Month: July 2008

“That bassist couldn’t be in the pocket if he was lint.”

More stuff be gettin’ done, in spite of the dickwad next door hammering away at building a new addition onto his deck at seven in the morning for two days in a row and making it nigh on impossible to keep my sleep in anything resembling normal shape. Somehow I managed to get a fair amount done today in the short periods of silence breaking up his ever-present hammering.

I wanted to throw some mandolin songs on this new album that’s in the process of piecing itself together, but there are just two leftover mandolin songs that were written a while back. I haven’t written anything new on the instrument in a long time. The standard mandolin tuning hasn’t really been inspiring for me lately, and I’ve never tried experimenting with any alternate tunings on the instrument. I figured I’d at least use it as a decorative thing on a few songs.

Yesterday, while I was tuning it up for the first time in a few months, I accidentally tuned a half-step too high. In bringing things back down to where they normally are, I left one set of strings tuned up a bit higher than usual, and suddenly all these new ideas came pouring out. I mean, immediately the seeds of at least a few new songs were there. It’s funny how much of a difference just changing a tuning by one note can make.

I didn’t have any ideas for lyrics until sometime after three in the morning when something triggered a phrase, and in eight minutes a song called “Waterfall of Teeth” was written. I’d been kicking that title around for a year or two with no idea what to do with it, so it was nice to be able to make use of at least one of the many homeless song titles scattered throughout different spiral notebooks, email draft folders, and random pieces of paper. I tried recording it today along with a few other things, and I think it came out pretty nice. It quickly went from being a bare-bones mandolin song to something much more evolved.

It seems like a lot of these songs are ending up pretty layered, at least by my usual standards. Had a brief scare today with accidentally plugging in the AEA ribbon mic while the mic pre’s phantom power was still turned on, but fortunately for me my mic and cables are solid enough that the ribbon didn’t just snap and die a horrible death right there.

I’m also enjoying playing the bass more than I have in a long time, having fun improvising busy little fills all over the place. I should probably thank Martin for that. I rarely just pick up the bass and play like I do with most of the other instruments around here. Most of the time I only grab it it when a song needs it and then it goes back on its stand. But after playing almost nothing but bass for a few hours the day he came over, I found I had a lot more bass-specific ideas than I expected, and now I find myself even writing songs on the bass. That isn’t something I ever do, with the lone exception of “You Missed Your Turn” on BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and a few songs on NUDGE YOU ALIVE that were built from the (synth) bass up. Strangeness.

Speaking of strangeness — I’ve been having some even stranger than usual musical dreams lately. The music doesn’t always stick around, but the weirdness does. Last night one dream involved Bill Evans and was sort of a fragmented documentary that revealed him to be a little eccentric. Each time he would lend a friend a CD (who knew CDs were around back in the ’60s?) and they would fail to return it, he would get another cat to symbolize that person. But he would attach these odd things like pillow case turtle shells to the cats and turn them upside-down so they wouldn’t be able to get away like the people and CDs did. He was also a big fan of Bob Dylan. Again, who knew?

It’s looking like the misfits collection is going to be finished a fair bit earlier than the album of new material, packaging and CD duplication/replication issues notwithstanding. I’m not sure if I should hold it back a bit and “release” them both at the same time or not. It would make for an interesting contrast. Something to think about.

I took the new songs down from Spyspace because the album is coming together at an accelerated rate and I don’t want to give any more hints about what it’ll sound like than I already have. It’s a bit of a change in direction, and it’s taken me by surprise. But I think it’ll be worth the wait. And now that I’ve got a taste for productivity again, I don’t plan on going another calendar year without something sneaking out into the world. Knowing I didn’t put out anything new in the entirety of 2007 hurts me more than you can know. I cry myself to sleep each night.

Well, not really. But it irritates me that factors outside of my control conspired to dampen my momentum for a while.

Barring a tragic haircutting accident that leaves me clean-cut and presentable (which would mean the end of life as we know it, obviously), I won’t be letting that happen again.

Unnecessary tremolo.

