Ambulette Hits a Speed Bump

On Monday, Ambulette begins recording its Capitol debut, working at the Sound Factory in Hollywood. But lately the band–former Denali front woman Maura Davis, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, plus drummer Ryan Rapsys of Euphone, bassist Stephen Howard, and Howard’s old bandmate from Pinebender, guitarist Matt Clark of White/Light and Joan of Arc–hasn’t been able to pay much attention to customary presession priorities like deciding what songs to record or how the album should sound. Instead they’ve had to scare up instruments to play.

In late April, after a show at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, Ambulette fell victim to a suspected robbery ring that’s been stealing gear from bands playing the city. In the past few months, Canadian singer-songwriter Kyle Riabko, Sub Pop darling Rosie Thomas, and indie rockers Film School have also been robbed in or around Philadelphia. Many in the Philly music community are worried the thefts are inside jobs, pulled off with help from someone at the shows–several of the bands, Ambulette included, were hit while staying miles outside town. The Philadelphia police have already broken up a similar ring, discovering a warehouse stash of stolen band gear during a drug investigation this spring.

“We’re constantly paranoid about getting our stuff ripped off,” says Rapsys. His kit has been stolen before, while he was on tour with Azita in Toronto in 2004. “So after we played in Philly, we made a point to drive 20 or 25 minutes out of town and stayed at this really nice Extended Stay America. We woke up at like eight the next morning and our van had been opened up and almost everything was gone.”

The band estimates that nearly $20,000 worth of gear was taken, including several vintage amps and guitars, among them Clark’s prized 1959 Fender Jazzmaster. “Fortunately we had the foresight to get insurance before we really hit the road with this band, because we knew at some point or another if you’re on the road, your shit’s gonna get ripped off,” says Rapsys. “So we went to State Farm and bought gear insurance.”

State Farm still hasn’t paid out on the band’s claim, however. “Because we had such a significant loss within the first year of our coverage, we have to deal with all this red tape. We even have to give a taped statement to State Farm,” says Rapsys. “Worse, I guess the police report State Farm received wasn’t legible enough to read, so now they want us to go back to the Philly police and get a new report.”

With the date of their studio reservation in California fast approaching, Ambulette couldn’t wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to finish turning. Instead they maxed out their credit cards to replace their gear–Clark even sold his car. “We had a little bit of a gear budget from Capitol,” says Rapsys. “But we’re still about $16,000 in the hole, just waiting for that money to come back to us from State Farm.”

Formed shortly after Denali broke up in early 2004, Ambulette had had a pretty smooth ride until the robbery, attracting interest from several labels in their first few months as a band. Denali and Euphone were labelmates on Jade Tree, and when Denali needed a rhythm section for a final tour, Davis enlisted Rapsys. He brought Howard along, and after the tour Davis started writing and demoing new songs for the three of them. “She’d send us CD-Rs, and we’d go back and forth, kind of fleshing out the arrangements and adding the rest,” says Rapsys. Originally called Bella Lea (they changed the name after some wrangling with the North Carolina band Bellafea), they played their first gigs in December 2004, adding Clark just before the shows.

Capitol had been flirting with Denali and quickly transferred its interest to Davis’s new band, though the label initially floated the idea of a development deal. “But as things progressed,” says Rapsys, “they figured we had enough material, or enough material that they liked, to forgo the whole development-deal idea and just sign us to do a record.” The contract included a few options, which meant the label could ask for a second or even a third record, but Capitol also insisted that Ambulette release something on a smaller label first to establish its name. That release was the five-song EP The Lottery, issued in March by Astralwerks, which is owned by Capitol parent company EMI. Ambulette were on the road with Dredg and Ours in support of the disc when they were robbed and only managed to finish the tour–and do another with Rainer Maria–by borrowing gear from friends.

After replacing their equipment, the band headed to Los Angeles in late June to start rehearsing and meet with producer Dave Schiffman, who’s worked frequently with Rick Rubin and whose clients include everyone from Johnny Cash and Liz Phair to Anti-Flag and System of a Down.

Capitol is planning on an early 2007 release, but nobody in the band is banking on that–they’re all used to relatively compressed indie timetables, and this album already seems to have been in the works forever. “Major labels are crazy,” says Rapsys. “It’s the first time any of us are playing this game, so we’re learning. But so far, it’s been really good. The goal for the next two months is to try and put something together that Capitol is gonna like and really get behind.”

A Fresh Coat for the Redwalls

Ambulette’s Capitol labelmates the Redwalls have been quiet for most of the year, at least by their own standards: they’ve played five road gigs supporting Oasis, one show at Metro, an evening slot at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and a short set at the Chicago Auto Show. They’ve been spending most of their time prepping material for a follow-up to their major-label debut, 2005’s De Nova. Barely out of high school and with only one indie release in the can, the band signed a one-album deal with Capitol in 2003. But that deal had a label option too, and despite De Nova’s modest sales–only about 40,000 copies–Capitol has decided to pick up the option. Label president Andy Slater says he’s optimistic about the group’s long-term prospects.

De Nova, produced by the usually reliable Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), was a disappointing-sounding album, without much muscle or a real sonic personality, and this time the Redwalls are hoping they’ve found a producer who’ll play better to their strengths. The contract isn’t signed yet, but barring a last-minute disaster they’ll be recording with Swedish producer Tore Johansson, who made his name in the mid-90s working with the Cardigans. He also produced Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled 2004 album and, more pertinently from Capitol’s point of view, did a bang-up job with Oh No, the sophomore album from OK Go–another young Chicago pop band that needed to establish a mature identity.

The Redwalls will head to Gula Studion in Malmo, Sweden, for some preproduction work later this month, then come back to Chicago to play Lollapalooza in early August before returning to Scandinavia to begin recording. They’re hoping for an early-2007 release and plan to preview the new songs during a U.S. tour this fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Drew Reynolds.