Lewis Rogers isn’t used to being struck suddenly by creative inspiration. But he was hit with some a couple years ago while his band Busman’s Holiday, for which he sings and plays guitar, was on tour. He imagined a complete song with an orchestral section, and wanted to record it as soon as possible.
“It kind of overtook me. I was very excited. I was like, ‘We’ve got to make this next album, and we’ve got to have a 21-piece orchestra,” says Rogers.
The song in question is called “See the Rain,” and Busman’s Holiday did in fact record it with a 21-piece orchestra. It’s a moody, gorgeous track that brings to mind some of the more eclectic songs in Randy Newman’s ’70s catalog.
The song was released last fall on Popular Cycles, the third album for the Bloomington, Indiana-based duo that also consists of Rogers’ brother Addison, who sings and plays drums.
Normally, Busman’s Holiday songs consist of some acoustic guitar, a suitcase drum set and some harmonies. But this time the duo overdubbed a lot of instruments; not every song has a 21-piece orchestra, but many have string quartets and/or horn sections. In other words, it’s by far the most ambitious thing the brothers have ever recorded.
“I think the earlier things are just like I felt good about what we had. I think it’s why those old records are so sparse. You don’t want to ruin something. It’s so easy to add crap. Cycles felt like, ‘let’s get more instruments on there, because we can do this,’” Rogers says.
The group spent many years writing, recording, and touring as a two-piece. Many of their early gigs, which date back to Rogers’ teen years, were on the street corner, and not in venues.
“It was good conditioning ’cause it feels like you have to sing loud and you have to project,” he says. “You have to have songs that will make people stop. You figure out which songs are the ones that make people stop. It’s a really good way to kind of learn how to entertain people really quickly, which I think has been pretty valuable for us.”
But there was a downside to cutting their teeth in the busking realm. Like a theater actor trying to adjust his or her skill set to the big screen, Busman’s Holiday slowly came to realize that some of the things that were off-limits when playing for spare change were useful for creating a nuanced record.
“It was only recently that I felt like I could sing quieter than as powerfully as I could. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t always have to sing at full volume,” Rogers says.
It clicked by the time they went to record Popular Cycles, which is a tender, emotive record. The weaving of strings and horns punctuates stirring melodies. For this record, they allowed themselves to take some time and explore everything they could do to make the songs better, even if that meant re-writing parts in the studio.
“Getting the right textures, I find, is really important to making a good album. We spent so much time thinking about what’s going to go on it, what’s going to go on top of the stuff,” Rogers says.
The group still tours a lot, though they favor clubs these days over bustling city streets. However, they can’t take a 21-piece orchestra out on the road with them—and they don’t want to. They haven’t decided exactly what their live band this tour will be like, but they do know it’ll be much more stripped down than the record. The focus will be on the core melodies and chords—Addison, for the record, still plays a suitcase drum set.
“We try to make sure the melodies are strong enough, where hopefully if you just hear the melody even, it’ll carry the song enough,” Rogers says. “Hopefully, any way someone hears it they’ll be happy. I feel like it’s the melody and the lyrics. And hopefully giving it a good enough performance where you feel like you weren’t robbed of an experience.”
Busman’s Holiday performs at 9 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 13, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.