How are we gonna fit these pygmies on here? That's the question Rob Dixon and Gary Mielke, co-producers of Platinum, a new record by jazz-fusion band The Headhunters on local label Owl Studios, were asking themselves when I visited them at Static Shack Studios this March.
The final mix of the album was due within days, but the album's executive producer, J. Allan Hall, had just thrown them a bit of a curveball, in the form of a field recording of pygmies that he wanted to be somehow included in the finished product.
Well, it wasn't completely out of left field (to mix baseball metaphors): Hall, also the president of local jazz and jam label Owl Studios, took a trip with Headhunters drummer Mike Clark to Russia in fall 2010. It was an old-school cultural diplomacy mission, a visit by Clark's organ trio to hinterlands that rarely welcome professional groups from any genre. Dixon, a member of the trio, was also along for the ride; he's a key reason why The Headhunters, the once-backing band for Herbie Hancock that has a Platinum-selling record under its belt, is working out of Indianapolis these days — but we'll get to that in due time.
According to Dixon, Hall asked for the field recording to be added in recognition of the trip to Russia, when Hall learned that Clark had an appreciation for world music. But even a fusion band has its limits for just how much can be fused together, and Dixon and Mielke were gathered around a computer and mixing console, shooting the shit casually but also wondering aloud just where the sound byte would go.
One room over, in a smaller studio, Clark was ready for his close-up, posing for new publicity photos while in town to oversee the final touches on Platinum — as well as adjudicate a jazz contest at Ball State and play a gig at The Jazz Kitchen. Someone yelled: "Don't make him smile!" Apparently too many Owl Studios artists end up smiling in publicity portraits; the final results show him serious but not forbidding.
Owl Studios may have its official headquarters on Monument Circle, where it shares space with Hall's medical insurance business. But it's in the Northside office building I visited in March, which includes Static Shack Studios as well as offices for, among others, Owl Studios' go-to art director P.J. Yinger, that much of the recording, mixing and mastering takes place for a typical Owl Studios session, usually by Mielke.
Things were winding down on that March afternoon, with Clark available to talk about his new record for a few minutes before heading south to get ready for his gig. He slumped down in a leather couch in a waiting room, exhausted after a long day of teaching and the work of making a record. "Is that a beer?" he asked his assistant of a cup being handed him. "Because I can't handle a beer right now; that'd put me to sleep."
One key question I had for him: Just how did The Headhunters, who have existed in various incarnations after they transitioned from being a backing band for Hancock into a group independent of its founder, come to make a record for Owl Studios? And how did Clark, who is signed as an individual to Owl, make Indianapolis a main base for operations?
It all began, according to Clark, with Rob Dixon, who seems to click with a lot of musicians, both new (fusion guitarist Fareed Haque, jam band Twin Cats) and old school (B-3 organist Melvin Rhyne).
"I came here to do a gig at The Jazz Kitchen with the organist Jerry Z, and somebody bailed at the last minute," Clark said. "So whoever set that up called the club, called [Jazz Kitchen owner] David Allee, and they were like, 'Well, maybe we're not going to be able to do the gig.' And David said, 'Well, we've got a guy that'll probably fit with Mike really well.'"
Dixon sat in with the band for the night, and Clark took to him from the beginning: "It was like we'd been playing together for five years. I understood his musical language right away; I could feel his funk, and it worked with the funk I have inside me. I said, 'I love this guy.'"
Dixon, who had just walked in from the mixing room, added, "I was blowing you up on Facebook, or MySpace, or whatever."
"Yeah, it was MySpace then," Clark said. "Nobody ever goes to MySpace; it's like there is no MySpace. I don't even check mine. I think somebody hacked it and there was a bunch of porn on it, and I didn't even bother to take it off."
As time went by, Dixon, who works A&R for Owl, asked Clark if he wanted to record with his organ trio for the label. And then The Headhunters record followed; Clark can't remember if it was he or Dixon who suggested the idea of a new project by the band, and it came to fruition almost by happenstance. "It wasn't a thought-out plan; it was just a spontaneous thing," according to Clark.
And so the key figures began to assemble, including percussionist Bill Summers, the sole remaining original member of The Headhunters (Clark joined the group for its second album, Thrust, recorded in 1974 when the group was still a backing band for Hancock).