Tripped across this relic from the very first version a Sycamores band bio on the internet, which somehow has survived multiple take-downs. Too much information, or a pleasant midnight ramble from Liquor Lyle’s to the C.C. Club with some old friends? You be the judge. As for that record we started in 2000, well, we spent a few years recording that one. Still needs a few finishing touches. Anyway, we’d love to hear your version of events if you were along for any part of this ride. And we’ll catch up on the 2000’s one of these years.
I move to the Twin Cities in Spring, at the suggestion of Mike Joo – St. Paul native, Wesleyan pal, my East Village roommate in summer ’87, and fellow Van Gogh’s Ear alumnus. We transform steamy garden apartment on Avon in St. Paul to first rate cassette-only 2-track recording studio. In late summer, we play several gigs with drummer Dave Hilbert (Valley Pub Pizza, Susan Roe’s backyard birthday party, Café Gioco) completing our attempt at a trio. George Leiter lends us the keys to his home studio, in which we have too much fun with recently invented digital reverb. Great fun, but the Avon Sessions tell the truth: Mike returns to art school, Frank seeks refuge on yet another couch (thanks, Spencer and Hans) and lands in the friendly Portland Dorms, St. Paul. I grab a bookstore job and prepare mentally for winter. Soundtrack: #1 Record, Radio City, Hang Time, Let’s Go Scare Al, Amy Allison’s “Mose” cassette.
The Sycamores are still just a glimmer in the eyes of strangers. I meet Chris Lynch – aspiring songwriter and fellow Replacements fan – via Eungie Joo and her friend from Trip Shakespeare, John Munson. Chris and I meet regularly to trade songs in the living room of Chris and John’s South Minneapolis house. This eventually leads to several two-man evenings at the Dinkytown coffee shops, and a memorable winter drive to Northfield with Chris for an evening of acoustic music at Carleton College (2/8/89 board tape survives). The months pass (not too many!), and Chris assembles the Picadors. The ice melts, I split for a long train ride in Europe with another Van Gogh’s Ear alumnus, Elliot Sumi. Along the way we compose our collection of Old World Tunes(as yet unreleased), and return to the delights of summer in St. Paul. Reality sets in, new apartment, same job, still solo guitar and vocals. Prospects suspect at best. The upgrade to four-track cassette (thank you Jim Hilbert) means I can’t possibly perform all the parts live, and wouldn’t want to. Soundtrack: Don’t Tell A Soul, Blue Earth, Sister Lovers.
All those regular visits to the C.C. Club with Mike Joo finally pay off. For all practical purposes, this is where the Sycamores begin. Nancy Flansburg tells her co-worker Chris Braig that I’m band guy looking other band guys. He knows Dave Downey (Austin, MN), and we’re introduced with all of the principles present, shooting pool and drinking beer in that storied smoke pit on Lyndale. We make plans to make plans to make music. Dave approves a rough sampling of my 4-tack demos, and makes a down payment on a drum set. Soundtrack: Eye, No Depression, Oswald This, And the Horse They Rode In On, The Trouble Tree, Billy’s Live Bait, The Silos.
Matt Heffernan, high school friend of Picadors Noah Levy and Luca Gunther, expresses a fondness for bass, shows up for rehearsals in Dave’s basement, and we have our band. Chris Lynch helps us at the Uptown Bar, Cabooze, and 400 Bar with occasional keyboards and vocals. Eventually, we find the genuine lead guitarist we’ve been looking for in Tom Lischmann, lately departed from the Magnolias. We enlist the stellar sound engineering of Jay Perlman, and Crackpot Records sponsors our recording session at Gark Studios (8/16-8/17) for release as a one-shot single. Recording is a blast, but the release faces multiple delays. Rehearsals, gigs, etc. The Sycamores go out for a three-night tour of Iowa in support of the Picadors. I think we hit most of the major cities. Soundtrack: Still Feel Gone, Freedy’s cassette, Girlfriend, Green Cat Island, Garfield Malaise.
More rehearsals, gigs, etc. Dreamland Ballroom in Duluth with the Gear Daddies, the Cabooze, 400 Bar, Uptown Bar. All-day demo recording session at the Wix Mix Studio (2/1/92 master survives) points to an album in our future. Not as near as we would like. Tom Lischmann moves on, and with the disbanding of the Picadors, the talented Adam Levy fills in on guitar. Adam provides a classic country flavor to the Sycamores repertoire, and tests some of the material that he will eventually debut with the first Honeydogs release. Laura Harada joins us for a few shows on violin, one of which is captured on tape for inclusion on Handle Like Eggs, the flexible compendium from Rag and Bone Shop Music. Matt Heffernan moves on to film school. Nick Ciola, looking to stay busy with the recent split of the Gear Daddies, takes over on bass. Soundtrack: Can You Fly, Pretty Penny, Leatherwoods cassette, GP/Grevious Angel.
