This mp3 offers the entirety of Adam Fieled's 2004 album Ardent, produced and engineered by Matt Stevenson.
In January 2004, Matt Stevenson and I made plans to record a spoken word album. We had done one in 2002 called “Raw Rainy Fog,” and Matt had released it on his own little indie label, Radio Eris Records. I planned to call the new album “Princes and Enemas.” In two sessions we recorded about an hour’s worth of material. Matt was now living in a row of dilapidated duplexes off the corner of 11th and Webster Street in South Philadelphia. His studio occupied the third, top story of the duplex. It was heated only by a space-heater; one of the windows was missing some glass. As it happens, the studio windows overlooked not only Webster Street (which was narrow enough to resemble an alley) but the broad side façade of a middle school; and a massive and imposing façade it was. This meant that Matt preferred not to do too many daytime sessions— he didn’t want to incur the ire and recriminations of the teachers and administrators from across the street (or, even worse, the police). The studio space had a high ceiling; a large blue area rug covered most of the floor. Matt’s Pro Tools set-up was run from his computer against the south wall. As the windows faced north, the room didn’t get much direct sunlight. Because of this, and because Matt maintained the place in a ramshackle way, the studio space had a crepuscular quality.
Matt, by now, was probably stoned. The bowl we smoked out of while we were recording “Ardent” was a tiny green and white faux-ivory one— it was always grungy, and clogging was a problem too. I had probably had a single hit, which I often limited myself to if I wanted to stay sharp. Sometimes there was beer around, sometimes there wasn’t. In any case, I loosened myself up. Oddly and impetuously, I decided to improvise the four and a half minute solo while sitting on the amp, a classic Fender Twin Reverb. The fuzz pedal was pushed. I had the cans on. It was probably about 11 pm, and I either had to be at Barnes and Noble, where I worked, or U of Penn, where I was finishing my last semester, the next day. It was a nice moment— no stumbles, and I didn’t need to do a second take. I left that night with a CD of a rough mix of the song I called “Mars in Gemini.” I still thought it would be an add-on track to the spoken word album. Matt, it must be said, didn’t have too much invested in the project at this point. Even as “Ardent” developed, Matt never became attached to it. In his Cancerian way, Matt was always attached to his own band: Radio Eris.
They happened to be recording an album in the same place at the same time. Occasionally, sessions would overlap and we’d play “Ardent” rough mixes for Dan Baker and Lora Bloom. Now, the ritual started of doing one major session a week. Over the week, I tried to come up with music for another instrumental. What I composed to me sounded more like a ballad. I thought I might use fuzz-tone for the solo, but the backing track would be more ambient, something like early-period Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” As the session progressed (another cold January night, and as Matt mixed I huddled by the space-heater) and I laid down the arpeggiated guitar part, bass, and another drum loop, the thing just didn’t sound filled out. I decided to attempt another rhythm guitar track with fuzz-tone. Matt did a quick mix, with the balladic guitar track buried. Now, the track sounded like edgy, straightforward rock. So, I would improvise a lead track over it. If it didn’t work, we’d remove the two tracks and work from the ballad framework again.
I remember how the studio looked that night— the wonderfully garish overhead light, the sense of absolute urban darkness outside. It was like being marooned on a little third-floor desert island. Once again, I sat on the Fender Twin Reverb. As I played over the track, cans on, I found a way to add emphasis using the kind of licks Alex Chilton and Chris Bell used on “Feel” and “Daisy Glaze”; licks which came out of gospel, and were originally imported into rock by Robbie Robertson, among others. The whole track started to come together as a near Big Star pastiche; and the balladic aspect of the track was lost entirely. Still, it sounded good to me. I decided to call it, at the risk of seeming ham-handed, "El Goodo." Now, Matt and I entered a new phase with the project. He agreed that another spoken word album with a few songs was passé; also that “Mars in Gemini” and “El Goodo” together showed a lot of promise. The new idea was to do (maybe?) an album of instrumentals. Matt had another session that night after mine (I was out by 10 pm, and Matt now had work as a hired studio gun), and the guys who came in as I was packing up talked to me about “Mars in Gemini.” If I remember correctly, one of the band cancelled at the last minute, and their session ended before it began. Matt and I decided to troop down, in the biting cold, to the bar 12 Steps Down on 9th Street in the Italian Market, a fifteen minute walk. I bought the drinks; Matt was strapped for cash.
