Straight No Chaser (Part 3)

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What'd I Say

Straight No Chaser (Part 3)

S2, Ep. 7

For their new album, “One Shot,” the world-renowned a cappella group wanted tracks relating to their collective journey. First, find out how their rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” came together, along with how it relates to one member’s time in Germany. Then, you’ll hear the story of taking on an Imagine Dragons hit, along with how they connected to the ideas within “Whatever It Takes.”

The group’s new album, “One Shot,” is out now. A deluxe reissue of “Holiday Spirits,” in honor of its 10-year anniversary, is out now.

Episode Transcript

Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say Presents: Straight No Chaser, “One Shot.” On Part Three in this four part series, they’re going to discuss two of the songs on their new record and why they chose these important songs and their history. Up first is the song “Homeward Bound.” I’m going to let the guys introduce themselves first, so you know who is talking and let them start the fun.

Steve Morgan: Hey, it’s Steve Morgan.

Seggie Isho: Hi, I’m Seggie Isho.

Steve Morgan: “Homeward Bound” is one of the songs that I grew up with. My parents, my uncle, those were some of my big musical influences. I listened to a lot of oldies growing up. They were big Simon & Garfunkel fans. So this is something that’s just kind of always been in my own musical conscience and I’ve always loved the song. Always loved their harmonies. When this idea was thrown about it was a great fit for me. I love this tune.

Seggie Isho: And it’s funny, going generationally, believe it or not, I had never heard this song. Somehow I’ve gone through life being born in the 80s without ever hearing it and it was just one of those songs, like Steve Said, when he presented it to the group it was kind of a no-brainer. It’s like, “Okay, the sentiment of this song is exactly what we want it to be. It just, it fits so perfectly and it’s just such a great vocal song that we just had to record it.

Steve Morgan: I had another connection point with this song in that I was an exchange student over in Germany back in 1995. It was seven weeks, kind of my first time being away from home for a long extended period of time, and so one day I went out and I took my Deutsche marks and I went to the CD shop and found the greatest hits of Simon & Garfunkel. I played the album out because, again, it was that little taste of home. Something that I’d grown up with and it was something that I really held tight to me. Again, when we were looking at something to kind of express the sentiment of missing home. Again, it was a natural fit.

Seggie Isho: Millennials are frantically Googling Deutsche marks and CDs right now.

Steve Morgan: I know, this is pretty Euro, baby. Going back.

Seggie Isho: A lot of times we like to, obviously, over think every decision we make. Especially when it comes to what songs we want to put on the album. And a lot of times, the feeling is like, “Well, if I don’t know this song, then nobody must know this song.” When that’s not the case at all. So you kind of have to take a back seat when it’s something that’s a little bit out of your musical realm and what you know and just listen to the song and listen to the words and listen to what the story of the song is.

What we wanted to convey was we’re on the road a lot. We’re away from home. We’re away from our families and a lot of us are new dads. So it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to be on the road and this song, just the feeling of this song and what the lyrics are saying just spoke so true to our lives that it was a perfect fit and you just take your personal and musical tastes and all of that stuff out of it because what we’re doing with this album is we’re telling our story from start to hopefully not finish, but current day.

This is so important to tell. Our fans understand and they’re always so grateful to our families. Every time we see them after the shows, they’re constantly telling us, “Please thank your wives and your children over and over for us because we know that they’re sacrificing so much to have you guys be away from home and how much it means to them.” So once we heard this song, like I said, it was a no-brainer and whether you knew the song or didn’t know the song, there really wasn’t much hesitation once we heard it.

Steve Morgan: As the arranger, one of my biggest hesitations was just getting approval. I mean, since the 1960s Paul Simon has been notoriously very, very smart with his catalog. A lot of those guys who were writing some of the hits back in the day, they just sold off their catalogs and made pennies on the dollar from what they could have. Paul Simon never did that. He held tight to everything that he wrote.

As a result, through the years he’s also held tight to letting other people cover it because he treasures it so much. Right now he’s on his retirement tour. His final tour. The Homeward Bound tour. Again, as the arranger, one’s whose going to be spending a lot of time and a lot of passion putting it in, I hope this goes because I love this song. I love how Mike sings it. I think it turned out fantastically and I wanted everybody to hear it. We were very, very lucky to have Paul Simon say, “Go ahead. Put it out there.”

And going through this, first off I just went through and listened to as many different versions as I could. Paul Simon, he sang this with George Harrison after he broke up with Art Garfunkel on Saturday Night Live. He performed this any number of places so I tried to just listen to as many different versions as I could. Pick out some of the things that I loved the best. I mean, certainly, you want the rhythm here. You want a different texture here.

