A Sideman Steps Forward

Labor of love. Labor of love. Labor of love. If I had a nickel -- wooden or otherwise -- for every time I've read (or overheard) someone recycle that soggy cliche, I could quit this writing nonsense tomorrow and pursue my dream of climbing Pamela Lee's breasts unaided by Sherpas.

But now seriously, folks, there has got to be a fresher way to describe the vicissitudes of the creative process. We have got to start establishing some standards. The preparation of Jell-O products, for instance, should not be characterized as a labor of love. Nor should winning the Super Bowl (which involves not love, after all, but shrewdly deployed violence). The production of your average Hollywood film is not -- for the benefit of Peter Travers I will repeat: not -- a labor of love. It is a labor of determined capitalistic intent, perhaps, and sustained stupidity certainly, but not love.

How then, to describe, Where the Hell Am I?, the long-awaited debut album by Matthew Sabatella. Having listened to the record over and over, and having discussed with Sabatella its unbelievably protracted recording process, I'm tempted to call it a you-know-what. But that's not even enough any more. It's been devalued by hyperbole. Thus, I am left grasping for phrases. "Creative jihad"? "Crusade of blessed anguish"? "Glorious testament to perfectionism"?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Rock-crit pith just isn't going to cut it on this one. No, to understand just how much of himself Sabatella put into this startling twelve-song collection, you need a brief history at least.

So let's pick it up a bit more than two years ago. Sabatella had already parted ways with his brilliant Fort Lauderdale troupe the Broken Spectacles and had begun playing his own material with a quintet called, confusingly enough, Sabatella. He was now determined to record an album. "I was basically sick of making excuses," the 29-year-old songwriter explains. "Everything I would give out -- a demo, or a tape of a live show -- was accompanied by excuses. I wanted something that I couldn't make excuses for. Besides, I realized that making a CD, which used to be considered this big deal, has become, like, the starting point for a band."

Sabatella had an armful of songs, a solid band, a loyal local following, and -- thanks to his peerless bass playing on numerous side projects -- the admiration of virtually everyone in the South Florida music scene. All fine and well. But there was still the matter of recording. And that proved more trying than Sabatella could have ever imagined.

The first stop was South Miami's Pink House studio, where Sabatella laid down preliminary tracks for a couple of songs. The ball was rolling. But the next recording session didn't take place for weeks. Sabatella's schedule was hectic, as were those of his bandmates. "We kept booking sessions and having to cancel the night before," Sabatella says. The band finally tromped into the studio on a Sunday morning, determined to lay down drum tracks. Which is precisely what they were doing when the police showed up. It seems the neighbors were less than thrilled with the group's percussive efforts.

"Everyone was like, 'Okay, that's it,'" Sabatella recalls. "But I knew how long it was going to take to set this up again and I wasn't going to wait. I said, 'No way are we going to stop. Let's keep going.' The room we were in wasn't soundproof, so we starting duct-taping sleeping bags and blankets over the windows, anything to pad the sound."

By this time, however, Sabatella (the band) was beginning to drift. Sabatella himself realized that he was going to have to simplify the recording process. Lead guitarist Brian Franklin, a former member of Mr. Tasty and the Breadhealers, suggested that they record the songs at his house, which was outfitted with a new eight-track. Over the next eight months, the duo laid down the framework for all twelve songs, with assistance from various studio hands, including recording engineer Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra. Equipped with a demo he felt was ready to mix, Sabatella approached engineer George Feldner, a friend whose work with local bands such as Suzy Creamcheese and Trophy Wife Sabatella had always admired.

"I figured it would take two weeks to mix," Sabatella says. "That was a year and a few months ago."

Indeed, what happened next was a tangle of delays so convoluted you would need a stenographer to keep track of them. The first interruption was a call from the manager of the band Muse. The former Miamians, now based in Atlanta, were recording their major-label debut for Atlantic and wanted Sabatella to play bass. "At first I told them, 'No way. I just started mixing my album.' But then I started talking to some people and I realized that it was a good opportunity," Sabatella says. "Plus, the guys in Muse are my friends, and I love what they do."

Off to Atlanta went Sabatella. He returned to Miami a changed man. "I had been recording in someone's house, in a situation where we weren't even allowed to turn the amps up too loud. All of sudden, I was involved in the recording of this major-label record. I started holding myself to a slightly higher standard."

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