I'm growing out my nails. I'm letting dead cells pile up on the ends of my fingers and then I'm going to trim the five on my left hand short and clean, but leave the five on my right hand long and use them to play the guitar. They will be little weapons of creativity, little calcified arrows, and I will wield them judiciously. In this way, I'll be able to take small dead parts of me and make beautiful music out of them. Kind of like I did on this record I just finished a week ago.
To start at the beginning (where else would we start?):
Back in the summer, I started assessing all the songs I had laying around that hadn't been recorded by BRB and we weren't playing live. Some were as old at 2004-05. I noticed that they seemed to intersect, both musically and lyrically.
They were mostly quiet, mostly acoustic, and mostly simple and direct.
I thought they might make a nice collection if I recorded them acoustically, kind of a "warts and all" live approach.
I got in touch with Jay Marino, whom I knew through his band Buddy Nuisance. We shared a manager at the time and had played a bunch of shows with them, getting along quite well personally and musically. I knew Jay was a producer and engineer, and I approached him initially about recording BRB's planned follow-up project to Bottle Boy, as well as helping me record this collection of acoustic tunes I had on the side.
The first thing we did was get together in my living room, set up a few microphones, and record about 12 songs with just acoustic guitar and vocals. After listening to the group of songs, we cut away 6 and I went back and wrote 6 more tunes really quickly, in about 3 weeks or so, to bring our total to 12.
Again, I sat in a quiet room (an attic studio space off of I-90/94) and played the 12 songs for Jay and his iBook.
I had initially envisioned the recording being about 90 percent acoustic, but Jay persuaded me to let him shape the tunes a little bit more, to bring in a musician or two to play different instruments, and to alter/revise some of the songs to fit a larger approach.
When it became apparent that BRB wouldn't be recording until 2007, Jay and I decided to focus on these demoed tunes for a few months and see what happened.
We began in earnest by talking through each tune and throwing out production and arrangement ideas to be considered... we tried to shape each song in a unique way while still keeping it connected to the group as a whole. We got rid of 2 tunes completely and decided to focus on 10.
In this group were 5 songs from pre-summer 2006, and 5 tunes from post-summer 2006.
At this point, I made a conscious effort to defer to Jay on all questions of production and performance. Not to eliminate myself from giving input and ideas, but to let him produce me and the songs. To trust him to bring out the ideas in the music in an artful way.
This required a leap of faith... immediately we differed on which songs we would eliminate... I wanted to get rid of a song called Skeletonskinandsky, a song that I had written and rewritten 3 times and was still not happy with. Jay was adamant that this song be included, and I somewhat reluctantly deferred, cutting a song called Feels Like Giving Up.
Once we had the 10 songs, we set about sketching them out in Jay's computer using Pro-Tools, the recording software most prevalent in the music business. We settled on splitting the songs into 2 groups: 6 that we would attack with some sort of expanded production and instrumentation, and 4 we would keep simple and acoustic.
I recorded acoustic versions of the 6 candidates for expanded production, playing along with a click track.
Jay sped up the tempos of a few tunes, and we rearranged a couple of them as well, adding a chorus here, lengthening an outro there, and shortening an intro on another song.
At this point, I went away from the project for a few weeks. Jay continued to work, bringing in Darren (drummer from Buddy Nuisance) to record some drum parts.
Additionally, Jay himself put down bass parts on the 6 tunes with drums.
Hearing these first rough cuts of the rhythm section was inspiring. The songs, many of which began in the silences of quiet Sundays, sounded energetic and edgy. Some had already been morphed beyond recognition. Jay and Darren had added some synth parts to a few tunes, and Jay had created keyboard pads to fill out the sound on others.
One of our stated goals during this process was to keep the guitar out of my hands as much as possible. That may sound like a strange thing to do, but we figured we would try to fill out the sound with other instruments... pianos, keyboards, mandolins, banjos... and if we needed guitar, we tried to use the acoustic as much as possible. And, going even further, when I did play the electric guitar, I used primarily Jay's electric guitars, which have a sound totally different from my standard electric guitars that I play with BRB.
With their skeletons in place, we began attacking each song one by one. I added acoustic guitars to a couple songs, and even began cutting some vocals at a very early stage. Darren came back and added more drums, some Fender Rhodes (electric keyboard), some (I kid you not) glockenspiel, axillary percussion, and even an instrument called an ocean harp. Jay added mandolin to a few songs.