12 Steps Down was a bar with no particular ambience to distinguish it; a standard South Philly dive. Matt talked in guardedly optimistic terms about Eris, and Webster Street Studios. Eris had already gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap; but the core of Matt, Lora Bloom, and (by the mid-Aughts) Dan Baker was incredibly staunch. We also talked about “Rock Star Abe,” who was doing roughly what I was (a one-man album) with Matt at the time. In early ’04, the idea for the Philly Free School was percolating, but nothing had come to fruition yet. I looked forward (as was and is my wont) to the walk from the Italian Market to 21st and Race, Strat slung over my shoulder. Even in the dead of winter, I loved to walk around Center City Philadelphia. One of the things Matt and I discussed that night was equipment we might need if we decided to do an all-music album. I decided to buy maracas at 8th Street Music on 9th and Arch over the week. Matt had more pedals he wanted to borrow from different people. Over the week, I wrote another instrumental. I had watched the last one do a shape-shift routine in the studio; I wondered if the same thing would happen to this one. In a way, I had a new tack to take— this time, I deliberately underwrote. I wanted to leave the thing open to anything which might happen to it at Webster Street. I was still stuck on the instrumental idea; by the time the next session ended, Matt and I realized that we had blown a few fuses towards making a full-blown Philadelphia rock album. A certain spirit had mastered us.
By the third “Ardent” session, we were beginning to enjoy ourselves. As had become routine, I laid down an instrumental track and did some lead guitar work over it. The basic track included me making heavy usage of octaves— more in the manner of Jimi Hendrix and Billy Corgan than Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and the other jazz guitarists who used them. I also used a signature Clapton lick from “Badge” by Cream. The song had a key-change and a turnaround at the end I was pleased with. Over a bowl and in an up mood, Matt and I decided I should at least try to do something with the track lyrically. He played it over the studio speakers a few times, and I started scribbling. I was giddy— the weed we were smoking was speedy stuff. As I happened to be listening to a lot of Syd Barrett, I had his songs on the brain, so I started, “Lime and limpid/ trails of Eden/ cause I’m Adam/ and I’m feelin…” I reeled off a series of absurdist couplets in this manner; Matt played the backing track over the studio speakers one more time, and I got the rhythm and the cadence I knew would work. It was a Lou Reed rhythm, rather than a Barrett one. I left that night with a rough mix of the song, which we called “Bullett.”
Now, all inhibitions had been shed, and we were into the album proper. We had a run of very productive sessions. Some of our experiments didn’t work; “Justiner” was a two-part track, with a tempo and key change, and we just couldn’t pull it off. “Sweet Sweet Rock and Roll” was a song I had around then, so steeped in “Loaded” era Velvets that it never developed its own identity; and the psycho-trance ambient instrumental “Ololo” (“Lolo” was my nickname for Loren Hunt) opened up a gulf between Matt and I— he loved it, I thought it was weak. Usually, we would more or less agree about the strength of respective tracks. “Streetlakes” actually took a handful of sessions. To get the “layered” effect we wanted, we had to keep adding and subtracting. For the slide guitar track, we tried every amp/pedal combination available. I don’t quite remember what combo we settled on. I do remember doing the “keeper” take. Matt was sitting at his computer console. I was standing in the doorway of the studio space, from which a winding wooden staircase descended (murderous for carrying gear up and down). I had finally found the passkey to give “Streetlakes” its ghostly ambience— some bits of under, some bits of overplaying. After I laid down the slide guitar track, Matt laughed. He accused me of self-indulgent wankery, but it worked. For one of the “Streetlakes” sessions, I spent nine hours overseeing Matt mix. For every hour I spent lying around, smoking bowls and reading Matt’s books, a frantic twenty minutes would ensue during which I’d find Matt about to bury something in the mix I liked, or even to accidentally destroy a whole track.
