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Monday, December 10, 2007

Speedball Earns His Wings

This morning at 7:30, I finished tracking the guitars for Home with Steve Geuting, sick engineer and guitarist of our futurock band Gruvis Malt. He arrived via Greyhound bus around 3pm or so on Saturday. Somehow, in 52 hours he learned, forgot, relearned, and performed the somewhat unconventional licks of my entire album - twelve or thirteen songs. Twice.

The songs of Home are arranged for a ten piece band, and on record Steve is playing the role of both guitarists in that band - The Angry Countryman and The Funk Prophet. Only someone extremely well versed in the various breeds of late 60's to early 70's cheeseball guitarists could execute such a feat in a mere forty hours. And only someone with German heritage could do so with the precision I need for a record that's so minutely orchestrated. That someone was Steve "Speedball" Geuting. [In retrospect, we probably could've finished in just under 35 hours if I hadn't "stuck to my guns" on the costume thing. I'd read about how Sergei Prokofiev used to make his players dress like the character they were emulating in Peter and the Wolf. He said that it made their performances "thrice convincing." It was only after I insisted that Steve swap out the overalls+straw hat+pitchfork for the brightly patterned Hasa robe+Ray-Bans between every other take that I read about Prokofiev's torrid affair with LSD.]

Aside from Dunkin Donuts coffee and Steve's actual skill on the guitar, the major reason that we were able to efficiently navigate the mess of different parts and styles and songs in such a short time was because of the limitations I'd set in the writing process. The guitar parts are broken down into ten tonal categories - 50's verb, portishead vibrato verb, reggay delay, the sound of stars and falling stars, electric whales, nice guy acoustic, chicken pluck funk, shmindie rock, cocky lead, and phil spector. Steve and I would establish the tone for one of those categories and then frantically jump around between all the tracks and record all the sections using that tone (we did the same thing with the bass and drum sessions, incidentally, but with snare drums, tom tunings, and bass tones). This modular tracking approach is most important because it helps with the consumption of the record - if the listeners' ears aren't jumping around so much, trying to embrace the different seemingly random production of each song, they can focus on the story and melody of the lyrics.

If you picture physically watching the music you hear on most modern pop albums, you would be watching a band changing form between every song. Some songs would only feature two musicians, then all the sudden, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir pops in for a chorus on the next song, then they're replaced by a drum machine and one guy shouting through a lamp shade. You get the point... I feel like if I can present the backing band as a stable unwavering foundation, your ear (or eye if you're still envisioning it) wouldn't wander so much from the lyrical story being told, because it can take the instrumentation and production for granted.

[In a similar way, employing whole-album motifs within the music more aggressively than I used to allows me to push the composition further out, because the listener always has that lifesaver shaped heartbeat rhythm to hold on to, regardless of what demon pit of Danzig-meets-Debbie Gibson I've built around them. So almost all the songs have that trudging zombie heartbeat in the bass and kick drum somewhere. Each composition gets more "daring" as the album progresses. There is a melodic theme that appears repeatedly throughout the record, with a face lift for every scene it's in. All the songs are harmonically linked to the songs before them, and all their various tempos are locked together. There can be no variation on the song sequence, it would throw the entire piece off-kilter. In that sense, this album is not exactly designed for "shuffle" style listening. But then, most of my records aren't.]

The first time I did that sort of tonal and instrumentation limiting was on A Bullet, A Lever, A Key. All the records before that had no parameters for instrumentation, I just did whatever I wanted for any given song. This time I've increased the number of voices to twenty (instead of six, as on ABALAK): two vocals, two keyboards, two guitars, two violins, two cellos, one viola, two flutes, two french horns, five string bass, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, and one oboe [the ten piece band I'd like to perform with live will of course have to feature ambidextrous players].

I would guess that any artist would say their current work is built on the shoulders of their past work, but in the case of Home, I think the relation between my past and present work is much more intentional. Many of the key rhythmic or harmonic ideas on the record are borrowed from my other records and then aggressively expounded upon. For instance, I took the linear bass/drum polyrythms of "2007" (from A Bullet, A Lever, A Key) and applied them to the entire rhythm section in the last movement of track 11 on Home. I took the root note-pounding action-packed 6/8 bass and drums of "The Revenge Eternal" (from Grace Land), half timed them, integrated the heartbeat rhythm, and pitted them against a frantic counterpoint provided by an african drum troop. Ugh. Talking about music sucks. Look, the point is: all those ideas that I test-piloted on my other records are coming to fruition on Home. All at once. And it's very strange to me how coherent that great consolidation is, how much they enjoy each other's company. Yes, they are all birthed from the same brain, so it should come as no surprise that they are siblings. But I always felt like my records shot out in a million different and seemingly unrelated directions, based on whatever I'm interested in doing at any given time. I'm realizing through the process of making this record that they are indeed all part of one coherent picture. It's weird to discover, at the age of 41, what you actually look like.

5 comments:

Scott said...

would guess that any artist would say *they're* current work is...

that's messed up, dude.

Scott said...

hey, can you write your next blog post about me?

Man-Made Mammon said...

Sounds like Home is the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle of your solo career.

Recurrence is the theme here.

The Anti-team said...

Oooh a glockenspiel! I'm excited!Actually, I could shuffle your tracks all day long. I listen to ABALAK backwards.

#. said...

Whoah, it's gonna be exciting to find out which parts you borrowed from which songs. I like that idea, and I'm really looking forward to the album...