Analogue Music | Old Sea Brigade

Old Sea Brigade

By Matt Conner

It was time for Ben Cramer to set the acoustic aside.

As Cramer prepared to come home and record another full-length album as Old Sea Brigade, the Nashville resident says that the idea of heading back into the studio to make another singer-songwriter album dominated by acoustic melodies wasn't even remotely inspiring. Instead, fresh off of an acoustic tour of Europe, he was already bored with the instrument. It was time for something new.

Together with longtime friend and producer Owen Lewis, Cramer decided to follow the interests wherever they might take him. It wasn't long until new compositions were soaked in experimental percussion and intriguing synths. A newfound energy was injected into the mix as well, bringing more energy and exploration into what would become Motivational Speaking.

We recently caught up with Cramer from his home in Nashville earlier in the morning than you might expect to talk about the new album and how the sheltered requirements imposed by a pandemic allowed for him to develop his sound even further.

Analogue: Ben, I read about a point with the new album where you decided to actually take what was largely finished and go back to rework it some more during the pandemic. What exactly was going on and that moment and what was the discovery there?

Ben Cramer: I guess we started this record two years ago. We had it done to a point where it was mixed and mastered, and I remember taking a run to listen to it from start to finish after setting it aside for a bit. I was proud of it, but felt like it could be a little bit better. However, we’d already turned it in and that was November, 2019.

"For this record, sitting in a studio with an acoustic guitar didn’t excite me as much as messing around with synthesizers and getting a crazy drum take and then compressing it to bits."

Around that same time, my buddy Luke Sital-Singh wrote and recorded an EP together and that gave me a new inspiration. It was really refreshing, I guess, to collaborate with someone else and have it feel more like a band. So I think that process also influenced my decision to want to go back and rework the record.

When the pandemic hit in March, Owen Lewis, who produced the record with me, got together with me to talk and we decided to just go back and see if we can challenge ourselves a bit more. We wanted to see if we could beat the first round, like maybe treat the first part as a rough draft.

That can also be a toxic mindset. I don’t think anything is ever done, especially with music. I also produce for other artists, and I can spot when they start to second guess things. I think that’s part of a producer’s job is to step in and say, ‘Okay, you have to let go at some point.’

That said, we had all this extra time with the pandemic and Owen and I live across the street from each other. We were in this quarantine circle of trust, so we were able to get together and work on the record some more in this excess of time. It wasn’t like we could record or produce other bands, so we just went back to rework this.

Analogue: Did you know exactly what you needed to change as you listened, or did you just decide to dive back and then see where you’d want to alter the songs?

Ben: I think there were certain parts where we knew what we needed to change. Sometimes it was literally down to the mix, and Owen mixed the record, so that was all on him. I would just come over and give a couple notes and then he’d go back to it. Other times, it was in the wrong key or we just wanted to start fresh on a song like “Caroline.” That song’s probably been through five or six versions. [Laughs]

That’s not actually a good thing in my mind, but it’s what happens. I’m still proud of the other versions, but it’s sometimes hard. You set out to make a record, and I find this when I’m in the producer chair with other artists, where you discuss your influences and sounds you want to go for but you never know what a record is going to be until you dive into it. Even when you’re in the middle of the record, you think it will be one thing, but when you finish it, it’s something totally different. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s kind of a mind game at times.

Also from an artistic standpoint, you don’t want to get exhausted by the songs. This was the longest I’d ever worked on a record, and there were times I was just sick of the songs, sick of the record, very self-critical. However, you can’t let yourself go down that rabbit hole too far. It’s a thing so many artists all around come across, being a bit self-critical and discovering these aren’t the songs that you wanted.

However, I’m one of those people who want to put out records and sustain this thing into a career. I write a lot of songs and I want those songs to get out. I don’t think every song has to be perfect, nor do I think every record has to be perfect. Some of my favorite artists put out records I’m not a fan of or songs that aren’t smash hit singles, but especially with Spotify and social media, there’s a lot of pressure for every song to be a hit.

Analogue: I will sometimes talk to artists who will hit on this and say you can ruin the magic of the first take, that inspired impulse that led to the song’s creation in the first place. Even if the take isn’t as good as it could in the studio, the essence is there in some mysterious way, but you said “Caroline” had several iterations. So I guess there are exceptions to any rule.

Ben: Yeah, but a lot of times, too, we would go back to the original vocal take I’d recorded in my little studio. A lot of times, too, it’s not the same exact thing, but we were working at this studio called Shoebox, which is a really nice studio in Nashville that’s gone now, but I’d go in and track vocals on this expensive U47 microphone. They had all this amazing gear and you’d think, ‘Oh, this is gonna make it sound great.’ But sometimes being in a big studio doesn’t lend itself to necessarily tracking a great vocal.

I found myself way more comfortable in this converted little studio in the third bedroom of my house. I’d go in and record vocals by myself, and every time I sent Owen a vocal from here, he’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re using that. The other ones don’t even come close.’ So there are things like that to keep in mind.

Analogue: The new sound features some new instrumentation and atmosphere from you and even “Day By Day” is more upbeat…

Ben: I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into the singer-songwriter category. I love that music, but I also grew up playing in rock bands. I listen to a lot of heavy music. Not that “Day By Day” is heavy, but it’s also upbeat.

A lot of the energy on that particular song came from my buddy Julian [Dorio, The Whigs] who is an amazing rock drummer. He brings such a unique energy that I hadn’t come across with other drummers. He’s got a very distinct thing. He added a nice backbone to the song and then we filled in the gaps.

I think with the new songs and some things being more upbeat or electronic, I was trying to create things that excited me. For this record, sitting in a studio with an acoustic guitar didn’t excite me as much as messing around with synthesizers and getting a crazy drum take and then compressing it to bits. We were just experimenting and chasing sounds, even when we didn’t know what we were chasing at times.

It was a pretty cathartic process as well, especially after being on the road touring my last record. I did the U.S. tour with a full band and then a European tour with two acoustic guitars. That was great, but by the end of that tour, I was so bored with my set every night by song ten. I’m sure people liked it, but I wanted to entertain myself selfishly because then I think the show will be better. So I just wanted to go into making this record in a different way, I suppose.

Analogue: Certainly staying interested yourself is key to keeping the whole thing healthy and fresh, even for fans.

Ben: Yeah, and who knows, the next record could be me and an acoustic guitar. I’m not saying I’m going to abandon the singer-songwriter world. I just want to be able to turn this into a career and make records and the only way I can keep doing that is changing it up for myself and finding new ways to get excited.

VISIT: Old Sea Brigade

Photo: Laura E. Partain