Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
This year, or rather the year that found its right mind to wrap itself up, a young male, an Italian blogger to be precise, had a burning question for Track A Tiger lead singer and songwriter Jim Vallet as he was readying a piece about the band for screen. He wanted to know -- damn it -- why the members, and Jim specifically, were so sad. He believed that the band was severely broken up about something and that something was life in general. They were sobbing wrecks, destined for hankies and the sovereign state of melancholy that turns the air mighty chilly and blanches faces of all their original colors. He sensed a dreariness in the daily lives of these men, a condition that would make cracking smiles as difficult as cutting diamonds. You listen to Woke Up Early the Day I Died and you think, "That Italian dude might know what he's talking about after all," because there's enough desperation in the tales of these album characters to choke a horse. It's just that Vallet and his crew -- guitarist Patrick Melvin, bassist Aaron Wilkins and drummer Mike Ciuni (the band recently parted ways with vocalist/keyboardist Alisa Jo Monnier and is seeking a replacement of celestial talents) -- aren't really like that. They might sadden their mothers with the songs they write, but those sad songs say so much more, as a birdie named Elton once sang. There's no glory in a happy song. There's no honor in jubilance -- although Lionel Ritchie did make a fine living through that exact manner. Movies are not considered complete unless there is some variation of a story arch that follows the line: happy, good, tragedy, sad, journey, discovery, ending happiness or at the very least, less sadness.
This is the truth and therefore, Track A Tiger adhere to that winning formula, by writing smashingly good songs for the afternoons when grey skies aren't clearing up and baby rain droplets are tapping against the window panes like lost or blind birds. Vallet, in his writing, understands that there needs to be brevity in joy. A song must be long in sorrow if it's ever going to get anywhere in life. It just must be on the verge of despair to be allowed entrance into his world, which was originally shaped by growing up along the banks of the Mississippi River, in a whatever Iowa town that's reputable for nothing except being within spitting distance of Wisconsin dairy farm country. It's a depressing place (now you know where he gets the inclination) that for the longest time was only known for it's towering stone bluffs and its still active Ku Klux Klan chapter. This is where he came from, young Italian. Maybe now you understand where he's "coming" from -- literally and lyrically. That place is the setting and the reason for the song, "Here at the End," which he explains thusly, "I was thinking about people I've seen that move back (to Dubuque) after all kinds of bad shit happens in their lives...and the town seems to make it worse. Lonely, divorced, living back with their parents, drinking, shit like that."
Woke Up Early the Day I Died doesn't so much create an atmosphere as it sets into motion weather patterns and slow to develop storm systems that always feel imminent, look black and loom for hours without so much as a single boom of courtesy thunder to show it's business-like. Or maybe the songs are the products of an encore, the aftermath of a storm. The damage has been done, we still remember what transpired, we're picking up the pieces, but looking off into the distance there's that skyline of eraser pink, raspberry red and gumdrop orange pulling down the black night covering like a curtain. Vallet claims to poach lines and inspiration from Welsh writer Dylan Thomas on a regular basis. Thomas was a drinking man, who, even with a distorted sense of his own destiny, importance and happiness, was able to write passionate pieces about fortitude and charging on in spite of the outside world being a drag. He's famous for his purported last words, as he lay dying of alcohol poisoning, "After 39 years, this is all I've done." It's loaded with self-mourning and yet, those aren't the same things Vallet takes from Thomas. Somehow he finds what he needs to find. The same can go for his own songs. There is bleed-through and it's that which makes the sentiments clash. It's that which makes Track A Tiger.
The Daytrotter interview:
*How are your winter vacations coming along? You teachers sure are lucky.*
Jim Vallet: Yeah, but we deserve it. Especially us inner-city teachers! I've been using the time to finish the new record. I'm putting the final touches on it today.
*Now what do you all teach? Where do you teach and is the teacher's lounge equipped with some decent monitors so you can squeeze in practices at lunch?*
JV: I teach special ed. Actually, the drummer Mike and I teach together. He's an English teacher and we co-teach 5 classes together. We see a LOT of each other, but we get along great. Plus we can sneak in conversations about music while the kids are working. Aaron, the bass player, also teacher English. We're at Roosevelt High School. on the north side. It's good, a little rough, but good. I also run a recording club/studio at the school. Started it last year, we made a CD of student (and some teacher music). It's all over the place, but there's some good stuff. We have a room and some equipment, we recorded drums and bass there for five songs. Plus timpani, which we borrowed from the music department. A math teacher, John Peacock, is, hopefully, going to add some pedal steel. There are some really talented musicians at the school. Actually there a lot of teachers who are into music. Must be because of the summer's off.
