A Push to Challenge Yourself Musically: An Interview with Jeff Willet of Table for 26

Jeff Willet is a massively talented arranger and musician. I had the privilege of working with him when he conducted and wrote the score for a project I was involved with a while back, and I’ve also been lucky enough to play live with him on a couple of occasions. For the past few years, he’s also been putting together a band called Table for 26. COVID-19 slowed things down a little bit for them, but over the past few weeks, their efforts have started to bear delicious fruit. 

What’s the idea behind Table for 26, and how long has the project been simmering?

The idea has been in my mind for about six years now and stemmed from working mostly alone on my solo album which has still yet to be released. I thought it would be cool to do a similar project with large-scale arrangements, but with other people to get that connection between musicians that I’ve had playing in bands before. I’d been in and out of a few metal bands, and I was thinking that there’s gotta be a better fit for me, somewhere out there. It was actually my wife Jen’s idea: “Just start your own!” At first this didn’t sound too feasible because I was still a bit new to this area [Philadelphia] and didn’t have too many connections. Little by little the idea evolved and after filling in with the Divine Hand Ensemble a few times. I met three of our string players (Thuy Nguyen – violin, Hannah Richards – viola, and Jon Salmon – cello) who really helped to get this project off the ground. It was right at this same time that our other drummer (Emily Roane) and our former trombone player (Aaron Buchanan) moved to town, and Emily started working with me at Steve Weiss Music. I pitched the idea to them all as something like “a push to challenge yourself musically with some very eclectic music and instrumentation,” and it seemed like that’s what they were looking for as well.

Musically and logistically, I imagine! How do you keep everyone organized?

This is certainly a challenge, so I’m glad you brought it up. One reason I was hesitant to start a project like this is scheduling, thinking that if it’s difficult to plan rehearsals for a four- or five-piece band, anything bigger would certainly be almost impossible. As it turned out, we all had Wednesday nights available so rehearsals were pretty set for a few Wednesdays per month, and we’ve made great progress with that. There were some lineup changes over the couple of years we’ve been together, which is fine — everyone has plenty of things going on. Even everyone in the group now has other bands they’re involved in, as well as day jobs, school, and other endeavors. Keeping this in mind and allowing flexibility with musicians that we all trust has been a huge part of making this work.

As far as organization, we have a shared folder on Google Drive that is well organized with sheet music, up-to-date mixes, ideas for new music, video planning & progress, rehearsal schedules, photos, etc. Everyone in the group has access to it and can tell exactly where we are with everything. Between that and a group text, I feel like we’re all on the same page, which is a great feeling!

Beyond logistics, what kinds of challenges did you face when you were working on the project

Getting a large project together like this with zero budget is certainly a challenge. We needed to figure out a rehearsal location that can physically hold us all and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. We also had to scout locations for video shoots that could hold us all, and the same for live venues. We can’t just show up to any bar and expect them to accommodate a 14-piece group.

Promotion has been an interesting process as well. On one side, we’re just some people from a few towns around Philly, but on another hand the videos we’ve made have reached thousands of people from different countries through YouTube. I really couldn’t do this if it weren’t for the help of others in and close to the band. We’ve got some very knowledgeable people with various connections and capabilities that we’re putting to good use!

Why did you decide to record covers as opposed to original music? How did you choose which songs to cover?

Covers were a great way for all of us to get used to playing together and in a large group like this. I’ve had a large list of possible covers for years now, so we narrowed that down and arranged the songs for this specific instrumentation. The plan was to do a few covers and then start on original music, but I think it’s fun doing covers, especially with songs from artists that many people may not be familiar with. We have to choose our covers carefully though, as some songs don’t exactly lend themselves to our “sound” – somewhat on the darker side of pop, alternative, and progressive music. Now that we have a couple years of rehearsing and recording together under our belts, we are pushing ourselves to now also write original music, and I’m expecting to see some great things come out of that as well!

As of this writing, you’ve released two songs but only as YouTube videos. Is that part of a larger plan? Are you building toward an album?

Well, yes and no. We’re going through the proper channels to acquire licensing to be able to post cover videos on YouTube, which is another expensive process, albeit well worth it for peace of mind. I do intend to look into the legal logistics of releasing the audio for these songs on other music streaming platforms as well, and certainly that will be much easier to do with our original music (another huge push for that!). So yes, we do intend to have some larger releases, but nothing currently on the radar for that until we finish up enough original music to warrant it. We do have nine more cover videos in the works though, and two more that are finished and will be posted within the coming weeks…

I have to say that your videos are fascinating to watch because (I think!) we’re actually seeing the musicians performing—and not miming like musicians often do in videos. Is that right? Why was capturing the performances on video an important element of the project?

