The ToneShifters channeled the past for new EP recorded at Sun Studio
Fans don't think of popular New London roots band Chris MacKay and the ToneShifters as paranormal investigators. But it was hard for the five-piece act to ignore otherworldly possibilities in February when they ventured to Memphis and Sun Studio — familiarly known as "The birthplace of rock 'n' roll" and where folks like Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Ike Turner all recorded.
The purpose of the ToneShifters' quick-turnaround, one-night session was to record a live EP in the renowned facility, and the result, "Sun Set — Live! Raw! Vintage!" is mixed and ready for release on Aug. 18. An advance listen to the four-tune effort reveals a high-energy blast of roadhouse fun joyously lacquered with shades of gospel, soul and Cajun — exactly what you'd want from a Sun Studio session. The tracks are flawless and sonically pristine, but at the same time the intensity and excitement of a live performance — all tunes were done in one- or two takes with almost no overdubbing — crackles like heat lightning.
"It was magic going in there," says vocalist/percussionist/band leader Chris MacKay of Sun. "What was weird about it to me, though, was how relaxed and comfortable I became once we started recording. Ordinarily, going into any studio session is stressful and makes me a bit nervous. And these were extreme circumstances. We didn't have much time and we had to get it right. It's an understatement to say I was very aware of where we were; there's an X on the floor where Elvis did vocals and that's where I sang. And yet, once (the record light came on), it was like the whole atmosphere just sort of took me to this calm place."
Sun is small by recording studio standards, with much of the original equipment on-site and in-use just as when the late owner-producer Sam Phillips opened the place in 1950. The vintage gear, historic session photos, and museum-like devotion to keeping the whole facility exactly as it was reflects an ongoing adherence to Phillips's visionary recording philosophy. He was always aiming for what he called "perfect imperfection" — he didn't care if a take had a mistake in it if he could feel the magic of the musicians' efforts in his soul.
Guitarist/vocalist Tim Stawarz echoes MacKay's feelings on the sanctified aura of the experience. "There was a lot on my mind just going to Sun," he says. "It was almost a surreal experience to think of everybody who'd recorded there. You're thinking, 'Did Roy Orbison or B.B. King or Ike Turner use that microphone?' Think of the DNA in that place! And yet — it was so relaxing. I absolutely didn't expect that. But I looked around at all the pictures and just felt completely natural. Like, 'Of course we were supposed to be here!'"
The idea that, well, anyone can record in Sun Studio seems a bit difficult to believe. For one thing, Sun exists today principally as a museum. Only after the daily trek of visitor tours and giftshop browsing is shut down at 5 p.m. is the studio available for recording. On the other hand, it IS a recording studio — the purpose of which is to record music — and so, as with other famous facilities like Abbey Road, Muscle Shoals, Sunset Sound and so forth, folks are often surprised that pretty much anyone can go in and lay down and/or mix tracks.
Given the reputation and lore of Sun, though, and the limited hours available for recording, it's best to plan ahead. It wasn't as though the ToneShifters finished rehearsal one February afternoon, popped some beers and decided, "Hey, any reason we shouldn't go to Memphis and record where Johnny Cash did? How about next week?"
In this case, the ToneShifters booked the studio a year in advance, and it was accordionist/vocalist Susan Mackay — Chris's wife — who set things in motion. When her sister Kathy Rinkes, a fellow music fan, organized the first of now-annual family trips to Memphis for the Ameripolitan Music Awards a few years ago, it was a point of honor and homage that Chris and Susan's initial stop was Sun Studio for a tour.
"During that first tour, I looked at Chris and he had tears in his eyes," Susan MacKay says. "There's so much history and spirit in that place it's impossible not to be moved. When we learned that day they actually book recording time in the evenings, Chris and I told ourselves that someday we would do it."
It was sort of a bucket list fantasy, Susan says, but, during their 2019 trip to Ameripolitan, the thought hit her that, while they were in Memphis, she would look into booking the studio.
