Did all your Christmas presents suck? Nothing as exciting as the Rock Band 3 you got last year? Of course, you’ve already played all your favorite Rock Band tracks so much that you’ve gotten tired of them. Well, the perfect solution is to reinvigorate your Rock Band experience by downloading “The Grinder’s Tale,” now available on the Xbox360 Rock Band Network for the low, low price of only 80 MSP ($1)! (Make sure you go to the “Rock Band Network Music Store” on your game menu, rather than just “Rock Band Music Store.”)
We owe this track’s availability to the genius of the guys at Rhythm Authors, who charted the song for the game. (Going through this process has given us new vocabulary words. “Charting” is what you do to program a song for the game. Those little colored dots on the fret board that tell you what notes to play are called “gems.”) It’s a hell of an undertaking when you think about it.
We sent them the stems for each track in the song… essentially turning a 7-minute song into twelve 7-minute songs consisting of only one instrument or voice each. Then, they have to match every note we played with a gem that will appear at the right point in the game. If you miss a gem, that instrument will cut out for the duration of the note you missed (this is really the essence of the whole game, isn’t it?). It’s even more precise with the vocals and keyboards, which need to match up with the exact notes of the performance. Everything needs to fit within standards that make the song playable in the game. And of course, this has to be done 4 times for every instrument (for the Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert levels of game play). The little avatar guys on the game are animated to “play” the song on screen. If that wasn’t enough, due to the fact that we had to chop the song up before sending it to them, the entire thing needs to be remixed and remastered. They do this all without an up-front fee, instead taking a percentage of the earnings. So if you won’t buy the song for us, at least buy it for them!
So far, over 200 people have played the song, including myself, and I have to admit that I’m nowhere near the top of the guitar leaderboard… Somehow I can’t hit 100% notes on the game for a part that I wrote and played, yet other people can!
Hear are some videos we found posted on YouTube by people who’ve played the song:
“Out of Time” started with the chorus chords, I think. I had come up with them in high school to go with one of Tyler Currier’s songs. I think they are kind of Goo Goo Dolls-ish, which makes sense for me at the time. But Tyler decided that they didn’t really fit with his song. As in, they didn’t really sound like part of the same song. I guess they still don’t really fit with the verse chords of the current song; that’s why the song needs the stop-start transition between verse and chorus.
I eventually came up with the verse chords by mistake. I was trying to go from a D to a D/C#, but my finger landed one string too high on an F#, and it seemed like I should go somewhere from there… In a couple minutes I had the rest of the progression.
I immediately went to show Nelson, but his reaction was lukewarm. In fact, he described the progression as “boring.” And I thought, “I’ll show him. These chords aren’t boring, they are pure gold!” Originally, I had strummed the chords, but I rewrote them again as more intricate finger-picking. Now Nelson approved. I had proven that my chords were not boring! Then again, maybe Nelson proved that my chords used to be boring. Either way, if he hadn’t criticized me, I never would have put in the extra work.
These new chords got thrown together with the old chorus chords I had lying around because… well, why not? I wasn’t just going to let them go to waste. I tried for a long time to give the song a bridge, but eventually decided it wasn’t necessary. The song uses only those two progressions.
I guess it’s pretty standard for a song to hit the (vocal) chorus at least three times, and that was my original plan for “Out of Time.” First would be the two choruses you hear, then a short guitar solo over the chorus chords, and the song would end on a repeated loop of the chorus vocal, fading out.
In order to facilitate the fade-out on my demo of the song, I had played the chorus chords over and over at the end. Just fooling around, I tried improvising some guitar melodies over this ending, and started to like what I was doing. I rewound the machine and pressed record. The first take didn’t quite work, as the chords stopped playing before I could squeeze in all the ideas I wanted to record. Rather than make the demo longer, I just tightened up the solo so that I could fit it in. The second take is here (skip to about three-quarters through if you don’t want to hear the boring part). It’s basically what I later recorded on the album.
I immediately fell in love with the idea of ending the song on a solo, and so the third vocal chorus went out the window. But there was still more to be done with the lyrics. As I wrote in an earlier post:
I also started to have second thoughts about my lyrics. A song with a guitar solo this good would need better lyrics than this…
…I figured that something was nostalgic and backward-looking about the sound of the guitar. From that jumping-off point, I fashioned some lyrics that worked sort of in reverse chronological order. The first verse starts in the present, watching the sun rise (on the wrong side of dawn, in fact). The second verse recalls an old friend. The last verse looks back to childhood, when you did stuff just because it was there to be done. Then the last line says there’s no more time for that, but hey…. GUITAR SOLO!!!!!!
The lyrics are still intentionally plain. I’m not very partial toward flowery language anyway, but I think these are plain even for me. I like to think that, if you just read my lyrics aloud, they’d sound more like regular speech than “poetry.” The last line is very quiet, very resigned to reality: “I could use a little more money. Guess that means I could use a little more work.” I like to think this leads well into the final solo which is, in contrast to the closing words, very big and cinematic. In order to facilitate this, my instruction to Anthony Santoro toward the end of the solo was, “Just be really loud and dramatic. Lots of crashes.” And of course, this again contrasts with the calm, march-like aftermath. The harmonized “oooh”s by Nelson and Karen also add to the intensity. I hope it sounds like a sudden recollection of a really old memory that you thought you forgot… but didn’t quite forget.
Anyway, I’ve probably already over-interpreted my own guitar solo. Never take the writer’s word for what something means, especially in the case of instrumental sections. So don’t just listen to me. Check it out yourself: “Out of Time.”
In the coming weeks, Nelson and I have decided we’ll relate some of the stories behind how our songs were written and recorded. They might not be as exciting as, like, a story about how we thwarted a bank robbery or something (I’ll tell you if we do), but the hope is that if you know a little something about the songs, maybe you’ll get more attached to them. Actually, forget what I just said. It’s too early to reveal our master plan.
Starting from the beginning of the album, we’ll skip over the 47-second “Flight I” (perhaps including it in a combined post with “Flight III” later) and start from track 2, “Running Scared.”
Very rarely have I ever sat down and said “I am going to write a song now.” Most songs I write begin with some sort of lucky accident; I’m more likely to begin a song by fumbling around with some chords that I played by accident than I am to begin writing with any sort of conscious attempt. (Specifically, the guitars to “Out of Time” and “Where Is Bobby McGee” were born out of a misplaced finger that occurred while attempting to play something else.) When I take the latter approach, it usually winds up being a waste of time, and I spend many hours working on something that will get thrown out by reason of sucking real bad.
That’s why “Running Scared” (track 2 on our album) sticks out for me among our songs. When I started writing it, I sat down with a specific goal in mind. Naturally, the song was a total FAIL in actually accomplishing that goal. This is about as close as I come to consciously choosing the direction of my songwriting.
“Running Scared” was supposed to cure a recent spat of amateur attempts at weird chord voicings and other experiments that sounded like shit. The basic idea behind the new song was this: Stop trying to find sounds that are weird or unique. If no one’s ever done anything like it before, that’s probably because it sucks. (Actually, I’d still argue that the main riff to “The Grinder’s Tale” is unique, but I’ve already spent too much time on that story.) Instead, create something straightforward and old-fashioned, and use your instincts to make it catchy. Go for something simple, something “Stones-y,” something short and powerful that will leave an immediate impression. Oh, and it should be nice and easy to play, like a Stones song.