Got another song finished today, and it came together much easier this time. There’s this tune called “Blue Cheese Necklace” that’s been hanging out on the mixer for a few months now in rough form. It’s probably my favourite thing I’ve written on the six-string banjo in the year that I’ve had the thing.

It just hit me that it’s been that long. I had no idea. Crazy, man. Time for my first banjoversary.

Writing the song came naturally enough — it pretty much wrote itself while I was waiting for someone to show up at the old house (they stood me up) — but the recording process was a little funky at first. I had some ideas about how I wanted things to sound, with stomping and clapping and a dancing electric guitar line or two. After recording the banjo and some rough guide vocals back in March or April, I didn’t feel up to adding any of that stuff, so I just left the song alone.

Today I thought I’d give it another shot. Within about half an hour it was finished. I didn’t see that coming. Instead of stomp-claps, I gave that old snare drum some more love and attacked it with the brushes. And instead of the fiddly guitar bits I originally planned to add, I ended up recording these weird single-note runs using the Teisco electric guitar. The somewhat twangy sound suits the song so well it’s ridiculous.

The end result is quite a bit different from what I intended the song to be, but it’s probably a good deal better and more interesting because of it. What was supposed to be a pretty peppy banjo tune now sounds more like something out of a surprisingly accessible western directed by David Lynch. I dig it. It’s like my slightly sinister unconscious take on alt-country or something. I tried adding some tambourine as well. It made a lot of sense in theory but didn’t quite fit in the mix.

What’s funny about it is that the structure of the song is very repetitive. It’s the opposite of everything I’ve been trying to do as a writer for the past few years, really. But it feels right, and there still isn’t a proper chorus in there or anything. It’s sort of akin to walking somewhere and gradually getting the feeling that you’re traveling in circles, but once in a while you see a landmark or something that seems unfamiliar, so you tell yourself you must really be going somewhere. Then, when you’ve reached what seems to be your destination, you have no idea where you are at all. Not that this analogy makes any sense at all, but…yeah.

I’m really tempted to put the song up here and share it right now, even though I literally just mixed it, because it isn’t really like anything I’ve ever done before. But it’s probably going to be the first song on the album, and I’d rather it be a surprise. I’m sure there will be some out-takes, so once the album is finished I’ll post some of the songs that didn’t make the cut.

That makes ten CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN songs that are finished, mixed, and CD-ready, and at least three more that will join them once I tweak them a bit and add a few things. Most of the tiny songs and things I’ve been recording over the past few months (a few of which I’ve posted here) will be held back and saved for something else, because they wouldn’t make a lot of sense on TCAWWAT (now there’s a weird-looking acronym for an album title), and they weren’t recorded with this album in mind in the first place.

Progress! There’s much more to do, but an album is actually starting to take shape before my eyes, and that hasn’t happened in quite some time. I mean, there are several albums I’ve been brainstorming about for a while and sporadically recording things for, as addressed in my first post way back in the infancy of this blog-thing. But this is different, because instead of being somewhat directionless and lamenting the insane pile of songs I need to somehow record before my hair turns purple (and that pile is still there and getting more intimidating all the time), I’m working toward something that’s quickly coming into focus.

Figuring out what to do for album cover art will be tricky. What does a Chicken Angel Woman even look like? I can’t quite form that image in my head. But some woman named Ruth will set me free, I’m sure. Not that I know anybody named Ruth.

A few teeth shy of a bicycle helmet.

I wish I could change the date to June 30th instead of July 1st, because technically that’s what it still is. But no matter. Just pretend the date is different and all will be well.

Things remain eventful even though my sleep has been trying to throw itself out of whack again. Yesterday I got together with Martin Schiller for a jam session with no idea what was going to happen, and we recorded three improvisations that could be the beginning of an interesting new musical direction. We ended up playing bass almost exclusively. He played his electric bass, and I played mine. At the same time. I’d never done that with anyone before, and I hadn’t played that much bass in ages. It was a lot more melodic and interesting than you would probably expect it to be. Martin used a loop station and a few pedals to manipulate his bass and got some insane sounds that I didn’t know were possible to coax from the instrument. I stuck more to providing rhythm and melody, though in a looser form than usual.

