"We recorded the basic tracks in a just a few days," says Wayne Robbins, referring to his latest offering with the Hellsayers, All You Need to Sleep. "It was right before we went to Europe. Then I moved. That was when everything started getting complicated."
That was two-and-a-half years ago. To say that things got "complicated" is a gross understatement. Things got damn near impossible.
Just as the band was beginning work on its sophomore effort, Robbins uprooted to central Virginia with his wife — they have since moved back to Asheville — leaving the fate of the album up in the air. The move, he says, was a simple matter of necessity and practicality, but one that would prove to be a major obstacle in finishing All You Need to Sleep.
"My wife got a tenure-track teaching position at a university in central Virginia," he explains, "so we just kind of up and left. We didn't know what else to do. She needed a job. There were no jobs here. We had strong ties to Asheville, but we just kind of said, 'All right, let's go.'"
Robbins, who was teaching English at Western Carolina University at the time, kept his job and took on a five-hour commute. In the evenings, he retreated to Silvermine Recording Studio in Madison County — a converted school bus repair shop — to self-record bits and pieces of the album during the few hours his hectic schedule allowed.
"It's so funny," he says of the studio. "The basic tracks of the first album were recorded at the Grey Eagle on an off night, and that's an old school-bus repair shop, too. We have two albums recorded in two separate school-bus repair shops that are no longer repair shops."
Meanwhile, the rest of the band followed suit, slowly piecing the songs together in their down time. The process, Robbins admits, was not only unorthodox; it was a bit confusing.
"We were never out there at the same time," he remembers. "There would be parts of songs where the track just stopped halfway through, where someone just gave up. There was no oversight by anybody else. We all did as much as we could."
And then there was the money. Recording an album is expensive, especially when it comes out of pocket, and Robbins says financing was a constant concern.
"We were always running out of money and trying to figure out how to come up with more," he admits. "We couldn't play any shows because I was in Virginia, so we couldn't use the band to generate any money. I just funded it myself, you know, with family money. That worked fine. The only problem was that I would have to stop work for like six months while I saved up more money."
Miraculously, Robbins and co. eventually finished recording and began the final stages of mixing. But that, too, proved to be an arduous process. After scrapping the first mixes with producer Dave McConnell, mixes which Robbins "knew could be better," the band brought in Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement) and almost put the process to rest.
"That was a really good moment for the project," he recalls. "As soon as I got there, it was like, 'He knows exactly what's going on.' I could leave the room for three hours and come back, and it would sound pretty much exactly how I had envisioned it."
But money reared its ugly head again, and the band could only afford to mix six of the 12 songs. "I had half an album," Robbins jokes. "So many times in the process I was thinking this was never going to come out. It was becoming our Chinese Democracy."
However, Robbins has no regrets about taking his time and getting things right. "My kids are going to listen to this album when I'm dead," he says. "I take it very seriously. I want it to be something that they can listen to and go, 'Wow, I can't believe dad did that.'"
The result is a shoegazing blend of dreamy melodies and soaring atmospherics that Robbins calls "a little less Americana and a little less Neil Young-y" than the band's debut. "We slowly got louder, to the point where we're pretty loud now," he says with a certain pride. "So I wanted an album that wasn't afraid to get really distorted and loud, even on a quiet pop tune."
Now that the album is finally completed, Robbins and the Hellsayers are "really enjoying" the opportunity to "go back to what it's all about, playing live" in rehearsals. On Saturday, they will celebrate the culmination of the nearly three-year process by performing the album in its entirety at the Grey Eagle, where the band first met (in 2001), rehearsed its early material, performed its first show and recorded its first album.
"We couldn't have it anywhere else," Robbins says enthusiastically. "We love the Grey Eagle. We've been rehearsing there and it sounds so good. It's the best rehearsal spot in town, so we're totally spoiled when it comes to that. And the Grey Eagle is a huge part of the history of the band."
And if you happen to catch one of the promotional posters for the show, take note of the album art. Robbins says it's the cover of his dreams, literally.
"I had no idea what to do with the artwork," he explains. "And one night I dreamed I was in a record store, like Harvest, flipping through the CDs when I saw this album, and I was like, 'Shit! That's it! But somebody else did it first.' And when I woke up and I checked online and I looked everywhere but I couldn't find it.
Hard to believe?
"It sounds like bullshit," Robbins acknowledges, "but really, it's true."
[Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
who: Wayne Robbins and the Hellsayers, with Mad Tea Party and Shinola Troubadours of Possum Splendor
what: CD-release show for indie noise-rock band's All You Need to Sleep
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Feb. 27 (9 p.m. $6/$8. www.thegreyeagle.com)