I ran into a bit of a roadblock.
I kind of knew it was coming. When you normally just record a bunch of stuff with no grand plan in mind, and then you decide this time you’re going to map it all out beforehand and it must be brilliant, and challenging, and ambitious, and unlike anything you’ve ever done before…well…you’re asking for trouble.
After recording a few songs I liked and considered album material, I found myself at a bit of an impasse. New songs kept on coming left and right, but most of them seemed too “normal” and “typically Johnny-like” to fit on this next album. I think I recorded one song in the entire month of October. That’s slower than arthritic molasses by my standards. I’m glad to say it was a short-lived crisis, as recording some songs with Travis reminded me I work best when I fly by the seat of my pants. Because my ass has wings.
Some people need to have an album written before they go into the studio. They record demos of the songs to figure out how they want to arrange them, and then spend months — if not years — perfecting the performances, recordings, mixes, artwork, and everything. Me, I’m at my best when I record the bulk of an album in a mad burst of activity in the space of two or three weeks, don’t go into it with any concrete plans, and just let the music do what it wants to do, since most of the time it knows better than me what it should be anyway.
Some of the best songs on the last few albums were either written in about five minutes and thrown together haphazardly or more or less improvised into existence while recording. If I sit on an album and tweak it for a year or two, it will either turn into a giant mess I’ll abandon when I lose interest, or it’ll be a quadruple CD set by the time it’s finished. And option #2 there is probably going to become a reality one of these days…
Two new songs kind of hammered home for me that I can do things that are different and more ambitious without getting bogged down in mapping it all out beforehand. One is still a work-in-progress recording-wise, while the other is finished and has just been mixed.
The one I’m still working on was born as an interesting (to me, at least) acoustic guitar thing that has an odd rhythm to it, and I figured it would work well with a few tracks of leg-slapping feigning handclaps. I got the guitar take I wanted, only to realize too late my guitar was in tune with itself but out of tune with everything else in the world. The recent change in humidity caused it to rise a bit in pitch overnight.
Instead of changing the recording speed so everything else would be a little out of tune in order to sound in tune with the guitar, I tuned it up right and then recorded a second guitar track on top. That made for a cool natural chorus effect. I’m not sure why I never thought to try this before. Two guitars that are in tune with themselves but just a hair out of tune with each other, mostly playing the same things, make for an interesting sound. And for some reason I feel like the leg slaps give the whole thing a flamenco flavour.
I added bass, but the song seemed unsure of where to go. Then I picked up a banjo — an instrument I’ve been neglecting lately — and messed around a bit. I ended up coming up with a banjo part that changed the tone of the whole song, and it suddenly became a lot more interesting. It still needs some work. My drum part probably needs to be simplified a bit, it needs vocals, and I think I want to add a bit of piano and distorted guitar with some pretty violent tremolo action. But it should be pretty spiffy once it’s finished.
For some reason, whenever I record a background/supplemental part on guitar or banjo or something with strings I almost always find myself distant mic’ing it. I don’t know why. Maybe I like getting more of the room in there and not having any low end mud to contend with. Maybe I just like playing around with different tonal things. Or maybe, when my vocal mic is staring at me expecting some action, I’m too lazy to walk four feet over thataway to grab an SDC, so I just stick the Pearlman TM-1 in omni, turn up the preamp gain, and go to town.
Who knows where the truth lies? All I know is I started doing this around the time I was recording AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, and it’s stuck. Some fiddly things like to be recorded from a distance. And some of my favourite sounds have come from doing things the wrong way. Some of the best electric guitar sounds I’ve captured didn’t even have the microphone pointing at the amplifier. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever be moved to use anything more than the stereo ribbon mic on my drum set again, because it sounds like drums in a room, which is what I like to hear most of the time. The banjo part on that leg-slapping song was recorded with the mic nowhere near the banjo and then double-tracked. I’m not sure it would have the same character I like so much if I close-mic’d it.
Space is a funny thing. It’s more fun using odd mic-placement strategies to get things to sit where you want them tonally, instead of EQing everything to death. Although, death by EQ would be an event. “Give him a 12dB boost at 18K! Fry his ass!”
The song that is finished is a different beast. It started out as nothing more than a percussion track, with two different gongs playing off of each other. I liked the way they sounded muffled in my hand instead of ringing out freely, and found two that I thought would work together nicely the way they were pitched. They also turned out to be in tune with each other but slightly out of tune with everything else. Just like that guitar was. This time I did change the recording speed just a titch to get everything in tune.
After the gongs were tracked I added some bass and Fender Rhodes, a little improvised vocal silliness, and then I wasn’t sure what else to do. So I just tried a bunch of different stuff. Isn’t that what stuff is for? After a lot of improvisation and randomness I ended up with an eight-minute song called “Skull Jugglers” that’s more of a soundscape than a proper song, though it isn’t really that either, because it keeps changing shape until it dies.
It starts off with about thirty seconds of guitar noise that’s as close as I’ve ever been to shoegaze territory. Then there’s the gong-driven thing, which is mainly an exploration of a groove, with different sounds appearing and disappearing and reappearing. Then all of that cuts out and a completely different piano thing kicks in, ambling around, building, finally cohering into something that starts to sound like a proper song (though an odd one — like some sort of demented mournful spiritual with marching band snare or something). And then that cuts out in favour of more random guitar.
While the music was taking shape I ended up writing a bunch of lyrics I liked, but it turned out the music didn’t want them for the most part. I guess the stuff about the words we use to define ourselves developing minds of their own will have to wait for another song. I’d put the finished product up on Spyspace, but I’d rather keep it under wraps for now. I’m sure some other new song will be showing up there (or here) in the next little bit.
One of my favourite things about the song is tonal again. In this case it’s the sound of the Fender Rhodes. My grunty Paul tube amp and its tremolo gave the double-tracked Rhodes an almost vibraphone-like sound. I’m not sure why I never thought to plug the Rhodes into that thing before. I also never thought to record DI’d electric guitar before — straight into the preamp, with no amp or amp simulator anywhere in the signal path. I think it makes for an interesting guitar sound at the end of the song before it doubles back on itself.
I now have no real concrete idea of what this album will sound like by the time it’s finished, but I guess it’s better that way. I know it’ll be different from the last one, and the one before that, and so on. But I need to let it find its own identity instead of trying to lead it around like a musical doggy. I don’t need no song-bitten hands.
One thing I can tell you is there will probably be a number of pretty long songs. Aside from the aforementioned track with multiple personality disorder, there’s another that’s eight minutes long, and a few more that have yet to be recorded but should end up hovering somewhere around the six-to-ten-minute mark. It’s fun working with longer forms again and completely subverting or avoiding conventional song structures.
Death to choruses! Long live random segues and jarring jump-cuts!