And so, for instance, when I was going through it, I wanted the beginning of it to sound really ethereal. Like, hear all the longing. The second verse when he talks about every day’s an endless dream, I put in kind of an oompa, oompa- so that it’s just this monotonous back and forth in the rhythm and then again when you go to the third verse he’s conveying something that’s, again, a little more dream-like. And so I put in an arpeggio to just kind of take you up and down throughout the chord and just carry you through that and it just floats nicely over Mike’s melody, which he embellishes in just a perfect way, in my opinion.

Seggie Isho: Just to touch on what you were saying with kind of like the dream state. I think what you did with the arrangement, it really gives it a little-bit of an ominous sound. The way it opens with the drone. The entire way you constructed the arrangement, when you hear it, it sounds like it’s longing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but Mike sounds like he’s longing for something. And I feel like the backgrounds and everything else that’s happening really compliments the lead and I think that’s a great thing that you did with this arrangement because I feel like it takes it to the next level of not just covering a song, but really putting the meaning into the music.
I think maybe early on Straight No Chaser has this kind of this image, this clean cut, good guy image and we truly are that. So when we’re looking at the lyrics and it’s a tour of one night stands, that could mean a couple different things, right? You know, musically I think he’s talking about a one night show in a town and moving on to the next, but obviously there is that other meaning. So we were a little-bit like, “Okay, are they going to read into this a little-bit.” That may have been the only thing that I can think of.

Narrator: Next, we’re going to hear the group talk about why they made the choice to cover the contemporary song from Imagine Dragons, “Whatever It Takes.” Here they are introducing themselves.

Walter Chase: Hi, I’m Walter Chase.

M. Luginbill: Hey, this is Mike Luginbill from Straight No Chaser.

Walter Chase: The song “Whatever It Takes” was an Imagine Dragons song. Imagine Dragons is a band that I’ve been following since they first came on to mainstream a couple years back. They did a performance at the Grammys where they did a medley with Kendrick Lamar the year that Pimp a Butterfly was out. They just blew me away with how they performed live. So I’ve been following them kind of close and I haven’t seen them live yet, but I’ve missed it. Every time they come to town we’re either out of town or it just didn’t work out.

But this particular song when the new album came out, there were three or four songs that were just bangers and I loved listening to them. There was a meeting that we had late in the recording process that we were all backstage having a music meeting with our manager and with our producer Steve Lunt talking about in the album cycle, filling in the lags, and talking about particular spots on the album that we definitely wanted to address. Either in theme or in style that we lacked some songs from modern songs- songs that we would hear on the radio now.

And we were looking for a song potentially to work with a collaborator on. I just happened to pull up during the meeting, the Top 100 on Billboard and just started combing through and looking for songs that were obviously modern because they’re on the Top 100 Billboard. Also, were songs that spoke to the message of our album and I saw “Whatever It Takes,” and I knew that it would work a capella. We started reading the lyrics and seeing the development of how this person is fighting with the idea of all the things that he wants to conquer, but all of the things that he is self-conscious about, but the fact is, he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it done because he just loves the adrenaline he feels from, I mean, it could be from anything but he’s specifically talking about performing.

That really spoke to us and eventually we came around to the idea of well, when we first were linking up with Atlantic, the idea of all of us walking away from something as safe as a nine to five job or being on the road away from our families and just knowing that we had to do it. We had to do whatever it took to get out there and perform because we love it. It’s something that we’re good at. It’s something that we felt that we should take the chance at. That’s probably more of a round up than you were looking for in that specific question.

M. Luginbill: I guess I would say that I think initially I would say that I like Imagine Dragons a lot. I like Dan Reynolds a lot. I would say the song initially didn’t quite hit me as much as I think that it might have hit Walt, but on the album I sing the lead on it. I feel like as I got to know the song just a little bit more, I kind of liked it as I went along because I could kind of feel, I guess, a little bit in a way of like what he was going through or what it seems like he was going through when he was writing it. Because it’s always hard to do a song like that. It’s a heavy song, right? So, kind of hard to sing it like he would. It’s kind of hard to feel those exact things and I hope we did a good job of sort of getting that across, but yeah, I mean, the song’s great and that we got to record it. It’s a great arrangement by Walt. So that’s cool.