In the interest of being Stones-y and rootsy, I started with something resembling a boogie pattern on an A. Nothing more basic rock-n-roll than that. From there, I played some other barre chords, throwing my fingers on to all the most practical embellishments I knew, until I had the basic form of the chorus: A-D-C-G-A-D-C-F.
By the next day, I was back to being dumb and trying to do things the hard way: “Hey, I’ve never written anything starting with the bass before. Let’s do that today!” I took up my bass and bounced through an overactive, unseemly, ostentatiously funky bass line. “This will be the verse to my rootsy song!” said I, rather arbitrarily and stupidly.
But first, I needed a guitar part to play over my hyperactive bass line. Following along the chord progression that my bass line only obliquely suggested, I wrote a guitar riff that was as fast, active, and funky as the bass. Rookie mistake. If I had really wanted to go all the way with this bass line, the smarter decision might have been to simplify the guitar as much as possible. The bass line was so overactive, I had simply run out of room for more interesting instrumental parts. Try as I might to cram by the guitar and bass together on a demo, it all sounded like unconnected mush.
Something had to go. It was the bass. The guitar part that I’d written to “support” the bass stayed, and it became the basis of the verses. I’ve since forgotten the bass line. Go figure.
There was still one more problem to get around in order to awkwardly paste my chorus and verse together. While the chorus had been written in A, the verse was written in G. To accomplish the modulation up to A, I hammered out a simple pre-chorus. Of course, it wasn’t until long after the song had been recorded that I realized, “Gee, I don’t use any open strings in the verse. I could have played the verse in the same key as the chorus by just moving my fingers up 2 frets during the verse.” Way to write a whole section that you didn’t have to, genius.
When I finally went to record what I’d written, I used Nelson’s digital 8-track recorder, and backed it with one of the built-in electronic drum beats. What do you know, the pre-programmed beat just happened to stop at a transition point in the intro, and then restart in the middle of the first verse. This quirk was carried over even when we started recording real drums. Where is that demo, anyway? Oh, here it is. Speaking of unintentional drum parts, you’ll notice that, on the final “Stay Awake” version, Anthony keeps the song interesting by handling each verse and pre-chorus a little differently than the one before. I haven’t asked him about this, but I’m convinced that’s because he was just making all that shit up as he went along. Before going into the studio, he knew the exact beat that he wanted to play under the guitar solo at the very end. (Listen to the drums there starting around 3:49; they’re pretty cool). The song up until then? I’m not so sure. But hey, if you’re good enough to get away with stuff like that…
And then there’s the lyrics. I must have written at least a dozen drafts of lyrics for this one. No, not drafts for “Running Scared,” mind you, but drafts for a whole bunch of other songs with names like “Duck Tape,” “I Can’t Take It,” “She’s Got It,” and God only remembers what else. Nothing really worked.
And there was that day when I decided, “You know what, we don’t do enough backup vocals. In one of our songs, we should shout something catchy and moronic like ‘hey hey hey.’ How about this song?” And so “Running Scared” had it’s first official lyric. The word “hey.”
Finally, I was driving home one day (from Target, how the hell do I remember that?), listening to my instrumental demo, and started improvising some vocals along with the music.
I think the basic idea was about a fear of… what ? Commitment? Success? Of growing up? Maybe a realization that actually reaching one’s potential eliminates the excitement of the potential itself, thus creating an incentive to run away from success? Is that making sense to anybody? Doesn’t really matter. Because either way, the lyrics to “Running Scared” still don’t make any sense to me, and I wrote them. They were written so quickly and in such a freewheeling fashion, I’m pretty sure there’s still a couple lines in there that don’t have any relation to anything.
So I wrote the current “Running Scared” lyrics and showed them to Nelson. And I promptly threw them out on the basis of… they sucked.
Then I wrote some other lyrics on another concept which sucked, and showed them to Nelson. Nelson’s response? “Um, I’m pretty sure you were done with this song last time.”
On and on I battled, insistent that I could do better. But Nelson was right. The song was done. And once a song is done, what else can you really do? Bloodied and exhausted, I came crawling back to the lyrics now known as “Running Scared.”
How should I describe our approach to actually recording the vocals? As a kid, I think I remember seeing a movie on TV in which a guy accidentally pees on his pants a little while going to the bathroom. In order to hide it, he covers all of his clothes in water, so that the wet spot on his pants doesn’t stand out. I think that pretty much sums up the recording of “Running Scared.” In order to cover up the slight sloppiness and looseness with which the song was written, the only solution was to turn the recording into total chaos. Nelson shouts out random lyrics behind the third verse and behind my final guitar solo. The crash ending has a couple gratuitous “heys” after the song is over. In the middle of my first guitar solo, I beg for extra time to continue soloing: “Wait, I got one more.”
This last one caused my high school music teacher, Jamie Egan, to laugh uncontrollably when I showed it to him. I think that was the desired effect. In all honesty though, I stole that one from Stevie Wonder’s interjection of “Can I play!?” in the middle of his “Boogie On Reggae Woman” harmonica solo. It also seems like the sort of thing Buddy Guy or other performers might say in the middle of a solo.
And that’s “Running Scared.” How did we get here? What happened to my easy, simple, Stones song, and why did it turn into the finger-tangling, vocal chord-tearing, most technically challenging guitar song on the whole album? The idea of this song was never to make things harder for me. Things were supposed to get simpler. But why don’t you try playing the verse guitar riff and singing the song at the same time? Yeah, I thought so. Welcome to my nightmare. More self-analysis of our songs to come over the next few weeks…
The lovely and talented Karen Rustad has been with working closely with Wrong Side of Dawn since its formation. Karen was there at our first rehearsals, with just me and Brian before we had any other musicians to work with. Karen has repeatedly lent us her artistic skills, doing an amazing job on the cover art for our old EP and the Grinder’s Tale 3P, and she’s currently working on a draft of the cover art for the upcoming Stay Awake album. She also did all of the graphic design and most of the web design for our beautiful website. [Incidentally, she’s currently looking for work. Maybe you could help her out? 😉 ]
In addition, Karen is a serious singer and songwriter in her own right, having sung in choirs for many years, contributed her voice to musical groups such as Tryad (you can hear her singing lead vocals on “Beauty” from their album Listen) and written and recorded several wonderful tracks on her home computer. We had good experiences with her contributing vocals and some keyboards to our previous album attempt, so it is no surprise that we brought in Karen again to help us compose and sing the backing vocals on the “Stay Awake” album.
Adapting live vocal harmonies for a studio album
Karen has been performing at open mikes etc. with me since before WSD took its first steps towards recording a studio album. One song that she sang with me was Break Free (which is an ancient song that I originally wrote when I was in high school), and she wrote her own vocal harmony part to accompany me. On our previous attempt at recording this album, Karen simply sang the exact same vocal harmony that she sang when performing as a duo with me. However, this didn’t work quite as well with a full band, because Karen sang what amounted to a vocal solo during the bridge, at the same time as Brian’s guitar solo. Having two “solos” going at once made the song sound a little busy and disorganized, although there were a few nice interactions between Karen’s singing and Brian’s lead guitar.
