The Tim Lee 3 philosophy could be summed up on a very small plaque: "Don't overthink it."
For example, following the band's 2008 release Good2b3 with a double album seemed, well…. "It seemed like the dumbest, most impossible thing we could do," Susan says. A beat later, Tim adds, "That's the way we make most of our decisions."
The Knoxville trio—Tim Lee on guitar, his wife of 29 years, Susan Bauer Lee, on bass, and Matt Honkonen on drums—applies the principle to writing, recording, and performing live. The latest result of such thinking is Raucous Americanus, the band's second release under the TL3 moniker and first with Honkonen. Their laid-back chemistry makes for dynamic waves coursing through the two discs of gritty, bluesy, and melodic Southern rock 'n' roll, continuing a prolific thread of music the Lees have made since moving to Knoxville in 2000.
This incarnation of TL3 started playing together after Honkonen's previous band, Tenderhooks, split up in 2009, leaving him and singer Jake Winstrom resting on their laurels.
"Tim and Susan called Jake and me and said, ‘Get off your asses. Come down here and play,' which is exactly what we needed," Honkonen says. "Later, they approached me and said, ‘We need a drummer,' and I said, ‘I'm a drummer.'"
With that, the trio hit the ground running, rehearsing a few older songs but mostly working up new material on "a creative tear" that came quickly and easily.
Evoking a Southern Patti Smith, Susan sings backup on most songs and takes lead on several, including the spooky Gothic "Dig It Up" and the plaintive "Good Times." Honkonen beefs up the sound and contributes one song, the sly and buzzy "Long Way Home."
Compared to his previous releases, Tim says, Raucous Americanus is truly collaborative. "There was nothing solo about this record at all. Either one of those two can go make a solo record tomorrow that would be just as good as anything I'm gonna make."
Susan says she loves singing now, but five years ago she had to be tricked into recording vocals in the studio. "Tim had to go in there and hold my hand," she says. "I was nervous as hell." Since then her voice has grown confident and she writes more songs; what began as occasionally contributing a few lines to Tim's songs is now a full stream of ideas.
Raucous Americanus was recorded in three studios in three states: with Mitch Easter at the Fideltorium in Kernersville, N.C., Bruce Watson at Dial Back Sound in Mississippi, and Chris Schultz and Craig Schumacher at Wavelab Studios in Tuscon, Ariz.
"These are friends and people that we trust, and they trust our instincts as much as we do," Tim says. "They just happen to make great records and have great studios."
All three locales also have great eateries. A key element to traveling for gigs or recording sessions is seeking out tasty bites along the way. Their website features a blog and Foodspotting widget documenting meals they've enjoyed.
"I treat this stuff more like family vacation than going to work," says Tim, whose career began with the college-rock power-pop band the Windbreakers in the early 1980s. "The hard part is riding and setting up stuff. The playing part's fun. It's also more fun if you stop and look for cool stuff, like good barbecue joints."
More friends feature in this weekend's CD release show. North Carolina singer/songwriter Angela Faye Martin, who worked with the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse on her debut full-length release, Pictures From Home, opens the show. Lee collaborators Barry "Po" Hannah and Greg Horne will sit in during the TL3 set. [Full disclosure: Greg Horne is married to Paige Travis. — Ed.] Nathan Moses and Graham McCorkle will spin vintage 45s during breaks. And the "Get There First" music video conceived by longtime pal and Knox ivi producer Jessie Greene will make its world premiere. Green loved the song and pitched the video concept to the band with a multi-page storyboard in hand and the full power of the Knox ivi production studios behind her. The crew filmed the band's performance scenes at Toots Little Honky Tonk, a tiny bar off North Central Street known for its karaoke nights. Susan recalls, "It was hot as all get out," a sweaty August afternoon perfect for a song about a boozer (played by Andy Pirkle) crashing his junk car in the wilds of South Knoxville.
The band's confidence sounds like the stuff of how-to books, but they practice what they preach.
"If you don't trust your instincts, you're not going to finish anything," Tim says. "You're not always going to be right, but I think trusting your instincts means you're going to be right more often than when you try to manipulate your instincts." Don't overthink it.
"Raucous Americanus was just so incredibly easy to make. I can't imagine it being any easier. Our approach is so…." He pauses, and Susan finishes his sentence: "We don't break a sweat." Well, unless they're at Toots in August, or the ribs are particularly spicy.