During the first Covid-19 lockdown, one of the albums that kept me sane was the new, self-titled record by The Explorers Club.
Paying homage to the lush orchestrations of Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, as well as the ‘60s sunshine pop of The Beach Boys – circa Pet Sounds – The Turtles and The Association, it’s an ambitious collection of songs, with gorgeous, aching melodies and wonderful, rich arrangements for strings, horns and vocals.
The bouncy, harmony-drenched first single ‘Ruby’ could be the sister of ‘Elenore’ by The Turtles, ‘Mystery’, ‘Don’t Cry’and ‘Look To The Horizon’ are perfect pocket symphonies, ‘Dawn’ has a bossa nova feel, the guitar-led ‘Say You Will’ is infectious, driving beat-pop, and ‘Somewhere’ – the heaviest moment on the album – is far out and groovy, Byrds-like psychedelia. It’s hard to believe these songs haven’t been around for years – they sound like long-lost classics.
In these dark times we’re living in, the record is a perfect summer soundtrack that will take you away to a different place – specifically the West Coast of America, in the mid to late ‘60s.
“I have this vision of creating classic sounds that send people on a musical vacation,” says the album’s creator, Jason Brewer, the brainchild behind The Explorers Club, who founded the US band in his native Charleston, South Carolina, before relocating to Nashville.
“I’m inspired by classic records made by The Wrecking Crew [famous, LA-based, ‘60s and ‘70s session musicians], as well as vintage movies with dreamy scores and soundtracks. I’m always aiming to take the listener away from modern constraints to a place where the melody and sound just take over.”
On the band’s latest album – their fourth – Brewer wears his influences on his sleeve, but, just in case that wasn’t obvious enough, to accompany the new record he’s also made a 10-track collection of cover versions of songs from 1965-68 that were originally performed by artists including The Zombies, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Herb Alpert, Frankie Valli and The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Entitled To Sing And Be Born Again, it was released on the same day as Brewer’s album of original compositions.
“The ‘60s covers record came about because the band’s followers have always asked me to do certain covers of their favourite songs. I also thought it had been a while since I had a new record out, so I felt two would be even better,” he says.
It’s hard to argue with him…
SH: You’ve said that on the previous Explorers Club releases you were catering to other people in the group’s tastes, but that this album is the record you wanted to make. Can you elaborate on that?
JB: With previous albums I was always trying to include the other band members and trying to find a great cohesive sound based on the strengths of the band.
On this record, I had a very pre-determined idea of what I wanted to do sound-wise, so many of the songs came together in one major moment of inspiration. I wanted to make a very lush and classic-sounding record that evoked the legendary studio sounds of the mid to late 1960s.
The guys that were in the band for Together [2016 album] were all committed to a project they could not take time away from, but I was laser-focused on making a new record, so I made the decision to get with some local Nashville players and my producer friend, Matt Goldman, for the initial sessions, and also work with my good friend, Shane Tutmarc, at his home studio.
I did a lot of tracks one-on-one with Matt in East Tennessee [at Gem City Studios]. Matt also recorded our first two albums and he just knows how to bring out the best in me. He is a true master of the studio – his ear is unbeatable.
You recorded the majority of the album in the legendary Studio A in Nashville. Why?
It was incredible. It had some magic that really inspired the players and myself to dig in and put some great effort into each take. I had some good friends drop by the studio just to take in the vibes of the room. It was truly an amazing experience.
Were the new albums easy or difficult to make? How were the sessions?
These were the most seamless to make of all my records. When I was working with Matt at the big studios, and also with Shane in his home studio, the sessions were very focused and productive. I cannot state enough how this was by far one of the best recording experiences I have ever had. Just taking so much love and care with every song made it great. I was able to really focus on my inspiration and drive to make these records come to life.
The new album is heavily influenced by orchestral pop sounds from the ‘60s. What is it about those records that you love so much?
The main influences I was drawing on were records by The Turtles, Chad & Jeremy, Dusty Springfield, Bacharach, Chris Montez, Scott Walker, The Byrds, Phil Spector, and the Sinatra-Jobim album [Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim]. Those records had such care and craft woven into them.
