By bassist John Peck
By the end of 1998, I had finished college, and [guitarist] Ryan [Massey] and I were living in an old produce warehouse in Richmond, California. There was no address on the building, but our street ran parallel to the train tracks and was called Espee Avenue—as in S.P., for Southern Pacific. When trains went by, the whole building shuddered. As I get older, I become a lighter and lighter sleeper, but at the time, I don’t think I ever woke up once from passing freight trains, or barking dogs or gunshots or any of the other noises of the neighborhood.
I lived upstairs, in a tiny six-foot by 10-foot room—I’m 6’ 1”, and because my bed was against the shorter wall, I had to lie at a slight diagonal to stretch all the way out. Ryan lived downstairs, in a former walk-in refrigerator with wooden walls and a huge push-release door. His room was slightly larger, but at least mine had windows. Due to its inherent sound-dampening qualities, we practiced in his room. When we started practice, we’d push his mattress up against the wall so all of us and our instruments could fit.
[Vocalist and guitarist] Rory [Henderson], who is an absolute songwriting savant, would bring songs in almost fully formed, with chords, structure, and lyrics nearly intact, and we would hammer away at them and work up our parts. He calls the first half of 1999 “a pretty dark period,” meaning most nights he’d head home, drink a 12-pack, and stay up until dawn playing music and writing songs. It would be reasonable to expect his songs from this time to be a mess, both lyrically and musically, but when he brought them in, they were just the opposite: tightly-wound bursts of energy that owed as much to folk and soul as to The Clash or Stiff Little Fingers.
Rory also had an interest, bordering on obsession, with Irish politics and history. He read widely about Ireland, as well as American labor history, and a lot of this came through in his lyrics from this time. Writing overtly political songs is never easy; that the songs on Rogue’s March don’t come across as 100-decibel book reports is most certainly a credit to his lyric-writing skills. He’s always been great at riding the line between the personal and the political, a skill that really started showing in the songs from this time.
My favorite lyrics from the record are on “Bloody Murder,” which is sort of a sleeper track as far as most people are concerned. To me, it has an epic, almost sci-fi vibe in lines like “Hidden tombs and solitude” or “Barren plans, buried two fingers beneath the sand,” or…
“Suicide pact the world over / Stillborn slaves can’t fill mass graves / Sooner than their share has been reserved.”
* * *
Late one night, on the painfully slow dial-up internet in my room, we wrote an introductory email to Chris Appelgren of Lookout! Records. A few days later, he wrote back, said he knew our band and wanted to talk to us about a record. Within the space of another week, we had signed with Lookout! for a record to be released that fall. At that time, our world was a lot smaller; nearly all the bands we listened to were on Lookout!, and now, we had joined them.
We decided to tour that summer, and I started making booking calls, as all touring bands did in the pre-digital days. Usually, you’d get someone’s answering machine, leave your number, and start playing phone tag. But we’d met a lot of people in our two previous years of touring, and by late spring, I had a fairly solid tour put together.
Around this time, Ryan started to get easily exhausted, to the point where he’d have to pause halfway up a flight of stairs to catch his breath. It got worse week after week, even though he was in his early 20s and in seemingly good shape. His doctor said it was just a matter of getting more rest, but the pounding in his head when he laid down at night made sleep nearly impossible.
Ryan was never one to complain about pain or discomfort—this is the guy who had previously sat stoically, occasionally sipping whiskey, through an entire 10-hour leg tattoo—so something had to be very, very wrong. He took a blood test, and when it came back, the hospital called him in immediately: two-thirds of his red blood cells were gone, meaning his body had been oxygen-starved for months and any slight injury could kill him. After that point, it didn’t take long for the diagnosis: he had acute lymphocytic leukemia and would have to undergo chemotherapy immediately.
When Ryan called us to deliver the news, we were totally blindsided. I had the task of canceling our entire summer tour. When you’re calling to book shows, no one’s ever home; when you’re calling to cancel and just want to leave a message, they always answer. The tour, which had taken over a month to book, took just one afternoon to cancel.
