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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Cover Story

Plagues & Pirates / Knives & Guns: MRS. HENRY Keeps on Rising

by Drew DouglasJune 2023

Mrs. Henry: (top) Chad Lee, Blake Dean, Jody Bagley, Daniel Cervantes. (bottom) Allan Ritter. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Mrs. Henry isn’t fucking around. You can tell the minute you walk into their rehearsal space, a sprawling four-car garage in the backyard of singer and guitarist Daniel Cervantes’ hacienda-style home in Chula Vista. Despite the large room, the space is absolutely packed with musical instruments and gear. There are two full drum kits set up on risers. I spot a large Hammond organ, a humongous Leslie speaker, another organ under a moving blanket among guitars and amps and pedal boards strewn across the room. There’s a full P.A. setup with multiple monitors. “The amount of time it takes to set all this up is insane,” says Cervantes. But if time is a concern for the band, it’s only that they don’t have enough in a single day for all of their grand ambitions. But they also refuse to be rushed. They are hell-bent on doing this right. It’s a refrain that repeats on their latest sprawling effort, a full-on rock opera titled Keep on Rising.

“We come in in the morning and we do 20 or 30 minutes of vocal warm-ups,” says keyboardist Jody Bagley. Bagley is a classically trained vocalist with a background in musical theater. He leads the band in these exercises to warm up their voices because they intend to stretch them to their limits. “I’ve learned I can do things I never knew I could do with my voice,” says drummer Chad Lee, whose speaking voice resonates in a rich and natural baritone. Bassist Blake Dean brags about the other half of his rhythm section, “The Beat Farmers had Country Dick. We’ve got Chad, who’s also a drummer and a baritone.” Jody gently corrects us as he explains their vocal roles. “We do four-part harmonies. Chad would be your bass, Blake would be your baritone, and Dan would be your tenor two and I’d be your tenor one.”

When they record harmonies, “A lot of times we’re all singing all of the parts, where we’ll all sing, say, the bottom harmony.” Jody continues, “So for every harmony, we all should be singing and spreading that around and giving those individual flavors with our voices.”

There’s a metaphor here. It’s an easy trap to say that Daniel is the band leader. He’s charismatic and eager to lead with a passionate explanation to each of my interview questions. He’s the man front and center, shredding impossible guitar solos. He’s the primary lyricist. But this is very much a band intent on using every gift they’ve been collectively given, and they don’t seem to be concerned with letting their egos get in the way of that. “The concept was to create a band that was of equals. We’re consciously modeled after The Band and every voice in The Band was represented,” Daniel says.

So, while everyone in Mrs. Henry has a role, they all support each other, and at least, during our interview, there seems to be very little tension. Daniel continues, “The Band… each member was so individualistic to themselves. And together, they created something bigger than themselves.” The Band is a constant and primary inspiration, so much so that Mrs. Henry’s very name is cribbed from a song they recorded with Bob Dylan, “Please, Mrs. Henry.” Like their muses before them, Mrs. Henry is designed to be a united force, a concept that was battle tested throughout the days of Covid lockdown. Those challenging days offered them a chance at musical alchemy, which they grabbed eagerly with all their collective hands.

“We spent seven months at Big Fish studios, recording on analog tape machines with Jordan Andreen. This is an opportunity that bands like us don’t get.”

And Mrs. Henry damn-sure isn’t going to spoil that opportunity. Poised to take full advantage of the situation they emerged from lockdown with an epic three-act rock opera that will eventually be pressed to a whopping four slabs of vinyl in a quadruple gate-fold set. “It’s all one album,” more than one member says over the course of the interview. Act I was released on all streaming platforms in 2022. Act II was just released digitally last month. (You can read my review of Act II in the March issue of the San Diego Troubadour. https://sandiegotroubadour.com/mrs-henry-keep-on-rising/) The release of Act III is scheduled for the fall and will culminate in the vinyl package and a record release show at Centro Cultural in Tijuana. “We’ll perform the piece in its entirety,” and despite the immense talents of the core four members they are not above bringing in a couple ringers to serve the songs. “It’s such a massive undertaking we’ve brought in Kyle Merritt from Trouble in the Wind and former bandmate Allan Ritter,” who both act as utility players for the live shows. “I had 36 songs to learn!” says Kyle.

***********

Allan Ritter. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Drummer Chad Lee is deeply thoughtful for all my interview questions. Throughout the interview, Daniel and Blake swap grand stories and explanations while he sits quietly and takes it all in. But when I turn to him, he distills it all into the best sound bites. He’s quietly stealing the interview with quotes, such as:

The music is gonna be the doctor to the person and they’re going to grab whatever remedy they need from it.

Religiousness is a very small part of what life is. At least in here.

This thing holds an infinite circle of elements.

We have a lot of pretty wild conversations from each of us and by the end of the night we’re all fried, and Dan is writing it down in some Dan way.

I am quickly remembering why I love Chad so much, despite not knowing each other nearly well enough to justify my affection.

