(Welcome to tbt*'s Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we're spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today:Tampa folk-pop collective Rec Center.)
Michael Waksman and Susie Ulrey exchanged many, many emails before they settled on a name for their band. They refuse to list any of the names they rejected, but they're happy to explain why they chose the one they did.
"I kept coming back to Rec Center," Waksman said. "One of the original ideas was that we were going to have sort of a revolving-door membership, where any friend of ours, or anybody in the Tampa music scene, could possibly come into the band with a few songs that they had written, and play music with us."
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That ended up not happening. But the name stuck, and to this day it fits: Rec Center remains a band at the center of the Tampa music scene, with an egalitarian spirit and veteran members whose visions and voices have touched many of Tampa Bay's most vital musical projects.
While Rec Center has played South by Southwest several times, it wasn't until 2012 that they released their debut LP, Tin Year, a gorgeous collection of indie-folk-pop ballads that was one of the most acclaimed local albums of 2012. After years of songwriting, endless polishing and at least one seemingly insurmountable personal setback — Ulrey's multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2002 — Tin Year is, in may ways, the album of a lifetime.
"It was such a long time coming, I didn't want to just put it out there and have it half done," Waksman said. "If we're gonna do it, let's do it."
Said Ulrey: "When I heard the finished product, and I was listening to it, I was thinking to myself, if something happens to me — if I lose my speech or my hearing goes weird or my hands get too numb — if any of that happens, I will be extremely satisfied that this is the last thing I ever did."
To call Tin Year long-awaited is an understatement. Ulrey and Waksman formed Rec Center in the mid-2000s, but some of the songs on the album date back to the '90s. Back then, they played in different bands at the heart of the local music scene, often hanging out at the Stone Lounge, a dingy, long-defunct club near Skipper's Smokehouse. There, they got to know the man who would become their common link: Ulrey's future husband Keith, now the owner of Microgroove in Seminole Heights.
Keith Ulrey worked the door at the Stone Lounge and co-ran New Granada Records, a Tampa label that at that time operated as a co-op — any artist that wanted to release an album there, including Ulrey and Waksman's bands, could. He also played drums in bands with both artists — Pohgoh and the Maccabees with Susie, and Zillionaire with Waksman.
It was after a Zillionaire practice that Keith mentioned to Waksman that Susie was looking for accompaniment on some songs that she'd written. Her MS diagnosis had come as a jolt, one that led her to question whether she'd ever play music again. She struggled with a guitar and was just beginning to learn the piano. But she missed performing live and being in a band. "I missed the collaboration," she said. "I missed the interaction and the relationships with the people you're playing with."
Waksman, too, had written some songs that he thought would sound good with a piano and a softer edge — "Even when I was a kid, I would always pick out the ballad on an album, and be drawn to it," he said — so they gave it a go.
Writing softer songs partly by choice and partly due to Ulrey's physical limitations, the duo found their writing styles complemented one another. Ulrey tends to write quickly and loves arranging vocal harmonies; Waksman tinkers endlessly with his intricate instrumentals ("It could take 10 years, I don't care," he said). And the fact that the music was so soft, so quiet, meant that any imperfection would be amplified — so they doubled down to make sure not a note was out of place.
"When I was in these loud bands, I could never hear myself sing, because I have a real quiet voice," Ulrey said. "When we started playing these more stripped-down arrangements, I enjoyed it, because I could actually hear myself for the first time in forever." Instead of "yelling over everything," she said, "I was able to figure out how I wanted to sing."
As the band has expanded — Keith Ulrey plays drums, Brian Roberts plays bass and Melissa Grady of Candy Bars plays cello — so has its sonic scope. Both Waksman and Ulrey say the band has actually gotten louder. Each member brings ideas to the table, and during the recording of Tin Year, each member had a single veto they could use to axe any group decision, no questions asked. "We have a very democractic process," Waksman said, "but that also means there are a ton of arguments, a lot of sour feelings and hashing out."
Thanks in no small part to the songs on Tin Year, Rec Center went from being an amorphous side project to both Waksman and Ulrey's main musical project. And while it took them close to a decade to record it, it shouldn't be that long before Tampa Bay hears new music from Rec Center. Says Ulrey: "We have enough for an EP."
For their friends in the local scene, it can't come soon enough.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*