Uncle Green/3 lb. Thrill
You Don’t Hear a Single? Then We’ll Make It a Double!
Fifteen Years After Recording It, Uncle Green (a.k.a. 3 lb. Thrill) Release Their Farewell Magnum Opus
After moving to Atlanta from their native New Jersey, where they’d been playing music together since early high school, from the mid ’80s through the mid ’90s Uncle Green were one of Atlanta’s brightest gems, crafting thoughtful, sincere rock and power pop songs for a devoted fan base. In 1997, following a one-album stint on Atlantic Records, a name change to 3 lb. Thrill and an album, Vulture, released by Brendan O’Brien’s short-lived Sony-backed 57 Records, the band began work on their seventh album, eventually recording 32 songs in a small rented house on Elmira Place in Candler Park, near Little Five Points. But, in light of Vulture’s disappointing sales, the powers that be at 57/Sony “didn’t hear a single,” as they say. After another batch of demos was judged unworthy, the band was let go, Ultimately, a subsequent deal with MCA collapsed, and so did the quartet, having had the wind knocked out of them by the whole experience.
So they grew up, and moved on. Singer/guitarist Matt Brown, one of the band’s two main songwriters, recorded a solo album in L.A., which also went unreleased. Drummer Pete McDade and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jeff Jensen completed college. Bassist Bill Decker and his wife welcomed their first child. Today they’re all raising families and settled in non-musical jobs – Matt does website design back in Jersey, Jeff’s in DC working in the historical preservation wing of the Government Services Administration, Pete lives in Decatur and teaches History at Clark Atlanta, and Bill’s in Atlanta doing some sort of computer work nobody seems to comprehend.
But a few years after they had their “breakup meeting” at a Starbucks in Dunwoody in early March, 1999, the guys started thinking about their unreleased album, Rycopa, thinking about how they all believe it to be the best, most expansive thing they’d ever recorded, thinking about where the damn tapes for it could be now and if the songs could even be released. 57 Records was long kaput. Southern Tracks, for many years O’Brien’s main studio of choice, eventually shut its doors. Russell Carter, the band’s onetime manager, didn’t know where the tapes were. Various swoops at finding them turned up nothing. Eventually, a series of emails between McDade and Sony Music in 2010 finally bore fruit: thirty reels of Rycopa. And it still sounded great!
So, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal in a day, they were able to finance the mixing and mastering (with Rob Gal), the pressing of the CDs (all 32 songs on two discs, as originally sequenced) and airline tickets for Matt and Jeff to come back to Atlanta for this month’s release party at Smith’s Olde Bar on Feb. 25, with an all-ages in-store performance at Decatur CD that afternoon. Viva Rycopa!
Brown, 46, and McDade, 45, offered a book of rad thoughts on the making and ultimate release of Rycopa (credited to both Uncle Green and 3 lb. Thrill, lest you prefer one name over the other). Here are some choice excerpts:
McDade: “Right before we went into the studio, into the house on Elmira Place, I remember that Jeff had a dream that we were gonna open for a band in Austin called Rycopa. And it was very exciting, because they were great and they were a really big deal. We all thought it was a much cooler name than either Uncle Green or 3 lb. Thrill. But we were smart enough to realize we shouldn’t change our name again! So we decided to call the record Rycopa. I think that’s another reason why it’s such a fond memory. We knew what it was going to be called before we even went in. So everything we did for this word that had no meaning, we could put the meaning of the stuff we were doing into that word.”
Brown: “I had a real sense before we made that album, that some members of the band were feeling marginalized and unfulfilled. I remember Bill telling me that he felt we’d never make an album where everyone really got to contribute in a satisfying way, and that was just the way it was. So I came into Rycopa thinking, ‘Fuck that. If this isn’t fun for everybody, then it’s not worth doing.’”
