Fearless in Southern Oregon
221Fly's August release, titled "Tabula Rasa," is a new start for the rock band — one that brings a well-articulated edge to its straightforward, original rock music.
"Tabula rasa is Latin for a blank slate, a fresh start," says guitarist and vocalist Brien "Skinny" McKinney during a phone interview. "Newborn children are considered tabula rasa, or completely open to experience with no preconceptions."
Joined in June 2016 by McKinney, the band — McKinney and Roger Bradshaw on guitars and vocals, Brandon Bloomfield on bass, Mark Thomas Johnson on keys and vocals and Dan Weaver on drums — recorded six new songs at Sylvia Massy's Foundation Soundstage in Ashland, with the help of engineer Mike Broman at the soundboard.
The band's first pass at the album was finished within a few days, with each musician playing off the others, but it focused mainly on the percussion.
"It's not an uncommon way to record an album," McKinney says. "You hang 18 mics on the drum kit, then everyone plays. You're essentially playing live with each other, but wearing headphones so there's no sound in the room except for the drums."
Once the drum line is captured, the guitar and keyboard tracks are thrown out, he says.
"We kept most of Brandon's bass tracks because he played so cleanly on that first pass — only some slight touch-ups were needed."
One of Bloomfield's fluid and dynamic bass lines is evident on "Plastic People," a song that he penned. Originally sung by Bradshaw, McKinney's vocals turned out to be a better fit.
McKinney, Bradshaw and Johnson went back into the studio to record multiple guitar, key and vocal tracks. They worked together on and off, depending on their schedules. Johnson used his studio, Bluejay Productions in Jacksonville, to record his vocals and some of the keyboard solos.
McKinney would be inside Massy's studio all of the time if he could, he says.
"You go in for moral support and to give feedback, but you also want to give some space to whoever is recording at the time. Even though you know your parts and you've played them 100 times, the recording process is considerably different. It's good to have another set of ears with you. A lot of ideas are generated in the studio. It's an important part of the process.
"Sylvia stopped in a couple of times and gave our work a listen, but pretty much left the recording to Mike," McKinney adds. "Once all of the parts were recorded, we handed it off to Sylvia and Ivan Handwerk for mixing. Hearing what she did with it makes it feel like she's the sixth musician in the group."
Then the work went to Steve Turnidge in Seattle, where it was mastered.
McKinney's lead guitar riffs are at the forefront of the clean, more organic, instrumentation that ranges through rock and earthier styles with gritty rocker "Waitin' for the Phone to Ring" and the naughty blues and boogie piano ("Have Some Fun").
"It's definitely a merging and melding of styles," McKinney says. "With 'Waitin' for the Phone,' the song was pretty much written. The guitar you hear on it is what I changed and added. When you come to a song with loose chord structures and the basic rhythmic and melodic structure are good to go, then it's up to each player. If the chords are G, C and D, you can throw in those chords and get through it, but if you're playing a riff that encapsulates the song and follows the chord patterns, that's where you can add a personalized touch.
"I think there's quality in the lyrics," he says. "These songs often tell poignant stories, and they're touching audiences. I like having people come up to me who are affected by the lyrics. That element is often glossed over, a secondary consideration, in music these days."
McKinney knew of 221Fly in 2012, when Johnson was recording the band's first album. Johnson also was recording an album by Major Jones — another high-energy band with a broad reach of styles — that McKinney was with at the time. Many years later, McKinney bumped into Johnson at a show at Red Lily Vineyards. He mentioned that 221Fly was looking for a new guitarist, and he thought McKinney would fit the bill.
"That's when I met Roger and Brandon and went to audition for them," McKinney says. "Although it wasn't much of an audition. It was an obvious perfect fit."
The band conveyed that it wanted to add more of an edge to its rock sound. That is something that McKinney specializes in.
McKinney was just a little kid when his older brother brought home the very first Van Halen album.
"It scared me to death," he says. "There was David Lee Roth and a flaming drum kit. I heard that and it changed my perception of guitar music. I loved that energy, so I pursued it. My first band was a heavy metal band modeled on Metallica. I've always been pulled toward exploration of the guitar in the rock vein."
Growing up, McKinney's favorite guitar players were Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and guitarists from Iron Maiden, Metallica and Megadeth.
"Joe Satriani really affected me," he says. "Some people say I play similar to him, which is unbelievably kind because he's, you know, superior.
"This is the kind of music I love, and I wish more people were doing it," he says. "We're trying to play fearless music in Southern Oregon. It's original music, music that calls to us, not cover material. Being a band that plays entirely original music comes with its set of difficulties, but we're enjoying some success, or at least I am, from my point of view. This is the most enjoyable experience."
"Tabula Rasa" is available at walmart.com and at Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, CD Baby and iTunes.