by J. Hubner
Cover photo by Mr. King
Carp Rock. You may be wondering just what in the hell carp rock is. I wondered that myself after seeing it mentioned on The Rutabega’s Bandcamp page. “The Rutabega is a Carp Rock duo from South Bend, Indiana.” Despite my curiosity and mild anxiety after reading that I continued on and hit play on their album brother the lights don’t work and those reservations and anxiety were washed away the moment “come back big brother”started playing. A mix of Built To Spill guitar bombast and early My Morning Jacket reverbed expanse, the song is as epic as it is just plain beautiful. Listening to The Rutabega’s discography you get the vibe of big landscapes; cold, gray sunrises, pastoral yet lonely walks, and the big sky hovering over your every move.
The Rutabega are Joshua Wayne Hensley on guitar and vocals and Garth Mason on drums. As good as their music is they’re still local guys living in and around South Bend, Indiana, writing and recording these amazing songs in the land of Nortre Dame football and amazing polish sausage. The Rutabega recently released the “shiny destination” 7″(check it out, it’s great) on Triple Eye Industries. I talked with Mr. Hensley recently about the single and how the band came to be.
J. Hubner: So tell me about the history of The Rutabega. How did it all start? What bands had you been in previously? Are you originally from South Bend?
Joshua Wayne Hensley: I was in a 5 piece band called Space and Noise Productions in the early aughts. We were based in the South Bend area. During 2001 I had started recording a group of songs that didn’t really fit with what Space and Noise was doing. I was mainly just recording the songs at home on my 4-track so I wouldn’t forget them, but at some point I realized that I had an album’s worth of songs. Even though they were pretty rough around the edges, I was happy with how they turned out and decided to try to do something with them. I sent the songs to my friend Marc who runs Johann’s Face Records and he said he wanted to release them as an album. That became the first Rutabega album – Cobus Green.
JH: When I first heard The Rutabega I was reminded of bands from the Pacific Northwest like Built To Spill and Helio Sequence, which is a very good thing to my ears.Who are some of the bands that may have informed the sound of The Rutabega?
JWH: I love Built To Spill, so I’ll take it! I’ve always just played what came out naturally, so I have a hard time answering that question. The Rutabega has been compared to Guided by Voices, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Elliott Smith; and I’m not mad about that. The Beatles and Nirvana were the bands that made me want to start playing music.
JH: In the beginning the songs seemed like a very personal thing. ‘Cobus Green’ is very sparse and minimal. Almost this “Nick Drake in outer space” vibe. With each new album things got a bit more grounded but grander. Were you feeling your way around for the sound?
JWH: My approach has always been to let the songs lead the way. I’m not the best planner, so I just go by what feels right to me. I’ve also been pretty fortunate to have people I trust to collaborate with along the way. The Rutabega started as a solo project, but from 2002-2004 it was a 3 piece band with my friends Jared Myers and Matt Morgan. My wife Emily Trimboli-Hensley has also been contributing since 2004’s album, These Knotty Lines. She sang on a couple of those songs before we were married, and she is still a big part of The Rutabega.
JH: When did you make The Rutabega a duo with Garth Mason? How did you two get together?
JWH: Garth had actually recorded Space and Noise Productions back in 2001, and we remained casual friends who would see each other occasionally at shows. Garth and Emily had a mutual friend, Matt Miller, who passed away in early 2011, and they ended up road-tripping to Matt’s funeral in Kansas City. After the funeral, we decided to start getting together with Garth more often. We started having weekly dinners together and we would always end up in the basement playing music afterwards. I hadn’t been doing much as The Rutabega for a while, but was asked to play a show with some friends in Indianapolis. I was really enjoying making music with Garth, so I asked him if he wanted to play drums at that show. We had a great time and liked the simplicity of playing as a duo so we decided to keep going.
JH: In the pantheon of local releases, I think it’s safe to say that ‘brother the lights don’t work’ is one of the best in recent memory. Can you tell me a little about the making of that album? Did you two record this one yourselves?