I’ve been in this kitchen before. Not Daniel’s kitchen specifically, but I’ve toured and roadied and been in enough of my own bands to know this kitchen. There’s a comfort to these porcelain penny-tile floors. It’s a bonding space. We spend two and a half hours talking here. There’s a bong on the table, but nobody picks it up. We’re “doin’ it right” as the album references. We’re all friends but this is business. Daniel makes coffee, passes around a couple of beers, and knows who wants what without asking. He asks anyway. When one starts a personal story, another bandmate interjects with forgotten details as if the story were their own. And there are stories. Stories with knives and gun play. Stories of stolen gear during the recording in an infamous break-in at Big Fish over the lockdown days. But there are warmer stories. In the room with us sits Gizmo, who serves as band photographer and roadie. They met two years ago when Gizmo’s father suggested to Daniel’s father that they get together. This is a family affair of people who look out for each other.

“I just want this entire story to be documented,” says Chad. You get the feeling that four slabs of vinyl are not enough… that whittling their work down to this sweeping opera was a major task and they’ve got much more to say.

This is a band with massive ambitions and a massive sound to match and they damn sure aren’t going to miss their opportunity for lack of effort.

I’ll give every single drop of my blood, sweat, tears
I’ll do whatever it’s going to take…
We can finish what we started
We can make a name for ourselves
We’re not gonna lose (We’re gonna win)

—We’re Gonna Win, Keep on Rising Act III

Mrs. Henry is so focused on being a band, every effort to dig into their personal beliefs or philosophies is continually rebuffed by eager exaltations of their opera. They don’t want to talk to me about existentialism; they want to talk about Mrs. Henry and the album that has consumed so much of their lives. “This album took so much from us, but it gave us all so much back,” Chad says.

While the pandemic lockdown days were intense for all of us it’s clear that Mrs.Henry as a band felt deeply inundated as the world closed down and blew up at the same time. Whiplashed by an “overwhelming sense of over-information,” as Dan describes and Blake continues, “and how quickly the world shifted into that complete sensational zeitgeist in every direction. If there was a propaganda machine, it was just spraying everywhere and everyone was right and everyone was wrong.”

Daniel Cervantes. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Daniel connects the dots, “The song, ‘A Time Like This,’ definitely comes from there and that was the first song we recorded that started the whole thing. And that was deep into BLM and these big gatherings…all that was happening that week.”

Amid all this chaos it was their instinct to come together, and they never waivered. Instead, they leaned on one another and doubled their efforts… then tripled them.

“We were driven and there was nothing else we could do as a band,” Dan begins as Blake picks up, ”We were on the road right when they were shutting down states and we decided to just go into the studio.” Dan continues, “At that time we hadn’t been in the studio for a few years. We spent years; we spent all our time [on tour], so much time booking and lining the dominoes up, and the rug was pulled from us. And we wanted to continue to be a band when nobody else could be a band.”

But at the same time, cops were shooting unarmed black children and as Black Lives Matter hit the streets, the President of the United States was flaming every fire he could until cities literally started burning down. The only way Mrs. Henry knew how to cope was to lean on each other. This was their pandemic pod and they were hell bent on creating something meaningful in the face of everything collapsing around them.

“There was so much shit. It’s just like when your parents tell you about WWII,” Dan says.

Jody Bagley. Photo by Dan Chusid.

Among all this uncertainty, when Jody heard the refrain at the heart of the album, ‘Hope, keep on rising.’ “I thought, okay I can get on board with this.”

Jody continues, “The first couple tracks we worked on became bookends of the album,” he says, referring to “A Time Like This” and “Hope, Keep on Rising.”

“So, we had these two songs,” and this is where Jody’s background in musical theater jumps in, “and how do we get from here…. to here. How do we get to ‘Keep on Rising?’” he explains. And very quickly everything about the process becomes meta. As Covid cancelled all of our lives, this question glared us all down. How do we get from that place of despair and chaos to a place of hope.

“And we started cross pollinating at this point, musically and lyrically, and that’s when it starts to form a concept,” Blake continues.

This is the only story Mrs. Henry wants to tell. Every other story simply informs this larger one. A band coming together during the pandemic and coming out on the other side with an opera befitting of the incredibly challenging days we all lived through.

Keep on Rising
“The intention wasn’t for it to be a triple album; it’s just one. This is the first time in our lives working with management, digital marketing consultants and art directors, marketing people…our gut at the time was to trust in others making those decisions,” Dan offers as an explanation for the staggered release in three acts.

Referring to the marketing folks, Blake quips, “It’s the band’s equivalent of walking onto a pirate ship and hanging out and just saying, ‘This sounds cool!’”

