In the summer of 1995 Karl and I decided we had to make a CD at a studio. We had been making recordings at home, but they didn't sound as good as we thought we sounded live. With my four track machine, we basically had to record one part at a time and mix them together. We wanted to record performances with my guitar, his harmonica, and our voices, all going together. And we wanted somebody else to be in charge of the recording so we could just be the performers.
Karl and I were playing occasional shows during this time, at Hogan Brothers', the Rueb, and the acoustic cafes in Menomenie, Eau Claire, and Winona. We weren't making any profit doing that.
After a frustrating period trying to get a good, loud,clean, professional, listenable acoustic guitar sound on tape, we decided to go to a studio and make a CD. That was the spring of 1995. We wanted to be able to capture our live sound and neither of us wanted to be the engineer. Plus, we wanted to start making some money at our shows.
One day I was down at Karl's, saying I had to find a job in addition to the guitar lessons I had been doing since the summer of 1994. He said, "well, they're hiring at the Northfield News." So I started a $5.50/hour job delivering bundles of papers to vending machines, post offices, and advertisers. Karl was still working at Greengrow Nurseries, where I had worked briefly.
That summer, we kept saying, "Yeah, we should get started on that CD." Finally in August, we called around a little bit, and decided Craig Wasner was our best bet. He had a good studio and was the least expensive, at 20 dollars an hour. Plus, the studio was on an ostrich farm.
First we had to choose the songs. At that time, Karl and I had written about 60 songs together and alone. We sat at my kitchen table and graded each song A through E. The songs that were A were good songs we had been performing a long time and were comfortable with. They would definitely be on the CD.
One of the songs, "I'm Dead," is a good song, but we decided it would be best left for me to record alone at some future date. We had this list for a while before we did anything about it. During a show at the acoustic cafe in Winona, Minnesota we played "I'm Dead" and a guy really liked it and asked us if we had a CD out. So then we decided to put it on, with Karl singing a harmony part. After some further back and forth, we had a list of 21 songs we wanted to record. Eighteen of our own and three by our heroes They Might Be Giants.
The plan was to call around to the multiple recording studios in Northfield and go meet with the owners and producers at the studios. First we met with Craig Wasner out at his studio on an ostrich farm north of town. He had the equipment, and he said he could do it. We were impressed with his friendly, laid back personality and his obvious understanding of the process so we decided that we'd just go there for it. Like a lot of people, he even remembered which one of us was Karl and which one of us was Dave after a few meetings. Finding the studio may have been the only part of the process that was actually shorter and easier than we expected.
We scheduled the first recording sessions for early September, figuring on a Christmas 1995 release. I have to laugh when I say that. We had no pictures for the covers and nothing done but choosing a studio. And we thought we'd be finished in two or three months.
On our first recording date, Craig set up the microphones and did a few recording tests.
After planning exactly the 17 songs we wanted to put on the album, we started recording in the first weekend of September, 1995. We figured we'd have the album by Christmas. Craig told us repeatedly that once we'd gotten into the process, we'd want to redo things, and we'd get more and more picky. Indeed we did.
In addition to the originals we wanted on the album, we had the idea to record three songs off of the They Might Be Giants album Flood with every album we made. We had learned Letterbox, Road Movie to Berlin, and Women and Men when we started this, our first album.
We decided to record the primary guitar, vocals, and harmonica live then have separate sessions later for overdubbing of bass, other vocals, electric guitar, and percussion, and that's what we did.
It was a great place to record. We could go out and play with the ostriches on breaks from recording. I made up a little game consisting of me offering them my bare elbow and them biting it and getting mud on it. I really liked that game until I saw them eating their own poop.
Hold Me Only in the Dark was really hard to get in tune. We hadn't been paying much attention to that kind of thing, because we had always seemed to sing in tune before. It was really hard to get the vocals good on that one. I think being in a professional studio for the first time contributed to the problem.
Once when we were listening to a playback of Hold Me, Karl was moving the headphones on and off his ears, giving a tremolo effect to the song. I tried it and liked it too, so we added tremolo guitar to it. We ended up having to record a backing track of acoustic and electric guitar and electric bass, then trying the vocals over and over to get them together and in tune.
We had the same problem with Lovely Nikita, The Road Goes Ever On, and Inkwell. With the first two, we put down backing tracks and then did the vocals over and over until we were satisfied. But with Inkwell we really wanted a live recording. That's my favorite song of ours, and a big part of the reason I wanted to make a CD with Karl was to get a good performance of that song down. Finally, after several tries, at about midnight on a Friday night when I had gotten up at 3 am to deliver the stupid paper, we got it. When I was sure it was over and we both felt good about it, I yelled with happiness. That was the last track we recorded.
