Day: December 13, 2011

What happens in bed doesn’t always stay there.

I was struck by a thought the other day that surprised me with both how sudden and how true it was, though it probably shouldn’t have.

My bed has become my creative workstation.

I’m not quite sure how it happened. I have two desks — one a pretty nice, medium-sized, faux-oak thing I got when I was maybe eleven or twelve. It’s one of the few nice, useful things I can remember getting from my mother and stepfather (the only contribution they made to my interest in music was buying me a single blank cassette tape one year for Christmas. You think I’m joking. I’m not). It sits in the “stock room” upstairs, housing my trusty old Remington typewriter, along with the huge vertical tape cases holding the cassettes that preserve all of the musical adventures I had before I was able to start putting my noise on CDs in 1999.

The other desk is a gigantic metal and wood beast Johnny Smith found sometime in 1996, and a finer desk I will never know. It began as a place for me to write, type using different typewriters (both manual and electric), transcribe the lyrics on some of those old tapes, and store relevant materials. By the time we were making the transition into this house in 2007, the desk’s contents filled several large boxes and I had to use dividers to  delineate what belonged in which drawer.

There’s one narrow main drawer in the middle, and then three on each side that are much deeper. I couldn’t begin to tell you what lives inside of them. There are thousands of pages of notes, lyrics, doodles, random information related to all those tapes, instruction manuals for different pieces of equipment, spare headphones, several pencil boxes from the grade school days, pens long-dead and still living, my shitty old Dean Markley guitar pickup, a multi-channel headphone amplifier for those rare occasions when I’m recording with someone else present…you name it, it’s probably in there somewhere.

This desk also holds the guts of my studio. A saner person would use racks for their mic preamps, compressors, effects processors, and other relevant gear. I would feel very awkward doing that. All this stuff needs to sit on top of the desk, huddled together like a little community. Though I haven’t been able to do any proper writing at this desk for years outside of taking some quick recording-related notes and scrawling track names on backup CDs, it’s done a great job of keeping the mixer and the important signal processing in one place where I can have easy access to all of it.

For someone who’s an artist — I guess that’s what I am — and who produces as much work as I do, you would expect both of these desks to be menacing, messy landscapes where song ideas go to duke it out for supremacy. And you would be wrong. Both of them are pretty well-organized. The huge desk in the studio may be crammed with gear, but it’s assembled and arranged in a neat and near-symmetrical way. The desk upstairs with the typewriter and tape cases on it is just about pristine most of the time. The place that’s a chronic mess, and where I do most of my writing, is my bed.

A bed as a general thing has become a lot more important to me over the years. When I was a kid I could fall asleep anywhere. I’m convinced I could have slept on a jagged stone tablet without any trouble. These days, if I’m not in a bed my body finds comfortable, little if any sleep is going to happen.

Lucky for me, my bed remains the most comfortable thing I’ve ever slept in. Part of that must be because it’s mine and I know it so well, but I don’t think that tells the whole tale. It’s an all-around good bed, offering a nice balance between firm support and sink-into-the-mattress give. Just as I’m picky when it comes to pillows (I’ve yet to find one that approaches the comfort of my fallen comrade from “the great de-feathering of 2006”), it’s difficult to find a bed that feels just right for me. This one has always felt right.

In high school I used to work on some of my homework in bed, but it wasn’t by any means an exclusive arrangement. The big beefy desk, which wasn’t yet maxed out then, got plenty of play. I don’t think the big shift happened until around late 2003. I started bringing a guitar or a mandolin into my bedroom sometimes and ended up writing a number of songs that would end up on BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP while playing in bed.

When I started to develop a deeper interest in dreams and taught myself how to build up my recall, I would scratch out the salient points in a spiral notebook as soon as I woke up and then type them up in more detail later. Over time this gave way to typing up a rough draft of what I remembered on a laptop while I was in bed and half-asleep, still making another pass for more detail later in the day but saving myself the transcribing job, since I can type a lot faster than I can write. I always did a lot of listening to music on headphones in bed, but now I found the space getting a lot more cluttered. It didn’t register as an indication of any kind of significant change taking place.

Today it’s a different story. At any given time my bed is littered with CDs, notebooks, envelopes, DVDs, books, and anything else I might be working on, looking at, thinking about, or considering working on, looking at, or thinking about. If I ever have cause to sleep in the same bed with another human being again (and I’m not holding my breath for that to happen), I will be immensely gifted at sharing the space, because I’ve grown adept at — and very comfortable with — sleeping on what amounts to less than half of my bed. There’s my side, and then there’s the side that’s submerged beneath the debris.