This was a very important aspect for us as well. It’s easy (and sad) to see the miming as you put it in other videos out there. You have singers obviously not singing with the same intensity, drummers visibly off from what you’re hearing – why even do it at that point?

We are very lucky to have an incredibly videographer working with us (John Welsh of Rare Light Media), who has great equipment, great ideas, and a great eye for putting it all together. John and I often joke that while we were putting the first round of four videos together, it started as “can we make this happen?” and quickly turned into “yes we can definitely make this happen!” as I was on the audio recording and mixing side of things and he was handling all things video (lighting, filming, editing, color correcting, etc). So it was also a challenge for us to push ourselves to be able to take on a project like this from a different angle and see it through.

On this first round of four videos, we felt it was important to capture the true essence of the band, no embellishing, minimal studio effects, so we made sure to follow the “garbage in/garbage out” rule and pay close attention to every small detail from the start of the process. Everyone was very well rehearsed at that point, so what we’re hearing is a very good live representation of how the group sounds as a whole. For this next round of nine videos though, we’ll get to have some more fun in the studio experimenting with different recording and mixing techniques, which i’m very much looking forward to!

Did recording video while you recorded the music add another layer of complication to the endeavor?

Absolutely! We didn’t start recording and filming until we felt we had an absolutely solid lineup of like-minded individuals who understood the process and the hard work involved. We didn’t piece the songs together in the studio – these were full takes. This made it much easier to sync up on the video editing side of things so we could present it as a studio playthrough, and not too much in the way of audio editing either. That being said, it took a couple years to get to this point.

Did you record everything in one take, or was multitracking involved?

Everything was multitracked. Due to COVID-19, we had to make 100% sure to do this as safely as possible. We recorded everyone either individually or in smaller sections – strings and saxophone all at once, both guitarists at once, keyboards separately, vocals separately, bass separately, and each drummer separately. There were three different rooms used, and while John was able to control the lighting and camera angles enough to where he was confident that the end result would all look similar, my job was to make sure that everything sounded similar. I think we actually did okay!

Any chance you’ll be playing live any time soon? Or any time not-so-soon, for that matter?

Oh I really hope so!! We have a lot of fun at rehearsals and recording sessions, but it would really take things onto the next level to perform live, as soon as COVID-19 safely allows. We have a list in our shared folder on Google Drive of connections at different venues and festivals where we’d like to make this happen. We also wanted to get the first round of videos finished and released before we looked into booking shows, because “Hey can my 14pc band play there? Also we don’t really have a designated genre!” only goes so far with nothing to visibly or aurally back it up. It’s really a group effort, and we all definitely want to get out there, so well make it happen! We’re actually working on some added visual aspects to accompany a live performance as well. We want to make it a great overall experience!

What’s on the horizon—either for Table for 26 or for you personally?

Oof, yeah. Well I still have my solo album to finish up (just a lot of mixing at this point), and there’s also the nine new Table for 26 cover videos that I mentioned earlier, as well as the original songs that we’re working on. I’m hoping to keep this progress moving forward on all fronts, and still set aside plenty of time in my day to play with my dog, Wally.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jeff! I really appreciate it! 

Thanks Marc – really appreciate you thinking of me for this, and I can’t wait to share all this new music with you and everyone else over the next few weeks and months!

Jeff Willet and his faithful dog Wally. Photo credit for both photos: John Welsh

Obsession by the La La Lettes

Underscoring their anti-pop leanings, the La La Lettes open and close their latest album, Obsession, with a knowing parody of repetitive pop music titled “Kiss Me.” Barely a minute long, the track gets at the heart of pretty much every song I hear whenever I walk into my local department store, and the title includes two-thirds of the song’s lyrics. The other third, if you’re curious, begins with the letter F.

As if to cleanse – or perhaps dirty – the palette, the album then launches into a 45-second assault of noise that resolves into “Man Overboard,” a fuzzy, overdriven tribute to 60s garage rock that calls to mind a bit of both Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart.

Keeping the lo-fi 60s vibe going, the third track, “Elements,” proffers a loving echo of the late, great former Pink Floyd front man Syd Barret, and the remainder of the album carries through with an equal balance of fuzz and psychedelia with a little bit of soul thrown in for good measure.

Of particular note are the guitars on a track called “Kimberley,” a song that wholeheartedly evokes Iggy and the Stooges, and the horns towards the end of the album’s closer, “Landing.”

