I am not a producer. Until Polymath, I had never produced a full length record, single, or any song that wasn’t my own. On a daily basis I spill my soul into the voice memos on my iPhone and then into Garage Band. Those ideas then get carried into the studio of a producer who assembles all the ideas into a colorful sonic landscape of instrumentation. This gets paired with (what I hope) are compelling lyrics that pull my listeners into the world I’m attempting to create.

I’d never thought about sitting in the producer’s chair. Playing the role of self absorbed, neurotic, and overly dramatic “artist” had been the old hat I’d worn my entire career. I’m great at it. Sit me down and tell me why my lyrics aren’t the greatest set of words penned since Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in The Wind” and I can bleed enough tears to fill the Grand Canyon. Most artists are emotional, blindingly optimistic, romantic and……annoying.

The thought of sitting in a room with another group of musicians as difficult to work with as me sounded worse than being a third wheel on Valentine’s day. However, this all changed last April when I first heard Polymath. We shared a stage together at Anderson University for a college event. The music blasted out of the speakers and hovered out over the crowd like a cloud of angels. I saw the people’s reaction to Polymath’s songs and could tell they were all drunk on joy; Everyone in the crowd was swept out of their college exams, financial burdens, personal insecurities and slammed headfirst into the eternal gift of the present moment. Watching them sing, dance, and smile like a bunch of care-free hippies flooded my heart with so much hope. Not just a fleeting hope, though. It was the kind of hope that starts in your heart like a spark and then the warmth spreads like fire throughout your body so your insides feel the way your skin does when you take a hot bath after a cold day. I live for these moments. When the never stopping car of time shifts into neutral long enough for you to catch your breath and remember what matters, this is what’s important. Taking deep breaths, feeling your heartbeat, laughing with strangers and remembering we are all human beings meant to enjoy the life we’ve been given.

That was the first time in nearly ten years of being in the music industry that I had loosely entertained the idea of taking a band “under my wing." After the show the band invited us to Cookout and I ate my weight in french fires and oddly cheap cheeseburgers. However, at that moment in my life I didn’t have enough strength to take anyone, no matter how much I believe in them, under my wing. After that night in Anderson we finished the tour, headed home, and I carried on with my domesticated life of writing songs in the basement and taking long walks in the evening with my wife. Mid-summer I got a call from Polymath’s guitar player, Tanner, inquiring about my interest in producing the band’s upcoming EP. My initial thought was “no way." However, after taking some time to think over his proposition and talking about it with my wife I decided… still no way. Not for me. No way. But Tanner was persistent. He kept calling and I couldn’t shake the idea of pouring into Polymath’s songs from my brain. I was finishing the writing of my new record, preparing for a 9 week tour, and mentally prepping myself for the studio. There wasn’t enough time to dedicate to someone else. I was also terrified. I have little music theory knowledge. I know nothing about engineering. At best I could sit in a room, listen to the band play and tell them why I thought they sucked and offer suggestions on ways to arrange the songs for less-sucking. Tanner liked this idea. This also appealed to Shannon, who is highly trained in music theory and arrangement. She’s been my songwriting editor for eight years and counting, which has been no small task; I carry songs up from the basement and lay them out on the table while she’s sipping coffee over breakfast and replies with the usual “I’ve heard better” or “Hmmm...maybe think that one over” or “Probably shouldn’t play that one again”, but every once in awhile she’ll say “That’s good! Yes, I like it. That one had potential." Without fail she’s always right. So I pitched Tanner the idea of Shannon & I tag-teaming the project with the much needed assistance of an engineer. Utilizing her music theory background and my sense for pop melody, and adding the brainpower of Jay Arrington’s engineer madness we thought we could do a good job. Tanner accepted the offer.