Even when I manage to clear off the bed and restore it to something that looks like a normal sleeping space, I still stay on my side. On some subconscious level I think I almost feel like the creative debris is still there in some invisible form and I shouldn’t disturb it.

What began as an occasional thing — putting songs together in bed here and there — has become a serious part of the way I write. These days there’s usually at least a guitar or two hanging out somewhere in my bedroom, sometimes flanked by a smaller friend like a ukulele or a banjo. With any given song that’s shown up on my last several albums and is played on an acoustic stringed instrument, I can tell you almost without fail it was written in bed, from the very first germ of the idea to the finished piece, or as close as it came to being finished before I improvised to get it the rest of the way there at the recording stage.

When I began this blog back in early 2008, I wrote something on an album page about how it would be fun to compile a list of the songs I wrote in bed. To write that list now would be a gargantuan undertaking. On GIFT FOR A SPIDER alone, of the twenty-two songs that make up the album, fifteen of them were written in my bed.

And it’s not that I’m lazy. My bed just happens to be where a lot of my best ideas seem to form themselves. The studio may be where the heavy lifting happens, but the bedroom is where a lot of the songs are built before they make their way down the stairs. It’s strange to realize just what an important part of my creative process my bed has become. If something happened where it was gone or I wasn’t able to access my bedroom for a while, I think it would throw me off my game.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t been writing so much on the piano over the last little while. You can’t bring a piano to bed with you.

I wonder if there are other people who do as much writing and creating in their beds as I do, or if I’m just weird. I guess in the end it’s about being comfortable and having a space that feels like it’s yours. I’m lucky enough to have a few spaces that fit the description. It just took a while for me to understand how important the bed has become to my own personal creative equation.

I think what really brought it home for me was when I started going through all the little ideas and song fragments I’ve recorded on the little Flip camera and then dumped onto the computer. About a week ago I thought it might be an idea to begin the task of organizing them according to date and whatever working titles they have, giving myself some indication of what they are instead of leaving the file names as “Video 27” and “Video 28”. I lost some things when my computer was infected with a virus last summer (how much I lost remains a mystery), but even so, it took me a few days to categorize everything.

Around 2004 or 2005, I began using my MiniDV camcorder to get down ideas I didn’t have the patience to record proper-like. I’ve never recorded demos in the conventional sense. It’s always felt like a waste of energy to me. So the camera became a tool that allowed me to split the difference — I could capture a riff or sketch out a song at the moment it was born and then return to it later when I wanted to flesh it out or record it for real. Though I would sometimes mic up a guitar or plug in a digital piano and spend half an hour recording a pile of different ideas at higher fidelity so I would have a record of all the unused pieces of things I had floating around, for the most part I stuck with the camera.

It’s pretty easy to get a good feeling for the amount of ideas I stockpiled in that time, because I have a dresser drawer full of little sixty-minute tapes. Not so with the Flip camera, which came along in 2009 and supplanted the analog camera as my main “demo” recording tool. Now I would use the camera until it was full and then transfer the contents onto the computer, and the files would end up scattered in different folders, mixed in with the footage I would edit together to make progress report videos. So I never really got a handle on how much was there until I sat down to organize it all.

Putting aside whatever I lost last summer, there are seven hundred surviving song ideas that have been recorded over the last two years. A lot of them ended up turning into songs that are on albums you may or may not have under your couch. Just as many were forgotten as soon as I recorded them.

Revisiting them has been interesting, not only because of the surprising amount of good ideas I have no memory of coming up with (and I tend to have a pretty solid memory when it comes to unused musical ideas), but because I’d forgotten the surprising ways in which some songs grew up. I usually write songs pretty quick and leave them alone once they feel fully-formed, but every once in a while something will need to be given some time to figure out what it wants to be.

The lyrics for “A Puppet Playing Possum” went through three different sets of music before the final album version revealed itself, and none of them sound anything alike. “Kicking the New Corpse” began as a finger-picked acoustic thing that doesn’t begin to resemble the way the song sounds on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. “Emaciated Crack Monkey” almost became a different song when I toyed with the idea of taking the guitar figure that comes in at the end and weaving it through the whole thing. And for all those songs that came pouring out and seemed to write themselves, it’s fascinating to be able to hear the seed of an idea develop in five or six pieces over a span of minutes, progressing from a riff and a wordless vocal melody to a finished song with a full set of lyrics.

Of these seven hundred fragments, licks, variations, a cappella ideas, and full songs, at least two thirds of them were written and recorded in my bedroom while I was sitting on, lying in, or kneeling against my bed. By this time next year, I expect there will be a few hundred more. You know what they say — if it ain’t broke…