For California, we wanted a funky bass part. I like making up melodic bass parts like my ultimate bass hero, Paul McCartney, but I'm not much good for playing funky yet. We contacted our old friend Scot Ninnemann out in California, where he was at Stanford, I think. He is a terrific musician and I had played in a group called the Beatless with him in college. He was visiting Northfield, so we scheduled some sessions for when he was going to be around. It was cool to see him again, despite all the unspoken acrimony that had accumulated in my relationship with him. He also plays good bass, as we had found out at a very spontaneous gig the three of us played together at the now defunct Riverside restaurant.
I think it was in October that he came and hung out while we recorded the live guitar, harmonica, and vocals for Crayon Pictures and California. We would have recorded the bass for California live, too, but with the mixing board the way it was, we could only record four things at a time, and we had stereo mikes on the guitar, and one each in me and Karl's faces for vocals and harmonica. Scot got the bass part as an overdub in a few tries.
We also recorded backup vocals for Travellin' Around. Scot and Karl sang the parts Scot and I had sung on the original Beatless recording of that song from Fall 1992. I sang a new lower part on a separate mike. We got it after a few tries. Scot's a great musician. Then we went for pizza with Mariya and talked about what was going on in our lives. Considering the tension I was feeling, it was a pretty cool day.
The most difficult song to record was Xanadu. We recorded the backing track pretty easily, but then we just kept thinking of more vocals to put on. We would think of something, try to record it, and forget it. We took a whole lot of studio time writing parts, and I didn't want to spend the money to do that. We were both tense and having trouble singing in tune. Then the electric guitar part, which I was really proud of, came under attack from Karl and Craig for being out of tune. After a lot of tuning and passing the guitar around, I noticed Craig had a chorus pedal there, so I just stomped on that for the section that was out of tune. All this tension and annoyance added up to make a track that came out as one of my favorites. The chorus pedal and the added vocals sound good to me now. And for as long as it took, it's the second shortest song on the disc.
The shortest is the instrumental W.F.M. I wrote that in the Spring of 1994 while Karl and I were up in the Old Music Building about to begin work on Hold Me Only in the Dark. Recording it was pretty easy. I was very surprised by that, as I thought it would take me several tries to get it right. My fingerpicking is pretty good sometimes, but not real consistent. But I got the basic guitar part done in exactly one take. I overdubbed a second almost identical guitar part right away.
The eventual overdub of the harmonics for W.F.M. from my classical guitar is a fond memory. Our friends Stu Edeal, Bill Turner, Krista Weigers, and Mariya all were in the studio hanging out with us and I just went in, tuned to the recording and did it. It was very relaxed.
Another fond memory from recording is Craig Wasner's brief vocal on Travellin' Around. On the word "hearts" Karl and Scot had gone out of tune with their backup vocal. Karl and I decided we wanted Craig to do a punch in on that word, singing Scot's part while Karl sang his own part. We had really come to respect and like Craig, and wanted to have him on the album.
He agreed to do it, so he showed me how to do the punch in, a technique that allows us to record him and Karl singing that one word without recording over anything else. Craig and I rehearsed our reversed roles a few times and kidded each other about how our respective jobs weren't as easy as they looked. We were laughing a lot, and it dissipated some of the tension that had come up from the three of us working in the little room over the months. Craig had done a great job by us, and become a good friend, too. We got the punch in a few takes, and it's in tune now.
He told us when he first started the sessions that he thought our songs were a little weird, but they had grown on him. He especially liked Pelican Man and Inkwell. He came to one of our shows at Hogan Brothers and requested Zo Bid and I'm Dead. It was great for us to have the respect of an older musician we both admired.
We had written Zo Bid in Winona just before going onstage at the acoustic cafe. I keep typing cage by accident. What does that mean? Anyway, Mariya, Karl, and I were eating our free one-third of a sub, soda, and soup. Karl was writing something on the back of the entertainment schedule for the month. He showed it to us and then we worked out the chords in a cement hallway in the back of the place. I was thinking about how all the songs we'd been writing at that time were anything but I-IV-V and so I thought about using exactly that cliched chord progression on these weird, weird lyrics Karl had just written. On the verses, I tried to do the opposite, write chords that just barely went together at all. We performed it twice that night and almost couldn't get through it because we were laughing too hard.
The recording of Zo Bid was one on which we weren't initially satisfied. We did the live recording, and there was some bleed of Karl's vocal onto my guitar track, and Karl wasn't satisfied with his vocal. I didn't want to do it again, and I didn't want to record the guitar and vocal separately, since they are so intertwined. I suggested just recording another vocal and playing them at the same time. I've done that many times on my four track when I'm recording with myself. So Karl took another shot at the vocal. It wasn't like the first one, he said, and if I remember right, I think he wanted to erase it and start again.
