Tag Archives: grunge

The Bad Old Days?

 

I admit it. I was tremendously unhappy in my early twenties.

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I had been dating a girl whom I had thought was “the one,” only to discover that she was losing interest. I didn’t understand it at the time, but she was growing up, and I wasn’t. Eventually, the whole thing just unraveled badly, and I wrote a tsunami of negativity-fueled music. Oh, the angst!

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The good news is that I met someone much better, and married her, and this has been working out well ever since.  But as I finally grew up, my young angst waned, and I discovered that I had learned how to write from all new previously-untapped emotional places. Nothing fuels one to write sad songs like having experienced real heartache.

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In the midst of my emotional repairs, I had become fascinated with early-sixties Southwestern musical landscapes. I set out to write several songs in this vein, and only succeeded in finishing one (and it may not even sound like what I thought it should). That song is “Catapulting Wishes.”

I imagined this whole story:

There’s this old farmer. Farmer? I don’t know. But he lives out in this wide barren area. In his youth, he set out to start a farm or a business or something, and it was successful for a short time. The town was starting to grow and thrive. He married his sweetheart, and they prepared for a nice life. But then, the interstate went through, or the factory moved, or the mine closed. The town shrank, the farm withered, whatever. Finally it was just the two of them scraping by, hoping that next month… maybe the month after that… or after that… something would change.

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Finally, something changed. One day, she was gone. Maybe she left? Maybe she died?  Like I said, I don’t know. You write the story!

But the image around which I built the whole song was that he has taken all of the scrap lumber from the shed, and built a catapult. Now instead of just “wishing upon a star,” he has assembled this tragic contraption to launch his wishes at the stars. Just like he spent his youth trying to build a life in the wrong place, now he’s spending all this time and energy wishing and wishing and wishing.

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My old band Lux recorded this song, right when our sound was changing from something angsty and perhaps Grunge-y like Soundgarden, into something more mellow and ambient. It seemed like a good idea to mix all our sounds together on one album. That worked for bands like The Beatles, Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, right? Well, in our case, everyone found something to dislike on that album. It fell rather flat, and we all went on to other things. So “Catapulting Wishes” could really be the theme of that whole experience.

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I managed to save all of the original tracks of that album. Periodically, I mess around with them. A couple of years ago, I decided to redo my guitars and vocals (the recordings were pretty terrible). So I kept the original drums, added some percussion, re-recorded the bass, and see what I could make of it.

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["This? Why I could make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl."]

As is common, I set it down, and forgot about it. So I just dug it back up on a Sunday night, re-re-recorded one guitar track, and mixed it on a Monday. On Tuesday, I put a clumsy video together.  Check it out.

Have you ever managed to capture your own melancholy in art; a story, a visual medium, a song, or something else? Have you ever created something that turned out to perfectly sum up a whole experience, before that experience was even over? Speak, my people!

 

Coming To Terms With The Status quo

This guitar is called an “Invicta.”

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This particular Invicta was made in 1980 by a company called Electra. For a while, Electra  (and some others) were making copies of Gibson and Fender guitars. A trademark-infringement lawsuit ensued, and Electra started making different guitar shapes. This one cheekily blends the body shape of a Les Paul and a Telecaster. They used this basic shape for a number of models with different features.  If you’re interested, check out this link to see different Electra models: http://www.rivercityamps.com/electra/

Side note: Someone bought the rights to Electra guitars a few years ago, and has started manufacturing several models (and variations) again. I have no personal experience with these. 

I got an Invicta very much like the one I photographed, either the summer before or after 8th grade (I forget which). It was the closest thing to a Gibson Les Paul that I could imagine owning, and it was on that Invicta that I learned to play solos that sounded like I knew what I was doing. I felt (and somewhat resembled) like this kid:

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The status quo of electric guitars has always been held by Gibson and Fender, hence the imitations that have happened over the years (including a robust market of counterfeits). Up until I was about sixteen, I was a dyed-in-the-wool classic rock fan. Van Halen’s 1984 album  changed the guitar status quo overnight, and soon enough, the trends changed (later still, in Cincinnati, Ohio). The classic rock sound and look was no longer cool.

