Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Song of the Week: "Turn South"

Here's the next song of the week from Cheap Seats--track #4, "Turn South."

I can tell you what you’re doing is predictably sad
And point out all the wasted potential you’ve had
Believe me, I won’t point the finger any which way but out
I may as well go ahead and turn South

I’ll go on about the secrets that you’d better learn quick
And I’ll scoff if you suggest a method other than logic
Nobody’s impressed with what I’m talking about
I oughta go ahead and turn South

I’ll swear there’s something good in the alternative
I’ll bluff so hard I’ll claim that I don’t mind if I live
I don’t believe in all the shit that’s coming out of my mouth
I’d better go ahead and face South

In terms of the album's concept, "Turn South" represents an early peak in conflict--it's about overconfidence and ego.  By the time we've reached adulthood, it seems we are secure enough in the way our minds behave (and in the relationship between our minds and our brains) that it becomes just "the way things are" and there's no need to question that there may be other things going on behind the scenes that the conscious mind is unaware of.  In this state, our elective preferences and opinions dominate to the point that ego becomes a caricature.  Of course, this is a personal song with some scathing self-assessment.  The phrase "turn South" relates to my much-explored interest in Daoist writings and classical Chinese religion--it's said that when the emperor achieves order in his kingdom and harmonizes the way of the human world with the way of nature and heaven, as a natural next step, he'll "face South"--as in, "attain perfection."  Naturally, here it's used sarcastically (time to add the ever-popular self-loathing tag!).  Along with "The Knack" and "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)," this makes up the hubristic peak from which a fall is inevitable.

Musically, this is another example of what I'm short-handing "ITC (intuitive through-composition)," where one part is through-composed and the others are subsequently composed by ear to fit together as a sort of sloppy puzzle.  Differently from other songs, though, this one doesn't really have a "lead" guitar part--there's the acoustic (trivia: the very first part I tracked over a year about an ego-destroying experience), then the Telecaster (which plays a rhythm part in low-register octaves that somewhat overlap the acoustic) and finally the ES-335 (the last guitar part composed, which plays smaller intervals of thirds and fourths in the upper register).  You'd better believe that things get contrapuntal

This being one of the first songs I started working on, it's interesting to revisit because I had so many hypothetical goals and ideas about how the project would play out--for instance, I was hoping to avoid bass guitar entirely for the album, replacing it with bass clarinet and synthesizer where appropriate.  Obviously that didn't work out, but this one has low register Moog and no bass guitar, which contributes to a sort of (attempted) "warped indie rock" feel.  Also contributing to the "indie rock" feel is the eighth-note focus (so many staccato eighth-notes in indie many) and the absence of lead guitar.  The verses modulate chromatically, which was easy to write on paper but you can bet was a bitch to record vocals for.  The horn arrangement is another interesting thing to look back at--though it changes harmonically, the placement of the parts doesn't change, and I think it's one of the arrangements that fits best and most audibly in the overall mix...guess I got lucky early on, since not all of the parts work out as successfully.  In the studio, this was the second song Drew recorded drums for, and the first really weird one.  At first I was directing him to go "dancy," which turned out to be obviously not what I was hearing in my head.  After a few false starts and a quickly-internalized lesson in communication, we settled on "jazzy" and Drew basically figured out that he could do whatever he wanted, blasting out some ridiculous fills in the song's ending (a show for which I was privileged enough to have front row seats).  And so proceeded the rest of the drum tracking...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Song of the Week: "An Unsettling Preposition"

As promised, here I am introducing some material from Cheap Seats--it's my plan to talk about one song per week.  This is indeed a concept album about the human mind, and though there isn't a specific "story," there is something of a narrative progression to the track listing.  "An Unsettling Preposition" opens the album, and while I won't be proceeding chronologically with these weekly updates, this song is the perfect place to start.  Lyrics are listed below, followed by some thoughts about the song's place in the concept as well as some info about the words and music.  Please take my introspection with a grain of salt; it's there for anybody who wants explanation or is interested enough to learn more about the details imbued in this work, but also as a tool for myself in moving forward artistically for my next projects.

