"I think it's ghetto French slang for the word ‘et cetera,'" says Blasé Splee singer, songwriter and guitarist Mike Frelick explaining his band's name. The rest of the quintet is doubtful, however. "Well," says Carl Larson, Blasé Splee's other primary singer and songwriter, "it was either that or Bon Appetite … or Sausage Prince."
One might guess that a band would invest a lot more thought into its choice of a name. But the guys from Blasé Splee really don't seem to give a damn. Core members Frelick and Larson have been playing music together since 2000, under different band names and with a revolving collection of different musicians. They don't have a lot to show for it; just a couple of albums' worth of unreleased recordings, a handful of live shows and the wonderful opportunity of having to replace their musical equipment after it was stolen from a practice space a few years ago.
Such nonchalance, however, might be expected from a couple of guys who know that the true measure of a band has little to do with its name.
Chilling at one of several Royal Oak residences where Et Cetera, their upcoming (sort of self-titled?) full-length debut album, was recorded, Blasé Splee is gathered around a computer in the house's barren front room, listening to final mixes of a project that has been a long time in the making. A few of them are hearing the newest mixes for the very first time. Larson's voice softly emanates from the speakers, a vocal prelude to a high, tremolo-heavy Vox organ hovering above a rigid snare pattern. Soon after, layers of crackling electric guitar, bass and percussion converge upon the rhythm like a tenacious storm. The song sounds fully matured, crisp, multi-layered. But a few of the looks on various faces in the room suggest that some tweaks may still be made.
And who can blame them for having a case of acute perfectionism? Both Frelick and Larson readily admit that this is the album they've been working on their entire lives. It features the best of their collaborations. Some of the songs on the album are five years old; one was still awaiting finishing touches at the time of this interview.
More, the album features the musicians that the songwriting duo needed to help define them. What makes it unusual, though, is that the members who make up the rest of this indie pop group came from very different musical outfits. Splee's tight rhythm section — including bassist Dave Wisbiski and drummer Tommy Tesnow — came to the band from various successful hardcore touring acts. Tesnow even worked for a while as a studio drummer, as well as playing with an Irish-Celtic band that features, he notes, "one of the best flute players in the world right now."
The final piece of the puzzle was multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Berz, who played in touring punk and emo bands as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, but gave up songwriting and lead vocal ambitions to accompany Frelick and Larson.
"After hearing a few of their demos on MySpace, I left a comment that said, ‘I want to be in this band,'" Berz says. After spending a first practice drinking beers with the other band members and listening to rough mixes, Berz found himself in the band — and without even opening his guitar case!
"I'd never touched a piano in my life before I joined up with these guys," Berz says. "But they needed someone to play piano, so I would stay up till 6 in the morning practicing. Nobody wants to be a third guitar player anyway."
"And I hate playing piano when it's not my own song," adds Frelick. "So it was cool."
And it's those songs that really brought the band together — from driving, infectiously danceable retro pop to slow, soulful ballads with an authenticity that harks back to 1960s bands like the Rascals, bolstered by not a little bit of Motown groove and early-period Beatles harmonies. What's ear-opening is Blasé Splee's knack for drastic tempo changes in the middle of songs, a controlled chaos that often turns heads at live shows. It's evident in the careful intricacies of the songs, as well as the many oddball — but perfectly executed — stops and starts, that Splee's sound has been crafted and tuned with great care by its two songwriters. Yet with all of the perfectionism pervading their work, Frelick and Larson have enough confidence in their band to let them add their own touches to the mix.
"It's like giving a child up for adoption," Larson says. "You write a song and then say, ‘Here, do whatever you want to do with them.' And then they butcher them, of course, but they butcher them with style."
"And Dave and Tommy record their shit in two minutes" adds Frelick. "It's us other three who have the problem taking so long."
"Yeah, I finished recording this album last year," Tesnow notes.
Downstairs in the group's recording space, the band has set up a makeshift vocal booth with drywall; an old mixing board sits on a nearby desk next to a dirty, beat-up CD burner that has lived well past its warranty date. Also included in the studio space is an old typewriter that makes an instrumental appearance on one of Et Cetera's newest tracks.
The time expended and the many hours recording have paid off for Blasé. From the band's point of view, it takes a lot of time to make something that's timeless. "What we're doing right now makes sense," says Frelick, "and it will make sense for me in 10 years' time. Listening through these mixes, no matter what, I'll still be happy with what I did. And I can't say that about anything else I've ever done."
As we continue to listen to new mixes, Larson notes that something about his guitar part on a particular track doesn't sound exactly like what he played when the band was recording it. Frelick wryly smirks. "Yeah, Carl," he says, "that's because I rerecorded it myself earlier today."
Ever the perfectionists.
Blasé Splee CD release party for Et Cetera is Saturday, June 6, at Small's, 10339 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-873-1117. With Sh! The Octopus and Macrame Tiger. (The first 100 people at the door receive a free copy of the album.)
Scott Bragg is kind of a perfectionist too. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.