Somewhere on the border of Cleveland and Lakewood, between a car wash and a gay bar on West 117 Street, the four members of Coffinberry are making lush, lo-fi records. Drummer and singer Tony Cross gives a tour of the house they share, retreating to the basement studios where he navigates amps, guitars and drums to pull the blanket off the black Tascam 488 Cassette Portastudio they used to record their brand new acoustic-roots album, simply titled Coffinberry.
"It wasn't necessarily the aesthetic of the recording format," says Cross of the sound of the new album. "It was what was present at the time. We kind of set out to make a rock record with [2007's] God Dam Dogs. With this one, we wanted to try something new. Plus, we write on acoustic guitars so much, it just made sense to go downstairs."
For more than a year, the quartet has escaped to its cellar studios to write, record and rework somewhere between 40 and 50 new songs, resulting in the 14 tracks on Coffinberry. The set is a fascinating bunch of roots-rockers, blue-collar folk stories and fuck-you love ballads, filtered and distorted to morph from acid folk into classic rock. Each song is a loutish and lonely character, voiced by one of the two Cross brothers, whose gravely vocals sound somewhere between Ian Brown and Bon Scott, trading smokes and scotch.
"Live, I do most of the singing," says Nick Cross. "On the records, it's split between us. But we probably only do about half of these songs live. When we play live, we concentrate on rock."
The new album has a rawer, rootsier sound than the band's rustbelt-rock debut God Dam Dogs, whose sheen was perfected at Waterloo Studios by Todd Tobias, the guy who recorded the last three Guided by Voices albums. "But I think for an eight-track cassette recording, it sounds amazingly polished," says bassist Patrick O'Conner.
The album also captures more of the band's warm personality. The set is full of soulful and melodic tracks that incorporate piano, harmonica, violin and acoustic six-strings. Hardly anything is over three minutes long. The album barely clocks in at 37 minutes, which is reminiscent of their notoriously short live sets.
"We try to play as fast as we can, and we try to get off as fast as we can," says guitarist Tony Janicek. "If you liked it, you'll want more, and if you didn't like it, well, it was only 20 minutes anyway."
Since 2002, Coffinberry have opened up for acts like the French Kicks, the Rogers Sisters and the Walkmen. Now, the band is on Mike Uva's Cleveland-based Collectible Escalators label, home to Machine Go Boom, Good Morning Valentine and Short Hand. When the new album is released this weekend, it will be available in an inexpensive $10 vinyl format with a digital download.
If they're not making retro-style home masterpieces, the band is typically fiddling around in its shanty mansion filled with old instruments, piles of books, newspapers and an impressive vinyl record collection, all distractions until they record their next song in the sanctuary of their makeshift studio.
"I think we want to get back to playing more rocking stuff," says Tony Cross. "The next record will probably be more of a live thing. We really only did that with [our EP] From Now on Now. Everything else has been kind of layered. We want to write songs with just four instruments. We'll clear all this shit out and hopefully have a much nicer piece of equipment to record on. We've spent two years basically layering and building songs. It'll be nice to do one take, and, hey — now we're done."