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Eventually, I bowed to the trends, and started yearning for something a little more modern. I got a “shredder” guitar, and started incorporating the techniques and tricks of that genre. I lent and eventually sold the Invicta to my friend Aaron, who still has it. My shredder guitar is long gone. It’s interesting to me, in hindsight, how the status quo was Gibson/Fender in 1984, and “shredder” guitars, or “super-strats” in 1985. Seriously, there was a point where those classic Gibson/Fender guitars were just hopelessly passé. The trend continued relatively uninterrupted until Grunge arrived like a dam breaking, and the Gibson/Fender status quo returned.

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Interestingly, music styles have become the influencers of guitar types, instead of the other way around. And you BETTER have the “right” guitar for the gig. What do country players use? Telecasters. What do hard rockers use? Les Pauls. Texas blues? Strats. Think a roots-americana type band is going to love it if I show up to a gig with my emerald green Ibanez RG? Nope. Wrong gig, dude.

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True story: I was invited to audition for a heavy rock band a few years ago, and, based on older photos, they were reluctant to extend them an invitation until I showed them I had shoulder-length bleached-blonde hair (this did not end well for my hair). I received a notification of what types and brands of guitar equipment were expected… no mention of my capabilities or tones. They wanted a Gibson or PRS guitar, and a Marshall, Mesa, or comparable amp head. I had a couple of cool Gibsons, but my vintage AC30 was not invited! I actually considered getting a Plexi or a Dual/Triple Rectifier. Reason and good advice prevailed. I politely declined the invitation. That band never went anywhere anyway.

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Here’s my point (finally). As artists, when we seek to engage people by bowing to the status quo, we’re engaging in a sort of law of diminishing returns. In a world of Les Pauls, the Stratocaster stands out (and vice versa). In a world of standard classic rock guitars, Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” super-strat stood WAY out. And then, in a world full of copycat super-strat type guitars, the classics, all of a sudden, stood out.

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It isn’t just guitars, its artistry. I’m really impressed by music artists who do something that is both unique and approachable. It’s such a difficult fine line. When the status quo goes left, an artist should choose a direction based on inspiration, not imitation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that left is bad or that right is good. It does mean that mimicry leads to a location that gets crowded quickly, and listeners eventually relocate.

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So what the Invicta represents to me, is a time when a company tried to do something that was different, incorporating bits of what was known  with something inspired and different. I truly enjoy playing different types of guitars, because the unique shape and sound of each type somehow prompts me to play differently. I can’t NOT play ripping solos on an Ibanez RG. I can’t manhandle my 1941 Epiphone archtop the way I fight a Strat or Tele. While these are all common shapes, the Invicta stands out in my guitar-stable, as a whole different breed. I enjoy that it inspires different approaches while delivering what is still classically mine.

Isn’t that the kind of instrument we should all be looking to play?

What’s the instrument that makes you play differently? Is there some cool lesser-known brand or model that really turns you in an unusual  direction? What about different sounds? Where are you finding those? I’d love to hear about them.

How To Do Everything Wrong, And End Up With An Embarrassing Album

The year was 1994… 

I had started a band with a drummer and bassist, assembling an original song list that sounded like it would fit in the Grunge universe, but also allowed us to play some more complex stuff. We were already doomed to fail.

Our drummer, who had a great aesthetic sense, was a teenager with a skinny teen boy’s body, and had little stamina behind the kit to play long and hard. Our bassist was a singing guitarist who picked up the bass to start a band with me, and he played bass like a guitarist. I was a know-it-all lead guitarist, determined that we could change everyone’s mind in Cincinnati about what they wanted to hear.

Grunge? Really? Who listens to THAT? We’ll do BETTER stuff.

These guys are hacks, and they’ll never be successful.

The fact that we had lasted for six months was, in itself, a triumph. But we were getting antsy. We wanted to gig. We wanted an album. We wanted to sell an album at our gigs.

In 1994, the home recording market had been exploding for a couple of years with the release of Alesis’ ADAT 8-track modular digital recorder. It used super VHS tapes, and multiple ADATs could by connected together to make more simultaneous tracks available. Link two ADATs, and you had a 16-track system. Link three, and you have 24 tracks. Well, I had an ADAT, and a friend had one too. So we had the capacity to make something like an album.

