Human Brains. Black Moth Super Rainbow. Arrivals & Departures. Blunderbuss. Not exactly household names -- though they and some of their brethren perhaps deserve to be. But for years, there has been only one place for these and many other bands like them to be heard on the radio dial. As Pittsburgh’s only entirely free-form radio station -- and one of an increasingly small set of such stations nationwide -- Carnegie Mellon University’s station, 88.3 WRCT, has given Pittsburgh-based bands the most open-minded shot at radio airplay in the city. And out of WRCT’s weekly schedule, Monday nights have, in recent memory, meant live performances by local bands -- currently, and for some time, under the Advanced Calculus banner.
But if the people behind Advanced Calculus -- the radio show -- have their way, 28 bands that have played on the show over the past few years will get a little bit of renown outside of ’RCT’s reach thanks to Advanced Calculus: the album. Produced by deejays Doug Luce and Sean Cho, the compilation of live-on-the-air recordings has picked up coveted distribution (through indie icon Matador Records) and publicity (with a well-known publicist and college-radio distribution network) deals that might not make Pittsburgh into the next (insert trendy-town-of-moment), but might get a few people thinking Pittsburgh’s more than Houserockers, Root, Donnie -- and Don Cab.
“My original hope was that [the disc] would shine a little more light on Pittsburgh,” says Doug Luce, Advanced Calculus’s executive producer. “This could be the window into this music scene, for those people who haven’t thought about Pittsburgh before -- or haven’t since, say, Don Caballero fizzled out the first time.”
During Luce’s first stint at CMU and WRCT, in the early ’90s, he ran the live local show and dreamt of producing a recording of the bands that frequented the station’s airwaves -- something that might provide Pittsburgh with the calling card its music scene deserved. When he returned after a hiatus of almost 10 years, it was with a plan: Luce signed up for the Monday-night shift, bought a 16-track digital recording setup, “and snuck it into the station, and just started recording. That way I didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of justifying the expense of the setup to the university -- I just bought it myself.”
It’s a modus operandi that has helped the production of Advanced Calculus at just about every stage. Rather than play the politics that comes with bureaucracy money, Luce financed the disc’s production on his own, relying on Sean Cho to keep the broadness of the city’s music scene covered in the spectrum of groups brought into the studio, rather than a bickering committee. And to help out in other ways.
“[Luce] sent an e-mail to the WRCT board looking for volunteers to help, and a few people said they would,” including himself, says Cho. “One thing he left out was that he didn’t know what he was doing -- he had live mixing experience, but none with multitracking.”
With help from Cho and other WRCT’ers, what Advanced Calculus ended up with is a two-CD collection that may not cover the city’s music completely, but that does a hell of a job trying. Advanced Calculus has learned from the mistakes a previous live-from-WRCT compilation made, and created a compilation that documents the artists rather than the station -- most of the 28 tracks sound like top-notch studio recordings, rather than taped-from-radio throwaways, thanks to painstaking post-production. The result is a compilation that holds up in quality and style over the course of stylistic diversity ranging from Young Steele Matula Trio’s wandering post-bop jazz to Conelrad’s post-apocalyptic preacherman noise rock -- although the majority of artists fall into various rock hyphenations (punk-, indie-, math-, experimental-, yadda-). Even the packaging -- hand-glued, screen-printed cardboard case, mathematical-symbol-covered discs -- screams “quality” over quantity.
But regardless of production quality, there are always reminders that this is live: Strict Flow cracking up after failing to self-edit a “shit” from their lyrics (a prime-time radio no-no); Human Brains intra-band discussion (“Wanna do ‘Hot Pants’?”); Weird Paul’s rock-star self-intro.
“In addition to having someone like Sean who goes and makes sure you’ve got the right people,” says Luce, “we wanted -- not exactly Madonna-level production, but a good-sounding disc, and I wanted nice packaging. This is really supposed to be my one and only foray into the music scene as a producer, and even if I’m a complete amateur, I wanted it to be done well.”