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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Behind the Scenes

Mariko Ruhle’s The Wonder Years: A Look Inside

No Fred Savages were harmed in the making of this record.

During the cold, steel-gray bleakness of mid-February Seattle, Atticus Wyman, Jeremy Bang, and Mariko Rose Ruhle invited local and visiting musicians — some from as far away as Austin, Texas — into their two-bedroom Capitol Hill/Central District apartment for futon lounging, down-home cooking, friendship, fellowship, Netlfix streaming and, of course, music. While this is nothing new to the Madkin unit, there was a heightened sense of purpose this time. For a week, Mariko hosted accomplished Austin singer-songwriter and long-time friend/collaborator Jack Wilson — who recently opened for the Lumineers — and his wife, Nora, for the recording of Mariko’s debut album, The Wonder Years. Named for the period of time it took to pen the songs — a stretch that spanned almost a decade — The Wonder Years is assemblage of Hopvine Tavern all-stars, all coming together to add life and fullness to Mariko’s Americana-based, Fleetwood-Mac-inspired, subtley punk-rooted sonic folk. You can stream the at the end of the post, or buy it at Bandcamp for $7, which is a pretty awesome deal, if you ask me, which you should ask me, and I would tell you should buy the album, and, hopefully, you’d listen — both to my advice, and to the album, but if you’re to listen to one or the other, listen to the album (which would actually be indirectly listening to my advice … I think). About the inspiration for The Wonder Years, Mariko says on her Bandcamp page:

Without love from all directions this music would not have been captured. I am so thankful for the people who allowed me to grow and never stopped believing. Endless love to [long-time partner] Atticus, “my sail…” The universe lay a course of connections that all magically aligned in order for this experience to occur. To the wanderers and writers, players and dancers, the gypsies and lovers, the dreamers and realists… Thank you for all your inspiration and gifts. Here is something in return a greeting and goodbye, an ending of one moment and the beginning of all else…

The album was recorded in Mariko’s bedroom, with “urgency and ease,” as she says in her liner notes. With a Mac desktop, two microphones, a basic audio interface, and GarageBand, Jack and Mariko invited a veritable who’s who of 15th Ave. musicians to form the “Madkin Band”: songwriter extraordinaire and Hopvine open mic host Eric Miller on drums and percussion (yep, you read that right — a singer-songwriter on drums and percussion); old-timey banjo player, spoonster (as in he plays the spoons) bassist, and literature connoisseur Jeremy Summer on banjo and bass; singer/songwriter, Lonely Mountain Lovers Band frontman and fellow Billings Central Catholic High School graduate Zach Warnes on vocals and guitars; classically trained stringster Lorraine Perrin on viola and violin; soulful songstress and Mississippi Jones front woman Cara Brennan on organ; and myself on acoustic and electric guitar on all songs but “Hymn for Him.” See Mariko’s Bandcamp page for a complete list of the credits. Seeing that this is my domain name, I thought I’d go a little more in depth about my involvement in this project, and what the group has done since the album’s recording. I first played with Mariko in late April 2012, at an acoustic jam sesh hosted by Zach. We mostly ran through Zach’s material — this was pre-Lonely Mountain Lovers, by the way — but played “Lullaby,” a song Mariko co-penned with Jack, as well as a few Fleetwood Mac covers. We didn’t know it at the time, but this Saturday night get-together served as the foundation of our current lineup. From there, Mariko, Zach and I (and occasionally Lorraine) would meet for living room rehearsals and Hopvine open mic minisets, and received fairly positive responses for our brief performances. It looked as though this collective — tentatively named To Warn and To Rule — would be packing the Crocodile in no time. We just needed to find a bassist and a drummer. At some point during the hectic times of Summer ’12, however, the ensemble practiced less frequently, and even though I was an upstair neighbor to Mariko, my involvement dropped off almost completely. My absence can be mostly explained by the then-recent joining of forces with Andrea Desmond and the White Lights, so I was busy with cupboard sessions , music video shoots and recording an album — and, of course, a good amount of gigs. I do not mean to sound boastful of any of these things, but rather grateful and humbled; it wasn’t too long before this I was eeking out a frustrating existence as a newly transplanted singer-songwriter who was band-less and had bad pitch, but enough of that. All of this is to say I was busy at this time, and sadly, I lost touch with Mariko and co. for a while. But in late December 2012, Mariko, Zach and I began recording a series of demos that would become Jack’s starting point for producing the album. These were basic, two guitar and single vocal and few harmonies tracks, just enough for Jack to get an idea of what direction to take with the songs. While recording the demos, though, I wondered why we weren’t just keeping these versions as the final cut (in fact, the demo for “Woodgrain” was actually kept as the final album version, personally dubbed “Moongrain” for its spacey, lunar atmosphere, courtesy of an awesome GarageBand echo preset I found during some Metal Face experimentation). “Why record the same song twice?” I foolishly thought to myself. That doubt vanished the moment I heard Jack’s treatment of “Old Revelry,” the first almost-final version of the songs I’d heard, with Jack’s acoustic and Eric’s drumming. Due to a busy week on my part, I was only present for Jeremy laying down the bass track (see clip below), which was about the extent of my involvement with the marathon sessions, though I did hear Eric recording the drums while carrying my gear for a gig with Andrea. By the time I laid down my guitar tracks, the sizable ensemble had dispersed, leaving me and Mariko to record at our leisure. I really wish I could’ve witnessed more of the easy-urgency that were the Wonder Years sessions; I would have a much better sense of scene and setting, and, presumably, a better, more in-depth blog post. But, here we are. This isn’t that bad, is it? I mean, the post is 1,413 words, at least four times the length of an ideal entry. (Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkmcJxBK_Bs&feature=share&list=UUABOklqQOgsBcXTFBuZ-ijg In the months since recording The Wonder Years, the songs — including several non-album tracks — have evolved from minimalist folk to epic, anthemic, tour-de-forces, thanks to the skills of bassist John Carlson and drummer Vic Chowder. Check out full-band versions of “Woodgrain” “Lullaby” and “Wind Merchant” to hear the transformation. Together, along with Zach Warnes on rhythm guitars and backing vocals, the five of us make up Mariko’s band. So far, we’ve played three exhilarating shows, each one an exponential improvement from the previous one, and have gigged alongside incredible groups like Strangled Darlings, Mississippi Jones, Pepper Proud, and even the Lonely Mountain Lovers, to name a few. On Friday, July 12, most of the “Madkin Band” will reunite for The Wonder Years album release show at the Conor Byrne in Ballard. There, we will play the album in chronological order with as many of the instruments from the recording as we can — viola, violin, banjo and cello, in addition to the rockin’ five-piece. If our late-night dry run yesterday is any indication, then, as Biblo Baggins said to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, “[Friday, July 12, 2013] will be a night to remember.” If you are in the Seattle area this weekend, I highly recommend you strongly consider definitely attending this show. Admission is $7, and the music starts at 9. We’re sharing the bill with Hooves and Beak and the Shilohs, in case you need any other reasons to come. If you’re absent, be it with or without a just cause, you shall be missed. But you can still experience the next-best thing by streaming the EP below. For a parting shot, here I am recording guitar for “Dear, Heart.” We ended up scrapping that strange chord I’m shown playing, which I think is a double-augmented B-sharp sus 12/14 or something.