"It took a little convincing to get Chris to see it was really possible," Susan MacKay says, "and I didn't imagine the rest of the band would be willing to take on the expense and travel just to record a few songs. We figured we'd get the basics down and they could overdub their parts later back home. But when we told them our plans, they astounded us by agreeing on the spot to join us. No one even had to think about it — and that took the idea of recording at Sun to a whole new level for us."
A year later — and luckily just before the coronavirus shut down much of the country — the traveling party thus included, in addition to the MacKays, Stawarz, bassist Ben Perry and drummer Tim Zeppieri. Also along was videographer/photographer Bill Dumas, who captured the experience and is in final editing stages for a video of the EP's leadoff track, "Jitterbug."
The Memphis turnaround
The tunes on "Sun Set" were carefully selected. Not only do they display the Shifters' mastery of the rich variety of American roots music, they reflect songwriter Chris MacKay's scholarly assimilation of same along with his own deft gift for imagery, energy and hooks.
"Jitterbug" is a summons-to-the-dance-floor explosion of jump blues and rockabilly. "Coming Back to You" bubbles like a Jed Campett oil strike surfacing out of a southwestern Louisiana bayou. Then the band smoothly shifts into confessional boogie for "Seen Some Things," and the set concludes with an inferno of Chautauqua tent exultation called "Jesus Got My Back" — with Chris MacKay ad-libbing names from an honor roll of Sun Studio veterans over the roller coaster outro.
What the EP also conveys is how incredibly well rehearsed the ToneShifters are.
"Well, that was part of the concept," Stawarz says. "We wanted to just blast and raw — straight through the songs. And we figured we could do overdubs as needed. But the thing is, it came out pretty great just as is. Maybe later we'll add some stuff and remix for a different, more modern release to go along with it. But for now we're pretty happy."
Just as their Sun predecessors had done, the ToneShifters recorded live — all of them in the same room except for Susan MacKay. To capture the sonic nuances of her accordion, she was tucked in a side office that used to be occupied by Marion Keisker — the female Sun employee who originally talked Phillips into letting Presley record there, and then was the first to record the King at Sun.
"We picked these songs because they were tight and they're among our most popular," Chris MacKay says. "I'd been going through writer's block and so we'd been playing them so much they were ready. And they seemed like they were the right songs for Sun. They have that feel."
One of the qualities at the heart of the band's songs is Chris MacKay's ability to capture the perpetual thematic dichotomy at the heart of a lot of roots music. A song protagonist damned sure enjoys a good time, but there's also a sense of regret, guilt and the hope that, regardless of transgressions, there's ultimately forgiveness.
"Right now," Chris MacKay says, "everybody wants hope and something to believe in. I think the songs sort of suggest that it's not important what you believe in as long as what you believe gives you faith in something that helps you carry on."
Though time and budgeting didn't allow for a big touristy experience, the Shifters did manage to eat a bit of Memphis soul food and, before returning to New England, a fine Deep South breakfast. By all measures, the trip was a success, and in acknowledgement, the band gives effusive credit and appreciation to the staff at Sun, particularly engineers Crockett Hall and Matt Squalls.
"They could not have been kinder or more welcoming," Susan MacKay says. "It's hard to express the feeling of being able to record in such a historic and groundbreaking place. Just thinking about it will always fill me with gratitude and happiness."
"Everyone was so cool and laid back," Chris MacKay adds. "I think in one way, the energy and spirit of the place and the people there reinforce something I believe about music. That it heals. I'm all about the power of music and the bonding and the brotherhood. It doesn't stop or die."
Comng soon to your ears
Who: Chris MacKay and the ToneShifters
What: "Sun Set — Live! Raw! Vintage!," a four-song EP recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis
When: Release date Aug. 18
For more information: toneshifters.bandcamp.com or toneshifters.com
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