Hick Pop

On a January evening, Phil Bensimon stood on the porch of his home on Highfield Avenue in La Mesa. The front room of the house had been converted into a recording studio. Bensimon listened through an open window as instrumental parts were mixed in advance of alt-country band Tornado Magnet’s forthcoming album, tentatively titled Hick Pop. Loud guitars blasted into the night air, but it didn’t matter much; Bensimon’s house sits high up on a hill, far away from everybody.

The one neighbor of Bensimon’s least likely to complain about loud music that night was actually the source of it — Joey Harris.

“Joey lives up the hill from me about a couple hundred yards, or three blocks as the crow flies,” Bensimon tells me.

Harris, a former Beat Farmer, was in the studio with his Les Paul, trying to fit a lead into one of Bensimon’s originals.

“A lot of times, I write stuff in my head,” said Bensimon. “This song that we’re working on right now with Joey is called ‘High Time.’ I was out on a fishing boat for a week, didn’t have my instrument with me, and there were lots of long hours where there was nothing going on.” He said he worked out the parts on his guitar as soon as he got back on dry land.

“I am the bass player in this band,” he said. “However,” he said of the bass players that may float through his home studio, “the Magnets will give each of them a crack at the part and then go with the best one. This same process,” he said, “goes for all instruments.” He mentioned Magnets cofounders Tom Owens and Mike Ashley and names such as Rand Anderson on pedal steel, mandolinist and steel guitarist Doug Myer, and Wolfgang Greaskemp on accordion, all Magnet regulars, and Harris, who, when not otherwise engaged with his own projects, performs and records as a Magnet.

“Joey has not officially joined the lineup, but he plays regularly with us live, and he plays on all our records. So, unofficially, he is officially part of the lineup.”

Harris took a break from recording. He’d been performing and then rejecting a string of solid rave-ups.

“They just weren’t pretty,” Harris said. “I’m self-conscious. It has to be good for the project. It has to be right.”

Tornado Magnet has a simple, rambling sound, memorable in the way of Jimmy Buffett or Gram Parsons or Uncle Tupelo. But, Bensimon admitted that it isn’t as easy as it looks. “We just mixed a song yesterday that had over 40 tracks. We nixed a multitude of gems, such as backing voices, 12-string guitar, other guitars, percussion, and so on. We ended up using less than 8 tracks when the song was finished.”

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