The real clue to what the album is doing, however, occurs in the final fifteen seconds with the (consciously) repetitive reprise of the album’s opening track. The effect here is to make the body of the album feel like a glorious interruption of the day’s regular dreary programming. To put it another way, it frames everything else as a big middle finger to mainstream pop.

Painfully Slow and Meticulous: An Interview with Jeff Archuleta, a.k.a Eclectic Music Lover

If you’re at all like me – and I’m guessing you are if you’re reading this blog – you’re not just a fan of music. You’re also a fan of people who write about music. Given the nearly infinite number of choices available to even the most casual music fan these days, it’s always good to have a trusted guide to point the way not only to sounds we might be familiar with but also to artists who push us a little further out from our usual comfort zones. That’s why I’m a fan of Eclectic Music Lover, a music blog that Jeff Archuleta has made a labor of love since 2015. Knowing first-hand how much work has gone into some of my own writing endeavors, I decided to drop Jeff a line to see what goes on behind the scenes of his blog.

You’ve been blogging about music since 2015. Did you have any experience with blogging—or writing about music in other forums—prior to starting Eclectic Music Lover? What inspired you to start blogging?

No, other than a short essay about how much I loved the music of The Carpenters that I wrote for a high school English class, I’d never written about music before, nor did I have any experience with blogging. I started my blog at the suggestion of a friend, actually. I used to share videos of songs I liked, as well as some of my favorite song lists, on Facebook, but few of my friends ever engaged with them. So, I created a music group on Facebook, and invited those friends who I thought might be interested in reading or sharing music-related stuff. Approximately 25 joined, but the response was still pretty lackluster. It was then that my friend Matt suggested I start a music blog to express my love for music, and it’s grown to the point where I sometimes feel I’ve created a monster. The irony of it all is that, although I love talking about and sharing music, I do not enjoy the act of writing itself.

Yet you put out thoughtful reviews at an incredible pace—multiple reviews a week, plus your weekly top 30 lists. What’s your process, and how do you keep that pace going?

A significant percentage of the music I review is at the request of artists and bands, or their PR reps or labels, so in a sense, they determine my blog content to some degree. I also write about artists and bands I particularly like, or occasionally about favorite songs from the past.

As far as process, I’m a painfully slow and meticulous writer, so most of my reviews take me a great deal of time to get done. And though I’ve never been diagnosed, I also think I suffer from a bit of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), which often makes it very difficult for me to focus, especially when writing album reviews, which I intensely dislike doing. I still work part time at a job, so it’s often a challenge to keep the pace of cranking out 3-5 reviews week after week. Also, I’ve never been able to handle stress or pressure very well, and become overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety, depression and burnout with increasing frequency. Consequently, I’ve scaled back somewhat on the number of reviews I write per month to preserve what’s left of my sanity.

Jeff Archuleta, aka Eclectic Music Lover

It sounds like you get a lot of requests from bands who want their music reviewed! How do you decide which music to review?

I do! Some days I receive more than 10 emails from artists, bands or PR reps asking for reviews, interviews, etc., in addition to direct messages from artists on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, also wanting me to listen to their song, EP or album in the hope I’ll write about them. As I stated in my response to your previous question, it can sometimes be overwhelming to the point of despair, which causes me to consider giving up blogging altogether.

Though it’s easy for me to blow off PR reps, I have a very hard time saying no to an artist or band when they ask me to review their music, especially if they follow me on social media, so I generally agree to do it. On occasion, I must reject an artist or band if their music is really bad, which is terribly painful for me. I only write positive reviews, as I see no point in writing a negative one for an indie or unsigned artist. They would be unhappy and hurt, and would not want to share my review. I’m not a music critic, and do what I do partly to help promote indie artists and give them a bit of press.

The biggest shortcoming I’ve found with indie artists or bands is poor or weak vocals. But many artists such as Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker, to name just two, did not have great singing voices, however, they’ve put out some brilliant music. For those artists with weak vocals, I try to focus on their lyricism and musicianship, which have often been quite good, and simply make a brief comment that their vocals are a bit weak or lacking in spots.

One thing that always impresses me about your blog is that your reviews offer insights into both the music and the musicians who make it. More often than not, your reviews will include information that isn’t readily available on a musician’s Bandcamp page, for example, or even on their website. How do you go about learning about the bands and musicians that you like?

When writing reviews, I usually check out all of an artist or band’s social media accounts to find out as much information about them that I can so that I can write a coherent review or article. Some artists and all PR reps will include their bio info, a press release, and links to all their social media in their submissions, which is very helpful. But many artists do not, which can be frustrating, so I ask them to send me those things so I don’t have to waste my time hunting them down. Now that I’ve been blogging about music for over six years, I have a sizeable group of artists and bands I’m particularly fond of, who I write about numerous times. For those artists, writing a new review is somewhat easier because I already know about their history and music catalog. But the challenge is coming up with something new and fresh to say, without rehashing what I’ve written previously.

