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 admit it. I was tremendously unhappy in my early twenties.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
["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!
In the early Spring, I was propositioned by my friend Kyle to join a show band at Kings Island, a local theme park.
I had to wait a couple of weeks before I heard I got the gig. Then I frantically learned thirty songs from scratch (OK, really it was twenty-nine songs, because I already knew “Free Ride.” But you get my point). Two weeks after our first rehearsal, we were performing. I played three nights per week. That doesn’t sound like a lot. Somehow it took up my whole summer, but it was a blast.
While it was going on, I looked like this:
Among the things that fell by the wayside as a result (including this very blog), were the album that I can’t quite gather the energy to complete, a steady stream of covers I want to record, and the intention to record some demos of an incredible amplifier I got.
Chrome Dome Audio’s “Tone Philosopher” VG-44
Chrome Dome Audio is owned and masterminded by my friend Adam White. A few years ago, he set out to modify an amp for me, which turned into him just giving me an early and unusual version of one of his Tone Philosophers, which he offered to modify for me. I took him up on it a couple of years later, and he turned it into a VG-44, his main production model amp. He also decided to go through all of my amps and tune them up, in exchange for me recording some demos of the VG-44.
Now, all of this is awesome and cool, but it happened right when I got super busy for the summer. So, having opened up my schedule a bit, I have finally finished the first part of the first demo.
Note: My VG-44 is slightly unusual. It’s a head and 2×12 half-open cabinet with Jensen Jet-Series ceramic speakers (the production models have different speakers in them), but it’s close enough to give you the basic idea of what it can do.
What you hear:
I recorded with the amp on my carpeted home-studio floor. Now, this is a professional production no-no, but is a lot closer to the reality of how most people will end up using it most of the time.
The microphone is a normal Shure SM-57 that I’ve owned since the mid 1990′s. It ran through a Grace 101 preamp (Grace preamps are legendary for transparency). The mic was never more than a few inches away from the grillecloth during my experimentation process.
The only post-production tone shaping was some bass-cut, and a little reverb added to the solo tracks. No pedal effects of any kind were used. The only thing between the guitars and the amp was a 20-year-old house-brand cable I purchased from Guitar Center.
Guitars I used:
A stock 2005 Made-In Mexico (“MIM”) Fender Stratocaster
A 1991 MIM Fender Telecaster (which may have had its bridge pickup replaced before I bought it)
A stock 1982 Silverburst Gibson Les Paul Custom.
The opening figure is the Stratocaster. The middle portion is the Telecaster, with a slide solo also played on the Tele, and a following solo played on the Les Paul. The closing figure is the Strat and Les Paul playing the riff together. Note how they all respond differently, and stack well in the mix.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Tone Philosopher VG-44, by Chrome Dome Audio:
I attended a repressed christian high school that communicated this idea:
“Rock and Roll is bad, unless it’s ‘christian,’ and even then, it shouldn’t sound too enthusiastic.”
This is probably what they thought of me:
And this is generally what I thought of them:
And this is what they seemed to want from me:
By the time I was fifteen years old, I was a pretty competent guitarist, cutting my teeth on Led Zeppelin, Clapton, Hendrix, Rush, Iron Maiden, etc. Those players’ work was both challenging and accessible. Van Halen would get my attention next.
At seventeen I became devout in my faith, and began a sincere quest to figure out how I could play rock guitar in a “christian” environment. Some of my school buddies and I were given a handful of songs by a pastor who used to play in a christian band. We played once at a youth group which was fizzling out, and then later at my senior chapel. That chapel service concluded with my principal telling me what an abomination both the music and I were. I then got an earful from each of my teachers. In. Every. Single. Class.
Approximately 1/6 of them clandestinely offered encouragement, afraid that any public praise might have a negative backlash against them. What a sad commentary on a subculture.
It took my a few years to recover from that, and frankly it’s a miracle my faith survived. It did lay the foundation for a healthy distrust of religious organizations though. In the years that followed, a complex fortress has been built on that foundation. It’s not a ringing endorsement for the institutions and/or the people running them.
A year after that fateful senior chapel, I was coached by some older musician friends on how to use a 4-track cassette recorder. It was a time-consuming process using uncooperative gear, but it taught me how to squeeze every last drop out of what was available. To this day, I think that approach yields the best final product, because everything is so dear.
Last week, a friend of mine lent me an old 4-track cassette recorder, so I could digitize the tapes I made back then. THE ORIGINAL 4-TRACK TAPES. I was taken back to yesteryear, the home project studio era, the age of tape hiss and track limitations…
[I would have given ANYTHING to have a home studio that was this well-stocked!]
I’m starting at the beginning- 1988 or so. This was the first song I recorded. It was given to my high school bandmates (I was not present) by a pastor named (I think) Dan McCollum. I don’t know if that’s the writer’s name, or if I have even spelled it correctly. The song is called “More Like You.” I recorded this when I was 18-19 years old, brand new at singing lead vocals. It took me hours, and sounds like a sheltered kid making his first recording, because it is. I thought maybe I could be some kind of christian rock star at this stage.