After tour we headed to Spartanburg to begin making Polymath’s EP. Pulling up the long driveway to Jay Arrington’s Greenbriar Studio. I was so nervous. I thought, “Can we do this? Have we bitten off more than we can chew?” My mind replied, “No you can’t do this. You suck, and yes we’ve bitten off more than we can chew”. After coming to terms with the fact that we were in way over our heads, we decided to go inside and fake it. Great work involves risking more than you can afford to lose. Polymath had a lot to lose and we didn’t want to let them down. Walking in we met Jay: A tall, well built, clean-cut southern gentleman with a smile. Luckily, he was also a brilliant producer and engineer. He, Shannon & I flowed through the recording process like a set of triplets born attached at the hip. He knew what I was going to suggest before I opened my mouth. Jay could take what we were hearing in our heads and make it a reality. Not many people have this gift.

We reunited with Logan: A tall, long-haired, hippy-ish intellectual guy who looks like he hasn’t had anything to eat in over a month besides a pile of J.R.R. Tolkien novels. Yet, underneath it all he has a heart filled with a deep wonder. This endless well full of love, romance, and poetry is the birthplace of every Polymath song. We gave Tanner a huge hug and it felt like home. Tanner, a skinny dude clad in selvedge denim, a white Jaguar guitar hanging from his neck, and has a baseball cap glued to his head AT ALL TIMES. There’s a depth to Tanner I think most people overlook. He is a walking avalanche of compassion, joy, and talent. Behind the drumkit was Richie: A slick, well-groomed dude with eyes tucked behind his glasses. He is a smart, funny, and kind-hearted team player.  He is one of the only drummers I’ve ever heard who plays to serve the song instead of jockeying for every possible chance to sprinkle in another distracting drum solo. His parts support Logan’s melodies and hold the songs together. Lastly, there was Joey: Bass player extraordinaire. If Richie holds the band together, Joey is the blood that flows through the body that is Polymath. A man built out of steel in the hills of New Hampshire, with a heart broken for people and a mind full of questions. These are Joey’s tools: He uses them to stand up for what’s right and true. Joey serves as the band's much needed mediator.

To be honest, my greatest takeaway from the project can be summarized in two parts. I’ll start with part one:

We songwriters are sensitive. We hold onto our ideas like a little girl clings to the doll she got for Christmas and will gladly beat you to death if you even softly suggest the possibility of improving her precious doll’s appearance. Example:

Band Member: “Hey your doll looks dirty. Maybe give it a bath.”

Songwriter: “Hey, maybe you could go play in traffic and not criticize who I am as a human being.”

Working with a songwriter requires the honesty of a priest and the precision of a heart surgeon. As a producer you aren’t just trying to make someone’s ideas better, you are spreading out little pieces of who they are on a table and suggesting that maybe some pieces aren’t as pretty as others. Maybe some dolls should be thrown into the garbage. No matter how tenderly and thought out the suggestions are all a songwriter will think is, “No one loves me. Everyone hates me. I’m gonna go eat worms. I’m worthless.”

Working with Logan taught me one great lesson: It is a privilege to serve another artist who has entrusted you to help shape their art. It’s heavy and intimate work. Being an Obi-Wan to a Luke Skywalker is incredible and I don’t ever want to mess with “The Force.” On the first night of recording I made some suggestions to Logan that probably felt like I was making him swallow a bowl full of spiders. I didn’t like the headspace the suggestions had put him in, so I immediately told Logan to take the next day off and let the band work in the studio with Shannon and Jay. The next day I took Logan out to lunch and the two of us talked, and talked, and….. talked. I got to know the man behind the songs and collected vital information that would better inform how I approached offering suggestions in the future. Ultimately, I realized these are Logan’s songs. His band of brothers and I exist to offer our advice on what we think could benefit the songs, but he had to be the one to pull the trigger on the ideas.

Second lesson:

Relationships and people are far more important than music. What amazed Shannon and I was not the songs, (The songs are brilliant, the band is insane and you should definitely buy the EP when it comes out), but beneath the music was a tribe bound by love, hope, creativity, and the idea that life is an ocean we’re all in together. While we still have breath in our lungs the important thing is that we listen to each other, love each other, serve each other, fight with each other. However, it’s probably most important that we remember to sing, smile, and dance like a bunch of hope-filled hippies.

 

  • Mike Mains