Songs from his soul: KC musician Jamie Searle tests his creative boundaries

05/06/2014 7:33 PM

05/06/2014 7:33 PM

You could say Jamie Searle suffered for his art. He disappeared in the wilderness for it. He sold nearly all his possessions and moved into a windowless office space for it. He lost a lot of sleep — a lot

of sleep — for it. And he obsessed about it to a point where friends and loved ones started to wonder whether his quest was devouring him.

You could also say Searle immersed himself in his art, devoted himself feverishly to creating and unleashing the lavish music he’d been hearing in his head since 2008.

You could say all of the above because it’s all true. And if you wanted to blame (or credit) the Beatles for it, that would be true, too.

In mid-April, Searle released “Violet Music: Volume 1,” the inaugural recording by My Brothers and Sisters, the band he founded about five years ago. It’s a sprawling work, a polyphonic parade into and through a variety of music genres — funk, soul, R, jazz, gospel — all written, charted, scored and orchestrated by Searle. Nearly two dozen musicians worked on it. Recording took more than a year, involving three studios and two producers. And the budget well exceeded expectations.

Yet he finished it. And the week of its release, Searle was distributing copies, on vinyl and CD, to friends and colleagues like a new dad handing out cigars.

You could say this first-time father of a 4-month-old daughter is celebrating two births these days.

“The first time I heard the finished record, it was weird,” he said. “It was nerve-racking and exciting. I wanted to make an album that hadn’t been made yet, that didn’t exist. When I heard it, I thought, ‘I did that.’

“So it’s here now, but it doesn’t really exist if people don’t listen to it. So, I want people to hear it.”

Searle didn’t pick up a guitar until he was a teenager, but here was plenty of music in his life before that. He was born to a single mom in Protection, Kan., a speck of a town near the Oklahoma border. When he was 5, they moved in with his grandparents in Hays, Kan., so his mother could go to college. She wanted to become a teacher. That’s when he discovered his first love.

“I really got into break-dancing,” he said. “My grandparents had HBO, and the movie ‘Breakin’ 2’ was really big. I completely loved it. I watched it over and over and learned all the moves.”

Music was a regular part of his environment. His mother was exposing Searle to funk, R and disco. “I heard a lot of Roberta Flack,” he said. His grandfather introduced him to Herb Alpert the Tijuana Brass and country music. “I liked it all,” Searle said. “I had no biases.”

When he was 7, he and his mother moved to Kansas City so she could look for a teaching job. She ended up managing apartments. When Searle was 14, a friend showed him how to play Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” on electric guitar.

“The moment I started playing, I thought, ‘This is it,’” he said. “I stayed up all night, sitting on the edge of his bed, learning that song.”

It wasn’t the last time he lost a lot of sleep over music.

He was 16 when he started his first band, Cows Don’t Eat Beef. It played loud, sloppy, hardcore punk — an expression of his teen alienation.

“I was really feeling a lot of pain in my life then,” he said. “I had no father, my mom’s gay, I was living in Kansas, going to a Catholic school (Bishop Miege). I was listening to Black Flag and Rage Against the Machine.”

That band lasted one gig. “We played a birthday party on a porch in Overland Park,” he said. “The cops were called right away and shut us down 15 minutes after we started.”

His mother was wary of the music culture and its affiliation with drugs, so for a couple of years, Searle sequestered himself in his room, teaching himself guitar and learning the tricks of the masters, like Jimi Hendrix.

Then he met Bill Sundahl, a catalyst and co-conspirator in Searle’s early music life. In 2001, when Searle was 19, they started the band It’s Over. Its first incarnation was a more chaotic extension of Searle’s first band.

“There was lots of yelling and screaming and rolling around onstage and knocking each other over,” Sundahl said. “Lots of distorted guitars and overwrought bass lines. We both wrote lyrics to the same songs, often they had nothing to do with each other. It was close to punk, but not.

“At the time, we thought we were making brilliant art. I listened to some of it recently and thought, ‘Wow.’ And not ‘wow’ in a good way.”

“Bill was into Pantera, we were both into Queens of the Stone Age,” Searle said. “Lots of hardcore screaming stuff.”

It’s Over rumbled and roared along for a few years, but by 2004, Searle was in his early 20s and no longer an angry teenager venting his angst. Instead, he was becoming more interested in songwriting and musicianship, a change that didn’t dawn on him until he got hold of a copy of the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album.

The first track on “Violet Music” is called “Fall Winter Spring Summer.” It’s a blast of orchestral rock with an array of accents: funk, R, pop. It’s rife with riffs and runs and fills from horns, strings and guitars and lustrous vocals and layers of harmonies.

“It’s a very thick and rich album,” said Andy Oxman, who helped produce “Violet Music” at Soundworks Recording, the studio he owns in Blue Springs. “There is a lot going on most of the time. It’s very dynamic.”

Searle wrote, arranged, charted and scored everything on the album. He also sang lead vocals, played rhythm and lead guitar and added auxiliary percussion and synthesizers. The sound of My Brothers and Sisters is light-years away from the noise and fury issued by his first two bands.

And Searle says the Beatles were the catalyst for him to become a serious songwriter and musician. Specifically, it was the “Rubber Soul” album, when the Beatles were reaching their peak as songwriters and studio wizards.

“The first time I listened to ‘Rubber Soul’ I thought, ‘I can’t play these (It’s Over) songs again,” he said. “I felt such a sense of deliberation and so much invention in (the Beatles) music. I felt like I’d reached my limit in It’s Over and I was repeating myself. So I started to write completely different songs. ... I was going to be serious about it.”