I really didn't want to and so we listened to the way they sounded together. It was hilarious. We listened to the part when the voices are saying yeah back and forth over a few times and laughed and laughed. It was a great moment listening to it over and over, cracking ourselves up, and we decided to keep it. Later we added banjo and electric bass and it's one of my favorite tracks on the album. I think it has some of the unrehearsed spontaneity of our live shows. Ironically, in our live shows since then, we try to capture the sound of the studio version and generally don't.
I'm Dead was like W.F.M. in that I was worried I wouldn't be able to do it well, but I think I got it on the first take. Karl wasn't satisfied with his vocal, but I was so happy about my vocal and the guitar part that he agreed to live with it. Listening to it now, both of our vocals are a little out of tune, but I think the feeling is there. I especially like the moment where I almost choke on spit. And I like the third vocal Karl overdubbed and the bass part.
The ones Mariya sings on couldn't be done totally live without eliminating one of the guitar mikes, so I recorded Pelican Man and Winter Ghost's acoustic guitar parts, then the three of us went in and did the Winter Ghost vocals. Mariya and I held hands, like we had (but not with each other) during St. Olaf Choir concerts. Then Mariya and I recorded our vocals for Pelican Man. Karl went in and recorded his harmonica and vocal later.
Oh, No! was surprising because we got it almost right away during one of our first sessions. That's my favorite song we've written since finishing college. Karl had a few different songs he was working on, not very satisfied with anything. He was starting to learn guitar and writing by himself. I suggested he throw them together into one big song, so he did that. Then we worked out harmonies, a slightly different guitar part, and a bass part. I'm pretty happy with the way that one turned out, but we need to remix it to pump up the bass. Matt Zimmerman, our mastering guy, had to turn down the bass frequencies because it was too boomy, and so a lot of the bass was lost. We're going to remix some things with higher frequencies emphasized on the bass track.
I love the way Behind the Curtain came out on our CD. Karl's banjo part compliments the weirdness of the lyrics. I wish the bass were louder. We may yet remix it. At the end of the song, we have the original live vocal on there, and we added another couple vocals singing the title line over and over. I was hoping for the effect of old soul songs where the backup singers say the title of the song over and over and the main singer is up front taking off, singing variations on the line. This works well on Dylan Hicks' "I Enjoy a Good Buddy Movie." We did the same thing on The Road Goes Ever On, but decided to double our mostly improvised parts exactly instead.
The minute song that comes on after the album is over came from Craig's remark that we only had about a minute of tape left. We started singing it, and worked it out in a few minutes right there in the recording room. It took us a few tries to record it well, but I really like the way it came out. We're going to put exactly the same amount of space between the last song and that as the Beatles have between The End and Her Majesty on Abbey Road. They have sixteen songs and a bonus track on that album, and so will we on this one as a tribute to one of my favorite albums.
I forget exactly how there came to be two lead guitars on the minute song at the beginning like that. I think it was when I recorded the third vocal part for the very last line. I played an off mike solo as I was waiting to sing the part. You can just barely hear the solo. I love that I'm a guitar teacher and there's just one little dinky solo on my big CD. I hope it sets an example for my students to serve the song instead of taking a bunch of flatulent solos like Blues Traveler or bands like that. I tried to make it sound like Jerry Garcia, who died a month before we started recording.
When we finished the recording of basic tracks, we took a break for a few weeks and started mixing the first weekend of December. This was really tiring, but it was nice not to have to perform. We knew we had the performances down. We didn't have too many arguments about mixing one thing higher than another. Generally, I wanted the vocals a little lower and more mysterious, like R.E.M., and Karl wanted them out front so people could understand them clearly. I think the compromise evident on the disc is good.
We listened to our mixes for a few weeks before deciding we wanted to remix California and Winter Ghost. California just kind of sounded like crap and Winter Ghost didn't have enough emphasis on Karl and Mariya's harmony vocals. I gave copies of the album with 18 songs to my family, and their favorite was I'm Dead. They were singing it sometimes during my vacation with them at Christmas. They liked the album a lot. Karl's friend Cheston from the a capella group Tonic Sol Fa said he liked the guitar playing, especially on Zo Bid. It was good to get a little feedback on it.
After we finished recording, Inkwell being the last thing, I went home for Christmas and New Years. When I got back to Minnesota in January, we decided to remix Winter Ghost for higher harmony vocals and California for better sound on everything. We did that at the Ostrich Farm.
