I start most interviews by offering the disclaimer to the subjects that “I am not a journalist.” But I knew that I may have finally met my match when Chris Richards, one third of Michigan Power Pop phenomena The Legal Matters responded, “That’s OK, we are not really a band.”
Well, they could have fooled me. First, I’d already heard their soon to be released album Conrad, which belies the claim on its own. Also, watching the interpersonal dynamic between Richards and his partners in this effort, Andy Reed and Keith Klingensmith, you have a hard time imagining them being anything but a band of the finest order.
In fact, their “bandness” had such a familiar feel, I kind of came away wondering to myself which one was the smart one, which one was the cute one, and which one was the funny one. (When later posed this question, Reed answered: “I think you are looking for something that isn’t going on here.”
The Legal Matters started in 2014 when long time collaborators Richards and Klingensmith reached out to Reed to record an album at his Bay City studio. The trio noticed some real chemistry during the initial session, which culminated in the Detroit-area pair staying around afterwards with Reed to “sing a little bit.”
In a reverse application of German culture, the three followed up the singing by going out for beers at the Steinhaus (obviously, these two would be switched in beer hall tradition, but that’s not the story here), where server Konrad Anderson took care of them for the evening and unwittingly became part of the long term story of the group.
The three decided to record an album together and released a self-titled disc in 2014. The trio’s fresh mix of musical influences met with an immediate positive response in the global “power pop” community. Fans of vocal based bands ranging from The Beach Boys to Teenage Fanclub found a lot to like in the tight vocal harmonies, clever lyrics and guitar-based arrangements. The album ended up on dozens of “Best Of” lists for 2014.
Fast forward two years – and it has been a fast two years – and the group now awaits the release of their second album, Conrad – an unintentional misspelling of their first bartender’s name. Richards said “It is hard to believe we only met a couple years ago. It feels like we have been recording together forever.”
As Reed put it, “We don’t have road experience; we have a series of hangouts”
When asked what it is that really makes the group work, it was Klingensmith that offered up, “We all have similar musical sensibilities. No one is saying, ‘let’s go for a Spaghetti Western with a jazz feel.’” To which Richards added, “Plus, we all love the Tigers.”
That last fact was actually pretty clear, as I should explain that an interview with The Legal Matters is like “one liner” pinball. They can bounce from topic to topic and hold similar reference points on many of them. You get the feeling that, as soon as Richards and Reed can bring Klingensmith up to speed on hockey, this union will finally be complete. (Plus, you may also conclude that either all or none of them are “the smart one.” That’s still up in the air for me.)
Whatever the source of the synergy, the guys decided to try and tap it again and began last year recording a second album. If the first effort came about by accident, the second has been very intentional.
“We just wanted to make an album that sounded like the music we love,” said Reed.
Richards also explained a change in mind-set the three began to experience: “We started to realize this wasn’t just a side project. This really was our band.”
With Conrad, what they have managed to do is create a work that a lot of people are going to love.
The initial reviews are starting to come in and they are using a lot of “F” words. Like fantastic. Or fabulous. In private, those often come with a more colorful alliterative adjective for emphasis.
You might think that an album made by a band with three singers and three songwriters may end up sounding a bit schizophrenic, but the exact opposite is the case with Conrad. From the opening track “Anything” to the album closer “Better Days,” the release offers a simple and thematically unified statement: Sometimes it’s hard to be a guy.
Let’s be clear, The Legal Matters do not generally mine the venerable topics of sex, drugs and rock & roll that you find in so many popular songs. Instead, they offer up the ironic mix of magnificent arrangements of songs that are more often about the vulnerability and insignificance that one might feel as one tries to get through life, or even just the day.
With all due respect to these three musicians with a long track record and well deserved reputations for producing quality original music, I’ll make the statement that in many ways Conrad represents their best work. These are their best songs and their best performances. It’s the kind of record you can only make if you have had a serious commitment to your craft. Despite how easy they make it look, no one just rolls out of bed one day and hits a home run like Conrad. It took practice and the practice has paid off.
The album is also the clear beneficiary of the technical expertise of Reed, who has gained significant stature in the recording industry for the work produced at Reed Recording Company, now in its tenth year. The production value of the album is extremely high, as the songs automatically evoke adjectives like “shimmer” and “shine.”
It is also interesting that an album that has so much going on sonically also has so much space, allowing individual parts to breathe so your ears can absorb the intricacies of the arrangements. It is the contrast between complexity and simplicity, often utilized at the same time that make Conrad so compelling.
One might think that an album of this nature must have been the result of a detailed planning and pre-production process when, in fact, quite the opposite is true. “We didn’t demo any of the songs. Basically, we would play our songs on acoustic guitar into an iPhone and send them to each other,” explained Richards. Reed added, “Sometimes the song was written the night before. We would just get together and get to work making it into a recording.”
This approach meant the songs were very fresh when the basic tracks were recorded and it helps give the album a very spontaneous feel, which is something that is not easy to do when you are layering on three part (and more) harmonies on top of your tunes.
Richards commented, “Donny Brown (who shared the drum chair with Andy Dalton on the release) called the first album our ‘campfire record.’ This one is more fully realized.” Klingensmith confirms this sentiment when he says, “It’s fair to say Andy really sorted out the harmonies this time.”
It was also at this juncture that Keith offered up the quote of the night: “I’ll pay for the beers.” (From this point on, he is the cool one.)
The other big difference with this release is that the band made the decision to submit it to an established label and see if they could score a deal for its distribution. This decision paid off in spades when they were offered an agreement with Omnivore Records, their self-described “dream label” and home of major recording acts like The Posies, The Beach Boys and the Big Star catalog.
The period since the album was completed in January has been an exercise in patience, as a major label release is a pretty methodical process for a bunch of guys who started out in the “business” shilling self-produced cassettes.
“Omnivore has been great to us from the beginning,” said Reed, “They told us that they knew we were not a well known band yet, but they loved the record and wanted to see if they could do something with it.”
The group is now in the final countdown for launch of the album on October 28th, supported by a release party at Arbeitor Hall. This will be followed by live dates at the Magic Bag Theater in Ferndale on November 5th and at the State Theater in Bay City on December 2.
The disc is available for pre-order now on all the usual digital outlets.
It will also be available in music retailers across the country on CD and vinyl. The vinyl edition comes with online access to a “vocals only” remix of the album. Find out more about The Legal Matters, Conrad and their upcoming plans at www.thelegalmattersband.com.
16th November, 2023