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Salt of the Earth

Low-key indie rockers Alta Mira invite you into their living room with their new album

by Elyse Beaudoin on May 10, 2012

Brisk air and cold spattering rain envelopes the porch of Joe Michon-Huneau’s apartment. The lead singer of the post-pop indie rock band Alta Mira is nestled inside the papasan chair in his living room. Meanwhile, the ember of lead guitarist Hunter Sagehorn’s cigarette glows through the darkness on the front steps. He walks back inside, leaving his shoes along with the others by the door and joins his bandmates in the warm living room.

Along with Michon-Huneau, drummer Tommy Krebs and bassist August Sagehorn are comfortably lounging and sipping tea. While offering up different teas to brew and fixings to add, Krebs suggests the Bengal spice because of the tiger on the packaging while August suggests the addition of scotch. It is a relaxed scene with soft conversation dotted by playful banter; a few regular guys who are friends and just so happen to play music together.

Praying for rain: Alta Mira is Joe Michon-Huneau, Hunter Sagehorn, Tommy Krebs and August Sagehorn. Photo by Julia Zave.

Like their tastes in tea, the four members of Alta Mira each have individual personalities, but the group as a whole steeps into a calm, positive and honest vibe, reflected in their music. Their new album, I Am the Salt, carries this same serene tone both in sound and lyrics. The band’s character, habits and history match their musical style in an organic way. Even their speech patterns mimic the way their instruments blend, Michon-Huneau leading the conversation with the other members stepping forward in turn. They patiently listen to each other and wait for the moment when their voice will be most effective, whether it be for a story or a joke at the end of someone else’s phrase.

Alta Mira’s roots are rather run-of-the-mill. The band members even admit that they would like to have a more epic backstory. They began playing instruments in their early teen years through school groups and side interests. Simple Green Day and Weezer songs served as some of their first practice material. The Sagehorn brothers moved from California to Clifton Park in 2000 and met drummer Tommy Krebs in 2004 at Shenendehowa High School. About six months later, Waterford native Michon-Huneau began singing with them through other mutual friendships.

These somewhat conventional beginnings match Alta Mira’s somewhat general list of inspirations. An overall shyness among the members seems to cause them to stray away from specific detail at first. It’s as if they’re politely waiting for one another to speak. Pretty fitting for a band who claim to “craft sturdy pop-rock for the chronically self-conscious.” They mention broad genres as inspiration, including mid-’90s alternative rock, classic rock and folk music from the ’60s and ’70s, many of which stemmed from parental interests.

“Dad’s all classic rock, Mom’s all U2,” says Michon-Huneau, while recalling times when his father used to quiz him on radio songs in the car.

“I think you got a little of that,” retorts Hunter, referencing the singer’s connection to U2, which can be detected in his resonating voice.

Thus far, Alta Mira have put out two full-length albums and an EP. First came Fables and Fabrications in 2007, then their first full-length eponymous album Alta Mira in 2009. In this time, they played shows with Ra Ra Riot, Lisa Germano and the New Deal. On March 31, they released I Am the Salt at Valentine’s in Albany.

When the conversation in Michon-Huneau’s living room turns to the recording process, all four members sit up a little. Their eyes open wider and small smiles start forming. It’s plain to see that they are more eager and excited to talk about their music than themselves.

In order to cover the cost of studio recording and vinyl press for the album, Alta Mira created a campaign on Kickstarter.com. August remarks that this campaign was “essential” to financing the album. Eighty-six people in all contributed funds to Alta Mira’s project. In the beginning, Alta Mira wanted the album to be available exclusively on vinyl to ensure sales and collector’s value. They thought this might offset illegal downloading. But eventually, the band caved in and produced a CD version for listeners.

After completing their Kickstarter campaign in January 2011, Alta Mira began recording with Seamus McNulty at Collar City Sound in Troy. They finished the first four songs of I Am the Salt before the studio closed its doors. The management from Collar City Sound then took over Black Dog Studios in Stillwater, where the band recorded six more tracks for the album. While at Black Dog Studios, they recorded under Frank Moscowitz of Swamp Baby.

“Seamus and Frank were both super helpful,” says Michon-Huneau. “Frank brought out performances that we didn’t think we had in us. And these [the band] encouraged me to pick up a guitar again and play keyboard.”

“Frank sort of took on the role of producer,” says Hunter. “He became very invested in the album.”

While composing I Am the Salt, Alta Mira aspired to “work more loosely” and create “songs that are more fun” and than their previous recordings. During the creation of their first full-length album, the band recall “obsessing over every detail.” This time around, Alta Mira didn’t have any particular theme in mind. The 10 songs that were written just happened to become an album. Also, half of their songs weren’t complete when they began recording.

“We were still figuring out structure in the studio, which was scary because we were paying to be there,” says Krebs.

On Alta Mira’s Facebook page, they claim to design “unsuspecting grooves,” “tricky rhythmic landscapes” and “infectious melodies.” All of this is evident on I Am the Salt. They control the dynamics and energy through crescendo and decrescendo, complex chord combinations and changes in tempo. Surprising chord progressions and stylistic variations switch up songs at just the right moment and display their wide range of influences. This, combined with smooth, poetic lyrics, keeps the listeners at attention.

The most stylistically divergent point of I Am the Salt is in the title track. It starts with soft drumming on the rim of a snare, which creates an airy feeling. The groove kicks in and the energy picks up with a major-minor chord progression. “Thrown like a shoe over a phone line,” Michon-Huneau sings, “I am the salt over your shoulder/Prepare my palate for the moonshine/I’ll think about it when I’m older.” And just when you think you know what this track is all about, there is a wild psychedelic breakdown with a heavy bass line.

I Am the Salt also contains mild blues influences. On “Some’re Days I Pray for Rain,” the instruments interact in a succinct manner with the lead guitar entrance introducing a bluesy vibe. As for lyrics, only the title is sung for occasional emphasis.

In addition to blues and psychedelic rock, the album includes funky bass lines, as on “The Elephant.” Most tracks on the album have a calming tone; one of the more upbeat tracks is “Organ Anthem.” This song carries a rhythm to dance to. Michon-Huneau sings, “The last thing I need is sentiment/The last thing I am is innocent/And I’ll be your personal guillotine/So come dance with me, you fool.”

This is the “fun” that Alta Mira tried to create, not exactly a rave, but perhaps just right for a rainy-day living-room dance party.

Although Alta Mira are trying to book more live shows, their major focus is studio composition. “Our main objective is songwriting and recording,” says August. “For I Am the Salt, we didn’t really worry about how things would sound live, we just recorded.”

Alta Mira have improved their live act by adding instruments to conjure higher energy levels, but they are still more like humble musicians and less like entertainers. They clearly are more comfortable with the creative side of music and would exclusively record if it were possible. However, the music industry has transformed dramatically and it seems almost impossible to have a career without playing live shows. Illegal downloads severely hinder the ability to support a band on recordings alone, but maybe someday they will find a way, like some of the older influences they look to.

“We would love to be the Beatles circa [the late ’60s] and just record,” says Hunter. “It would be great to put out eight full-length albums and get discovered.”