powertakeOff: Volume as Therapy
By: Kathleen Johnson
Gus Engstrom’s been on the Charlotte music scene for 20+ years, and the Kansas native’s entire tenure has been marked by a grain-fed Midwestern pleasantness. Upbeat, gregarious, a cool dude. So how could his powertakeOff project produce such a roiling, gut-punched, pissed off debut album? “Basically, I worked on it for two years instead of going to therapy,” he says, grinning.
That makes sense. On the new LP this is late, PTO’s primordial thump combines the best of scary Am Rep fury rock (Hammerhead, Cows) with serious sub-sonics, samples (Native American ritual, voice mail message) and guest pedal steel and trumpet that add a fresh, eerie, dimension. It’s almost concept-album in feel, with interesting seams tunneling beneath the sensory assault.
The album – from the music to the lyrics to your vocal delivery – feels really cathartic to me. Is that a fair description?
Yes, that’s very fair. In February 2013 I got really sick when we were about to go into the studio. It was a miserable time for me in some ways, but the best in others. Our guitarist left also left. During that time I wrote a bunch of new songs and reworked older songs. Rewriting the record was the best thing that could have happened. I wanted it to have the same feel I was feeling personally at the time. I wanted to create a sonic monster: loud, heavy, with a lot of low-end, but melodic in the right places.
Your guitar and bass tones are just crushing. What kind of amps did you use? Did you set a dB level record for the studio?
We recorded loud but not as loud as you would expect. It was no Jerusalem ---haha. We used a 70’s Sunn model T into a 4x12 and a hardwired Vox AC 15 for guitar. For bass, I played an Ampeg Blue Line SVT into an 8x10 cabinet, and a Marshall 3560 bass head into a 2x15 cab.
We recorded in Athens, GA, at Ronnie Jones Sound with Kyle Spence of Harvey Milk. The band was myself (bass/ vocals/samples), Matt Culler (drums/samples) and Adam Marx (guitar/samples). I chose Kyle for many reasons. I recorded there before with my old Charlotte band GRIDS (R.I.P.). You’d be hard-pressed to find another studio that can get you these sounds for the price.
Did the pedal steel guitar parts on “Where I Am” and “Man It Smells Great in Here” come together in the studio, or did you have that beforehand?
My ultimate goal was pedal steel, but I knew the problem was going to be finding the “right” guy who would be into it. That sound had been in my head for sometime. After we recorded, I mentioned it, and Kyle said: “We can make that happen, I know John Neff. He played with the Drive By Truckers.”
What about the trumpet for “Some Gave All” and “Time’s Up”?
The trumpet was planned. I asked Creston Spiers (also of Harvey Milk) to play trumpet. He said, “I’ll give you the best I have in me,” which was funny, because Creston went to the Peabody Conservatory and can play pretty much anything.
When we first started talking about the record you made a comment to the effect of: people probably didn’t think you had it in you to do this. Do you think you’re perceived more as a fan/booster/booker/sideman, rather than a songwriter or bandleader?
I did play that role for a long time in this scene and I think most of the older people remember me that way. I think a lot of younger folks have no idea that I booked shows and helped bring bands to town since 1995-ish. And I think a few people are aware of me playing in Horse Thief and GRIDS.
But I was referring to the fact that I wasn’t in an active band after the demise of GRIDS and wasn’t being asked to be in any bands, and with no one in mind to form a band, I’d be writing most, if not all the material. I’d basically have to do everything myself. Plus, this is the first band I’ve done vocals. The mere idea of me fronting a band is frightful to think about. I‘ve never done it before this band. So I think people might have doubted whether I could pull off everything.
Talk about your writing process
A lot of what I wanted to accomplish was not to rewrite what’s been done before. This kind of music (heavy, loud) is far too often seen as one-dimensional. I know I’m not the one to rewrite history; I just wanted to put out something that had a unique feel.
You’ve already recorded a follow-up, right?
Not a follow-up, really. They’re songs I wrote early on as a demo for the LP, but they ended up not really fitting on it. We recorded them with Rick Contes. They’re just out on cassette titled Unhinged.
Photography by Ellen Gurley
powertakeOff is touring this fall. The debut album “This is Late” is available at www.learningcurverecords.bandcamp.com/album/this-is-late . The “Unhinged” cassette is available at www.power-take-off.bandcamp.com/album/unhinged .