Interview with Dan McNabb of The Beginner’s Mynd
Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Dan McNabb of Washington, D.C. trio The Beginner’s Mynd recently took the time to answer a few questions about himself and the band for It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine readers.
When and where were you born? Was music a big part of life in the McNabb household growing up?
I was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1976, but my childhood memories are of Houston Texas, and Satellite Beach, Florida. I’m the youngest of five, so music was always playing – my siblings were all really into music. My brother, Mac has always been a musician and bought me my first record when I was probably five or six years old – a copy of Meet the Beatles. I still have it! When I was little, I cut a guitar shape out of a cardboard box and used to jump up and down on my bed miming to “Don’t Bother Me”.
What was the music scene like where you grew up? What influence did it have on you?
In the 1990s there was a great college radio station in Melbourne, FL called WFIT that played “alternative” rock (as it used to be called). Tons of jangley college rock, brit-pop, industrial, early house and techno, as well as some punk, and hardcore. I soaked in a lot of different styles by listening to that radio station. Meat Beat Manifesto, Detroit techno, and The Grateful Dead got equal air time in my teenage room. In college, I was introduced to the 60s mod thing, which, as a white, middle-class art student, turned out to be where I felt like I finally belonged. I got big into The Jam and 90s Brit Pop and fell down the rabbit hole to rare soul, modern jazz, and through the Nuggets, Pebbles, and Rubble comps I found the world of “lost” garage and psych records.
When did you begin playing music and what was your first instrument? How did you acquire it?
I came home from a friend’s house with a guitar as a teenager and my mom freaked. I guess being a mother to one musician was enough for her, and so began the cliché’: “You won’t own a guitar or a motorcycle as long as you’re under my roof.” kind of thing. Needless to say, as soon as I was at college I skipped lots of classes to teach myself guitar on an old beat up Gretsch Country Gentleman I had on loan. I’d also restored a Lambretta with lots of chrome racks and lights to ride around town looking for records and vintage clothes. Sorry / not sorry, Mom.
What bands were you a part of before The Beginner’s Mynd and what was your role in them? Who were your biggest influences?
Being late to playing music, I didn’t take it seriously and wasn’t really good enough to play with anybody, but I wound up playing guitar in a couple bands after graduating and moving to Washington DC – the last of which was a garage punk band called The BreakUps, which is how I met Carrie Ferguson. I think I lucked into a cheap Farfisa mini-compact that worked, and she joined the band and played it.
Did the bands play many gigs? If so, what sorts of venues did you play?
We played a fair amount of shows, pretty much everywhere you could play in DC at the time. I eventually quit the band and sold the Farfisa to Carrie, so she could keep going with them. It’s still her go-to keyboard to this day.
When did you begin writing songs? What was the first song you wrote? Did you ever record it?
I’d never written a song or sung in front of anybody before playing in The BreakUps. Ted Townsend, the bass player/singer in that band, knew how to write. Ted was really supportive and encouraged me to sing and write songs. We started out doing 99% covers. The first song I ever sang in front of a crowd was “I Said Move” by Aztex in that band. I doubt I would have ever sang or written songs without his prodding because I always felt like I had nothing to say, but one day I was at work and some words and melody to a song came to me. I wrote them down, and put chords to it in one sitting once I got home. That song was Hazy, which I played in the BreakUps but was never recorded until Larry, Carrie, and I did the first Beginner’s Mynd recordings.
How did the Beginner’s Mynd come about? Who are the other members of the band and how did you become acquainted?
I’d been doing home recordings for years just for fun – mostly covers of my favorite songs, and other weird stuff like electric sitar freakouts with tons of wah and backwards guitar solos with tablas sampled from Ravi Shankar records. It was my own kind of home project, and The Beginner’s Mynd was the name I attached to it trying at the time to create this this “lost 60s” thing. The name’s kind of a reference to The Third Bardo – also being a Buddhist reference, and the “y” in “mynd” a hat tip to all the sixties bands with creative spelling. (To this day – if you see a 45 you don’t recognize but they spell something weird – listen to it!) I never expected to do anything with The Beginner’s Mynd. It was a bedroom demo project that existed for me as something I could say I did as much as something I actually did do.
