The Radar Brothers' And the Surrounding Mountains is the kind of record that starts like a postcard -- maybe one of those Florida sunsets. It's beautiful, sure -- maybe a little too beautiful -- but not really relevant to your tired, stressful life. However, as you listen to it, the surface takes on depth and you move right into the record. Before you know it, you are living inside it, and the "Wish You Were Here" sprayed across the top (yes, that's a Floyd reference) reads backwards from the other side of the glass. It's the kind of record that grows on you, slowly but inevitably, until you hardly know how you lived without it.
Talking to Jim Putnam, singer and songwriter for The Radar Brothers, is a similar experience. He is the kind of person who isn't afraid to stop and think in the middle of a sentence, who doesn't let a bit of silence push him into saying something just to fill the space. There are long pauses, but they are warm, friendly pauses that become an integral part of the conversation. Recently Splendid caught up with Jim and talked about his newly expanded 24-track studio, the dangers of tweaking too much or too little, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, our shared love of sometimes smelly dogs and the search for the elusive perfect record that Jim hears in his head.
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Splendid: I really loved And the Surrounding Mountains, and it seemed to me that it has a lot more of a lift and a swell and a soaring nature to it than The Singing Hatchet. I was wondering if that was something you were shooting for, and how you did it, musically.
Jim Putnam: Yeah. Well, I think that's an interesting question. There was an effort to make And the Surrounding Mountains a bigger record. I expanded my studio. I built a bigger studio in my yard. I got a new tape machine, a 24-track tape machine. All my other records were done on 16 track, so this was the first record we did on 24. I knew that had a big influence, you know, just in terms of the setting in the studio. I have a studio in my garage. That's where we do all our records.
Splendid: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Tell me about the studio and what you have there and how long you've had it.
Jim Putnam: I've had the studio for a while, about ten years. I've been kind of slowly tinkering back there, getting things going. Yeah, it's a 24-track studio. It's in one of those old 1920s garages. For the Model-T Ford cars that they used to make...
Jim Putnam: Yeah, so you can't imagine fitting a car in there now. Maybe like a little Honda or something.
Splendid: Not one of those Suburban things.
Jim Putnam: No. No SUVs will fit there. I'm cleaning it right now. My allergies are all messed up.
Splendid: Oh, sorry to hear that. Do you record other people there or just Radar Brothers?
Jim Putnam: No, I do other groups, too.
Splendid: Who have you worked with there?
Jim Putnam: I've worked with a lot of friends in bands, actually. I'm doing a thing with a band right now called Let's Go Sailing. They're really good. Who else? I just did a thing with Ben Lee. I did a song in there. I'm going to be doing the next Lily's record.
Splendid: No kidding?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, it's very exciting.
Splendid: I love their stuff.
Jim Putnam: I'm a big fan, too.
Splendid: I spoke to another band, Listing Ship, a few months ago, and they were talking about this whole Cal Arts mafia, Silverlake scene. Is that something that you're in?
Jim Putnam: I did go to Cal Arts. Steve and I, the drummer, we met at Cal Arts. That's my college stomping ground.
Splendid: It sounds like the kind of place you'd meet a lot of interesting people.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, it is. Like, all my friends that I made there, I'm still pretty close with. It's like the convergence of the freaks. (laughs) People like me. But yeah, he was at the music school there, and I don't know, I think as far as the whole scene goes. This sort of East Side of LA, this world, there's a whole different group. It's kind of a whole new generation of people hanging out here now. It's kind of bigger in a way. I don't know. I'm 35, still young, but at the same time, it's kind of cool that all the 20-something people are milling about here. (Pause) I don't know what I'm saying.
Splendid: (laughs) Let's go back to the studio thing. You said it's a 24-track recorder. What can you do with that, that you can't do with a 16-track?
Jim Putnam: There's just more tracks. Like, say there's a guitar track. Basically, 24 tracks -- (snuffling sound) sorry, my dog is here -- let's see how can I explain this. Basically, it's just having more control over the instruments and being able to add more instruments. It's basically like, okay, you have two guitars on a recording, so you want two more guitars, and say you've used ten tracks. You've got 12 tracks left. So let's say you want to do five vocals, one on each track. So it's basically, just being able to separate all the different parts. And with the drums, there are usually eight to ten to twelve tracks. You can have a kick drum on one track, so you can EQ it and adjust the levels.