When we started recording Break Free again at Portrait Studios for “Stay Awake,” I asked Karen to try writing some new harmonies that would be more choral and less busy-sounding, to avoid the problem of it sounding like there were two solos at once. Karen obliged by singing two-part harmonies, using them to create chords rather than an entirely independent melody line. I think the resulting backing vocals step back during the main part of Brian’s guitar solo in the bridge and give him more space, but also sound more impressive in a Cranberries-esque fashion. Naturally this is impossible for Karen to sing live without help, but that’s what’s great about studio albums, they free you from limits such as how many people you can put on stage at once.
Another issue that we had to confront frequently when recording with Karen and mixing her parts was when and if to use Auto-Tune. This is not because Karen has bad pitch, she’s probably on key more often than I am. This is because almost all of her vocal parts are harmony parts. Brian and I could get away with being a little loose with pitch when singing by ourselves, but whenever we bust out the vocal harmonies, any sourness in pitch is immediately and painfully obvious. Although some of Karen’s parts came out fine, we ended up having to use Auto-Tune extensively in some passages. One passage in “Out of Time” couldn’t even be saved by Auto-Tune (which says bad things about my ear because it sure sounded in tune to me when she recorded it) and we ended up having to throw out her part in that section. Whenever we discovered that Brian or myself were irreparably out of tune during mixing, we could re-take that section on the spot, but Karen wasn’t around during the mixing process, so it was a case of Auto-Tune or die. If someone is doing a difficult vocal harmony (or something similar) and you can’t get them in the studio again easily to fix any problems, I recommend that you record multiple takes and save them all, just in case there are undiscovered problems with the take that you thought was perfect.
For the record, Brian and I would have preferred to not use Auto-Tune at all on this album. We generally went for a straightforward “live” sound on this album, we didn’t want to sound too heavily processed and suspiciously clean. However, there is a trade-off between the time necessary to re-record a passage and the time required to Auto-Tune it. If you’re perfectionist enough to go and fix every little note by re-recording it, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the studio, and a lot of dough (unless you own the studio). Besides, if you have to do a zillion re-takes for each section to get it right, how much more genuine is that than Auto-Tune? Aren’t you using machines to cover up your shortcomings as a musician either way? The best, most “genuine” and impressive way to avoid Auto-Tune would be to practice until your vocal cords bleed, and then sing the song perfectly, without requiring any re-takes or Auto-Tune. Sadly, we just aren’t that good yet, and reality forced our hand.
The vocal harmonies in the chorus of The Grinder’s Tale (listen around 2:55-3:15) came as something of a surprise to all of us. In one of the last recording sessions, we entered the studio with the vague mission of “add more vocal harmonies to the album” because Mr. Gutkowski (my old Latin teacher and indie rock mentor) had said something about how great vocal harmonies separate the pros from the amateurs, and we had agreed with him wholeheartedly. Brian came up with ideas for a couple harmony parts in his car while driving to the studio, singing along to the rough mixes. Karen had a different idea, however, and that sounded good too. So we figured, why not put all of those harmony parts on the record? Karen went off into another room in the studio alone with my iPod with the broken earbuds singing and re-singing the harmony parts until they gelled, and then we recorded the 4-part harmony together.
Similarly, the harmony during the “oohs” on Last Warning was a last-minute addition (listen around 2:44-3:04). I said something like “Hey Karen, Brian sounds kind of lonely in that part, why don’t you go help him out and add a harmony part?” The toughest part was the last note of the harmony. Karen tried a couple different notes, but nothing sounded right except that 2nd we have on the record. Karen was like, “You really want it to end on that dissonant note?” And we were like, “Yep.” The suspension resolves, sort of, when the rest of the band comes in, but dissonant or not we love it to death.
N: Karen Rustad, you’ve just finished recording all of your vocals for the Stay Awake album. How does it feel?
Karen: Uhhhhhheehhhhhhhhh [Karen fakes dying]
N: Speak words, woman.
Karen: 😛 Nah, it’s good. I’m glad we got it done in time – barely. I’m happy with the new harmonies we were able to add on, maybe. We’ll see… It’s something different!
N: Alright. And what was your favorite song to record?
Karen: Probably Contained. It was easy. And, sounds good as ever.
N: OK, least favorite?
Karen: Break Free took too long! Ohmigod! I think it’ll sound really cool, but it took *forever*, and I had problems with pitch, until I realized that it’s a lot easier if you only cover one ear.
N: Interesting. So just having one ear outside the headphones…
Karen: Yeah, even though you have a monitor feeding it back to you, for some reason it’s a lot easier if I hear my voice for real, rather than it being broadcast back. A lot easier for me to adjust.
N: OK! And how do you think the album is coming?
Karen: I think it’s coming really good! This is wayyy better-sounding than the previous attempt. And I expect it’s going to be really playable and I hope that it gets lots of interwebs attention 😀
N: Alright, well, thank you 🙂
This post is the necessary outcome of a promise I recently made to Nelson: that I would write a Wrong Side of Dawn-related post this week. More specifically, it’s a promise I made to Nelson five weeks in a row, breaking it the first four times.
Procrastination is surely one of the culprits, but it is exacerbated by trepidation toward my proposed subject: tracing the evolution of “The Grinder’s Tale.”
The song seems ripe for examination, as it is one of the centerpieces of the eventual Stay Awake album, and lends its title to our recent “3P” preview. While the timing may be right to give the tune some background, its coming-about lacks the sort of snappy, one-paragraph-or-less description that constitutes your typical songwriting legend.
I like to read song-origin stories, and perhaps that’s why I’m prone to writing them myself, even though some of my past efforts have turned out to be better insomnia cures than anything else. A lot of the famous stories seem to describe songs which emerge from the brain whole, in a single moment. It’s as though some songs were written by the hand of God at the beginning of time, then floated slowly through the universe until certain lucky mortals stumbled upon them to transcribe them into tangible form. (“Yesterday” and “Cliffs of Dover” come to mind.)
Not so, “The Grinder’s Tale.” Even under normal circumstances, I can be shockingly verbose about an extremely simple song I wrote. But I imagine that, if I really wanted to, or were under the influence of a strong sedative, I could manage to summarize the process behind a song in less than a minute. I can’t do it for this tune, except to say that the track is the product of the accidents, frustrations, failures and false starts of at least 9 different musicians over the course of 9 nine years. That, and my consistent hardheadedness throughout the entire process. I was the one who insisted on starting the whole god-forsaken project, and also the one who insisted on finishing it. I guess I can begin with that part.
See, when I took my first guitar lessons at 15, a world of music became demystified. Geez, a chord was nothin’ but a buncha’ notes. A song nothin’ but a buncha’ chords. Simply type “[song title] tab” into Google, and even an extreme novice like me could be playing right along with a radio hit in a matter of minutes. This probably contributed to a phenomenon that I’ve discussed with several people, but Adam puts it most succinctly: “In high school, I knew more people who could play this song on guitar than people who could actually play the guitar.”
Sometimes I can’t help but reach for an old cliché about not seeing the forest for the trees. This was the opposite. A good song had always been a great forest to me, but I’d never really seen the individual pieces. I can’t identify a specific moment of clarity, but I eventually started to realize, “Wtf, man, it’s just some trees. Nothing special after all.”
