June, 2006

Follow Through

You hear about it all the time.  Even the swing of a golf club or tennis racquet: no matter how good your stroke is, your shot will be worthless, unless you follow through.  It is like that in many other things too.

This weekend was good.  I’d even say really good.  I’d say that the songs are about 60 – 80 % done (with Bonded & Climbing Trees sitting closer to 80, and Sweetest Things and The Haunt on the lower end).  The drum tracks, bass, acoustic guitars, and lead vocals are all done for all of the tracks.  Hell, listening to Bonded makes me feel like it’s just good as done the way it is.  But I know this is the part where we have to be that much more careful.  It is far too easy to sit back and listen to the rough mixes over and over till you’re used to them and feel like you’ve accomplished something.  And by “accomplish”, I mean “finish”.  These songs are NOT finished.  I have to remind myself.  I also have to pinch myself when I listen the rough mixes- I’m really happy with the way they sound.  But that’s just why I have to remind myself that we are not done.

Overdubs.  They fill songs out.  They expand their personalities and give them more colour and flavour.  They are layers of sound embedded with little hooks to catch unsuspecting ears.  “Bed” tracks (bass, drums, etc.) serve as the foundation, the very base for a song. You can’t put a roof on a house without first having its structure in place.  In many ways, overdubs are what contribute to continually bringing people back to the song.  They are paint on the outside walls, bay windows to invite more light, the charming weathervane on the roof, and the big, awkward tree out front, that for some strange reason, you wouldn’t dream of chopping down.  They help provide atmosphere and convey mood and emotion.  They can be a simple harmony on a verse, or a powerful electric guitar buzz over the bridge, or a surprise piano melody trilling over the chorus.  They come at the later stages of the development of a song, when many of its base character traits are established.  The purpose of their existence is to complement those character traits.  They don’t give character to a song, – I think, if your song lacks character, I’m not sure how much scattered overdubs will help**- they help bring out its character.  They enhance its character.  They help make a song better.

So, with the work that still remains, I recognize that there are many routes to go.  The stage that we are at now, opens up more doors for these songs, and accordingly increases the number of decisions that have to be made.  That can be a bit scary, because there are so many possibilities.  But we know the songs well enough to know what will work and what won’t.  It’s just a matter of trying a few different things.  Steve’s set of ears, and numerous sound-creating skills will no doubt be a boon in tackling this matter.  His gifts will come in very handy when experimenting with the atmosphere, mood, and emotion we want when recording some of these overdubs.  With all our ears and minds working, and various instruments at our disposal, I look forward to dressing these songs up a bit more.

But we must also know when to let go.  The songs already sound great, and we dont want what we do now to overshadow all of the great work that has been done.  Plus, in our situation, the momentum that we have right now is more valuable than six extra months spent getting the songs EXACTLY as we want them.  If there is a charm to first recordings (and there are many), it is that they are wrought with imperfection.  These imperfections give songs an authenticity that is difficult to replicate when you have all the time and money in the world to record an album.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself!

In any event, I know that we have to act quick and effectively to be able to follow through on the achievements of the weekend.  Sitting on this too long will hurt the momentum I never thought we’d get back.

** (from above) There are some who will disagree with this, and that is perfectly legitimate.  Songwriting is not a science, and the argument can be easily made that building a song with random sounds gives it a different structure and character all its own.  Sort of like building a house backwards.  In any event, the house analogy does not hold up.  In this case, it is easy to see why writing songs is not like builing houses, and the same rules do not always apply.  So for simplicity’s sake, let me limit that my comments on structure to apply to our songs, and for this album.

Return to Sanity

With things recently developing in their small-scale manner, I now recieve more and more generous comments from friends and peers such as “Seems like things are going well- I hope you guys make it”.  I can do little but smile to myself and brush it off, but with due appreciation of how it was intended.

“Making it” has a very different definition these days!  There was a time long ago, that the idea of “making it” meant a six month tour of europe and an article in rolling stone magazine…maybe a gig at historic Maple Leaf Gardens.  And that was only the beginning.  And then over the years, “making it” became a more modest, but honourable definition- to sustain a career as a musician enough so you could work hard enough to pay your bills and still have enough left over to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle.  “Making it” now just means doing enough so you don’t go crazy.  The same impetus that urges you to start writing songs when you are twenty, starts taking you over in your late twenties, if you don’t deliver on them.  “Making it” now is feeding that monster- that tender thing that once once made you so curious about the world of music you knew so little of, which then rose tenfold (like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors) and demands equal progress on your part to match every interval of its own growth.  “Making it” now is a bit like appeasing the beast.  And it often feels like your sanity is at stake- the more of yourself you have invested, the more you stand to lose.

Which is why today was so nice.  The beast was fed quite well today.  A whole new experience…a whole other world.  Today was the first day of our recording at Phase One, and it was really exciting.  With our producer, Steve, and Phase One’s own Senior Studio Engineer, Michael Jack, we were in good hands from the get-go, and things went great. It was really hard work too, mind you, but it was good, and most importantly, it was really fun.  Being a newbie at anything, when interest is there, has its advantages (unbridled enthusiasm, often).  All said and done, we were able to accomplish a good amount for what was our first day.

