33 1/3: It’s a serendipitous numeral in more ways than one.
It’s the title of the new record by the Tim Lee 3, the rock ’n’ roll trio featuring husband-and-wife duo Tim and Susan Bauer Lee. It’s also the number of revolutions per minute that a standard long play (LP) record turns.
Friday night, when the Tim Lee 3 celebrates the release of “33 1/3,” the Lees will also be celebrating — you guessed it — their 33 1/3 wedding anniversary.
“I think we were flying back from the studio in Tucson, and even though we had a few other songs that we were going to record, we just kind of listened to what we had on the laptop on the plane, and we thought, ‘We’ve got a record here,’” Tim told The Daily Times this week. “Once we decided that and started thinking about when we wanted to get it out and how long it would take to get it mixed and mastered and the vinyl pressed, it just fell on a date that made sense. We thought it was appropriate and hilarious, like most things we decide to do.”
When you’ve been making music as long as Tim has, any creative excuse to do something a little different is one to be seized. “33 1/3” is the seventh record he’s made since emerging from a 10-year musical hiatus with his 2001 solo album “Under the House,” which recaptured the jangly power-pop of his first project, the Jackson, Miss.-based band The Windbreakers. The band was part of a new wave of underground music that would get tagged with the college rock label, and while The Windbreakers didn’t get the attention their contemporaries in R.E.M. did, the group is still revered in certain circles for the jangly pop-rock that groups like Pavement would make famous. Along with his Windbreakers recordings, Lee’s solo works and side projects with Matt Piucci (of Rain Parade) and Howard Wuelfing (Nurses, Half Japanese) have garnered critical praise from Rolling Stone, Creem, Matter, Forced Exposure, The New York Times and more.
He’s toured the country extensively with his own bands and as a sideman for Let’s Active, Marti Jones, and the Swimming Pool Q’s. In 1988, he released his first solo album after recording six with The Windbreakers. “What Time Will Tell” featured members of the Bongos, the dBs, Chris Stamey Group, the Wygals and Let’s Active, and was hailed by one critic as “a stunning album, the kind of unexpected triumph that restores your faith in the power of art.”
Another solo album led to the regrouping of The Windbreakers and retrospective recordings with several side projects. In the mid-1990s, he took a break from the music business and, along with Susan, moved to Knoxville. After “Concrete Dog” and “No Discretion,” Lee ditched the solo act and put together a power trio dedicated to American rock ‘n’ roll in the purest sense of the word. By that time, Susan was on board; although she took The Windbreakers’ early promotional photos and helped run the fledgling Big Monkey record label that gave an outlet to Jackson-based bands, she’d never picked up an instrument until she woke up one morning and felt compelled to do so, she said.
“I was always real proud of Tim, and I loved everything he did — I was such a groupie!” she said with a laugh. “It was as big a surprise to me the morning I woke up, and it was like lightning hit. It was around Thanksgiving, and Tim was still asleep. The radio was on NPR, the dogs were in the bed, and I literally sat straight up in bed and said, ‘I want to learn how to play bass.’
“I had tried to play guitar off and on but never seriously. I just couldn’t get it; I couldn’t understand the multitude of ways to make one chord, my hands weren’t strong enough, and I didn’t have the patience to work on it. So it was a huge surprise to wake up that morning and say that. I didn’t go to bed thinking about it, and I don’t even recall having a dream about it; I just woke up like I’d been smacked upside the head.”
She told him, and after ruminating on it for a few, he got dressed, drove down to the pawn shop and bought her one. Over the next several months, he taught her what he knew, and when the Tim Lee 3 emerged with “good2b3” in 2008, it was a sort of rejuvenation for the veteran rocker.
“Going back to the mid ’80s, when I kind of started making the transformation from The Windbreakers thing to making solo records, I got into a lot of Richard and Linda Thompson, X, Emmylou (Harris) and Gram (Parsons), and I really wanted to have a band with the male-female vocal dynamics,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things and has been for a long time. I’ve had bands for a brief period that tried to do that, but I never would have dreamed that 20 years later, Susan would be the person who would fulfill that. It’s something I’ve always liked and wanted to do, and at the risk of sounding kind of trite, it’s a dream come true to have that in my band with the person that I derive the most joy from playing music with.”
Sonically, “33 1/3” is the sound of a band that’s at the top of its game. Tim’s guitar playing has never strayed too far away from his jangly roots, and the melodic nature of the new record has roots that run deep down to those days. By the same token, it’s a bold step forward, with more harmonies, more swagger and a few steps outside the wheelhouse of all three musicians — because it ain’t the 3 without drummer Chris Bratta. “Daddy’s Girl,” for instance, is a bouncing effervescent song by Susan that was one of the first the couple cut for the new record.
“That one’s all Susan,” Tim said. “She came up with it and sang it to me, and then we sorted out the chords and what-not. We just played around with it, and it made sense to play it like a cow punk song. It’s another one of those things that’s part of the DNA of stuff we all like.”
And of course, there’s plenty of dense, crunchy guitar parts, from the swaggering power chords of “True” to the power runs of “Looking for the Door” to the no-frills, Chuck Berry pop of the close-out track, “Night Takes Legs.” If “33 1/3” is a science experiment of arrangement, songwriting, mastering and sequencing, the Tim Lee 3 would take home the blue ribbon, even though the “science” behind it is built more on experience than anything else, Tim said.
“I always enjoy the process of recording, and I’m already coming up in my mind with plans for the next one, even though this record isn’t out,” he said. “By the same token, I really enjoy taking a group of songs and deciding what constitutes a record. It’s not like I get giddy about it, but I really enjoy the process, and if I stopped doing it again, I would probably miss it. It’s just fun seeing something through, from the beginning of coming up with songs and figuring out how to play them and record them and make a record out of them. I’d like to think that after all these years, I’m fairly good at it.
“This one is definitely more melodic than some of the other stuff, and I think a lot of that has to do with Susan singing more. She has such a good voice, and then we sing together a lot. We really don’t plan stuff out; we just kind of come up with the songs and see where they take us. That sounds hippie-dippy, but it’s really kind of true, and the same goes with the recordings. The idea is to really work on instinct and trust that instinct; whatever comes to the table, you try to follow it and not pigeonhole or cram it into some box or something.”
In other words, the two approach music in much the same way they have their marriage: They let it evolve organically, and what comes of that is usually something pretty special. It’s not a formula that works for everyone, and it’s not necessarily one that would work for them were they partnered with anyone else, Susan added.
“I think that there’s probably not anybody else in the world that could singularly put up with either one of us separately!” she said with a laugh. “I think we were lucky enough to find each other early on, and lucky enough to know that we were made for each other, I guess. Our outlooks were similar, our philosophies on stuff was similar, and the things that weren’t similar, we’ve grown together with all of that. We’re just a couple of goofballs.”