Published on December 10th, 2014 | by Ballard Lesemann0
The Silver Bells Compile Their Finest Christmas Rockers
Going on 10 years, the hooky, melodic, cleverly crafted pop/rock of Charleston-based band Silver Bells has played a major part in various holiday concerts, from the legendary Chord (Cord) & Pedal-hosted Christmas shows at the old Cumberland’s bar and at the new Charleston Music Hall to the Jinglebang jamborees at the Pour House and the Tin Roof.
Half-jokingly self-labeled as “the world’s number one Christmas band,” the Silver Bells steer clear of the usual holiday standards and cover songs, opting instead to compose their own original material in the vintage power-pop style (think the Beatles and Beach Boys crossed with early-era R.E.M. and classic Elvis Costello).
This fall, lead singer and guitarist Nicholas Doyle — the band’s main songwriter — invited his longtime/core bandmate Douglas Thompson (guitar/keys), and a team special guests into West Ashley’s Ramshackle Studio to record an all-original pop/rock Christmas album titled It’s Christmas, Everybody! Every track deals with the holidays and the emotions involved.
The roster of musicians and singers on the album is impressive: Jack Burg, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Bivins, Bill Carson, Jay Chapa, Andy Dixon, Julia Dixon, Michael Flynn, Lauren Jones, Nathan Koci, and Brooke Pennell. The eight-song collection was financed by a recently successful Kickstarter campaign, and it’s set for release on vinyl (and digitally) this spring.
Metronome Charleston chatted with frontman Nicholas Doyle this week:
When, how, and with whom did you start the Silver Bells musical project?
Nicholas Doyle: I’m originally from Virginia, and I have a good friend in Richmond, Lee Harris, who would make mix CDs of original holiday songs each year to give to his friends. He had a home studio, and he’d just have people get together and record music. Lee’s a really great songwriter, and I was always grateful that he’d include me.
I basically copied him. I’d take my two songs and make little CDs and give them to my friends and family. I guess the first “real” Silver Bells single was in … 2002? Those songs aren’t very good, but the next CD, from 2004, had an early version of “I Wanna Love You For Christmas,” which we re-recorded for this record.
When I moved to Charleston in 2005, I hadn’t really given much thought to continuing with it, but I went to that year’s Chord & Pedal show and had so much fun and wanted to be a part of it. I gave a CD to [C&P’s] Kevin Hanley in 2006. I guess he liked it, because he let us play that year’s show, and we’ve been a part of all the holiday shows ever since. I can say without a doubt that this record would not exist without Lee and Kevin.
Were all of these original songs on It’s Christmas, Everybody! initially written as Christmas songs or “regular” pop/rock songs? How did they take shape?
Nicholas Doyle: All of the songs were written as Christmas songs. I do have non-holiday songs that I play in public occasionally, but I’ve never really tried to rewrite any of the Silver Bells stuff as “regular” songs. I don’t know if they’d really work. When putting them together, I usually take a “normal” song idea — making out, being sad, being lonely, the usual — and then figure out a way to relate it to the holidays.
Tell us about the making of the new album — the planning of the studio sessions with Andy Dixon (of Punks & Snakes) as engineer/producer and the musicians involved.
Nicholas Doyle: I met Andy Dixon through Jack Burg [Punks & Snakes’ frontman]. Andy produced the fantastic Punks & Snakes record, and I’d kind of jokingly asked him how he’d feel about recording “novelty Christmas music.” He was into it, but I didn’t see him again for a few months. The next time I saw him, the first thing he asked me was when we were going to make the record. I’d been thinking about making a record of these songs for years, but my mother-in-law had just passed away, and I was definitely in a “do this now, because who knows what could happen tomorrow?” head space.
I knew I wanted to have a core “band” with all of the songs having the same people playing the basic tracks. Jack is one of my favorite drummers, and he was gracious enough to agree to play. A few years ago, I realized that I’ve probably seen Jonathan Gray [ex-Jump Little Children] play music more times than any other musician. He was my first choice to play bass on the record. My friend Douglas Thompson is the only other constant member of the Silver Bells. He’s a fantastic guitar player, and I really love what he does with the songs. For lack of a better term, he’s probably the band’s “musical director.” I couldn’t have done this without him.
We then just looked at the songs individually and tried to figure out what we could add to them. Anyone that plays music in this town knows how welcoming and supportive the music community is, and I was really lucky to have Michael Flynn, Bill Carson, Matthew Bivins, and Nathan Koci record parts for the record.
Andy was great to work with. He made the entire process fun and easy. I kept telling him that I was waiting for it to feel like “work,” but it never did. We recorded everything in about a month. It went really quickly.
