The Weisstronauts' newly released debut album 'Featuring Jaunty' is a striking and clever collage of contradictions and ideas. It is an instrumental album that is not really an instrumental album. It is comical and humorous, but it is also thoughtful and serious. While it has moments in which it is deliberately gimmicky and playful, there are others also in which it is more abstract and experimental.

Pete Weiss, the group's frontman and leader, is a well known Boston producer and engineer. He has co-owned Zippah Recording Studio for the last twelve years, and has worked to great critical acclaim in various musical genres with acts which include the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Magic 12, Paula Kelley, Charlie Chesterman, Seks Bomba and former Velvet Underground members, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule.

Weiss is also a talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and has run for many years a second career as a musician. As well as 'Featuring Jaunty', which was released in March, he has also recorded four other albums, on each of which he has combined together zany humour with a musical versatility and eclectism.

The first of these, 'The Astounding World of Tomorrow's Modern Hi-Fi Audio' was a solo record and came out on Noisy Revolution Records, a now-defunct Massachusetts label, in 1996. His next two releases, both of which were released on another local label, Section 304 Records, were with his previous group Pete Weiss and the Rock Band. The former of these, which is self titled, was released in 1998, while the latter, 'We're an American Band' arrived some months after the Rock Band split up, in March of last year. Weiss has also recorded another eponymous album with a side project Sool, which came out on a small Boston label Stereorrific(the subject of a Pennyblackmusic interview last month) in September.

The Weisstronauts formed in mid 1999, shortly after the Rock Band--which had been together for four years--folded amicably when its guitarist Stephen Fredette, who was recovering from heart surgery, decided to take an extended break from the music business. Weiss had originally planned to start up his solo career again, but soon instead decided to found the Weisstronauts with the Rock Band's other member, drummer Emily Jackson.

"My initial thought was that I would start with a clean slate." Weiss explains, returning for a second interview with Pennyblackmusic. "It was nothing against Emily. I just thought that since Stephen was bowing out it would maybe be fun to start something completely different. I played with a few other drummers, but then I realised how much I missed being in a band with Emily. She is a great drummer, and we know each other really well, and so we formed the Weisstronauts."

The Weisstronauts initially consisted also of bassist Kevin Quinn, who has worked with Weiss in Sool, and guitarist/accordianist Peter Linnane, who is an engineer at Zippah and who has toured as well with the Willard Grant Conspiracy. When Linnane, who still guests occasionally with the group, dropped out of the band on a regular basis after a year to concentrate on his forthcoming solo album 'The Shady Tree', the Weisstronauts expanded into a quintet and recruited two additional guitarists, Ken Lafler and Aaron Tap. Lafler is also a member of the group Baby Ray, while the busy Tap plays guitar with Paula Kelley, sings in a Bees Gees tribute band called the Boy Joys, and also runs his own small label Stop Pop 'n’ Roll Records. The Weisstronauts has also found Weiss switching from the bass, his original instrument of choice, to the guitar.

"In the last year or so of the Rock Band after Stephen had his surgery, there was a period when he could only come to about half of the gigs," Weiss says. "We had various interim line-ups and some of those would involve bass players, so I would switch to the guitar in these temporary line-ups. I had a lot of fun doing that, but I also realised then how much easier it is to sing when you are playing the guitar. When you are playing the guitar, you are generally playing with chordal information, and it is a lot simpler to sing along with that than it is to sing against the rhythm of the bass. I suddenly found that I could sing a lot better. I had always felt a little awkward playing bass and singing at the same time. It had never come naturally, so I decided to switch from the bass to the guitar on a regular basis."

The Weisstronauts recorded the majority of their first CD, a Christmas EP, 'I'm Dreaming of the Weisstronauts' Christmas', with Peter Linnane still in the group, in the last fortnight of 1999. Released eleven months later in November 2000 on Stereorrific to coincide with the following Christmas, it begins where the Rock Band ended and once again combines together a largely vocal humour with an experimental edge. Its five tracks include a breakneck paced country and western version of 'Jingle Bells' and a waltz-style 'Silent Night', upon which Quinn's young daughter appears with an increasingly exorbitant Christmas wish list. There are also two of the Weisstronauts' own compositions, a grumbling blues number, 'Nuthin' Comin' Good This Christmas' and a psychedelic "lullaby," 'Sweet Baby Jesus'. It concludes with a live recording of the old Eartha Kitt number, 'Santa Baby', which features Weiss' wife, Mel, on lead vocals.

In the interim period between the Christmas EP being recorded and released, Weiss, largely as a result of his production work experiences, had become increasingly interested in the instrumental form and its possibilities. Over the course of that year, he and the other Weisstronauts made the decision to make their first album almost entirely instrumental.

"We morphed into it over the course of the first year of the Weisstronauts existing" Weiss reflects. "We still do a lot of vocal numbers, and in fact when we play live we do about half and half. In the past year and a half though I have spent a lot of time working in the studio with a lot of other instrumental bands."