You’ve been on the understanding where the way is by the will
You say you use the fundamental features, not the flashy frills
It’s within reason’s pungent sound you sail without a doubt
Though you were once upon a time so short these tools you were without

But I recall

I’ve been in and out of context enough to lose the feeling
I by no means know the meaning of a life without this ceiling

It’s been a while!
But I recall

We’ve been under these assumptions since I thought they’d keep us dry
You say we both agree that I am you and we are I

You’re so sure!
But I recall

"An Unsettling Preposition" effectively sets the scene--amongst a lot of lyrics and poems that deal with duality, an anxious sense of questioning and explorations-posed-as-dialogues, this song opens the proceedings with a one-sided conversation directed at the complacent, passive, comfortable (perhaps willfully ignorant) self of routine--the "me" that most of us experience, most of the time.  The speaking voice comes from a corner of the mind with a nagging sense that certain day-to-day assumptions ("In conjunction with my brain, 'I' consciously choose to act, then my physical body acts;" "Logic is a clear map I use to determine and decide the course of my actions;" "My reasoning mind and my physical brain are one and the same, always acting in accord with my conscious free will;" and finally, "It's always been this way") are perhaps not quite representative of the entire picture.  I think we forget that there was a time (childhood) when our brains were soaking up sensory input like sponges--before we really had any congealed sense of selfhood or the ego to behave with confidence about it.  Once this system is firmly in place and running like a well-oiled machine fueled by memories of cause and effect, life is an easy enough plate to keep spinning--but have you ever wondered about how much sensory input (present and past) your brain is ignoring because it doesn't fit into the framework whereby you've been routinely living your life for the past decades?  The lyric also posits that the "me" that sits comfortably in routine and the "me" who questions and balks at such an anemic mind-life just might not be co-existing quite as peacefully as the automatic mind would prefer.

Lyrically, I had a lot of fun with this one as a sort of word game--the verses are built from prepositional figures of speech treated as if the locations in question were actually physical.  There's further punning happening with some homophones and imagery tied to the fact that I was looking out across the water from the Ballard Locks to the Olympics when writing the words.

Musically, the song serves as an apt introduction for the rest of the album, displaying a concise structure (a much-abbreviated traditional verse/chorus structure with a brief breakdown and an even briefer sort of post-second-chorus bridge).  It's a three-guitar arrangement, with one guitar (my ES-335 though a tiny 4-watt Hawaiian guitar amp that belongs to my friend Nick, complete with "mother of toilet seat" turquoise case) laying down rhythm riffs in the lower register and two other guitars functioning in tandem and a sort of "intuitive through-composition" (this ends up happening enough across the songs I'll go ahead and start calling it "ITC") in the upper register, where the Telecaster plays two-note chords, and the Firebird plays more of a liquid, distorted, single-note lead.  This approach has allowed me considerable freedom in terms of partwriting where I'll attempt to to create detail-rich parts with minimal repetition that can be followed individually by the listener but also fit together as parts of a more singular whole.  There's a sort of pleasing (to me) chaos in the fact that the parts can either fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, call and respond, blend harmonically, or be saying different things entirely at the same time, and it can all change from one bar to the next.  So far I've achieved this by sitting down and writing one guitar part, taking care to leave at least some space rhythmically, then composing the second by ear, using the first as a general map of inspiration.  Needless to say, it's an exacting, painstaking process and it's an enormous bitch to reproduce in the studio without extensive rehearsal (which I mostly didn't have time to invest in) but to the ear, the results are pretty unusual sounding with that sort of nearly-falling-apart groove that's been another big goal with the project.  The track really came alive when Russ tracked his drums, handling the odd-metered grooves and tempo shifts of the chorus section with aplomb.  Moving forward, I see challenges in developing the ITC aspect so I don't end up continually repeating myself (though by its fluid nature it may take a while for that to happen), as well as in general arranging--there are bass clarinet/alto sax parts, backing vocals and some piano in the final verse that are only marginally audible--this may be partially a mixing issue, but it's certainly in my mind to pay attention to how many elements can exist in an arrangement before they're obscured by the others. 

* Yes, the YouTube videos have ads.  Why?  It's expensive to make music independently...if my music is being played for free by YouTube users and there's a way for me to make a tiny pittance in return for my self-funded creative content, I'll take it. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cheap Seats 11: Thanks! (I Couldn't Have Done It--Not Alone!)

Oh!  It's The Noble Fir!  With Ellen and Rick
Ok!  Official Release Day for the album is behind us, as is the release party (I performed an acoustic set and released CDs to Kickstarter contributors, friends and family and regulars at The Noble Fir on Thursday).  Before I get to the business of introducing some of the specific creative content on this album, I'd like to expand a bit on the album's credits and "thank you" section, as there are many people whose efforts helped bring the project to fruition.  Though this diary entry comes out a bit long-winded, it's of paramount importance to me to give credit where it's due.

