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Baby, you can drive my car: (l-r) Jeb Colwell, Clayton Colwell, and Jay Schultheis of Hector on Stilts (not pictured: Roger Mason).

photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Twin Sons of Different Mothers
By John Brodeur

The Colwell cousins of Hector on Stilts ham it up, travel in style, and play some darn good music to boot


It’s not often enough in this business that a band, when calling to schedule an interview, will end the conversation with the phrase, “We’ll pick you up in the limo.” As in limousine?

Of course, if a band were to offer such luxurious travel arrangements, they probably wouldn’t be expected to double as chauffeur. Nor would they typically proceed to drive to the old Port of Albany Truck Stop (now known as the 18 Wheeler Restaurant, we’d find) out of a ravenous desire for French toast. But, at noon on a Tuesday, you take your breakfast foods where you can find ’em, and that’s the best bet in this part of town.

Jeb Colwell’s black 1990 Cadillac Brougham is more than just a gimmick. He traded up from a minivan because, as his cousin Clayton puts it, it was “much cooler to pull up in front of a club in a limo.” Granted, stuffing four guys and all their gear in the car was uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to suffer for your art. And it looks damn cool.

The limo is but one of Jeb’s eccentric strokes. He’s freakishly tall, with curly dark hair and a thing for wearing women’s coats—his current favorite, a red fur- collared three-quarter-length number, was purchased at an area T.J. Maxx store. (He also has a thing for wearing a motorcycle helmet and mirrored aviator sunglasses while driving, but more on that later.) Clayton Colwell—the blond, Owen Wilson-looking fellow—comes off at first as more down-to-earth, but get the two of them in conversation, and the sarcasm and humor blend seamlessly with the facts.

Take the way they recall the names of the current members of their band, Hector on Stilts. “Our bassist’s name is Roger Mason, and our drummer is Jay Schultheis,” Clayton says. Waitaminute—last summer, the drummer was Jason Schultz. This guy has almost exactly the same name?

Yep. Jeb even spells it out (“S-c-h-u-l . . . t-h . . . e . . . i-s”). It sounds like he’s making it up as he goes; that is, until they both nod in unison, as if to say, “We can’t believe it either.”

A quick, deadpan wit isn’t the only thing the two Colwells share: The common blood of first cousins also played a part in their musical union. (They split both writing credits and lead vocal turns in Hector on Stilts.) They began playing together when they were both 15 years old and living in Tucson, Az., in a band called, oddly enough, Hector on Stilts. After taking a while off for college—seven years, actually—they reassembled in 1997 and “decided to make a record.”

That album, 2000’s Pretty Please, was recorded live in their living room. A loose, “naked” affair, the album recapped their material up to that point, which mixed earnest folk-rock with a certain Spanish edge. It was a conscious effort to represent their live performance style at the time: just two acoustic guitars and two voices, with little accompaniment.

“The goal was to do minimal overdubs. . . . Focus on the vocals, harmonies, not try to gloss it over,” says Jeb.

“I think it even sounds a little glossy,” Clayton admits. “Probably because of the quality of the mastering.”

“Yeah, we probably shouldn’t have mastered it,” Jeb jokes.

In search of a new setting, the cousins moved to Pittsfield, Mass., in 2001, settling there in part due to its proximity to Boston and New York, but also because they were able to directly transfer their jobs working for Canyon Ranch Health Resorts. “[We] started working the day we arrived. . . . They set us up in on-campus housing for a while,” says Clayton. “Jeb and I lived together in the same room. We were like Ernie and Bert, literally. Twin beds next to each other.”

They also cite Pittsfield’s relative solace as a selling point, especially in comparison to larger, more traditional “music” cities. “I really value the quiet,” Jeb says. “If I lived in New York, it would swallow me.”

Upon landing in Western Mass., the duo quickly began venturing west to hit Albany’s open-mic-night scene. The Colwells quickly found favor with the audience at the Larkin, which proved to be an ideal setting for their shows at the time. In short order, they were headlining weekend shows in the venue’s intimate upstairs listening room. But they were already growing restless and wished to get outside the confines of the acoustic-duo aesthetic.

In 2003, they added a rhythm section, and the newly minted quartet began performing in more traditional rock venues. They issued a handful of self-produced EPs over the first several months, but became anxious to get to work on their second full-length album.

Tracking for the new record began at their Pittsfield rehearsal space, eventually moving to Manhattan’s Fun Machine Studios and Stratosphere Sound (the studio owned by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, Andy Chase of Ivy, and ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha). The completed album, tentatively titled Same Height Relation, is expected to see a mid-April release.

Superbly produced by Andres Lavine (of neo-salsa band Yerba Buena), Same Height is replete with lush vocal harmonies, chiming 12-string electric-guitar leads, and plenty of other big-studio flourishes. Sonically, it’s an extremely professional product, and clearly mixed for radio, the vocals sitting way out front. It took some time—14 months of recording in all—but from the sound of things, it was worth every moment.

The new songs are more compact than those on Pretty Please, most falling in the three-to-four-minute range, with a great deal more attention paid to construction and presentation. Abundant are shades of ’80s pop groups like the Rembrandts and Crowded House (in harmony, Jeb’s and Clayton’s voices sound strikingly like those of Neil and Tim Finn), while more current references—the Wallflowers, for one—are qualified as well.

