Mal Madrigal
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Mal Madrigal

Band Rock Singer/Songwriter


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"The Curse of Mal Madrigal"

Bartolomei and crew
persevere for new record

by Jesse D. Stanek

You can’t talk about the new Mal Madrigal record, From The Fingers of Trees, without mentioning the curse that befell its recording process. The album was recorded in a weekend, and almost entirely live, to a half-inch 8-track tape recorder at D-Rocks in Papillion. When the band started mixing the songs everything sounded great, but before long, instruments began to disappear and the sound became unusable. Then the actual tape began shedding; Steve Bartolomei and crew had purchased a bad batch of tape. This was just the beginning of the curse.

Local producer and musician Mike Mogis offered the band use of his studio to create copies of the reels and Bartolomei made digital and analog copies of the defective tapes and began anew mixing the songs at home.

The nightmare continued: after local musician Nate Walcott (Bright Eyes, The Mystic Valley Band) generously donated a ripping trumpet part to the song “Kill Floor Rebellion,” the hard drive holding the horn part crashed. But Bartolomei persisted and once more crisis was averted when an out-of-town friend was able to rescue the horn part off the destroyed hard drive. Months later when mastering the recording in Chicago, a strange fuzz could be heard which turned out to be a “fluke” software incompatibility. In true Mal Madrigal fashion however, the engineer was able to enlist a second computer and once more crisis was averted.

Had the curse run its course? Absolutely not.

When the first test pressing arrived the band found a couple of loud pops on the second song and then the record began to skip. A mysterious blob on the record was creating the pops. New pressings had to be made and the band pushed on. Finally, with the help of a local screenprinter, and more than a year later, the album came to glorious fruition.

Despite the heartache and woe, the album sounds superb and showcases a quiet evolution in both Bartolomei’s songwriting and the band’s instrumentation.

“We set out to make a simple, old-school recording,” Bartolomei said. “We had everyone in the same room and at first it was super painless and quick. I came back to the mix [about] a month later and noticed all this weird stuff, like strange frequencies that were disappearing. I pulled the tape back up and noticed all these particles coming off of it. So I was wondering every time I play this am I destroying it more? Mike Mogis let us come into his studio and drop it all on the computer and then I put it back on a non-defective tape. At that point it basically became a process of trying to save the record.”

“I knew the songs would see the light of day,” he continued. “We had talked about rehearsing some new songs and taking it all to Chicago and re-recording. So I knew the songs would come out but we definitely were thinking about re-recording them. But there are a lot of unique moments to that recording and thankfully the guys in the band really kept me from quitting on it.”

Fingers is a wonderfully diverse record; at times delightfully weird, then straight as an arrow on the next cut. Tempos swing, nuanced flourishes abound and through it all Bartolomei’s voice sparkles against the sonic textures. All in all, this is the record anyone who loves the live Mal Madrigal experience has been waiting for. The record is heavy with South American influences (Bartolomei had recently backpacked the region at the time the recording was done), competent musicianship and the flow of the songs is coherent and keeps the listener engaged. While it is only available for purchase on vinyl (The Antiquarium will carry it), the vinyl also comes with a CD.

“The last Mal Madrigal release was two records released simultaneously,” Bartolomei said.

“But I feel like this album does in 10 songs what it took two records to do last time. It does a good job of showing what we really are. It represents both the loudest and the quietest things we do as well as the kind of weirder things we do and the more straightforward things we do.”

Mal Madrigal has always kind of been a revolving cast with a couple of mainstays, but Bartolomei has set his eyes to playing out of town more often in the next year and is paring things down to make touring a more realistic reality.

“Next year I’m planning on doing a lot more solo stuff,” he said. “My recent stuff has been consisting of a lot of cassette tape loops, using different things like feeders and keyboard pedals. I’m trying to establish an interesting set that I can do by myself or maybe with one other person. My focus now is not so much on playing in Omaha, not for a negative reason or anything like that. I’d just like to play out of town more and I needed to pare it down out of necessity. It definitely was not an artistic decision. It’s way more fun to play with a band.”