Despite his physical state, Ryan wanted to practice one last time before he started chemo. We met up in the fridge and played through the songs, not knowing whether we would ever get to record them. The circumstances were sobering, but it still felt good to play the songs. We were four guys in a produce refrigerator in a forgotten corner of Richmond, we had a solid batch of songs that were starting to sound really good, but we didn’t know whether anyone would ever hear them.
Ryan started chemotherapy that week, and our recording schedule became touch-and-go. We had Kevin Army—who we had worked with previously—onboard to record us, and his flexibility with our new constraints made the record possible. Every booking was tentative; if Ryan’s white blood cell counts were too low on any given day, he’d have to go back to the hospital, and that day’s session was canceled. Ryan wrote his three Rogue’s March songs fairly late in the game, including “Hope Springs From Somewhere,” which chronicled the days of exhaustion, uncertainty, and “endless fever dreams” that accompanied his treatment.
* * *
Roof Brothers was a small recording studio on the Emeryville-Oakland border, housed in an old warehouse along with a few practice rooms. The Rogue’s March session was our third time at Roof Brothers, after our first album, [American Steel], and the Every New Morning 7”. Kevin liked the space, because it had some great gear but was small and under-the-radar enough to be affordable on an indie-label budget.
The studio had a two-inch, 16-track Otari, which ran fat, heavy rolls of analog tape; recording at 30 IPS (inches per second) gave us about 16 minutes per reel. Budgetary constraints limited us to three reels, which meant our album—including any alternate takes—had to max out at about 48 minutes. The live room was decently sized but had a strange lozenge shape; the control room was of the cockpit variety, with barely enough room for us to all sit shoulder-to-shoulder behind the board. It was a lean, stripped-down space and a perfect fit for our early recording sessions.
Our gear was pretty decent at this point, at least compared to some of the thrift-store-grade stuff we’d used on our first record. Ryan had a Gibson L6S, which he played through a Carvin cab that had a broad, chunky sound. Rory had a black Les Paul, which he played through a Marshall JCM800—a classic punk rock rig. [Drummer] Scott [Healy] played a Tama Rockstar set, which included a custom snare made by Bill at Uni-Vibe and a dark-sounding Zildjian A Series ride cymbal, both of which he still uses today.
My bass at the time was a 1970s Rickenbacker from Subway Guitars in Berkeley, and like many of their guitars, it had been modified to include active pickups. These required a nine-volt battery, which meant unscrewing the mirrored pickguard each time it needed to be changed. It was a gorgeous bass but a pain to tour with, and years later, I would trade it to Andrew [Seward] from Against Me! for a much more solid, if somewhat less flashy, Fender P Bass. For Rogue’s March, we backed off a little from the scraping, gravelly bass distortion of our first record, but since I was playing through an underpowered Gallien-Krueger head with a battery that was always on the edge of failing, I still had plenty of gravel to offset the bright, hard-panned guitars.
The gear Kevin brought with him included two Altec 1567A preamps, which we used for tracking guitars and snare, and we used Roof Brothers’ AKG The Tube for vocals—not the most highly-regarded vocal mic, but his particular one sounded great. Kevin taught us many things about recording, but the most valuable was that you should choose your gear based on its sound above all else.
We’ve always had fun in the studio, because—even though we take recording seriously—none of us has ever had aspirations of being a virtuoso musician. As a result, we treat recording as much more of a team sport than some bands might. We bring the self-deprecating, dark humor that we have on tour to our recording sessions, which is great for diffusing tensions and keeping the process moving along. We’d practiced the songs conscientiously for months—and, as Kevin always requested, written our lyrics out in full—and we were pretty well prepared by the time the tape started rolling.