I pulled in some great players who I knew would be able to catch the subtleties of those sounds and were able to play cohesively, just like the classic studio players of the ‘60s.
I think the main thing missing in so much of today’s music is dynamic and proper melodic arrangements. I try to continue the tradition of classic sounds while bringing new songs to the table.
How old are you? Did you grow up listening to old music, rather than contemporary stuff?
I am 38. I listened to a great oldies radio station and I had a neighbour who played The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Beatles and Chuck Berry records all the time. I have been a lifelong retrophile.
What’s your songwriting process and how do you come up with the arrangements?
I really do not have a set way I prefer to write. I usually start with a melody or a chord progression. As soon as the songs come to light, I start hearing the arrangements pretty quickly.
I always lean towards the sound of older records because it’s just what fits my writing style.
With the arranging I have an overall idea of the sound I want and the instruments I want. I will often collaborate with others to achieve my vision. It’s great working with people who share the same passion for the flavour of music I am usually after.
‘Ruby’ has the feel of ‘Elenore’ by The Turtles. Was that intentional?
It was definitely an attempt to write the newest Turtles smash – ha-ha! I love their music and I was after their vibe. ‘Ruby’ is the coolest girl you’ll ever meet – the song is about meeting the one who just makes sense. It’s a universal theme.
‘Say You Will’ is one of my favourite tracks on the record. It’s a great breakup pop song, but one of the more upbeat moments. I love the guitar and horns, and I admire your ability to wrap up a melancholy lyric in a great pop tune. ‘Mystery’ and ‘Don’t Cry’, from the new album, are both good examples of that, too. Sad songs are always the best, aren’t they?
‘Say You Will’ was inspired by the late ‘60s Kinks records and it has a little Beatles in there, too. ‘Mystery’ is a Spector-meets-Scott Walker vibe all the way. ‘Don’t Cry’ is one of the rare times I’ve taken a stab at folky melodrama. I sung it with my co-writer Emeen [Zarookian].
‘Somewhere’ is the heaviest track on the album. It’s psychedelic…
Well, you could say bands like The Byrds and Love inspired it. It’s just a funky weird little song about escaping everyday boredom with the one you care most about.
Another of my favourite songs on the record is the final song, ‘Look To The Horizon’. It’s a Phil Spector-style epic – a ‘pocket symphony’. Where did that track come from?
It’s an uplifting song about the promise the future has if we stay focused. I was going for The Turtles jamming with Spector and Brian Wilson, and a little McCartney, too. It’s one of my best songs.
You released two albums on the same day – one of which was a covers record. How did you choose the songs for the covers album?
I wanted to go with songs I had played before, or that had really influenced the mood of my writing. I am big fan of each of the songs I picked out and feel like I did them justice as best I could.
Songs like ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ [Herb Albert] and ‘Roses and Rainbows’ [Danny Hutton] are very special to me and they’re ones I have always wanted to record. Many of the others were songs that I had played with the band in the past. It was great trying to find the vibe of all those great songs.
What’s the trick of doing a good cover version?
I personally like to stay faithful to the original versions, but with some small, extra touches [of my own].
Do you have a favourite cover version by another artist and who would you like to cover one of your songs?
I really dig Elvis’s take on ‘Any Day Now’ – it’s a great cover of one of my favourite Bacharach songs. I am also very fond of Noel Gallagher doing ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’.
As for one of my songs? Man, there are too many amazing singers to single out just one.
What music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment? What was your lockdown soundtrack and what’s your preferred way of listening to music? Are you a vinyl junkie?
I prefer vinyl, but I love streaming as well. I have been listening to a lot of Gram Parsons, Sinatra, Oasis and The Beatles, as well as my usual weird soundtrack music.
My isolation soundtrack was mostly ‘60s country music – Buck Owens and the International Submarine Band – and ‘50s Frank Sinatra. I have also started writing a few new songs. Hopefully I can find another new record within them.
Will you be playing any live shows for the new records?
I am working towards having a live version of The Explorers Club play, as soon as concerts make a comeback.
The Explorers Club and To Sing And Be Born Again are both out now on Goldstar Recordings: thexplorersclub.com
Photographs by Susan Lloyd and Matthew McQueen
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