While Carrie Ferguson and I were in The BreakUps, Larry had subbed on drums for a couple shows and a lot of people commented at how good we sounded with Larry on drums. Looking back, it’s funny to think we all played together because it was a very different time and space for me anyway as I was kind of on my way out of that band at the time. We went our separate ways musically after that, but remained friends, mostly talking records and shows. A few years later none of us were in steady bands and we started talking about starting something new. When the inevitable question of “who’s going to sing?” came up, they kind of looked at me because I’d done it before. I mentioned I had this backlog of home demos. I played them some rough recordings, and they were into the idea of using my songs as the basis for a recording project. At that point they were like, we’ll do whatever, and I jumped at the chance because they are amazing musicians – they put me to shame. We’re all record collectors, so the ultimate goal was really to try and do a full analog recording without computers or any sampled instruments. “visions of AAA analog danced in their heads”.
When did the Beginner’s Mynd begin recording? What songs were recorded? What studio did you use? Who produced the recordings? Have these songs released?
I picked a few songs I had done, and we did a few rehearsals to lock down the arrangements and booked time at a studio called The Brink owned by our friend Mike Reina. Mike and Larry have played together for years and the sounds that he gets in his studio are unreal, so that was the only choice. We talked and he was on board with doing it 100% analog to tape and really enthusiastic about what my influences were and into exploring the tones I wanted to put across. I think I sent him “Tintern Abbey – Vacuum Cleaner and Nilsson “Sister Marie” as reference tracks of what I wanted it to sound like. I remember walking in and seeing the Recording the Beatles book, as well as a huge MCI board, tape machines everywhere and racks and racks of outboard tube gear. I knew I was in the right place! He also had two Mellotron M400s at the time before I found mine, and an antique harpsichord I wanted us to use. We wound up recording six songs over the course of a few sessions that we released as digital singles. Those were then later compiled onto the cassette EP on Burger Records in 2013.
The band’s first release was a 2013 self-titled EP. What songs were included? Did you write them all? Who produced the recordings? Would you share some memories of the recording sessions? How pleased were you with the finished product? Was it always your intention to release an EP? Did the EP receive any radio airplay?
The Burger EP is all six songs I’d written that we’d recorded up to that point: Hazy, Time Dilation, Shadows, All the Time, In the Spring, and I Don’t Know. I wanted to include Hazy because it was the first song I ever wrote. One interesting story about that recording: It was originally arranged to have a guitar solo, so when we recorded the initial tracks the rhythm guitar dropped out leaving just bass and drums where I imagined some weird backwards guitar freakout thing going, but when Carrie was tracking the Mellotron, the guitar solo break came in and she improvised a Mellotron flute solo and Mike and I looked at each other like “holy shit!”. I think we scared her, because she stopped playing, but we rewound the tape and after explaining how amazing what she has just done was, we asked her to do it again. She did it in one take, and that is what you hear on the recording. It was one of those moments of total surprise. I had no plan for that song to go that way and by total chance it came out while recording, and it totally makes the song.
The Beginner’s Mynd is basically a studio group. What kind of gear did you use? Would you describe the band’s recording philosophy and process?
I’m a big fan of history, and get inspired that these old instruments were bought during the heyday of the era of the music I love. I wonder who bought my Rickenbacker 12 string new in 1966. It’s a fair bet to say they liked the Byrds and Beatles, and given that it was played to death when I got it, have to wonder if there are any recordings of it out there somewhere. I’m lucky enough to have tracked down a Mellotron m400 for myself that has a cool story. Once I got it home, I found a social security number etched into the tape frame. I googled it and found an obituary for Ray Vogel, that mentioned he was a musician. A couple more Google searches and I found that he played keyboards in an American prog rock band in the 70s called Easter Island from Louisville, KY that self-released an LP that’s highly collectible. Original pressings of the LP are $500+ on discogs. They’re held up as one of the few US prog bands that “got it” at the time. You can hear the M400 on most of the album, but it’s featured pretty heavily on the song “The Alchemist’s Suite – Prelude” which has a cool baroque vibe.
If I had to define my recording philosophy, it would be that everything has to be honest and real. All of the instruments you hear on all of our recordings are real instruments – no digital samples, no computers. They are real performances by real people and instruments going to tape through machines that throw sparks. The way we record requires base tracks and then a lot of overdubs, so I have to be able to pick my battles on whether a take is good or bad versus and whether is serves the song more than fighting for something be “perfect”. Everything is recorded in one or two takes, and mistakes and tape hiss is all there and are part of the deal. I actually like hearing mistakes on old records. It makes it human. It’s actually harder to leave mistakes than to spend your whole life putting off completing something because it isn’t perfect. I like hearing the “clicks” of Keith Richards stepping on the Fuzz-Tone in Satisfaction, the guitarist in The Music Machine forgetting to step on the fuzz box before the last fuzz melody line in “The People In Me”, Hillman plunking a very loud, incorrect bass note on Spanish Harlem Incident, Donovan accidently sing different words on some vocal melody lines… these mistakes are like old friends when I hear them. The exception I will make is that I cannot deal with a squeaky kick drum pedal (Listen to Lonnie Mack, “Why” in headphones if you want to be driven crazy).