Led Zeppelin had their “Stairway to Heaven,” the Who their “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Oasis their “Champagne Supernova,” Eric Clapton and Duane Allman their “Layla,” Don McLean his “American Pie,” Guns N’ Roses their “November Rain.” To a fan, they are demigods. To a guitarist who’s made it past the tenth lesson or so, they are a bunch of guys too arrogant and foolish to write three-minute hit singles. Their “epics” happened in front of an audience of millions. But if cockiness and foolishness is all it takes, well shit, a beginning guitarist like Brian Rose can have his own “epic” right here in his bedroom. (That sentence looked a lot less sexual in my head than it does now in print.)
Before I’d ever written a note of music, I had a silent resolution that I would someday have my own overblown epic, even if I was the only person to ever hear it. Keep this in mind. It might become significant later.
Writing for “Ohm”
At some point, I finally started trying to write material of my own, with the hopes that I, Tyler Currier, Pulsar Li, Anthony Santoro, Tom Shea, and Kunal Desai (collectively referred to as “Ohm,” by those in the know) might take to the stage with this stuff at our high school’s “Battle of the Bands.”
To be honest, I was forcing myself. Covering “Wonderwall” was so easy, and so much fun. Original material was so much goddamn work, very boring, and it never sounded any good. Other bands performed original material at the Battle of the Bands. They would rock my world with a couple masterful covers. Then the dreaded words: “OK guys, now we’re going to play you one of our originals!!!” And it would be downright unlistenable.
Though confident my “epic” would come, I was presently content just to sound good, to be fun, to be a cover band. With only a precious half-hour to do our set, why remove a Lennon/McCartney song in order to make room for an original? Their songs were better, after all. There was only one reason: the respect of other musicians. The bands with original material had it. I felt I didn’t. At least, not enough of it.
Tyler and I would work on our songs. Nobody else really had the time to spend. At first, they weren’t really our songs. I helped Tyler work on his songs, as I had yet to stumble on an idea of any worth. We agreed the songs weren’t ready yet, but they always seemed one jam session away from being finished.
One afternoon after school, I sat alone in my basement strumming an unplugged electric guitar. I played a 4-bar chord progression thusly: E-D7-A-E. I liked the sound, and with a couple hammer-ons and strumming flourishes, I convinced myself that I was playing something completely original and utterly wonderful. I ran upstairs to present the discovery to my family. “Listen to this! It sounds like the beginning of a song!”
Untrained ears hear very few sounds that they consider special. If you can figure out what does sound special to the untrained ear, I guarantee you will be the eternal king of the music business and a multi-billionaire. A well-trained ear, after all its experience, is similarly hard to impress. Only novices (I’m not the only one to make the mistake), somewhere in the gray area between trained and untrained, can convince themselves that there is novelty in their own wholly unoriginal shit.
Therefore, I was the only person I impressed. I got some white-lie compliments from my mom. My dad and one of my siblings (I forget which), decided it was best to keep their eyes on the television and pretend they’d never noticed me coming upstairs. Defeated, I disappeared back into the basement.
By the time I got home from school the next day, my ignorant bliss had stubbornly grown back. I think I already mentioned that stubbornness is a big theme here. I had the beginnings of a killer song on my hands. It’s hotness was not perceptible to anyone else, but that wasn’t about to change my mind.
By now, you’ve figured out that I’ve got one piece of “The Grinder’s Tale” in place. And you are 100% wrong. I’ve actually just started to write “Last Warning.” And let this be a last warning to you: this really is a long story. [As a footnote, “Last Warning” sounds way different these days.]
We return to find our hero sitting in his bedroom, thoroughly convinced that his three-chord song is actually a smash hit. “Well, now that I’m just days away from finishing this classic high-energy rocker, I’m going to need a slow song, too.” Thus, “Last Warning” gives rise to “The Grinder’s Tale” as its necessary antithesis.
And I grabbed my guitar. The steps seemed clear. I had a rocker. Today, I would do slow and pretty. By the end of the week, I’d have two songs which I could present to the band as fait accompli. We’d take the stage at the Battle of the Bands, and somewhere in between “White Room” and “Baba O’Riley,” I’d say the magic words: “OK guys, now we’re going to play you one of our originals!!!” Obviously, this sentence would make everybody very sad. But I’d be a real musician after that. I probably imagined that Tyler and I would have to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get our pictures taken and printed on our very own Musician/Overall-Cool-Guy licenses.
Back on planet Earth, I still needed that ballad. And a ballad (something of a misuse of the term) had to be pretty. So, what’s pretty?
The beginning of “Boys of Summer” is pretty, with its never-ending keyboard melody: down a half step, then down another major third from there. The bass line moves underneath it, but this top part stays the same.
The beginning of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is pretty, as Slash plays an arpeggio that always ends with the same melody: down a half step, then down another major third from there. The bass note moves, but this top part never changes.
Young Brian realizes that maybe this whole songwriting thing isn’t so tough after all, and writes a simple arpeggio ending with a melody that goes down a half step, then down another major third from there. But I decided to do Slash and Don one better: instead of just changing the bass note, I would change position on the guitar and do the whole darn thing over again a few frets lower. There! I’ve improved the formula! I made it more complicated!
The Brian Rose who began writing “The Grinder’s Tale” in 2001 had a very different attitude than the guy who ultimately worked on the 2009 version. High-school-Brian considered musical complexity to be an end in itself. Unemployed-graduate-degree-Brian considers elegance a virtue, and complexity a necessary evil. High-school-Brian’s only saving grace was that he was so stupid, he successfully convinced himself that his simple (and therefore, good) riffs were actually very complicated.
I needed a chord progression. My riff was a G arpeggio. I decided the first chord would be, you guessed it, a G. This song is almost done! Two complete songs, very soon! A fast song and a slow song! (Play the current “Grinder’s Tale” recording from 6:02 to 6:11. Listen to just the guitar, and you’ll hear the entirety of what I wrote that day.)
But there was no melody. And no lyrics. I tried, but I knew I was failing. It became almost a daily routine: Write lyrics on loose leaf paper. Put paper in desk. Open desk 24 hours later and read lyrics. Vomit just a little bit in my mouth. Decide the song will have to be about a completely different subject matter. Get new sheet of loose leaf.
The material was never presented to the band. Weeks and months passed. We went on at the high school “Band-fest” (castrated of its “battle” element in order to avoid controversy) without Tom (family vacation?), and without Anthony (little brother Steve subbing for him on drums). The crowd enjoyed a fun set consisting entirely of well-known classic rock standards.
Tyler and I met for a jam session at the beginning of summer. I played my riff, which was masquerading under some title or another at the time. Before I could explain the chords, Tyler took to the bass strings and started playing along: an “e” … “d” … “c” … “a.”
“What was the bass line you wanted?”
“Uh… I think your bass line is probably better.”
I was learning a lesson that surprisingly few rock writers ever learn. You see, even in pop music, the bass is the boss. It doesn’t matter if everybody else plays exactly the same thing. Change the bass note, change everything. It’s like uprooting a house right down to its foundation, then reinserting it, whole, right into a completely different neighborhood.
We sounded good. Sometimes I try to forget what the song sounds like, and listen to the opening riff with the same ears I did then. But I can’t. I have expectations. I know what’s coming. Those harmonies will never again give my brain the shock of energy that I unexpectedly felt on that first day.
I was satisfied, but Tyler kept going, jumping octaves and throwing in embellishments.
