Part Seven: turning the tables
I hope you're up for this, but here are some questions I have for you following our disc exchange.
1. What is the complete list of instruments you play, and what do you consider to be the finest recorded example of your playing for each? How long have you played each?
Pretty good: guitar, bass, piano/keyboards
Sort of good: drums
Faking it/using studio trickery: trumpet, saxophone
For lead guitar, either "Amplifier" or "Nothin'" have my best solos. I think "WFM" from old man will travel is the best currently available example of my fingerpicking style. "Boxcar" ended up having one of my favorite basslines, although for completely different reasons, I also like "My Baby's Home". I haven't recorded much with actual piano, but the first Great Uncle Helmer album, Synthesis, released on cassette in 1993, has some pretty show-offy fast stuff. I really like the organ sound and performance on "Matterhorn" because I knew I was playing out of my depth, but still faked it well enough.
"Boxcar" and "Nothin'" are probably my favorite drumming performances by me. "Milestone Motel" and "Summertime Goodbye" have the best soul-style horn chart (trumpet/sax and two saxes, respectively) and "Anything" has the best trumpet solo (recorded in very small parts and double tracked). "Julio" has the best saxophone solo (recorded about 15 times and edited together with only the best phrases used from each take).
I started on piano when I was about four years old, so that's 31 years, with lessons for about 10 of those (non-continuous). I picked up the guitar in 1988, so 19 years of that. Bass started shortly thereafter, maybe 1990.
I have played drums on and off since my first rock band, Suburban Decay (1988-1990). But I have not played drums regularly until now with Shotgun Johnson & the Mississippi Seven. I played the trumpet from fourth through eleventh grade, taking lessons the whole time, but my chops are almost completely gone. I bought a saxophone in the mid 90s and have played it only slightly less sporadically than I've played drums, and never regularly in a band.
2. Do you pick up new instruments as an ongoing exercise, or have you always played this particular orchestral cornucopia?
Basically, I just like having any necessary sounds at my command. When I wrote the song "Milestone Mo-tel" I knew I needed a soulful horn section like you would hear on an Aretha record. I did not even begin to know how, nor did I want to try, to hire a horn section, so I played it myself as best I could. I really wish I could play the violin, as I have three songs that are crying out for it. I tried to recruit someone at my last day job, but I think she mistakenly thought I was a) hitting on her and b) old. (Okay, with "b)" not that mistakenly.)
On all these instruments I feel like my skills are somewhat limited and I tend to play the same things over and over. (Both the Main Title and the Force Theme from Star Wars get plenty of action on trumpet and sax – ask my wife.) I think that's why I start new instruments.
For example, when Karl said he was interested in starting a bluegrass/old time band I knew I did not want to play guitar (G, C, D, snore) in such a thing, and I knew there was no drummer yet, so I made my joining the band somewhat dependent upon me playing drums. I'm really enjoying it and improving slowly.
I hardly ever just sit around playing or practicing at home. My relationship with musical instruments at this point is almost totally driven by my writing, recording, and playing in bands.
3. I was very impressed with the subtlety of your vocal performance on your recent live material and the preview of "Music Is My Soul." When you step up to the mic, how do you craft your performance?
Well, thanks. I think of myself as having several different voices available to me. Like the instrumental choices, it all depends on the song I'm singing. I knew "Boxcar" needed to be very quiet, low, and serious, but at the same time sound like it was right in your ear. The microphone never left my lips basically and I mixed the vocal to be right up front and center.
When Karl and I were recording "Lovely Nikita" I remember the first take of my vocal being sort of blah, almost like it was in my speaking voice. I backed off a little bit and sang it in what might be called my "sensitive guy" voice. We laughed about it, but it was right for that song.
Very rarely, I use a belting voice for rock songs. I did that a lot with Honigman, and somewhat with Shotgun Johnson, but hardly ever in the studio, both because it is more difficult to record and because I rarely write songs that call for it.
4. Who inspires you as a singer? Why?
I think the top five lead singers of all time are Paul McCartney, Axl Rose, Robert Plant, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra. They have tremendous range and seem to believe in and truly feel the things they are singing. They can all whisper or belt and be equally effective.
For backing vocals or harmony vocals, I really like the way Elton John harmonizes with himself, especially on "Grey Seal" from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I'd say my other three favorite vocal arrangers/multi-trackers are Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, and Scot Ninnemann. And of course lately I've been fascinated and entranced by your vocals, which don't really sound like any of these people, but have their own very musical, emotional, and pleasing thing going.