Splendid: So that really could account for some of the difference in sound?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, definitely. That played a big part in the record's sound. Depending on the band, you know. If it's just a guy on an acoustic guitar, you don't need more than two tracks, unless you want to do... With a guy on an acoustic guitar, I don't think you would need more than five tracks.
Splendid: That's interesting. What about the whole time issue? Does having your own studio allow you to spend more time on each track?
Jim Putnam: Sometimes too much time.
Splendid: You think so?
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
Splendid: Are there songs on the album that you feel like maybe you gave them one too many tweaks?
Jim Putnam: No, they're not on the record, on any of my records. But there are songs like that where we spent four days fixing it, which would probably add up to three weeks on one song. It's usually (like) they've been beaten to death.
Splendid: So how do you know when you're done?
Jim Putnam: That's a funny thing. This light bulb goes off. Okay, it's done. You just listen to it. I guess it's when I stop hearing things that could be in there. I'll hear something that's not there yet. Then I'll do something that, of course, is nothing like what I heard, but it kind of takes up that space.
Splendid: You used basically the same instruments on the current record as on the previous one?
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
AUDIO: Rock of the Lake
Splendid: Now, I read somewhere that you write all your songs in the studio and the rest of the band is in there with you?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, there are different ways the songs are written. Sometimes I'll just write them in a more traditional way, just by myself with a guitar, and write the melody and the lyrics and stuff. Or sometimes the three of us will go in and just kind of like sit there, because I have my own studio, so we can just sit in there for however long we want and come up with something. It's fun. It's like, I've got this riff. Let's expand on that. And then we'll come up with a basic thing and then I'll kind of go in and layer stuff on top of that.
Splendid: Can you tell the difference between the songs that evolve out of the band being in the studio and the ones that you write?
Jim Putnam: That's interesting. Yeah, I can.
Splendid: What would be an example of one of each from your current album?
Jim Putnam: Okay, let's see. "Rock of the Lake" I wrote in kind of a traditional way. And then "This Christmas Eve" was more of a do-as-you-go kind of thing.
Splendid: Interesting. I really like both those songs.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, and they're a lot different.
Splendid: I also read that you do the lyrics last?
Jim Putnam: Sometimes, yeah.
Splendid: What is the process like when you have a song and a melody and instrumentation and all that, and then you come up with lyrics?
Jim Putnam: Well, on this record, I did a new thing that I had never done before. I set up the microphone like I was going to do the vocal tracks. Then I said, okay, I'm going to do the vocals now. But I didn't have any of the lyrics or the vocals or anything. And then I just went in and did it line by line.
Splendid: It's interesting, because the lyrics have a very evocative, dreamlike quality. You feel like some things are going by you and other things you're picking up on, and it's interesting that you say it was written like that, because I imagine that process would have a dreamlike quality, too.
Jim Putnam: I feel better that, sometimes I feel that I write lyrics in a weird way. Sometimes I'll have a melody in my head, and I'll go to the mall, and I'll look at people walking by with their shopping bags and write stuff. I've written a lot of songs that way.
Splendid: Really? But the songs don't come out being about things going on in the mall.
Jim Putnam: No. They're more about other things. People's lives. Whatever you get inspired by in weird places like that.
Splendid: But it sounds like you tend not to write about yourself and your own experiences?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, I think they are my own experiences, but they're masked by... uhh... the context.
Splendid: I noticed that And the Surrounding Mountains has kind of a family theme. There are songs about a father and sisters and uncles and a mother. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing the songs?
Jim Putnam: Yeah. There was a lot of that stuff going on. I think there always is. That just sort of happened naturally.
Splendid: I really like the way the album develops from the first song to the last and kind of builds to the last three songs, which are really amazing.
Jim Putnam: Well, thanks.
Splendid: I was wondering if you conceptualized the album as a whole, or if you have the pieces and you arranged them, how you figured out the order?
Jim Putnam: Oh, yeah, that was really a pain in the ass. The sequencing for this record was kind of hard. We actually mixed the record in nine days. Then we sequenced it. Then we took it into mastering, which is expensive. We mastered it. About two weeks later, we decided it wasn't right. There was a song in there that was basically driving me crazy. I had to get rid of it. So I took that song out, then we added two more songs.
Splendid: Which ones did you add?
Jim Putnam: We added "You and the Father" and "All Your Life" and then resequenced around that, and that's how it became what it is. But yeah, that's hard. It's funny. I have a record that I really want to make. It's kind of like the ultimate wave or something like that. But I wonder if it will ever happen...
