I started The Chairman Dances in the fall of 2010. For the first five years of the band’s existence, we quietly made albums – we released about one a year – and performed them in basements and bars as far from our homes in Philadelphia as the price of gasoline would allow and as often as we were beckoned. The highlights of those albums and shows were modest but meaningful enough to keep us going: a journalist or DJ heaping praise on us; a few concertgoers staying late to introduce themselves and say we gained them as fans. I have one particularly blessed memory of the band swimming in the James River outside of Richmond. We had been stuck in traffic for hours on a blistering July day and the cool water of that wide river was as good as anything on earth.
The summer of 2016 was slated to be like any other. We had released an album called Time Without Measure and, as ever, sent it to every like-minded writer and DJ we knew. This time, though, the album stuck. Publications I grew up reading, like Magnet and The Big Takeover, wrote glowing reviews. This was strange and—let me tell you—exceedingly heartening. The album made it onto CMJ’s Top 200 chart, which means it was one of the most played records on college radio. Months later, Tom Robinson of the BBC said we were his new favorite band. We toured and, this time, were picked to open for Rhett Miller of the Old 97s, whose songs I had learned to play in my college dorm room.
For the next year and a half, I did little else than work my day job and write, one particularly great tour notwithstanding. I wrote without any thought of recording, mostly because I couldn’t afford to make the album I had in mind. We had recently begun working with Daniel Smith, who runs a proper studio and who has made some of my favorite recordings of Sufjan Stevens, Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), and his own band, Danielson. This extra time, a forced sabbatical, allowed me to put songs aside and revisit them, off and on, for months; I’ve never had the luxury of such a season of editing: lyrics, instrumentation, every piece of every song had the freedom of changing into something better, and it often did. During this period we added a second keyboardist – this development changed our sound dramatically, as did many guests musicians (including my neighbor, Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner of Magnolia Electric Company) who signed on to be a part of a new album that was beginning to take shape, one more complex and deliberate than anything we had attempted previously.
We recorded the majority of Child of My Sorrow live, in just a few takes, in Clarksboro, New Jersey, over the course of one weekend. Following this, there were weeks of experimentation: we sent the recorded drum tracks out of a mixing console and into a synthesizer to manipulate them; I had Ezgi and Maddie, our guest string players, repeatedly strike their priceless instruments with the wood of their bows to get a percussive-sounding note. With the help of chairman-dancers Luke Pigott and Ashley Hartman, we took the album on the road, recording overdubs in Philadelphia and Chattanooga; a number of vocal tracks were recorded by Ashley in Galicia, Spain.
It’s a relief to give up something I’ve clung to and considered for so long. It’s a relief to pack a bag and climb into a car with my bandmates, Dan Comly, Kevin Walker, Dan Finn and Will Schwarz, to perform this album on tour. We’ll see you out there.
Child of My Sorrow