Secret Guest has always ostensibly been a band name, but if you look at the credits for their 2015 debut album Goodnight Nothing, there are scant credits for anyone other than singer and multi-instrumentalist Brett Nash. There are a few extra contributors here and there, Greg and Ellen Elias providing a rhythm section on a couple of tracks, Jessa Vaughan plays a bit of cello, but other than that, it’s all Nash, even down to the actual recording.
And the initial sound of Secret Guest was, perhaps predictably, jagged and lo-fi, with Nash’s primal guitar slashes, oddly metallic vocals and primitive, heartbeat drums cutting through a murky production sound that would make any true indie-rock lover proud.
Now fast forward to Secret Guest’s new EP, the four-track Dry Jest. Check out the sculpted wall of guitars on the opening track, the plaintive, heart-on-the-sleeve vocals, the crisply played drums that propel the songs through the tight chord changes. It sounds in some ways like a completely different band, or at the very least, an actual band, which is essentially what Secret Guest has become.
A glance at the credits for Dry Jest, and their last release, Joker City, reveals a full ensemble: Nash handling the keyboards and playing guitar alongside Andrei Mihailovic, with Michael Milam on drums and Dorian Warneck on bass. And as it turns out, that expansion has been a blast for Nash, for various reasons.
“As we’ve played more as a band, I’ve figured out the path we’re supposed to be on,” he says. “The way we needed to go was just kind of laid out in front of us.”
The transitional step in the process was Joker City, which saw the band melding the rawer, rougher approach with tighter ensemble playing. “The first one I basically recorded myself,” Nash says, “and then on the first one with a band, I just wanted to make the long-term goal to have, not necessarily a homogenous mixture, but something where it gelled a little more.”
And no one was more surprised by that jelling than Nash, who never saw Secret Guest turning into a set lineup of players. “I wanted to basically have a project for me with a revolving cast of people,” he says, “with maybe some recurring characters in the mix. But by the time we recorded Dry Jest, Andrei and Michael and Dorian had contributed so much to the sound that it almost had to be a full band thing. Without them Secret Guest doesn’t sound like the same thing, so it’s kind of impossible to have it as a revolving cast because they’re such a big part of it.”
Nash says he was once a perfectionist, even if his recordings were lo-fi; there wasn’t a note played on his early songs that he didn’t have control of, whether he was the one playing or not. Things are quite different now, and the more he loosens the reins, the happier he seems to be.
“Now when I write songs, I’ll bring a bare bones track in to let them do what they want with, or even think about what best serves their playing while I’m writing it,” he says. “Part of this becoming a full band thing was taking more of a sit-back approach, where they’d play parts, even if I’m thinking internally, ‘That’s not how I wanted it to sound.’ But then the more I would sit with it, I’d realize they knew what they were doing.”
And that “sit back” approach goes double for the recording process. The basic tracks on Dry Jest were done in a couple of days last summer at Columbia’s Seaboard Recording studio with engineer Chris Wenner behind the boards, with overdubbing done sporadically in three subsequent sessions. In the past, Nash would’ve kept adding new things to the tracks, but a certain laid-back sensibility came to the fore after a few trips from Charleston to Columbia and back.
“The good thing about recording in Columbia and living in Charleston is that, maybe out of laziness, we decided everything was perfect and we didn’t need to drive to Columbia just to record one little thing,” Nash says. “I finally realized I kind of already loved what was there, and I didn’t want to add too much more, and also it would be another trip to Columbia and more money if we wanted to add something.”
Ultimately, it seems like the more limitations Nash put on himself in the writing and recording process, the better it suited the band, which is a concept he says he’s warmed to over time. “Early on, we’d have stuff break all the time,” he says. “We’d have an amp break or a string break and think, ‘What are we going to do?’ Now we make it a fun game where we try to figure out how to make it work with five strings and turn it to our advantage in some way.”