Remember when you hear this degraded, lo-fi recording that I was young, new to recording, and had never sung a lead vocal before. I covered my vocal with some era-appropriate effects which actually turned out quite well. I tried to replicate this many times and failed.
Anyway, here’s me singing and playing, as a teenager. It’s totally OK to make fun of me, my mullet, and my “play ALL the notes” approach to the guitar. Enjoy the slides of 1988 equipment, too. That’s the stuff I used back then!
My first guitar instructor attempted to teach me Jazz when I was a kid. I wasn’t all that interested in Jazz, but I practiced.
Side note: This kid actually looks a little like my son, who has, as of yet, never expressed any interest in holding a guitar. Alas.
It was clear after a while that I had plateaued. Fortuitously, my teacher moved across town, and the lesson arrangement ended about the time it had become obsolete. In the months that followed, my playing ability EXPLODED.
I learned more in the few months that followed, as I was finally free to work through the information and instructions as they spilled back out of me, than in two years that preceded them. I looked approximately like this:
Later I studied classical guitar, but not for very long. I slid into young adulthood with a few jazz chords in my pocket, and some proper classically-induced structure and dexterity. Plus, I could solo like a BOSS, so I was determined to join the next Led Zeppelin. How hard could that be? My first band, a batch of high school friends, never took off.
The next band never even made it to a second rehearsal. The other guitarist didn’t understand rests… Soeverythingheplayedwaslikealongrunonsentencewithnobreaks.
It was astonishing.
A few months later, I ended up in a cover band with some guys who were a few years older. We had a casual run playing gigs about once a month on average, for about four years or so. It was in that band (which had no name) that I learned how to apply all those years of music lessons (I wanted to call us “Proof of Purchase”). I learned to sing harmonies, and actually became one of the principal lead singers (The other guitarist didn’t like the name, and was bossy). I learned how to write and arrange, to record and produce (Seriously, he wanted us to be called “Cornerstone,” or something cornball like that). It was then that I realized I was in a dead-end band (which still had no name, and obviously tended toward bad taste). The other guys were hobbyists at best, and weren’t interested in turning from their career plans to make music with a bozo like me.
I was the ripe old age of 22 when it ended. The band had a meeting, decided on a hiatus, and then started back up again without me. I was more driven to create and perform, and they were more interested in just having fun. I became obsolete, and found the freedom to pursue my own music (Quite honestly, I had no intention of going back). So I spent the better part of a summer recording some songs I had written, using thoroughly lousy equipment. It turned out to be a surprisingly good recording.
Six months later, I started attending a church I had visited a few times with my college girlfriend. I ended up playing in the worship band, and this was right when I was reinventing myself as a guitarist. For about 18 months, I learned to be a sideman, developed my tone, and experimented with new ideas. While I did that, I met two other guys who were interested in starting a band. So we started a band, and kept it going for about 5 years. Eventually the drummer got bored with the fact that we didn’t pull in huge crowds like some of his newer gigs. He bailed, and that was really the end of that. That project had become obsolete, and I became free to explore new ideas again.
I started a surge of writing and recording new songs. By that time, I was a sideman in a few bands, and got a few of the other players to help me record. My main gig built up to the biggest thing I was ever part of, and then right at the pinnacle, my singer died of a rare disease, leaving me obsolete without her voice to carry the music we wrote. After some pain, I found the freedom to set that down and move on.
Since then, I’ve produced a couple of albums, done different projects, and written music of my own again. I got involved in the music of another church, directing the music in one of their services. Over time, I’ve moved out of a music-director type role into a broader creative director type role, I’ve become obsolete in the music ministry, and it frees me up to explore new options.
It was while that role-shift was happening that one of the music teams wanted to cover Queen’s “I Want It All.”
One of the tricks to this is Queen’s propensity for triple or quadruple-stacking each vocal harmony part. So I constructed a backing track to fill in some gaps, and we performed it. Not one to waste an effort, I went ahead and casually worked on doing my own full cover of the song, which you can hear, HERE:
Why? Because I wanted to do something ambitious for fun. Because I can.
Right now I’m a grown man who plays music in America’s watering holes and houses of worship. Dudes like me… We’re not cute young things who think we’re bound for stardom. We’re normal family men. We’re the main buyers of musical products. We’re the core of the whole US economy! We’re the ones who hold the songs together when the church music sounds like junk. We’re the ones who MAKE the band sound good. And we’re the ones that change the whole atmosphere when we arrive or depart. AND, when we discover we’re obsolete, we’re the ones who discover new sounds and expressions, and make new and better music when we’re free.
Get obsolete. Leave the system. Find freedom. Leave the rest of them turning the crank on the same old machine.
Live. Play. Create.
Also, you should agree that “Proof Of Purchase” was a great band name. Humor me.
What would it look like to embrace obsolescence, get free, and discover your next new awesome step as an artist or musician? What keeps you where you are? Are you in any danger of running out of new ideas? How do you find new methods of creativity in the same sandbox?
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?