"I have been working with Chris Brokaw from Come on his first solo record, which is entirely instrumental. I wasn't really producing on that one. I had more of an engineering role. That was a tough project. It was just Chris playing all the instruments himself, so that made things very difficult to set up in the studio. I had to set up a situation where he could jump from the drums to the bass at will. I have been involved with Seks Bomba too with their second album (Largely instrumental surf spy group, the subject of a Pennyblackmusic interview last year-Ed) and I have also been working with a Western swing band called the Spurs and the Coronet Premiers, which is Rich Gilbert, Frank Black's guitarist's group, and which is again entirely instrumental. Those four major instrumental records got me really interested in the instrumental form."

"What we have tried to do in the Weisstronauts," he continues "which is slightly different from some other instrumental acts is try to stay in major keys for the most part. That made an interesting challenge because a lot of major key instrumentals can sound hokey. They can sound dated. I wanted, therefore, to do a major key instrumental album that did not sound hokey, or if it did sound hokey, sounded hokey for a reason."

'Featuring Jaunty' which again has come out on Stereorrific, incorporates music from a variety of styles including jazz, lounge, country, psychedelia and rock 'n’ roll. It is, like Weiss' other records, an extremely funny album. On its sleeve, there is a photograph of Jeff Mellin, Stereorrific's owner, sitting at a diner counter, dressed in a monkey costume, as the Jaunty of the title. Although the album is instrumental in name, and does not have any lead vocals on it, in homage to Kevin Quinn who Weiss originally invited to join the band because of his lyric writing and harmony singing abilities, it features the bassist on "backing" vocals on a few of its tracks. While Weiss' albums in the past have tended to rely upon verbal wit to create a lot of their comedy, much of the rest of the humour on Featuring Jaunty' is, however, derived from sound effects and sudden and abrupt changes in key and mood. Musical prowess though has an equally important part to play, and many of the songs have been recorded, not just with the sole aim of being funny, but also as a test of the band's talent and skill.

"There are some songs on there which aren't necessarily supposed to be funny per se." Weiss reflects. "A lot of the time we just wanted to show off our instrumental ability. There are a lot of guitar harmonies and counter-melodies on the album, for instance, that you don't often hear with this style of music."

"With some of it, such as the title song 'Jaunty', we were definitely, however, trying to be funny. Or at least satirical. That song starts off with a bad ass roadhouse riff. We sound on it like a really hack roadhouse boogie band, and then all of a sudden it turns into a fifties pop-jazz style tune--like you're suddenly at the roller rink drinking a milkshake. It switches back and forth between those two styles for a while, and then in the middle it changes into a Steely Dan style tune just for a moment. We had a lot of fun with that."

Four of the fourteen tracks on 'Featuring Jaunty' were recorded in Nashville, toward the end of the Rock Band's existence and before the Weisstronaut's official start. These were initially part of what Weiss thought would be an all-instrumental solo record. Those songs feature Weiss's old friends Malcolm Travis (formerly of Sugar and the Zulus) on drums and Rich Gilbert (of Frank Black's Catholics as well as the Coronet Premiers and formerly of the Zulus) on guitar and dobro.

The remaining ten tunes were recorded at Zippah, mainly in the spring and summer of last year, and feature both of the two Weisstronauts line-ups. The songs were written in a variety of ways. Some of them were written by Weiss, working on his own. On other occasions individual members of the group would bring basic ideas for songs to band rehearsals, and then the rest of the group would flesh them out and develop them. Others still came about as a result of improvisation in the studio, being recorded often with whoever was available, and on blank spaces at the end of the band's master tapes.

"That's one of my favourite ways of recording," enthuses Weiss, discussing the latter method . "When you are in the studio and recording, and have only about a minute and a half of blank tape. Tape is very expensive, and we, therefore, did a couple of songs on 'Featuring Jaunty' like that. One of these is called 'Route 40'. It was Emily's idea. She was at Zippah one day, and suggested that we do a country waltz. But because we only had a tiny bit of recording tape we could only make it last a minute and half of so. We recorded just the guitar chord structure and the drums, and then later Peter Linnane and I devised a melody for it with accordion and steel guitar. I am really happy with it. It is one of my favourite tunes on the album, but it would never have happened if we had had the right amount of tape."

'Featuring Jaunty' has met with critical acclaim, and the group has already begun work on a follow up.

"We envision another CD's worth of instrumental songs," says Weiss. "In maybe about another year or so we are going to push our luck and put out another instrumental record. We have a song called 'Sprightly' and the plan is for the next album to be called 'Featuring Sprightly'." We want to do the two albums as a set, and have a similar cover on the second album to the first one, and then, after those first two instrumental albums, we are going to do an all vocal one."

The Weisstronauts are also playing regular shows in and around Boston, and have their first Eastern Coast tour lined up for this summer. Impulsive, contradictory, intelligent, they seem destined to have a long and certain future.

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