Mal Madrigal will release From The Fingers of Trees Saturday, Dec. 26, at Slowdown, 729 N. 14th St. The shows starts at 9 p.m., is all ages, and Machineshop and Tin Kite will open. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at
21 Dec 2009

- Jesse Stanek - The Reader

"The Midwest Mentality of Mal Madrigal"

I was lucky enough to catch two Mal Madrigal shows out of three on this tour. I hadn't originally planned on going to the second show, but had such a great time the night before (and it was practically on the way to visit my parents) that I made a stop in Aspen for the second gig.
Both nights were lovely shows. Mal Madrigal came on first - to a full house in Denver and a devoted few in Aspen due to the sudden snowstorm. They come across as layered and well thought out; a group of fantastic talent coming together to back solid song writing. Mal Madrigal has an ambient quality that makes it seem as though the music has always existed (or should have, anyway). With the instrument choice, melody construction, and soft, clear vocals the songs sound as if they come from another time.
As the first of three bands, Mal Madrigal had a pretty short time slot. I would have loved to see them play a longer set to experience more and a greater variety of songs performed live. I hoped that the audience would be intrigued to hear more.
Both crowds were pretty receptive to the sound and had nice things to say about the band after the set. Denver even took it upon themselves to almost buy out the entire stock of the albums that the band brought with them. I proudly contributed to the effort myself.

I would tell you to go out and get both Mal Madrigal albums, but it might be a little difficult, since they aren't available locally. They aren't on iTunes. Last year, Mal Madrigal released two albums simultaneously on vinyl. No mp3s and no CDs, just the records. If you're like most people I know, you don't even own a record player. However, if you purchase the vinyl, you will get a CDR copy as well. Anyway, you can order your copies online: Life Among the Animals and The Road is Glue. There are also a few songs available at Maybe you'll even get around to buying that turntable one of these days.

Mal Madrigal frontman, Steve Bartolomei, took the time to answer a few questions for me:
Tiffiny: What part of your career do you enjoy the most?
Steve: The great part about playing in bands is that you are always exploring. Whether it be musical or lyrical ideas, how records are made, recording techniques, or even literally traveling to other places, there is always some exploration involved.
Tiffiny: Where do you get your inspiration?
Steve: I spend a lot of time recording and listening to music, so I am always inspired by interesting sounds. Inspiration in the writing process is usually spontaneous and comes in the form of scattered phrases that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Tiffiny: In what ways has living in Omaha influenced your career?
Steve: Omaha is a cool city because here you are surrounded by musicians who work hard and are dedicated. There is a good niche of talented people who are not looking to be "rockstars" or "scenesters," but actually want to contribute music that is worthwhile and lasting. Perhaps this is a Midwest mentatlity.
Tiffiny: What bands do you think more people should be listening to?
Steve: Check out my band members' other bands: No Blood Orphan, McCarthy Trenching, Orenda Fink, Mayday, Before the Toast and Tea, and Our Fox.
Tiffiny: What are you listening to right now?
Steve: I just got the new PJ Harvey collaboration with John Parish. I have been a longtime fan of hers.
Tiffiny: What is the first album that you remember being passionate about?
Steve: It was probably a Michael Jackson Beat It 45 speed record I wore out when I was 6. Otherwise I was really excited about Nirvana's In Utero back in 1992 or 93. I was 12 then. I really liked the Jesus Lizard while I was in high school and consider them my introduction to independent music.
Tiffiny: What songs of yours do think are the best?
Steve: I try not to think to much about that because after about a month, I start to dislike them. Fortunately my bandmates and others tell me which ones they like so those songs stick around a little longer.
Tiffiny: What is the meaning behind your band name?
Steve: Mal Madrigal doesn't really mean anything specifically. A madrigal is Renaissance musical form of vocal music. As a band name or pseudonym, it doesn't really mean anything more than other band names like Led Zepplin or the Beatles.
Tiffiny: Would you ever consider releasing your music digitally to reach a wider audience?
Steve: Yeah. I think there is some digital solution that i could get behind. It almost seems unfair to spend so much time recording and creating sounds to have them heard on computer speakers or iPod headphones. It'd be like taking a photo of a museum painting and then printing it on an inkjet and hanging it on your wall. Some things are meant in a context. I hope I don't sound pretentious, I don't think of Mal Madrigal as great art, but it is music that may take a little time to discover and appreciate. A turntable and nice stereo is the best context for this.
Tiffiny: I read that you have a previous album that is unreleased. Do you have any plans to release it?
Steve: Well, we actually have a new album that is ready for release. I am really excited about getting this one out. I have no plans to resurrect past recordings.
Tiffiny: How would you describe your music?
Steve: Mal Madrigal is singer/songwriter music that borrows sounds from folk and Latin traditions with a little atmosphere from slightly more experimental music.
- American Indie

