Music Express Magazine - December 1992

10,000 Maniacs: Flash Cards and Random Keys

by: Jennie Punter (page 16)


Some record producers probably end up with several more gray hairs after working with wild, unpredictable young musicians. But the 10,000 Maniacs may have added years to the life of Paul Fox, who produced their latest album, Our Time In Eden.

See, the band's singer and lyricist Natalie Merchant is allergic to cigarette smoke, and Fox was thinking of quitting anyway. "We had made up a list of what we wanted in a producer," Natalie explains. "We wanted someone young, who was a musician but not a celebrity. We wanted someone who had given up drugs at least 10 years ago, and who didn't smoke. But mostly we wanted someone who was enthusiastic about working with us, someone who wasn't doing it just for the paycheck."

Paul Fox - who has also produced XTC, Robyn Hitchcock and the Sugarcubes - was so enthusiastic about 10,000 Maniacs he drove through a blinding blizzard to Jamestown, NY, just to work with them on spec for four days. Our Time In Eden, the band's fifth full album (excluding 1990's Hope Chest, a collection of tracks from their early indie releases), was recorded in Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, NY.

"There was a really collaborative air," Natalie explains. "Paul never said, 'This is how it has to be.' He would say, 'Let's try this.' I think he tried to do the same thing with us that we had tried to do in writing, which is trying to get us to do something completely new, then work back, towards something more familiar."

The Maniacs, all five of them, experimented a little more with the songwriting process this time out. "A lot of things have changed, because we were so young when we started out," Natalie explains. "I was 17 when we made the first record. So I've definitely become more outspoken over the years, and more independent in my thinking and acting. And that's affected the way we make records, at least from my point of view.

"But we had more people in the band back then. We had John Lombardo, who was the key songwriter back then. And when he left, we sort of reorganized. For this record, when we were playing together, we had flash cards, and we would pick a particular key, at random, for the day. And then we'd pick a tempo. And the drummer would play a pattern. And then we'd come up with a chord progression, and then melodies. We tried to experiment with the whole process of songwriting, instead of working in isolation and bringing songs in.

"We've never been a band that jammed. We always worked in the three- to five-minute pop structure.... which came from John Lombardo, 'cause he knows how to write songs. And in the end that's what the songs are once again, but at least we arrived at that structure in a different way."

Our Time In Eden offers the kind of well-wrought, folk-tinged, lyrically poetic and generally uplifting music the 10,000 Maniacs have been making for the last decade. But there are some nifty musical surprises, too, not the least of which is the snazzy sound of the JB Horns.

"When I wrote Few And Far Between I definitely envisioned a horn section. But Paul knew the JB horns. So you want a soul horn section, you get the granddaddies of soul, instead of getting a horn section that sounds like the JBs.

"And I suggested the bassoon on I'm Not The Man, which Paul thought was absurd. He always heard clarinets, and I said definitely bassoon, because it's really plaintive and reedy and almost medieval sounding."

It's been three years since 10,000 Maniacs' last studio album, Blind Man's Zoo, and they all took time to catch up on civilian life, Natalie spending some time traveling in Eastern Europe and Brazil and working at a homeless shelter in New York. Their new music definitely reflects a refreshed attitude. "It feels like you're riding your bicycle for a long, distance, and then you stop, and go swimming, and then you feel like you can finish the ride," Natalie says.

"I'm looking forward to touring, which I hardly ever have in the past because I love being home. I actually miss the contact with people who like our music. We created the record in a vacuum, and recorded it in a vacuum. So I'm looking forward to singing in front of people who actually have been waiting to hear us."