Luella and the Sun were supposed to spend the month of July working on their full-length debut in guitarist-songwriter Joe McMahan's Wow and Flutter studio. But it's a little hard to get a batch of songs onto 2-inch tape when the tape machine, mixing console, compressors, cables and every other piece of recording equipment in the place has been reduced to a charred and useless mess.
On a Saturday in early June, McMahan and Luella (aka Melissa Mathes) ran out to grab a quick lunch and returned to a nightmarish scene: firefighters swarming to save what they could of McMahan's half-burned East Nashville home, the lawn strewn with his blackened, vintage Fender hollow body and an assortment of wrecked studio gear.
The quartet returned to the scene about a week later, bent on recording the McMahan original "I Got Soul," albeit in improvised fashion.
"We thought we should shoot a video in the remnants before it got gutted out," says Luella, huddling around a phone with her bandmates in a Days Inn the morning after a show. "You can see the burned-up console laying on its side. There'd be a guitar on the wall, and where the guitar has been taken off the wall, all around the shape of the guitar is soot and it's just a clear, non-sooty spot where the guitar was that itself looks like a piece of art."
"We rented a generator," McMahan chimes in, "and then the generator was not working right. So we knocked on the neighbor's house and ran an extension cord over there. In some weird way, it was a ceremony — a passage or something — like, 'OK, we can let go of all this shit now.' "
Viewable on YouTube, the video does feel like a sort of exorcism. McMahan, bassist Adam Bednarik and drummer Jon Radford launch into a churning, guttural groove as the camera pans over the destruction. Then Luella slinks into the shot and, with eyes closed and chin cocked at a defiant angle, starts singing with compact, channeled fierceness. The performance reaches peak intensity when McMahan steps into the doorway and unleashes an ululating solo that takes a sudden plunge into agitated dissonance.
It's wild-eyed stuff. Apocalyptic even. If life and death aren't hanging in the balance, a war is definitely being waged between flat survival — perhaps also 21st century ennui — and liberated, sensual thriving.
This is the physical space in which Luella and the Sun first began working up their renditions of borrowed post-war African-American gospel and blues numbers, sanding off any trace of Nashville studio polish the four of them might have absorbed in the past and willing their postmodern-primitive proclivities to the surface.
"We were taking old Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell songs and revamping them," says McMahan. "We'll just take a song and disassemble it and reassemble it. We may spend hours on a three-chord song, inventing our own arrangement for it. ... The purpose of this band is to create a very urgent emotion, in us and in the listener. And that means stripping away any adornments and fancy curtains, you know?"
"When I say this to you, I really mean it: We're not trying to be something," Radford adds emphatically. "We just are being who we are. This band is giving — I know for me personally — an opportunity to be myself as a musician in the most pure form. If somebody was to hold a gun to my head and tell me, "Play the drums right now or I'm gonna shoot you,' this is the way that I would play the drums."
McMahan's studio was also where Melissa Mathes, jazz- and pop-informed singer-songwriter, transformed herself into Luella, gripping singer/seer who pushes her girlish vocal instrument into feral territory — getting added grit from an overdriven second microphone — and gyrates with her tambourine.
"Being able to be primal and staying really full, that was something that was inside of me when I was really young," Mathes says. "And it's only really made sense, and come out of me in a way that feels natural, with this band."
Since the fire, band rehearsal has moved to Bednarik's air-conditioned attic, and they've booked album-tracking studio time for September. Between that and rebuilding efforts, they're facing lots of unexpected costs, which is why Mathes' sister Lacey Mathes immediately set up a fundraising website, and why a first-rate slate of local bands — some of whom have cut demos or albums at Wow and Flutter, and all of whom have a healthy respect for what it takes for an indie buzz band to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — is playing a benefit show titled After the Fire on Friday night at Mercy Lounge.
The show poster makes a work of art out of a rack of melted and mutilated 45s, and that feels just about right for its beneficiaries' visceral impact.