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Balanced Chaos

Celebrating a new album, Seashell Radio vows to continue—despite two members moving away

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The early story of Seashell Radio was how four Tucson songwriters came to share a single band.

Chapter 2 is how those four songwriters grew close—overlapping each other's musical styles, shedding comfort zones and arriving at a place where freewheeling collaboration allows for so much more than simply learning each other's songs.

"When we started, we were eclectic, because that's who we were, coming from different places musically, and we each had a body of songs," says cellist Esmé Schwall. "As we've grown to trust each other more, we brought each other things that were not finished yet. We've become more similar in our vision and purpose, rather than the other way around."

While the band's new album, Slick Machine, was born of departures, with some of that turmoil and sadness coming through in the music, it's not Seashell Radio's closing chapter. To a person, Seashell Radio's members say this has been their favorite band. So while Schwall has moved to Seattle, and drummer Fen Ikner is bound for New York, look for future collaborations.

Guitarist Courtney Robbins and keyboardist Cassie Van Gelder admit there was crying in the studio while recording Slick Machine, but say Seashell Radio will find a way to go on. The band's diverse and ever-shifting sound is too rewarding to give up.

"We've always done stuff that we liked, and that's all that matters," Van Gelder says. "When our earlier stuff came out, that was always the first complaint: 'I don't really get it; you have four different things going on, and it's kind of weird.' But it didn't take long before people would then say, 'That's my favorite thing about what you do.' It was strange at first, but it's what people like most.'"

Schwall is flying back from Seattle for a special Slick Machine album-release show on Friday, March 2, at Plush. Silver Thread Trio will be the only opener, allowing Seashell Radio an extra-long set.

"Playing with these guys is one of those rare privileges in life, and I would hate for that to vanish entirely. We have a ton of fun doing what we do, and that's what it's about," Schwall says. "I know it's going to change with half of us gone. But it's totally reasonable to plan on doing some touring together."

To follow up the band's debut record—2010's What Do You Have Against Happiness?—Seashell Radio let the lines blur a bit, taking on some weirder instrumentation and a few guest musicians (pedal steel from Calexico's Paul Niehaus; Christabelle Merrill on violin; and Joe Novelli on guitar).

"We were playing around with being much sparser in places, letting there be more stripped-down places, not feeling like we had to fill all the space with notes or sounds," Schwall says. "Having Fen as the engineer all the way through, and the mixer and everything, has meant he's really gotten to bring in some weird, quirky sounds."

The recording began with a burst in August, first laying down drum tracks and some scratch keyboard tracks, just so there was enough of a framework for Schwall to fill in all of her parts before moving. All four band members were together in the studio only once. After the initial burst, the band didn't return to complete the album until December, with mixing and mastering extending through January.

"On our first record, the four of us had only been a band for three or four months. This one, we know each other more, and there are more songs we worked on together to flesh out," Robbins says. "Sometimes, I hear this keyboard part or this harmony, but one of the great things about this band is you don't have to think about it. You can just write a song and trust they'll do something awesome on it."

Slick Machine is an eight-song odyssey fitting a band that describes its sound as something that "could be an art-punk band, could be chamber pop, could be folk-blaster noise-core." Percussive experimentations color the stark "Iodine," while "Cleaner Lines, Smoother Services" manages to simultaneously be poppy and spaced-out. A haunting spookiness runs through "Watching You Sleep." The sweeping ballad "Lewis y Clark" leads right into the soft country shuffle of "Nothing but Alone."

"This new one veers even more wildly," Ikner says. "On this new record, we did consciously say, 'Let's not just do what we'd do playing in a room.' We took a lot of stuff out. We put a lot of things on and then removed them."

Slick Machine is the result of much more collaborative songwriting, with each member leaving the box of his or her own process to become more reliant on the rest of the band. Song ideas were shared when they were less fully formed, while the arrangements emerged through playing together.

"It's the most balanced chaos we've created," Van Gelder adds.

With Ikner doubling as the recording engineer, the band saved money on studio time, but turned to Kickstarter to fund the CD manufacturing, the T-shirt design and printing, and expenses for the upcoming six-week Robbins and Ikner tour (jokingly known as the "Drop Fen Off in New York" tour).

The Kickstarter page shows the band's odd (and oddly shared) sense of humor: an opportunity for donors to get their pictures on the actual CD, as well as a music video that playfully presents all four band members as "the protagonist."

The band also takes some laughter from an overheard comment after a performance in Flagstaff. "They either quit the symphony, or they got kicked out," was the assessment from a drunken new fan. And now it's a quote Seashell Radio brandishes proudly on Facebook.

"It just suited our whole deal. We all have a bit of that classical training, but it's not for us," Van Gelder says. "We play music we like; we write songs we like; and we also have this weird similar sense of humor."

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