Walter Chase: You know, we have a diverse audience. Literally kids from the age of four or five. I take my four-year-old to shows. He enjoys it. Very family friendly. We have grandparents and great-grandparents that bring their kids and their grandkids to shows. Then, of course, obviously we have every demographic that exists in between. Fortunately for us, we feel comfortable covering just about anything. Whether it’s Motown. Whether it’s Beyoncé or it’s a rock song like Imagine Dragons. Finding a song that is modern, that is played on the radio nowadays, that is good for a Straight No Chaser show has to meet a lot of different criteria and one of those is being family friendly. I think another one of those is just something that is exciting to see live.

We could put songs on our album and just be happy with them and never perform them, but that was not a goal for this album. We wanted to find songs that we would be excited to sing for our audience and know that our audience would react to. This is a song that is a stadium rock song but is not something that is so drums and bass, 100 instruments. This is something that is a simple song even though it’s such a big rocking song. So to find songs like that, that work, that also have the message that was for us the most important thing on every song trying to find a spot. The lyrics speak to everything that we wanted. I mean, I have this vision in my mind when I hear the song and if I had more time or if I was more of a videographer or a director of video or if we had an unlimited budget for our music videos, I see this thing where it’s Mike whose singing the solo, he gets the call from Randy at the beginning of the song that, are you in or are you out? And he starts contemplating all the things that are going on.

It’s just all moving so fast. I have so many different things, but he remembers how tied he is to music and how tied he is to this group and this movement and this opportunity is so exciting. By the chorus right away he’s like, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this.” But then by the verse he comes back and he’s just like, here’s all the things that are wrong with me. I wish I was a stronger performer. I wish I looked a particular way. I wish that I had more security. And then as the chorus starts coming again, he starts to remember like, it’s that back and forth that I think everybody deals with in their mind and there was no more polarizing time for us then we were faced with the opportunity to go from average Joe’s really, to go from just another person at a desk job, which is obviously something we were all excited to do and happy to do because that’s what we chose after college, but part of it’s because you never expect to have the opportunity to jump to a level of being assigned to Atlantic Records.

It seems like such an obvious thing to people that, “Wow, they were given this opportunity, but they just jumped at it.” This song really helps show the delicate balance it was because even though most of us weren’t married, we all knew that at some point we were going to be family men and most of us were throwing away our professional careers up to that to take this amazing shot. The hard part about taking a song that is on modern radio is that it’s so based on a ton of different voices or a ton of different instruments and for us it’s important to be able to perform these live. So when I was arranging this, I was very conscious to think about this as a vocal arrangement and to think about this as something that we perform live and not sound like we’re missing out on the full theatrical aspect of what Imagine Dragons creates.

One of the creative things that immediately hit me, and Mike joked about it to me, when Mike does his arrangements, a lot of times he ends up singing solos on them because the type of style of song that he arranges seems to cater to his voice, which makes a ton of sense. When I arrange, I’m not one of the lead soloists in the group. So for me, it’s always a little bit of a puzzle of figuring out who is going to sound best on this. And Mike and I had joked over the summer that because of the amount of solos that he had gotten from either his arrangements or from old Straight No Chaser stuff, that it had been a really long time since I had found a song for Mike to sing solo on that I did the arrangement for.

When I heard this song and heard the intensity and the vocal range and the versatility that it was going to take to not only get out the words… it’s almost like a rap, it’s something that has a lot of intensity and it has a sing-songy-ness to it, I thought about a couple of different guys, but to me, it was, when Mike got into the studio and started singing the solo on it within the first moments of him doing it, it was like electricity in the studio and listening to it now. It just, I think he performs as well, if not better than the original.

M. Luginbill: Well, that’s awfully nice of you to say because there’s like a million words to that thing. I was like, it’s like that thing, well, you better be careful what you wish for because I was like, “Hey Walt, I was like man, I was like, you haven’t arranged a song for me in a while.” And then he does and it’s a song with a million words. I’m like, “Oh man. How did this happen?” It’s always hard to try to re-create or re-interpret a song that clearly is just, it seems like a song that’s so, so personal. And it’s hard to get into that when you might have not, I guess like sort of felt those things. And it’s almost in a way you kind of feel like a fraud in a way because you’re doing something that’s not yours. But I guess that’s like the nature of kind of what it is that we do.

I think with the song, I mean, I think it was one of the only songs where I tried to record the whole thing without looking at the lyric sheet. I spent probably a week just kind of learning everything because it’s one of those songs where you can’t be looking at the sheets, singing all of these words. It’s like if you’re looking at the sheet and you’re not just kind of feeling it, it just completely just kind of loses its oomph, you know? I think like when it comes to how we track the song and how we were feeling as it was going on, it was one of those songs where it was like you’re kind of all in or you’re not in.

