Many artists have been inspired by the bleak sterility of the modern hospital, with its conflicting roles as place of healing and prison—among them Dalton Trumbo, Ken Kesey, Lars von Trier and Susanna Kaysen (perhaps better known as the author of Girl, Interrupted). In 2001, local guitarist and singer Jason Smith added his name to the list when a sudden stomach illness put him in the hospital for two days.
“I had an attack from something bad that I ate, and just lost so much fluid,” recalls Smith. “They put me on an IV, and I was in the hospital for a night and the next day. It’s still a mystery what happened.”
The experience had a lingering effect, leading to a recording project called Night’s Bright Colors. Made up of Smith, local producer Matthew Mauney and a rotating cast of contributors—including members of old-school local bands like Scrappy Hamilton, Greenwich Mean and The Spoon Benders—the resulting recordings turned into something that Smith refers to as the “hospital concept.” Over the course of four years, he recorded songs based on this concept, eventually compiling them onto the 2006 release, Love in the Asylum.
“I decided to make it a mental institution because I was fascinated with the idea of being incapacitated, you know, in a hospital, but still being able to have a sort of full life in your own mind,” he says.
Another inspiration for the asylum aspect of the album came from one of Smith’s musical heroes—Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s tormented founding vocalist. Smith’s songs are built out of thin, wispy vocals and ultra-poppy, effect-drenched melodies driven by guitar, keyboards, violin and—on occasion—cello. On songs like “Collide” and “Kiss Kiss Oh,” the Barrett-iness comes through, as do tinges of Robyn Hitchcock and more modern indie acts like Neutral Milk Hotel.
Even more inspiration came from a source closer to home. “My aunt was autistic,” says Smith. “And that had a big effect on my family. My mother is a writer who wrote a memoir that dealt heavily with her experiences of having an autistic loved one.”
One might think that such a project, a record based around a single concept that spans more than four years and a total of four separately released disks, might get a bit frustrating—even tiresome—to continue working on. (In fact, the final part of the album, The Patient’s Notebook, isn’t due for release until next year, although advance copies will be available at their upcoming Grey Eagle performance.) Not so, insists Smith.
“The concept of the hospital-and-patient theme was just a vehicle, which I allowed myself to use to look at all different aspects of life: Love, politics, lust … whatever,” he notes. “And so it never really limited me in what I wrote and performed.”
Although the recording has long been in the works, adding live performance to the concept is a relatively recent development. The challenge of turning Night’s Bright Colors into a performing band goes beyond the obvious obstacles of rehearsal and rearrangement.
As his 1-year-old daughter shrieking in the background, Smith says that it can be hard to get the group together. (Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, given that the beauty of the recording project was that it didn’t require regular rehearsals, band meetings or performances.) In fact, the group’s upcoming show is only their 15th public performance.
“There are so many of us, and everyone is so busy, that live performances are rare for us,” Smith admits. But, even with such heavy logistical concerns, the urge to perform proved too appealing to ignore. “We got such a strong reception to the stuff that we were recording that we decided to start doing it live.”
[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in New Orleans.]
who: Night’s Bright Colors with Holiday Childress, Suttree and Wilson the Rocker
what: A benefit concert for Emily Arndt
where: Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, Nov. 25 (www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)