Show & Tell

Strings Attached

The last time D.C. art-rock quintet Beauty Pill was in the studio, the group didn’t exactly stick to its modest recording budget. Not by a long shot.

The band ran up a deficit of more than $10,000 during the production of 2004’s aptly named The Unsustainable Lifestyle—excess costs that, in keeping with longstanding DIY D.C. rock tradition, members of the band had to pay out of their own pockets.

In planning for their forthcoming untitled effort, drummer Ryan Nelson, bassist Basala Andolsun, guitarists Drew Doucette and Chad Clark, and newly added New York–based violinist and vocalist Jean Cook, hoped to avoid a similar jam.

Estimated cost of production: $6,000. Financing offered up by the band’s local label, Dischord Records: $3,500.

Where would the band pick up the extra $2,500 to make ends meet? Parents? Bake sale? Concert T’s?

Nope. The group went to a more deep-pocketed sponsor: the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH). The commission, according to its Web site, offers several funding programs to “support and promote stability, vitality and diversity of artistic expression,” including the Young Artists Grant Program, which hands out awards of up to $3,500 to applicants between the ages of 18 and 30.

At age 30, Nelson, also the group’s only D.C. resident, just made the cut. And back in October, he submitted a 21-page proposal laying out an extensive recording plan designed “to create an album with a much higher sonic quality than the budget of an independent label allows.”

In January, the DCCAH cast its vote for sonic superiority, awarding the band its requested funds.

Grant money generally works great for painters and writers—sole practitioners with limited accessories. But government rules and regulations aren’t exactly an ideal fit for a self-described political band seeking “the stimulation of working outside of the sterile laboratory-like environs” and “the freedom of expression away from the oppressive, expensive ticking of a studio clock.”

In fact, Beauty Pill’s recording plans have evolved so much since its application was submitted that its members aren’t certain whether the DCCAH will even let the group touch that money—or whether the band wants to fool with all the red tape that’s involved. “We’re trying to figure that out,” says Cook.

This week, Nelson planned to meet with DCCAH officials to iron out the issues. His wrangling with bureaucrats grinds against the band’s otherwise leisurely agenda, according to its Web site, of “[w]riting and thinking, making sounds.”

And keeping its fans in the dark. The band’s site makes clear its policy of cloistering the “ambitious plan for our next release....It wouldn’t make sense to describe it here because if we succeed, describing it will spoil it for you preemptively and if we fail, you will hold us to it!”

Yet the Pill had no problem divulging its ambitions to the grant reviewers at the DCCAH. “Using the approach outlined in the project description,” the proposal states, “we plan to make a CD of the same quality as [Lifestyle] with a price tag that is more affordable since we are not in a position to spend our own personal finances on another release like the last one.”

That was six months ago. The approach is now “completely different,” Cook admits.

For starters, there’s the scope of the actual recording.

Original grant promise: “to record a high quality full-length album” over three weeks in April 2005.

Modern rock reality: “Next month,” Cook says via e-mail, “we’re going to check in and see where we are with all the songs and pick our favorite 5–7” for a shorter-length EP. “It’s rare that people endure an album from start to finish, the way they would a movie,” e-mails Clark. “It’s an ideal that is rarely achieved, I think.”

Then there’s the location.

Original grant promise: The Pill would forgo Alexandria’s pricey Inner Ear Studios, which charges a daily rate of $350 and is where the band had spent most of its five weeks of work on the prior album—a process described in the liner notes as “short bursts of hot activity punctuated by long periods of disorientation and reorientation.”

Who needs a studio, anyway, when you’ve got a human sound board like Pill strummer Clark? He’s also a recording engineer who once remastered iconic D.C. punk band Fugazi’s back catalog and presently owns most of the necessary recording equipment.

Instead, the group proposed “recording at a home in Toledo, Ohio”—that is, the historic mansion owned by former Minor Threat drummer and Dischord co-founder Jeff Nelson, who, the application notes, “will not charge us.” The house “has a number of interestingly shaped rooms, including a ballroom that we would like to exploit for their varying acoustic properties.”

That plan budgeted approximately $608 to fuel and maintain Nelson’s Ford E-350 van for the 475-mile trek from D.C. to Toledo.

Modern rock reality: Forget Ohio. “The hardest part was getting the time off work to go to Toledo for two weeks,” says Cook. “That, and the house didn’t really have heat as it turns out.”

Instead, the group now plans to record a little closer to the District. “My parents live in McLean in a house that has a large room with wooden floors and a grand piano,” says Cook. “Acoustically, it seemed to be just as interesting as our friend’s house in Toledo, and it’s way more accessible.”

Then there’s the equipment.

Original grant promise: “All that is needed is microphones,” including the band’s preferred Neumann KU100, which retails for around $8,000—but which Beauty Pill intended to rent, along with two less pricey mikes, for three weeks at the low, low price of just $2,050. A worthwhile expense for what Clark calls the “almost eerie you are there experience” it creates. “The binaural microphone is shaped like a mannequin head,” he explains. “Its microphones are in the ears....If you put it very near a sound source, say a drum set, it gives you a very fishbowl perspective...a sort of exaggerated stereo dimension. It’s surreal.”

Modern rock reality: The band isn’t sure it even wants that pricey dummy-head mike anymore. And renting, it seems, is right out. The group now intends to chip in with another group or two and buy that stuff—whatever models those turn out to be. “We haven’t settled on the microphone we’re going to buy with the collective,” says Clark, “but we’ll probably want a tube condenser with multiple patterns.”

And Beauty Pill isn’t ruling out future changes, either: “Our plans have been pretty fluid, and they’re still evolving,” says Cook.

Such fluidity, one could argue, is simply the nature of art—but certainly not the nature of bureaucracy. And the DCCAH and its award recipients are bound by certain rules on how its grant monies are used. According to the agency’s published General Grant Provisions Fiscal Year 2005: “Grant funds may be expended only for purposes set forth in the proposal as originally approved or subsequently amended and approved.”

In other words, if Beauty Pill still wants that money, it’s going to have to submit a new write-up of its oft-revised plan. “The grantee basically needs to present the reason why something needs to be modified,” says DCCAH grants manager Jose Dominguez. “They’ve got to present that in writing.”

Each time, in fact, that the band makes a significant change to its plan, the DCCAH will have to be notified—a potentially daunting amount of paperwork, considering this band’s track record.

And that’s just the beginning of a slew of accounting the band will have to do in order to utilize those civic funds. There’s also payment-request Form 803, itemized financial-narrative-report Forms 804 and 805, and the always-easy-to-understand Internal Revenue Service Form W-9.

“Government grants tend to be a headache with the paperwork,” admits Cook, who previously dealt with DCCAH grant rules while producing Bob Massey’s opera The Nitrate Hymnal, which received a $1,000 award.

“Will it be worth it for Beauty Pill? Dunno,” she says. “We’re going to have a sit down to deal with a lot of stuff next month, and by then things will be a lot clearer.” —Chris Shott

Got something for Show & Tell? Send tips to show@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 455.

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