Blake Dean

This isn’t a random reference to pirates. Blake has a personal story of being Shanghaied at sea that makes an appearance on the record. Everything is meta. Everything. As I dig deeper, Blake literally winds himself up out of his chair, crosses the room, and asks me to sit down so he can act out the pirate tale that I’m trying hard to follow but can’t entirely suss out. I’m not sure if this obfuscation is intentional or just manic excitement in getting the opportunity to share the history that informed the album. Either way, I go with it. Blake reaches around my neck and mimes a knife at my throat, showing me first-hand how “sea tweakers” almost ended him.  As the story continues, a red-headed French woman enters the tale along with rare gemstones and a boat once owned by Jacque Cousteau. I’m not sure where any of this is going, but I’m starting to understand how this album became an opera that requires four vinyl records in three acts to cover.

“The world was dying and this might be the only time we’re ever going to do this,” Chad chimes in as he discusses the catalyst that set them along their long and arduous path, “and if we all die from it, we need to somehow record it.”

“It kind of all happened as we were writing it. We were in the studio jamming, writing characters and there was kind of a story here,” Dan says.

Mrs. Henry’s rehearsal space. Photo by Dan Chusid.</div>

“We didn’t start in with any intentions.” It was just, “Hey, I got this song, let’s record a song today.” Jody picks up the narrative. “It was a very difficult time to navigate. There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel like I should enjoy this; this is a weird, bad time. But also, this is a great time and we’re having a blast with our buddies. So, it was very strange.”

But the world kept coming for them, and the next blow was personal.

Because of the lockdown, Mrs. Henry had exclusive access to Big Fish studios and kept their gear there between exhaustively long recording sessions. “We lived at Big Fish. Usually, only bands like Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin get this opportunity,” Blake says. But like everything else along the way, that gift did not come without a price.

“So much happened during that period being at Big Fish that is insanity. There’s the infamous robbery that happened there…that resulted in trauma and drama and paranoia,” Dan says.

Blake immediately gets into story mode and starts firing alternately specific and vague details as if I’m already in the know. “[It was} the first time in 40 years Big Fish has been robbed. A guy who used to record there came in at night and broke in. We were in a session the night it got stolen; the next day was my birthday. I knew he would come back. This was a sloppy job and he left a lot of shit. He came back. Paul (owner of Big Fish) saw him, they chase each other around, hit you, punch you, pull the gun, do the thing, send the SWAT to your house, get in the cuffs.” Blake is getting animated again. If you are getting lost in the details, you’re not alone. My interviewing skills were too rusty to pin it all down, but the entire impression is what’s important. They’ve been through some shit.

“My dog went paralyzed two days later,” Blake adds.

“All this shit!” Dan interjects and Blake keeps rolling, “But it informs what you did next. So, we shifted from that point and moved our base up to L.A.”

They tracked all the vocals and finished the record at Palomino Sound with Jason Soda.

There’s a theme emerging here. Mrs. Henry thrives in the face of adversity. You get the feeling that if these challenges didn’t exist they would need to create them. Even their approach to analog and recording on tape is more about its limitations than its sonic virtues. Sure, they love the sound of tape, but it’s also the challenge of its limitations.

“My favorite part of working in an analog setting is it prioritizes your hair-brain schemes. You don’t have space to do everything you want to do. I love that it influences the approach,” Blake says. The song title “Back in the Grease” is a reference to that process. When recording to tape, when you start a new take, you physically mark the tape with a grease pen so you can go back to where you left off. “If we blew a take, the engineer would say, “All right boys, we’re back in the grease!” And that became a metaphor for the entire process.

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Mrs. Henry performs at the Magnolia last year.

Making art isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily dissuaded. But Mrs. Henry was built for this as they embody the tenacity necessary for artistic success. They’re trusting the marketing professionals to do the rest. According to Blake, the entire concept of the “’Sex Sells, Love Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll Society,’ those are the people with the billboards trying to pretend like there’s a non-stop party happening and all the rock stars are getting laid. But actually, we’re working our ass off and we’re dying of exposure,” Blake says.

Chad chimes in with one last gem. “I like calling it the observation deck. And you’re looking down at it all, you’re not taking sides, you’re looking at the whole picture and being like, ‘There’s no romanticism in this rock ‘n’ roll shit anymore.’ But you look at the whole thing as a package and your like, ‘I’m objective with it now.’ And then you rise to that next level where you’ve got the yin and yang, the dark and the light. And you can choose what you want out of it at that point.”

And what Mrs. Henry chooses is to Keep on Rising.

The last several years turned everything upside down for the entire world. But Mrs. Henry is ready to set it right again. “It’s crazy how quickly the whole world changed into that and how quickly it changed back and now we’re just chatting about it,” Blake summarizes.

And while, as in life, not every story totally reveals itself in our interview, if we go to the source, we find the music will bring us home.

And if you’re ready, Mrs. Henry is ready to take you there.

We are lucky to be here now
What’s done is done I know
there’s nothing you can do about it
You gotta find a way to make it
yes I know
Find somewhere to sing your song
Find a circle where you belong
To feel at home and not alone
is a wonderful feelin’

— Mrs. Henry: “Find a Circle” from Keep on Rising

 

 

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