Back in 2003 when I lived in the Bay Area, I met Rico Marcelli at the Red Devil Lounge. I was there to ask for an opening slot, Rico was hoping to display some of his art but also had a music demo with him. He was looking for a vocalist/lyricist. I thought his music was so beautiful, and dark, and weird, and moody. I loved it. I was interested in the idea of writing songs over someone else's music, it seemed like an interesting challenge...
One of the first things we worked on was Shifting Circuits. We also worked on a song called Desert that I wrote about a dream I had of surviving a nuclear bomb, which was probably some bubbling up of memories from reading the book Black Rain years ago. Here's an early demo from sessions with Rico. Here's the version I was working on at Slaughterhouse with real drums played by Sturgis. But as I was finishing the record, these songs didn't resonate with me as much as they had back then when all I could think about was the rush to war and George Bush being awful and terrorists being scary. (I think Radiohead's album Hail to the Thief summed up that state of mind much better than I ever could.) Desert just seemed too melo-dramatic and too much like I was imitating Bjork and I started to hate it. I still thought it had really cool music and I was bummed I wasn't able to find a new lyrical angle, a total rewrite, that equaled it. I asked Joe Sibol if he could get me going in a new direction and he laid down a little off-the-cuff improv called Little Blue Bird.Totally different song! I tried to riff off of his ideas and write a completely different song too, but couldn't unremember what I'd already done. The window had past. Dead end. I had to abandon it.
Rico lived in this weird place that was like an airplane hangar next to the railroad tracks in Oakland. It had a huge curved roof made of metal and was about three stories high. His roommate was a musician with a pit bull and a collection of unopened star trek action figures that completely covered all the walls of his room like the Steve Carell character in 40 Year Old Virgin. Every twenty minutes or so trains would thunder by, ten feet from the wall of the warehouse, and everything would shake. We had to time our recording around the rumble of the trains. Rico later started just recording the trains and making music out of that.
Bill Crabtree, an audio engineer and friend of Rico's, came to visit one weekend. Rico and I were thrilled to be hanging out with a pro audio engineer, and we were trying to get him to make a recording with us, but he was a little ambivalent because that was his day job, and he just wanted to relax. Rico was waxing rhapsodic about building an artist collective and Rico and I got off on some conversational tangent and Bill went off and just started making a beat on Reason using a tabla sample. He and Rico laid it over another beat that didn't quite have the same feel and suddenly there was this really dense clumsy sounding beat that was really cool. I recorded some bass parts and then I didn't see Rico again for a while.
California. 2004. My apartment. Lights off, eyes closed, in my underwear, singing into a microphone with headphones on, and suddenly I feel a chill down my spine, like someone is watching me. I open my eyes and there's someone standing in my room, staring at me from the darkness.
It was the manager of the whole complex, who was also my neighbor. She told me she'd been calling my phone and banging on the door repeatedly but I hadn't heard a thing. It was three in the morning.
I was so freaked out that someone else had keys to my apartment and could violate my privacy like that. I never felt comfortable or creative in that apartment again. True, it must have been an awful sounding wailing coming from my room at three in the morning. But I started to feel like someone could enter my room at any time.
Shortly after that, my girlfriend got a job in New York City working for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and asked me if I wanted to move to New York. I had just met John Vanderslice, who was looking for a bass player for his next tour, and I was going to audition for him in a few days. I'd been practicing a lot to memorize his material, but I decided to move to New York and follow her. We broke up a year later and I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in San Francisco and started touring with John.
Before I moved, I called up Rico and told him it was now or never to finish up some of our collaborations. I got him to schedule me in to his life for a few days, and it turned into a week. I pretty much just came over and wouldn't leave. I think he was starting to get a little sick of me, but I knew it was our only chance to complete those tracks.