I haven’t just hit the record button and improvised with someone else, without the slightest idea what we were going to do, since…well, since the Papa Ghostface days. I didn’t know if I could still cut it in a situation like that. But it was a lot of fun. At one point we got a riff going that must have gone on for about twenty minutes. Eventually Martin got behind the drums after looping his bass line and what transpired was something akin to a krautrock workout. Sadly I didn’t record that one, but there’s always next time.

After Martin left, much later that night, I was messing around with the Fender Rhodes and some delay effects. I ended up recording a few minutes of improvising just to get an idea down. Then I overdubbed bass and realized it sounded like a song. It needed drums, though, so I recorded them tonight.

It was not as smooth sailing as I was expecting. I knew the approach I wanted to take behind the kit and didn’t have any trouble playing what was in my head, but after a few passes it became clear that a stereo ribbon mic several feet in front of the drum kit at about the height of my head wasn’t going to give me the right sound for this song. I was playing with sticks and the roomy sound just wasn’t working. The hi-hat in particular didn’t sound right.

It’s strange what will stand out when you don’t close-mic anything. I wasn’t hitting the hats that hard at all, but the syncopated rhythm I was playing sounded kind of phasey and cheap, for lack of a better description. It didn’t fit. I gave up on that for a while and went on to mess around with recording drums on one of the songs I recorded with Martin. That didn’t quite turn out either (it probably didn’t help that I was already feeling a little discouraged behind the kit). I turned my attention to a few other songs that were recorded a few days ago, and finally things started to go my way.

A bit of electric guitar and percussion were added to one song. For another I recorded some vocals and four or five tracks of myself stomping and clapping. This is one of those situations where it would come in handy to either (a) be able to clone myself about ten times over or (b) call up a fairly large group of people and say, “I need you to come over and help me record some stomping and clapping. Right now. Bring a clown hat with a jingle ball, too.”

Neither of those things are realistic options. Alas. I think the song could use a few more tracks of stomp-claps, but it’s getting there. It just gets a little tedious sometimes when you have to repeatedly do the same thing yourself in order to build the sound up to where it needs to be.

Then I got an idea. Though I wanted to play the drums on the instrumental Fender Rhodes track using sticks, maybe if I played with brushes things would sound better. It was worth a try, even if it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I needed the snare to have some meat to it. But hey…my battered old brass snare has been sitting around feeling unloved for about five years now, and I haven’t once brought it back to hang out with the other drums since I picked up my maple snare at Steve’s Music back in the summer of 2003 while recording the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP.

Thus began about twenty minutes of messing with the incredibly confusing (and ridiculously expensive) high-tech Gibraltar snare stand I picked up sometime back from Schlong & McQuade just in case I ever felt like hitting this old snare again without having to take the other one off of its stand. You’d think a stand for a drum would be a simple thing, but I swear this one was designed to confuse people. Or maybe it was designed with me in mind, by someone who doesn’t like me all that much. Eventually I managed to figure it out, and for the first time in years I was staring at that familiar weathered skin again.

I still haven’t picked up a digital camera, otherwise I’d take a picture so you could see that there’s a large area in the middle of the top head that’s become transparent, allowing you to see through to the floor and whatever lies beyond. This is a memento from all the other drummers over the years who punished the thing when I was recording friends’ bands for fun (most of them were death metal bands), but it’s still going strong.

It’s pretty funny to compare the two snares. It underlines just how non-aggressive I am as a drummer. The maple snare, which is five years old now, has seen more than a bit of use in that time, but I’m just about the only person who’s played it. As such, there are some marks on it that you can see if you get in close enough, but otherwise it still looks like a pretty new drum. Maybe you’d guess it was a few months old if you saw it.

The brass snare, on the other hand…in the first three years of its life it was played by several drummers who bashed the shit out of it. I’ve never been a fan of drumming that’s so forceful I can feel my bowels clenching and unclenching in time with the beat, but that’s a loaded subject not worth getting into right now. The point is, if I had been the only person who ever played this snare, it too would be remarkably unblemished for an eight-year-old drum. Instead, the thing looks like it’s been through all three World Wars and somehow lived to tell about it.