McDade: “I think at the time we knew that the last thing a band [should do] who’d released six records and none of them really sold anything is to go, ‘Okay, Sony, we have the answer! A two-CD set! And one that doesn’t really sound much like the previous record.’ So we figured that it would get narrowed down, and we were gonna fight for like 16 or 14 of the songs… I guess we should’ve realized that, given the time and given Matt and Jeff’s tendency to write lots of songs, that we’d come up with [so] many, but when we started, we just knew we wanted it to be different, and that we wanted to kind of ‘seize the day.’”
Brown: “It’s unquestionably the ‘truest’ [album] we ever made. Left to our own devices, with no outside/careerist/biz-minded input, it’s the kind of music we make. We write a ton of songs that are stylistically diverse, we experiment, we joke around, we ask friends to sit in. When you’re making single albums for a label, and you’re not an already established success, you’re trying to condense it into something cohesive that puts your best foot forward. That can make for exciting albums, because the band has something to prove, but there’s also no room or time to experiment and do something revelatory. We didn’t want to make another album like that. We just wanted to do what we really loved to do, and as a result, I think it conveys who were are as people and as a band many times better than our other albums do. It’s richer.”
McDade: “I think it came at the right time for everybody. We’d been in the studio enough to understand how recording works. Which is, sometimes things sound crappiest right before they sound good.“
Brown: “We started each day with a new song, with no plan whatsoever, and we let everyone do whatever they felt like doing. I think I played bass nearly as much as Bill did, because he was busy doing stuff that was more rewarding for him, like scoring violins or playing various keyboards. But it also meant recording some songs where only one or two members played, or where friends came in and played just for the hell of it. Rycopa was a 100% group effort, and everyone involved was totally fulfilled.”
McDade: “So we finished it. All excited. Best thing we’ve ever done. But 57 wanted a single they could take to radio, and they didn’t think there was a single in the 32 songs. As I remember, when Sony passed on it, Brendan in essence said, ‘You can have the tapes and do whatever you can with them.’ And if I could time travel, I’d go back to that drummer back then and say, ‘Dude – get the tapes!’ When I think back about what we could’ve done differently, ideally I think we would’ve tread water for about three or four years, and then [benefited from] the independent model with the heavy web presence and the selling-fewer-records-but-making-more-per-copy model that’s out there now. But we didn’t really look indie. We looked major. I think at the time we were all afraid if we went indie, to try and sell records in our thirties, perhaps that wasn’t the way to go.”
Brown: “I think Rycopa is surprisingly timeless. I heard a track from [1992’s] Book of Bad Thoughts the other day – an album I like a lot – but some of the production made me wince, because it’s so ‘of its time.’ Rycopa isn’t like that. To me it sounds equally like an album from a forgotten ’60s band, right down to the fact that it was recorded on tape and Auto-Tune didn’t exist yet. “
McDade: “Once Sony said they had it, it took us a couple months to negotiate what I guess has become a standard form for this – bands going back to rescue old tapes. ‘We’ll give you the tapes, you can do whatever you want to ’em, Any physical copy you sell, you get the money from. Any digital sales, we get the money from until we recoup.’ Which would be never. They would have to [be paid] back for all the recording of Rycopa, which they funded, and then Vulture, which lost money. So that’s why there are no digital versions of the record. We’re breaking even.”
Brown: “It would have made sense coming out in 1997, but it makes no less sense coming out today. Rycopa encompasses all sides of us better than any other album. Which is why we used both names on the CD. I can’t listen to our other albums, really, yet I do listen to Rycopa and always find something new and honest in it. The weary irony of the lyrics also holds up for me today. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “How did I know then that I would feel like this now?””
McDade: “I like to phrase it as we never actually broke up. I’m still in contact with ’em all the time, even though Matt and Jeff live in different states now. Aside from whoever we’re married to at this point, no one else will ever know each of us the way the others know that person. Which is a long-winded way of saying, I don’t foresee any gig after this, but who knows. If you had told me five years ago that we’d be having a release party for Rycopa, I would’ve asked what exactly it is you are smoking.”