For three weeks in September, The Mulligan Brothers parked their white bus in front of Ice Cream Studios in Portland, Oregon to record their new album Via Portland. Each day they walked down the stairs and through heavy swinging doors into the basement studio filled with guitars, drums, instrument cases, and Christmas lights. They took their places in the boiler room, between soundproof black quilts, or in the corner of the control room beneath antelope and elk heads hanging on the walls to record their songs of murder, loyalty, heartbreak, and misplaced dreams.
Each session began with two hours of testing microphones, and tuning and changing instruments as producer Steve Berlin and engineer Jeff Saltzman prepared for every note. Berlin is the saxophone player for Los Lobos, but he has also been involved with Grammy-winning projects for Los Lobos, Buckwheat Zydeco, Ozomatli, John Lee Hooker and Los Super Seven.
“A friend gave me the Mulligan Brothers’ first CD and I told them to call me if they wanted my help with the next one,” says Berlin. “It was a slam dunk. The songs are great and the band is great. Ross’ voice is a unique, magical instrument that can work for any age and any demographic. They also came in prepared with a firm handle on what they want. That spoiled me because a lot of my time with young bands is working on arranging and orchestration. These guys are amazing people and seem happy to be here and to have this chance. I couldn’t have scripted this any better.”
The Mulligan Brothers are: Ross Newell (lead vocals, guitar, and songwriting); Gram Rea (fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and vocals); Ben Leininger (bass and vocals), and Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals). Via Portland will be released January 20, 2015 and it is the second album for the band from Mobile and Baton Rouge that met playing in bars in Mobile and took a name that means second chances. Expectations are high for the follow-up to The Mulligan Brothers, their popular debut album released in June 2013 that created passionate fans across the country and was in the Top Ten of CD Sales at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz Fest.
“The high expectations make this a bit terrifying,” says Newell. “When people say they want it to be as good as the first one, they mean that they want it to be the same as the first one. That is impossible. Those songs have already been sung and those stories have already been told. I have been nervous along each step of this recording process. I don’t know when the big relief comes, but right now it is a lot of little reliefs. There seems to be more opportunities with this second album.”
The music is still a blend of alt-country, blues, and folk that sounds like the Lumineers with a hot fiddle and the song writing of Townes Van Zandt, but Via Portland is a smoother album with more harmony and background vocals and dynamics in the instrumentation. The lyrics in Via Portland are once again built on Newell’s poetic imagery and storytelling in a warm, sincere voice that is full of feeling whether it is relaxed or strained. The band is tighter now and more confident in themselves and one another. They play together most nights each week and the new songs evolved in front of audiences, giving each musician time to develop his parts.
“We now spend most of our time traveling and playing shows and we have little time to spend making the album, so we had to make the most of this” Newell says. “The arrangements we played in the studio are the skeletons for everything we play live. We don’t want to create listener fatigue with the same tone for eleven songs, and changing the textures and dynamics for every song keeps us from having to be a show band that plays pop, rock, and orchestra.”
From the control room, Berlin and Saltzman listened for the emotion and subtleties that separated a good record from a great record. “Steve was better at foreseeing what the end would sound like and he listened for more than just all of us nailing our parts,” DeLuca says. “He was willing to experiment but to also say that didn’t work. He didn’t make big changes, but the small changes were sometimes difficult to remember because we were used to playing songs a certain way. We now have to go back and re-learn the parts of songs with the changes so it will sound like the album.”
Via Portland is the first time The Mulligan Brothers recorded at the same time in the studio together. The Mulligan Brothers was recorded at Dancing Dog Studios in Daphne, Alabama, around work, gigs, and family schedules. Rea, DeLuca, Leininger, and Newell had just begun to play together and there was little time for rehearsal.
“When we made The Mulligan Brothers, we didn’t know we were making an album people would be so passionate about or that we would be so proud of,” DeLuca says. “We just knew it would be good because Ross writes killer songs.”
“The first time we had to record separately and it was passing the baton to the next one in the studio,” Rea says. “This time it was good to get away and completely concentrate on recording. We drove from Mobile to Portland and played gigs along the way and we lived together in a house during recording so there was time to work everything out. We tracked together and that captured more feelings and gave us a different perspective.”
Via Portland opens in the a cappella harmony of “Wait for Me” about a ramblin’ heart and a troubled mind that is not ready to let go of what it had. It is the last song that Newell wrote for the album and the band’s favorite: Wait for me like the river bed the water/Wait for me with the dishes and the debt/Wait for me I’m trying, I’ll try harder/Wait for me don’t give up on me yet.
The centerpiece of the album is “Calamine,” a haunting tale of violence sparsely told by Newell and his J-45 guitar while harmonies, cymbals, shakers, and a jangled piano (played by Berlin) lurk in the shadows, warning of an unhappy ending:
In hindsight it was pestilence not providence that Calamine was there/When I spotted Hobbs closing the shop and sweeping up the hair beneath his chair/A bell that hung over the door announced our entrance past the closed for business sign/Hobbs was covered up with holes and bleeding out when that bell rang a second time.
“When I wrote ‘Calamine,’ it was more of a movie script, and I had to cut a lot of it,” Newell says. “It is a fictional story, but those characters are real to me and I see them every time I sing the song.”
Newell had only a few months to write eleven songs to fill the album, but he carefully wrote the songs that challenge himself and the listener. “I don’t want to write a song that just leads to the next rhyme,” he says. “I sing these songs hundreds of times a year and it is important for me to identify with that song every time. If I have to fake it while I write it, then I am going to have to fake it every night, and that just seems like a miserable existence to me.”
“Run On Ahead” is based on Newell’s conversations with his girlfriend, Carley. The song is personal to Newell and Berlin used the demo track because the emotion in Newell’s voice could not be recreated in the studio. “It is about unselfishly caring for each other,” Newell says. “I have been in enough relationships to know that it’s not easy to love someone that does the job that I do. When I am gone for long periods of time, she handles it so gracefully and everything is done in a loving nature.
I woke up loving you again I made coffee in your favorite cup/Then I washed all your snap shirts and your jeans/It’s funny I can feel your love so strong from out there on the road/And you can feel mine while you’re running down your dreams
The song was written as The Mulligan Brothers began touring farther away from home. This year the bookings have grown beyond local weekends at The Flora-Bama or the Brickyard into weeks crossing the country for shows in Pittsburgh, New York City, Texas, and Oklahoma.
Touring hasn’t changed The Mulligan Brothers and the unrelated musicians still love one another like brothers. “It is amazing the lack of trouble we have had,” Newell says. “Seventy percent of our time on the road is alone together in the box of a bus. There isn’t a moment when one person doesn’t smell the other, but we get along ridiculously well.”
“The members of the band are genuinely good people and that comes out in their music,” says event and meeting planner Jon Kardon, from New Orleans and Denver, who has booked the band for events across the country. “The Mulligan Brothers resonate with people because of their songwriting, their melodies, and voices that can trade off in the harmonies. They are extraordinary, and I think they are just beginning. I hope they have a national chance to be heard.”
The experiences and success of the past 18 months is a pleasant surprise for The Mulligan Brothers. “None of us are strangers to being in a band, but this has been something else from the very beginning, from the band’s dedication to do whatever it takes to everyone’s willingness to receive it and their eagerness to be a part of it,” says Newell. “Right now there is a nervousness before the album comes out because we care about this music and don’t want to let anyone down, but this album is honest and sincere from the ground up. We stayed true to ourselves.”