As far as the sounds recorded on the album, nobody played a bigger role than Justin Phelps--he was recording, mixing and mastering engineer, and as I've mentioned before, he played a crucial role in the quality control department.  In addition to those technical roles, Justin was pretty much the first person I met after emerging from my creative cave--he's a hard-working, friendly guy, and the fact that he instantly took my artistic goals seriously was a hugely important boost to my confidence and morale.  There's a lot of loneliness involved in making music independently, and it's connections like these that, for me at least, act as lifelines.  Though we didn't always reach complete accord regarding my artistic goals (which is to-be-expected), Justin was always ready to constructively challenge and question my decision-making, which is an important part of the learning process for me as I move forward to my next projects--knowing how a sympathetic pair of ears hears ideas you may have thought you made clear is a good signpost to understanding how completely unsympathetic listeners might respond.  Most importantly, I'm looking forward to teaming up with Justin again on my upcoming plans.

Sarah, of course, sits at the top of the thank-you list.  I can't imagine what it's like to be subjected to another person's artistic ups and downs in close quarters, but she is always emotionally supportive even if it's hard for her to understand how high the stakes can be for me personally in the midst of these projects.  Also crucial is having a stable, "real" life to return to from the peaks and troughs of the creative roller coaster.  It's good to be reminded of your responsibilities and know how important the simple things are in life.  Speaking of real life, my mom and dad have also been incredibly supportive throughout the process, hosting me in Camas for long periods while I commuted to and from the studio.  While I'm sure my aesthetic path and career choices continue to mystify them, I know they appreciate how important and critical my current goals are to my happiness and I'm proud to have shown them how seriously I'm taking my current endeavor.

Rick and Ellen at The Noble Fir deserve very special mention, too.  Ever since I burned them a CD-R of the In Not-Even-Anything Land material as I was finishing it up in summer of 2010, they've generously exceeded any expectations as patrons of the "arts," hosting not one, but two CD releases and always providing positive feedback and the warmth of friendship that allows labors of love to flourish.  It was a great pleasure to celebrate this friendship in song, performing "The Noble Fir" at the release party.  In a more serious, "brass tacks" sense, the fact that they've also employed me at the bar since June 2011 has provided me with enough income and leave time to actually afford projects like this--the costs for this album would have equaled about half a year's worth of my previous income, and I'm extremely grateful for the fact that my job enables me to fund artistic projects of this scale while still maintaining a reasonable standard of living and savings--I take this privilege very seriously!

Working my way through the list, I again find cause to thank Nick and Cathy Manwell--I've been friends with them since Nick gave me a dollar when I was playing at 4th Avenue Coffee Shop outside the Liberty Theater in Camas back around 2002.  Since then I've played countless hours of guitar with Nick and "borrowed" pieces of his gear for years at a time (it's his bass heard on the whole album).   It was a real pleasure to get Nick involved in Cheap Seats--he plays lead acoustic on "Chrysalis (In Three Verses)."

In terms of the rest of the "band" heard on the album, much thanks is owed to the kinetic energy provided by drummers Drew Shoals and Russ Kleiner.  I've known Drew since he was an already-legendary presence on the Whitman College campus, playing for every band from the school's jazz band to r&b/hip hop group Love Child to his own solo stuff (releasing such unforgettable singles as "I Can Hear You Having Sex")--apart from a brief stand-in soundcheck appearance, we never played music together.  So, Drew's appearance on eight songs here fulfills a goal I'd long had in the back of my mind.  Additionally, Drew came into the recording process at a very early point (December 22nd of last year), so his willingness to take the music seriously and add some real bones to the fleshy mass I'd concocted was a huge boost to my confidence, which was quite low at the start of the sessions.  I love how Drew's contributions acknowledge the complexity of the songs' meters but also aren't afraid to run rampant, enhancing the "nearly-falling-apart" feel with a free-flowing, intuitive groove.  Russ (to whom Drew introduced me after his school schedule prohibited his return to the later sessions), somewhat contrastingly, approached his songs with a meticulous attention to the details--I was really surprised at how thoroughly he'd internalized the knotty meters of songs I'd not even bothered to chart for him--his energy and sympathetic attention to detail really shine through on his contributions, which were made in spite of a monumental cold (he went on antibiotics after our session).  Finally, my friend Peter Bruckner provided piano for two album tracks and one bonus track, lending a lot of complex feeling with his jazz voicing knowledge, and providing some really choice melodic nuggets in the small spaces that were left by the time he came into the picture.  Here's hoping I'll get to work with these musicians again! 

