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.

Keep It Honest: An Interview with Adam Lewis

Based in Swansea, Wales, Thee Rakevines have been on my list of go-to underground garage rock bands since March of last year. Drawing on a wide range of musical influences, the band incorporates punk, 90s grunge, psychedelia, and jazz into a unique blend that’s as raw as it is captivating. I recently had a chance to chat with the brains behind the operation, Adam “Adda” Lewis, about his approach to songwriting, a return to playing live, and the eternal question of which guitar to bring to the next gig.

Let’s start with your latest song, “Everything Has Changed.” It’s a bit of a departure for you, as it’s just you and an acoustic guitar, but it’s also in line with the rawness of your other recordings. What’s the story behind that one?

Quite honestly, I’d been drinking brandy and noodling around on the guitar and singing nonsense lyrics. After an hour or so, it emerged as this and I recorded it in one take—on my phone! I then promptly forgot about it and rediscovered it late at night (after more brandy!) shortly before Xmas, and in my drunken state sent it for release, warts and all! It’s as deep as a shallow puddle in all honesty, but I liked the rawness and honesty of it. It’s a moment in time, I guess!

In terms of rawness and honesty, most of your songs have a kind of punk “get in and get out” sensibility in that they’re usually under three minutes long, which is somewhat of a rarity these days. Where does the instinct to keep it short, though not always “sweet,” come from?

I’d say it’s to do with the songs I heard growing up and then again where those songs led me in my youth. I was basically raised on a musical diet of Motown and 60s mod pop (thanks mam and dad!), so the three-minute radio staple was kinda ingrained. Then I got properly into the mod thing, which led onto the freakbeat and psyche thing, from there it was mid 60s garage punk from the USA and I realised that no better music had ever been made than what I heard on the Back from the Grave and Garage Punk Unknown comps. From there it was The Stooges and The MC5. I’ve basically spent my life trying to recreate those tracks—with varying degrees of success! I also buy into a kind of Kerouac-like approach: Write once, record in one take, release. Keep it honest.

I know that one of your big influences is the 1960s proto-punk band The Standells. How did you happen upon them, and how did that encounter with their music influence your future endeavors?

As I’ve said above, it was probably through the musical journey I embarked on as a young teenage mod. I found the Why Pick on Me? album in a back street record shop, bought it on the strength of the cover picture alone… and had my mind blown! The style, attitude, sneer—all there, all perfect! “Mr Nobody” is an absolute classic!! As I say, I’ve been trying to capture that ever since! Unfortunately, my talents are much more limited, but it’s been fun! And last year, Larry Tamblyn of The Standells liked a few of my tweets. Blew my mind all over again! I was like a little kid with excitement!

Am I right that you’ve been making music since the 1990s? What has your musical journey looked like? How has the music world changed from your perspective, and how have you adapted to those changes?

Yes, in the early 1990s, I moved to Leeds and got to know a lad called Jack White who asked me to start a band with him—only problem being I couldn’t play an instrument! He said he’d teach me, showed me a few chords and how to barre and it went from there! To be fair, I’ve never really progressed! Anyway, that ended and the band morphed into a garage punk covers band called The Tombstones, doing the songs we heard on the Pebbles, Garage Punk Unknowns and Back from the Grave comps. We had an absolute blast and it truly was a fantastic time! All ended when I moved back to Wales but that led me in a different direction again with a more alternative type of style with a band called Laughterhouse. We released a mini album (recorded at Mighty Atom Studios in Swansea) and promptly started the slow implosion that led to our breaking up and me taking a (long!) hiatus from making music for anyone but myself!

In terms of what’s changed, I feel that the music “biz” has maybe been democratised somewhat with the rise of—and ease of access to—the streaming services and so on. Unfortunately, the biz has cleverly used this to rip us off to even greater levels than they had previously! I guess everything has changed, but everything has stayed exactly the same!

Yeah, no kidding! In addition to Thee Rakevines, your main gig is playing in These Thrilling Lies. I know that band has been described as a cross between the Doors and the Stooges, but I haven’t been able to find any of their music online. Is that by design, or am I just looking in the wrong places?

These Thrilling Lies is the band I put together with a good friend (Tim, drums) after years (and years!) of vaguely saying we’d do it! We then had Adam come in on bass and Liam on keys. Adam then left to pursue other projects and we brought Ed in on bass! Primarily a live outfit, we do have some stuff out there on the likes of YouTube (videos taken at gigs), but we’re yet to properly record and release anything, though we have firm plans to do so in the new year! That comparison with the Doors and The Stooges was made by someone after a gig—made my night!! We’ve also been told our sound is brutal. I liked that!

