“It’s all about communication,” says Robert Randow, the vocalist and guitarist of Pheasants. Randow and the other musicians that make up the band communicate a multi-layered, purposefully two-sided record of sentiments and feelings called Pheasants, to be released in early June. The album is a soundtrack fit for nature, which might as well have been played by the band in a forest while the woodland creatures sit attentively, listening to their siren song.
“I wanted a pretty record, and I wanted not to be afraid to do anything,” asserts Randow. “It’s not wholly rocky, it’s not wholly folky, it’s not just poppy or under one single umbrella style.” The self-titled album was recorded at the Music Shed Studios in the Lower Garden District and mastered by Karl Jaff from Chicago. “Our engineer, Adam Kyle, was totally essential to getting our sound,” claims Randow, adding that band and engineer equally drew inspiration from the ‘60s West Coast scene. I ask Randow if Paul Simon had any influence on the record. He gasps and says, “Of course! Everyone in the band loves Paul Simon. Especially Simon and Garfunkel, with their harmonies. Those harmonies…” He loses himself in imagining those cloudy, dreamy vocals.
As eager as he is to talk about aesthetics and style, Randow is just as enthusiastic about the nuts and bolts of recording. His eyes grow and he lurches over the table as he reminisces about the fun of layering and overdubbing parts of a song together. Multi-instrumentalist Adrienne Bedson provided everything from banjo and flute to tin whistle and glockenspiel. “We asked questions like, ‘Where should we put the musical saw? Should it sound like a space saw?’” He smiles brightly. “‘Let’s make whale sounds,’” he remembers saying, which he follows with an infectious chortle. He really loves the peculiarities and subtleties of sound. The final track, “High Beam Lights (Reprise),” uses a nature-based intro sample not unlike Can’s classic “Sing Swan Song,” one of the very best Krautrock tracks. “I heard these frogs calling, and as more of them joined, they were making music,” Randow exclaims. “They were harmonizing! And I said, ‘We have to get that on the record.’”
The bass lines, drums, and guitar work were all recorded together live. Vocals, harmonies, and additional instruments were overdubbed in post-production. Given the complexity of performing harmonies, Randow states, “It’s like golf. You have to exercise these harmonies.”
But there are different personalities to all of the harmonies on Pheasants’ record, especially on “Garden Suite,” reminiscent of some of the vocals on “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground & Nico. While by contrast, the paired-up vocals on “Country’s Coming ” swing with a style echoing Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, with heel-beating gusto and jest helped along by some rollicking drum work from Dante Gentile.
While “Levin’s Party” reeks of Wilco circa Summerteeth (I guess it’s the vibrato organ notes paired with Randow’s particular vocal style that rests somewhere between Lou Reed and Jeff Tweedy), Randow’s plucky guitar and Wayne Xia’s lovely violin provide rich levity on an already light-as-a-feather album. The swirling guitar lines of “Olivia,” together with the staccato organ notes and lilting flute, lift the soul as the inflecting vocals reflect a comforting optimism. It’s the kind of excitement and richness that owes itself to the foggy vocals of the Stone Roses’ 1989 self-titled masterpiece.
For guitar sounds, Randow starts with a Fender Starcaster (which lends a hollow-bodied warmth to the record), sometimes trading it with a Fender Telecaster for more of a clean, classic sound. He likes to play through a vintage ‘80s Yamaha amp. “Lots of headroom, with a big clean sound,” Randow comments.
“Halfway Stance/Golden Hours” showcases an exciting blend of textures (like a doe-eyed version of “Big Black Smoke” from The Kinks), signaling the album’s switch from a plethora of “pretty” songs to some with more swing and rock informing the tempo. Bassist Benjamin London uses a Danelectro Longhorn with an acoustic amp. Randow calls it punchy and trebly, which allows it to stand out among all the other layered instruments. London used to be a lead guitar player, which explains the intricate lines woven into the bevy of harmonizing instruments. The track also highlights some wonderful work from Alan Anderson, the band’s organ and piano player. He’s from Mobile, Alabama, so he makes the trip to New Orleans once a week to practice with the other members of the band. “He’s totally committed,” says Randow, excited about introducing Anderson. He plays on both a Farfisa Organ—which is super fuzzy and rides that fine musical line between psychedelic and haunting—and a Nord keyboard, which captures all of those classic Hammond organ tones without, as Randow notes, “having to lug around an actual humongous Hammond organ. That would suck.”
Although Randow doesn’t want a lot of bells and whistles for the guitar—“I never wanted Pheasants to be a guitar-centric band,” he says—he has two pedals that he finds essential. The MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay makes the guitar licks sound dreamy and spacey, especially with the optional modulation. (According to Equipboard, The Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck and U2’s Edge have had experience using this pedal.) He also uses an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb pedal, which showcases a gentle echo to every plucked string (unless the “Hall” setting, a much more overwhelming and harmonious sound, is used).
“It’s tough being a singer and having effects,” says Randow. While the pedals that he uses are important to the overall aesthetic of the record, he tried not to depend on too many of them: “I can’t think about what I’m singing live while I’m kicking a bunch of stompboxes.” He prefers to layer the sounds with overdubbed instruments. “Like the tin whistle on ‘Sound of Silence.’ It’s about resources. Use what you have. That’s what Paul Simon was all about.”
I ask, “Like the way he uses bongos and African beats on ‘The Obvious Child,’ or accordion on ‘The Boy in the Bubble?’”
He smiles. “You got it.”
Pheasants will have their record release show June 3 at One Eyed Jacks. For more info, check out facebook.com/PheasantsOfNewOrleans