You could say Leonardo Solis has been preparing to make music under quarantine his whole life. He’s spent more than 20 years mastering the art of in-home recording, and now that government-issued stay-at-home orders have everyone inside anyway, he’s putting that preparation to use with Quarantine Sessions.
“I’m lucky enough to own my own studio space now,” said Solis, co-founder of electro-pop duo SOLIS and local indie label Four Finger Records. “I’ve invested so much into being able to record at home and being able to continue to work at home, it really kind of kicks you in gear when shit like this happens and you finally realize you don’t know where your next paycheck is going to come from.”
Solis and Four Finger co-founder Jeremy Smith have now released two compilations recorded remotely in homes around Charlotte, sent to Solis for mixing, then put out as complete packages, sounding like perfect in-studio performances.
On May 1, they released Quarantine Sessions Vol. 2, a compilation of cover songs in which six Four Finger bands covered singles originally done by one of their labelmates. The decisions for who covered whom was picked at random, with a spinning wheel and live-streamed on the internet, resulting in a genre-bending blend of sounds that Smith and Solis hope will not only get a few bills paid for the out-of-work musicians on the team, but help each band take the next step in their respective evolutions.
“It’s an organic cross-promotional tool,” Solis said of Quarantine Sessions Vol. 2. “When you start covering other people’s music you start learning about your own sound even more, so it’s going to push these bands into a completely different sonic landscape, and I think that’s such an incredible tool to have … We’re super DIY even in our thinking, we’re like, ‘How do we get a little bit further?’ and it may not pay our bills at the moment but you just never know what could happen. If we all stick together then maybe we could all win.”
Growing up playing the instruments that his hobbyist musician father stored in his bedroom as a young boy, Solis cultivated a love for sound. At around 10 years old, he began building up his bedroom studio, recording music on tape until he got a MacBook Pro and began learning Pro Tools production software.
In high school, he was in charge of recording all marching band and orchestra performances. After graduating from the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, he hit the road as a sound man, touring coast-to-coast with Charlotte-based alt rockers Paper Tongues.
After multiple tours with that group that began and ended in Charlotte, Solis and his wife Kellie chose this as the city to settle in.
“It’s been a crazy ride, but I fell in love with North Carolina,” he said during a recent phone conversation with Queen City Nerve.
He continued to tour, going international with metalcore band Of Mice & Men, and in between those treks, he and Kellie formed SOLIS as a passion project. In the end, however, the sound work paid the bills, as he continued to build up his in-home studio and do side projects mixing records for a number of local acts.
“My dream was to find a group of dudes and become best friends and live in a van together and travel and make no money,” Leonardo said, “but when I realized how much money I could make from doing sound and recording I was like, ‘That [starving artist life] sounds miserable.’”
Four Finger Is Born
Fast forward to 2018, when Leonardo formed Four Finger Records with friend and fellow Charlotte musician Jeremy “Radio” Smith, who plays bass with SOLIS on occasion but spends much of his musical energy on his own band, Thousand Dollar Movie. Smith is also a man of the road, describing himself as “a hired gun” who has done everything from merch work to PR for touring bands.
As with Quarantine Sessions, the two wanted to use their wealth of knowledge to help less experienced Charlotte acts prosper, offering whatever help they needed.
“We’ve both been touring 15 years,” said Smith. “We’ve done every little aspect of the independent music industry, so we were like, ‘We could actually help out some bands, let’s really do this.’”
The two brought on The Wilt and Fortune Teller, two indie acts that they had been familiar with and impressed by, and let the band members know that there would be no blood-sucking contracts or expectations — just Charlotte bands helping Charlotte bands. If they needed help, Four Finger would give it to them. If they didn’t need any help, Four Finger would step back and act only as a street team.
“At the end of the day the thought behind it was, maybe if somebody checks out SOLIS, they’ll check out The Wilt,” Smith said. “There are so many great Charlotte labels, and I think the best thing about city labels, everybody’s documenting the music scene here, so we just wanted to contribute our little corner of the music scene, because I think we really have a special music scene here and if we can contribute to that in any way then that’s pretty awesome to us.”
Each year, Four Finger releases a compilation tape of the most impressive singles from the label’s acts, which currently total seven: SOLIS, The Wilt, The Raineers, Fortune Teller, Jude Moses, Thousand Dollar Movie and VESS.
The crew throws an annual anniversary cassette-release party at Petra’s in Plaza Midwood, and for this year’s event on Jan. 17, they built a spinning wheel to decide on what band would play in what spot. The wheel, like the compilation tape, is a cross-promotional way of pushing back against the tendency for folks to only show up for and listen to the acts they already like. It would come back to play a big role in Quarantine Sessions Volume 2.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we create this live shuffle playlist, where we create a spinning wheel with the name of the bands, and that band plays next?’” recalled Solis. “It was such a huge success.”
Quarantine Sessions From Home
Two months later, the wheel stopped spinning, as COVID-19 brought Charlotte’s live music scene to a grinding halt.
Solis said that as unforeseeable as a global pandemic was, he and Smith have a certain strength as “guns for hire” in adapting to whatever comes their way.
