Words by David C. Obenour
Born out of the initial spontaneous jams at their co-owned recording studio, Terry Gross is as free from inhibitions or pretensions as you might imagine. Comprised of Phil Manley (of Trans Am) and Donny Newenhouse and Phil Becker, songs construct and deconstruct based around feeling and instinct as the three explore riffs, repetition and everything in between. Their debut album, Soft Opening is three songs taken from three years of such jam sessions and shows the comfort and control the three have found with each other.
Off Shelf: Before getting into everything, I just wanted to check on how you’re doing. Last year was very trying for many and the holidays can exacerbate that even in the most normal of years. How have you been holding up?
Donny Newenhouse: Personally, I was really looking forward to the holidays. Like many musicians in bands or studio owners, I’ve got a day job that can be very demanding and stressful. Typically, the end of the year has always represented a break and a rest. This year was no different, though we weren’t able to have our annual El Studio holiday party. However, we were able to have our annual Terry Gross Yule Thyme Recording Sesh which was our 6th annual. That was fantastic, masks and all.
OS: Terry Gross is the product of the three of you jamming at El Studio. Is the music on Soft Opening indicative of most of those sessions or are there reggae jams or odd covers that will never see the light of day?
DN: To clarify, Terry Gross isn’t solely a product of jamming at the studio to test out gear. Our process is aided by the fact that we own and work out of a studio, but the band itself is really just about three dudes who play music and own/work in a studio and are good friends. The ‘hang’ in my opinion is really the glue of the band. The studio definitely helps and is an important part of our writing process, but it’s much more about being able to hang out than it is to test this mic or mic pre or compressor or whatever. As far as jams that may or may not see the light of day, almost every jam seems to start with Phil M. playing ‘Live Wire’ or ‘St. Stephen’s’ on the guitar. It’s the Phil Manley boot-up sound, much like the Apple ‘bong!’ sound when you power up your Mac.
OS: When did you first decide this was something you wanted to take beyond the studio? Do you remember who first floated the idea and what that conversation was like?
DN: Our first jam was so easy… it came from a conversation that was like, “hey, should we jam next week or something?” Manley and I were just integrating Phil Becker in to the studio. Becker and I had played in a band together before; Manley and I were already studio partners and as the three of us got to know each other outside of our individual friendships, it was sort of broached as a ‘maybe we should kinda you know, play these instruments that we have lying about in our studio and have never played together simultaneously.’
The more I think about it, it’s pretty funny because Phil Manley and I had already been studio partners for a year and had known each other since he moved to SF – 2005-ish? – but still, we’d never jammed together! The night we did, Manley exclaimed after the first jam something to the effect of: “Well, that was super easy. Why didn’t we think of doing this before?”
OS: Did anything about this project surprise you about playing with the other two?
DN: For me, it was very surprising just how easy it was to play with Manley. Since I’d already played with Becker, I was anxious to see what it’d be like with Manley as a guitarist with us but I was really surprised how easily it all came together. A cohesive vision began to form that the three of us pretty early on trusted each other to realize. There’s a lot that happens without any verbal communication. Certainly, the process of turning the material in to songs takes vision, a certain amount of creative leadership and trust but that process is also surprisingly painless. Good communication, support of each others ideas, etc. It’s fun!
OS: Soft Opening took shape over three years. How do you think giving it that long of a gestation period affected the album? Did your vision of it shift over that time? Do you still feel as connected to it in 2021?
DN: Interesting question. I still feel connected to it as the pieces themselves, with the exception of Specificity, remain somewhat amorphous with some mile-markers baked in for repeatability. Meaning: every time we play them, the sections in between the vocal sections can and probably will be different. Also, the process really helped inform each other of what the band is capable of and directions that we can explore.
OS: Have you been able to work on any new music over the last year of quarantine?
DN: We have! Early on we worked on some pieces completely separate from each other and passed them around. Drums first, then Manley or I taking the next turn, until they became something. We were finally able to begin playing together again in October 2020 and we’re actively working on LP #2. In addition to that, we’ve got about 5 years of jams that we started working through and released several during the quarantine on our Bandcamp site that I feel is also very representative of Terry Gross.
OS: On the surface there’s a lot of repetition in the performance of it, but what about hooking into a jam and riding it out appeals to you as a performer?
DN: Really losing yourself in the power and nuance of the repetition. The longer it continues, the more time and space become irrelevant. It’s both meditation and catharsis.
OS: There are a lot of amazing, spacey guitar riffs soaring all over the album. Do you have a particular favorite, either from the recording or one that you enjoy playing?
DN: Man, I’ve got tons of favorite Manley guitar hero moments. Becker coined the term: Man-Noize for Manley’s guitar playing. It’s so killer. My favorite from the album is the completely unhinged slow fuzz riff in Space Voyage Mission, right before the first set of vocals come in. On the edge of feedback, super simple but totally powerful. And, it happened completely off the cuff. Go figure!
OS: What do you see as the future of Terry Gross? Either as an occasional studio project or as a more established band with touring, when that’s an option again.
DN: Yep! Working on LP #2, wanna play shows – really bad, c’mon people let’s get through this pandemic and save our venues – and when we can tour on occasion.