As our conversation about the new album by Cincinnati trio Ampline draws to a close, vocalist/guitarist Mike Montgomery makes a salient point that not only speaks to Ampline’s situation, but any number of similar bands in the same general position.
“I don’t know how to make this interview more exciting,” he says. “It’s (just) an old band with a new album.”
Montgomery has a flair for boiling a topic down to its essence, but while his statement is fundamentally true, there are facts that should be taken into account. First, the interview didn’t need excitement. Exciting interviews can be fun, but also distracting and uninformative. Second, Ampline has been around since 1997, but that doesn’t make them an old band. Veteran, sure. Old? Not a chance.
Finally, Ampline does have a new album, but there’s more to it than that simple pronouncement. Coming eight years after the trio’s last album, 2010’s You Will Be Buried Here, Passion Relapse is the Post Rock/Post Punk soundtrack to a host of angels in chainmail trumpeting the advance of battle-armored elephants on their way to a Viking funeral on a glacier in a hurricane. In other words, forces of and beyond nature channeled through guitar, bass and drums in search of the Rosetta chord.
“I think the underlying root of it all was that we wanted to make a record that sounded like us, like we sound live,” says bassist Kevin Schmidt. “No ProTools, no curving the edge of every tom (drum) hit. We’re a live band.”
“We felt like that (live feel) was always missing from our previous records to a certain degree and that was the thing we wanted to capture,” adds drummer Rick McCarty. “We just weren’t sure collectively how to do it, and I think Mike had a better sense of how we could do that and the tools we needed to make it happen.”
Given that Montgomery is one of the area’s busiest producers at his Candyland Recording Studio facility, it’s logical that he’d have the technical acumen to ideate the answers; his first request was that he didn’t want to both play on the album and engineer it. The surprise was the speed with which it all came together.
“They said, ‘What would you do?’ and I said, ‘I’d like to track to 2-inch tape,’ ” Montgomery says of his initial instinct to eschew the now-commonplace all-digital recording process. “While we were talking, Kevin got on his phone, found a (reel-to-reel) machine on Craigslist, we drove down to Nashville the next weekend and bought it off some studio.”
Mechanical aspects aligned, the trio concentrated on the album itself. Inspired by a book on Ferdinand Magellan, Montgomery wanted Passion Relapse to tell the story of a 15th-century explorer who sets off on a voyage to find the edge of the world and, in an alternate-universe twist, finds it. As time passed, the theme remained essentially intact, but the method of telling the story changed.
“We were working with an artist friend of ours, Rob Martz, and we were going to have a whole series of panels and release a (vinyl) 7-inch for each song,” Montgomery says. “We tracked a lot of the album years ago and I scrapped all of it. I wanted to redo it all (on) 2-inch tape and I wanted to track it all live. But I didn’t want to wire any of that stuff until I moved into (Candyland’s) permanent new location in Kentucky. A lot of songs came and went over those years and it was almost like, ‘Hey, what was this record supposed to be? Let’s finish that and move on.’ Then some songs came in that weren’t as lyrically or thematically tied to that.”
Passion Relapse’s longer-than-usual gestation and evolution allowed many of the new songs to grow and change in a live context.
“This is the first time we’ve spent years touring on songs that weren’t recorded, and then going back and refining those songs,” Schmidt says. “On some records, we had seven or eight good songs and we made a record around them. This is one of the first times we’ve kept pounding songs night after night.”
That protracted woodshedding process resulted in a considerably shorter in-studio timeline.
“It only took two days to record,” McCarty says. “I remember thinking (during studio takes), ‘Should we do that again?’ It was too fast. I don’t usually nail it that quickly. I thought it was going to take a lot longer. I was all revved up to do this, and we’re all done.”
“I think he planned on using 10 different drum kits,” Montgomery says. “(But) we put the mics up, we had the sounds in about 15 minutes and it was like, ‘Let’s go!’ It took us five years to make an album in two days.”
The variety of delays that caused the gap between You Will Be Buried Here and Passion Relapse represent the overarching reason that Ampline has remained together for over 20 years. The three musicians have committed themselves to the band, but never at the expense of their personal and professional lives. Among other projects, Montgomery is perpetually busy producing at Candyland, he plays in R. Ring alongside Kelley Deal and when she returns to The Breeders, he’s the band’s touring guitar tech. McCarty is the programming coordinator for Music & Event Management Inc. (MEMI), which books the Taft Theatre, Riverbend and the MidPoint Music Festival. And Schmidt is a self-employed woodworker who welcomed two sons to his family between albums. (“My wife’s cool about it,” Schmidt says. “I don’t think she’d want to be around me if I couldn’t do this.”)
Montgomery sounds philosophical when explaining Ampline’s important place in everyone’s life.
“When you’re younger, you don’t have other things in your lives that eclipse your flashy passions,” Montgomery says. “But we’ve gotten older and we accept and acknowledge that we’re encouraging each other to grow as humans, whether that’s in our personal lives or careers. Ampline is a part of all of our families. It’s a thing we can do forever as long as we acknowledge that sometimes it has to bend around things that have more immediate and pragmatic demands on our existence. We all have cool wives because they know we’re unyielding in the idea that this is extremely important to us — it’s just about accepting the reality of it.
“Ampline is as important to us as it was 20 years ago, it’s just that our expectations of what we hope to do with it or get out of it have changed a bit.”
For more on Ampline, visit ampline.net.