“I always like to compare the music industry to the Wild West because you never know when things are going to happen,” Solis said. “Most freelancers understand the waves — when to ride a wave and when to wait it out. So I definitely lost a lot of money; we were supposed to be on a long tour in April, and it’s definitely in the thousands, but you adapt and there’s this internal clock where you’re like, ‘OK, This is not happening, how am I going to make it?’ A survival mode kicks in.”
Survival mode is what led to Quarantine Sessions Vol. 1, in which the members of five Four Finger bands recorded new music from their homes and let Solis work his magic through file sharing. Solis mixed the tracks, Daniel Hodges mastered them, and Smith made sure they reached the ears of the people.
“We were like, ‘What can we do to play to our strengths as a label and as a crew?’” Smith recalled. “At least someone in every one of our bands is kind of a gear head and has the ability to record pretty well. We love doing compilations, too … Let’s just challenge all the guys. Give them a week. Finish a song you’ve been working on, write a new one, however you want to do it, to give them something to do but also try to raise some money for everyone.”
The result was a five-track EP released on March 26 that sounded so good it surprised the guys who put it together.
They immediately got to brainstorming on cool new ideas for Volume 2, and that’s when they decided to break the wheel out.
The guys live-streamed a selection party of sorts, in which a band name was pulled from a hat, then the wheel would decide which other Four Fingers act that band would cover. Each band was given the lyrics to their assigned song and two weeks to turn in their version.
“It was very exciting and very unpredictable, and we kind of left it up to chance,” said Solis. “I think it really brought something out of everybody, where it was like, ‘This is the challenge, I want to do right by these bands. I don’t want to create something that’s stupid or cheesy, I really want to put the effort in to representing this cover as best as I can.’”
Quarantine Sessions Vol. 2 dropped on May 1. It features six tracks that all take the respective acts out of their comfort zones, with spectacular results.
SOLIS flips the script on Jude Moses, covering “Inside” with spectral synths and Kellie’s aching, vulnerable and feathered alto.
Pitched midway between Fleet Foxes and Elton John’s stark piano-driven ’70s ballads, VESS’s take on The Wilt’s “Break Even,” written about the COVID crisis for Volume 1, is a soaring and oddly uplifting lament.
On Fortune Teller’s run-through of The Raineers’ “Menthol Lights,” deep forlorn vocals thread through gated drums and wobbling synths to evoke a neon, strobe-lit dance floor after everyone has gone home.
The Wilt break out of the alt-country box, as plangent resonating piano, pointillist guitar and Sage Greer’s yearning free-falling vocals embrace the heartbreak at the core of SOLIS’s “Stay Young.”
The Raineers’ juke-joint piano, wailing locomotive harmonica, and rolling gospel choruses transform VESS’s doomy and sepulchral “My Shadows” into a perversely good-time, hand-waving shuffle, and Jude Moses finds the haunting gem hidden in Fortune Teller’s harsh and mechanical New Wave-indebted original “Birthday Girl” with silvery spiraling guitar and chamber pop harmonies.
“I definitely think we made it our own and our own sound, which I’m very proud of,” said Stephen Williams, frontman with Jude Moses. “For me, a cover, either you gotta do it way better than the original or make it completely your own and not like the original. If you do it the same way, it’s like, ‘Well, what was the point of that? It’s just a sadder version of it.’”
A DIY Collaboration
A recent trip to Seattle to record a new Jude Moses project didn’t sit well with Williams. He wasn’t able to recreate the magic the band found while living in a cabin in the woods of the Pacific Northwest together when they recorded their first group album, We Won’t Die.
“Obviously we’ll still collaborate with what I’ve written, but it just kind of has to be me in a dark room with some form of alcohol and some poetry and just kind of go on my own,” Williams said. “I lock myself in a place and work and present those ideas to the band so they can make them way better.”
He’s locked in place now, and with drummer Jesse Spector still living in Seattle, the file-sharing process behind Quarantine Sessions will serve as a basis for how he approaches the next Jude Moses project.
“With the last record we were all together and it was special,” Williams said of We Won’t Die. “But now big studios are kind of dying off. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just the days we live in now. People can’t afford Abbey Road or Shangri-La with Rick Rubin; you’re out in your bedroom or back in your shed. That’s just the way things have been going now, so this whole project with the Quarantine Sessions was kind of like a test trial of how it would go, and I’m pretty satisfied with what turned out.”
Both Quarantine Sessions can be found on Bandcamp, where the Four Fingers team lined up the Volume 2 release with the platform’s decision to waive fees for artists on the first Friday of each month through the summer.
Smith said the crew is already “scheming up the next thing, trying to find that sweet spot of not being too ridiculous,” and with how quickly they’ve been turning around newly recorded music in the last two months, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a third one drop on June 5, Bandcamp’s next Free Friday.
In the meantime, they’ve got two great new projects already in the queue, as Solis and Smith will continue spreading love, not germs.
“If we can help other bands, maybe they can help someone else, and then this kind of infectious generosity around the music community can be a positive instead of a cutthroat kind of [scene],” Solis said. “We’re very open to whatever happens and wherever the wind takes us.”