Andy Schmidt Vocals | Guitar
Brad Booker Drums | Back Up Vocals
Kevin Gagnepain Bass | Back Up Vocals
At the beginning of its sophomore album, the St. Louis-based trio Stir declares, "Once you come on board, you can never go back to your place in line." And on Holy Dogs, Stir indeed strides from its place in the rock 'n' roll line -- already established thanks to radio exposure through "Looking For," "Stale'" and "One Angel" from its eponymous debut album -- with a second effort that showcases not just considerable creative growth but also a more fully realized vision of the group's artistic ambitions.
"I think we captured more of the band on this record," says Andy Schmidt, Stir's singer, guitarist and chief songwriter. "The idea was to make a record, from start to finish, not just an album with some good songs. This time we put pressure on ourselves to make a record that you could put on without fast-forwarding or skipping through songs. I think we accomplished that."
Drummer/background vocalist Brad Booker adds that 21 months of touring in support of the rootsier Stir album definitely helped the group expand its reach on Holy Dogs. "We played with so many different bands," Booker says. "I think that may have had a lot to do with it. The first record was a reflection of what was going on in St. Louis at that time. That's all we knew. After that, we got exposure to the rest of the nation and a wide variety of bands. It had an influence on us."
Mostly, notes bassist/background singer Kevin Gagnepain, Holy Dogs is an album that reflects "the power of a live Stir show," though the expansive, dynamic arrangements of the album's 12 songs show that Stir and producer Howard Benson (Zebrahead, P.O.D.) set their sights even higher than that during recording sessions in Southern California. From the irresistibly hooky first single, "New Beginning" to the pin-your-ears-back rock of "Superstation" and the title track, "Holy Dogs," the anthemic whomp of "Only a Dream," the appropriately cosmic ambience of "Spaceman," the earnest drive of "Grounded" and "Clear," and the feral soundscape of "Velvet Elvis" -- in which tribal tom-toms meet heartland power rock and African back-up vocals - Holy Dogs is a broad-reaching accomplishment with a tightly crafted, three-dimensional sonic impact.
Not that Stir's master plan was that intricate. "I think that we just wanted to be better songwriters," Gagnepain notes.
Even that is a continuation of the musical evolution the three musicians began a few years ago, when they began playing together after all transferring to the University of Missouri-Columbia from satellite campuses. Schmidt and Booker had been friends since childhood; Booker met Gagnepain through mutual friends and brought him into the fold.
Starting as a five-piece and trimming down to a trio, Stir built a local following and made its first mark at the 1995 South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, playing a sizzling showcase gig that resulted in the group being signed to Chicago-based Aware Records and recording Stir in Nashville. It was a low-budget affair ($20,000), but the goods were there as evidenced by the radio play its songs received, and before long Capitol Records snatched the album up for broader distribution and greater promotion.
But throughout that time, the idea lingered with the group members that they were capable of something even better. "Hanging over our heads," explains Booker, "was the fact that people knew some of the songs, but couldn't put a finger on who the band was. The challenge was to identify who we were."
All three members agree that producer Benson, who had approached the band after a Nashville performance, played an important role in helping the group hone in on its musical identity for Holy Dogs. "Howard said, `You've got to hit people over the head with a two-by-four. Just listen to songs that are hits, and you'll understand,' Schmidt says. "That changed my whole perspective on things. It's about simplicity, getting right to the point. When he said that, I got it, immediately."
Schmidt also drew on a rich array of life experiences for Holy Dogs' songs. The memory of a picture in the bathroom of a babysitter's house spurred "Velvet Elvis." "Clear" was inspired by the birth of a friend's son, "Grounded" reflects on the shut-in feelings of life on the road through the metaphor of a child confined to his room as a punishment. The title track spoofs a variety of millennial fears.
"What I was trying to do was write stories that can be personal to other people," Schmidt explains. "There's nothing so definitive that you know exactly what I'm talking about. I never wanted to be a writer like that. I want people to be able to plug in their own scenarios and find their own stories in the songs."
Tightened performances, matured songwriting, a focused sense of purpose - all of that is what Stir set out to, and did, achieve on Holy Dogs. "We looked at it like a first record," Schmidt says. "This was the first time we were stepping up, into the game. It's our time to say `This is why we got a record deal' and make the most of what we've learned and the support we have."