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The Strange Musical Journey Of The Stairs

Less than three years ago, The Stairs were just a group of friends from Dedham, Mass., making music for themselves and their friends. In fact, they weren't even The Stairs yet.

During those three years the trio that became The Stairs would add three new members. They would come up with one of the more creative ways to fund a recording project, and put to work both a marching band and the artistic talents of elementary school students. Finally, after one of the more unusual creative journeys of all time, the group released their debut album, Miraculous Happens. On Thursday, Feb. 20, the group performs at the Chopping Block in Boston; on Saturday, Feb. 22, The Stairs make their New York debut at the West End.

Before they became The Stairs, they were Mr. Pistol. In 1998, Ryan Walsh, Eric Meyer and Evan Sicuranza formed Mr. Pistol and released a number of limited-edition albums, including Backwood Crimes and Ghost Lovers, recorded on boom boxes and four-tracks in college dorm rooms and the Meyer attic. They were labors of love that hardly reached the ears of anyone outside the band's circle of friends and family — which, perhaps, was just as well. Speaking of an early recording, Walsh said, "The music you could hear was so bizarre that we had trouble justifying its merit to anyone."

But their music — which at one point they likened to the sound of an amplified hairdryer — was slowly beginning to take form. With each recording they made, their obsession with the do-it-yourself recording process grew.

Most artists either record and release albums on their own, or find a record company willing to take a chance on them. But The Stairs decided to, as they say, "think outside the box." They decided to apply for a grant.

Walsh was familiar with the idea of getting a grant to support a creative project because he had just completed a film titled "Horse Tricks," which had been funded through a local community arts organization called the Dedham Visionary Access Corporation. The nonprofit supports local media and cultural projects with funds from cable service providers operating in Dedham. "The projects they fund are ongoing and, in my opinion, really enrich the town of Dedham culturally," Walsh explained.

So The Stairs decided to take a chance and request a grant from DVAC. Amazingly, in mid-2000 DVAC offered The Stairs a $10,000 grant to record and release an album, but with three stipulations: 1) The album would comprise original compositions, and other Dedham-based musicians interested in contributing would be invited to play on it; 2) A "Draw the Album Cover" contest would be held at Dedham elementary schools; and 3) The entire project would be filmed, and a documentary about the recording would be shown on the Dedham local cable station before the album's release.

Even before the grant was approved, in the spring of 2000, they had a stroke of luck when a former high school teacher had offered to let them rent his studio recording equipment. Now, with the grant in place, The Stairs not only had the budget and the equipment to record a proper full-length, but also the freedom to experiment with their music without the time constraints imposed by working in a traditional recording studio. And it is these elements that contribute most profoundly to Miraculous Happens.

In October 2000, armed with nothing more than some bedroom recordings and a love for all things creative, The Stairs set out to record their full-length. Two years later, at the end of 2002, Miraculous Happens was finished.

Recording the album was not an easy experience. "No, I would not recommend recording an album like this to anyone," Walsh said. "Maybe a musically-inclined masochist."

Not that they had a bad time; it was a journey that offered adventure, confusion and, at times, some good ol' fun. "We were constantly trying to rein it in, to throw a rope around it," Walsh said. "But at the same time we wanted to be free to experiment and let it grow into whatever it wanted to grow into."

Over the course of those two years, The Stairs recorded at seven locations in Dedham, Norwood and Boston, making use of professional studios and bandmembers' homes. But Walsh said it was more like one long two-year session. "I didn't stop thinking about the record, I couldn't, until it was finished."

They didn't realize what they were getting themselves into. "It was the first time any of us had attempted to record an album completely by ourselves," Walsh said. "We had no experience, and this project could have been a terrible disaster."

They avoided disaster, through sheer will and by utilizing terminology that would make most professional musicians laugh. "We developed some kind of musical language that we all could understand," he said. "We learned how to offer each other assurances with strange slang and misused music terms."

As the songs grew, the band concurrently grew in numbers as well. They added three permanent members, Emma Westling, John Ling and Rob Johanson, to fulfill the duties of female vocalist, bassist and pianist respectively. Also, meeting the stipulations of their DVAC grant, the record features a number of guest musicians from Dedham. Quite impressively, Miraculous Happens is truly everything but the kitchen sink. So much so that perhaps we should replace the term "everything but the kitchen sink" in our vernacular with the term "miraculous happens." From brass sections to banjos, classical guitars to sitars, an 11-person choir to the 2001-2002 Dedham High School Marching Band, The Stairs made use of local talent in innovative and adventurous ways.

Miraculous Happens, with cover and liner notes that include crayon and watercolor drawings by Dedham elementary students, is truly a monster of a record. The record is sprawling, so massive that one is unsure what to make of it at first. It's an oft-cited critique of music journalism that writers take the lazy approach of comparing a new band to another rather than coming up with an original description. With Miraculous Happens there's really no choice. Its 15 tracks touch upon so many musical reference points that it's necessary to mention the many artists and genres they evoke. From the Flaming Lips to Neutral Milk Hotel to The Smiths to the Stone Roses to Pavement to breezy California pop to old-timey to sultry jazz, the band hits on so many styles from song to song that it's impossible to categorize their sound.

To the question: "What is The Stairs' sound?," dozens of different answers are possible. But that's not the point. The essence of The Stairs lies not with their sound, but rather the process. It is the circumstances that surrounded the recording of this album that truly make it a remarkable achievement. It is bedroom recordings run amok, created by musicians who simply love music. And in the end, what the album may lack in cohesion, it makes up for in the breadth and quality of the songs and the uniqueness of the arrangements.

The album plays out like a mix tape, with each song ringing of familiarity even though you've never heard it before. You can ignore the album as it plays in the background, but every few minutes you're likely to lift your head and think about the music. You can play it over and over and each time pick up on something new.

If you want to hear some of the group's music, download these MP3s: Forty Two, I Am an Exit, Most Valuable Pop, Under a Moon of Twine and Queen of Mixed Signals.

The experience of Miraculous Happens didn't kill the group's obsession with recording; it only made it stronger. The Stairs have already set new challenges for themselves, one of which is a double or triple album titled Deck. This album will feature a song for every playing card; additionally, the group has created a set of rules pertaining to song titles, length and orchestration. "The process of the album becomes a game, just as a deck of cards is designed to play with," Walsh explained. Games, processes, rules; for The Stairs it all comes down to the journey.

Meanwhile, The Stairs plan to reach that elusive audience outside their circle of friends and family by touring the East Coast. They have released Miraculous Happens on their own label, Access to Visions Records, named in homage to their community patrons. The album can be purchased at The Stairs' Web site — Carlo Espinas [Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003]


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