Dekkagar, the debut album by the National Trust, is impressive sheerly on a technical level--its assured, sybaritic sprawl encompasses lush orchestration, sumptuous slinky soul grooves, and loads of inventive vocal harmonies. Released this past Tuesday on Thrill Jockey, it's a stunning leap forward for its creator, Neil Rosario, whose rock "career" in the 90s could generously be described as meandering.
Rosario ushered in the decade (as many did) aping the Jesus Lizard, with a three-piece version of his band Dolomite. That lineup dissolved in 1992 after releasing one single, but the following year Rosario and original bassist Doug DeMers revived the project with guitarist John Whitney and drummer and singer Rian Murphy--now the leader of the blue-eyed-soul party band Chestnut Station. Rosario credits Murphy, who was also his roommate for four years, with opening up the band's sound: their two EPs and sole album incorporated jagged bursts of pop, Dylanesque wanderlust, and charmingly inept blues rock. "If it wasn't for Rian," he says with a laugh, "I'd probably have a band called the National Defense."
Dolomite played its last show in the summer of 1995, and Rosario spent some time bartending at the Empty Bottle, where "seeing the histrionics and prima donna syndrome and stuff" of touring bands soured his enthusiasm for the scene. Still, he briefly served as Red Red Meat's second guitarist, going on the road with them as a replacement for Glenn Girard and contributing to their second-to-last album, Bunny Gets Paid. The following year he started a loose outfit called Fifteen Couples with bassist Matt Fields (another latter-day Red Red Meat member), drummer Kim Ambriz, and fellow songwriter and guitarist Andy Cunningham. "It was nice to have a band that has no ambition to make records," he says. "Everything was sort of nebulous, and it was fine that way. I think we played live five times, something pretty large like that."
All traces of Dolomite's original aggression had dispersed, replaced by a nascent infatuation with early-70s pop rock and bubblegum. Though Fifteen Couples never released a record, they did log plenty of time in the studio, working with engineer and former Red Red Meat drummer Brian Deck. By early 1999 Ambriz and Fields had drifted away, and Fifteen Couples morphed into the National Trust.
"You can't talk about the National Trust without talking about Fifteen Couples," says Deck. "I'm not really sure when I pulled out a Fifteen Couples tape and Neil said, Oh, let's relabel that 'National Trust.'" Rosario gave a tape of two songs, featuring Cunningham, DeMers, and new recruit Mark Henning on vocals and guitar, to Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards, who'd put out the Dolomite album. She released them as a single in the summer of 1999. The record captured Rosario's developing pop sensibilities and interest in orchestration, but it was nice at best.
The agreement with Thrill Jockey had been for the single only, so Rosario, who by then was working at a bank, helping the institution comply with federal redlining regulations, began pouring his own money into recording more songs at Clava, the south-side studio that was Deck's main workplace at the time. "Through working with Brian in the past we developed a dialogue, whether it was about music or food or art or whatever," says Rosario. "He was excited to help work it out, and so it felt good."
The sessions were interrupted in April, when Rosario was called to Las Vegas to spend time with his father, who'd had a heart attack; he died in June from the kidney condition that had precipitated the attack. When Rosario returned to Chicago, he was in no mood to make music, and not until the following January did he find the motivation to get back on track.
"I got tired of having all of these songs in various stages that I'd play for friends at three in the morning. I was getting tired of just reading the paper and seeing different bands coming to town, knowing full well, at best, that I could only say, 'Hey, I've got this record in me.'" He resumed recording with a newfound focus, determined to get the sounds in his head on tape exactly as he was hearing them. "It was all about trying to get a 100 percent translation," he says.
At that point what he was hearing in his head was heavily inspired by classic Philly soul, as well as contemporary "natural" R & B artists like D'Angelo. "Neil understood that the records he was listening to were not made on semipro gear," says Deck. "He had to have the best stuff he could possibly get, and he decided he would just bankroll it, although he hoped to find someone interested in putting it out and relieving him of some of the financial burden after the fact." Rosario declined to tell me how much money he spent making the record, though he did say, "It certainly substantiated my life. Why schlepp shit where I work just so I can buy another television?"
Deck estimates that they spent over 500 hours at Clava and Engine studios, where Deck became a partner last fall--a staggering amount of time for a self-financed indie release. Last spring Rosario played some rough mixes for Richards, who offered to release the album. She gave Rosario an advance, but by her own admission it covered only a third of what he'd ultimately spend making it--it took him and Deck another six months to finish.
Artistically, at least, Dekkagar seems to have been worth it: the opening number, "Making Love (In the Natural Light)," took 70 tracks, more than half of which were vocal overdubs, ranging from contrapuntal harmonies to something Rosario calls "mouth games"--rhythmic nonverbal sounds that fit like puzzle pieces into the dense arrangement. The brass-kissed "Neverstop" floats atop percolating wah-wah guitar, bouncy piano figures, and more harmonies as it explores the intersection of Philly soul and bubblegum, while "See No Evil," with its spooky Wurlitzer patterns, calls to mind the chill mid-70s vibe of the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The National Trust will make their first live appearance in nearly two years when they play the Empty Bottle on May 18; the lineup will include DeMers, Deck, Henning, original Dolomite drummer Bryan Aldrin, and possibly Cunningham, who now lives in Providence. A tour of the northeast with Archer Prewitt is being planned, and a European tour is a distinct possibility; the album has generated positive reviews in the European and Japanese press. But Rosario says he has no real plans to become a touring act. "I'm a sucker for the game," he says. "The game being the process of recording. That's the shit to me. I love to play live, but the realization of it all, the fraternity, the camaraderie and gay talk, and the occasional good food, the 'gosh' at the end. All of that is...sweet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.