Rock and resilience
The long road to The Empty Gate’s first album
This Friday (Jan. 17), at the Naked Lounge, local quintet The Empty Gate will play at a release party for their first full-length album, Grand Mal. The recording is an immediately engaging mashup of pop hooks and rock and punk influences, and for frontwoman Trish Howard, finally getting to share the recordings with Chico marks the end of a long and often trying journey.
“It’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” she said during a recent interview with her and husband/bandmate Bob Howard. “There were so many roadblocks.”
The last time the longtime Chico musician recorded a full-length album was in 1991 at the old Enharmonik Studios (now The Hangar) in Sacramento, with owner/engineer John Baccigaluppi. Those recordings resulted in Dogeared, the fourth and final album by legendary Chico rockers Vomit Launch, which was released by Teen Beat Records in 1992.
In the years that followed the breakup of Vomit Launch, the vocalist/songwriter continued to perform with various local crews—Charm Fueled, Repeat Offenders, and eventually her current band. But before The Empty Gate formed in 2014, health issues had put Howard out of commission for many years.
In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and for six years endured multiple surgeries and a great deal of pain before being well enough to write and sing again. But by the summer of 2017, she was with her band and engineer/former Vomit Launch bassist Larry Crane in the Panoramic House—a studio/retreat in Stinson Beach owned by Baccigaluppi—to record Grand Mal.
“I knew I wanted to record with Larry,” Howard said about her old bandmate and longtime friend, who is also editor/founder of Tape Op magazine (for which Baccigaluppi has been the longtime publisher) as well as owner of Jackpot! recording studio in Portland. “He is one of my favorite people in the world. … He is so generous, and we have a long history together.”
However, as the album’s title suggests, Howard’s health trials weren’t over. The first day of recording, she felt ill. By day two she couldn’t get out of bed. On day three she suffered a grand mal seizure and was rushed to the hospital.
Despite the trauma and the interruption in studio time, Howard’s husband/bandmate, Bob, said that there was a silver lining to the experience, as his wife had been suffering an unknown intestinal disorder for a few years. Within 24 hours the doctors at nearby MarinHealth Medical Center diagnosed and treated the problem.
After antibiotics and a few days in the hospital while her band recorded music, Howard was back on her feet. Her absence from the sessions was rectified by a trip up to Portland for vocal sessions with Crane. With the recording finally finished, it was time to put out the record, but in the summer of 2018, the cancer returned.
More surgery, another year of recovery, and another return to the band, which is back playing shows and in the swing of things.
With so much time between recordings, Howard said that she had some initial fears about how the music might hold up against the Vomit Launch days, saying that she wondered, “Is it going to stand well in that space?”
The 11 songs of Grand Mal are of a slightly different flavor than the early stuff—more weirdo garage-rock than punk-leaning indie-pop—but the new recording feels like a natural extension of Howard’s oeuvre. As it was with Vomit Launch, the songwriting is a collaborative effort between its players, and the offbeat personalities of The Empty Gate’s experienced local ringers have a lot to do with the eclectic sound. In addition to Bob (of The Vesuvians, The Asskickers, etc.) on guitar, the band features bassist Mark Zempel (Fang of Gore, Folkenstein), keyboardist Greg Spont (Black Fong) and drummer Matt Coogan.
The most striking link is, of course, Howard’s vocals. The lyrics are intelligent and often poetic (“The album itself is based on lies and broken promises,” she explained), and even with so much time passed, her rough-hewn voice is as evocative ever, maybe even more so in light of the rough roads traveled.
“We’re happy with it,” Bob said about the album. “It represents a certain time and head space for the band; it represents struggle and determination; and best of all it represents Trish, her talent and her strength.”