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Points and Lines 

Architecture and Orange Peels

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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Ask most musicians about recording, and they’ll stress the importance of finding a studio with the ”right vibe,“ a place whose character and surroundings are especially conducive to creativity. Many of today‘s studios have a readily identifiable ”sound“ (not to mention snack machines, video games, pool tables and attractive receptionists), but you can often give your grooves greater sonic character by recording in a more offbeat environment. Just ask the Rolling Stones, whose Exile on Main Street positively drips with the fetid dankness of Keith Richard’s French Riviera basement, or the Cowboy Junkies, whose defining album, The Trinity Session, is as hushed and spacious as the old church in which they recorded it.

Or ask Allen Clapp of the Orange Peels, whose new So Far CD was written and recorded entirely at his modernist tract home in the Silicon Valley burg of Sunnyvale, California. Built by developer Joseph Eichler, who between 1949 and 1974 dotted Northern California (as well as sections of Orange, Thousand Oaks and Granada Hills) with some 11,000 Frank Lloyd Wright--influenced residences, Clapp‘s house is an airy expression of the post-World War II California -- all open spaces, exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. ”It’s like walking into the past, or into the future,“ says Clapp. ”Or into the past version of a future that didn‘t happen.“

The same description could easily apply to So Far. Filled with ringing guitars and sun-drenched melodies, the Orange Peels’ music is as optimistic and unmistakably Californian as an Eichler tract home. Though neither explicitly nor intentionally ”retro,“ So Far puts a fresh and beguiling spin on the holy pop trinity of the Byrds, the Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach. Warm as a place where ”It‘s the middle of March, but it feels like summer“ (”So Far“), the album’s 11 songs boast a pristine jangle and a compositional strength that directly echo the clean lines and geometric layout of their birthplace. But according to Clapp, the Eichler connection only became clear when he was pressed to come up with an image for the album cover.

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”I don‘t think I was conscious of it until I was panicked and trying to put the artwork together the week it was due,“ says Clapp, who shares his Eichler with bassist and longtime love Jill Pries. ”We had been living in this house for a year, and it hit me one day as I was driving home, ’Oh my gosh, I‘ll take a photo of this globe lamp and really zoom in on it.’ I started taking pictures around the house, and it struck me that that was what this album should be -- a total reflection of this sort of living space and California Dream kind of thing.“

If Clapp, Pries and their fellow Peels (lead guitarist Larry Winther, drummer-keyboardist Bob Vickers and drummer John Moremen) had had their druthers, So Far would have been recorded in a professional studio. Unfortunately, frosty relations with their old record company, Minty Fresh -- who released the band‘s acclaimed Square CD back in 1997 -- put the kibosh on that idea. ”Minty Fresh seemed at a loss as far as what to do with us,“ laughs Clapp. ”We would hand them demos, and they’d say things like, ‘I don’t think this is going to further your musical career.‘ They finally just sent us a letter, releasing us from all ’further obligations.‘“

New York indie SpinART picked up the band last summer, by which point half of So Far had already been recorded at Clapp’s house. ”We figured that we‘d eventually get the chance to record these things in a studio somewhere, so we just belted ’em out live,“ Clapp explains. ”Then SpinART sent us some equipment and turned me onto some cool recording gear, and all of a sudden we were making a record for SpinART! It was a huge relief, being free to record in our garage and just have fun with it.“

For Clapp, who includes the Web address of the Eichler Network preservation society in So Far‘s booklet, there’s also a touch of personal symmetry to recording an album in an Eichler home. ”I actually grew up in an Eichler in Foster City, halfway between San Jose and San Francisco,“ he says. ”I spent the first 12 years of my life in one of those. I always thought my friends‘ houses were really weird, because their homes were so boxy and closed off. When I was in seventh grade, my parents bought this two-story house in a different neighborhood, and I never felt at home there. It was way bigger, but it felt more claustrophobic. It’s just been a part of me since day one, I guess.“

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