Illinois studio has recorded some indie rock’s biggest names, along with several Sask. artists
Admittedly, I knew very little about the Daytrotter when I first heard of it. The name was familiar – I had likely seen it while skimming over the endless gloss of the internet. But back in October 2013 when my band was touring through eastern Canada and the USA, it didn’t register why we were whipping through the concrete highways of America’s Midwest for a shot at recording in a studio I had never heard of.
Silly me: Daytrotter is a studio that has laid down tracks from thousands of musicians, some obscure, along with some of the biggest names in indie rock. It was a place where some of my musical heroes had bunkered down to hammer out alternate versions of the songs I knew so well.
Skimming through the list of sessions, the archives held plenty of gems, including Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace delivering a blistering version of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” that is somehow even more raw and disarming than the original, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes laying down barebones acoustic visions of songs otherwise steeped in electro layers, and Bry Webb of the Constantines sounding impressively hoarse and incendiary on “I Will Not Sing A Hateful Song”.
Even more amazing was discovering that several of our friends from Saskatchewan had been invited to lay down their own tracks with Daytrotter, including Rah Rah, Andy Shauf, Reignwolf and The Deep Dark Woods, whom had recorded in Rock Island multiple times since hitting the touring circuit hard. Even The Sheepdogs, the shaggy pride of Saskatoon, had punched in their own Daytrotter session while in Quebec for Pop Montreal at Breakglass Studios.
And now it was our turn.
It wasn’t a particularly proud day for Slow Down Molasses – we were five minutes late to our own recording session. Not the worst sin we committed as a band by far, but it was bad enough to make me feel guilty about stopping earlier to pick up the case of cheap, gritty American beer from a grungy truck stop back in Michigan.
And the van wasn’t particularly happy either. Grunting into downtown Rock Island – a scenic place that was appropriately named in more than one way – we parked in front of a non-descript stone-laden main street promenade. From there we followed in the same footsteps as soon many bands did before us: loading in, we played off borrowed equipment and recorded four songs, everything recorded live off the floor, in a nerve-wrackingly short amount of time.
It was a little bit excruciating, of course. But the session would also become one of my favourite recording experiences that I have ever been a part of – the staff was super courteous and even pointed us in the direction of an excellent Rock Island restaurant down the street.
Tyson, lead singer and guitarist of Slow Down Molasses, was particularly stoked to play at the studio. Having first heard about Daytrotter in 2007, Tyson says he remembers seeing musicians like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Nina Nastasia, and Phosphorescent posting about their own experiences.
“It seemed like recording a Daytrotter session was becoming a common denominator for many of the bands that I loved,” he says. “They seemed to capture a distinct breed of Americana-esque bands, but ranging from straight ahead folk or country stuff, to heavier psych and post-rock, or even punk bands. Bands that seemed to exist in the same niche as festivals like England’s End of the Road Festival or Oregon’s Pickathon Festival. The scene that likely values Sonic Youth or the Boredoms equally as much as they do Willie Nelson or Leonard Cohen.”
And if you’re a fan of anything remotely resembling any of the aforementioned bands, there’s no shortage of music to fall in love with.
Since starting in February of 2006, Daytrotter has released roughly 4,400 sessions on their website, releasing four or five sessions a day. A subscription service, the founders also offer incentives like free vinyl and heavy discounts on their webstore swag for those who sign up. There’s also a free app, although you still need to be a member in order to make use of the service. On the app are the same sessions – no downloads here but you still get full streaming privileges.
And while the music tends to be heavy on the Americana-folk and indie rock realms, there is still a decent selection. The site breaks down the sessions into sections sorted by genre as well as by “legends” and “hits”. Although it is a bit of a bummer that they took down the section where sessions were lumped in together as “goes great with PBR” – a bit of a niche for us aficionados with a taste for fine music and reasonably priced beverages.
It’s not just about producing music for its own sake. Daytrotter is also the home of a memorable visual aesthetic, with vivid, instantly-recognizable portraits via artist Johnnie Cluney. And the biographies of each session are also worth a read, which are usually wildly personal anecdotes that resemble short stories.
Ominocity recently caught up with Sean Moeller, the founder of Daytrotter, for an interview on recording every day, recording legendary musicians and why laissez-faire rules in the studio.
Ominocity: How does Daytrotter keep up such a prodigious pace in terms of recorded output?
Sean Moeller: I don’t really know how to answer that. I guess we just do. We do the majority of everything here in Rock Island and we have two studios here in town. We have another studio we use for a few days a month in London and another that we use in Nashville and another sporadically in San Francisco and North Carolina. We just stay busy.
When I started the site we definitely weren’t as big as we are now. And it just sort of took over. The more recordings that we put out the more people wanted to work with us.
OM: You’ve had some of indie rock’s biggest names alongside some that are lesser known. What is the rhyme and reason for inviting a band to do a session?
SM: Obviously we have to turn down some stuff – we don’t record everybody who wants to work with us, and I am pretty picky about what I like. I like upholding the quality control and I want everything that goes on the site to be great. And it’s amazing that there is just that much great stuff out there and every day I discover more bands that I want to record.
It’s amazing to me that I can discover a new band at midnight on my computer and get a response from them in 20 minutes with them saying they are fans of Daytrotter and we can set up a session right there and then.
OM: Why do you keep a strict ‘hands-off’ approach to letting the band dictate the recording?
SM: We’ve kept that approach because I’ve always wanted this to be about the musicians. I’ve had some people come in who were lifelong heroes of mine from when I first started to really appreciate music. For example, yesterday we had Matt Pryor in for another session. He was lead singer of The Get Up Kids and when I was in college it was a band that was blowing up at the time and shaping things I liked about music. People like that come in, and I am a fan of theirs, and they ask me if I have any requests. And I always just tell them they can do whatever they want. I mean, I could ask them to play my favourite song, but I want them to have fun with what they do.
I think its something of a pilgrimage to come out to our studios in Rock Island. Our set-up is nothing fancy yet there is a really interesting vibe to the room and it feels like an inspired place. And we want them to come around and mess around with their own material and maybe they can find something new within that limited context of what we have. We can’t be overly picky since we are recording straight to two-track and what’s done is done and there is no fixing it after the fact. I think it’s an interesting dynamic and it allows for so much creativity and I love to see what comes from that.