyer says. “I think I utilized the instrumentation better this time around.”
The arrangements are tighter and more complex. “11 11 333” dances between syncopated calypso rhythm and slips into a thick and saucy triplet-based shuffle, and is dressed in bright horn licks, well-placed vocal lines, and dense grooves.
As much as Living By The Minute is about expanding compositionally, the album is about groove theory. The rhythm section of Jones, Bargar and Kushner keep cuts like “Blood And Bone” air-tight with precise interwoven lines and melodic sequences, and unleash into a mean blues rock refrain by song’s end.
The album’s single, “A Man Who Believes His Own Lies” is one of its most surprising tracks, and shows Hoyer’s commitment to classic soul and his tendency to blow up into nasty blues. It begins as the quintessential “I’ll-love-you-so-much-better-than-him” story, and plays just like a cruising oldie, until the band rips into a menacing minor-key jam driven by a bassline from bassist Bargar’s sticky fingers.
“A Man Who Believes His Own Lies,” as well as the raving boogie, “Let It Out,” are texbook soul tunes from a student of the genre. Over the years, Hoyer has spoken about what he calls “the power of soul music” many times. He was surely inspired by artists like Bobby Womack, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, who tackled the darkest issues of the day, but Hoyer wasn’t drawn to soul music because of its icons.
“More than anything it was the vibe, the sound of it,” Hoyer said. “As far as doing good deeds and doing good work in the world, that’s from my dad. I think you have your immediate heroes in the world you live in, and your music can be a soundtrack to it.”
Whether or not Hoyer sees himself filling that role for someone else, he didn’t really say. Above all, he just wants his music to move people.
“If somebody pops that in their car and it moves them, fuck, man, I succeed. And that’s it,” he said. “When people tell you that, that’s success to me.”
Success is something that’s on Hoyer’s mind, however he defines it. Nov. 11 marks the start of his ensemble’s West Coast tour, and they are finishing up booking a tour of the South to follow. It’s been a while since Hoyer and much of the band have been on a long-haul tour. Living By The Minute will be The Shadowboxers’ calling card: their introduction to the world outside of Nebraska. Once it was mastered by Omaha’s Doug van Sloun (Focus Mastering), Hoyer and the band had to sit with the for a week or two to grow into it themselves.
During that time, I caught up with Hoyer again. Well, he caught me.
Last month, while I was walking down 14th Street, Hoyer hailed me from across the street, and motioned to turn around and join him in the Zoo Bar. He was excited to get another pair of ears in on the new material. He blasted it over the Zoo Bar’s PA. The phantom Shadowboxers were playing an empty Zoo Bar on a typically slow early Tuesday evening.
At that point, Hoyer was still picking apart the details — details on which he wanted to hear second, or third, opinions.
He asked if the balance was fair, if the additional percussion made for a fuller sound, even if the flute from Brian Morrow was picking up on certain tracks. He wasn’t too sure about how the record was at that moment; a world away from the Josh Hoyer who knocked those very same tunes out in single takes two months earlier.
Now, after going through some time sitting with the album, he’s back to blasting it in his car again.
“There were so many different opinions on what the sound was when we got through,” Hoyer recalls. “[There were] some people that weren’t happy, [there were] some people that were, and the mixing engineer [Ben Brodin at ARC] and mastering engineer were arguing. At a certain point, I just said the songs are strong.”
And that’s where he left it. He admits production and engineering are an “area of expertise” he didn’t have much control over, but when it came to the songwriting, he did.
“I want the songs to be strong,” Hoyer says again. “When I think about what the response will be, it was always about the tunes. The recording process — and if i didn’t get that right crisp drum sound — that’s kind of beyond my level of expertise, but if the songs are strong, and if I get a positive response from a number of people, then I have done a good job. And that does matter to me, obviously.”
Not to say he’s not happy with how the album sounds; he is. There’s nothing Hoyer wanted more that summer afternoon than for Nov. 7 to arrive, so he could finally let people hear the album at the release party.
“I’m ready to have a party at this point,” Hoyer said when I spoke to him one more time on a similarly slow early evening at The Zoo last Thursday.
Just to make sure, I prodded him more and more about any uncertainty he might have about the album. Every time, he reiterated how happy he was with the finished product, how grateful he was to be playing with such talented musicians, and how thankful he was to have such a supportive community and family behind him.
“I write about what I think about and see in the world; not all of that is happy,” he laughs. “But the groove is.”