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"Hollows and Rounds" is the debut album by Whitejacket, the alias of Chicago-based musician Chris McDuffie.
“The genesis of the record came from my long-standing admiration of the baroque pop of the late sixties and seventies,” McDuffie explains. “I guess I’ve always been fascinated with the arrangement and production from that period, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate it even more.” McDuffie elaborates, saying, “Somehow there’s a sonic abundance that seems almost inexhaustible. Even the more popular FM radio staples that by now bore most people to tears continue to surprise me. I’m always noticing new details that make my ears perk up.” McDuffie allows he has reason to listen more intently than most admitting, “I’m always looking for something to steal.”
While he claims the influence of more obscure artists from the era like Margo Guryan and Billy Nicholls, McDuffie cheerfully admits the obvious. “The Beatles are my first love and will always be looming in my writing. Like my hero Paul McCartney did it, my music is almost always written first with the lyrics coming later, sometimes much later, in a forced, desperate fashion,” McDuffie says, only half-joking. “In the beginning, I had a lot of anxiety about that. These days, I feel like indie types demand a certain literary seriousness from songwriters. Paul’s example reminds me that a song doesn’t need to be absolutely sincere or lyrically sublime to succeed. It’s okay to occasionally indulge yourself in a silly love song.”
Shy and retiring by nature, McDuffie’s unlikely musical career began when he was lured away from his graduate studies to play keyboards and percussion in The Apples in stereo. Though technically unpolished, McDuffie thrived under front man Robert Schneider’s patient tutelage and quickly developed a sophisticated “one-finger” Moog technique that was the hallmark of his contribution to the band’s sound. Despite a propitious beginning, the rigors and temptations of touring took their toll on McDuffie, and his erratic playing and behavior increasingly clashed with Schneider’s perfectionistic approach to live performance. This culminated in McDuffie’s abrupt and public dismissal from the band after blowing a tambourine cue onstage in Albuquerque.
Cast out of the Elephant 6 garden, McDuffie packed up his tambourine and retreated to his native Midwest, taking a job at Chicago’s now defunct Deagan marimba and vibraphone factory, where his work on the line gave him lots of time to think. Count of Monte Cristo-like, McDuffie began carefully plotting a return to music on his own terms. Preparations for "Hollows and Rounds" were material as well as conceptual. With scraps of ebony and bits of wire smuggled back to his studio apartment from the Deagan factory, McDuffie constructed a nearly full-size, 77 key piano that remains integral to his writing process to this day and can be heard on almost every track on "Hollows and Rounds".
A few rules guided the making of "Hollows and Rounds". “I really tried to involve the piano whenever possible,” says McDuffie. “Piano is so important to the genre and period I was thinking about. Consider the Stones. They’re mostly rootsy and guitar driven, but Nicky Hopkins’s piano is absolutely essential to ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.” So, pushing the famous Moog of the Apples era aside, McDuffie explains the “no synths” rule. “As much as I love synths, I partially blame them for the decline of the piano as a pop mainstay. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but at some point it became clear to me that "Hollows and Rounds" didn’t need synths. It pushed me to be more creative with the piano and organs too.”
Secondly, brass arrangements were favored at the expense of strings. McDuffie says, “I like the way brass comfortably straddles pop and more traditionally orchestral music. After all, I can’t think of a single rock or pop band known for its really hot string section.” Lastly, McDuffie mandated that vocal harmonies would be key to the record’s sound. Flying in the face of Jon Anderson’s famous 1971 dictum from the Yes classic “I’ve Seen All Good People,” McDuffie chose to surround himself with himself at almost every turn as far as vocals are concerned. “Sometimes it got ridiculous,” he explains. “Almost all the vocal lines were doubled, so at times there’d be six to eight of me layered up. I’m quite sure my neighbors could hear me singing. I was a bit self-conscious at first but somehow I got over it.”
Chris McDuffie’s debut album as Whitejacket is scheduled for release on April 3rd, 2012. "Hollows and Rounds" is preceded by the single “The Modern” available for streaming and download now.