When instrumental electronica band Signal Path formed in 2002, guitarist Ryan Burnett jotted down a list of 15 goals he’d set for the new band. Then he forgot about it, he says.
In the nearly three years since, Missoula-based Signal Path has compiled a list of accomplishments that would be the envy of most bands: touring the country, releasing an eponymous debut studio album and playing high-profile festivals including New Orleans’ Jazz Fest and California’s High Sierra Music Festival. “These last few years of my life is a big blob,” Burnett admits.
Last fall, the band toured with a refrigerator-sized rack of recording equipment and a mini production facility, recording every show on the fly. The setup made it possible for fans to purchase high-quality concert recordings on their way out the door.
On Friday, the band takes the stage at the Wilma Theatre to celebrate the release of its first live album—a seven-track CD with favorite performances culled from the tour. “We sifted through the shows looking for tracks that stood out, where the mix, the feel and everything was perfect,” Burnett says. The album, simply titled Live, contains no edits or overdubs. The tracks are audio snapshots of a hard-touring band in constant development.
Signal Path played more than 160 shows all over the U.S. last year and is gearing up for the next stage of its musical career. The more the members consider the business aspects of running the band, the more they realize it’s a full-time job, with parts best delegated to others. Until this point, the band has been more or less self-sufficient, performing management, booking and publicity duties in-house with the help of friends, but “We’ve reached a point where it’s time to outsource management and publicity,” Burnett says. “We’ve talked to potential managers along the way. Some even flew out to meet us for lunch. But when they faxed over the contract, we knew we weren’t ready.” Now, he says, they are.
San Francisco-based talent manager Eric Gerber set up Signal Path’s upcoming tour, which commences in March and will take the band to Utah, Colorado and British Colombia. Gerber’s resume includes works with a slew of jambands and jazz groups including Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Critters Buggin and Jacob Fred’s Jazz Odyssey.
Another new addition is an Atlanta-based publicist charged with the task of convincing journalists to write articles in local papers before the band comes to town (full disclosure: the Independent was never contacted by said publicist). Signal Path, like most bands new to touring, has often performed without prior marketing, but going forward Burnett promises Signal Path will avoid such “blind” touring. Radio spots, newspaper ads and street crews will hype the band before every concert, he says. Street crews, a guerilla marketing technique long favored by punk rockers, indie groups and jambands, are eager fans who distribute handbills, moonlight on poster patrol and spread the word about upcoming shows. In return, crew members are compensated with free tickets.
The band spent last week rehearsing for Friday’s concert, but will soon leave for Los Angeles to record another studio album with the help of producer James Lumb. In the early 1990s, Lumb’s Electric Skychurch performed at full-moon gatherings and dance parties in L.A., and the band’s releases merged electronic and instrumental elements—much like Signal Path. After the two bands shared a bill at the Big Sky Pavilion last July, the renowned artist and producer left impressed with the Missoula band.
“Signal Path is an important band because they’re playing electronic music with actual instruments,” Lumb says in a phone interview. “They’ve humanized abstract electronic music.”
Lumb kept in touch with Signal Path and promised to help them as best he could. “I always take people I meet on the road with a grain of salt,” Burnett says. “But Lumb kept his promises.” At a meeting in L.A., Lumb promised studio time and help producing the upcoming album and shopping for a major label.
Studio albums are definitely in line with the band’s long-term goals, bass player Dion Stepanski says. He believes they have finally earned the luxury of stepping back from the live grind to produce albums, and then touring to support those. “The more albums we can sell, the more we can make,” he says.
Since its inception, Signal Path has amassed a repertoire of about 30 tunes. In the beginning, new material came together collectively during rehearsals, but the band quickly learned that creating new material on the road is difficult. “There just wasn’t enough time to rehearse,” Stepanski says.
Today, Stepanski, Burnett and Nathan Weidenhaft use their laptop computers as composition tools. Software like Acid Pro makes it possible to write parts for every member, Stepanski explains. “Then it’s a matter of learning it together.”
In early 2003 Signal Path began experimenting with laptops in their live setup. “As far as I know, we use three laptops on stage,” Burnett says with a laugh.
The laptops add textures impossible to generate with traditional instruments in a live setting, Stepanski says. And sampled drum loops help the rhythm section, Stepanski says, giving drummer Damon Metzner and percussionist Ben Griffin something steady to lock into.
“None of us are soloists,” Stepanski explains. Band members and laptops are treated like individual voices in a choir. At first spin it’s easy to mistake Signal Path’s sound for bland computer-made grooves spiced with samples. To the careful listener, however, Stepanski’s rich bass lines and Weidenhaft’s tasteful jazz piano add a dimension of excitement not found in most electronic music.
Last year while touring in Oklahoma, Burnett busted out his list of goals for the first time in almost three years. To his amazement he discovered that Signal Path had reached every goal he had identified. Going forward, Burnett wants the band to evolve into an even tighter unit. “As a band, I’d like us to develop over the longer term in a real way,” he says. “We’re so young. When you listen to a band like Medeski Martin & Wood, you can tell it’s so solid. From the first beat on the hi-hat to the last note on the bass. That takes experience. You can go home and practice your guitar, but maturing as a musician takes time.”
Signal Path plays Friday, Feb. 4, at the Wilma. Doors open at 7 PM, show starts at 8. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 day of show, available at Rockin Rudy’s, the UC Box Office and Ear Candy Music. Call 800-965-4827 or log on to www.ticketweb.com for info.