Jay, Darren, and I sat in a room together with a few microphones and cut a version of a tune called Why I Had to Fall, with Jay on mandolin, Darren on banjo, and me on acoustic guitar. I sang lead, Jay and Darren sang backgrounds. We nailed it on the fifth take, live, all the way through, and the result sounded almost like something The Band would have done.
We did most of the tracking in an attic that overlooks I-90/94, and you can hear the highway in the background on the more intimate tracks, creating an organic noise pad, injecting the sounds of the city into the recording.
Jay and Darren spent a few hours at Gravity Studios recording acoustic piano for the 6 band tunes.
On one, December Static, Darren's piano playing was so beautiful it replaced the guitar part completely.
I set out in earnest to cut the lead vocals. The trust Jay and I had built up paid off most heavily during these lead vocal sessions. Whereas in the past, I've been a very slow worker while recording vocals, I allowed Jay to be the sole arbiter of my performances, and the result was getting the majority of the vocals quickly. Like in under 20 minutes for some songs. Like in under 3 takes for some songs. Which is unheard of for me. Some of the results sounded a bit rough, but I trusted Jay's ears.
The biggest lesson I took from these sessions was that I need someone I trust to produce my vocals... I listen to myself in the wrong way, for the wrong things... so I need someone to listen for me in the right ways and tell me when I have something special.
Similarly, the background vocals were cut swiftly. Jay and I would huddle in the control room with our guitars, writing parts, and then I would run into the live room to record the parts before I forgot them, many of them on the first take.
More guitars were added, with Jay playing a mean slide part on Travesty in Blue.
I recorded a song called Fight as an homage to Jeff Buckley, with reverb-drenched guitar amps isolated in the utility room of the attic, and me, by myself, with my '63 Gibson hollow-body, singing and playing the song from start to finish. I got it on take 5, all the way through.
More vocals were added, lead and background.
Suddenly, it was February, and we were almost done. Jay locked in two days at Gravity Studios for mixing, and we hustled to finish the remaining vocals, guitars, and acoustic tracks.
The most difficult song to sing, the aforementioned Skeletonskinandsky, turned into a beast. For all my reservations about it, it wound up being one of the strongest songs of the group, and the vocals we pulled out of me one Tuesday night in the attic are the best, most powerful singing I've done to date.
Finally, it came down to two Thursdays ago. We had backgrounds on one song (Turn) to do, and two acoustic songs to cut in their entirety. And we were mixing the following Monday and Tuesday. We added Motown-inspired backgrounds to Turn, and then moved on to Again and Again, a quiet fingerpicking song I'd written in August.
I sat alone in the live room with two mics, one for vocals, one for guitar. I played the song through once and looked to Jay for feedback. He shrugged as if to say "You got it." So I left it, one time, one take, no edits. If you listen closely, you can hear a train go by, faintly, in the background during the second verse, like a ghost.
So it came to the final song, which was slated to be an older song called Resurrection.
Instead, I decided to save Resurrection for the next project, and record a short acoustic tune I'd written in November called When You Left. Again, I played the song through once, and as we listened to the playback, we realized we were done tracking.
Monday came and a new player, Manny Sanchez entered the picture. Manny owns I.V. Labs, a studio in Uptown, and has worked with Jay on a bunch of projects. He's also worked with Billy Corgan and a host of other musicians.
Manny set his ears to mixing what Jay, Darren and I had created and the results were... amazing. To hear these songs go from acoustic demos to fully fleshed-out rockers and ambient modern folk tunes... Manny played the studio like an instrument, coaxing new textures out of the tunes, smoothing out some rough edges while enhancing others.
Tuesday night came, and Manny had mixed 7 of the tunes. Jay took over and mixed the final three, all of which were acoustic. We bounced the final mixes through an old half-inch tape machine to simulate vintage tape compression.
And we were done.
After listening to the final mixes for a day, both Jay and I decided that the mixes were good, and we proceeded to have it mastered at Gravity that Thursday.
On Friday, 8 days after finishing tracking, I picked up the mixed and mastered product.
I listened to it for a week, but haven't since last weekend.
I've given it to a few close friends and family.
Their reactions have been strong and positive.
I want to listen to it again, but something about it is a little too raw, a little too close... so I need to get some distance from it. Let it sink in.
So I'm going to bide my time, let my fingernails grow out a bit, and look forward to the big things in the near future, both planned and surprise.
Grow, fingernails, grow.