Sessions for the first album begin at Paisley Park 1/28/93, supervised by my comrade from New York City Mark Lerner (The Oswalds, Flat Old World) and super-engineer Tom Herbers. A week of all-night tracking ensues. To mix, Tom and I take the tapes to Hoboken for sessions at the old Water Studios: Superb vintage equipment and a much easier commute for Mr. Lerner. At some point, Crackpot Records releases Self Titled E.P., our first and last vinyl record. We proceed to shop final mixes of the full-length album to only the friendliest of small and medium sized labels, but alas, no takers. (The list of rejections is around here somewhere…) Nick Ciola leaves to join forces once again with Martin Zellar full-time. Paul Novak (Cottage Grove, MN), of the legendary Pigeonholes (and then currently of John Eller and the DT’s), joins the Sycamores on bass. In the meantime, we begin recordings at Mike Wisti‘s Albatross Studio (11/93) that will eventually become part of our second album, Listening Skills Program. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, which I guess we did. Soundtrack: The Old New Me, Bowling Shoes Blues, Weeds.
Terrarium sessions provide additional tracks for inclusion on the debut album. Notable studio support from Jon Duncan, Dave Boquist, Jacques Wait, Mike Wisti, and Slim Dunlap. Live, we are joined regularly by Jon Duncan, and we get splendid support on guitar alternately from Jacques and Slim. The Sycamores is released in December, brought to you by the good people at Rag and Bone Shop Music, and Master Card. Kind reviews, and a surprising amount of local radio airplay follow. Soundtrack: Corvette Summer, Flat Old World.
Jim Johnson (Cannon Falls, MN) and I cross paths at Wayne’s Night, a monthly showcase of acoustic music hosted by cowboy impresario Wayne Augustin at Chang O’Hara’s in St. Paul. Jim had been setting up his pedal steel and playing along with any steel friendly singer-songwriters. Tasteful to the bitter end, Jim instinctively begins adding perfect touches to some of the new Sycamores material I had shown him. He joins us live soon after, and contributes pedal steel to several songs taking shape in the Albatross Studio. Trace, A.M.
Paul Novak moves on to focus on solo work, as well as a stint with swinging pop outfit, the Beatifics. Christine Sanguinet, whom we meet via Mark Downey and Jim Bradt, joins on bass and backing vocals. Long hours of LSP Mixing, Chang O’Hara’s, Café Solo, Johnson Farm, first Lyn-Lake Street Fair show, first Chicago gig (Schuba’s), our second album Listening Skills Program is released 11/29/96. Soundtrack: Times Like This, Crumb, Eventually.
Popular Creeps, Turf Club, Mark Farm I, Lee’s Liquor Lounge, Silo’s, Sioux Falls, Wayne’s Night. Christine Sanguinet moves on, opting for a promising career in education over an unending succession of three cord songs in basements and bars. Heath Henjum (formerly of Voilet, the toast of South Dakota) joins on bass. Dave clips the rear-view mirror on the van loading into the Pomp Room in Sioux Falls. We head out on a mid-western jaunt with The Matt Keating Band, featuring Chris Erikson (of the Sacred Cows) on guitar, and an audience of passionate obscurists. Chris joins the Sycamores for several songs each night, and becomes an obvious part of the plan for our next record. Big Night, Byrds re-issues, Introducing Ruben Gonzalez.
Realizer recording sessions at Albatross, Mark Donato writes me a nice email which I’m not sure I ever responded to. Multiple gigs at Center of the Universe (Northfield), Lyn-Lake Street Fair, Madison-Braig blowout, BLB Theater, Rag & Bone Books Realizer Preview, Sidewalk Café in NYC with Chris Erikson and Mark Lerner, Mark Farm II. Somewhere along the way we found time to help out cult favorites Van Gogh’s Ear complete their long overdue debut release, Ono. Soundtrack: Strangers Almanac, Kinks re-issues, If You’re Feeling Sinister, & “Royal Albert Hall.”
Realizer, our third album is released 3/2/99. Does a thing need to be remembered before it is forgotten? Can it be forgotten upon inception? No guru, no method, no press, no airplay. We tried more of a “live in the studio” approach, and enjoyed the results, if not the process. Shows in support through November, including Popular Creeps with Mary Lucia, Mark Farm III, Turf Club, Lee’s Liquor Lounge, 400 Bar. Then, a much needed break from live performing. Soundtrack: Rushmore, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charlie Rich: Complete Smash Sessions.
It’s back to the cassette for a fresh songwriting push, and a neat 8-track acoustic demo engineered by Mark Stockert in his charming basement studio. Dave lends his limbs to Tangletown for their next recording project, Heath plays jazz miniatures and rollicking pop with Peter Hoffmann. Jim occasionally shimmers and bends with the Minor Planets, among others. I make another visit to Brooklyn for an evening with Randall/Erikson/Lerner (dubbed the “Man Band” by Edith Lerner-Howell), this time at Pete’s Candy Store (4/11/00). It’s always a treat playing in New York. What’s next? These Sycamores will record an album this summer for release sometime shortly thereafter. Stay tuned for details. Soundtrack: Jewels for Sophia, Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special, Astral Weeks, and Molly Maher‘s work in progress (bound to be great).