Your blog is aptly named—you really do review an eclectic range of music! Were you always into so many types of music?

Compared to some, my music tastes would probably be considered eclectic, though they’re also decidedly mainstream. I generally gravitate toward pop, dream pop, pop-rock, classic rock, folk rock, New Wave, synthpop, disco/dance-pop, R&B, soul and classical. More recently, I’ve come to like more grunge, punk, hip hop, progressive, experimental, fusion, jazz, World Music and heavy metal than I did previously.

Has blogging broadened your tastes at all? Have you ever been surprised to find yourself really enjoying something that you might not have loved so much if not for the fact that you were writing about it?

Writing a music blog has definitely caused me to expand my musical horizons beyond my comfort zone. I now have a more open mind about new and different kinds of music than I did previously. I’ve even come to enjoy a bit of screamo deathcore on occasion, albeit in small doses lol. I learned that there’s an art to being able to sing those type of guttural, screamo vocals, which made me more greatly appreciate that music.

Of course, “eclectic” doesn’t mean that you love everything. Are there any genres you’re not that into? Does that stop you from listening if someone asks you for a review? Along similar lines, do you ever write negative reviews?

As I stated earlier, I’m not heavily into deathcore or metalcore, though I do like some of it. I also like some hip hop and rap, but a lot of it just sounds awful to me, particularly mumble rap. But my least-favorite genre of music is bro-country, with its inane lyrics about riding in a truck with a hot girl and a beer. So boring and predictable that I simply cannot tolerate it for even a minute. I’ve never turned down an artist over the genre of their music, however. I’d like to write about more rap artists, however, I get very few requests from them. I would not write about bro-country music, and thankfully, none have asked me to. And no, as I mentioned in an earlier response, I do not write negative reviews, as I see no point. I’m not a music critic, and do what I do partly to help promote indie artists and give them some press.

Given your output, I imagine that burnout is a real danger. What do you do to maintain balance in your life?

As I stated earlier, I do in fact suffer from occasional bouts of burnout. When it hits, I stop writing for several days, though I’ve never gone more than two weeks. As a former Catholic, I’m also wracked with guilt when I fall behind on promised review deadlines or say no to an artist wanting me to review their music. It’s a challenge to maintain balance, which I’ve not been very successful at doing.

I’m also imagine there’s a certain amount of etiquette involved. Back when I used to write book reviews, I always appreciated when authors would share my reviews or, ideally, become regular readers of my blog – as opposed just reading my reviews of their own books. What kind of relationship, if any, are you looking for from the artists you review? Or maybe a better question is what’s the bare minimum an artist can do to show gratitude for the work you put in to reviewing their music?

I think I probably expect too much from artists and bands, and though I’ve gotten a little better about it, it can still cause disappointment at times. When I started writing reviews, I’d ask the artist or band to also follow me back on Twitter, which now makes me cringe. I used to also ask that they share my review on their social media, and though it’s terribly disappointing when they don’t, I’ve stopped asking them for that as well, in order to maintain a shred of my dignity. I guess my minimum expectation is that they at the very least acknowledge it by either thanking me for my review, or at least retweet my tweet about it, especially after they asked me to write it! Many artists & bands are greatly appreciative, but I feel used by some, who only interact with me when they want a review. Just this morning, I got a message on Twitter from an artist whose music I reviewed in 2018, and now wants me to review his new single. It’s the first contact I’ve had with him since then, and never once has he ever liked any of my tweets or Instagram posts.

Ugh. So what keeps you going as a blogger?

I honestly wonder about this myself some days. I’d have to say the primary thing is the friendships I’ve made with so many musicians, bands, fellow bloggers like yourself, and other music lovers – on social media at least – through blogging about music. Without my blog, I’d never have formed the relationships I have with some of my favorite artists like Two Feet, MISSIO, Ships Have Sailed, The Frontier (aka Jake Mimikos), The Million Reasons, Oli Barton & the Movement, Amongst Liars, Philip Morgan Lewis and Brett Grant, to name but a few. When I feel frustrated and burned out to the point that I consider quitting my blog, I remember all the great folks I’ve met, and that is what ultimately keeps me going. I was ready to give up on writing reviews last August, then reconsidered after Two Feet sent me some very kind words of encouragement.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jeff! I really appreciate your insights!

My pleasure Marc!