Rico no longer lived at the airplane hangar by the railroad tracks. Now he lived in the basement of this house amidst piles and piles of other people's storage, the kind one usually finds in basements. I brought him my lyrical ideas and we started making mixes, interspersed with watching the World Series and playing chess under the influence. The World Series coverage was by FOX, and the baseball games had these military displays during the seventh inning stretch that really depressed me, with soldiers saluting to God Bless America instead of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
Eventually Rico and I got a mix finished of Caught Off Guard and I loved how brooding and dark the sounds were, but I felt that the groove had an undesirable push and pull to it, because the samples didn't quite lock, and I wished there were real drums.
Fast forward several years to Slaughterhouse Studio in Massachusetts. I call Rico to import the sound files and only some are still available after some kind of computer disaster and a new living situation that necessitated packing away most of his gear. Sturgis added drums over the tracks we could salvage. Then I started trying to record all the metallic sounds from the first mix using real metallic implements which was more difficult than I anticipated (like pretty much every idea I had on this record.) There's a farm near Slaughterhouse and I stopped one day while driving by it and asked if I could borrow some metal things. The farmer eyed me suspiciously at first, but then seemed to just decide "what the hell!" and gave me a bunch of iron rebar, an anvil, a sledgehammer, and this small plow, which was damn heavy. I also found some metal bars lying in someone's yard with a for sale sign, knocked on the door of their porch but no one was home, and just stole them and returned them a few days later (that must've confused them.)
In the studio I started whacking all these metal things and Mark said it was probably the loudest thing he had ever recorded, and that's saying a lot. It wasn't a sustained loud, but an incredible sharp and sudden peak. We had to turn the gain pretty much off and it was still clipping on the board, it was crazy. I wore protective headphones and just whacked away at the anvil with the sledgehammer. The plow made these really cool sort of doppler effect sounds if I swung it past the mic right after I struck it. I almost hit a fairly expensive mic a few times.
Then I drove to Middletown, CT and visited Scott Kessel, the drummer in Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem.
I first met Scott in college. He was my assistant soccer coach, he sat in with the West African drummers, and he played drumset with a funk band that kicked so much ass it inspired me to put together a dance band in college to try and liven up the party scene a little. Anand Nayak (who played on Underhill Downs) was the guitar player of our little party band, and Nate Van Til was on drums (he has helped mix most of my records). That was the first time the three of us made music together, the beginning of a nice triumvirate that came together and continues to last. Thanks for the inspiration, Scott! I entered that little party band into our school's battle of the bands my senior year, I figured winning it would be a nice way to go out. We were one of three bands in contention. A hiphop band called Prophets of Soul came on and just started chanting "sex sex sex sex sex sex sex" and the crowd went wild. It was a judged event, and my good friend Damian (aka MC Frontalot) was one of the three judges, so I figured I had a good, corrupt, inside angle. But he voted against me, something I still razz him about to this day. He voted for the hiphop group. Actually, he claims that he caved to peer pressure because he was insecure. Whatever. The hiphop band was way cooler than us anyway.
The reason I bring up college is because in college I was obsessed with percussion and world music, I was considering becoming an ethnomusicologist I loved it so much, and Caught Off Guard is the only song that really reveals that love of mine. Scott's talent for world percussion was deeper than mine and I looked up to him. So instead of playing the parts myself, I visited him in Connecticut to replace the computer programmed percussion with the real thing. We recorded about 20 different drums, one take for each drum. He had one drum with a string over the membrane that had this wicked buzz which you can hear real clearly at the beginning. When Jeff Lipton mastered the album, that buzzing sound caused him to briefly panic that his speaker was broken.
In the fall of 2006 I was back in California doing Jukebox Stories at the Impact Theater. I didn't want to totally lose momentum on my album so I scheduled some studio time at Tiny Telephone, John Vanderslice's studio. The only date he could give me was on Thanksgiving Day, so that's how I spent Thanksgiving morning, recording the piano part to Caught Off Guard on his beautiful grand piano. Then I spent Thanksgiving evening eating turkey with the friends of a girl I was attracted to, getting cockblocked, wandering off, defeated, and then making out with a total stranger outside of a bar and sleeping on some other stranger's floor. That's how I salute the Pilgrims.
