Many years ago, I cobbled a makeshift studio space together in the old coal room in my first house’s basement. It was a 6′x11′ room, scarcely larger than a closet, with only an approximately 6½-foot high ceiling. Some of the earliest professional work I did down there was with a “boom box” as my studio monitors. True story.
It looked like this:
At some point, Cream’s White Room got stuck in my head. So I started a demo recording of it. I have no idea what ever became of the project. Yes, I definitely remember programming it, recording parts of it, and even dumping some rough mix onto a cassette, along with what were some new (back then) original songs. It just didn’t survive.
A few years later, I made a huge gear-upgrade purchase, and to test out my new gear, I created a few percussion loops, and recorded myself singing Van Morrison’s Moondance with some simple instrumentation. I had gotten the idea from hearing a much better singer do a much cooler version. Little did I know, but I had just snagged myself on a hook that would sink insidiously deeply into my psyche.
Fast forward a bunch of years. In the interim, I have recorded hundreds of songs for different clients, and dozens of my own songs as well, not to mention different commercial projects, voice-overs, etc.
I got this regular live gig, which I ended up really hating (it paid well). After a few cancellations, I had all this pent-up creative energy. So I solicited my Facebook friends for requests, and began recording cover songs with only one microphone, acoustic guitars and hand percussion.
It was more fun than I had thought possible.
A few of those songs, over time, grew up into larger productions. Eventually, I just started tackling big cover song productions of songs that “clicked.” I can’t describe what made a song click. It just did. Somehow I knew I could do it. In other cases, there were requests that I fulfilled for other people.
Anyway, after collecting these finished works for a while, it appears that I have a batch, a volume. Call it “Volume One.” There are certainly more in the pipeline.
They won’t be ready for a while. In the meantime, enjoy what I’ve done so far, HERE
We can call this the “Probable Last Blog of 2017.”
I used to get very serious around this time of year. Some of that was stress or cynicism, maybe part of a youthful desperation to be cool. That’s all long past. Now I simply enjoy the opportunities for merriment and lightness. So if you’re looking for something deep and/or meaningful. it ain’t here.
Lately I have been busily replicating or re-inventing cover songs (the choice of song is pretty random). I enjoy the challenge of trying to exactly replicate an arrangement; finding the right sounds, playing the right notes, etc.
Changing a song is easier in some ways, since matching the original is already an ethic that has been discarded. However, changing a well-known song is a huge risk. Well, I like risks. In fact, here I am with my brown pompadour and matching tie/pants emsemble, cheerfully hastening toward risk.
As Christmas careens recklessly around the corner from Thanksgiving and heads straight at us like a windshield towards a bug, I start thinking about working on Christmas music. This of course, is way too late to achieve results.
So I started earlier this year. Actually, I started LAST YEAR, and just casually refined and finished them this year.
The first is “Away In A Manger,” which was recently described to me as a boring carol that could never be redeemed. The next is “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Over the years I have voiced my low opinion of turning hymns and Christmas carols into ROCK SONGS. So you may hereby enjoy my admitted hypocrisy.
This is approximately how I looked while recording, except that I have way better guitars, a taller tree, and my recording space may never be this tidy.
For “Away In A Manger,” I wrote a chanting sort of chorus to break up the cloying verses. I had hoped that my church’s creative team might like to see the band work this up, but they just sorta sat there looking uncomfortable.
Me: “Hey guys, I worked up a rockin’ version of ‘Away In A Manger.’ I think the band could do it. What do you think?”
Had I known they were going to balk, I might have done it in a higher key (the music director is a baritone). That said, the guitar riff works a whole lot better in this key. Maybe it’s just not that good. In any case… Here’s “Away In A Manger.”
“Children Go Where I Send Thee” presented some challenges. First of all, it goes on FOREVER. So I abbreviated it, added a modulation, a Pink Floyd flavored guitar solo, some Queen-flavored harmonies, and threw in a little joke as the numbers count down. Enjoy the hilarious levity.
Here’s “Children Go Where I Send Thee”
How do you break out of creative conventions? What do you think of my silly little Christmas experiments? How do you creatively cope with the assorted holiday vibes? Feel free to share your thoughts.
~See you in 2018~
OK, It’s official. I’m getting old. If nothing else, I can tell by the aches and pains. I wasn’t always achy and slow-moving. That seems to have crept up rather suddenly. Well, it SEEMS sudden, then I start doing the math, counting the years, and considering the mileage this ol’ body of mine has endured. Hand me that bottle of Alleve.
Back in 1989 (which seems like just a few years ago)I was working in a restaurant part-time, and plodding through school at the University of Cincinnati. That summer, Don Henley (of The Eagles) had a big hit with End Of The Innocence, which I heard on the restaurant Muzak several times per day. I enjoyed the song, though I had trouble hearing the lyrics over people asking for drink refills and waitresses grabbing my ass (this was not okay).
I honestly thought the whole song was a poignant recollection of when ol’ Don lost his virginity (remember, I couldn’t really hear the lyrics). Seriously, I thought he was singing, “Offer up your fancy dress” (it’s, offer up your best defense). Regardless, I liked the music, though I didn’t really care much for the presumed kiss-and-tell lyrics. Not classy, Don.
Turns out, it’s some political gripe about Ronald Reagan, written by Bruce Hornsby (the guy who played piano in the 80′s like John Popper played harmonica in the 90′s). I jab, but I loves me some Bruce, and John, and Don.
Nostalgia? Well, yes. I vividly recall driving out to Virginia Beach later that summer. Somewhere in the last 50 miles of the trip, the outside temperature cooled, and I turned off the AC in my silver 1985 Honda Civic hatchback (I had named it “Dennis”). I rolled down the window to enjoy the evening air, and ejected whatever cassette was in the stereo, to listen to some local radio. On came End Of The Innocence, without restaurant chatter, pinchy waitresses, or other distractions. I got the gist that it probably wasn’t solely about Don Henley getting laid. That moment with that song on the radio sticks with me to this day.
^ Side note: This is exactly what “Dennis” looked like. ^
Anyway, that’s a long-winded tale of yore. Years have passed, and I still like that song in spite of the fact that it’s complaining about a president who had already left office.
A few short years ago (really), I had a summer gig playing at a neighborhood pool. It was hot and brutal. No one cared that I was there, but I got paid pretty well for it. After a couple of abrupt cancellations (a thunderstorm and a community parade, respectively), I solicited Facebook for some acoustic requests. And then, for a month, I enjoyed recording and sharing acoustic renditions of popular songs with my friends. There were many of these, some of which have blown up into larger productions since.
One such request came from my sweet wife. Strangely, she requested End Of The Innocence, not knowing anything about the grabby restaurant girls, the drive through Virginia, or my complete ignorance of the political subject matter. So what do I associate that song with, today?
So I dug up that song and tackled it again recently.
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:
We recorded before we were ready, because we were impatient.
We recorded hastily.
We planned to overdub, and made no effort to get good bass, guitar or vocal performances on tape.
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:
We kept on trying to polish a turd, instead of starting over and doing it right.
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:
Tried to please everyone.
Changed our sound.
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:
Time spent trying to fix things that should have been scrapped.
A homemade cassette album that featured…
Songs that didn’t belong together.
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?