Time for an ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE update.
Right now there are seventy-one songs that are finished/mixed/mastered and ready to go, twenty-nine in need of some minor tweaking, thirty-seven that have been recorded but need some significant work, and I don’t even want to think about how many things are on the “to be recorded” pile at this point.
Realistically, I need to record at least another thirty songs or so. I think. It’s difficult to see what shape the final two discs are going to take right now, and the only way to bring that into focus is to record more stuff and then start shifting it around.
I’ve probably said this before, but I don’t put an album together the way most people do. I think it’s supposed to work something like this: you write a batch of songs. You decide those are the songs you want to make up the framework of your album. Sometimes you even know what order you want them to go in. Then you either record demos to get down arrangement ideas before serious recording begins, or you go into the studio (whether it’s your home or someone else’s space) and record those songs.
I don’t do any of that. I record and write simultaneously. Any idea I might have of what kind of album I want to make is almost always ripped to shreds and rebuilt several times along the way. When I feel I’ve said enough in raw form, that’s when I start to figure out what the album wants to be, looking at which songs belong and how they should be sequenced.
The closest I come to recording demos is getting down rough ideas on my little Flip video camera in case I need to reference them again later. Once I start recording downstairs everything is for keeps, and my writing process is still as inextricably wound up in the recording process as it ever was. I may think I know what a song is going to sound like when I put on the headphones and hit the record button, but I really have no idea until I’ve finished recording it, and anything can change during that time.
Working this way gives you a great freedom to always be working on something, without requiring you to have any idea what it’s for or where it might go. And it allows the music to find its own way, in its own time, which has always been the approach that’s worked best for me. I can — and sometimes do — start out with a specific batch of songs I want to work with, but those songs are allowed to grow, get naked, reproduce, and then I can watch the kids start to grow up. If I come to what would normally be the finish line only to find that something is missing, I have the opportunity to figure out what that is and add it to the mix.
There’s a flip-side. I’ve been lucky enough not to hit many creative snags, and having enough material to work with has never been a problem, but sometimes sequencing can be a pain in the ass. Trying to turn GIFT FOR A SPIDER into a cohesive album was a maddening experience that literally gave me a headache more than once. It took some shuffling and getting rid of a handful of songs I thought were keepers before it all started to feel right.
With this gigantic album I’m working on now, more thought is going into the sequencing than with anything else I’ve ever done in my life.
Part of that is out of necessity. When you’re working with shaving a few hundred potential tracks down to somewhere between eighty and a hundred songs from all walks of life, things need to flow well or it’s just going to be chaos. There’s also something else going on this time. By finalizing the discs one at a time, I’ve changed the way the process works for me. It’s much more like a chess match this time, where certain moves that are made now limit the moves that can be made later. Having the first half of the album nailed down, I now have to make sure the second half compliments and works with what’s already there. It’s as if I’m making a few different albums at the same time I’m making one big interconnected thing.
The deeper I go, the more I feel my quality control tightening. Nothing gets to live on the album unless it feels like it justifies its existence in some way. If I really am going to finish this thing sometime this year (and I will, or I’ll spit my teeth out trying), I’m going to try to make it something I can be proud of, where there isn’t anything I look back on and think, “That’s filler,” or, “That shouldn’t really be there.”
Another thing I’m realizing — as much as there are certain songs that I think are standout tracks, they all seem work better when they’re not taken out of context. Large as this album is going to be, I think it may be best heard in one shot, or at least in a few large doses. More than anything else I’ve done, I think it works best taken as a whole. You need to feel the way different things ebb and flow, or half of the whole point is lost.
It’s difficult not to over-think things in a situation like this. And I’ve found myself getting a little lazy. I should be much closer to the finish line by now than I am. Each time I finish a disc, I kind of take a break and decompress. I think that’s healthy, but it can stretch out too far and lead to a loss of momentum. That’s kind of what’s happened over the last little while.
The last time i found myself in a situation like this, it was late 2009 and I ended up recording an album with Travis and being reminded that I really just needed to sit my ass down and let the music happen instead of spending too much time thinking without doing.
Here we are again. Travis came over last night, we ended up very casually recording a cover song, and then after he left I sat down and started messing around with bits of electric guitar for fun. Countermelodies and ideas started to appear. Before long, what had been a very bare-bones track was pretty fleshed out. Very little thinking was involved. It was all just instinct.
And once again I thought, “What the hell have I been doing lately? I have the recording time I need. I should be making it count. I don’t even need to try, or to want to make anything happen. The only thing I have to do is sit here, and play something, and it’ll happen on its own. It’s happening right now.”
So, for the second time, I got the kick in the ass I needed when I was least expecting it. Thanks for that, T-Rizzle.
I haven’t forgotten about making another video progress report either. I’ll get to it one of these days. I guess that’s the problem with no longer setting myself rigid deadlines with those things. But hey, there’s going to be lots to talk about when I do set up the camera and go to town.
Elsewhere, John Cale has a new album coming out in a few months.
If I’m half as cool and artistically engaged in ten years as that guy still is at seventy, I think I’ll be doing alright.
On a completely different note, congratulations to Milan, who just became a dad for the first time. Dan’s about to become a first-time papa any day now as well. Everyone’s having kids! And I’m not even having sex!
Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Things are much simpler for me without anything that even resembles romantic bullshit, and it’s about time things stayed simple for a while. Makes it easier to concentrate on what’s important — making music, and growing the hedge.