Andrew Morgan was ready to die. He was nearly finished with Misadventures in Radiology, the orchestral pop album that had consumed his life for nearly five years in four different cities, and he'd gone so far as to prepare a will with instructions about how the album should be completed after his death. In the early evening of May 8, 2003, that decision came to seem eerily prescient.
Morgan was in Lawrence, Kansas, that day, mixing the album and staying at the apartment of an old college buddy and collaborator, Cully West. Nursing a cold brought on by long hours in the studio, Morgan was resting on the couch when West burst into the living room with news that a tornado was approaching. Morgan didn't take the warning seriously at first. "I'd grown up in Kansas [and] been through tornado drills a million times where nothing ever happened," he says. But he saw the urgency in his friend's eyes and moved to the bathroom to hop in the tub and fold himself into a ball.
"The second I close the door the place blows up," he says. "I feel all these shards of glass against my head and hands." The tornado rampaged through the building, destroying much of the surrounding apartment complex and tearing through a neighboring golf course. Shaken, Morgan looked to see a gaping hole in the living room where walls once were. "The couch where I was lying was covered with planks of wood, chunks of glass, and a TV set where my head was," he says. "But all I could think of was, 'OK, now I can get back to the record.' That's how crazy I'd become."
The making of Misadventures in Radiology took Morgan from England to Los Angeles to Chicago, to LA again, and finally to Kansas. It was worth the toil and travel, though: it's a stirring 12-song opus that echoes the work of Nick Drake, Miles Davis, and the late Elliott Smith, who was one of the album's benefactors. The record was released last year in the UK, and Seattle-based Sonic Boom Recordings will issue the U.S. version on April 5; Morgan will celebrate the event with a show this week at Schubas.
Morgan, 26, grew up in Leawood, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. Both his parents worked in medicine--his mother as a therapist and his father as an internist--but they were also musically inclined: his father played in a British Invasion-style combo called the Fabulous Reflections and later a folk outfit modeled after the Kingston Trio. They enrolled him in guitar and piano lessons, but it wasn't until he arrived at the University of Kansas in 1997 that he started a band, a chamber-pop group with West on guitar, Carolyn Anderson on cello, and Morgan's younger sister Sarah playing viola.
The band, called Bound by Nothing, recorded a demo, and in 1999 both Morgan and West left Kansas to study philosophy in England, where a reconfigured version of the band gigged regularly. A positive notice in a music publication caught the attention of the Oxford-based label Shifty Disco, which had licensed albums by members of the Elephant 6 collective. Shifty Disco expressed interest in releasing a full-length; inspired, Morgan began writing songs for what would eventually become Misadventures in Radiology. But with the school year over and funds dwindling, he was forced to return to Lawrence for his senior year.
A few weeks into the first semester, he says, he "just freaked out and dropped out." (He was later credited for his overseas course work and received a degree in psychology.) In the next two years he moved to New York, dissolved Bound by Nothing, started a new group called Punctured Bicycle, recorded seven songs in LA with fellow Kansan Matt LaPoint, and eventually, on the advice of some Oxford friends, moved here.
Punctured Bicycle played a handful of Chicago shows in 2001 and 2002. Beulah front man Miles Kurosky agreed to produce an album, and reps from Atlanta-based Velocette Records came to town to see the band. But when both opportunities fell through in the summer of 2002, Morgan began working under his own name, uncertain about his next move.
Around that time, he received a call from LaPoint, who had struck up a friendship with Elliott Smith and was working at New Monkey, the singer-songwriter's fledgling studio in LA. Hearing about the difficulty Morgan had putting together an album, Smith offered him free use of the studio to work in earnest. In August, Morgan called in his sister and Built to Spill cellist John McMahon for what was supposed to be a two-day session. They ended up staying six weeks.
"It was so incredible, 'cause I'd been a huge fan of Elliott's since high school," Morgan says. "We'd stay up all night talking and really hit it off. But he kinda took me under his wing and was really sweet. And he genuinely seemed to dig the music." The elaborate tableau he envisioned finally began to take shape--"I did 90 percent of the vocals, some strings, brass, harmonium"--but he couldn't afford to live in LA, even with free studio time. So he took the tapes to Lawrence, recording at the University of Kansas's conservatory with a crew of college string players. He had just completed the last of his vocals and was ready to mix the album when the tornado hit. (The tapes were safely stowed in the studio.)
Morgan didn't escape entirely unscathed: the pressure from the tornado damaged his eardrums severely, requiring steroid treatment and six weeks away from the record. "I was really going nuts because I couldn't do anything," he says. "They told me I couldn't play or sing, because I could rupture the eardrums permanently. . . . My right ear is more sensitive now, but I got it back and I'll take it."
After finally completing the album in the fall of 2003, Morgan headed to Harvard, where he was accepted as a graduate student in the divinity school. There he began work on his thesis: an album of pop songs based on Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of Christianity in his 1887 treatise On the Genealogy of Morals. "The goal is to take those ideas into a new form without diluting them but still trying to introduce them to the widest audience," he says.
In the meantime he sent copies of Misadventures in Radiology to labels, which resulted in an offer from London-based Broken Horse label. The album arrived in British stores in the summer of 2004, garnering positive reviews from Q, Uncut, and NME, and the newfound attention prompted him to spend his spring break performing in London and Manchester. Late last year, Morgan took a yearlong leave of absence from Harvard (and the Nietzsche opus) to return to Chicago to focus on music. He's hoping to tour behind the U.S. release of the new album--though he confesses it'll be financially difficult to take his six-piece backing band on the road--and he's begun work on his next record, titled "A Unified Theory of Everything."
"I really want the new album to be less complicated to record than the last one," he says. "At least I'm hoping not to have to make out a new will."
When: Thu 3/24, 9 PM
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo Saverio Truglia.