A Pop Windfall…Meet The Small Square

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It happens a lot in the music business. Old friends connecting after years of doing their own thing, or even just musicians who’ve always wanted to play together. The results are sometimes mixed, but with projects like Golden Smog or The Traveling Wilburys it can work wonders without sounding exactly like the previous works of its individual members.

Luckily for us the self-titled debut from The Small Square fits nicely alongside a playlist with both Golden Smog and The Traveling Wilburys.

Formed by Paul Chastain (Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet) and John Louis Richardson (Gin Blossoms, Badfinger) The Small Square certainly bring forward elements of the Crush’s power pop (Dream Faker, Otherwhile) and the jangle of the Gin Blossoms (So Low), but surprisingly the record leans on a wonderful roots folk vibe with the perfect pop that only comes with expert songwriting. Filled with hooks and gorgeous harmonies, the 11 songs here are something of a windfall for fans of a Beatlesque sound with a bit of twang and a whole lot of pop.

Paul Chastain’s musical pedigree rests on its own laurels but for me The Small Square come in somewhere between the Jayhawks and Nick Lowe for a point of reference. The list of accomplished guests is too big to even mention, but you can tell this is, ahem, a labour of lust.

Paul was kind enough to connect with us.

We are….

Paul Chastain (singing, melodic instruments, recording, mixing) & John Louis Richardson (drums, percussion, backing vocals, recording). Paul, from Champaign, IL via Kansas City, MO, co-founded Rhode Island based rock band Velvet Crush and has been a member of the Matthew Sweet live band for quite some time. Also from Champaign, John has played with many an artist including but not limited to; Tommy Keene, Shoes, Jay Bennett, Gin Blossoms, Joey Molland/Badfinger.

I’ve got to say Hold Me Up and Drive Me Down made it on to a lot of my mixed tapes (alongside Buffalo Tom and The Posies) back in the 90s, easy question – after 6 albums, what happened to Velvet Crush??

After making the Heavy Changes the band paused briefly then re-started with just me and Ric Menck, the original core duo. Jeffrey Underhill had decided not to continue on but Ric and I thought we could still do some good stuff together and still had ties to Sony in Japan. We recorded the next three albums as a duo. The first two with our old bud Matthew Sweet and the last with another old crony Adam Schmitt in Champaign, Illinois. Back where we began. It had come full circle, it seemed. After that, time zone changes, life changes and such kept us from making another record together but we still may, one day. We have never closed the door on that option. We are still friends and continue to play together as Matthew Sweet’s rhythm section.

Your new project – The Small Square…how did you and John come together?

John and I have known each other since our fledgling musician days in Champaign, Illinois though we were never in a band together. He played on my first solo EP (Halo), however. After moving back to Illinois from Rhode Island I reconnected with him. We were, for a short time, toying with doing a band or recording project or something with our Champaign friends Darren Cooper (Three Hour Tour) and Adam Schmitt. The four of us got together a few times but it didn’t really work out. John and I decided to continue working on songs together and very slowly started to record some stuff. We made a few early recordings up at his place, a farm, in Wisconsin with our friend Brad Rice on guitar. From this session so long ago one song made its way on to the TSS record. John and I have not lived in the same place as one another while these recording were being made so many trips by each of us were required to get something together. I now live mostly in Japan so it has become ever more challenging. That is a part of our music’s recipe, though. The travel, the short burst of creative time together.

Over time John has made the Menomonie farm building (a hundred-something year-old former granary) where we first recorded into a full-fledged studio called Drum Farm Studio.

Tell us about the recording of the new record – The Small Square.

Recordings for the album were done in a variety of ways. A couple of songs were actually from old demos that I had done but never finished. John has the ability to slot his drums into an existing recorded track so we did this in some cases. Basics for most songs were done at his farm with overdubs happening anywhere I was at the time. I did most of the mixing in Osaka. We did some recording on two numbers with our friend Jonathan Pines, in Champaign, IL. Other friends graced us with performances. Namely, Joey Molland, Adam Ollendorff, Dennis Taylor, the aforementioned Brad Rice and R. Walt Vincent, who played on and mixed one song for us.

Tell us about your live show, do you play any VC?

Well, our set does include a Crush song or two, usually. It’s kind of like playing cover songs. We just did a tour in Japan in November/October. We had some old friends (Tommy Keene on guitar and Brad Quinn on bass) join us to fill out the live unit. A bit more rocking than the record, I would say. It is a rock band.

How does the songwriting process work in the new band?

Songs are written in a few different ways. We work on ideas when we convene in the studio. Some of which will be used, some not. John does demos and sends me ideas he has for me to work on. I sometimes will do full demos of a sort of complete idea or sometimes send chords and melody demos to him for his input. I guess we do it sort of any way we can. A lot of file sending is involved, though!

I’ve read that the title of Velvet Crush’s 1994’s classic – Teenage Symphonies to God was taken from Brian Wilson’s description the Beach Boys’ Smile. I just saw the bio-pic Love & Mercy and have been on a real Beach Boys kick. What’s your go-to beach Boys record? Will there ever be another Brian Wilson?

I suppose, pound for pound, that Pet Sounds is still the fav although I have not “gone-to” it much in recent memory. Records like that, ones that I have listened to so much and have kind of absorbed, I don’t listen to very often but they are a part of me and I draw from them and derive creative inspiration from them. They do still amaze when I hear them. I quite like the Wild Honey record, as well. Many moments on several records by the Beach Boys. Nope, there will not be another Brian.

If you could pick any time to travel back to for music, where would you go and what year would it be….

So many possibilities! At this moment I can only narrow it down to: Los Angeles,1966, Beach Boys, Pet Sounds sessions; London, 1966 Beatles, Revolver sessions and West Saugerties, NY in 1967ish, The Band working on songs for Music From Big Pink

What tunes are currently on heavy rotation for you…

Having slept on this when it was released a couple of years back, I’m catching up with The Notwist and their Close To The Glass album just now. Lately I have also been revisiting Françoise Hardy’s L’Amitie song, among others from The Vogue Years and AC/DC’s Back In Black. I’ve become quite interested in the work of songwriter Paul Williams so I am checking out his catalog recently.

Are there any newer bands that have caught your attention?

Of late, I have enjoyed the sounds of Foals, Labradors, Sunflower Bean, Sheer Mag, Summer Twins.

If you could only bring ONE record in the tour van/bus/plane what would it be?

Of course, this would likely have a different answer on another day. When I am on the road playing loud music every night I generally tend to not want to hear much rock (and most other) music in the vehicles. So, I would choose something to chill to like Miles Ahead by Miles Davis.

When you’re not playing and have some time off, where could we find you…

Not much down time, these days. Usually I am trying to find more time to work on music. We both have families so off time would be spent doing something special with them. In his spare time John might be found driving a bit too fast.

The Small Square – Website

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Stephen

Domestic now, but spent early to late 80s playing drums in a hair metal band in Toronto. Since then I've lost the hair and have found new ways to scratch the rock and roll itch.

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