One of the biggest names of ’80s pop—Colin Hay, of Men at Work—actually had a hand in writing likely album-opener “Taxi.” One night, after the two acts shared a bill, Hay asked the Colwells to come to L.A. and open for him at the popular Silverlake-neighborhood nightclub Largo. While they were there, Hay invited the band into his home studio and helped write and record an early version of “Taxi.” His influence guided the production of the album version, which is thick and slick, boasting an out-of-left-field, Jellyfish-like trumpet break.

As influences go, Jeb cites Wilco, U2, Pete Yorn, and the Spanish group Los Rodríguez, then adds, “I’m a really big Philip Glass fan, though you don’t hear that in my writing.” Clayton, on the other hand, studied classical music in college, and still enjoys listening to it, but also reveals a “soft spot for ’80s anthemic arena-rock”—specifically, mid-career Foreigner.

“We had a cover band in Tucson called Fivener—there were five guys in the band. . . . Even though that was tongue in cheek, I think I still have a soft spot for . . . that style of production,” he continues. (Clayton later asks me to add Paul Simon, Tom Waits, and the Beatles to the list, only after realizing the only band he had mentioned was Foreigner.)

The new album’s broad production values befit other tunes like the psychedelic lope “Winterland,” which, with its Rhodes piano and all the arena-ballad fixings, is a single waiting to happen. They haven’t completely abandoned their roots, though: The album’s title track goes along on a bed of acoustic guitar and mandolin, and sports another impressive bridge, Jeb and Clayton shooting into high, falsetto harmony on the line, “It started with a bang and ended with a gong.” Clever.

The band’s playful side turns up on Same Height tracks like “La Dee Da” and “Squares Into Circles,” both packed with smart twists and sweet harmonies, but adorned with a smattering of cheap keyboard, fuzz guitar, and cheesy vintage drum machine.

Same Height Relation largely shies away from any straightforward Spanish sounds, but the influence is still felt in the rhythms, and in the occasional phrase. “Virgin Glow” has a Latin-pop feel—when it’s not dabbling with disco-funk and Broadway-style choral backing-vocals—that could sit with anything on Santana’s recent albums, while one relatively silly rock number gets by on only six words: “Si Sabes Lo Que Quiero Decir,” or, “If You Know What I Mean.”

Asked about the Spanish influences in the lyrics and music, Jeb explains that he has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, and that he teaches the language to elementary-school students. “One of our groupies—who’s a mother of some kid there—recommended me for the job,” he says, setting off an exchange that has the two sounding like a finely tuned comedy duo running a script. Jeb pauses, then qualifies the statement by saying, “Well, she’s not a groupie . . . ”

Clay interjects, “. . . but she calls herself a groupie.”

“She does.”

“That’s her term.”

“She’s sort of provocative . . . with her approach.”

“Let’s just say she’s just very open about how much she likes our music. She comes to every show.”

“And she’s attractive.”

“She’s an attractive woman. But she also brings her husband to every show.”

They continue the banter, eventually explaining that they’re actually borrowing the woman’s car seat for the week to help transport a friend and her baby around town.

With their smooth, natural harmonies and lyrics that sometimes border on syrupy, it’s clear that Hector on Stilts aren’t planning to effect social change with their music. It’s all about love, love, love, and the Colwell boys aren’t afraid to share the love with their audience, which, predictably, has its share of the aforementioned groupies. (The fact that they’re a couple of good-looking guys can’t hurt either.)

“Some of our shows get pretty nutty . . . especially when we perform as a duo,” Jeb says. “We played this show a couple nights ago, at an art opening. . . . We have this friend in town,”—a Norwegian pop singer, he explains—“and she started breast-feeding her baby, stage left, as we were singing our song. . . . She’s nursing her baby with one arm, and she starts snapping and singing along.” He demonstrates, waving his arm in the air, snapping and swaying, pretending to be wrapped up in the moment. The scenario sounds far-fetched, especially when delivered by a six-foot-eight man with two days of beard growth, but after everything else they’ve discussed, it seems completely plausible. At least that would explain the car seat.

After brunch (or whatever that was), we file back into the limo and head back uptown to pick up their friend and her baby, but not before Jeb affixes two white flags, emblazoned with the band’s logo, to either side of the hood. (They make the car look more official, or something like that). He dons a white motorcycle helmet and oversized, mirrored aviator sunglasses, and sits back deep into the driver’s seat.

As we wait for the “groupie” to get into the car, I ask of their plans for the coming year, what with the new album being released and all.

“We’ve never done a lot of touring, and that’s a priority now,” says Clay.

Jeb adds, “[We want] to get our music out there to people who haven’t heard us.”

They have a new booking agent—their ex-bassist (no joke)—and they’re looking to get nationwide. And why not? They could just hitch up a trailer and hit the road.

“Yeah, [we could] just get a tow trailer,” Clay suggests.

“Or, a Thule rocket,” jokes Jeb, referring to the popular sport-utility roof- storage unit.

Clayton finishes the thought, “Shaped like a mini-limousine.”

Of course.

Hector on Stilts will perform at the Lark Tavern on Friday, March 25 at 10 PM. Check them out online at www.hectoronstilts.com.

ROUGH MIX
--no rough mix this week

 


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