I was working on a song yesterday that’s one of the catchiest things I’ve written in recent memory. Or at least it was for the first two minutes or so. It was another one of those times I thought, “I should set up the camera and capture the recording of this thing on video,” talked myself out of it because I was lazy and didn’t think anything too interesting would happen, and then regretted that decision once the song proved me wrong.
I’ll put together another one of those in-studio music video things soon (I know I keep saying that). I wish I’d done it here. Motivation, man. Motivation.
Anyway. I had the song mostly the way I wanted it, but it felt like it needed something more during the “freak out” section when the whole thing threatens to tear itself apart. It struck me that I hadn’t recorded any bugle or trumpet in a while. There’s a marked absence of that sound in the ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE material I’ve accumulated so far, and it’s about time I remedied that. So I pulled out the trumpet — which allows me to do a little more than the bugle does — and went apeshit, and then the chaotic section of the song had what it needed.
It got me thinking. This compulsion I have to throw a song off-balance when it feels like it’s getting too comfortable or conventional has been well-documented (by me, at least). I’ve talked about it before. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I know it’s always been there. Sometimes I’m able to hold myself back and just let a catchy song be a catchy song. Other times I need to toss a cherry bomb in there, whether it’s a fuck-you directed at “critics” (the demented bridge section in “Animal Altruism”), someone I’m angry with (the meltdown at the end of “I’m Optimistic”), myself (almost every second of “I Love You”), or just a way to keep myself interested and the listener on their toes (pretty much everything else).
The bugle and trumpet play an interesting role in all of that. I picked up the bugle at Belle Air Music in late 2008. It was something like fifty bucks, and I couldn’t resist. The trumpet came a little later, an unexpected gift from my Uncle Brian in the spring of 2011.
I started using the bugle on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY as a bit of a joke. It was a way to poke fun at the idea of wishing I had a horn section to call on and making do with myself instead, without having any idea how to play any wind instrument in even a rudimentary way. Then the break-in happened, and it became something very different. I started using it as a tool to derail songs. It became something of a go-to form of dissonance where I felt it was necessary. A way of trying to express some of the anxiety running around inside my brain.
Every once in a while I would manage to hit a nice note or two long enough to make some semi-melodic sounds and almost make it sound like I was starting to figure out how to play the thing. On “Guilt, Nausea, and Other Things That Look Good in Bed Together”, I really did manage to fake my own horn section, albeit in a bit of a skewed, comical way. In “Knee-Jerk Howl” it’s a more melancholy thing. I think that song is still my favourite use I’ve ever made of the bugle.
Over the last few albums that sound has kind of faded away. I don’t think there’s any bugle at all on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, and there’s very little of it on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC and GIFT FOR A SPIDER. Though the trumpet allows me to hit more notes and get a little wilder, I haven’t found myself reaching for it often. I guess it comes down to where my head is at, and how badly I want to send a song off the rails. Still, when I really want to send everything to hell I can’t think of many better ways to create chaos.
The thing is, it’s never planned. I’ve never “written” a bugle or trumpet part for a song. It’s always a spontaneous thing that happens at the recording stage. That’s usually true when it comes to ripping songs apart in any way. It’s a decision I come to after the song has been written. I’m not sure why it works that way.
To that end, I was struck by another surprising thought the other day. I know making art, in whatever medium, is often a therapeutic thing for the artist. That’s always been the case for me, in one way or another. The thing is, for most people I think it’s the writing that’s the therapy. And that isn’t really the way it works for me. The writing just happens, whether I’m trying to make it happen or not. It’s like breathing. The recording process is where I sink my teeth in and the real therapy happens. The songs don’t feel entirely real to me until I take them downstairs. Before that, they’re just vaporous things floating around.
Maybe it’s the physicality of putting all the pieces together, improvising, experimenting, sometimes rewiring everything I thought a song was supposed to be from the ground up. I’m not sure. But it’s interesting stuff to ponder.
As for the picture up there, after I was finished recording my drunken elephant trumpet sounds yesterday I looked at the chair that sits in the middle of all the craziness. I really liked the way the trumpet played off of the mahogany of the acoustic guitar I’d left sitting there. The whole chair looked like a cool picture to me, with the two sets of headphones on one arm, the other one naked, and just the way the different colours interacted with one another.
Alas, my still camera is a pretty cheap point-and-shoot thing, so capturing the image the way I wanted wasn’t really happening. The only shots I liked were the unintentionally blurry ones.
Maybe the trumpet is camera-shy and that’s the problem. Who knows?