Chris Tolle promised himself 2016 would be a “studio year,” then spent the year fulfilling the promise.
“I like making stuff,” he said. “I’d reached a point where I spent a lot of time not making much. From the outside, I looked busy, but I wasn’t creating at the rate I like to.”
The year turned out to be a creative and fruitful one. Tolle released “Early Reflections,” a full-length record that had been eight years in the making. He and two friends started a new band, Mazinaw, and are deep in the recording process. He recorded an EP with Olympic Size, its first recording in six years. And he contributed to a recording by Federation of Horsepower, a heavy-rock band from Kansas City for which Tolle played guitar before he left it in 2016.
“Early Reflections” is something of a departure for Tolle, whose days in the Kansas City/Lawrence music scene go back to the mid-1990s and the band Action Man.
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When that band dissolved, Tolle started the Creature Comforts, a four-piece power-pop band that toured relentlessly and released two albums from 1998 to 2001.
His next band was the Belles, an indie-pop/rock duo that released three full-length albums. In 2008, when his wife was expecting their first child, Tolle started producing “Early Reflections,” a solo album.
Then his son was born, which slowed progress on the album. In 2010, Tolle’s wife got sick, and he dropped everything to help her convalesce.
“So I stopped all music endeavors entirely, and it kind of became a lost album,” he said.
He revived those songs again in 2014 and enlisted Kliph Scurlock, who’d played drums on the album, to mix and master everything.
“That allowed me to step away from it so I could listen more objectively,” he said. “I ended up being really proud of it.”
“Early Reflections” is a gem of a pop album, rife with hooks and melodies and harmonies, like much of Tolle’s music. But unlike his other projects, it signifies a dramatic lyrical shift.
“I’ve never really felt like I’ve been too straightforward with what I’m trying to say,” he said. “I’m not trying to change the world. But suddenly (in 2008) my wife was pregnant and I started reading books about mitosis and started thinking of the universe in a grander scale. Suddenly I had some (things) I wanted to say.
“I had no idea the craft of songwriting would take such a personal direction. I’m always connected to my songs, but I don’t necessarily want the listeners to be. I like to express myself and keep my secrets at the same time. And this record doesn’t do that at all.”
Fans of mature, well-crafted pop music will want to listen repeatedly, even if songs like “Ulee’s Theme” are about a child who is two days beyond his due date and may be reluctant to emerge.
“It’s written from the perspective that he’s late but he’s in there chilling,” Tolle said. “It’s basically him saying, ‘I’ve got it pretty great in here. If there’s a better offer, send it up now. But I’m not sure anything can be better than this.’ ”
“Early Reflections” was released in late August. By then, Tolle, Bill Latas and J.D. Warnock (Tolle’s bandmate in the Creature Comforts) were working on material for Mazinaw. Their record is now in the mixing stages, and Tolle is excited about how the project has progressed.
“Voices are the main components,” he said. “It’s a vocal group, for sure lots of vocals, lots of harmonies, no lead singer per se. It’s melodic. I think every song is a toe-tapper.
“You may hear it and say it sounds like the Jayhawks, but I played it for a friend and he heard Spiritualized. Another friend said, ‘I could hear this on the radio.’ ”
Saturday night, Tolle will reunite with his Creature Comforts mates to perform at an all-ages benefit show at the Bottleneck in Lawrence. Several other bands are reuniting for the event, including the Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. Also on the bill: Gnarly Davidson, the Sluts, Arthur Dodge and Matt & Lily Pryor.
Proceeds will go to help cover medical expenses for Dagan Lingenfelter, a 6-year-old recently diagnosed with leukemia. Dagan’s mother, Megan Hanna, spent years working in and patronizing the Lawrence music community and is friends with many of its bands.
For Tolle, the show will be a chance to step out of the studio and get reacquainted with some old songs.
“I was just coming into my own as a songwriter when (the Comforts) started,” he said. “So I’m not embarrassed by that music like I am some of my earlier stuff. It’s fun to revisit where I was back then.”
After that, it’s back to work on Mazinaw and to wait for his other 2016 projects to see the light of day.
“None of those other projects has come out except my record,” he said. “But it was a good year. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I spent the whole time writing, recording, getting my record out and working with Mazinaw.”
The Creature Comforts will perform Saturday night at the Bottleneck in Lawrence. The show is part of a benefit that will include performances by Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, Gnarly Davidson, the Sluts, Arthur Dodge and Matt & Lily Pryor. Proceeds will help cover medical expenses for Dagan Lingenfelter, a 6-year-old recently diagnosed with leukemia. The all-ages show starts at 6 p.m; a $10 donation will be accepted at the door.