south bend tribune - 2.20.11

Pop Souvenirs
Decade of collaboration yields album for musicians
Tribune Correspondent
Joshua Hensley and Jerry Crist Jr. have been collaborating since the minute they met. Literally.

The first minute.

"I stopped by his apartment, walked in, and he handed me a guitar," Hensley says. "He hit 'record' on this little tape recorder, and he said, 'Let's write a song!' "

A mutual friend, Brendan McQueen, had encouraged the two to team up.

"A little over 10 years ago, Brendan told me that Jerry had the Grampa Akk Akk radio show, and that he might like my music," Hensley says.

At that time, Hensley was a member of local alternative-rock band Space and Noise Productions. He has maintained a high profile on the scene since then with the group Sad Tropics and with his ongoing solo project, the Rutabega.

Crist's Grampa Akk Akk show is a long-running music and theater act on Nocturne, the after-midnight program on WSND-FM (88.9). Crist and friend Renie Campoli have operated the show over summer and Christmas breaks for well over a decade.

Another Nocturne host, Mike Doty, a friend of Crist since they were in high school together, often joined in on the creative jam sessions with Hensley, and soon the three became efficient working partners. Commitments to other bands precluded any major collaboration right away, but a steady trickle of co-written songs emerged nevertheless.

"There were times when they were working on a song and they'd call me and say, 'Hey, could you come over and put a bass line on this?' " Hensley says. "Any time that we did manage to get together and hang out, we would always end up writing songs and recording."

By 2009, there was enough quality material to fill an album, and at that point, Hensley, Crist and Doty decided to put the band on the front burner. Crist and Doty had used the name Souvenir for their own duo, and they all decided to call the new band Secret Souvenir.

On Feb. 27, Secret Souvenir will throw a release party for the album at The Vine in South Bend. Proceeds from the concert go to benefit Mosaic in Northern Indiana, a company that provides services for people with intellectual disabilities.

The album consists of clever pop songs, straightforward enough to appeal to fans of mid-period Beatles but also screwy enough to pull in fans of indie rockers such as Guided By Voices or Butterglory. Although the tone of the lyrics is generally upbeat, a bittersweet moment comes during the final track, which contains a sample of an old answering machine message with McQueen's voice on it: McQueen died in 2008, and the friends decided to include him on the project he was instrumental in inspiring.

Some of the most appealing sounds on the CD come out around the peripheries of the songs — an extra line of vocal harmony or an additional layer of guitar overdub — and Hensley says that the musicians just relaxed and added as many sounds as they felt like adding.

"We just let our imagination run wild with the recording," he says. "We could put three keyboard parts on it, 13 electric guitars."

This philosophy certainly served the record well, but what does it mean for the live performance of the songs, stripped away from their overdubs? The good news is that the material has such a solid foundation that there should be no major drop in effectiveness when Secret Souvenir plays live.

"We have to trust that the songs are strong enough, even without the overdubs there," Hensley says.

The live incarnation of the group features drummer Dan Hoffman, as well as Travis Howie, who provides guitar and some synthesizer. Doty and Hensley alternate playing guitars and bass. Crist plays the broom.


"The only detail I can divulge is that it lights up," Hensley says.

Naturally, the set list will spotlight most of the songs from the debut album, but there will be a handful of extras as well. A few unreleased Secret Souvenir songs are likely to pop up in the live set, as are covers of the Beatles' "One After 909" and Paul McCartney's "Darkroom."

All three musicians are very much focused on Secret Souvenir at the moment, and this is too great an investment to dismiss as a mere side project for any of them. Still, Hensley tries to see the big picture.

"The Rutabega is something I'll still be doing when I'm truly an old man," he says. "Mike has a band called Ceiling Star. They have some albums out, and I'm sure he'll continue to do that. And who knows what the future holds for Grampa Akk Akk?"