Chelcie (L), Michelle (R)

Though they're further down this posting than they really deserve for their staggering team accomplishment, the post-production design team that created all of the album art and other visuals for the release deserve huge props for making this package something eye-catching and realizing of a concept I'd had in my...brain...for two-plus years.  Chelcie (who sits both in the credits and "thank you" sections of the booklet, deserves enduring credit for acting as a sounding board for ideas, a confidant for hopes and fears and a companion/fellow traveler on the artistic path) contributed the hand-made collage and watercolors that grace the album art, as well as the watercolor image of my imbecilic grin that disgraces the deluxe package.  Michelle Koelbl (who designed the whole package for In Not-Even-Anything Land) returned for some stellar typographic contributions to the outside cover.  My brother Andy took a lion's share of the "odds and ends" that always crop up with this kind of thing, impressingly finding an attractive layout for the verbosity that is the inside of the CD jacket and the liner notes, as well as promptly responding to needs for posters, image manipulation, print layout for the deluxe package, and probably more time-consuming minutiae that I'm ungratefully forgetting (*brrriiiing*"Hey, I know you're at work, but can you do me a favor?").  Similarly, Courtney Morgan picked up numerous loose ends, creating the sweet brain graphic that appears a few times in the art and became a rubber stamp for the deluxe package, designing the t-shirts, and responding to numerous small design needs throughout the project.  Finally, Johnnie Heinz hand-painted the menagerie of brains that sit quietly behind the lyrics in the insert. Again--I'll be a lucky man if these people continue to help me in the future!

This brother band is formed!  Tentative band names include: Knappetite for Destruction and Knapp Kin.

Finally, I need to round out this list with some people whose contributions are less measurable but no less important in sum--Patrick (whose djembe I've been using for something like 6 years) gets thanks for providing ongoing cheerleader support and continuing connection with an atrophied social life.  Randy Parsons and Cody Green at Parsons Guitars have continually serviced my guitars from basic setups to trouble-shooting to exacting custom work, all the while with professional attention to detail and reasonable prices.  Ike's Auto Repair in Centralia replaced my truck's alternator within two hours when it failed in the middle of one of my many trips to Portland--talk about coming through when it counts!  Professor Mitch Clearfield and his metaphysics course at Whitman must be credited with introducing me to many of the philosophical and cognitive science ideas and writings that form the conceptual basis of these songs and the album's overarching concept--these unsolvable problems still haven't let go of my imagination something like eight years later!  Joel, Andy, Donny, Rick, Sandi and all of the interns at Cloud City Sound and Super Digital provided a welcoming studio environment, friendly support and feedback and some especially professional studio and duplication services.  Paul Davison provided inspiration for "Adjacent to Not-Really-Anyhow Time" in conversation on his Roy Harper Podcast.  Finally, there are all of the Kickstarter campaign contributors, supportive music fans and friends, family, artists, teachers and thinkers who provide a huge grassroots network out of which creative projects like this spring.  I'm sure my frazzled brain has forgotten to credit specific contributions, but please know I am constantly thankful for the wellspring of energy that has brought this to fruition.  One of the later lines on the album is "I couldn't have done it not-alone;" rest assured--when it comes to this project, "I couldn't have done it--not alone!"  Thank you!

John gleefully brandishes his deluxe package CD.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 

Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 

Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 

Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 

Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign
Cheap Seats Part 7: Alicia Dara Interview  
Cheap Seats Part 8: Tyler Fortier Interview 
Cheap Seats Part 9: Anna Coogan Interview 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Official Release Day!

It's been a long year and a whole lot of work putting together the music and visuals for this album, and today it officially drops!  The CD and digital album are currently available on Bandcamp, where the music is also streaming if you'd like to have a listen.

I'm really excited about the limited edition deluxe package, which includes the standard CD issue as well as a handmade sleeve with pearl snaps (if you know me, you know my love of snap-button western shirts), a rubber-stamped brain graphic and hand-written lyrics and signature.  I'm not hugely crafty, but I'm pumped at how they turned out.  The watercolor was done by Chelcie (more on credits and thank-yous for the album soon).

And finally, there's the release party!  Thursday night at 7 pm, I'm playing a short acoustic set at the beloved Noble Fir, and we're spinning the album afterward.  It'll be a celebration of a year of hard work and hopefully the start of some more traction with what's been a pretty "underground" music career so far.  If you found yourself on this site because of another artist I've reviewed, please do take the time to check out and possibly purchase my album--independent music takes a lot of work and a lot of money and it can't survive and grow without help.  A couple more Cheap Seats posts coming soon, then down to the business of introducing some specific tracks from the album.