It seemed like it just was not really going to work unless it was like, okay, you had everything sort of memorized. Everything was down. I mean, it’s like, I mean, it’s a big song and there’s a lot of rhythms going on. It was a tough thing to do, but I feel like it worked out. And it’s always nice to be able to sort of tap in just like to that sort of mindset I guess. I mean, all of the lyrics sort of represent.

Walter Chase: I arranged it during break before our June recording session in Bloomington. When we recorded it, it was… you could just tell in the studio that it was something that everyone was super excited about. I think in the end people get excited about songs because it finally comes together. There’s a lot of, you’ve got to fly things around, but it was one of those songs that was immediately, you could just feel the energy in the studio, which is really, really exciting when you’re producing a song because sometimes it can feel like you’re dragging everyone through and saying, “Trust me, when this comes together, it’s going to be tight.”

But when people would come in to record their parts, it was like, “Whoa.” So once it was recorded it was sent off to Grammy Award winning, six-time nominated, Emmy-nominated, our mix engineer Ed Voyeur. Ed has worked with, he worked on Glee. He did all the Pitch Perfect stuff. He works with Pentatonix, the Sing-Off, which was a show on NBC for a while, an a capella competition show. Ed is the authority when it comes to a capella and vocal mixing. I’ll say in the world right now when it comes to this being this niche of, Ed just owns the corner. I hadn’t worked with Ed a lot because I usually hear Ed is doing a lot of modern mixes with the songs that Pentatonix does, especially in the songs that were on the Pitch Perfect albums. But this was a perfect opportunity because this was obviously a modern song.

When I sent it to Ed, the way it works is you send them all of the audio that we recorded when we were in Bloomington and then you wait for him to come back with a mix. Now, when the first mix comes back, generally there’s a laundry list of notes that you have. Turn this up, turn this down. Something overall is not good. I need more of an effect on, it’s something that can go back and forth with 15 or 16 different mixes from the engineer. Communications going back and forth over the course of days or weeks sometimes.

The first mix that Ed sent me, I happened to be in my car, and I put on my car and by the end of it I was yelling out loud. Like, literally screaming because I was so excited by what he had produced. The demos that we put together. The rough mixes that we start to do, they all start to give it a little-bit of like, “Okay, I could see the potential.” And sometimes when the first mix comes back you realize, “Okay, that potential might have a little-bit of a ceiling.” But in this case and in some cases, you get that first mix back and you realize that you gave the tools to the right carpenter and that person built a throne.

Because it was off the chart. And I can’t say enough about Ed’s skills. This was, as Steve Lunt, our producer said, this is in his wheelhouse. Like, literally spot one in his wheelhouse. There’s so many things along the way that took the group’s conception of doing the song. It took the arrangement. It took Mike’s performance. It took the group buying into the song and performing it in the studio. And in this case, it took an engineer harnessing all this, sitting in his own studio, having not been in a recording session with any of us during the entire process, harnessing a mix and sending it back.

It only took four back and forths with him to get exactly what we wanted, which is about 25 percent less mixes than you would usually do on a song. So, I can’t say enough about Ed Voyeur. Obviously the group, obviously our engineer in Bloomington, Dave Weber, but this was a production piece unlike anything I think I’ve ever been a part of with Straight No Chaser. We’ve already started performing this song live. With any song that we perform with Straight No Chaser, it’s always a bit of a crap shoot to know if our audience is going to buy into a song that we all feel like is going to work. That is multiplied by a song that is modern. A song that has not been around. A classic, a tried classic like a Stevie Wonder song or an Elton John song or a Motown song. A song you know that everybody knows that song.

This is a song that is a new experience to a lot, I would say the majority of people that come to our crowd, from our crowd to our show. There are particular songs that it doesn’t matter if people know the song. They just love the performance of it. And early reception of it, especially with Mike’s performance and especially with the way that it sounds sonically, our sound guy Yunin has created this to make it sound modern, to make it sound fun, to make it sound exciting and people have already come to us saying it’s one of their new favorite songs.

Outro: Thanks for listening to What I’d Say Presents: Straight No Chaser, “One Shot.” To hear the rest of the episodes, subscribe on your favorite podcast player or head to atlanticpodcasts.com for more info on our shows. “One Shot” is out own Nov. 2 and the re-issue of “Holiday Spirits” is out Nov. 16.