Interview: Charlie Hall talks about the close-harmony vocal stylings of The Silver Ages
Tomorrow evening is the Fourth Annual Seasonal Evening with The Silver Ages. Since its start, the concert has become one of the most endearing wintertime traditions in the city.
The Silver Ages are a 13-piece close-harmony vocal group composed of some of Philly’s best indie-rock musicians. The idea was conceived by Charlie Hall—drummer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter—who has played drums with The War On Drugs, Windsor For The Derby, Tommy Guerrero, Jens Lekman, and others since he moved to Philly from San Francisco in 2003. Each year, the band has several special guests; this year it will be joined by Luke Temple of Brooklyn’s Here We Go Magic and Eliza Hardy of the Philly band Buried Beds.
The Key recently interviewed Charlie via e-mail about the history of the group and the music.
The Key: How did The Silver Ages start?
Charlie Hall: I moved to Philly in 2003 and was immediately struck by the community(ies) that existed within the music scene here. This feeling came after eight years in San Francisco where things felt much more “on your own”…Over the course of a couple years after moving here I met so many cool folks through music. For my whole life, music has been sort of a connector, and so it just seemed like a great idea to bring a bunch of people together—some of whom knew each other and some of whom didn’t—to sing and hang out and get into this kinda far-out thing that was equally foreign to everyone (traditional men’s chorus close harmony stuff).
TK: What kind of people do you usually find yourself bringing together?
CH: A lot of these guys are lead singers in their rock bands, but this is about being part of an ensemble and blending your voice. Some of these guys are drummers or just quieter fellas who have beautiful voices but don’t really use them in their bands. So we get together for the fun of it. No merchandise to sell, no records to hustle, no monthly gig at the (insert name of smelly club here). That was about five years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that it would become as special a thing as it has.
TK: Who are all the members in this year’s group? And has the lineup been the same over the years?
CH: The lineup has pretty much stayed the same with a few additions over the years…in no particular order: Dave Hartley (Nightlands, The War on Drugs, Buried Beds, BC Camplight), Gianmarco Cilli (National Eye), Heyward Howkins (The Trouble With Sweeney, Hong Kong Stingray), Shai Halperin (The Capitol Years, Sweet Lights), Todd Starlin (Like Moving Insects), Brandon Beaver (Buried Beds, Nightlands), Brian Christinzio (BC Camplight), Rick Flom (National Eye, Mitch Fiction), Dave Wayne Daniels (The Capitol Years), Josh Newman (Mitch Fiction), Dan Matz (Windsor for the Derby, Birdwatcher), Young Nick Krill aka “the new guy” (The Spinto Band) and myself.
TK: What’s the repertoire and who picks the songs?
CH: I select the repertoire. The arrangements are either done by me or come from my library of arrangements that I’ve collected over the years. Our repertoire consists of old Yale Song Book stuff like “Mavourneen,” “Shall I, Wasting In Despair,” classic barbershop ballads (“Heart of My Heart,” “My Wild Irish Rose”), turn-of-the-century popular songs, folk songs, mid-century popular jazz ballads, and the occasional Randy Newman (“Texas Girl At The Funeral Of Her Father”), Harry Nilsson (“Caroline”—actually a Newman composition), or a Leonard Cohen (“Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”) ballad. We have a sea chanty that I became aware of recently from a really great Richard Hawley recording called “Shallow Brown.” We also just added that sweet little tune that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing together in The Jerk called “Tonight You Belong To Me” (old Patience And Prudence gem).
TK: That covers a lot of territory.
CH: [B]asically, I try to keep it varied, but all pretty much within the four-to-five part, non-solo/background kind of thing. Anyone who’s been on a liberal arts college campus in the past 20 years can tell you that this whole “a cappella” thing has become a beast. This is not about beatboxing and vocal acrobatics. This is about the ensemble and creating a blend, with no one voice more important than the other. Plus, I’d sooner attempt a vocal rendition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle before you catch us beatboxing a Chili Peppers or Black Eyed Peas song. Excuse me, Chi-Peps. Anyway, not my bag. I mean, I get it…it’s popular music. I guess the double standard is that everything we do was popular music at one time, just not now. And, just to be clear, this is not some ironic thing. It’s completely sincere. We love this stuff.
TK: What was your earliest exposure to this kind of music?
CH: Well, I’m really fascinated by the whole Mills Brothers/Four Freshman/Beach Boys “rock music as we know it” continuum, at least as it pertains to harmony. My dad had a mysterious 10” LP growing up that just said “The Salamanders: 1954” in silver embossed letters on the cover. Turns out it was a men’s chorus from the University Of New Hampshire where he went. I’d listen to it over and over…all crackly and ancient sounding. I especially loved the one called “Cocaine Bill And Morphine Sue,” which we have brought into The Silver Ages’ repertoire. (Spoiler alert: they all die.) Then when this teacher of mine, Dave Perry—who, truth be told, was the athletic director at my school but ended up being the greatest de facto music teacher I ever had—pulled together me and a few buddies in high school to do some casual singing (mostly from the Yale Alley Cats repertoire, with whom he sang in the 1970s). I started to really explore the whole history of close harmony singing in America.
TK: Can you remember any particular favorites?
CH: The Four Freshmen really blew my mind—cuts like “Poinciana”, “It’s A Blue World”, and “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” (which The Beach Boys faithfully recreated in 1967). The Mills Brothers’ rendition of “Nevertheless” is a killer, too…Growing up in the 1980’s, I think I speak for many of us by saying that Bobby McFerrin certainly showed what one can do with just the human voice. While The Silver Ages don’t necessarily have much to do stylistically with what Bobby does, his spirit is absolutely joyful, playful, and coming from a place of pure love of music. I sat at the table next to him at a restaurant a few months ago, and I swear to god the whole time he was just smiling, quietly singing with his daughter along to The Beatles (who were on the stereo) and playing drums on this legs. Pure joy. And I think more than anything, that represents what The Silver Ages are about—making music for the love of music.
The Key: Has The Silver Ages ever recorded? If so, are there any recordings that the public can have?
CH: No, we have not recorded, but this might be the year. My pals Ben and Chris Swanson over at Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans have an imprint called St Ives that does vinyl-only releases, and we’re talking about doing something with them. Each cover will be uniquely hand-screened and painted. It’ll be a really cool package and memento of this whole venture. I reckon there’ll be drink recipes, food recipes, and other ephemera involved. In addition to singing together, The Silver Ages also eat and drink together. As of now, these annual holiday shows have been a really special way to share this music (and a whole lot of Pimms Cups) with our friends and families. We always invite two guests to perform solo sets, and are thrilled to have Eliza Hardy Jones, from Buried Beds, and Luke Temple, from Here We Go Magic, this year. In years past we’ve had Scott McMicken, Birdie Busch, Nick Krill, Quinn Luke (Phenomenal Handclap Band, Incarnations, Bing Ji Ling) and Justin Luke (Smoke and Whisper). Somehow in the process, each becomes an extension of the Silver Ages family.