This Article originally appeared on Philly.com.
By Brion Shreffler
‘So I’m waiting . . . right here . . . on the ground,” vocalist Spenser Michaels intones – for about the 10th time – before the music abruptly stops.
“Pretty much the [melody’s] structure stays the same. After the second chorus, we can change the timing,” guitarist Rob Gibbs says.
“We got to get drums on that one,” bass player Jules Hinson adds.
Gibbs concurs. Everyone puts monitor headphones back on. Drummer Gary Dann counts off another take of “Find a Road Back to You,” a song the four-piece was hoping finally to record one recent Sunday at the Boom Room in Kensington.
Finally, because the four musicians began working on the track in 2013 at the structured yet improvisational workshops known as Music Church. Boom Room owner, operator, and producer Dann explains that these controlled jam sessions started soon after the recording and rehearsal space opened in 2011 as a way to foster connections and build a client list.
“It all started with Gary and Jules,” Michaels says.
All four friends have been playing together informally for years. In fact, Hinson, a Realtor, helped Dann find and build out the space.
Music Church began as “an open jam session where everything was recorded. You couldn’t bring original material. You had to make it up on the spot,” Michaels says. “This particular song [‘Find a Road Back to You’], they went into this bluesy thing, and I was like, ‘I think I have an idea here.’ ”
Dann says the workshop’s recording archive now contains 650 hours of material that may be used for future song crafting.
“We started this and the musical community came and grew around us. Now, I’m so busy. I’m busy with World Town Sound System (the band he and Hinson became a part of through Music Church). I met a lot of people who utilize the studio now and work here. Music Church planted seedlings,” he says.
The collaborative process is broken into two phases. The first features four-hour workshops held Sunday nights. In phase two, the workshop musicians fine-tune and record.
“There’s a lot of cool, [disparate] groups in Philly, and they think their world is the center,” Dann says. “All the worlds intersect here.”
In the early days, there were guitarists who just wanted to show off or rappers wanting to drop endless bars – “musicians playing selfishly, rather than together,” Dann says. “We discussed how we could control it so it’s not just a jam session like every other one that goes nowhere. We wanted to find the good stuff.”
By the time this writer first stepped into Music Church two years ago, there was an unbound vibe matched by an impressive seamlessness in the sessions. Horns came in at exactly the right moment. Rappers and soul singers complemented each other beautifully, and stalwarts Dann and Hinson formed the session’s backbone.
“We create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable sharing who they are. From there, it’s how can we take this free thing and structure it and make it into a song,” Gibbs says.
Regulars such as Gibbs set the tone – “There’s no sign-up sheet,” Dann tells newbies – but it’s kup to on the people who help create something in the workshops to see out the process through phrase two: fine-tuning and recording, which is where they are with the song “Find a Road Back to You.”
The process is aided by one key difference from a jam at a local bar: the musicians can stop to call out and discuss how to build upon moments of brilliance that arise spontaneously from the energy of a session.
Boom Room, through its label Fishtown Records, has released three digital tracks: “Gimme Gimme” by Alex Simmons; “Gotta Believe It” by David Raine, which was featured on his 2015 Nollywood & African Film Critics’ Award-winning score for the filmTransition; and the reimagined Lead Belly classic, “Take This Hammer.” “All in My Head,” featuring Jaguar Wright, is out Tuesday, Dann says.
The artists who see out the process get full songwriting credits.
Vinyl or CDs are a possibility for a planned 12-track LP that could take up to a year to complete. “This is a pro-bono passion project, and we want to make sure we get the songs right,” Dann says when asked about fast-tracking the process.
When Boom Room first opened, it was just the studio and Kung Fu Necktie across the street. Now this Kensington neighborhood is in a full-on restaurant, nightlife, and residential explosion. With a music school opening across the street from Kung Fu Necktie, Dann is finally putting up a Boom Room sign outside his studio.
“This is a music corridor,” he says of his spot under the El.