Lost in Mayhem Released November 2011
Accomplished artists help us personalize our reaction to their music, by reflecting the matters of their own lives without revealing what the mirror image looks like to them.
Fred Argir has always resisted requests to explain "the meaning" behind his music. He feels that you could dilute your connection to his work, by superimposing his experiences on yours. But this time, as he contemplates his latest album, Lost in Mayhem, he gives us more insights than usual into the undertones that shape it.
First, he admits that Mayhem is, indeed, as it seems: a stormy collection loaded with the search to understand those closest to us, our endless fascination with the interplay between allowing human relationships to play out in due time and wanting to find out, right now, how it all ends. About the limits of relying on others. About coming to the breaking point and facing decisions that ripple through the rest of your days.
"I think this is a stormy record," begins Fred. "It comes at a particularly challenging time for me. It happened to come out in a way that catalogued many emotions, that remind me I'm in this world on my own."
Before you rush to interpret that one, he quickly adds that responsibility for our own direction does not have to equal sad and lonesome.
"I think it's a peaceful realization," he says. "A coming to terms with similar emotions that I've had for many years. In many ways, it's a release."
The stories encased in the carefully orchestrated sound seem to carry the message that you cannot hand your life's steering wheel over completely to other people, even on a temporary basis; that, for the most part, we owe it to ourselves to be decisive.
"I'm not in favor of sitting back, waiting, observing," says Argir. "I'm more for displaying compassion for people, putting things in their place, and moving forward. I think that's a lot of what this album is doing as well. I think if I would have added an eleventh song, it would have been called Time to Move On. In many ways, that's the essence, the spirit, of these songs."
Fred's writing style is to allow new songs to seep in on their own, because they will, and do. "I hear music in my head all the time," he says. It's in moments of calm that songs (and courses of direction) are revealed to him. Knowing this, he manufactures periods of solitude in order to summon what's next.
"It's quiet that I chase," he says. "A lot of this album came to me while I was meditating. It's really about being in a peaceful place of meditation. In the hours of sitting still, the music rises to the top. The songs just rushed to me."
Through this process, the entire Lost in Mayhem project was written and recorded in about a six-week period.
If you know Argir solely through his most recent albums (Crossroads and Lost Souls), you might typecast him an acoustic specialist. The electric guitars and driving beat of Mayhem could appear to signal a new direction. On the contrary; it's a trip back to his musical roots, with a retro-inspired update - something that will make sense in a minute.
"I had an entirely different album ready to put out last fall," says Fred, "a collection of older songs. Individually the songs were great, but the cohesiveness wasn't there to make a great album. When I started on this (Lost in Mayhem), I started with You Play Rough, which introduced a different sort of feel. I could tell that I was moving (as an artist). My whole life, the music writing process has been a journey, and I landed in a new place, one that I felt comfortable with. It was a return, in a lot of ways, to the band recordings I did in the '80s and '90s.
"The second song, It's Cold in Here, definitely set me back into a comfortable place of 15 or 20 years ago. It was clear to me that there was an incredible amount of music to follow, and over the next six weeks or so, all the songs fell into place."
Specialized Gear, Signature Sound
In addition to compelling lyrics, Lost in Mayhem introduces what is likely to become a signature sound. Hard to classify, it's a blending of rich and vintage electric guitars, anchored by acoustic guitar tracks, real drums, and musical keys allowed to choose themselves based on the emotion of each story.
Willing to be guided by experience and experimentation, Argir set out on an ambitious adventure to bridge the analog and digital recording realms. A techie type, he long ago embraced the digital revolution and all it can bring to his art. But he retains a deep appreciation for the range and sound of analog recording gear. By tying these worlds together and tinkering with what it sounds like when they share the same room, he crafted a recipe that matches the music in his mind.
"The journey within the journey," Fred says, "resulted in a tone that I've been searching for for many years. I think there are advantages to coming from the analog era, because it forced musicians to understand the concepts of recording good music, like placement of mics, arrangement of tracks." As a listener this is probably more than you need to know, but an important piece of the puzzle is "the ability for sound to explode on tape without distorting," Argir continues. "You can hit tape a lot harder than you can a digital recording, so I use a lot of saturation with tape, then transfer it to a digital format."
The contributions of traditional gear extend to mics, amps, guitars, drums, and more. "I went on a journey to identify vintage amplifiers," Fred reports. "I bought five amps of vintage quality, along with vintage microphones, a Gibson Custom Shop hollow-body and an old vintage Fender Telecaster (electric guitars)."
Anything that needed repair was restored to as close to original condition as possible, so it would have the same character it did back in the day.
"Even down to the cabling, wiring and original tube quality," says Argir, "everything was held to the original specs. This is what finally got me to the tone I've been searching for. One of the amps is a '65 Vox, which replicates the amplifier The Beatles used. One is an old '64 Fender Twin. When I bought it, it was practically falling apart, just a few screws keeping it together. It would just hum in the studio. In some cases, these amps had such a hum, so I left it in the recordings, didn't try to take it out, left it true to the original.
"There's an early '60's Bassman, with everything original, crisp and creamy and clean and smooth. Most of the solos come out of that amp. As a guitar player, it was something I had always dreamed of doing, going back to the original sounds of the '60's and recording an album with as pure a tone as I could possibly record."
Less is, Indeed, More
For all their energy and human emotion, the recordings on Lost in Mayhem are notable for their restraint. Harnessing power and providing time for messages to linger is a subtle but powerful component of the mix. "It took me 25 years to see that less is more, quality is more," notes Fred, "and the breath between the notes of the solo - the silences - are more important than the solo itself. I think the real (artistic expression) on this album is not what I'm doing, but what I'm not doing. The pauses allow comprehension."
Mayhem is a masterpiece, balancing elements that could otherwise exist as random nuances of intensity and feelings. Fred Argir has created not just a collection of lyrics, not just a sound, but an enduring impression that fits his intent.
"There is something different going on here," he says, "and I hope people will see this. There are walls of sound and lots of textures, but it's all coming from a place that's 40 or 50 years old. It's funny; I own software that will take a digital recording and attempt to emulate a recording from 50 years ago. Sometimes, we play in the studio and compare these software applications, that supposedly replicate the actual make and model of my vintage amplifiers. They sound nothing like the real thing. That's when we knew we had something special."
– Mark Strand