“You can’t do that Red Hot Chili Pepper stuff in this song. It’s supposed to be a slow song!”
After listening a bit, I was converted. Tyler and I set about saving the idea to my 4-track tape recorder. Tyler played the bass riff repeatedly until he got tired of it. Then I overdubbed the guitar riff a few times, transitioning into an improvised solo. At the point where the solo began, there were 20 bars of Tyler left. When the bass stopped, I stopped. That’s really the only reason why, even now, the song’s main guitar solo is 20 bars long. (The equivalent section now runs from 0:40 to 2:00 of “The Grinder’s Tale.”)
Later, I was alone again with the 4-track. In a moment of insanity, I thought: The riff sounds good with my my chord progression on guitar. It sounds good with Tyler’s bass line. Maybe it would sound good with… both! I overdubbed my old progression. The result was actually less cacophonous than you might think, as the two progressions are actually quite close. But even I knew this sounded like gobblety-gook on the playback. I’d have to keep the two progressions in peaceful separation. The old progression as verse, new one as chorus. This was the high water mark of my “complicated equals good” attitude.
That’s pretty much all I had before I went to college and met Nelson. Nelson also fancied himself a songwriter, but he had actually finished one song. “Break Free” used some interesting rhythm guitar techniques, and was meticulously structured at 3 minutes long. And it was exactly what songwriting is supposed to be: the product of bad experiences, yet bouncy and fun nonetheless.
I discussed a lot of song ideas with Nelson, including my recent jam with Tyler. I mentioned to Nelson that I might want to switch my main guitar riff over to the piano. (The music building at Swarthmore is filled with piano practice rooms. Not really knowing how to play the piano, one day I had sat down and plinked out the first thing I could think of. I tried to make out the guitar riff in my right hand while playing the bass notes for Tyler’s harmony in the left hand. I wasn’t much of a pianist, but what the hell, it sounded nice.)
Nelson disagreed. “That part sounds like it’s written for guitar. If you want to write something for piano, write it like you’re writing for the piano!” Nelson set about adapting the song to be more piano-driven, including a rapid-fire 16th note version of the 8th note guitar riff. It was so fast as to be almost atmospheric, rather than a proper melody. Nelson and I recorded a demo on his 8-track digital recorder (so much easier than the 4-track tape!).
The song sat in this condition for about 3 years. Many of my musical ideas during that time were briefly considered as new sections to the old tune. It’s 6:45 length stretched out to as much as 10 minutes as I hoped to increase its “epic” scope. But the new sections were always scrapped in the end, except one, which became the first 22 seconds of the current “Grinder’s Tale.”
Still, my biggest problem was yet to be solved. No lyrics. Ideas continued to be written down and scrapped. I had moved from loose leaf over to .doc files. In three years, the only set of words I saw fit to keep was “Where Is Bobby McGee?”
A bunch of things happened in my senior year, though:
I made a few of the first truly stupid decisions of my life. Way worse than trying to play different chord progressions at the same time. This caused me to jot down a short line, in my ever-growing Word-.doc cache, about logic and emotions leading people to opposite conclusions. It’s now the chorus of “The Grinder’s Tale.” (“What you believe is not the same as what you know.”)
I started watching an excellent TV show called House M.D., about a character who suppresses his emotions and focuses on logic in search of the correct decision. He also has a never-ending supply of sarcastic insults for people who can’t do the same.
I saw Ben Folds live, after which I had an epiphany about what good lyrics really are.
And of course, there was Jeff Billion. Billion taught me how to play poker, and very nearly convinced me to move out to Las Vegas with him and give pro playing a try. I declined, but my fascination with the game continues to this day.
I wound up with a handful of lines that combined to make a song called “The Grinder’s Tale.” Here’s what I like about these lyrics: there are multiple ways to hear each line, based on whether or not you choose to take it as poker jargon. Just to give an example…
Term: “draw me out” Poker definition: “draw out” refers to the worse hand catching a lucky card, thereby becoming the better hand. Regular English definition: in its non-technical use, to “draw someone out” might mean to lure someone “out of their shell,” or make them reveal some sort of secret.
And then there’s the title itself, “The Grinder’s Tale.” In poker, a grinder is a moderately skilled professional who is just good enough to grind out a living against the low-stakes no0bs. But even in a non-poker sense, words like “grind” or “grinding out a living” are very rich terms. They suggest a mode of living that is simultaneously masculine and powerless at the same time.
And so the thing was finally written, I guess. A good four or five years overdue.
Wrong Side of Dawn
Nelson and I first tried to pull off some of our songs with a full band in 2007, but we were grossly ill-prepared. Being the only person who had memorized the unwieldy structure of “The Grinder’s Tale,” I attempted to conduct Nelson (guitar), Andrew (bass) and Greg (drums) through the song’s rhythm tracks. Those sessions eventually became our EP, but “The Grinder’s Tale” had not gone well, and was the first track to be abandoned.
The track was revived for our next attempt at a full LP this past December. This included my reunion with Anthony Santoro. When I wrote the first notes of this tune in high school, I imagined Santoro, an Ohm member, would be the man to drum on it. I was happy to bring him back in. It almost seemed like I hadn’t strayed too far from my original goal, after all.
In rehearsals, I tried to explain the sort of drums that I pictured for “The Grinder’s Tale.” I handed my iPod to Anthony and had him listen to “Orange Crush” as a reference. It was the first thing that came to my mind only because I had recently pretended to play its drums myself, via Rock Band. Part way into rehearsing the song, Santoro decided he was feeling something a little bit more “Carter Beauford” in this tune. And so the drum part came to be.
Gray Reinhard added the piano/organ tracks. His opening solo is the first highlight you’ll hear in the song. Between takes, Gray would play the song’s progressions and improvise to himself. “There’s not much going on towards the end,” I said. “Why not throw some of those melodies in there?” (See “The Grinder’s Tale,” 6:02 to 6:39). On the way home from the studio, I listened to that part over and over. Damn, if this wasn’t the final slap in the face. Almost nine years of trying to make this joke work, and Gray nails its punchline as an ad-lib!
Nelson still saw changes to be made. I recorded the guitar solo as a verbatim copy of the improv I did with Tyler back in high school. Nelson disapproved. “You said you liked more emotive guitar solos. Can’t you play something more emotive?” I did a retake with a simpler, more gut-level attitude. Now Nelson approved, but needed one more change. Sensing a “Hotel California” feel at the end of the solo, he suggested it be harmonized with another guitar track. And it was done.
Nelson also thought the album, as a whole, needed more background vocals. “Good background vocals separate the professionals from the amateurs,” says Nelson. Combining ideas from Karen Rustad and I, we found a way for all three of us to sing the chorus.
Still, there was one suggestion I could not abide. Having played our rough mix for some friends with more pop-music sensibilities, Nelson returned the news that “The Grinder’s Tale” should be edited from 7 minutes down to 4 minutes.
I should have understood. I was no longer the stupid kid who wanted everything to be more complicated than necessary. In fact, I was in the middle of reading Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith, and realizing that something like his concise “Wichita Lineman” might actually be a greater songwriting accomplishment than the sprawling and incoherent “Stairway to Heaven.” I might have understandably relented.
From somewhere in the back of my brain, a 16 year old kid came forward and said he was putting his foot down. Screw brevity and economy. The new 2009 Brian Rose might be OK with that shit, but goddammit, this kid had been waiting 9 years for his 7-minute epic. And I’ll be damned if he’s gonna give it up now.