If I changed the head — and Tyson suggested I throw on a Remo Weather King way back in the day — it would look all pretty and new again. But you couldn’t pay me to do that. I think something has happened in the intervening years and all of that abuse has somehow served to beat the thing into a remarkable sounding piece of kit (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that expression, and it works on two levels!). All I had to do was hit it once with a brush tonight to realize I should have brought it out of retirement ages ago.

I’ve always preferred this drum tuned low. You can hear it on pretty much everything I recorded up to and including OH YOU THIS — everything that had real drums on it, anyway. I think it’s probably gone down in pitch something like an octave over the years. I used to sometimes tune it as low as possible, to the point where the snare would barely stay closed, and just enjoy the ramshackle sound, like I was hitting the side of an old tool shed with a lead pipe. For whatever reason I never chose to record the drum in that state, but I don’t think I would have to work very hard to get that sound today.

I took another shot at recording the drums for that Fender Rhodes song, and the beat-up old snare was just the ticket. With brushes I could play the hi-hat pattern I wanted without it sounding too strident, and I could smack that snare like the glutton for punishment it is. I got what I wanted in one take.

I could have set up a few close mics and solved the problem a lot quicker without having to change anything about the drums themselves or what I was hitting them with, sure. But in the end I think the brushed sound with this snare is much more appropriate for the song. I’ve grown to like the sound of the R88 as the only thing used to capture the drum set to the extent that I’d rather modify my playing to get the sound I need instead of throwing some more mics in there. It’s just got a vibe to it. I’ve also grown so used to the crack of the maple snare, I forgot how good it feels to play a drum that responds to whatever you throw at it with depth and resonance. Like James Earle Jones. Or Morgan Freeman.

With all of the different things I’ve been working on lately, I had just enough recording time left on the mixer to mix the song down, by a margin of exactly twenty-six seconds.

I have no idea what to call this instrumental track, which is odd because usually I don’t have much trouble naming things even if they’re wordless. Current candidates include some pretty wordy titles like “95 Streets to the Right (Is Where I Will Find the Heart of You)” and “She Hates with a Passion You Mistake for Love”. Even if I don’t know what its name should be yet, I’m digging it.

Actually, lately I’m digging everything I do for some twisted reason. I’ll record a song, mix it, and then listen to it repeatedly while thinking, “This has to be the best thing I’ve done in ages!” And then the next day the same thing happens again with a different song. Maybe someone’s been slipping something into my bottles of water. Whatever the case may be, hopefully I can keep the momentum going and get my ass back to being prolific again. Just as long as I can keep the sleep from getting too messed up again. Vampires don’t make very productive studio rats. Sad but true.

I’ve also been sporadically mixing some more things for that misfits collection that I’ve been chipping away at for quite a while now. We’re in the home stretch, at last — only nine songs left to mix/work on and she’s done. A light at the end of the tunnel. This thing is going to be gargantuan, and it’s but a shadow of what it could have been if I really wanted to share all the things that have fallen by the wayside over the years. I thought I would spare everyone some pretty nasty things (to cite just one example, there’s an old out-take called “All the Wrong Drugs” that you don’t even need to hear to know how bad it is) and stick to what I think is the cream of the crop.

Hopefully I’ll be able to do something interesting with the packaging. There will be a pretty thick booklet explaining some of the stories behind the songs. How ironic is it that the first time I bother to actually release an album with a bona fide booklet-thing, it’s a collection of songs that in some cases were deemed unfit to live? Thankfully, time has vindicated many of them, while others did some favours for me and managed to squeeze themselves in on accumulated goodwill alone. One of the songs I mixed today had some vocal tracks I forgot ever existed, so hearing them again was an interesting surprise.

If things go according to plan, I should have both the misfits collection and a CD of new material to give to people at the same time, while the summer is still in full swing. Not much has been going according to plan over the past few years, but I think in this case I can safely say the sky is above us, and the grass is various shades of green and yellow. The rest, as they say, is rigatoni.