Team Metlay, December 1994. Clockwise from far left: John Rossi III, Erikur Hallgrimsson, Carl Brenner, Nick Rothwell, John Rossi IV, Joe McMahon, David Turner, Adam Schabtach, Mike Metlay, DAC Crowell, Arthur Turner.
By 1987, I had established myself as a presence in the early Internet, in newsgroups on USENET such as rec.music.synth and mailing lists like EMUSIC-L, answering questions and discussing the past, present, and future of electronic music with like-minded folks all over the world. This was years before the Web, and discussion was limited to academics, military personnel, and a few forward-looking corporations… but even with that relatively restricted pool of tech-savvy people, there was plenty of room for trolls and jerks. And it was one such troll who ironically launched the next phase of my musical career…
Early in 1990, two people had gotten into a flamewar on one of the music lists. I wish I could remember who it was; they were really tearing chunks out of each other. Finally, one of them said in response to a particularly nasty attack: “You wouldn’t say stuff like that if you and I were sitting in the same room talking to each other!”
And a little switch inside my head went ‘click’…
My immediate response was, “Hey… what if we were to get together and sit in the same room and talk?”
And immediately after that was, “My wife is about to leave for Antarctica for a research trip… I’d love to have some folks over to help me while away the weeks while she’s gone. Maybe bring some gear and make some music, too!”
And within a month or two, I had seven collaborators—Dan Barrett, Carl Brenner, Kurt Geisel, John Rossi III, Nick Rothwell and Dean Swan, plus Adam Schabtach, who participated in a virtual manner since he couldn’t actually come to Pittsburgh and join the sessions.
We spent two weeks in December 1990 recording eight tracks of solid music, seven of which would be brought together to form an album we called Bandwidth. The band name, Team Metlay, was a joke that stuck—the term had originated several years earlier, to describe the students at the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate program in Physics and Astronomy who had flunked their qualifying exams, and I wanted to redeem it from failure to success. Along with the great music came a number of lasting friendships, some of them still strong after nearly three decades.
I made the fateful decision to skip the cassette route and get the album out on CD, forming my own label to do so: Atomic City, named after Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I was doing my Ph.D. research.
Two years passed, and the master tapes languished in my hands; a proper CD release cost many thousands of dollars in those days, and I simply didn’t have the money. People got sick of my constant promises to get it out the door, and eventually stopped listening to me… but the friendships remained, and more were added, and even though we had nothing tangible to show for our efforts as yet, people agreed to get together again in 1992, in two sessions: Beta Test, in the early months of the year, and the huge Saturnalia session in August. These two sessions added other musicians: John “Zero” Curtis, Eirikur Hallgrimsson, Joe McMahon, William Sequeira, and David Turner.
The Beta Test sessions resulted in a handful of tracks, some good and some not so good, and Saturnalia was a textbook example of how not to run a session: two weeks of crawling around a room full of synthesizers and cabling, trying to get everything to talk to each other reliably, and ending with only a few good tracks recorded. Everyone went home angry, and we were fairly sure, as late as 1994, that this was it, we couldn’t do it any more… in one forum, I wrote, “We may never all meet together at once again. Most of us believe it would be a bad idea; critical mass in the studio is between three and five, it seems. But we continue to communicate, share ideas, visit one another, and so on.”
Fortunately our cred wasn’t completely gone; it beggared me to do it, but I finally got Bandwidth out the door in 1993 and the CD was enjoying modest success. With the renewed interest in the Team from the world electronic music community and a good two years to cool down and focus, we were encouraged to try again, and the Metlay project hit its zenith of creativity and insane excess in December of 1994 and January of 1995 with a five-week recording session that resulted in the double-CD Ballistic.
For most of December 1994 and the first few days of January 1995, a revolving crew of musicians made their way to my new home in Tallahassee, Florida, for five weeks of tracking, writing, mixing, and discussion, with lots and lots and lots of food and drink. Added to the gang this time were David Turner’s brother Arthur, an official appearance by John Rossi IV (who’d appeared on Bandwidth as a guest on one track), and DAC Crowell, who engineered the sessions and added a variety of vintage synthesizers and noisemaking gear, much of which was never intended to have audio pass through it. We generated so much original music, and resurrected and remixed/added to so much material from 1992 (and even the one track from 1990 that didn’t make Bandwidth!), that the result was a double CD with well over two hours of music.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the second dawn of my own musical workflow; to my largely live setup was added the thrill and discovery of entirely improvised music. Two “Zap Jams” became two of the best tracks on the album, and set me on the course of live improv as a valid means of getting my music out to an audience in a fresh and exciting manner.
I was determined that Ballistic not languish on a shelf for three years, and got the CD pressed immediately; by the spring of 1995 I had 1000 copies ready to market and sell… and then, in May, my first child was born, and my life was pushed sideways, hard. The album’s still available, and it’s aged pretty well, but it represents a time of intense and chaotic creativity that I hope I’ll never try to equal again… I don’t think my heart could take it.
Team Metlay, Beneath Electric Stars concert, January 2 1999. From Left: Darwin Grosse, John Rossi III, Mike Metlay, Nick Rothwell, David Turner
Two more years passed; Ballistic sold in modest numbers, and I changed careers and left Florida and science for an editorial job at Recording Magazine. In late 1996 and early 1997, just after my relocation to Colorado, the gang gathered once more for a basement session at my rented townhouse. The Badlands sessions, as they were later called, were an emotional disaster for all of us—early promise devolved into arguments, passive-aggressive sulking, slammed doors, and a decision that enough was enough already. An hour of music was recorded; most of it was, frankly, terrible, with only a few tracks showing even the potential for being rescued in edited form. Much of it has vanished forever and deservedly so. Never again, I swore…
I should know better than to say “never again.” By late 1998, it was obvious that a few of us had one more real jolt of creativity left to deliver, and I started to consider a final session to heal some of the hurt and let Team Metlay end on a high note. I had no idea at the time that the solution we chose would end up defining me as a live performer for the next decade and more.
In December 1998, five of us met at my house and began rehearsals for what would be the ultimate live gig for space musicians: the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I was joined by Nick, John 3, David, and new arrival Darwin Grosse, for a two-hour concert we called Beneath Electric Stars.
The concert was a tremendous success despite the terribly snowy weather that night (January 2, 1999), and we were able to salvage a bit over a half hour of music that was edited together by Darwin and Nick into a seamless performance. This was combined with a few tracks from the Badlands sessions to form the last Team album, Beneath Stars. At last I could close the door on that chapter of my career with a smile.
A Huge And Silent Place
One offshoot of the Team Metlay years is worth mentioning: a duet album of extremely deep and beautiful ambient space music that I created with DAC Crowell in 1995 under the project name Ozma, entitled A Huge And Silent Place. It took years to fine-tune our live performances into releasable tracks, and a lot of saving (I had a new baby and a new house and a new job) before the CD could be released.
DAC and I had a falling out over the final master, and other issues, that permanently severed our working relationship; he’s gone on to his own great successes, and I am left with an album that remains one of the creative high points of my career, for which I shall always be grateful. A few copies are still available on CD, with gorgeous cover art by the world-famous artist and music fan Matt Howarth.