After a decade-long break from recording, Memphis' eclectic popsters Kitchens & Bathrooms are about to release Eternal In Between, a polished, 12-song collection showcasing the group's ability to fuse Memphis soul, classic rock, and steel-laden country into thoughtful power-pop with beautiful melodies, complex storylines, and irresistibly warm guitar sounds.
Kitchens and Bathrooms didn't break up in 1999. After drummer Wally Peterson moved to North Carolina to be closer to his family, the popular band, which was as comfortable playing punk clubs like the Antenna and Barristers as it was playing Neil's or the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street, simply stopped gigging and went into a state of suspended animation. The old friends from Rhodes College were growing up and plunging headlong into careers that had nothing to do with playing music in bars.
"Life intervened," says Clay Combs, the band's bass player and principal songwriter. "We were a little tired of it all too. We're all married. There are kids. And the shorter answer is that there was also a lot of laziness involved. We liked getting together on Thursday nights and rocking, but we also just liked hanging out."
Other distractions had nothing to do with laziness. Combs works as an independent IT consultant, drummer Steve Willett is the business manager of an IT company, and guitarist Chris Wood is on the faculty at the UT College of Pharmacy.
Even when they aren't recording or gigging regularly, Kitchens & Bathrooms is a busy band. But business and pleasure do blend occasionally, and Combs, who works on the back end of Archer Records' website, struck a deal with his client to become one of the first artists to record in Archer's newly renovated Midtown studio in April of last year.
"We don't believe you have to do a lot of stuff to get a really good sound," Wood says of his band's no-nonsense approach to recording. "We think if you play real instruments through real tube amps, you're always going to get a great sound."
That's the philosophy the band took into Archer.
After the basic tracks were finished, including a pair of outstanding guest spots by Al Gamble on keyboards and John Whittemore on baritone and pedal-steel guitars, the band took advantage of a family connection to indulge in a little rock-star fantasy. They hopped on a plane and spent three days working on overdubs at Fantasy Studio in Berkeley.
"My uncle Jeffrey Wood runs that studio," Wood says. "We'd always wanted to do this, and finally we did."
Willett recalls with horror a moment when the head of a maraca he was shaking came flying off and headed toward the control-room window in a studio that has recorded Lenny Bruce, Santana, and Dave Brubeck. Fortunately, no damage was done.
"You've got to understand, Steve was singing backing vocal tracks into a $25,000 Neumann microphone from the 1950s that Ella Fitzgerald and David Bowie had sung into," Combs says. "They had Booker T.'s B3 organ in the next room. They wheeled in a piano for us to use ... it was Bill Evans' piano. We were like kids in a candy store."
"But I didn't want to touch anything," Willett interjects.
Combs and Woods, on the other hand, wanted to touch everything and took advantage of the studio's vast supply of old Taylor and Gibson guitars to lay down acoustic tracks for Eternal In Between.
"I feel like we're doing the same kind of stuff we were doing when we were 20," Combs says of the songwriting on Eternal In Between, a narrative tale of difficult relationships, depression, despair, and redemption.
Combs likes to be challenged. "Quirky songs are easy," he says. "But if I want to write a great song about a relationship between friends, or lovers, the bar for excellence is set so high."