They Call it [Succinct Instrumental] Rock

If you refer to a band as an instrumental band, various types of music come to mind – surf, jazz, classical, exotica, and striptease accompaniment. I Think Like Midnight (“ITLM”) do not fit within any of those categories. Nor, thankfully, do they create the guitar-shredder instrumental sounds generated by Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani. They occupy a rare corner of the instrumental world; one where melodic, guitar-based instrumentals, are written with the precision of a rock/pop singer-songwriter, and played (but not overplayed) by skilled musicians. For those who think writing and playing instrumentals is the equivalent of having “half-songs”, think again. Eliminating lyrics and vocals leaves the music to entertain the listener from start to finish and carry all of the weight of the song. Done right, it’s an amazing feat; done poorly, it comes across sounding like guitar riffs were tossed together as part of a finger exercise. The debut release from ITLM fits squarely in the former category.

Aptly referred to as succint instrumental rock, ITLM’s recently released debut album, Warm Seclusion Structure, showcases the songwriting and musicianship of Philadelphia based multi-instrumentalist Andrew Chalfen, formerly of The Wishniaks and Trolleyox. In sports, athletes fondly refer to coaches as a “player’s coach.” In music, Chalfin is a musician’s musician. Primarily a guitar player, Chalfen also handles bass guitar and keyboard duties on Warm Seclusion Structure. A sought after sideman for singer-songwriters, Chalfen’s guitar consistently jangles, bends, and rests at the right time. Along with Chalfen, the studio version of ITLM includes the steady drum work of Dean Sabitino (aka Dean Clean of The Dead Milkmen) and recording engineer/keyboardist J. Robert Lennon.

Although they cite the defunct instrumental band Pell Mell as the impetus to create ITLM, Chalfen and company are too smart to simply ape another band. ITLM paints with a variety of brush strokes across the album’s twelve tracks. The music broadly fits within the rock music category, but the album rocks only in parts (Everyone Has a Silver Car and Ground Effect Aircraft; the latter being my favorite track and featured in the attached video clip). Warm Seclusion Structure also shuffles (Block Captain), jangles (Triple Without), goes poppy (Maiden Names), moves slowly (Echo Celeste and Swiss Voltage), and triumphantly lifts the listener (Working Blue). The beauty of Warm Seclusion Structure is in its details and its subtlety. It’s a slow burn, rather than a quick hit. It reveals itself over repeated listens and over time. Only one track, Maiden Names, dares to break the four minute barrier. Succinct, the way it should be.

In advance of ITLM’s debut live performance at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on December 19, I had the opportunity to interview Chalfen about ITLM.

Q: When did you begin the project that became I Think Like Midnight? What was the recording process like?

A: Recording for what would turn out to be the “Warm Seclusion Structure” album began in the Spring of 2012 up at the Ithaca, NY recording studio of pal J. Robert (“John”) Lennon. I say “would turn out to be” because at the time it was not at all clear how the recordings would turn out or what their fate would be. Typically whenever I took the Trolleyvox into a recording studio, I tried to have all my song arrangement ducks in a row and have in my head a pretty good idea of how the finished recording should sound. This time I wanted to try something different, leave more to chance and the input of others. Sort of a nod to Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I just brought some rough ideas into the studio really with few preconceived notions of the final outcome. There was no band name or expectation of release. We just had the idea that this would be a fun thing to do. We being me, drummer and old pal Dean Sabatino, and John. Not to be all Tristram Shandy, but perhaps some back-story would help here.

The way I typically work is to keep a hand-held recording device handy when I’m messing around on guitar. That way, when I come up with an idea for a riff, rhythm, song or melody, I can immediately document the gist of it (mistakes and all). I used to do it on cassette, and when the cassette recorder motor flaked out, I got a digital recorder. I then bounce the ideas into playlists of my ideas in iTunes called Raw Ether. I’ve got playlists for potential rock tunes with lyrics, potential folk guitar mediations, potential ambient music, and potential instrumentals. So for the recording session I selected a bunch of raw ether from the instrumental playlist and we went from there. I basically came up with arrangements on the spot, taught them to Dean, ran through a tune a few times while John moved mics around and got sounds, and then we recorded. In an odd bit of reverse engineering, sometimes I’d have to relearn a riff all over again before we recorded. We did basic tracks for 12 songs in 2 days this way. It was kind of a blast. The rest of the recording was one additional session of keyboards and guitars at Mabel Sound, more guitars and keyboards which I recorded at home by myself, and a session with a trumpet player at Eardrum Land, Chris Unrath’s studio here in Philly. It all kind happened in fits and starts.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about the other band members?