In our efforts to bring back the best features of classic rock, Brian’s lead guitar has been our secret weapon. We think that the emotive, virtuoso guitar solo is an important part of rock music that has been neglected for far too long, and we’re trying to fix that. Brian is a bit of a perfectionist, and that can be frustrating when we are paying for studio time by the hour, but his attention to detail really shines through on this album in every note the lead guitar plays. Sharing the studio with him has been a joy, an honor, and a learning experience.
The “Slash” Les Paul has a very raw, hot, unforgiving sound. Brian used it for the lead parts on Out of Time, Running Scared, Flight III, and Last Warning (you can hear semi-final versions of those songs from The Grinder’s Tale 3P right now!). I was a bit surprised that we didn’t use the “Slash” Les Paul more, it can sound really mean when you play it right and I was very impressed by it in rehearsal. It turned out, however, that we didn’t want the lead guitar to sound quite so mean and in your face all the time. If we didn’t want a guitar part to cut right through the music and slice open your eardrums, we had to pick a different guitar instead of the “Slash” guitar, because that guitar really demands attention.
The American Stratocaster is the smoothest-sounding of the three guitars, but it still has a thin, jazzy sound. It is very versatile, you can make a very wide range of different tones depending on which pickups you select or pedals you use. We used it for the lead guitar part on The Grinder’s Tale, Flight II, My Private Asylum, Break Free, and Contained.
(If I recall correctly, the picture to the right also features Brian experimenting with his effects pedals in order to get the several layers of feedback right that appear at the very end of Out of Time. We left the door to the amp closet open so that the guitar would feedback, and we played with delay pedals that gave us some rhythmic patterns, as well as producing some bizarre results that reminded me of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. This was one of the few times we used multiple pedals, as I’ll discuss later.)
Finally, we used an inexpensive Mexican Stratocaster for rhythm guitar. (We didn’t use it for lead guitar at all.) Brian likes it for rhythm because it has a little bit of a wobbly, unstable sound that gives more flavor to the rhythm parts. We used it for the rhythm on Last Warning, Running Scared, and the electric guitar at the end of Bobby McGee.
Pedals, or lack thereof
Back in the day when we were in Nuzzo’s basement studio recording our old EP, Brian used to use lots of pedals at once in his pursuit of the ultimate electric guitar sound. The photo to the left shows a typical pedal setup from the Nuzzo sessions. We’ve learned since then that sometimes less is more. If you have a good guitar and a good amp+preamp, and you’ve got a good sound, throwing lots of pedals on top of that will just screw it up. On the “Stay Awake” album, Brian mostly used only one pedal, a distortion pedal. We’re keeping it simple and raw.
The “Out of Time” solo
The guitar solo that closes “Out of Time” just might be the crowning moment of awesome for this album. It’s the solo that made me say “we need to get this into Rock Band” (stay tuned for more on that). The interesting thing to me is that the most emotionally powerful part of the solo, the climactic 20 seconds, is the only part that is simple enough for me to play (although Brian plays it much better, of course). Van Halen-esque theatrics are impressive, but sometimes what you need for a great solo is to play just a couple notes very passionately, and I think that’s what Brian did. Which is not to say that Brian doesn’t also have amazing technique.
One technique that Brian used in this solo that I had never seen before is a pinch harmonic or a “squealie”. Pinch harmonics are quite common in heavy metal and ZZ Top songs, all heavy metal solos are full of pinch harmonics, but I don’t listen to heavy metal much. Neither does Brian, I understand, but he learned the technique from his friend Christan who is into heavy metal giutar. To play a pinch harmonic you pluck the string with a pick, and then immediately after you hit it you barely scrape the string with your thumb. Thumb it too hard and you kill the note, thumb it too lightly and it doesn’t have the desired effect. You’ll be able to hear a pinch harmonic in “Out of Time” at around 3:27, it’s the 3rd note that Brian plays after the background vocals come in, and it is an extremely distinctive sound. I can’t wait for you to hear it 🙂
N: You’ve just finished a long day of recording electric guitars, how are you feeling?
B: I’m feeling tired, I’ve been tired for a like few hours now. I’m definitely like several hours, um, steps behind where I should be going to sleep…
N: That’s what our band is about, right?
B: Actually yeah, that’s right, I kind of forgot about that part, the whole Wrong Side of Dawn thing… I mean, I would be staying up until morning if that were true.
N: That’s true, thank god we are not there yet.
B: Yeah, I mean, I feel really good with what I recorded, I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t get through every single song today. But that might have been a little overambitious.
N: What was the favorite thing you recorded today?
B: Definitely the ending solo for Out of Time. We spent a lot of time on the feedback afterwards, which actually I think we need to kind of hold back on that with the mixing so that it doesn’t overshadow the song or anything like that. It’s supposed to be that it comes in for 10 seconds and then goes away. The actual solo itself, I was really glad how that went. I basically got it in one take, had to punch in just a couple of parts. I’m really glad I got the “Slash” Les Paul, it worked really well for that solo. I think it sounds really intense, and once we get other things like the vocal harmonies and stuff in there, that’s going to be a good climax to that song. I’ve definitely really been looking forward to that particular one minute of this album, and it’s gone well so far.
N: What was your least favorite thing about today?
B: Definitely Vulture [now called My Private Asylum], it’s weird how pretty much the solos were the easiest thing to record. It’s something like Vulture that doesn’t have any solos that needs to be exactly right. Definitely the solos were, ironically enough, the easiest thing to do, everything else is hard.
N: How do you think the album is coming along?
B: I think it’s coming along really good. I really feel like these songs are better than good. It’s disappointing when I show people what I’m writing and they say it’s good. People always say it’s good, and it really frustrates me. Your 3rd grade class project that you did the night before is good. I really think our songs are better than good…. so I sometimes wonder if I’m like the only real believer in some of these songs, but I think they’re going really well. Better than well.
Unfortunately, choosing which guitar to record with wasn’t as easy as I hoped. All of our acoustic guitars developed problems during the record sessions, but fortunately they were different problems so we could choose which guitar to use based on which problem would affect the album the least. Now I understand why professional musicians own so many instruments: redundancy! Sure, having a selection of guitars with different properties allows you to produce a wider range of sounds, and having multiple guitars lets you quickly switch tunings while playing live, but I think the most important reason to have a lot of instruments is so you can switch when one instrument breaks down or starts sounding funny.
I am in love with my green Takamine acoustic-electric, named “Kermit”, and I would generally want to use it in any situation. However, recently Kermit has started going out of tune if I play high on the fretboard, and unfortunately many of our songs require me to do that. I didn’t have a chance to get Kermit’s problems checked out at the guitar store before recording started, so I had to use other guitars that were more in tune.
We used Brian’s black Martin acoustic-electric for a couple tracks, most notably “Running Scared”, but for some reason the low E string was sounding much louder and rattle-y than the other strings, which sounded strange. Much of “Running Scared” doesn’t use the low E string and we thought the guitar sounded fine with the parts that do, but this problem mostly eliminated the Martin from the album.
We ultimately used Brian’s Ovation acoustic-electric for most of the tracks, even though something was very wrong with the line out. I thought the line out would be important, but it turned out it wasn’t, we were able to record great-sounding acoustic guitars without it.
