Putting together a new CD doesn't usually involve trips to the lumberyard. But for Chris Black's Drunk at the Funeral, the lumberyard was just the beginning.
Fed up with the generic plastic world of CDs, Black wanted to give his new piano-and-percussion album a distinctly handcrafted feel. So Black teamed with Drew Burk of Spork Press on the album's packaging—a handmade wooden box, with a cloth book spine and silk-screened cover art. Inside are letterpress liner notes, a packet of 15 charcoal illustrations, a hand-bound 52-page booklet of sheet music, and the CD in a hand-stamped cardboard sleeve.
"The last time I put out a recording, I got all my art and music files, emailed them to the factory, and got a box of CDs back. This time, I went to Ace Hardware, HobbyTown, Kelly Paper. This is made of stuff, and it doesn't smell like plastic. It smells like wood and glue and ink," Black says.
"We don't need CDs anymore, but I don't want to do away with beautiful physical objects that you can touch and hold while you're listening. There's no need for a physical medium of music, so that means we can do whatever we want."
The unusual album—with its startling, forceful piano and orchestral percussion—also stems from an unusual combination of inspirations. After moving to Tucson from Austin in 2007, Black played violin solo and in a number of collaborations, but he felt like he was in a rut.
"I've been in a really artistically blocked condition for a few years now. I just could not figure out where to go next, and it was becoming a crisis," he says.
One night, he saw the video for the Dresden Dolls' "Coin-Operated Boy," and he had the answer.
"It was like this light went on: 'It's time to start playing piano again.' I hadn't been back to the piano in years, but this music just came out in a big stream," Black says. "It's been a great year for falling ass-backwards into inspiration."
Black bought a piano for $150 on Craigslist and started writing new music, the sort of complex, orchestral instrumental music of the Dresden Dolls and the French composer Erik Satie. Though he isn't classically trained and comes from a rock background, Black says, "If somebody were to accuse me of being alt-classical, I'd be fine."
Still, when the project began a year ago, Black still didn't know how it would turn out. The music was moody, with huge emotional shifts, and harsh and even brutal moments. Then, when Black saw the Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about ancient paintings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, he found the visual match for the music he was writing.
The dark, heavy lines and primal imagery of the cave-paintings were mesmerizing, and though Black hadn't drawn since he was a kid, the next day, he went to an art store for paper and charcoals. He illustrated each of the 15 songs, drawing what the music looked like to him, or sometimes writing music to match the images. Including the sheet music just felt natural.
"I've been on this nonstop for a year. I've never worked harder writing music before. I kept pushing at it, making it more interesting, making it more real. This is a lot more composed than I'd done in 10 years. I made this pretty complex, unusual music, so I wanted to write it down," he says.
Black recorded in Austin with Graham Reynolds, who has a professional recording setup in his house, with a baby-grand piano and orchestral percussion that fit the music perfectly. Reynolds and Jeremy Bruch provided the percussion.
"This is by no means a suite. There's no concept or some overarching idea. The songs are all just themselves," he says.
The album is mostly instrumental, but closes with a simple guitar-and-voice song, "Will My Ghost Miss You?" It's an outlier, a song he recorded years ago as a demo with a single microphone in his friend's dining room. Though he did a new piano-and-percussion version, Black chose to go with the feel of the original as a coda to the album.
"That constant, full lush sound just washes over you, but that just leaves you with a little goodbye. It brings you back to earth," he says.
Black funded the project through Kickstarter, gathering more than $2,400 from 50 donors, who will receive special rewards. Those CDs will come with a letterpress invitation to Black's funeral, as well as a handwritten note of apology for his disgraceful behavior there.
"It's inappropriate, but forgivable. You can sympathize," he says about the album's title.
Drunk at the Funeral has an initial run of 77 copies—the amount Black and Burk could produce from two 8-by-12-foot sheets of maple plywood.
At Saturday's release show, Black will perform all 15 songs, with Gabriel Sullivan on drums, and Benjamin DeGain on vibraphone. Amy Rude will open with a solo guitar set of new music.