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Scaring themselves into making great music

Imagine a lively puree of the Beatles, Beck, Radiohead and the Shins, mixed with generous dollops of exotic spices and organic sounds, and it approximates the style of The Good Listeners. They manage to strike the tender balance between radio-play accessibility and artistic abandon. By Michael Ventre
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Nathan Khyber has issues with “The Shining.” Specifically, the Stanley Kubrick horror film, based on a Stephen King novel, scares the bejesus out of him. The idea of being stranded in an isolated location for an extended period of time, causing the mind to play tricks, is his own personal hell.

So naturally he and Clark Stiles — who form the nucleus of the cinematic pop combo The Good Listeners — decided that the ideal place to record their latest album would be inside a 14-room country lodge nestled deep in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. While there was no crazed Jack Nicholson wielding an ax and a leer, it had the potential to send Khyber into a Shelley Duvall-like dither.

And like an old Abbott and Costello ghost-laden movie, the experience contained at least one unexplained, hair-raising phenomenon for Khyber. “Clark went in to use the bathroom,” he recounted of their very first night at the lodge. “As he was doing that, I heard as clear as day a full-volume whisper of my name.

“At first I was really, really upset with Clark because we made a gentlemen’s agreement, since he knows that I’m terrified of ‘The Shining,’ that we wouldn’t try and scare each other.”

Said Stiles: “I came out of the bathroom and he said, ‘I thought we said no screwing around!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Stop it!’ I said, ‘No, you stop it!’”

(To this day, Stiles insists he was not the whisperer.)

So they decided to get in the car, drive to Albany, stay there overnight and approach the lodge the following day, when it was bright and sunny.

Fortunately for them, they managed to broker a truce with whatever hobgoblins, real or imagined, also happened to be on the premises. Then they set up their equipment and made music.

The result is their new CD, “Crane Point Lodge,” a confident and adventurous effort that belies their initial trepidation over the remote makeshift studio. Following their debut disk, “Ojai” —  released in 2005, it was the result of an ambitious experiment whereby the Listeners recorded 10 songs in 10 days — “Crane Point Lodge” represents an impressive growth spurt.

Imagine a lively puree of the Beatles, Beck, Radiohead and the Shins, mixed with generous dollops of exotic spices and organic sounds, and it approximates the style of The Good Listeners. They manage to strike the tender balance between radio-play accessibility and artistic abandon.

Khyber and Stiles are both from Portland, Ore., and often ran into each other at clubs and bars when the two were toiling for different bands during the early 1990s. They formed a friendship, and then eventually a musical partnership, which brought them to Los Angeles, where they are now ensconced. Their present base enables them to explore movie scoring as well; they contributed a song to the soundtrack of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

The Good Listeners tend to downplay their musicianship, identifying their respective band responsibilities with the vague label of “instruments” under their names. But Khyber plays guitar, keyboards, harmonica and also sings and writes most of the lyrics while Stiles mans the bass and guitar and uses his experience as a record producer and studio engineer to oversee the embroidery of sounds.

“A lot of times I’m at the computer, chopping up guitar parts and getting the production together and editing drums,” Stiles explained, “and he’ll be off writing lyrics. We cover a lot of bases.”

For live gigs – they’ll be one of the acts performing Saturday at the 34th Annual Vision Awards in Beverly Hills — they enlist the services of drummer Derek Brown and trumpeter/keyboardist Stewart Cole. And they often dress up their performances with a frolicsome video presentation.

Their way of working in the studio is the recording equivalent of a collage. “We have kind of a weird style of production,” Khyber said. “We call it the spin cycle. We basically hang on a chord and break it down almost like an animator would, and we add layers and layers of guitars and things on that single chord as it loops. We surprise ourselves with the compositing of it. It’s like assembly art.

“The same thing happens with the lyrical content. I approach lyrics to be evocative, not necessarily poetic.”

The first song on “Crane Point Lodge” is “Isolation Booth,” of which Khyber is especially proud. “I was brought up on an Indian reservation,” he explained. “Some of the lyrics hint at an occupying force.

“‘Isolation Booth’ is basically about keeping your head in the sand.”

“Isolation Booth” leads off a CD that the Good Listeners took great pains to make sequentially significant. “It took us a while back here in L.A. to embrace it fully,” Khyber explained. “There’s certainly a mood, but the sequence we couldn’t get for the longest time.”

Each of the 10 tracks that follow “Isolation Booth” — from the wistful harmonies of “Endless Mountains” to the jaunty defiance of “Inner Mother” to the smoothly romantic “Wake Up Call” that puts the disk to bed, “Crane Point Lodge” is a loosely constructed concept album that drew inspiration from a sylvan location, an eerie abode and a stuffed wapiti head.

“The taxidermy absorbed a lot of sound,” Khyber said.

Unfortunately, it didn’t absorb the creepy whisper of an unidentified paranormal entity. But the rest of the sounds generated inside that cavernous studio worked out nicely for The Good Listeners.

For more information on The Good Listeners, visit: http://thegoodlisteners.com.