How California Wives Recorded an Album Full of Music Videos for $1,000

The local band crowdsourced the old-fashioned way: They called in favors from a bunch of musician friends.

Photo: Courtesy California Wives

The California Wives: Playing Chicago June 21, releasing videos June 12, and sharing a sneak preview of the first one today. 

Jayson Kramer is not a fan of Kickstarter. “I understand the need for it, but it feels like the art comes out of nowhere,” says the the California Wives singer, questioning bands who fund whole albums or tours from crowd sourcing. “You’re advertising your art before it’s even made.”

So when the local dream pop band planned to make an artsy music video series for each song off their 2012 Vagrant Records debut Art History, they took an old-school, DIY approach. Instead of relying on fans to foot the bill, the quartet ponied up a low budget of $1,000 and supplemented the rest by implementing a “favor system,” borrowing the talents of a lengthy list of Chicago music insiders.

In effect, it was a retort to the misrepresented glitz and glam of their big budget, Sharpie-produced “Purple” music video, which debuted during the MTV Video Music Awards last September. “That so wasn’t us,” says Kramer who feels the new videos reclaim their indie image. “We practice in a shitty space and have gear held together by tape.”

Here’s how they did it this time around:

  1. The band set up shop in rock marching band Mucca Pazza’s practice space in the Kimball Arts Center.
  2. Kramer tapped Santah’s Tommy Trafton to play live keys on the videos.
  3. Kramer’s friend Tilson Allen-Merry signed on to film it. (With only one cameraman, the project required nearly 150 takes, meaning “fingers were nearly bleeding” by the time the band wrapped.)
  4. To stretch the budget, the band just changed clothes and altered the staging to distinguish each video.
  5. The band chose to embrace the mistakes, rather than edit all of them. “It’s like my favorite ‘90s albums where someone is off,” Kramer says. “It gives the music character instead of being uptight and perfect.”
  6. Half of the videos were mixed with engineer Neil Strauch (Joan of Arc, Andrew Bird) and the other half in the bungalow basement of Ryan Murphy, a lighting designer who has worked with Leonard Cohen.

While California Wives won’t start rolling out the 11 videos until June 12, Chicago got a preview.

Photolights from california wives on Vimeo.

And if you like what you see, you can catch California Wives (with My Gold Mask) on June 21 at Hideout.

Selena Fragassi is a contributing music critic for Chicago.

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