5. Who inspires you as a player?
I tend to like the writing aspect of things, maybe to a fault where I don't really notice or care about great playing. I think Paul McCartney is the world's greatest bassist, simply because he seems to always find a perfect place in the song, balancing melody and rhythm. Justin Bell, who I play in bars with, often impresses me with his jaw dropping lead guitar chops, makes me envious, and inspires me to at least want to practice, if not actually practice.
6. I'll invoke the spirit of Scott Farr's famous question for you: what are your go-to songs live?
All my shows these days are with Karl, so these will be GUH songs. Kansas City Nebraska is the one that we rely on most. I think Rio Grande is right up there too with (Today I Don't Mind Livin' in A) Small Town, Behind the Curtain, and California probably rounding out the top five. Although I also love "Introducing the Door" but I don't know if people listening would get that right away just because I did.
7. What's your own version of the top 5 ultimate dumb questions musicians face?
1. What kind of music do you play?
2. Can you guys play (insert egregious cover song here)?
3. Why aren't you more friendly?
4. Can I try your guitar?
5. Have you ever heard of (insert egregious musician here)? You kind of sound like (insert egregious musician here)!
Bonus: Have you ever thought about getting that song on the radio?
1. What are the top 5 things you hope new listeners "get" about your music?
I have always wanted people to feel. Whatever I was feeling when I wrote it, that's what I want them to feel when they hear my song. Beyond that, I don't know if there is anything to "get". Specific songs have little obscure meanings and sometimes quote or reference other songs. Hmm. I will try to put it into a top 5 list format:
1. I have feelings.
2. These are my feelings and thoughts.
3. You may have these same feelings or you may have different feelings.
4. Other people also have these same feelings or thoughts we are sharing now.
5. Let's all be kind and compassionate to one another, since we are all intelligent creatures with deep thoughts and feelings. You can start by buying my damn CD.
2. Have you ever had a writing slump? How did you break out of it?
Yes, definitely. I have had several. The best way to get through it for me was to write a whole lot. When the main focus of my life was writing and recording (which it was for well over a decade) I wrote a lot of crap, sometimes very deliberately, because it was all I could think of to write. I have pages and pages of long, totally uninteresting variations on "I'm depressed and have nothing to say". Very often these pages (usually written late at night) are followed immediately in the notebook by an excellent song that I'm really proud of (usually written the following day). It felt like a process of clearing out what was in the way of the actual good, interesting stuff.
3. How has fatherhood affected your writing?
Well, I don't bother to TRY to write songs anymore. If a good one occurs to me, I will work on it, but I don't write pages and pages of crap anymore just to clear my mind. I'm glad that they still occur to me, but it's not a priority. At least not a first priority. I'd put it…maybe…fifth? ninth?
Also, of course, I've written several songs about being a father. "Welcome to the Air", "Big Day Tomorrow", "Dirty, Ishy, Sharp, Wet, and Hot", and "I Came To Play" being the ones I can think of right now. Strangely enough, I wrote "The Sun Shines Out" long before I had even really thought seriously about having kids. It was a speculative parody that has become my reality.
4. You seem to have a close group of frequent collaborators. How does the songwriting process change for you when collaborating vs writing alone, and is it different with different collaborators?
I am very lucky in that I have enjoyed playing with lots of really great musicians and friends. However, the only person I've really done a substantial amount of writing with is Karl. That collaboration began pretty strictly with Karl writing words and me writing music, but as he learned to play the guitar, it became a lot more unpredictable, and sometimes even unnecessary.
For a while we did a lot of long, long improvising into a tape recorder, then sorting it out and polishing it later. I do very little of that on my own, because the process kind of requires someone throwing their ideas back at you, inspiring other ideas, etc. We haven't done that together in a while either, at least party because I don't feel any particular drive to create a whole lot of new material while so much of our old material remains unrecorded or underexposed.
Our most recent collaboration, "Stumbling Bum", was a song of Karl's that I loved from the first time I heard it. He had not finished it and did not know where to go with it, so we worked on it together and I'm very happy with the result. I hope to do the same soon with "One Good Suit Between Us", a song of his in exactly the same situation.