"Mal Madrigal: Bartolomei's Folly"

Mal Madrigal frontman Steve Bartolomei must seem like a relic in an era when bands rush to record their latest songs in their digital home studios, quickly tweak those recordings to a fine sheen using ProTools before immediately uploading the digital files onto their MySpace pages for anyone online to hear.

By contrast, Bartolomei has taken two years to record his debut albums using old-fashioned analog tape recorders, only to make them available as two separate vinyl record albums.

Where it's not uncommon for small punk and indie bands to release singles on vinyl, it's rare to see someone release two vinyl LPs without offering the recordings on Compact Disc. Such a move by a modern-day indie band seems downright insane, especially when most of its potential audience doesn't even own a record player. Bartolomei knows this.

"Everyone in this band wants to make music that sounds the best it can," he said. "Vinyl seemed like the natural solution. As for the commercial considerations, I buy music from my favorite bands mostly on vinyl. That's the way I like it. I wouldn't spend my own money making CDs. I don't know if that sounds crass, but since I'm funding this record, I want to see it finished a certain way."

It sounded crazy to me too, until Bartolomei dropped off copies of the Mal Madrigal records -- Life Among the Animals and The Road Is Glue -- on my front doorstep. While I receive a half-dozen CDs in the mail every week, I never get records. There is something special about pulling that slice of 180-gram vinyl from the record sleeve, placing it on my Technics turntable and dropping the stylus on the groove. Unlike CDs, there is a sense of permanence to vinyl, as if you're playing a document that will outlive you. Though I can't hear any real differences in sound quality on my inferior stereo beyond the occasional crackle of dust on the needle, I know records sound better. I can feel it. That alone makes vinyl a better investment than a CD. Suddenly, Bartolomei's folly made perfect sense.

His records are certainly worth the investment in a turntable. Life Among the Animals is the moodier of the two, mixing layers of textured guitar effects beneath Bartolomei's introspective folk ballads lovingly performed by musicians that include guitarist Mike Saklar, vibraphone/keyboardist Ben Brodin, drummer Eric Ernst and bassist Ryan Fox (Chris Esterbrooks handles bass for live performances). It opens with the acoustic love song "Close to Me" that's introduced with a sample taken from a 78-speed record of Irving
Berlin's "When I Lost You," sung by Bartolomei's grandfather, Frank Pane -- one era of vinyl reproduced in another. The record ends with Bartolomei lamenting "The world is not my home," followed by a noise collage that sounds like he's trying to conjure the ghosts of music's past.

The Road is Glue, on the other hand, is more of a Bartolomei song book, a collection that includes rerecordings of three songs from his unreleased 2004 CD. Bartolomei never considered releasing the two records as one double album. "I hear them differently," he said. "I didn't want to do them as a pair. Double CDs or LPs ask a lot from a listener. I wanted specific liner notes and art work for each. That's the beauty of doing it yourself; you don't have to answer to anybody."

The analog concept was core throughout the entire project. The tracks were recorded at a studio in D Rocks, a music store where Bartolomei and Saklar teach guitar. "We recorded this the way records used to be recorded," Bartolomei said. "We all set up in the same room. We played at the same time looking at each other. No one wore headphones. There were no digital manipulations; nothing was auto-tuned, the drumbeat wasn't synchronized to a clock. We recorded to 1/2-inch analog tape on an 8-track machine."

The limitations of having only eight tracks prevented the project from being completely analog. Eventually everything was dumped into ProTool. "Analog recording isn't perfect," Bartolomei said, "but it's simple and reliable. When I press 'record' on my tape machine, it records almost every time, and when it doesn't, I just need to dust off or jiggle something."