Joe Bennett recorded the strings in his little apartment in Crown Heights. Joe is an incredible guy, an amazing musician and just a pleasure to be around. He and his brother had a band called Goldrush in England that is one of my favorites. And they run the Truck Music Festival, a truly independent music fest done the right way, without heavy sponsorship and advertising, just stages and fences and a farm and a sense of community and social consciousness and devotion to art. If you love music I highly recommend coming to the Truck America festival at the end of April in the Catskills.
I first met Joe in the bar next to Underhill Downs (my apartment and studio) in 2006. It was the World Cup, the best sporting event the world has to offer. Like the U.S. could give a damn. I couldn't find a good place to watch it. Bar Sepia, next door to Underhill Downs, rose to the occasion and installed a little TV up in the corner, small enough that the place wouldn't seem like a sports bar, but just enough to provide me with my fix. The ideal world cup watching environment is a pub or a men's club or game room - one without air conditioning - that serves drinks and doesn't have that many people in attendance, fewer than fifteen. But everyone there is rapt with attention for the game, and has their own little analysis and play by play to add. That summer, thanks to the owner's Swiss husband, we turned that place into the ideal environment, and it was amazing - once the environment was created, the exact right people began to show up. I must have watched six or seven games with Joe Bennett and his wife Claire beside me before I started to realize that we were on the same wavelength. We drank Belgian beer and commented on the different styles of play and our favorite players. Joe mentioned that he was in a band at some point, oh yeah, me too. Didn't seem that relevant. What mattered was the soccer. We started joining pickup games in Prospect Park. There was this particular epic game where somehow all the Latin players were on one team and our team was mostly Caucasian. It may have been the influence of the World Cup, because that wasn't normal. And there were these old dudes in jeans with big pot bellies who had amazing ball skills. They could barely run but we just couldn't take the ball away from them.
After this initial period of male bonding Joe and I became friends and started sharing our music with each other and it seemed like an amazing coincidence that someone with such compatible tastes would have crossed my path in such a non-musical context.
I ended up designing a massive game for Joe and Claire's wedding which I consider one of my crowning achievements. And later, I came to England to visit but at a music festival in Glouchestershire things went horribly wrong. I lost track of Joe and wandered around drinking a bag of wine that I had smuggled in. I don't remember what happened, but apparently I got drunk and tried to bite someone. It was my luck that Joe wandered by right as some guys were preparing to kick my ass and an altercation started which seemed possibly life threatening. I later ended up falling asleep in some stranger's tent and puking a lot. Joe apologized to his friends, "he's normally quite philosophical, I've never seen him like this."
The skies opened up and flooded out the Truck Music Festival the following weekend, forcing a cancellation and ruining the Bennett's house and many of their possessions. I got to perform at a hastily organized indoor concert but I could hardly concentrate there was so much crisis going on. The backstage became a drunken carnival as all the band members released all this pent up emotion and I ended up getting carried off to Mark Gardener's flat and trying to party with Anton from Brian Jonestown Massacre, who made me extremely uncomfortable. At one point me and my new friends got bored and got naked and all sat sideways in this huge bathtub and serenaded people while they peed. Then I grew tired and tried to go to sleep at a friend's house while my two friends who were on ecstasy kept trying to molest me.
The song turned out great. Dan Cantor at Notable did an incredible job with the mix, keeping a great balance between oomph in the low end and the snaps and buzzes of the percussion, and everything else directing your ear from moment to moment. He's a pretty fascinating guy too, but I'm saving his story for a later entry. The point of all these stories is that this album, the making of which spanned half a decade, would not have been possible without all these crazy, brilliant friends I've made. And as I think about how this album is a document of love lost, of past states of mind, of unhappy surprises and disappointments, there's this countervailing story about the friends you make along the way, who help you in your quixotic goals, and encourage you to seek successes that have no monetary measurability. An album is a document of that, too.
-Dec. 2, 2009