Splendid: I guess you just keep making records and getting closer every time.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, maybe, I don't know. I think more people have the same thing, but they won't admit it. People who say, I hear exactly what I want in my head and then I just go and get that sound and do that thing. I hear exactly what I want in my head, and then I go to do it and there's something completely different coming out.
Splendid: That's interesting. I was reading an article about the visual arts. They were talking about conceptual art, where you put a caption on a toilet and it becomes art. They were saying that really it's not art unless the end product is partly determined by the process.
Jim Putnam: Right. Yeah, definitely.
Splendid: If you're not fighting against the process, then it's not really art.
Jim Putnam: Yeah. That's interesting. I think the process is a fight. It's a battle, I think. If you think about it, it's editing. This works. This doesn't work.
Splendid: Do you usually know what's working and what's not, or do you just have this vague nagging sense that something's wrong and you don't know what it is?
Jim Putnam: Usually, you just -- sometimes I think something's really great, and it's awful. Usually the whole, as far as songs go, whether they're a yay or a nay, they usually get nixed after they get recorded.
Splendid: Okay. I wanted to talk specifically about a couple of songs on the record that I really liked and how you wrote them. The first one was "Rock of the Lake". What were you thinking about when you wrote that song?
Jim Putnam: I can't really remember.
Splendid: It's a really beautiful song. You have a lake song on The Singing Hatchet, too.
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
Splendid: Is there a lake around where you live that's a landmark?
Jim Putnam: Actually there isn't. The nearest lake is... well, there's Silverlake, but that's not really a lake. It's a reservoir.
AUDIO: Still Evil
Splendid: So do you live -- is it a suburb or a city or in the country?
Jim Putnam: It's a suburb inside a city.
Splendid: It's interesting, because the music sounds like it could come from someplace with big trees and lakes and kids running around barefoot and things like that.
Jim Putnam: Yeah. It's funny. A lot of people are like... I was reading this review and they were saying, "Why is this band from LA?" That was kind of annoying. I don't know.
Splendid: Everybody's got to be from somewhere.
Jim Putnam: Because I grew up here. It's a really funny, weird place. I think a lot of people think that LA is like what they see on Baywatch or 90210 and it's funny. You do, you drive by those kind of people and you're hmm.
Splendid: What about "Still Evil"? There's some kind of weird vocal thing going on at the beginning of that?
Jim Putnam: It's backwards. The tape machine we were mixing the record on played backwards. It's a really fun feature. You could actually record things backwards. See on a tape machine, with an open reel tape machine, in order to record things backwards, you have to fast forward the tape and flip it over upside down and then play it back, so if it's upside down, it plays backwards. With this machine, you didn't have to do that. You just hit the backwards button. I like the backwards button.
Splendid: It was very spooky sounding.
Jim Putnam: Yeah. If you have it on vinyl -- I don't know if you can play things backwards on CD. Maybe you can.
Splendid: Maybe some people can, but I couldn't.
Jim Putnam: But if you play it backwards, you'll get the secret message about how we should all bow down to the dark lord.
Splendid: Oh, is that what it is? I'll have to try that.
Jim Putnam: We're a Satanic band.
Splendid: Yeah, I would have thought that about you.
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
Splendid: I'm hearing a lot of Pink Floyd on some of the tracks. Are they a big influence for you?
Jim Putnam: Yeah. They are. You know that record The Wall?
Jim Putnam: When that record came out, my brother and I wouldn't listen to anything else for a long time. A lot of people think that early Pink Floyd, like when Syd Barrett was with them, which I love, but my favorite record of theirs is Meddle, I think.
Splendid: It seems like more people are admitting that they like Pink Floyd than used to.
Jim Putnam: It's so silly. People say, oh, Pink Floyd, they're too meandering and too wanky. I'm like, what, I don't know. Yeah. I mean, I think as far as revival goes, maybe the people who people think are cool are starting to listen again. It's like Echo and the Bunnymen, were they cool five years ago? Now they're suddenly really cool.
Splendid: Well, do you think people stopped liking them or just stopped admitting it?
Jim Putnam: They just stopped admitting it.
Splendid: That's what I think.
Jim Putnam: They're like the Cure. The Cure were amazing, and people think they're... It's silly.
Splendid: I understand you're a big Beatles fan?
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
Splendid: Let's talk about what you like about them and how it influences your work.