*Do your students listen to your records/come see you play when you play around the city?*
JV: No. We don't talk about it a whole lot in front of our students. I prefer to keep work and my music separate. Some know we play, but not many
*How did you manage to grow up in Dubuque Rock City? Were you awfully anxious to escape? What led you to Chicago?*
JV: I lived in Dubuque for 18 years, went to the University of Iowa, graduated in 1992, moved to Minneapolis for almost seven years, then moved to Chicago in 2000. I couldn't wait to get out of Dubuque. It was a good place to grow up and an even better place to leave. I moved to Chicago for an advertising job (I was/am a copywriter), but got laid off so I went into teaching. I wanted a steady career that allows me time to also play music.
*You're given a lot of credit for your computer savviness Jim. How has that helped the band get out in front of people? What have your methods been?*
JV: Just a fluke. I read an article in the Chicago Reader about Devin Davis who was getting lots of love from the blogs, so I spent a week compiling a list of them. Then I sent out an e-mail when my record was released. I had three MP3s up for free and you could listen to the whole record with a player I put up. When I got a response, I e-mailed them back quickly. Most of them are young and love music, I think they like the personal attention. I don't really know ... They helped quite a bit, that's for sure. I didn't sell many records, but no big deal. That's not why I do it, although it would be nice to break even.
*Was there always a thought of taking this solo project and turning it into a band? Did you have Alisa's voice in mind as a complement when you were writing some of these songs? How many songs did you have recorded before you decided to bring people in?*
JV: It was never meant to be a band when I first started, but it has evolved. Actually, Alisa is no longer in the band. We've parted ways. I didn't know her when I was working on the last record, I met her through Craigslist and she sang on a few songs. Kristina Castaneda, a friend from Dubuque, sang on four songs on the last record. The first three and "Flood." She sang on every song on the new one. She's has an amazing voice. I recorded her at her house while I was back for Christmas. She's so talented. I'm lucky to have met her. I wish she lived here. As soon as the record is done we're going to look for a new member/members. Hopefully a female multi-instumentalist who sings like an angel!! I had the basic form of all the songs done before I brought people in. I did pretty much all the music except the drums and cello. There's more variety on the new one. I really tried to get more people and instruments involved.
*You recorded two years ago with Paul Oldham. What was that experience like? Did Will pop by ever?*
JV: Actually, I went to his studio for three days and mixed the entire record. We overdubbed drums on one song there. When I got back, I wasn't happy with all of them. That's when I wrote some more lyrics and added more harmonies. Three of the mixes are from Paul's -- "Sound as Ever," "Seashaken Heart" and "Here at the End" -- the rest were mixed by (Daytrotter main sound engineer Patrick) Stolley. Paul was a cool guy, real laidback and friendly. I stayed at his house, great place. A farm outside of Louisville. No, Will wasn't around, but he was coming the day after I left. I saw lots of boxes with Bonnie Prince Billy tapes laying around.
*Now, you guys are familiar with Pat so this was a comfortable thing for you. How's he help you guys? How's the new record shaped up? It's nearly done if I'm not mistaken.*
JV: Yep, almost done. I've know Pat for about 14 years. I've always been amazed at his output. Where the hell does he get all those songs? The guy is so talented, as an engineer and musician. Wow. We recorded drums and a few acoustic guitars for four songs at his studio. The rest was done here on my laptop (and some drums at Roosevelt). I'm more comfortable with the process now. It's not an easy thing to write, record and produce a record. It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it. This one has gone much quicker, I learned from all my mistakes last time. What makes it easier for me is knowing that Pat will be able to sort everything out in mixing. He'll make it sound good. I know that, so when I record I just try to give him decent sounds to work with.
*Where does most of the sadness and the desperate people in the songs come from? Are they just favorite subjects by nature?*
JV: I really don't know. I just don't feel like writing happy songs. Not many people do. Do they? I can't think of too many happy songs I like. I get/steal a lot of stuff from a book of Dylan Thomas poems I have, so that doesn't help. He wasn't a happy guy, but a great inspiration for sad, sad songs.
*What on earth would you do with the tiger once tracked and then found? It could be a serious mistake to do such a thing.*
JV: Kick his ass with rock and roll.
*Do you feel like 2006 made some pretty big headway for you guys? It seemed like it from here.*
JV: Yeah, 2006 has been good. The other members are anxious to get back to the live thing. I've been concentrating on the studio. We need to find a practice space and get to it. I want to start writing the next record. The goal is one a year (trying to keep up with Stolley!)
*How's free time away from music and work spent for all of you?*
JV: Aaron has a new baby. Mike likes to drink beer and play hockey. Patrick works about 70 hours a week as a designer. I usually watch movies or "Flip This House."