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On First Thought 

Nocturnals' guitarist Benny Yurco goes solo

click to enlarge Seth Kaufman and Benny Yurco
  • Seth Kaufman and Benny Yurco

In a studio behind Burlington’s Battery Street Jeans, Benny Yurco punches a plastic lamb’s sneering face. He repeats the gesture down a row of animal heads: frog, duck, black-eyed cat. As he punches the dismembered heads, attached to a child-size keyboard, they emit digital moos, quacks and bowwows. Yurco smiles and bends his ear to the device, pleased when he finds the chimeric groan he seeks.

Yurco has been here at Sound Loom Recording Studio for three days, recording a solo album, This Is a Future. The guitarist considers the project — which includes sounds from the animal keyboard — a “sonic extension” of his work as one of Grace Potter’s Nocturnals and with the band Blues and Lasers. Fresh off a recording session with the Nocturnals in Los Angeles and before he hits the road for a stadium tour later this spring, Yurco is reveling in the creation of this solo album, which he says offers unadulterated space for expression. “I’ve spent the majority of my career backing up bands,” he says. “Now I want to let loose.”

To coproduce and play drums on his record, Yurco flew in Seth Kauffman, the brains behind the North Carolina-based band Floating Action, which opened for the Nocturnals last year. “Everything is effortless with Seth,” says Yurco, who cites Kauffman as one of his favorite musicians.

Ari Abedon, the Nocturnals’ merchman and a friend of Yurco’s, plays Rhodes piano on the record. “At first I thought Ari was, like, this Christian cult guy,” says Yurco. Abedon had been reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son on the tour bus when they met. “Turns out he’s a Jewish guy from Newton, Mass.,” Yurco says. “We hit it off, and from that day on I was like, ‘You’re my role dog.’” Also on board for some tracks is Blues and Lasers bassist John Rogone.

For mastering, Yurco selected Don Grossinger, whose work on the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic and with the Rolling Stones inspired him.

Oliver Gebhardt runs the Marble Street studio, which he built last year with help from Yurco’s older brother, Chris. The place has an artisanal flair, with hardwood floors, mahogany leather furniture, wooden noise-reducing panels (hand carved by Gebhardt), Oriental rugs, and both vintage and state-of-the-art recording equipment.

Gebhardt and Yurco grew up together around Ringwood, N.J. “We were the longhairs,” says Yurco, whose less-than-angelic behavior earned him a request from his private Catholic high school that he not return. Gebhardt graduated from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona.

Yurco and crew entered Gebhardt’s studio with most of the album’s songs unwritten. “We wake up, grab coffees, have thought-provoking conversations, go to record shops, then get to work,” Yurco says. “Capturing our first thoughts on this record is essential.”

The influences on what has become a 13-track “patchwork quilt” range from Otis Redding and the Master Musicians of Joujouka to Brian Eno and Dick Dale. Three days into recording, the musicians have cut six tracks with no sign of sputtering ambition.

“We’re just gonna go in and bang on shit,” says Kauffman during a recent studio session, as he leads Yurco, Gebhardt and Abedon into the live room to record a tribal drum motif for the song “The Times They Were OK.” Kauffman offers the group more direction once they get inside: “Let’s aim for that Joujouka sound.” No one says much. Kauffman elaborates, saying, “Let’s gradually build up the tempo and ride that out.”

The analog equipment Gebhardt uses to record gives the music a smoky parlor bent. Vocals and drums arrive through an analog tape machine from the early ’70s, and a 24-track Otari captures the sound on two-inch tape.

While recording “Undertow,” a dynamic surf instrumental, the band plays so hard that the dated tape jumps its sprockets. Yurco’s studio mandate, “NO PANICKING,” fortified in red crayon on a scrap of paper taped between the studio’s two rooms, is suddenly apropos. The nonchalant engineers use the malfunction as a wildly original transition into the album’s last track, “Do No Wrong.”

“There’s a lot of ‘Did they just do that?’ on this record,” Yurco says.

Before ending a long day’s session during the week of recording, Kauffman proposes Yurco chase the tribal drums on “The Times” with a noisy guitar. Yurco grabs his baby-blue Jazzmaster with matching headstock — a gift from Fender after he earned a sponsorship from the company — and sashays into the sound booth. It is well past midnight. Gebhardt turns the lights down in the control room to better see Yurco’s densely bearded face floating in the red glow of the sound-booth lamp. Yurco plucks a few loud notes of distorted twang, amplified through a 1965 Ampeg Gemini.

“Sounding ridic,” says Kauffman at the controls.

Kauffman hits “record” and the analog tape rolls to speed. Beginning with hesitant phrases, Yurco’s guitar lines evolve to trace his falsetto vocal melody, then transition to noise, then shredding.

Yurco exits the booth and returns to the control room. “Can you work with anything in there?” he asks. He’s confident in his guitar playing but abides by a humble mantra: “No selfishness. No ego.”

Following their week of recording, and before sending off their tapes, Yurco and Gebhardt sit together in the studio in reflective melancholy. John M. Ortiz’s The Tao of Music: Sound Psychology lies within reach on an end table. Kauffman has flown to Atlanta to play foot drums and bass (simultaneously) with singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth, and the room feels empty.

“I’m super sad it’s over,” Yurco says.

“Yeah, man,” says Gebhardt, “I’m so bummed out.”

Despite their laments, they’re clearly proud of what they’ve accomplished.

“It’s the most true and honest I’ve ever been,” Yurco later says via text message, “meaning my heart is bleeding in the lyrics and music.”

As the album advances through the stages of postproduction, Yurco has plenty to look forward to. “I can’t wait to go out and tear it up again with Grace,” he says. The Nocturnals play at the University of Vermont on Friday, March 30, for a gig Yurco considers “quite a trip”: opening for the President of the United States.

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