This actually happened once— I had to redo the “Streetlakes” bass track. For some reason, the bass tracks on “Ardent” were all done standing up; probably because I had to concentrate more. The last session for “Streetlakes” was the one in which I did the spoken word section at the end. I’d written it beforehand at 21st and Race. I knew some of the references (Coleridge and Baudelaire) might be considered pretentious, but there was a point to how they were used, and it wasn’t a contrived point, so I excused myself. Matt had pulled a bunch of production tricks with the track, and I thought the result was highly interesting. So much so, in fact, that I did get frustrated, knowing the album would take a long time to reach a wide audience (if at all). I was already working on the song “Ardent,” and had decided to call the album “Ardent” too. It was a self-conscious tip o’ the hat to Big Star, who had recorded at Ardent Studios for Ardent Records in the 70s. I also knew that, as had been the case for Big Star, no matter how good the music was, it would take a long time to be heard. Matt and Radio Eris were still gigging, in Philly and elsewhere; I wasn’t. I refused to do the troubadour, guy-and-a-guitar routine I had done; and, as ever, I had horrible luck finding other musicians to play with. Not to mention, the Philly press corps were as uselessly inept as ever. They loved to invert things— what was great was terrible, what was terrible was great, and were more about dope deals than music. So I made my peace, as we were making the record, with the idea of gradual and incremental progress. Matt and I would put the record out, in a low-key, limited edition way. After “Streetlakes,” there was no doubt in my mind that a whole record was there to be made. It would nag both of us forever if we didn’t make it.
All the same, after about seven finished tracks (half the album), Matt’s energy began to wane. The sessions were taxing for him— I was demanding, and imposed a high standard (to the limited extent that I could, given our limited resources). Right as spring ’04 broke, Matt and I had a big row over some trifle I’ve forgotten. We took a few weeks off, and then I was able to get him to commit to the project again over the long haul. The spring weather turned out to be lucky for us— more often than not, we’d take our chances with the school across the street and do daytime sessions with the windows thrown open. That’s how we recorded the title track, also my elegy for Elliott Smith, and “Brown Eyes like His,” a holdover from my State College years. Gaetan Spurgin came around a few times to visit, and he and Matt, doing the same kind of production/sound-guy work at the time, commiserated. A good number of Philly scenesters had heard at least some of the “Ardent” rough mixes by this time— not only Loren Hunt but Stephanie Smith, Mary and Abby, and I even got the surly crew at the Last Drop to play them once. As we moved towards the summer and Matt was doing the final mixes, there was little else I could do to promote the thing. Matt put together the cover himself— a racy girl-on-girl picture he found online, and Photoshop. I began my creative writing MFA at New England College, and the Philly Free School began to take shape in Center City when I met Mike Land. Our intro to the Highwire Gallery was through Matt.
Mike, Nick, and Jeremy all got copies of the album; so did Gaetan. I remember thinking, at the time, that “Ardent” was progressing like poems (Donne’s) disseminated in manuscript form around royal courts in Europe in earlier centuries. The whole modern paradigm of success (especially in America) is massive popularity instantly; but that reaction is only accessible to a few. It’s also usually ephemeral. I was pleased with the “court” around me; they were all discriminating, educated artists. A few copies I know of found their way to L.A. and New York; even New Orleans. I was unable to find out if they did anything there. I also placed some of the tracks on the Philly website “Hinge”; and they agreed to carry it at AKA. Records in Olde City. If I learned something from the process of making “Ardent,” it was this: if you call yourself an artist, you have to do what you want to do because you want to do it, and not for any other reason. You make music because you like to and you’re good at it, and it’s worth doing for those reasons: that’s it. God knows, some gorgeous works of art have been created on commission; but patrons all those centuries ago had taste. In our modern age, there are a thousand ways to be a sham: to do it for the glamour, the money, the sex, the prestige, the idea of personal power over others. “Ardent” wasn’t by any means perfect, but it was real, and the blood, sweat, and tears behind it were real too. I even got Matt Stevenson to stick with it straight through to the end. I can’t think of that dilapidated strip of duplexes on Webster Street in South Philly without laughing. I’m sure there was at least one night we almost got killed (the front door lock only worked intermittently). And perhaps that’s for the best, too. Danger is not a poor stimulant.