JWH: Thank you! We recorded a 4 song EP (‘bull carp, the EP’) in 2012 as way to test the waters and see if we were up for recording a full-length album on our own. We had both been recording music for a long time (Garth more so), but it had been a while since we had worked with each other in that capacity. We were happy with how the EP turned out, so we decided to just jump in to the album. Garth gets credit for doing all the heavy lifting with the recording. I trust my ears and have an occasional bright idea, but Garth has a lot more experience and recording knowledge. I’m pretty fortunate to be in a band with someone that can wear so many hats.
We recorded the majority of the songs from ‘brother…’ in two groups. We wanted to use natural room sounds, so for the first few songs we took all of our gear (and by “our gear”, I mean “Garth’s gear”) to an old church that was being used as an all-ages venue called Bender Ballroom. Garth had been running sound there, so he had a set of keys and we were able to go in on off-days to record. For the rest of the songs, we were able to set up and record in the “echo room” at our friend Bryan Lewis’ studio – The Golden Mallard.
JH: Who else helped out on the making of the album?
JWH: In addition to Emily adding vocals and melodica, we had some special guests on a few of the songs. For the opening song, “ben’s theme”, I was able to record my daughter’s choir singing in the Edwardsburg Performing Arts Center. This was such an incredible experience! Billie Howard and Brendan Finucane from the Chicago band The Paver added strings to “buried in the snow”, and our friend Michael Doty from South Bend band Ceiling Star added vocals to “turn on the summer”.
JH: The album just has this really special vibe to it.
JWH: There were moments of stress while putting the album together, especially for Garth, but we learned a lot during the process and recording it ourselves really brought us together. It was also the first full-length album that either of us had released on vinyl.
JH: Tell me about your most recent release, this year’s ‘shiny destination’ 7″ that came out this past March. “shiny destination” is a killer track, and the b-side “ladder” is great as well. Where were these recorded?
JWH: “Ladder” was actually recorded during the ‘brother…’ sessions, but ended up being held back due to time constraints. I’m glad it did, because I feel like it really works as a b-side to “shiny destination”.
We recorded basic tracks for the title track out at Paw Mason’s Shed in Wakarusa, IN. Emily and our friend John Hastie from the Chicago band Nonagon recorded some additional vocals and Chicago videographer Mr. King made a really fun video for the song featuring Josh and Garth puppets.
JH: I love that video. Something about puppets. It’s a classic already. Speaking of classics, I have to say besides of course Harry Nillson’s version, I think The Rutabega’s cover of “Without You” is one of my favorites. What made you two decide to cover that on ‘bull carp, the ep’?
JWH: We had learned ‘Without You” when our friend Dustin Philipson moved down to Austin. Even though it has been way overplayed in its different incarnations, it is still such a moving song. A lot of people don’t realize it was a Badfinger song because Nillson’s version was so popular, but mainly we just thought it needed to be reclaimed from Mariah Carey!
JH: Well, I and the rest of humanity as a whole thank you for that. What about a full length follow-up to ‘brother’?
JWH: We are around the halfway point for our next album, tentatively titled ‘Unreliable Narrator’. We’re been back at Paw Mason’s Shed recording basic tracks and Garth has been pretty stoked to use this new ribbon microphone that he acquired. To me, the album is feeling like a pretty natural continuation from where ‘brother the lights don’t work’ left off.
JH: Any shows coming up you can tell us about?
JWH: We have a couple shows before the end of the year. Failure Records & Tapes is releasing a cassette version of ‘brother the lights don’t work’ and we are playing the release show in Kokomo, IN on October 17th. We are also playing Kalamazoo, MI on December 12, but we don’t have anything else booked because we are hoping to finish up this album.
JH: Does The Rutabega ever hit Fort Wayne?
JWH: We have played a couple house shows in Fort Wayne, and we’d love to get back soon. Hook us up, John!
JH: Damn. I guess it’s put up or shut up time. I’ll see what I can do. So what’s up for the remainder of 2015? Will the new album see a release anytime soon?
JWH: I’d love to give you a tentative release date for the next album, but I’ve learned not to do that. These things always take longer than I think they will.
Then we’ll just be patient and wait. Keep up with The Rutabega over at their Facebook page and at their blog. Head here to check out their tunes, and snag that sweet ‘shiny destination’ 7″ in limited edition white vinyl from Triple Eye Industries. Or just download it. Your choice.