So he and bandmate Ryan Donegan started collaborating, changing the sound of It’s Over dramatically. That was late 2004. Sundahl had left the band right at that transition but returned not long after. “I was an immediate fan of the new stuff,” he said. “I really wanted back in.”

“It was still kind of punk rock but with melodies,” Oxman said. “It was like punk rock meets the Beatles.”

It’s Over toured regionally for three years and performed three times at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. By then, Searle had grown increasingly interested in devouring as much as he could about music theory and history, so in 2007, he enrolled in music classes at Johnson County Community College.

He also started exploring classical music and big band jazz, devouring books and autobiographies (Quincy Jones) and studying scores (Tchaikovsky, Brahms). It all inspired him and aroused grander ideas.

“I realized that where I was, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, what I was hearing in my head,” he said. “I needed more help, more training.”

It’s Over called it quits in 2008, the same year Searle was accepted into the Conservatory of Music at UMKC. That was also the year he started composing songs for My Brothers and Sisters.

It didn’t take forever to make “Violet Music,” but it started to feel like it might. The entire process lasted about 18 months, required 23 musicians and comprised thousands of man-hours in the studio. Money became an issue.

In October 2012, Searle launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the financing. More than 50 backers helped him exceed his goal of $4,000 by nearly $200.

“The Kickstarter really helped out,” Searle said. “But I could see right away that it wasn’t going to last, not when I’m paying a string quartet $400 for three hours of time.”

So he hatched a plan. On Craigslist, he found a low-rent office space in Grandview. Then he sold everything he owned — all but musical instruments, some books and all the clothes he could fit into one trunk. And he moved into the space, turning it into his living quarters and studio.

“I had a hot plate, some clothes, computer and my guitars because that was where I was doing my guitar parts for the record,” he said. “I went to the community center every morning at 6:30 and showered.” And then he went back to his office space and worked on his record, impressing his fellow tenants.

“I was always back there by 7:30, and other people in the building were like, ‘That young man is really after it!’”

He was after it, all right, but “it” would take awhile. Because of the many parts he was recording, and because of his obsession to get them just right, tracking alone took a year, much longer than the few months Searle had anticipated.

“There were so many different musicians and pieces,” Oxman said. “And Jamie is so meticulous.”

“He tends to be a perfectionist,” said Angel Gibson, one of four vocalists on the album. “It can get tedious. But he scores charts like no one else. Jamie is special. He wanted to make something that was beyond all of us. He always wanted something extra, something more. And we were all happy to be part of it.”

Producer Joel Nanos was enlisted to mix and master the project at his Element Recording studio in Kansas City. It wasn’t the usual project, he said.

“Jamie threw everything he had into it, so there were a lot of files and parts to sort through,” Nanos said. “I remember one song even being over 130 tracks. Most were over 75 at least. Sorting that out was a very big job.

“Each song really needed a unique approach. I somehow had to get all of those different sounds to jell. I wanted it to have a very timeless sound once it hit wax, like it could have been made in any decade.”

Money wasn’t the only challenge. The project was also taking a physical toll. Searle had left the conservatory about a semester short of graduation, frustrated with its approach and confident he could teach himself what he wanted to know.

But he was also working as a guitar instructor and had regular music gigs at two churches. He spent much of his waking time working on the project, grabbing cat naps here and there.

“I was working every night, sometimes until 4 in the morning, then I’d kind of pass out,” he said. “I’d get up and pour coffee down my throat to stay awake.”

The lack of sleep and money issues eventually got to him.

“I reached a point where I started having doubts about whether this was the right thing to do,” he said. “A lot of people started worrying about me. They told me I was starting to lose it a little. I was feeling so exhausted. I started to wonder, ‘Is this taxing the people I love?’”

But there were moments when inspiration would arrive and revive him. Like the time he’d left his office bunker for a week and went off into the woods to “fish and live like a wild man.”

“There’s a song on the album, ‘I’ll Be Leaving With You,’” he said. “For months, I had the first two lines of that song, nothing else. I didn’t push it. I knew the rest of the song would come to me eventually. I was on a hike, and it came to me. I ran back to my campsite and wrote the rest. Moments like that, where you capture the soul of the song, are so rewarding.

“So I decided that, right or wrong, I was going to finish the album, no matter what.”

In October, Searle moved into a Brookside house with Melissa Backstrom, a singer he met while recording the project. She is the mother of their daughter, Nezra, born in December, a few months before the album was officially done.

Asked to describe the sound of My Brothers and Sisters and “Violet Music,” Searle is careful with his words. “I say we’re a 14-piece pop orchestra that covers a lot of styles,” he said.

Asked what was most gratifying about making the album, Searle said, “Working with so many great people in so many fields: musicians, engineers, designers. I learned so much. I learned a lot about myself.”

The feeling is mutual. “Jamie is a really interesting guy,” said Michael Gregory, who played guitar on the album. “His take on music is really unique.”

“I’m very proud of the finished product,” Nanos said.

Despite all the expense, time and sacrifice, you could say Jamie Searle is satisfied with the process and the results.

“I’m feeling real positive about the future,” Searle said. “Yeah, it took awhile, but I’m real proud of the record and proud of everyone who worked on it.”

Sundahl agrees: “I think now that it’s out, no one is going to remember it took forever to come out. They’ll just think it’s a great record.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816.234.4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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