As on top of his lyrics as Rory usually was, he didn’t yet have any for the song we’d written last, which had a churning feel and lots of dark, diminished chords. We figured we’d at least track the instrumental, then add the lyrics during some other session, but Kevin liked the song enough to send Rory outside with pen and spiral-bound notebook to write lyrics on the spot. We didn’t know at the time that this song would be our dark-horse title track, “Rogue’s March,” but I remember getting goosebumps when I came back in from a break and heard the final refrain repeating on playback in Rory’s full throat-shredding wail:
“We’re the heart and soul of this heartless country.”
* * *
Mixing was a necessarily hasty process due to budget constraints, but Kevin was comfortable with the setup and able to put together rough mixes that were very close to finished. We mixed down to DAT on a small-frame Trident 80C; since the board didn’t have any automation, any level changes—like the tremolo effect at the beginning of the verses on “Bloody Murder”—required Kevin to ride the faders by hand, with no margin for error. He nailed it every time, just like he did with split-second punches—and even, on later records, some harrowing surgery-style analog tape splices.
He pulled out a few more tricks on some songs, particularly the last track, “Parting Glass”—which, at over six minutes, is the longest song we’ve ever released. For that song, he re-amped the snare and added some analog delay to the drums and guitars. We nearly taped over the blast of feedback that happens about 20 seconds in, but Kevin convinced us to keep it, and now, I can’t imagine the song without it.
If I had to describe Kevin’s approach to tracking and mixing in one word, it would be clarity. For us, this meant hard-panning the two guitars left and right—if you’re unfortunate enough to listen to any of our early records on a stereo with only one speaker, you’ll have to choose between Ryan or Rory—leaning heavily on the previously-mentioned Altecs for guitars and drums, and making us write out every word of our lyrics in advance, so he could have a copy for reference. We loved recording with him, because, even though our performances were rough around the edges and occasionally messy, we could finally hear the songs we’d been playing for months or years in subpar, cramped practice spaces.
Kevin was always friendly enough about any given vocal performance, but if it wasn’t quite there, he’d let us know: if one of us came out of the iso booth and he had a neutral expression, it probably meant he had a few notes and some fixes to punch in; if he had a big smile, it meant, “Let’s try that again.”
* * *
Rogue’s March was released by Lookout! on Oct. 12, 1999, and we supported it with a mini-tour of California and the Southwest that November. Ryan was still taking a barrage of chemo pills and had to travel with an incredibly expensive injectable drug called Neupogen, which required constant refrigeration. In the van, we kept it in a cooler, which had to be regularly refilled with ice; when we stopped for the night, we had to be somewhere with a fridge or a supply of ice. We often had to pull over so Ryan could throw up on the side of the road. The whole thing was like a less exciting “Wages of Fear.”
Often, in a gesture that was the ultimate fuck-you to being sick, Ryan would swallow his chemo pills with beer. It couldn’t have done anything good to his liver, but it was hilarious to us at the time—and, in its own way, inspiring. We joked about selling his pills to crusties at shows, then coming back through town on later tours and seeing whether they had gone bald. With several national tours under our belts, we’d already developed a deeply therapeutic strain of gallows humor; having a bandmate with leukemia made it even darker, and even more necessary.
We toured extensively on Rogue’s March over the next year. A lot of people, including members of bands we’d been listening to for years, told us how much they loved the record, and more and better tours started coming our way. It’s remained a decidedly underground record, due in no small part to having its feet in numerous musical genres and punk subgenres, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If push comes to shove, I’d have to call it my favorite American Steel record. I love the cover art and our unhinged performances on “Loaded Gun” and the over-the-top operatics of “Parting Glass.” My memories of the time we spent making the record are inseparable from my opinion of it, and that’s exactly as it should be. Above all, I think of Rogue’s March as a triumph of humor and camaraderie over despair and sadness.
Catch American Steel live at two very special installments of New Noise Night at the Ivy Room in Albany, California, on Friday, Dec. 7, and Saturday, Dec. 8!