It's 6 pm on an early-March evening, which means it's roughly 29 degrees and blowing snow on the South Hill. Jason Cross -- guitarist, vocalist and, it appears, de facto producer for Free Range Robots -- is in his parent's basement, in his pajamas, spitting gibberish about some girl into a mic stand that's been wedged between the coffee table and the TV. Sounding like a jilted, sleepy, post-millennial Lewis Carroll, Cross is recording the vocal track for a song tentatively entitled "BreeMS." Only problem is, he doesn't have all the vocals written yet.
"I've got the first verse, pretty much. It's about this girl I dated for a week...." He trails off, then decides to connect the dots completely: "Her name was Bree."
Matt Mitchell, one of the band's three primary vocalists and keyboardist, chimes in, "She wasn't very nice to Jason." But she couldn't have been that bad either, though, really, if he can't come up with more than a single verse's worth of trash to talk. Instead he's just looking around the room, stringing words together on the fly.
They're recording here in the basement for one simple, economics-driven reason, says Jason: "We want to make our first album as cheap as possible." So they've got speakers propped on a coffee table with a 24-track on an ottoman immediately between the table and the couch. Jason's dad's running the show from the couch -- legs akimbo to accommodate the 24-track, head in a set of studio headphones. The TV has been pushed back to make room for several mic stands. Behind the couch, a snare, a ride and another mic stand crowd out a desk that houses a perfectly functional family PC. The snare sits next to a statuette of a bloodhound holding a telephone.
Jason's vocals give way to Matt's harmonica, and with the track lighting set to sexy, Mitchell is taking massive breaths, wailing on the thing, foot stomping out a slightly irregular beat. A DVD rack sits just inches from Matt's piston-like right foot. There's an unbelievable amount of stuff crammed into this small room. The most expensive part of the production, seemingly, is the Teac Tascam digital 24-track teetering on the edge of that ottoman.
Midway through the harmonica part that Mitchell's laying down for the dozenth time, the instrument lets off a weird flat note. It's toast. That's a problem. They'll work around it or they'll skip it, but they have to keep going. They're under a really tight deadline, trying to record as many elements as possible before the photo shoot they have scheduled for the evening.
Half-written songs are a problem, broken harmonicas are a problem, time's a problem and there's one other thing as well. "A corporate giant is monopolizing our guitar player," laments Mitchell. Guitarist (and vocalist) Tyler Aker is manager at a South Hill Subway and, unfortunately, two of his sandwich artists had quit earlier that day, meaning he has to fill both their shifts. By himself. That's like 12 straight hours of sandwich artistry, which means he can't lay down his guitar tracks. Which puts the whole thing behind schedule for their weekend trip to western Washington. The trip is crucial because they've lined up some free studio time on the super sly.
"We've basically got 24 hours to get in and lay down all our organ and piano tracks," says Jason.
Lacking Tyler's guitar means one less thing for Mitchell to key on as they work through that crazy block, making it harder to work quickly. "We wanted to get everything done, but there are still a lot of things missing," he says. They're heading out at 9:30 to do a photo shoot for the CD release poster. The next morning, they'll head to Olympia and, with any luck, have an album mixed and mastered in time for the show, now less than a month and a half away.
Fast-forward to last Friday, and the band's now preparing for the CD release concert on this Saturday. Their practice space on North Columbus Street is a backyard garage that's pretty cozy, thanks to a Persian-looking rug under the drum kit and couches flanking either side of the de facto stage area. A white Camaro, its front end up on blocks, stands sentry out front. Practicing is a good sign, suggesting that, even though it was a rush job, the lads have a finished and mastered record.
In addition to practicing cuts from the album, the band rehearses at least one Jock Jams cover. That's fitting because somehow, inexplicably, Mitchell has summoned for the release party the kind of PR usually reserved for Arena Football 2 franchises. The kind of guerilla recording FRR engaged in generally translates into a cheap-and-dirty CD release: a club, some flyers, a MySpace bulletin and not much else. Not so here. They've locked up a photo shoot, an HD digital camcorder and even, God bless them, television spots. More important, they got it all for free.
Because the show is a benefit for Habitat for Humanity, local businesses and even corporations like Comcast have been practically throwing tax-deductible goodness their way. Matt says he's recorded promos (that is, commercials) for Fox and KXLY, which will run as public service spots. Comcast is running a similar promo and so is the Garland Theater, advertising the show before their films like a movie trailer. They'll be turning the event into a live DVD, and they'll be doing so on a camera donated by Huppin's.
There's no question that the event will benefit needy families, but there's also no doubt this will send the Robots' exposure through the roof, making it an act of selflessness and the best damned marketing idea ever, especially for a band preoccupied with doing things on the cheap. It doesn't get any cheaper, after all, than free.
Free Range Robots play at the Met with Caleb Roloff on Saturday, April 29, at 8 pm. Tickets: $10 benefiting Habitat for Humanity. Visit www.ticketswest.com or www.myspace.com/freerangerobots or call 325-SEAT.