Smile Politely

Wicked melting pot

You can learn a lot by talking to a musician who has been playing for over two decades. I happened to learn that unbridled rockin’, like cardeo, is harder over the age of 30. (Both are just as necessary.) That’s not all I learned from J. Caleb Means…

Smile Politely: Who makes up Wicked Walls?

J. Caleb Means: Wicked Walls is a melting pot of Champaign musicians: Andy Davidson and I both came from New Ruins; Scott Kimble comes from Terminus Victor; Justin Gee comes from Chemicals and Lindsey Barr played with You in Midair. We all have very different backgrounds and tastes in music, which adds to the unpredictability of our sound. Creating a unified sound is the challenge and something that doesn’t happen overnight. But we will be better for it. Different backgrounds and tastes in music are what create interesting and innovative bands.

SP: What will we hear on your new album?

Means: What you will hear on this album is the beginning of this metling pot of backgrounds and tastes. Even though I wrote all the songs for the record, the other members bring their differences to the live performances. Over time, we plan to write more together. It’s really just the beginning and this first record is a great opportunity for the five of us to come together. This current line up has only been together for 10 months!

SP: How is that different from other manifestations? How has the band changed over time?

Means: It’s a bit slower growth when you get over 30 years old! Houses, kids, jobs, etc. keep you from being able to play multiple times per week. We practice once a week and really have to figure a lot of stuff out in a short period of time. But it works because we feel the “crunch” time and don’t mess around at practices.

I suppose a lot has to take place in the first several months. Justin and I both play guitar and we’ve spent several months defining our guitar tones and we’re still really doing it! Scott hadn’t played drums in a long time so he’s working hard getting his chops back. Lindsey and I are learning how to sing together and experimenting with vocal pedals and effects. There’s a whole lot to do in the first year of being a band that goes way outside the realm of simply practicing songs. You try to define your sound. Hell, some bands spend their whole lives defining their sounds! We get closer every time we practice.

SP: Sounds like you’re making it work — adult responsibilities and all.

Why do you love music? Why not some other passion?

Means: I’ve played in bands for 20 years. It’s just what I do now. I mow the grass. I wash my dishes. I go to work. I play music. It’s just something on my list of things that has to get done every week.

If I hadn’t got into music production and engineering 10 years ago, I may have lost some interest in music. Production keeps me energized and focused. There is always something to learn. It’s my paint and canvas. I really love having the duel thing happening. A person like me could possibly get bored just playing guitar and writing songs. I need the duality of being lyrically and musically creative along with being technically proficient as an engineer.

I’m amazed at the folks who can do so many things in their lives! I feel pretty busy most of the time. I’ve been a home owner for two years and I love working on the house. I also watch Bears football and try to keep up on books, movies and TV shows, but those areas definitely suffer most of the time! I just can’t seem to get it all done, but I’m not complaining. I’ll be really old one of these days and can do all that stuff then.

SP: We always ask for more time and money, but our lives expand to use it all up anyway. Just enjoy!

How did you get into sound engineering? You’ve been doing that a long time, but not as long as playing so…. what’s the story?

Means: I operate a little basement studio that I call Boombox Studios. It got that name because, when I was a kid, I used to record all kinds of things onto my Emerson duel cassette deck. Looking back, I have always been really into recording things. After high schoo, I moved to Michigan and studied film/video production because there was a small time frame where I wanted to make movies. My last year there, they started offering audio production courses and I took them all. I had been in bands that had recorded in studios prior to that but had only acted as a musician, not an engineer. Honestly, I was hooked from that point.

After graduation, I bought a computer and a bunch of recording gear and I haven’t touched a video camera since. I’ve been lucky to have amazing friends like Paul Chastain and Aaron McCallister who help me problem-solve and learn new techniques. I think I enjoy production because you can never perfect it. From song to song, record to record, you always improve. Same goes for writing songs. So I guess that’s why the two go so well together.

SP: I always say the key to creation is to never quite be satisfied. Always move forward and improve!

How has the production end changed, technology wise, over the past decade? What basics stay the same?

Means: My best friend, Elzie Sexton, and I recorded the first New Ruins record together with an M-Box and Shure 57 microphones. It was as bare bones as you can get. But what a great learning experience. A lot of people tell me they like that first record best. It has a very low-fi vibe and the production fit the songs. I learned that you can make something sound good with very little gear and experience. There were also a lot of mistakes and accidents. Happy accidents, as I like to call them -some standard techniques of today were discovered accidentally. That’s a cool part of inexperience that I miss.

Since then I’ve invested in a lot of gear, I read and I talk to friends who record. I can answer more of the how and why questions that I couldn’t before. I try to always maintain the same level of creativity. If you get too wrapped up in the technical, you forget to be creative! There is definitely a balance that you have to find. I’m still trying to find it.

SP: So tell me a little bit more about the new album. What does it mean to you? What are the guts in it?

Means: God, it’s been almost two years since the record started. It means a lot just to have it out there. I’m thankful for Jim and Geoff with Parasol/Hidden Agenda. They have always had faith in the projects I’ve been involved with.

A major theme of the record is starting over and doing something new. Wicked Walls is a new band, a new sound, new themes, new people. It’s easier to keep doing the same thing. Nobody likes change. We’re definitely still in that transitional period but I think we’re all enjoying it.

SP: Clear this up for me: The album is from two years ago, but the newest manifestation of the band is not on it. Who/what is different?

Means: Roy Ewing was originally going to carry over from New Ruins into Wicked Walls. He just opted not to play any longer and be home with his wife and kids more. Roy and I both played drums on the record. Scott Kimble joined us on drums last May. Justin Gee came into the mix about a year ago. The record was basically finished when he started, but we did go in and have him lay some addtional guitar work on a few of the tracks. Lindsey and Andy have been around all along.

SP: Sounds like one of the typical C-U band stories. It can be hard to balance an artistic life with a domestic one. What’s the plan going forward? What does Wicked Walls have in store for us?

Means: We just want to keep practicing and get better as a band. We’ve made really great progress in just a year and it only gets better going forward. I’m looking foward to writing together more and getting out of town more often to play shows. The first year is really an attempt to get everyone on a similiar level. After that are when things really start to open up.

Wicked Walls’s album is officially out today, but their release show is scheduled for Saturday, May 3rd at Cowboy Monkey. They plan to have a few surprises for that show. “Release shows, at least for me, have always been a great opportunity to do things a little different and put on a more entertaining show.” I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Related Articles