The next step was mastering. We called a guy Craig recommended named Matt Zimmerman. We set up an appointment and Karl drove us up to the cities on a snowy day. We both feel out of place in the city, and we got somewhat lost looking for parking. We got there 15 minutes late, but Matt was very understanding and dismissed it quickly.
We went into his studio and Karl and I were both impressed. I hadn't ever seen so much equipment. We told him the order of the songs on the album. We had decided to drop "Katherine's Wasteland." We loaded the songs onto his computer from the 2 DATs. That took as long as it takes to listen to all the songs. His speakers were made to be tremendously accurate and to reveal flaws. There was a lot of hiss on some of the tracks. Matt said he could take that out.
Matt had a lot of energy. He seemed really happy with the project. He talked about how he doesn't do much mastering anymore if he hasn't done the recording, but since he knew Craig he knew it would be good.
As he was looking at his computer, Karl and I were sitting behind him and we looked at each other and smiled and almost laughed. It was like we were big rock stars to have this professional mastering guy with his big impressive studio messing with our little songs on his computer! It was exciting.
Matt went to Carleton so he knew Northfield a little bit, and we chatted about the music and college scenes there. He showed us the other rooms of his studio. He had a drum kit and two other isolation rooms, one with a grand piano.
He had to do some computer things, and so we went into his recreation room, which has a pool table. It was so cool. We were hangin' out, getting our album mastered, shooting pool with big bay windows looking out over the sunny, snowy city of Minneapolis. A fun day.
We have been talking about names for the disc. Originally we were going to call it Walking Fish, after our logo. Then we were going to call it Not A Cartoon because we wanted people to take us more seriously. Then we decided on Weird Bang. We stayed with that for a long time. Then Karl decided he didn't like that. I have wanted all along to call it Adventure Cats. But Karl doesn't like that. He suggested Old Man, which I liked a lot right away. Then when I thought about it, I still liked it, but it doesn't have much to do with the album's theme of travelling. That theme just emerged, it wasn't intentional, but it's definitely there with Lovely Nikita, California, Travellin' Around, The Road, etc. So I was talking to Mariya and told her about it.
"How about Old Man Will Travel?" she said. I think she was joking around, but I like it a lot. I suggested it to Karl, and he said it was fine. So now that is the title.
In January, we got two copies of our CD. It's green and gold without any artwork. We listened to it and we have to remix some songs to get a better bass sound and Crayon Pictures to bring out the classical guitar part during the verses. There are also some pops and bangs we don't want.
We looked for a graphic artist who could take the pictures we took of Hanno Klassen out at a ruined schoolhouse and make them ready for printing. We got an estimate from a guy in Farmington. He warned us his prices might seem a little steep, but when we got his estimate, it was $2000. Blue Man Jive got theirs done for $200, although I was looking at theirs and you can see little lines where the scanner went over the pictures. Maybe you just get what you pay for. We spent enough money on the music that I wanted the album to look damn good.
I panicked a little when before our CD release party, the CDs had not yet arrived from Oasis Duplication of Silver Spring, Maryland. This essay (originally written January 1997) originally ended with a stinging indictment of that company. However, they had shipped them and they had been received by my landlord downstairs on the main floor. He had not decided how best to handle the delivery apparently, as neither Karl (who lived in the basement while I lived in the attic) nor I had been informed of their arrival. As I called Oasis, somewhat upset, Karl went down to check with our landlord, who gave us the boxes of discs and tapes. I apologized to Oasis and explained the situation and we went off to our CD release party, which was very enjoyable.
So, I don't know how I stumbled across your reference to Blue Man Jive (way at the end of http://www.memphisevans.com/Prose/storyofomwt.html) but I wanted to let you know that we paid WAY less than $200 for that crappy scan job of a bunch of spirographs - I did it for free! That's what you get when you try to do things for free :) Anyway, it made me laugh to read a reference to BMJ, especially my bad graphic design work - I tried to go in to that field when I got out of school - luckily I got in to something I'm better at!
Hope you're doing well,
Hey that's funny! Good to hear from you. Am I right in remembering that you were in the play Woyzeck? I still have the short songs I wrote for that on a reel to reel tape from the theater studio. Anyway, I've always really liked that Blue Man Jive album and thought the artwork was really perfect for it. It was our inspiration to get a CD done and our goal to have something that cool.
Memphis Evans has made five albums with various bands since old man will travel, all of which were easier, cheaper, arguably better, and more profitable, depending somewhat on your accounting practices. However, old man will travel lives in a very fond spot in his heart for its naive, hopeful, now-we-will-conquer-the-world-with-intelligent-music quality. It was a pure process and a heartfelt product of a hopeful, visionary duo.
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