The analog process ultimately came down to engineer Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Services painstakingly cutting the vinyl masters by hand. "It's an art form," Bartolomei said.

From recording to tape to vinyl mastering to pressing the final product, the entire process was much more expensive than merely burning CDs. Bartolomei said he pressed 500 of each album and is hand screen-printing 150 of each album sleeve. The records will be sold for $15 each or both for $25 during Saturday night's release show. Each also will include a CDR so listeners can download the albums onto their computers and iPods.

With plans to reenter the studio this summer, will Bartolomei go "all vinyl" again? "It depends on the finances," he said. "I never expected to make money or break even releasing records. This is an historical document of what we did at this at this time in our lives. For me, it's worth it." - The Reader- Tim Mcmahan

"Live Show Review"

Some late reflections on last Saturday's Mal Madrigal album release show at Slowdown: Steve Bartolomei is the best male vocalist of anyone in the local scene these days. His voice is rich and pure and without any affectations. There are other good singers around town, but most of them have some sort of made-up style or nuance that seems unnatural, and as a result, takes away from their performance. They would deny this, but anyone in the audience can pick out their forced stylization. Bartolomei doesn't try to create something in his voice that isn't there. He merely sings his songs, and that's enough. You could argue that he doesn't have much range, but few male vocalists around here do. He could certainly go above or below his comfort zone, but that's more of a criticism of his songwriting than his voice. If there's a stone to throw at Bartolomei's music, it's that his melodies often are too narrow and can be forgettable. He makes up for this drawback with a first-rate band that makes everything sound lush and gorgeous, especially on the vinyl. The show was clearly one of the best sounding live performances I've seen on Slowdown's big stage, and as always, I had to wonder if this band will ever get what's due to it by going out on a respectable tour -- not just to Kansas City and Des Moines, but to the East and West Coasts. The only way that's going to happen is if one of the established Saddle Creek bands takes them under their wing as a tour opener. Mal Madrigal would be a natural opener for Bright Eyes, Mayday, The Good Life, Art in Manila, Maria Taylor and Neva Dinova, to name a few. Unfortunately, Mal Madrigal isn't part of the Saddle Creek stable, even though Bartolomei has toured with a number of these bands (as part of their bands). Could the entire Mal Madrigal ensemble go on the road for three or four weeks? That's the big question. 12-26-2007 - Lazy-I


Mal Madrigal -"Life Among the Animals" BLR 003 2007
Mal Madrigal - "The Road Is Glue" BLR 004 2007
Mal Madrigal - "From the Fingers of Trees" BLR 005 2009



Mal Madrigal is a rotating group of musicians from Omaha, Nebraska who perform songs written by Stephen Bartolomei. In its quieter moods, Mal Madrigal is sparse and haunting, stripped down to Stephen’s fingerpicked guitar and voice. As a band, Mal Madrigal includes drummer and bassist John Kotchian, keys and percussionist Ben Brodin, guitarist Mike Saklar, and multi-instrumentalists Dan McCarthy and Ryan Fox. Framed by a collection of unique instruments and homemade electronics, Mal Madrigal performances unfold like cinema, weaving stories of wanderers and the dispossessed within an echoing and plaintive soundscape.

In 2007 Mal Madrigal released two full-length records simultaneously. “Life Among the Animals” and “The Road Is Glue” paired the bands darker, more experimental sound with a time honored songwriting style. The albums are available exclusively on 180gram high quality vinyl. The LPs are hand silk-screened and numbered. Both records include a CD copy for those who do not own a turntable. Mal Madrigal will release its third full-length album in the fall of 2009.

Mal Madrigal has performed with Calexico, Destroyer, Centro-Matic, Nina Nastasia, Vic Chesnut, Conor Oberst, the Good Life, Art In Manila, Shiny Around the Edges, Neva Dinova, the Medications, Scout Niblett, Edith Frost, Simon Joyner, the Bruces, David Dondero, Orenda Fink, Ladyfinger, Richard Buckner, Eric Bachmann, and many others.