These Thrilling Lies

Like other bands, These Thrilling Lies had to take a break from playing live as a result of COVID-19. Was there a silver lining in that break? And what was it like returning to live shows?

Well, the enforced break meant we missed out on supporting the bands Space and The Courettes at The Bunkhouse, a fantastic venue in Swansea! That was a real disappointment at the time but luckily the gig with Space went ahead in 2021—and was a blast! Unfortunately, The Courettes gig remains not played which breaks my heart as they’re one of my favourites among the current crop of garage bands!

If there’s a silver lining it did force me to give myself a shake and start writing some garage punk type stuff again and led to the collective that is Thee Rakevines, so it wasn’t all bad! Getting back to live shows with These Thrilling Lies had been amazing. The appetite for music never went away for performers and audiences alike and you can almost taste the relief that it’s all back. Well, the relief and the sweat—brilliant!! Sadly, we now have some new (and much needed!) public health restrictions in Wales that mean gigs and so on are back on a hiatus. We’d just like to send some love to all the venue’s out there that are struggling right now—x.

The many moods of Adam Lewis!

You mentioned back in September that your wife gave you a Flying-V guitar to celebrate returning to live gigs. That plus your Squier Mustang and Tanglewood Rickenbacker tribute gives you a good selection of different sounds and—importantly—different looks. Do you bring all of your guitars to every gig? If not, how do you decide which to bring? And does your choice of guitar influence your playing?

The Flying V has been something of an in joke with us for many a year! A big hero of mine is Dave Davies of The Kinks and if you’ve seen photos of the way he holds his Flying V, let’s just say he owns it! So yeah, I used it at our first gig back and tried to emulate the always cool Mr. Davies! In terms of the Mustang, I’ve always loved the ethos of just playing what you have, doesn’t matter if it’s a charity shop find or an expensive guitar, and the Mustang was cheap as chips but certainly doesn’t look or sound like it! The Tanglewood Ricky rip off was my first “proper” guitar and I’ve been using it since the early 90s—massive sentimental value! I tend to only take the one guitar to gigs and it tends to be chosen depending on what I’ve been listening to and/or what I’m wearing, and while it may not influence my playing (I’m not that talented!) it does influence the shapes I throw on stage!

Just to geek out on guitars a minute longer, I’ve looked around a bit, but I’ve never been able to find a Tanglewood Rickenbacker clone.* How long have you had yours, and where did you find it?

I bought it at a guitar shop in Leeds in January 1995. It was expensive for me back in the day, but there was no way I could afford a real Rickenbacker at that time and it perfectly captured the look and sound for me—in fact, I still haven’t seen or heard a better copy! It’s still the guitar I use the most and it still sounds great even after so much abuse in my heavy hands! Apparently, Tanglewood stopped selling them after Rickenbacker got involved so I’ve never actually seen another one in the wild. Even better, I occasionally post a pic of it on the Tanglewood Facebook page. It never stays up for long!! I swear they’ve disowned the Tanglewood TW-61, but I’ll keep reminding them of it anyway.

Apparently you’ve passed the music gene on to another generation. Your son plays in a band called String Theory. What’s it like having multiple musicians in one family? How much of an influence do you have on each other?

To be fair, my kids (and my wife!) were the driving force in encouraging me to get back into music with These Thrilling Lies and then to get Thee Rakevines collective off the ground! Cian has provided bass and lead guitar (as well as mixing and stuff, and where he hasn’t, Liam, the keyboard player from These Thrilling Lies, has taken the reins! I’ve also had my daughter, Byddia, provide vox on a few tracks and she’s allowed songs that I could never do justice to to flourish! I think having all of us making music is just fab. There’s always something going on and we definitely influence each other, if only via genuine critique. They’re not scared of telling me when something is crap—most recent release a case in point!

Any big plans for 2022?

Well, we’ve got a few more in the pipeline with Thee Rakevines—massive thanks to Cian, Byddia, Liam and Tetley for contributions so far! And hopefully we’ll be getting some stuff released with These Thrilling Lies! Other than that, I’m just looking forward to hearing some new stuff via the music Twitter community. Heartfelt thanks to everyone on there that’s supported us over the last year including you Marc, The Negatrons, Silva, The La La Lettes, Tommy Clarke and many, many others—too many to mention!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Adam! I really appreciate it!

Thanks for having me man… Looking forward to some more stuff from you!!

*For non-guitar geeks, Rickenbacker guitars are incredibly expensive and have a pretty distinctive look. George Harrison and John Lennon played Rickenbackers in the early days of the Beatles, as did Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Tom Petty often played one as well. And I think the company is pretty quick to put a stop to any other companies making guitars with a similar look and sound.