The next release by the band was a single on 13 O’Clock Records. What were the songs included? Did you write them? What was your inspiration for the songs? Where were they recorded and who produced? Why the change in labels? Would you share some memories of the recording sessions?
After the Burger EP release, we still hadn’t accomplished our goal which was to put out a record. I was actually visiting my brother in Austin at the time and figured it couldn’t hurt to reach out to 13 O’Clock Records. I emailed Brian Smith, who runs the label, and told him about the band, the EP we’d released, and asked if he would be interested in putting out a single – and he said yes! I’d always been a massive fan of the 13 O’Clock catalog. Mole, of State Records and Embrooks fame (and formerly of The Higher State) was one of the original people I reached out to and sent our first recordings for feedback. He was enthusiastic and supportive, so somehow it seemed like going to 13 O’Clock was still working with that small group of people who’d been supportive of the music we made from the beginning. I had the songs pretty much written at the time, but had reservations about putting out the B-side,“When You Go” because I usually like my songs to be abstract and that song is (to me anyway) very obviously about my parent’s death and dying. I wondered if it was too personal, but I played it for my brother on acoustic guitar in his studio and told me “the more personal the better”. It’s debatable that people listen to lyrics anyway, so I try not to think about it anymore.
Did you use the same gear on the single as on the EP? Did the band play any gigs to promote the release? Did the single get any radio airplay? How was it promoted?
Yeah, all of the same gear was used to record the 13 O’Clock single, with the exception that Carrie also played Rhodes Bass ala Ray Manzarek on “I Found You Out”, and I used a Danelectro baritone for the fuzz bass single of “When You Go”. We played a show with Ultimate Painting here in DC as a record release, which was fun. Somebody took a picture. I just looked it up and I’m wearing the same t-shirt right now. I guess I should spend some money on clothes instead of records for a change.
The band released a single on the Hidden Volume label in 2016. What songs were on the single? Where was the recording done? Who produced? Why was the single released on a different label than your previous recordings? What are your recollections of the sessions? Was the gear used the same as on your previous recordings?
I met Scott from Hidden Volume through a mutual friend at a show. At the time, I had no other recordings in the works, and we talked a bit about doing a single. He and Brian from 13 O’Clock are friends, so there is no competition or anything weird. Up to that point the two releases we’d done were with people across the country that I’d never met in person. I’m in DC and Hidden Volume is in Baltimore, and it was cool to be able to see and hang out with the label guy and talk about what was going to happen. We recorded the songs in exactly the same way as the EP and first single. They were “Singing Man” and “Waiting for You”, and used the same instrumentation and process, but when it came to tones Mike and I talked about making it sound more modern. I was starting to let up on my super-focused idea of needing to “sound sixties”. The drums are a pretty important part of “Singing Man”, and I was more into them being up front.
Was there a release show for the single? Did the single receive radio airplay? How was promotion handled?
We played a record release show for “Singing Man” here in DC with Kula Shaker, which was HUGE for me. I wore out their album “K” and couldn’t believe we got to play with them. They were incredibly nice to us and played their ass off. Crispian Mills even commented to the crowd during the show on how we brought out a real Mellotron “out of love for us, and you – and we should all be thankful”. Haha. The “Singing Man” single received favorable reviews and about the same amount of airplay as the 13 O’Clock single.
In 2017 The Beginner’s Mynd released your debut LP “Don’t Lose Your Mind.” Where was the LP recorded and who produced? Why was the LP released on 13 O’Clock Records? How pleased were you with the finished album?
After the first single on 13 O’Clock, Brian from the label had mentioned people were into it and asking when or if an LP was in the works, so he asked if it was something we’d be interested in doing. The prospect of doing an LP was daunting because that meant writing and recording more songs than we’d done in total up to that point. We discussed doing an LP around the time that the Hidden Volume single was done, so I had roughly a year to complete an LP, which I had never done and had no idea what was really involved.
