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The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

Liam Hayes/Magnificent Obsession

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Liam Hayes looks more than a little like Bob Dylan--specifically Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde, after a shopping spree on Carnaby Street--and fans and supporters will attest to the magnitude of Hayes's vision almost as fervently as Dylan's did his. Yet in the past 12 years his band Plush has released just two singles and--as of February, when Fed came out on the Japanese label After Hours--two albums.

It's not that Hayes is lazy or otherwise occupied: he works at making music every day, living frugally so he doesn't have to take a day job. But he is by all accounts cripplingly obsessive. He spent about two years recording Fed with a cast of more than 30 musicians and engineers, spending a good six figures in the process. No label fronted the money--After Hours licensed the album only after it had been completed. At times the dense mix of blue-eyed soul, Brill Building songcraft, and Beatles-esque pop sounds like it should be called Stuffed: the confectionary arrangements always go for more where less might do. But they work for the well-written songs and not the other way around. Hayes plots his hooky melodies along strings of shimmering chords and fleshes them out with layer upon layer of brass, strings, winds, keyboards, percussion, backup singers--yet his own clear, delicate vocals are the indisputable center of the mix.

Most of the album was recorded and mixed a year ago, but Hayes spent another year tweaking and rerecording. Basic tracks were cut all over the city--in traditional recording studios like Delmark's Riverside and Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, with a mobile setup on a soundstage, at the Congress Theater, and even on the roof of a south-side loft building. Hayes hired Tom Tom MMLXXXIV (formerly Tom Tom 84), a veteran arranger who's worked with the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Phil Collins, and the Jacksons--to polish the brass and string charts and recruit topflight session men to play them. Each song was painstakingly assembled--on tape, no computers--from the numerous sessions. "When it came time to mix the album there was a stack of tape seven feet long and three feet deep on the floor...probably 50 reels of tape," says Isotope 217 bassist Matt Lux, who played on the entire album.

"Nothing was ever settled," says Albini. "You could be seconds away from having the mix be totally finished and then he would want to listen to alternate versions of the introduction from takes that you hadn't listened to in nine months." Late in the game, as the brass was being overdubbed, Hayes brought in drummer Morris Jennings--another soul and jazz pro--to rerecord basic drum tracks. "This methodology of doing it and the pace that we worked and the combination of deliberation and spontaneous choices--that complicated mosaic is what makes the personality of the record," says Albini.

Hayes grew up in Chicago; he attended Lincoln Park High School and the Chicago Academy for the Arts and then took (but never completed) a few music classes at Roosevelt University. He began performing sporadically with Plush in 1990, and in '94 the band released a remarkable, beautifully orchestrated single on Drag City, the label owned by Hayes's childhood friend Dan Koretzky. A less satisfying single came out on the now defunct Flydaddy label in 1997, and the following year Drag City released Plush's long-awaited debut album, More You Becomes You--for all intents and purposes a solo piano record.

Hayes recorded it alone partly because his fellow musicians weren't living up to his standards. "I think there's people whom I've played with who are playing at their best, and there's other people I've played with who could play better, but who were not self-critical enough," he says. "That whole environment that they're a product of is not self-critical enough." Koretzky notes that Hayes spent eight months perfecting the cover art, done to look like a grade-school drawing.

When Hayes began recording Fed, Koretzky let him use his car and his credit cards, dispatched Drag City employees to help him lug equipment, booked recording sessions, and loaned him money. He says Hayes had agreed to license the new record to the label, just as he had More You Becomes You. But when Hayes told him he wanted "a heavy five-figure" licensing fee up front, Koretzky had to walk away. "I knew it was probably time to think about just buying a copy of the record when it came out," he says.

"This was just a record that got out of control as far as the expense of making it," Hayes admits. Neither Lux nor longtime Plush drummer Rian Murphy has been paid or expects to be, but Hayes had to fork over for the hired guns and much of the studio time. He says he spent enough of his own money (earned in part by playing on records by Smog and Palace and appearing in John Cusack's High Fidelity) to buy a "nice shiny new car or put a down payment on a house," but the rest came from friends, family, and friends' families.

"I am one of many people that Liam was on the hook to while making this record, and I'm sure that some of this is going to come back and haunt him," says Albini, who eventually extended him credit. "He wasn't trying to screw people, it's just that he was single-mindedly pursuing this record and ignoring everything else in his life, including his obligations. I'm sure eventually Liam will be even with everybody." Lux agrees: "He doesn't intend to screw anybody over, and he certainly intends to pay every cent back. Whether that can happen or not, I don't know, but I'm sure if something happened and he got some money he would be extremely generous."

If anyone has a right to feel slighted it's Murphy, who's known Hayes since high school and had played in Plush for more than a decade when Jennings was brought in. But Murphy says he was relieved: "I was like, 'Finally.' The year before I stopped getting calls was a year of constantly thinking, 'How much more of this can I take?' But at the same time, those tunes have always knocked me out, the vision has knocked me out, and it's always been fun to be a part of what's going on with him because he's genuinely, like, crazy. He's one of those music personalities that you read about, except that I was in the room when crazy things would happen. When he sent me a copy of the CD it included a letter that said, 'It's finished, I think.' He could tinker with it the rest of his life; it could be another Smile."

"His approach to the crudities of the business of it are as deluded as his approach to the music itself," says Albini. "He has as many misconceptions about that as he does about how records are made, or how bands are run, or how one goes about conducting an adult life. He's equally misguided about all of them. But the reason people are so sympathetic to him is because there's a kernel of greatness, and there's an absolute purity in everything about Liam. He's not behaving the way he does for effect, he's behaving the way he does because he genuinely thinks that's the way it should be done."

Fed has yet to be picked up by an American label; it's currently available only as an import, and the price is accordingly steep (it lists for $25.99 at Reckless). Nonetheless, Plush will play a record-release show--its first Chicago show in four years--on Friday, June 14, at Schubas. The lineup is Hayes, Jennings, guitarist Chris Bruce, and bassist Dave Monsey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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