A: So Dean “Clean” Sabatino plays drums in the Dead Milkmen. I used to room with the Milkmen back in the mid 80’s and Dean and I have occasionally gotten together over the years to record on his 4-track cassette recorder. We’ve both always loved instrumental music, rock and otherwise. I have an instrumental we recorded back in 1991. He and I have for some time been batting around the idea of starting an instrumental project and it finally came together.

Joshua Newman is our bassist. I’ve been a fan of his bass playing for years. He played for the alt-country band American Altitude. They sounded like the Feelies if the Feelies were alt-country. I thought they were brilliant. I’ve been bugging him for years about playing together. He finally relented.

J. Robert Lennon was another roommate of mine. I think I met him through him being a fan of my first band, the Wishniaks. He’s gone on to be a rather successful and prolific novelist, and he has been in several bands, most recently the Starry Mountain Sweetheart band (https://starrymountainband.bandcamp.com/). He set up a really nice, comfortable recording studio in his house overlooking the woods. He and Dean are really good with the digital tech. We had the windows open to the breezes during recording. John’s our 5th Beatle. Though he can’t really be a regular playing member due to his living 4 1/2 hours away from Philly, his engineering and instrument contributions on the recordings are not insignificant.

Q: So with ITLM being studio project originally, did you always envision playing as a live band?

A: Well, once we heard how great the recordings were, that’s when we thought “hey, we should do this live”. So then I had to dive into the logistics of getting a band happening. It was all rather backwards, making a record and then forming a live playing unit and figuring out how to do the songs live. I even did a website for the band before we even had a band practice. We had no bassist. Finally Josh came aboard. Most of the tunes have translated to live playing. So far so good, in a seat-of-your-pants kind of way, just like the record. John’s going to play some one-off shows with us on keyboards, but we’re definitely going to need a more permanent live keyboard solution.

Q: Instrumental music in the rock/pop genre is difficult to explain to people. How do you explain ITLM’s sound?

A: I say we play instrumental rock, or cerebral instrumental indie rock, though both descriptions are kind of lacking somehow. I start name checking bands. I say some songs sound like Pell Mell. Yo La Tengo, New Zealand janglepop (Clean, Chills), Spoon, Byrds, twang and surf elements. It’s kind of a hopeless exercise.

Q: Speaking of Pell Mell, you’ve cited them as the inspiration for forming ITLM. For those who are not familiar with Pell Mell, what is it about that band that grabbed your attention?

A: Yeah, Pell Mell are our spirit animal band. I’ve been obsessed with them for years, and I got Dean and John into them as well. Especially the last 3 albums. I love Pell Mell’s whole sonic and compositional approach. There’s something very architectural about their sound. They’re good with tension and release and drone. All the elements fit together in a kind of rarified balance, with either a sort of call-and-response to the various parts, or a really seamless weaving of parts. All highly melodic, rhythmic, and super-efficient. There’s no wankery. Everything sound is discrete and has a purpose. Kind of like many Beatles recordings that way. It’s a bit emotionally flat, with a kind of wryness, a raised eyebrow. I kind of joke that I wanted to make a Pell Mell record since there are no new Pell Mell records, and though that’s probably not even remotely possible, they do definitely figure heavily in ITLM’s aesthetic.

Q: The tracks on the album are perfect for movie soundtracks and television commercials. Are you pursuing those avenues?

A: I agree! Do you have the ear of any music supervisors? Sadly, it’s next to impossible these days to get anything placed unless you know someone on the inside. I tried for years with the Trolleyvox. It’d be a hoot if it happened, though.

Q: With the release of the first album, what is on tap next for ITLM?

A: We want to play live for the people, for sure. Trying to get the word out about ITLM any way we can. There’s already talk of heading back up to Mabel Sound and making another record. I certainly have more raw ether ready to be turned into songs. Since we’ve morphed from project into band, the approach to the recording session may be a bit more traditional. Songs will almost certainly be further along arrangement-wise before we cut basic tracks. Dean I’m sure would be happy to refine his drum parts in advance. And of course looking for a more permanent keyboardist.

Q: True or false – the value of the rest note is underrated.

A: Oh, totally. Music needs to breathe. The silences are integral – they’re frames and punctuation. And as someone who has a tendency to overdub a zillion guitar parts, it’s a lesson I constantly need to relearn.

You can, and should, listen to and purchase Warm Seclusion Structure on the ITLM bandcamp page, or at CD Baby.
More information about the band can be found on its
website .

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Matt M.

Born on Mick Jagger's 22nd birthday, the day after Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Lifelong music fan; musician and songwriter.

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