Have you ever done a studio project like this before with any other bands?
Nicholas Doyle: Not on this scale, no. The older Silver Bells stuff was always more lo-fi. I’d see who was available/willing to be in the band/record songs. It was always kind of a last minute, hit-and-run type of thing. I loved doing things that way, but with this record, I wanted it to be more of a piece, with the same basic group of people on each song.
Listening to the final mixes, what are your favorite moments on It’s Christmas, Everybody?
Nicholas Doyle: Oh man, there are so many. I love Michael Flynn’s keyboard on “Can We Stay Together Through New Year’s Eve?” and I really love Doug’s solo on that one, too. Nathan played the horns on “Poor Excuse,” and it changed the whole song for me. Even though he lives in Chicago now, having Matt Bivins [ex-Jump Little Children] play harmonica on “Letter From Mrs. Claus” was very important. He played on the original recording of the song, and is probably part of the reason we were able to be involved in the local scene to begin with, as both he and Evan Bivins were in the band the first year we did Chord & Pedal and probably gave us some “cred.” So I definitely wanted to make sure he was on there. I’ve been steering-wheel drumming along to Jack’s parts for the last two months. Basically, I’m just really happy and proud of this silly little thing we’ve put together.
Overall as an album, what might surprise people about It’s Christmas, Everybody!
Nicholas Doyle: That they’re Christmas songs that don’t suck? Oddly enough, I don’t really like most Christmas music. There are some go-to records that I love — your Ella Fitzgeralds and Phil Spectors — but as a whole, holiday music is pretty lame. I’ll be the first to admit that these are novelty songs, but I also think that they’re just good songs. Whenever I feel silly about this stuff, I just remember that the Beatles would get together each year and make a Christmas single, too. I’d say they’re probably the second best Christmas band, after us.
What led to kicking up a Kickstarter campaign this season? Was that a strange experience overall, or has it been fun/positive/encouraging?
Nicholas Doyle: My friend Catie Myers-Wood just recently started working there in New York, and I’d picked her brain about the company, never really planning on doing a project myself. Kickstarter is fascinating to me. I love the idea of being able to pre-order a thing in order to help get it made. Once the songs were all recorded, she agreed to create the artwork for the record, and she offered to help me with the rewards and give me pointers on how to run the project. I’ve always been terrified of running a Kickstarter, because I’ve read all the horror stories of people who didn’t plan on how much all the extra stuff would end up costing, but she’s been super helpful in helping me get everything together. The whole experience has been both strange and fun at the same time – the self-promotion side is new to me, but I really do think we’ve made something pretty great, and this has been an awesome way to get it out into the world. We’ve had people from other countries pledge to the Kickstarter that would never have heard of us in a billion years. It’s just amazing.
You hit your Kickstarter goal of $6,500 last week. When will copies of It’s Christmas, Everybody! be pressed and made available for sale?
Nicholas Doyle: Yeah, we actually hit our goal, which is awesome! I plan to send the files off to the manufacturers within a week of the project ending. One of the Kickstarter rewards is that people can get their name in the “thank you” section in the credits, so we can’t lock that down until the funding period ends. I’m giving March as the “official” date, but it could end up being done before then. Regardless, I’m making sure to keep people updated through the Kickstarter. I want people to feel confident that they’re going to get the stuff they’ve paid for.
What is it about putting It’s Christmas, Everybody! out on vinyl that’s so exciting?
Nicholas Doyle: Even though I buy most of my music digitally, I wanted to make/have an actual “thing.” There will be digital downloads available, but I kind of felt like it wouldn’t be “real” unless I had an physical item. I don’t really buy CDs anymore, and I love the idea of having a big vinyl record of these songs. I know that some people look down on the recent vinyl resurgence or whatever, but I’m in a friggin’ Christmas band, so…
What might be on the next holiday record this time next year?
Nicholas Doyle: Well, I have one song left from the earlier singles that we didn’t record, and I’m toying with the idea of maybe re-doing that one — I’m nothing if not a completist — and then writing another song, and making a “real” single, but I guess we’ll see how it goes. I haven’t even really released this thing yet!
The Silver Bells (with Danny Infinger of Alswel on bass) will share the stage with Laura Jane Vincent at the Tin Roof on Wed. Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. Cover is $5. They’ll return to the Tin Roof on Wed. Dec. 17 for the annual Jinglebang! showcase (benefitting the Charleston Animal Society). Admission to Jinglebang! is a $7 donation.
Visit the band’s Facebook page for more.
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