In listening to the albums you sent me, I was particularly impressed by how well-produced your albums are. Given that they are also self-produced, this means --mathematically-- that I am impressed by you as a producer. For the folks back home, I'll make a quick movie analogy. We all know that you're a talented actor (musician) and screenwriter (songwriter), but it turns out that you also more than hold your own as a director (producer). Consequently:
1. Are there any producers or albums that particularly inspire your own approach?
I love The Beatles later albums (Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road) and the way they sound, especially on my parents' original vinyl I listened to constantly in junior high and high school. I like The Band for having vocals very exposed up front where you hear every nuance of their very throats. At the same time, I like early R.E.M. where everything sort of forms a murky, mysterious whole. My approach is mainly determined by the song I'm recording. "Which of my favorite bands does this song sound like, if any?"
2. Let's harken back to your online essay, Ultimate Version vs. Kick Ass Performance for a moment and extend the idea. If you were producing Paul McCartney's next album, and he said, "Memphis, I'm in your hands," how would you help craft the perfect Paul McCartney album?
First I would have him play me each song he intended to put on the album. I'd want the collaboration to start with the writing. John Lennon (and Elvis Costello) wrote so successfully with him and I think he has a better result with a strong partner. Once we had the songs all set I'd tell him that every song was going to be its own unique thing. That seems to be how his best albums work. There's no single, monolithic, unifying sound on the White Album, Venus and Mars, London Town, etc. For this reason, although I know he loves playing drums, I think I would hire someone else to do it, probably Kent Mortimer. But I would definitely have McCartney play bass himself. Mostly I just wouldn't have the same instrumental or personnel line up for any two songs. It'd be like tuning in to a great radio station with actual variety where all the songs just happen to be sung by Paul McCartney.
3. Same question, Bob Dylan?
Same start, run through all the songs. If anything was incomplete I might try to have him improvise in the studio, since he's had success at that in the past. (Understatement) I'd also go with a more unified feel for the whole album, like Blood on the Tracks would have been had they not re-cut 5 of the tracks. I'd probably throw a wild card in there by asking him to play piano and sing at the same time – record everything live. Finally, I might get Paul McCartney to play bass if he were still speaking to me.
4. What is your approach to your current project, Music Is My Soul? Have you codified this in any way for yourself?
At first, it was determined by the failure of my computer. I was back at the analog cassette four track, which is a totally different feel from digital multi-tracking. Now that my computer is working again in fits and starts after some help from my good friend Chazz Vader, I have to decide whether the approach has changed or not. The project is somewhat in limbo as we've added to our family and I've been using my dimished free time to work on a disco version of "Introducing the Door" which has been obsessing me.
With every album I've been involved with I've hoped to arrive at (codify?) THE way of making an album. But there isn't one, obviously. So I just keep struggling with whatever faces me at the given moment in my life, which is the perfect lead in to the next question.
5. What was your role in producing some of the other bands you've been involved with?
My role has been highly variable from album to album. With old man will travel (lyrics) Karl and I totally collaborated and we were always both at the studio, which was on an ostrich farm a few miles out of town. With Generic Mayhem, I did a lot of it myself without Karl around, since we recorded it at my apartment and it has a lot more (too many?) overdubs. Lately we have been recording at his place with him handling a lot of producer type chores.
Jubilant Dogs only wanted to record five songs, so to start with I had to push for us to record a full album, which became Abby. I did a lot of that by myself as well, playing guitars, keyboards, and percussion at my apartment. I just really, really believed in those songs and wanted them to be great.
If I remember right Andy came by twice, doing five bass lines each visit, and Sally and Sharon visited a few times to add their vocals. Sally got rough mixes and had some input on mixing but left most producing choices up to me. For our second album, The Game Is Up, it was completely different. I just showed up and played guitar while Sally recorded it on her husband's mini-disc, although for technical reasons I ended up mastering the album at my place. I even sneaked on a few subtle percussion overdubs (shhh!).
In Urban Rust I was the bassist and, during recording, the vocal coach. I helped everyone find and stay on their pitches. Apparently this became somewhat obnoxious because after the first take of MY first vocal, the other three band members ran into the vocal room and basically attacked me with loud, fake advice. It was a good tension busting moment and we all cracked up.
I also mixed and mastered that album with some input from the other three. I don't know that I did a particularly great job, as I had never really mixed such a straight rock album, nor have I since. I know there are things about it I would change if we were ever going to do another printing. (Unlikely, as hundreds of them remain in our basements.)
6. What question should I have asked you?
Why did/do you not work harder to promote your music?
That's a question I have asked myself a lot. I think laziness, shyness, and apathy are involved. Also my efforts, when I have made them, have been largely unsuccessful and it is hard to continue to make the effort when there are no guarantees of any sort of success. Not to end the interview on a down note or anything. Geez.
Thanks for the attention.
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