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

MCCC Student Profile

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine asked me to write a profile on the Sound Recording Technology program at Montgomery County Community College. Here’s a link to the article I wrote: http://www.mc3.edu/about-us/news/87-about-us/news/9345-student-finds-his-passion-in-mccc-s-sound-recording-music-technology-program