Jim Putnam: I had a best friend in elementary school, and pretty much the crux of our relationship was the Beatles. We were obsessed with the Beatles. He even had a Beatles haircut.
Jim Putnam: And he had glasses. So I was like, wow, you look like John Lennon. He had a John Lennon hairdo, like on the White Album. So he kind of looked like that. I fancied myself the Paul McCartney guy. I don't look anything like Paul McCartney. But then he moved to Hawaii for a year, and then he came back. He was like, "The Beatles suck. Van Halen rules."
Splendid: Oh, no.
Jim Putnam: I was devastated. He had the full, feathered hairdo. He didn't wear glasses any more. And he wore OP shorts and a little fringe leather suede vest.
Splendid: How awful.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, I was pretty bummed out.
Splendid: Yeah, but if you're 35 and this was grade school, you must have been sort of out the mainstream liking the Beatles.
Jim Putnam: Not really. That's an interesting question. I guess it was the late 1970s. But I remember turning on all my friends to the Beatles. Like Patrick. Because then he left. He left my school. So I needed another Beatles pal. So then I got my friend Danny into the Beatles, so we were like Beatles buddies.
Splendid: You must have been really bummed when John Lennon got shot.
Jim Putnam: Yeah.
Splendid: I remember a friend of mine called me that night in tears.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, that was really bad.
Splendid: So, I was reading about your live show, and one of the things people say is that it's even slower and more laid-back than your records. Is that a fair comment?
Jim Putnam: I guess. I'm trying not to do that. I think there's a push-me-pull-you thing going on there.
Splendid: Who's pushing and who's pulling?
Jim Putnam: I think I'm pushing and I think Steve's pulling.
Splendid: And he's the drummer, so...
Jim Putnam: Yeah, I have to give up at some point. I don't know. The whole slow thing. We get tagged as a slow band. I don't think that we're any slower than a lot of other bands.
Splendid: It's sort of a small part of what you are.
Jim Putnam: Thank you.
Splendid: It sounds like you really like recording. Do you like that better than playing live?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, I like recording better.
Jim Putnam: I don't know. I think touring, I don't think I'm physically cut out for touring.
Splendid: It must be exhausting.
Jim Putnam: It's really exhausting. It's hard being with the same five or six or seven people for weeks on end. Even though I love them.
Splendid: Do you take family with you?
Jim Putnam: No. I don't have family. I have a dog, and I would love to bring him with me, but I don't think it would work out.
Splendid: What kind of dog do you have?
Jim Putnam: He's a mutt.
Splendid: We have a mutt, too. Our dog just got skunked.
Jim Putnam: Oh, really?
Splendid: Yeah, it's such a bummer. You can hardly be in the same room with him anymore.
Jim Putnam: That happened to my dog. He never got skunked before until about six months ago. And he got it bad. He got it right into his mouth.
Splendid: Oh geez.
Jim Putnam: I was in the studio and all the sudden my eyes started burning. I'm like, what the hell's going on? I look down and he's making this horrible (coughing) sound. And there's foam coming out of his mouth. And I'm like, okay, it's a skunk, and I notice there are all these piles of puke around there. And he was so miserable. He was trying to dig a hole and bury himself.
Splendid: Oh, poor guy.
Jim Putnam: And then I washed him and the smell went away about six years later. But he loves it. He wants it so bad. Now he gets hit by a skunk as much as possible. He's addicted to skunk.
Splendid: I don't understand how they can stand themselves, because supposedly they have these really sensitive noses. Anyway...
Jim Putnam: Yeah. It doesn't make much sense. I don't know what's going on with that. I've talked to him about it. He just doesn't...
Splendid: So tell me about the people in your band. I know that your drummer Steve Goodfriend -- isn't he also in the For Carnation?
Jim Putnam: I don't know what's going on with that. Yeah, he was in the Radar Brothers before that. People say that he's from the For Carnation. But he's actually from the Radar Brothers and was in the For Carnation for the last record, couple records. I don't know what's going on with Brian and the For Carnation. I don't know if they're making another record or not.
Splendid: And who's your bass player?
Jim Putnam: Senon Williams.
Splendid: And you've known him since when?
Jim Putnam: With Senon, it was through another friend from Cal Arts who went to elementary school with him.
Splendid: And you also have Ed Ruschka?
Jim Putnam: Eddie only plays with us on a few tours. He's not playing with us now.
