Nearly three years have passed since Chris Meck decided it was time to front his own band.
A sideman and a go-to lead guitarist for more than two decades in Kansas City, he started Chris Meck and the Guilty Birds in 2013.
The inspiration for the band: Abigail Henderson, his wife and longtime band mate and co-founder of the Midwest Music Foundation, who died in August of that year. Right off the bat, she influenced the band. Its name is a term Henderson applied to the birds that were chirping in the wee hours of the morning, after she and Meck had completed a gig or bartending shift.
The transition from sideman and songwriting collaborator to frontman and primary songwriter has been enlightening and challenging for Meck. The band underwent several changes in lineups before settling into the current one, a trio that comprises Meck on guitar, Calandra Rene on bass and Michelle Bacon on drums.
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Friday night at the Tank Room, Meck and the Birds will celebrate the release of “It’s 4 A.M. Somewhere,” their inaugural full-length recording. It’s a collection of gritty, soul-infused rock songs with some blues accents that showcase Meck’s deft guitar work and the Birds’ bright girl-group harmonies. Meck, who among other assignments is also the lead guitarist in the Architects, recently answered questions about the making of “4 A.M.” and learning to lead a band that bears his name:
Where did you record the album, and how long did it take?
We tracked basics — drums, bass, guitar — at Massive Sound. My friend and audio partner Chad Meise engineered, and we tracked to tape, old-school style. Then I took it home and did vocals and overdubs at home on my own. I’m an engineer, too, but it’s hard to play guitar, sing, direct the band and engineer at the same time, so Chad was a big help watching the technical side for me at the beginning.
We started in late August and would’ve been done earlier, but some life events got in the way: My father passed away, so I had to deal with a lot of family issues. Ironically, the beginning and end of this record’s process was book-ended by Abigail’s death and then my father’s, if you account for the start of writing it.
I produced, I suppose, but I took input from the girls in the band and from Chad on technical things. Chad and I mixed it at Massive on the console that came out of Stax Records that he restored.
How did the writing process go?
I wrote everything. The process was a little different for each tune, but mostly I found that I had to put the guitar down and write words — just fill pages with drivel and then try to pull it together musically later. Otherwise, I’m such a guitar geek I just end up wailing away and not getting any composing done. The process also changed a lot with band lineup changes, of which there were a lot. Most of that was my own fault as I was casting about for an identity and sound. I wore a couple of guys out, I think. And some others just weren’t a good fit.
Which is the biggest challenge, melodies or lyrics?
Lyrics are definitely the biggest challenge for me. I’ve been a lead guitar player for a long time, so it’s natural for me to think melodically. But I’m moved by content very much, and that was always Abigail’s first thought as a writer as well, so I feel like it’s most important that the songs have a point and some meaning besides “here comes the guitar solo.” I kind of use her as a litmus test. I decide if she would think a lyric is good, I’ll go with it. And I try hard not to use any throwaway lines just to fill a rhyme or whatever.
Your guitar sound is such an essential component of any band you’re in. Do you make a point to feature it in each song, or do you let it arrive naturally and not force it?
I’m conscious of the fact that I have a sound and an approach on the guitar, and that has been my musical identity for a long time. It’s what I’ve used to express myself. So to continue to use that seems natural. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to reconcile what my actual voice as a singer can do with what my compositional skills are and then combine that with the more developed guitar thing.
Who are your primary guitar influences?
Jimi Hendrix for sure. I loved how he could get so wild and abrasive, and then be so beautiful sometimes in the same song. Jimmy Page, too, I love the melodramatic flair. Albert King. Buddy Guy. Early on, Eddie Van Halen. But I found Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters pretty quickly.
They didn’t sell Husker Du records at the Wal-Mart in Marshall (Mo.), so I’m afraid I didn’t hear punk or anything like that until college. So I guess Muddy Waters was my “alternative rock.” I have zero punk cred. But I’ve slept in the van at a lot of truck stops and on park benches over the years, so there’s that.
I love blues, and it informs everything I do musically, but I don’t think I would be authentic as a straight blues artist.
There have been a few incarnations of the band. Now you’re a trio. What are the virtues and challenges of that?
Early on I wanted a bigger band, probably to take some of the pressure off of me. I just couldn’t find the right fit. So we’re a trio, and it requires more of all of us musically, but is also so much easier as people with schedules. It’s quite easy to all get on the same page.
The girls did a lot of harmonies on the record and are doing it live, which really makes us sound like a much bigger band. It’s been a challenge they just took to with no fear. They are both fairly ego-less, and it’s a joy to play with them both. They’re both naturally musical. It’s been a learning process for each of us and will continue to be.
Describe the adjustments you’ve had to make to be the frontman. What have you learned/taken from the many front men/women you’ve worked with?
It’s a whole different skill set that I’ve been learning on the fly. I had to learn to trust my voice. I remember the exact moment I found my voice, which was at SXSW last year. All of a sudden I just let it go and stopped worrying about it. I’ll never win any vocal competitions, but I figure I sing about as well as anyone else that’s not a particularly gifted singer. Which is to say, good enough to get the song across.
I’m also naturally quiet, so talking to people, especially from stage, is still a work in progress. It all is, really. I learned the importance of connecting as a human with an audience from Kristie Stremel. That just came naturally for her, I think. I learned what it means to put in the work from Abigail — that there’s no shortcut, that lazy is not an option. Get it right. I learned what it means to be truly professional from Alejandro (Escovedo). I learned that leaving it all on the stage is its own reward from Brandon Phillips. And I learned that brutal honesty is always better from Jon Dee Graham.
Chris Meck and the Guilty Birds will celebrate the release of “It’s 4 A.M. Somewhere” on Friday at the Tank Room, 1813 Grand Blvd. The Westerners and Claire & the Crowded Stage will also perform. Show time is 9:30 p.m. Admission is $10 and includes a copy of “It’s 4 A.M. Somewhere.”