Sunday, November 27, 2022

‘Sonic tonic’: The Paper Stars turn introspective on ‘Far Away,’ release show Saturday

Tres Altman, founder of The Paper Stars, will perform for the first time his bands new EP at Live at Ted’s Saturday night. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — A year of isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic had local musician Tres Altman confined to home and family, but the making of his band The Paper Star’s new EP, “Far Away,” wasn’t without collaboration.

It just came about in a nontraditional way: the sharing of audio files between musicians who lived far away from one another — some in Mexico City, others in Costa Rica. Tracks were constructed in pieces and coalesced in the studio over the course of a year. 

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“Far Away” is steeped in Americana through and through, backed by dreamy soundscapes, wailing steel-pedal guitars, textural strings, and grounded with driving guitar rhythms. It will make its official live debut at Live at Ted’s Saturday night.

“Some of the songs have been around a while, little ideas sketched out,” Altman said of its six tracks. “I hadn’t been writing for a bit and so I started picking up the guitar during Covid.”

The EP is introspective, a tad more whimsical than the previous eight releases across the band’s two iterations. The Paper Stars has seen a rotation of eight or so musicians during its 17-year lifespan. Altman has been the constant, the principal songwriter.

He started the framework for “Far Away” at home, often late at night, throughout 2020. His family — wife and three children, including a newborn — slept cozily in nearby rooms as he strummed away in a guest bathroom.

“The acoustics are good there,” he said. “I was just playing quietly, like lullabies, always at the end of the day, in the farthest away corner in my fairly small house.”

When it came time to flesh out the instrumentation more, he summoned his Paper Stars bandmates  — drummer Kevin Rhodes, guitarist Coleman Corzine, guitarist Sam Kennedy and vocalist Amanda King — as well as musician friends worldwide. 

Eric Deutsch in Mexico City played keys, while Jeb Bows, who has performed with Brandi Carlisle, added violin from Costa Rica. They would record their parts and upload files to a shared folder for Altman to access.

Altman’s Paper Stars’ bandmate Kennedy also produced the EP.  

“It’s the first time I’ve used somebody else to make some sonic decisions for the band,” Altman said. “He was in my Covid bubble so we played a little bit together during the pandemic.”

Kennedy helped finesse the mellow mien of the EP, taking it back to “old school Paper Stars,” Altman said. “The outfit was guitar, cello, pedal steel at first.”

The singer-songwriter started the band in Boulder, Colorado, in 2005, its roots firmly planted in blues, soul and folk. Altman was playing the Denver-Boulder scene at the time two of its biggest names got a start: Nathaniel Ratliff, before he formed the Night Sweats, and South African-born musician and Grammy nominee Gregory Isakof.

“It’s been cool to see their rise,” Altman said.

During the pandemic Altman said he listened to a lot of folk, including Nathaniel Rateliff the Night Sweats’ “Red Rocks 2020,” recorded at the famed outdoor amphitheater built into a rock structure in Morrison, Colorado. 

“It’s the songwriter stuff I love, which Nathaniel comes back to here,” Altman said, “and it’s just so cool because it’s so emblematic of the pandemic. They recorded it with perfect mic placement and equipment, to a completely silent Red Rocks, so the acoustics are unbelievable.”

Altman also went down a “wormhole” of old roots music, revisiting classic Bob Dylan and Wilco.

Those influences, among others, can be heard on “Far Away,” which crosses multiple genres. The EP kicks off with experimental shoegaze folk on “The Wind, The Sea” and evolves into old country, a la Waylon Jennings, on “This Time Around.” It ends with a stripped-down “Naturally,” featuring only Altman and his acoustic guitar, easily conjuring the ghost of Townes Van Zandt.

“These songs are bedroom songs, for sure,” Altman said. “Like a sonic tonic, little capsules of solace.”

As Covid rules loosened and life into the pandemic settled, Altman was able to mix and master the record at Plugpoint Studio, owned by anesthesiologist Holt Evans, who engineered “Far Away.” Evans has been on the Wilmington music scene for three decades, formerly as a member of Hungry Mind Review in the late ’90s and early aughts and since has produced records by local acts such as Astro Cowboy. (Evans’ sons are part of the local band Lauds.) He also contributed to playing keys on “The Wind, the Sea.” 

“In the studio were old reel-to-reel tape machines they recorded early REM records on, produced by Mitch Easter,” Altman said. “Holt learned from Mitch. The whole process was just a relaxed experience, truly a lot of fun. Holt’s a music lover and he knows a lot about engineering production.” 

In a 15-by-20 room, with an isolated booth to do vocals, among a wall of guitars, basses, amps and pedals, “Far Away” came to life.

Port City Daily interviewed Altman earlier in the spring as the EP was going through its finishing touches before its April release. The Paper Stars will make the EP’s official debut at Live at Ted’s, Oct. 1, 8 p.m.; tickets are $12. “Far Away” is available for purchase on Bandcamp.

Here are snippets from PCD’s conversation with Altman about the making of “Far Away.”

On building the sound for ‘Far Away’

I first did the instrumentation and would pass it off to a musician without over-directing too much. I wanted them to let whatever part they were feeling come through. 

I’ve been playing with all these people a long time and I just trust their instincts. I get excited because I hear what they do and think, “Yes, you just made it so much better — this is going places I didn’t anticipate.”

There’s a song called “Easier to Find” that I thought was way more of a guitar-centric song, but when I sent it to my friend Eric in Mexico, he added all these cool electric pianos and weird keyboard parts. All of a sudden, it turned into a floaty, ethereal song. 

We used the Mellotron, a really interesting instrument — the first sampled sound,  featuring recordings of a flute or a violin on a tape loop. The most famous Mellotron flute sound is on The Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever.” 

Now, there’s a digital version of it, which is what Kevin Rhodes played on almost every song — because it’s just dreamy. He also added the Wurlitzer electric piano.

My friend Phil Parker, who actually mastered the record, played pedal steel.

There’s also a cello to give it a stringy feel. I played drums and guitar, and I wanted a female vocalist so I reached out to Amanda King of Tumbleweed who did another project with me, “Human Kind.” She added harmony to the vocals.

This was a passion project. Everyone involved did it because they love music.

On music as an escape during Covid-19

Covid slowed everything down. And it felt good to slow down, to be home with my kids, wife — to not have shit to do and places to go and things to see.

So, really, this is a Covid record. There ain’t no get up and go on this record; it’s kind of like slow songs for fast times.

And, for better or worse, I wrote these songs as a meditative exercise, doing it at night after a day of being with the kids — as a dad and husband. It was my own sort of coping mechanism, with whatever anxieties come along with that. 

I felt the need to just be in the music to help calm and center me. Just playing, strumming was so good for me — and to just let things come out. With the confines and the anxiety around Covid, I feel like I needed soothing songs.

Thematically a lot of the lyrics are thinking about friends in different situations in life — love interests or relationships not working out the way that you thought they would. And what that means, especially as you get older, things not ending up as you expected. 

Then I was reflecting back on my grandfather, my elders, people who’ve already passed on and how they still affect us from outside this realm, if that even happens. 

I guess you could say, I created songs for my kids, too, trying to provide insight — not like lessons so much, but things to think about.

I just found myself contemplating on friends and family I haven’t seen in years that are near and dear in my heart. I guess that’s a good way to put it: This was a way to contact people without being able to physically contact them.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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