The goal for the day was really to dig into most of the “bed” tracks for the songs.  That especially meant drums, and some bass.  Thankfully, we were able to get drum tracks for every song nailed down today, thanks to some remarkable playing by Stefan Sezniak.  Stefan is a session drummer who has played on albums and tours of many great Canadian artists, including Hawklsey Worksman.  We recorded the “beds” live on the floor with me singing and playing guitar as a guide, Devin playing bass, and Stefan laying down the drum tracks.  It was his tracks that we wanted- hence, I wasn’t singing for “performance” and it didn’t matter if I made any mistakes- it was only the drums that we were going to keep.  Similarly, Devin wasn’t under gun for good performance either.  However, if he did give a good performance, we were more inclined to keep it, because of the close interplay between drums and bass (combining to form the rhthym section of any band).  If you get good chemistry on a live take, it’s always better than single-tracking.

Anyway, all of this was not an easy task, but will make everything that we do tomorrow that much easier, because it’s done.  “Climbing Trees” was the toughest.  Sometimes I don’t realize myself just how complicated that song can be- just because I never thought we’ve ever written any complicated songs, but there definitely are a lot of changes and dynamics to account for.

“The Sweetest Things in Life” went pretty smooth.  We have made some structural changes to some sections, but it was still a piece of cake in the end.  What was a real surprise however was “The Haunt” and how easily that one came together.  We were having some real issues trying to tighten the song- it felt repetitive and mundane at times with the same rhthyms and melodies constantly being emphasized.  But after working with Steve in preparation up to the weekend, we were able to workshop the song to the point were a lot of new changes in dynamics gave the song a whole new feel and sharpness that it didn’t have before.  The challenge once again was since this was so new for us, how were we now going to explain these changes to Stefan?  But, this fear was short-lived, as Stefan took all of two takes to nail it.

But the highlight of today was “Bonded”.  This song came alive today in the studio with tremendously successful drums, bass, guitar, vocals tracks being done.  Sitting in the control room with everybody at the end of day, sipping on a well-earned beer,  and hearing the mix of the day’s work on this song, was a moment I won’t soon forget.  With just those four basic tracks and some backing vocals, it just sounded incredible.  I just can’t wait to see what else is going to happen.

Suddenly “making it” doesn’t feel so far away anymore, when you have days like this.  For a moment, when you are sitting together listening to the music that you’ve just recorded, and it sounds wonderful to you, it’s a version of “making it” that I’ll buy.  After all, the goal is in the process- and if you do not relish the pockets of joy in that, then you’ve made nothing.

Let the Countdown Begin

Not to sound repetitive, but as you may know or not know by now, we are in the process of recording our first EP.  It will be 4 songs and serve as an appetizer for the release of our first full-length record.

You can count on some more frequent blogs from this point in, as I want to well-document the process.  Even getting to this point has been tough- and I want to attempt to remember as much of what happens as possible.

I suppose I have often put unnecessary pressure on myself when it comes to recording these songs.  There are many routes we could have gone for the recordings, but a major influencing factor for me to choose the path that we did, was the quality and sound that we would be getting, with the patht that we have chosen.  I dont want to put these songs through anymore “workshop” quality recordings.  They are ready, and we are ready to give them a “final” quality.

We are going to be going into Phase One Studios in Toronto.  I went into Phase One a few weeks ago with our producer, Steve Skratt, to check the place out, and see if it was right for what we wanted to do, and of course, see just how much a recording session would cost us.  I have to tell you- walking into the studio and seeing all of the gold and platinum records tastefully plastered all over the walls was incredible.  At first, it was definitely intimidating.  But after I got over the initial reaction, a rush like no other welled up inside me.

Phase One studios has I think 3 main studios- A, B, and C.  All of the studios have world-class acoustics and equipment…but Studio A…Studio A, Steve and many others  have told me, is the Shit.  It’s a fully loaded Cadillac.  Steve wasn’t lying.  We walk in, and the rush I get is even bigger.  The control room is Enormous with a massive mixer board like the kinds I’ve only ever seen in movies about huge bands making monster records.  And the recording room, too, is Sweeeeet.  It’s big and the acoustics are great.  There are also 3 isolation booths.  Isolation booths are much smaller rooms within the larger studio space that give you the space and environment needed to allow you to focus on just your part, while mixing what you are playing over just the way you want it.  If I’m singing, and I want to hear more bass because I feel it will help my performance, I turn up the bass track.  All that music comes in through headphones I’d be wearing, and I sing into a mic to record my vocal track.

We are working with a Engineer by the name of Michael Jack.  From what I’ve heard- Michael Jack is the Shit.  I’ve looked him up online and he has a very impressive resume having worked with some of the best and most talented artists on the planet.  On our visit, our contact mentions that just a few weeks ago, Bono was in Studio A doing some recording with Michael.  When you hear things like that, it’s pretty hard to keep from being intimidated!

Part of me is scared- but a big part me feels an excitement I’ve waited many, many years to feel.  Somehow I am not as intimidated as I definitely would have been a few years back, and that’s because I’ve lived with these songs for so long.  Both Devin and I have brought them into existence, nurtured, and given them a place in the world.  And it seems now that we have done that for as long as we can remember.  We know them inside out, almost with parental instinct.  And we have tremendous faith in them.  The point is- you put me in that studio to play on any other record, and with any other person’s songs, and the truth is that I dont belong.  I wouldnt be able to handle it or cope with the demands, and I would be far too intimidated to give good performances.  But with our songs- I know I belong.  I know that just like us, our songs have waited a long time for this.  I know they are ready.  I know I am ready.