Don't Get Around Much Anymore
The title of Seam's first release in more than three years, The Pace Is Glacial, is obviously a joke about how long it took to finish the record. But another characteristic of glaciers is that they alter landscapes, and as the Chicago band trudged forward, through a tragicomic series of technical mishaps and scheduling snafus, they found that their expectations and attitudes about being a band were slowly but surely changing.
When their third album, Are You Driving Me Crazy?, was issued in June 1995 by Touch and Go (which has released all but their first album), Seam was in the midst of a grueling four-month U.S. tour, which was followed by a whirlwind trip around Europe. The band took off most of 1996 to recuperate, but by that fall they were eager to begin work on a new album. Over two weeks at Idful Music with producer Brad Wood, who'd done their last two records, they finished seven new songs. By early 1997 front man Sooyoung Park had written more, and the band was ready to record them, but before Seam could return to the studio Park got a call from Wood, who ruefully informed him that the previous session had to be scrapped due to a technical malfunction that was undetectable while recording but had streaked the tapes with a horrible hiss.
Park says those seven songs weren't perfect, but "just knowing that all of that was out the window was depressing." Seam spent most of 1997 trying and failing to synchronize schedules with Wood, who was busy recording Liz Phair and preparing for Idful's upcoming move to a new location. As 1998 loomed, they decided to go with another producer, Brian Paulson (who'd worked with Son Volt and Superchunk). Last December he recorded 11 songs from scratch at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, where drummer Chris Manfrin had started working as manager. But when they tried to mix the album at another Chicago studio, which Park declined to name, they encountered further technical problems with a malfunctioning tape recorder, wasting four days without finishing a single song.
"It seemed like no matter what we were doing there was some little gremlin sitting on our shoulders loosening all the rivets in whatever ideas we had," says Manfrin. They ended up mixing the album near Paulson's home in Raleigh, North Carolina, in January.
The new album is marked by an aggressive, compact, almost claustrophobic sound, in stark contrast to the more complex and roomy arrangements of the previous two. Park's breathy whisper frequently erupts into passionate screams, and he and fellow guitarist Reg Shrader peel off bar chords in blistering unison passages, as opposed to the pretty arpeggios and contrapuntal lines of yore. Though he couldn't offer a complete explanation for the shift, Park does say he'd been listening to the band's 1992 debut, Headsparks, when he was writing the new songs and had sought to recapture some of its charming sloppiness.
In the time since this painfully elongated process began, Park has taken a computer programming job at a downtown insurance firm, Shrader has gone from working at record and video stores to processing data at a downtown law firm, and bassist William Shin has taken a job in computer maintenance at a hospital. The album's been out for more than a month now, but Seam won't be returning to its gung ho touring schedule. They've flown to LA once for a few gigs, and on Friday will play a belated record-release party at Lounge Ax.
"It's definitely getting more difficult as we get older," says Manfrin, 29. "Your means and your needs change, and you have to try to keep on top of both of them."
"It's a relief to me not to have to rely on music to make a living," says Park, 31. "I miss traveling and waking up to go some place...but I miss that more than the shows," he says with a laugh. "We've definitely taken a different attitude toward playing out. We used to be an anal band. The environment had to be right and you had to hear everything really well, and now it's gotten to the point where we get off the plane, borrow some band's equipment, and just play."
Seam will play select east coast dates through December and are contemplating a brief tour of the southeast, but beyond that nothing is planned. "I still enjoy playing and I still like writing songs," says Park. He says that he's inspired by Rick Rizzo and Janet Bean of Eleventh Dream Day, working parents who've kept music in their lives but on their own terms. "It's really cool to see people with that attitude instead of giving it up altogether."
Back in February this column detailed the plight of stagehands working at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana. The Star Plaza had dismissed its pool of part-time stagehands and replaced them with employees of Proton, a stagehand broker based in Fairfield, Ohio. The stagehands believed they were canned because they planned to join a union--and they took their beef to the National Labor Relations Board.
Now the stagehands will be returning to work, nearly a year after losing their jobs. On October 27, the NLRB approved a settlement calling for the Star Plaza to pay 50 stagehands a total of $70,000 in back pay and interest, as well as the employees' taxes on that sum. While the Star Plaza admitted no wrongdoing, it will offer the employees at least 60 percent of all stagehand work from December 1, 1998, to November 30, 1999.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Seam photo by Nathan Mandell.