Written By Brett Levine
Photo by Beau Gustafson
For the band Sea Fix—which includes members Chris Hoke, Bret Estep, Tony Oliver, and Chris Rowell—studio process and production have always been as important, or perhaps more so even, than live performance. The two Chrises, Hoke and Rowell, met when Hoke and Estep were working on a film score and wanted some additional musicians to work with. Rowell, who was working on what would become the Sea Fix record, was familiar with Oliver (who was then playing with several other groups) and Estep, and the four had a musical synergy that just seemed to gel.
Still, it was a seemingly humorous turn of events that first got them on stage together: “It was actually a Who tribute night at Bottletree,” Hoke remembers. From there, more performances followed, including a particularly memorable one for Secret Stages. “We were playing at Pale Eddie’s Pour House, and to be on that stage, because it is so small, you’re sort of stacked one behind the other,” they explain. “What was so great about the performance was the crowd,” Hoke adds. “It’s amazing when people may not know the words to your songs, or they may not even be familiar with your music, but they are just so energetic that they get engaged and excited just to hear you play.”
Asked to describe their influences, the four pause to reflect. “I think because we’ve all played with other bands, and we all continue to pursue our own ideas, we’re a little different as a band,” Oliver says. “I think the best way to think about it might be to think about something like Broken Social Scene—we’re like a core of musicians who really enjoy playing together, but there are also other people who work their way in and out in some way.”
Sea Fix sees itself, predominantly, as a studio band. As Rowell explains, “everyone plays a number of instruments, which can make the creative process really exciting. We also don’t necessarily record in a standard way—we sometimes begin with the rhythm section, or just a bass line and a scratch vocal, rather than a melody or a hook—and then everyone else tracks or layers their parts on top.” They’re also happy to be recording simply because they understand that the band creates something different than they each create on their own.
What results is something the band describes as akin to dream pop, which they’ve released first on a seven-inch single, and then on a full-length album. “We did the single simply because we had four or five songs ready to go—not enough for a full-length, but something we wanted to release. Then, late in 2015, we released our album, Under.” Under is intriguing. Full of pop sensibilities, songs like Tough Love (Sea’s Mouth) and Shoe Show are slow, tough, and darker, while Head First (15 Years) feels like a breezy, almost Brit-pop hit for a summer afternoon. What characterizes everything is the crisp, clean, and bright production, something evident from what both Oliver and Estep say about Rowell and Hoke—essentially that Chris and Chris are studio technicians, which is borne out by the production on the record.
With that being said, both Oliver and Estep are being humble about their own talents and contributions. Oliver’s keyboard work is both delicate and tough, creating washes of sound and stabs of intensity, while Estep’s drumming is rock solid yet filled with subtle flourishes—you can feel him sitting back in the pocket and then bursting forth where it’s necessary. What’s clear is that the music being made by these four guys in their Hidden Window studio really is the result of the realization that the years of hard slog to be rock stars results in two choices: either a passion for making good, solid, well-composed music being played by professionals who enjoy working together regardless of the outcome or something else entirely that isn’t worth discussing here. This is clearly the former. Hoke put it best in these words: “I spent a decade being a performing musician, having recording contracts, and playing gigs.” Now, in Estep’s words: “It’s not terribly agenda-driven; it’s process-driven.” Clearly, the process works.
Standing to one side of the studio where they practice and record is a vintage keyboard dragged from a dumpster one night in the rain. Not knowing what would happen, they dried off the power cord and plugged it in. Nothing happened initially, but a little while later, it sizzled a little and powered on. When it did, a display—invisible before—sprang to life: The Fun Machine. That sums up Sea Fix in an instant. You see four guys sitting at a table in a bar; you’re not quite sure what to expect; you put on their album, or you see them play, and they sizzle to life like a spectacular machine. See them, or at least listen to them, because you need your fix.