Hear and download my cover of Bloodbuzz Ohio here and here.
Well, it's been dark here for awhile... maybe the longest stretch of silence since I started this page over seven years ago.
As usual, silence here is related to noise elsewhere: I've been hard at work in nearly every facet of my musical world. And that work is starting to bear fruit. Last week, our new label (Slothtrop) released new Paper Arrows music... a "maxi-single" consisting of three songs: Love Goes On, Light Out, and a cover of The National song Bloodbuzz Ohio.
I'm going to write more extensively about the two originals when Slothtrop releases our EP in September (which will consist of Love Goes On, Light Out, and five other songs) so I thought I would take this post to write a little bit about Bloodbuzz Ohio.
Where to start?
When I signed the deal with Slothtrop in February, we already had four tunes recorded and mixed... which was a great starting point. After considering a couple of different release plans, we settled around the idea of putting out a seven song EP in the summer/fall, preceded by a three song "single" to generate some advance press and radio.
Eric (owner of Slothtrop) was pretty adamant that both the single and EP should contain a different cover tune, something to tie Paper Arrows to larger bands and turn some new ears and eyes our way.
Which presented a slight problem: after going my entire musical career without recording even ONE cover song, I was being pushed to select and track TWO of them.
Obviously I learned and performed other bands' songs for years... check that: decades. Going to back to middle school talent show performances of (gulp) Heaven by Warrant and Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison... wait did I just type that? Yes, I did. Heck, my first band was essentially just a Guns N' Roses cover band.
But there's a huge difference between covering something live and committing someone else's song(s) to record. And I initially struggled with both song selection and artistic approach.
I came around to the concept of doing the cover for the single in a spare, stripped down setting, and then ramping up the EP-cover as a full band affair. Which meant ideally I would choose songs that were the opposite, picking something loud to make soft and something soft to make loud.
So I spent about two weeks getting up each day and learning a new song or two... songs from my iTunes library, songs I was teaching to students... random songs I heard on the radio the day before... songs I had wanted to cover for years, songs I had sort-of covered for years... I learned songs by The Flaming Lips, The Blue Nile, Madness, Fine Young Cannibals (not kidding)... Wilco, Sharon van Etten... a whole host of Motown songs... it was fun as heck but also a bit beguiling.
Finally, after numerous trials, I settled on the quiet tune for the EP: Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National. I really like The National and I really like this tune... we saw them open up for Arcade Fire a year or so ago and they were really, really good.
And Bloodbuzz Ohio had a bunch of things going for it...
1) It was a driving rock tune inside of which I found a quiet fingerpicking pattern, so it satisfied the radical reinvention criterion.
2) The National is the type of band with which Paper Arrows would like to be identified.
3) The lyrics fit nicely next to what we do in Paper Arrows... love, loss, longing... it's all there.
4) The voice... Matt Berninger has (in my opinion) a truly singular and remarkable voice. Deep, resonant... unmistakable. He pitches his songs where even lower male rock singers will not (check that: cannot) go. So that meant I was forced to figure out how I could sing it my own way.
And that meant changing the key, lowering it a whole step into the guitar-friendly key of G but then singing the melody an octave higher. And that unlocked the magic.
The key of G presented numerous opportunities for me to re-voice the song, stressing harmonic movement that is (at best) implied in the original. It also put it squarely in the strongest part of my vocal range. High enough to convey tension but low enough to sing with relative ease and gentleness when desired. Truly, a lucky strike born (like most luck) out of a lot of work.
So I started practicing it until... an antibiotic-resistant sinus infection kept me from singing for nearly 4 months.
Talk about torture... I sign the first record contract of my career and then I CAN'T SING. Can't practice. Can't write. Can't record the remaining vocal tracks for the EP, which included committing Bloodbuzz to tape (hard drive).
So I did my best to practice Bloodbuzz, focusing on the guitar parts, visualizing (or whatever the sonic equivalent of visualizing is) the vocals ... and result was that I kept finding different ways to play the song... or rather, I kept finding useful variations. I just couldn't quite figure out how to fit all the variations together into one seamless performance.
But necessity is the mother of invention. And we needed to get the record done.
So a stormy spring evening I braved the run from my north-shore students to I.V. Lab, and we set up to get Bloodbuzz dialed in.
I knew I wanted to replicate a guitar set-up and sound we used for the song Fight on Look Alive... my 1960's Gibson ES-125 through a reverb-saturated isolated amp. Ghostly, mysterious... just right. And mic'ed acoustically to give it a little more punch.
And I also wanted to cut the whole song live, playing and singing at the same time in one take. It just felt like the right way to go.
But the live approach also resulted in a lot of pressure: one mistake and the take is useless. No editing and in this case, no auto-tune.
Good thing I had been able to rehearse so much.
To make matters even a little more tenuous, my voice was still not fully recovered from my sinus issues. Better to be sure, but still ragged and lacking in stamina. I was not going to be able to sing Bloodbuzz over and over and over... this was going to need to come together pretty quickly.
So we got set and I started in, running through it a couple times to get warmed up and used to the room. From the beginning, we were pleased. The work I had done selecting and pitching the song was paying off and by the second take, we had something usable.
And then on the third take, the magic happened.
Something just clicked and it was like I was following a map in my head... all the variations I had worked on flowed from one to the next in a way that was so perfect it seemed obvious but had never occurred to me before that take.
And my voice was right on the edge of breaking. I let myself go places I hadn't been comfortable with before, took some leaps of faith... and they paid off.
I'm extremely fond of the phrase "The machines love discovery" and when I listen to my version of Bloodbuzz, that's what I hear: I hear myself discovering how to play and sing the song the right way in real time.
And all live, one take, no editing.
I'm on a Bloodbuzz, God I am.