Recording acoustic-electric guitars without line-out
For our EP we had two tracks for each acoustic/electric guitar: a microphone in front of the sound hole, and directly plugging it into the guitar’s line out, and that delivered a decent sound. By having multiple tracks for the acoustic guitars, we can mix them together and better control the sound. For example, if the line out has more bass, and the mike over the sound hole has more treble, you can turn up the volume on the line out if you want a more bassy sound. For this album we were hoping to have three tracks for the acoustic/electrics, by adding a third track from a microphone over the fretboard. However, since the line out on the Ovation was oddly quiet and full of static, we didn’t end up using that track, so we just had two tracks, the fretboard mike and the sound hole mike. I think this gave us a deep, rich, and very acoustic sound… the line out would have made the acoustic guitars sound a bit more electric, and I’m not sure I miss it.
Surviving without heat
We could not use the central air in the building while recording anything with microphones, because the fans made noise. It was the middle of winter in New Jersey, it was pretty darn cold outside and, without heat, inside. This problem affected recording the drums, acoustic guitars, and vocals. This may have been less of a problem for Santoro because drumming is a very physically intense activity, but playing guitar really was only exercising one or maybe two arms, there was no way I would break a sweat recording guitar. I compensated by wearing lots of layers, sometimes even wearing my winter coat indoors, and bringing a thermos of hot tea and a thermos of hot rice with me to the studio. It would have been hopeless without space heaters such as the one pictured to the left, and the little faux fireplace in the drum room, which we used to warm our fingers and maintain manual dexterity. It was still pretty miserable, but that’s the cost of the pursuing your musical dreams. If I ever get to build my own studio, I will do my best to make sure it has silent heating and cooling, so that we can keep the studio at a comfortable temperature no matter what we are recording.
Brian: Um, this is the end of acoustic day… being our primary acoustic guitarist and our primary interviewer, would you like to ask yourself some questions?
Nelson: [laughter] Well, Nelson, how do you feel about being done with acoustic guitar? Well, me, I feel pretty frickin’ good. I’m sad that Kermit didn’t make it onto this album because I never got him tuned up at the shop, so Kermit is unfortunately absent. But I did enjoy the Ovation and the Martin guitars, they were good.
Brian: Did you enjoy freezing your ass off in that room over there?
Nelson: I did not enjoy freezing my ass off! Funny you should ask. But I had some hot tea and stuff, and I’m all good. I wore my orange hoodie over my headphones, so I was nice and cozy. It’s an accomplishment! I am happy.
Brian: One of your standard questions has been your favorite and least favorite songs to record.
Nelson: I think that Flight III / Flight I came out really good, I’m really proud of that. I am not proud of how I couldn’t play the finger-picking to “Out of Time” despite having practiced it for like years on end. But Brian hit it so it’s all good. And you know, I’ll practice it more and someday we’ll play it live, so… I am satisfied.
Brian: Alright, to be continued.
Nelson: Thank me for the interview 😉
Choosing a bass player for “Stay Awake” was easy. Andrew Angelin is the most talented bass guitarist I know, and I am honored to play with him under any circumstances. He also joined us in the studio the last time we attempted to record this album, which meant that he was very familiar with our songs, and he had had plenty of time to polish and improve his basslines. I think it shows, in cuts like this slap bass riff from “Flight III”:
Andrew does some very technically interesting things with his bass, and I learn something from him whenever I watch him play. I once saw Andrew slide a harmonic, which I didn’t even think was possible. (He had a hard time replicating it consistently, but maybe I can convince him to pull that trick out on a future album.) I think that Andrew’s bass adds a lot of depth to our songs, and that it makes our songs interesting to listen to over and over because you hear something new every time.
Sometimes Andrew plays chords on his bass, which is something I think most bass players never consider doing. You’ll be able to hear this during one of his bass solos at the end of “Where is Bobby McGee?” and at the beginning of “Crossing the Bar” for example, and I think it’s a really nice effect during quiet parts of a song. It’s an effect that may be hard to hear over a full band, so it is only useful in some cases, but it is a technique I rarely hear in rock music and I’m glad to be able to bring it to our listeners. I also don’t usually hear harmonics on bass guitars very often, outside of the records of Jaco Pastorius and other virtuoso bass players, but you’ll be able hear those after the bridge on “Break Free” and once again in the outro to “Where is Bobby McGee?”. The trick to using any technically difficult technique on an instrument is to only use it when appropriate of course, otherwise it becomes a gimmick or just showing off, which some people accuse bands like Dream Theater of doing. Like a spice, you just want to add enough to taste, and I think Andrew has done a good job of moderating his technical chops and only bringing them out for punctuation. (Is that a mixed metaphor?)
Choosing the bass
Andrew decided not to use his own electric bass in the studio this time around… last time he recorded with it he heard some rattling that he thought was undesirable. When Andrew tried out Brian’s bass during rehearsal, he liked it a lot and so that’s what we went with.
When Brian bought his bass in the music store, he didn’t have any reason to expect it to sound particularly good, it’s just an inexpensive Specter bass. However, everyone who hears that bass agrees that it sounds particularly good, and when he brought it in for servicing once, the store guy offered to buy the bass off of Brian. This bass just hit a sweet spot for some reason. It’s somewhat comforting to know that in this world of assembly lines and mass manufacturing that some of the mass produced items come out special, despite all attempts at standardization.
We considered using Andrew’s upright bass for “Contained”, but Andrew decided that track’s jazz-rock sound worked better with an electric bass. He also doubted that he could pull off the ridiculously fast bass fill at the end of the bridge with an upright 🙂 We do try to avoid making our musicians’ lives harder than necessary.
This may come as no surprise, but one important thing we accomplished during rehearsal for this album was creating/finalizing song charts for everyone to work from. I felt bad about not creating song charts for our musicians ahead of time before rehearsal, but at least with the musicians writing song charts for themselves at rehearsal the song charts were personalized for each of them. I think next time we would try to write out song charts ahead of time, however, so that we could spend more time playing music at rehearsal and less time writing down the basic chords and song structure. It’s quicker to add embellishments/edits to a basic song chart than to write one from scratch.
After each musician recorded their tracks, we interviewed them about their experiences in the studio. For Andrew’s interview, see the video below:
Nelson: Andrew, you just recorded all your bass for this album, how does it feel to be done?
Brian: All your bass are belong to us now! Andrew: Ha ha ha, um, I feel great man, you know, I’m surprised it all got done on time in one day. That never happens. Brian’s bass was definitely the right tool to use, I’m glad he brought it. I had a blast! I’m surprised that we still have like 40 minutes.
Nelson: What was your favorite song that you did today?
Andrew: I could say “Last Warning” because there is a very funky bass solo… I dunno, that’s a tough one. I mean, I really enjoyed doing Flight II, because I think that bass line really, you know, it does a lot for me, I don’t know why, it’s a groove thing. Maybe “Break Free”, because that one goes way back, you know, that one goes back to early high school.
Nelson: Nostalgia, right?
Andrew: Exactly, yeah.
Andrew: My least favorite song might have been… well, “The Grinder’s Tale” had a tricky bass line, because it just involves a really strange finger stretch, getting those octaves and whatnot. “Vulture” [now “My Private Asylum”], I don’t know why, I feel like I’ve played it before, and I couldn’t come up with any good ideas for it.