Did the gear used on the LP differ from your earlier recordings? Would you share some recollections from the recording sessions? What are your favorite tracks from the LP? Have any of the album’s tracks received any radio airplay?
Before the LP, we recorded a cover of Scrugg “I Wish I Was Five” for an Active Listener tribute to Nuggets 2 where I recorded all of the tracks except for vocals on my Tascam 488, and then took the machine into studio and dumped them all onto 2” tape to finish recording and then mix as usual. Mike was able to clean up the noise and EQ everything and the tracks sounded pretty good. I then added vocals, and did the tape phasing in the studio. It wasn’t perfect, but it proved I could record stuff at home with decent results, which made doing an LP seem possible because I could limit studio time and expense. For that reason, on the new LP, most of the guitar and keyboard tracks were recorded in my apartment, and I originally recorded the drums in Larry and Carrie’s basement. I was ok with a certain amount of “lo-fi” quality, but after finishing tracking the vocals and final guitar and keyboards at The Brink, Mike and I mixed and remixed the songs twice before finally giving into the fact that drums needed to be redone. There was way too much tape hiss, and some bleed through from adjascent tracks that made EQ’ing them impossible. We mixed and mixed and every song sounded completely different and I was freaking out. Once the drums were re-recorded everything sounded great ,but we also then decided some bass guitar needed to be redone, with Mike’s 70s Rickenbacker. In the end, I still think the home recording was a time-saver, but I went around in circles for a while and wasn’t sure it was going to turn out well. I’m happy with the final result, and like that there is still “home” in there. If you listen carefully through the tape hiss you can hear traffic noise and some creaky floorboards.
So far the record has gotten a good bit of airplay, and good reviews. I do like how all of the songs turned out in the end. There’s probably one thing about every one of them that I like in a way that’s unique from the others. If I had to turn the album into a single I would probably make it “I Want Truth / I’ve Seen Stars”. I also really love how the art turned out. Scott Sugiuchi of Hidden Volume did it. We came up with the idea to have the first 100 copies feature a lenticular eye, inspired by the “50th anniversary” of Satanic Majesties Request. It turned out pretty good and the first 100 limited copies sold out quick.
How has the sound of The Beginner’s Mynd changed over time? Have your influences changed over time? Has anyone besides the band’s core trio contributed to any of your recordings?
Initially I wanted our recordings to sound exactly like something from the 60s, to where if you put it in a mix nobody would know it was modern. Now I’m much more open to having the record sound “modern” at least with regards to the tones and mix. I was also writing and recording the songs for the LP during the lead up to the last US presidential election, and I live in DC, so it’s hard to escape politics. I started to question the relevance of making records that sound like they’re from the past, when we have pretty much exactly the same revolution happening now. I’d rather have this record sound like it was recorded today than 1967. I am definitely more into being here now. Hopefully the record sounds evocative past influences and reflect the music I and we love, but is enough about to day to not be discounted as too retro to take seriously.
Has the band played a show to celebrate the albums release or is one planned? Is there any chance of the band touring to promote the LP?
So far, we are averaging one record and one show a year. It’s highly unlikely we would ever tour since we can barely get it together to play where we live. A show will happen in 2017 – I still have four months!.
What are your most memorable moments as a member of The Beginner’s Mynd? What is your relationship with your band mates?
I think Larry, Carrie and I have become better friends over these years. I’ve enjoyed a new friendship with Mike Reina for all the time I have spent with him at the studio. Given his involvement with the recordings and being our go-to bassist for shows, he is undoubtedly the “Fourth Mynd”!
The biggest thing for me that I’d like to think we’re part of a scene of bands that are all making new, exciting music and encouraging each other to do the same. We’re not part of a local scene here in DC, so connecting with people all over the world through the internet is a really cool. The music we’ve made will go further around the world than I probably ever will. It’s nice to realize there is more going on than just what happens in my apartment on my Tascam.
Are there plans for further recordings by The Beginner’s Mynd? Have you written any material for a follow up?
I haven’t written much lately, but I have a decent running list of ideas that will turn into something when the time is right. Definitely a release in 2018 in some capacity.
Is there anything that hasn’t been covered that you would like to share? I know I join our readers in thanking you for taking the time to tell the story of The Beginner’s Mynd and in wishing you the best in your future ventures.
I can’t think of anything else. Thank you!
– Kevin Rathert
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