The Alesis ADAT: Finally, home studio recording can sound like the pros, when it isn’t eating your tapes.

What we did NOT have was a good recording location, or sufficient microphones.

With polite inquiries, my bandmates and I got the OK to use a church sanctuary late one night. We set up our gear, and hastily recorded ourselves playing all our songs to get the drums on tape. We knew we could overdub everything else later. Our engineer friend cobbled together some sort of method to get signal on to tape, and give us a stage monitor.

So far, here are the ways we had already failed:

  1. We recorded before we were ready, because we were impatient.
  2. We recorded hastily.
  3. We planned to overdub, and made no effort to get good bass, guitar or vocal performances on tape.
  4. Our recording system was cobbled together. No headphones!

 

We used a click for tempo, and played it through our stage monitor. The click bled into the drum kit’s overhead microphone. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but our young drummer tended to get nervous, and fall out of time.

When I got everything back to my townhouse, I heard all the flaws in playback. Being the persistent sort, I took it as a challenge to make it all work. I spent a lot of time processing the bad drum tracks, and then tried to add my guitars in such a way as to make the drum recording work.

Here are some more ways we failed:

  1. We kept on trying to polish a turd, instead of starting over and doing it right.
  2. We used substandard gear.

 

In the midst of this, we became self-conscious. Our sound was rather heavier than what our friends listened to, and we started trying to get them to like us by writing things that were a little lighter.

At about this time, I sent a demo in to a regional indie label, and got a polite rejection letter that read, “We think your sound is a bit too avant-garde, and we’re looking for something more like the next Hootie And The Blowfish.” I sure wish I had kept that letter. In any case, I sat right down and wrote something a little Hootie-flavored. Our sound was already evolving, and we reasoned that a couple Hootie-like songs mixed in with our King’s X / Soundgarden heavy stuff would make us more widely appreciated.

More things we did wrong:

  1. Tried to please everyone.
  2. Changed our sound.
  3. Handled rejection poorly.

Still, what made perfect sense was to keep pounding away on a poorly-conceived album. On every work lunch-break, I raced over to my recording rig to sing a little, or get some guitars recorded. I overdid everything. Right in the middle of all of this, our bassist moved back home to Indiana. This only lasted a few months, but it put an end to our gigging and rehearsing. In the meantime, I finished the album (mostly just to prove I could). This seemed noble.

 

I mixed the finished album at a friend’s studio, and started working on the visual components. CD’s were the standard, but a lot of bands still trafficked in cassettes. I could see no way to afford a CD project, so I had the album mastered to a DAT, and had a small run of cassette copies made. Then (and remember this is the 1990′s) I poured money into a good tape deck, a laser printer, card stock, cassette labels and cases. I spent a ton of time learning to design logos. I printed out the adhesive labels and inserts for the cassettes, and made a few every day. Our bassist moved back to town ,and we got right back to the business of making music. He hadn’t really played bass since he moved, but that didn’t stop us from recording.

When the album was finished, here’s what we had:

  1. Bad performances,
  2. Poor recordings,
  3. Time spent trying to fix things that should have been scrapped.
  4. A homemade cassette album that featured…
  5. Songs that didn’t belong together.
  6. Money thrown away on supplies and equipment.

All you have to do to end up with a similarly inferior product is to copy any of this process.

Twenty-some years later, the home recording universe is a different place. Any crap performance can be edited, and almost any bad sound can be processed into something listenable. But is that what you want? A fake representation of your abilities? To me it’s like a toupee. It isn’t real hair. You didn’t grow it, and you’re trying to fool people into thinking it’s the real you.

If your bandmates can’t perform well on their instruments, just don’t even start. Take the time to get it right. Break rehearsals down, and take turns listening to how everyone plays. When it’s tight and accurate, THEN you’re ready to start the rest. Take the time. Earn it. Somewhere down the road (sooner than you think), you’ll be listening back and wondering about your time and energy spent. Don’t you want to be proud of it?

To illustrate my folly, I’ve made the whole album available online, here: http://davideberhardt.com/html/trosa.htm

Fiat Lux – The Return of St. Andrew

There are some back-stories and related details. Enjoy the spectacle. Learn from my folly!

I invite your comments, related tales, and questions. Bring ‘em.