Nelson: Not enough new stuff this time around?
Andrew: Yeah, I couldn’t figure out how to make it more interesting for myself. I feel like I just did the meat and potatoes.
Andrew: You know, we’re ahead of time. Santoro was a great choice for the drums, Portrait was the best choice, I’m glad we’re here and not with Mr. Nuzzo’s place.
Nelson: Ha ha ha
Andrew: The scratch tracks really really helped, so I think you guys should be pretty set. Let’s make this thing a killer album.
When Wrong Side of Dawn was searching for a drummer for the “Stay Awake” album, we started with our friends from high school, old bandmates with whom we used to play music. While we were wasting our time attending a liberal arts college and then law school, our friends went to music school and then become professional musicians. If we wanted to pack as much technical skill and quality into this album as we could, those full-time musicians were the obvious people to talk to. The first drummer we asked to record with us was my friend CamilleOlivier, who is currently playing with TV/TV, but his time was already booked up recording a couple albums and touring the world with his full time band. (Big surprise, professional musicians are frequently busy, playing music.) I’m still glad we talked to him because his advice has been invaluable in helping us choose Portrait Studios and make other decisions while recording this album.
The next person we talked to was Anthony Santoro, who had been the drummer in Brian’s high school band Ohm. Santoro is now a sound engineer in Boston, handling the sound for live shows at the Hard Rock Cafe, and when he’s not engineering sound he plays drums with singer/songwriter Evan Michael. Thankfully he was available over winter break and he agreed to join us in the studio. Brian was slightly disconcerted by the fact that Santoro agreed to record with us before he even heard the music that was destined to be on “Stay Awake”. What if our music sucked? I guess Santoro just had that much faith in Brian’s musicianship after playing with him in Ohm!
Starting the recording process
Before Santoro or anyone else recorded a thing, Brian and I laid down some “scratch tracks” of guitar and vocals. Scratch tracks were recommended by The Indie Band Survival Guide to serve as a guide for the people recording so that they would know the basic song structure without having to memorize e.g. exactly how many times the chorus progression repeats and concentrate instead on playing great music. These scratch tracks were recorded quickly and were only a temporary framework or skeleton for the songs, to be replaced with real guitars and vocals once the rhythm section was recorded, and frequently they contained instructions to the musicians such as “Here comes the chorus! One, two, three, go…” instead of (or in addition to) actual singing. Sometimes our recorded instructions were inadequate, and we supplemented it live in the studio with instructions shouted into a microphone and piped into the musicians’ headsets, as Brian does in the video clip below.
We only got one full day of rehearsal in with Santoro and the full band, but everyone’s musical instincts seemed to serve them well and the songs were rocking hard by the end of a very long Sunday. Song charts were prepared, song parts were polished, and we were all on the same page. Recording started the very next day, Monday night, with Santoro being the first to step up to the plate. Santoro and Tom seemed to hit it off right away since they were both sound engineers and drummers, and together they got Santoro’s drums set up and miked very quickly. I helped hand Santoro things from the gig bag but my usefulness was rather limited in this phase. Later Santoro would record individual drum “samples”, hitting each drum and cymbal separately rather than as part of a song, so that Tom can drop in copies of Santoro’s drum sounds into our recordings to make them sound more awesome.
Tracking the drums
Santoro has a knack for making a track rock, but he seems to have a different philosophy of drumming than other drummers I’ve played with in the past. Whereas a drummer like Camille has no doubt that his drums are playing a leading role in a song and follows in the tradition of flamboyant drummers like Travis Barker from Blink-182, Santoro has more of a humble attitude and is always very concerned about stepping on other players’ parts, considering himself to be more of a background instrument, perhaps like Roger Taylor from Queen. This philosophy generally served him well, but when we wanted him to pull out all the stops and take the drums over the top it sometimes took cajoling and convincing. I’m happy to report, however, that once he understood that we *really* wanted him to demolish his drumset, he delivered some of the most intense drum solos it’s been my pleasure to experience. There were also some communication problems when we had very specific visions for the drum parts because Brian and I don’t really play drums, so the best we could do was make noises with our mouths and vague gestures with our hands, or sometimes refer to similar drum parts in classic songs (e.g. “Think the opening in Give It Away!”). Santoro was fortunately very talented at turning our incoherent instructions into real drum parts, and for that I must give him mad props.
Tracking snare and tambourine
I think it’s important to not always use a standard drumset, and while we didn’t experiment with more unusual percussion on this album we did depart from Santoro’s drumset on a couple of occasions. Rather using Santoro’s standard snare on some songs, we got a genuine marching band snare for the more march-y parts, which if I recall correctly includes the opening and end of “Out of Time”. We also used a lot of tambourine on the outro to “Where is Bobby McGee?”, a part which Santoro was initially reluctant to play, claiming he was no tambourine expert. I don’t think any of us could have played the tambourine better / more accurately than he did, and I’m glad we encouraged him to add “percussion” to his credits on the album rather than just drums.
The end result
Ultimately, I think that everyone involved was quite pleased with what we had accomplished. If you want to know what Santoro himself thought, just watch the video interview below!
Nelson: Here we have Anthony Santoro. Anthony, you have just finished tracking all the drums for this album, how does it feel?
Santoro: It feels awesome! … My voice is going out, it’s been a long grueling two days. I’m getting sick, battling the elements, I’m probably going to go get myself some delicious and satisfying McDonalds. I think most people after a big thing they usually go to Disneyland. I’m probably just going to go hit up McDonalds and Wendy’s, get myself some dinner… It’s quarter after 12 in the morning, got an hour and a half drive ahead of me… it’s good times.
Nelson: How are you feeling about the album so far?
Santoro: I think it sounds great! I don’t know who played drums on it, that guy was awful, everything else sounds great though on the album.
Brian: Too bad there’s nothing else [yet] on the album…
Nelson: What’s your favorite song so far, Anthony?
Brian: Or did they all just blend together at this point?
Santoro: I think Flight III was my favorite to track, Flight III was pretty awesome. It’s intense, it’s emotional… If you get the feeling that I wanted to throw my sticks through the window at the songwriter… I didn’t want to do that, you’re great guys.
Nelson: What was your least favorite song?
Santoro: Uhhh… Flight III! Not throwing my sticks through the window at the… Nooo, all the songs I think are great 🙂
I’m happy to announce that Wrong Side of Dawn is recording a full-length album at Portrait Recording Studios in Lincoln Park, NJ. The album is tentatively titled “Stay Awake” and will feature about 12 songs which we attempted to record previously in the Nuzzo sessions but have been polished and updated for this release. We expect this album to be AMAZING once it is finished, Tom Suhey has done a very professional job as studio engineer and we’ve been working with musicians of the highest caliber.
We are almost finished with the recording phase, after having spent most of winter break in the studio. The main thing left to record is some of Brian’s vocals, which should be finished in the next couple of weeks, and then we will move on to mixing. If you want to follow our progress, you can read our microblog on Identica or Twitter, and see photos of WSD on Flickr. We’ve been trying to document the recording process as well as we can, and I think we’ve done a decent job, except for keeping this blog updated. I hope to fix that over the next couple of weeks, by posting accounts of our past recording sessions over winter break and then ideally continuing to post about things as they happen. Stay tuned!