Sounding Out the City by El Michels Affair gets a deluxe reissue a decade later
Leon Michels and Tommy Brenneck reminisce on the original sessions.
“I think Sounding Out the City is one of the most important records to come from this whole NYC soul scene,” says one man who knows a few things about the revival of soul that emanates from the city. That man is Tom Brenneck, who was a contributor on the album, along with many others since then with the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Menahan Street Band, Budos Band, and Bronx River Parkway, to name a few. “It incorporated sophisticated horn arrangements for the first time in the New York sound,” he continues, “but was also a record that made you wanna move.”
Almost a decade ago, Leon Michels said, “I was really just recording songs for fun in my bedroom at my parents’ house, and then a record sort of started to form.” That album is now being reissued after a remastering, alongside a bonus disc of alternate mixes and other material of the time. Vinyl lovers will be happy to know that the bonus disc is also being issued as an EP called Loose Change.
The instrumental album is full of emotion, as both Brenneck and Michels are quick to point out when asked to describe the album. “I called it cinematic soul,” Michels elaborates, “because it always sounded to me like movie music. Even though it was instrumental, all the songs had really strong moods, and it felt like they had a sort of narrative even without lyrics. I always liked that the record has such a strong mood, and it creates a little world that you enter when you listen. That’s also probably why ‘cinematic soul’ felt fitting for the music.” Brenneck chimes in, “Soulful, beautiful, and tough all at the same time, it’s a very New York–sounding record.” Michels notes that he wasn’t singing back then, nor did he have experience working with a vocalist, a major reason the album ended up without any lyrics.
The album itself is concise, yet fulfilling. “The songs that made the record were just the most finished and best of what I recorded during the period,” he remembers. It doesn’t even crack 35 minutes. In fact, the album was even shorter to begin with. However, Michels and his bandmates agreed that it needed another track to fill it out. As he recalls, “The Mighty Imperials’ guitarist Sean Solomon started playing the guitar line from ‘Hung Up On My Baby’ by Isaac Hayes and then Nick Movshon, the bassist for the Mighty Imperials, put a reggae beat on it. The song was more or less a cover of the Geto Boys’ ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me.’ The guitar line is the only thing we used from the original Hayes track.” A few years later, the band tackled a few more Hayes cuts for an EP after having tracked “Hung Up On My Baby” for this album and “Walk On By” for the Rewind! 5 compilation that Ubiquity curated to showcase modern bands covering classic (and sometimes overlooked) tracks.
The Mighty Imperials was an important step for Michels. Aside from being the first band he was in, he notes that it was the first time he saw how a record was made. Gabe Roth, who was a founder of both Desco and Daptone, produced and recorded the band. It was an experience where Michels was an avid student. Beyond that, he obtained some equipment to record Sounding Out the City. “Gabe gave me a reverb unit and a two-track, as well as some drums and mics. The guitarist from Antibalas gave me a Tascam 388, which I recorded the entire album on.”
It was through a friend at Scion that helped get El Michels Affair further noticed. Paired with Raekwon for a concert series that backed rappers with live musicians, Michels remembers the time fondly. “The first show was at the Canal Room in NYC. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been a part of. It went so well that we did a couple more shows with additional members of Wu-Tang.” It was also the beginning of a professional relationship that ended up bearing further musical fruit, including a 12-inch with Raekwon and an album of instrumental covers of Wu-Tang classics. Brenneck quips, “It’s funny that more people know and praise the 37th Chamber album when Sounding Out the City is a far more original and unique record.”
Aside from the uniqueness of the material on Sounding Out the City, it was the first full record that Michels produced and presided over all aspects. Beyond the recording, he paid great attention to mixing and album art. “When I made the album, I was listening to a lot of Lee Perry and Derrick Harriott, which influenced the sound. To this day, reggae records from the early ’70s and late ’60s are still my favorite-sounding records of all time.”
The album concluded essentially when he moved out of his parents’ house and moved in with his girlfriend. A few straggling tracks such as alternate mixes and some other “odds and ends,” as he calls them, are now being released on the aforementioned Loose Change EP that includes “Little House.”
Brenneck continues, “The record was nearly done when I first met Leon, but I got to work on one song from the ground up with Nick on drums, Leon on bass, and myself on guitar (and overdubbing additional guitar) on ‘Yennicita.’ Aside from that, I walked in on a mixing session for ‘Behind the Blue Curtains’ and overdubbed some lead guitar on it.” The sessions bore more than just the creation of the record, however. As Brenneck concludes, “My contributions to that record were small, but it was the start of a long and fruitful recording relationship. And friendship, of course.”
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