Splendid: He's on the album.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, he played on a couple songs on the records. He plays keyboards. He was our keyboard record on the last record for touring. But with this record we have a couple of new guys that are touring with us. Mark Wooten and Brian Thornell, and they're these two guys from Fresno, California, and they joined up with us for this record. Touring on this record. It's worked out really well. It's nice having five people to fill out the sound.
Splendid: Is it hard to reproduce the sound on the album live?
Jim Putnam: I don't know, because I don't see us live. I think we're doing a pretty damn good job. I've heard people say that live we sound a lot like the record, which you don't want to sound too much like the record. But anyway, Mark and Brian have their own band called Pine Marten. We're going on tour next week. We're going out to CMJ, and we're opening for the Black Heart Procession.
Splendid: Oh, cool.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, out to New York and on our way back we're going to headline and Pine Marten is going to open for us.
Splendid: Now, you just got back, too, didn't you?
Jim Putnam: Yeah, we got back a couple of months ago. Yeah, we did a European tour.
Splendid: How did that go?
Jim Putnam: It was fun. It was really good.
Splendid: Do people know who you are in Europe?
Jim Putnam: Yeah. We've got a few records out over there. People come and see us.
Splendid: Which countries are the best?
Jim Putnam: I think France and Germany are the best. We got to go to Spain this last tour, where we've never been.
Splendid: Yeah. I'm dying to go to Spain.
Jim Putnam: Spain was awesome.
Splendid: It's supposed to be a very fun place. I don't know if it would be fun to play there, but it would be fun to visit.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, and if you go to Spain, you have to go to Portugal.
Splendid: I love Portugal. That was my favorite trip we've ever gone on, to Lisbon. Did you play in Lisbon?
Jim Putnam: No, we didn't.
Splendid: It's such a great town, because it's full of young people. A lot of these European cities, like Paris, they seem like they're all old people.
Jim Putnam: I went to Lisbon, after a tour, just to hang out. It was amazing.
Splendid: Everything is really cheap there. And the beach is half an hour away on the train.
Jim Putnam: Yeah, it's nice. It felt like an Eastern European kind of thing.
Splendid: Very cool city. I would like to spend more time there.
Jim Putnam: They like to stay out all night there.
Splendid: Oh, I wanted to ask you about your dad (Bill Putnam). Your father was a very well-known recorder of jazz musicians, wasn't he?
Jim Putnam: Yes.
Splendid: What was that like? Were there famous jazz musicians wandering around your house when you were young?
Jim Putnam: Yeah. Apparently when I was a kid I knew Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but I was so young...
Splendid: You don't remember any of that?
Jim Putnam: No. But my dad's best friend was Les Paul. They were very close. He was good friend with a lot of those kinds of guys. A lot of those big band guys, like the Duke Ellington players, my dad was pals with them. And Frank Sinatra, he was friend with.
Splendid: Wow. So did your dad start out as a musician?
Jim Putnam: No, he actually started out working in a radio station. He was really technically gifted. He started off, back then if you were a recording engineer, you would actually design and build a lot of your own equipment. And that's what he did. He designed and built a lot of his own equipment. Later he started manufacturing it. He designed some pretty important pieces of studio gear that are still used today and my brother and I have started a company making this stuff. Making stuff that our dad made back then. He was pretty innovative. He made some cool stuff.
Splendid: So that's where you get some of your willingness to tinker with equipment?
Jim Putnam: Yeah. Yeah. It's a funny thing. He's not around any more. When he was alive, I could kind of care less about recording. But when he passed on, my interest was just starting to take off. If I could pick his brain now, I certainly would. I have a lot of his notes and stuff, which is good.
Splendid: I'm out of questions, unless there's something you want to talk about that we haven't?
Jim Putnam: I don't know. I feel like I need to sort of campaign against the slow thing.
Splendid: Against playing slow or having people describe you as slow?
Jim Putnam: People describing us as slow. It's just kind of boring.
Splendid: The thing is, music writers have about ten minutes to write these reviews. It's easy to latch onto one obvious fact and ride it to death.
Jim Putnam: I don't think it's that obvious.
Splendid: I wouldn't have made that anywhere near the lead of what I would say about you. It seems like there's a lot more to it than that.
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Jennifer Kelly could kick your ass with both hands tied behind her back..
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george | photos - Christopher Ray-McCann, Radar Bros., Darcy Hemley :: credits graphics ]