“Without music, life would be a mistake.” Friedrich Nietzsche
I don’t consider myself a guitarist, keyboardist, or singer, in any sort of traditional sense. After witnessing Chris Metcalf do his thing, I’ve begun to reconsider my declarations of being a drummer for the last 20+ years as well. Now, I’m not spelling this out to paint a picture of myself as some sort of self-deprecating artist, that is passive aggressively chumming the vast seas of music listeners for validation. I do in fact, consider myself a musician. I just know where my strengths and weakness lie. I know I can turn a phrase lyrically. I can string together some chords and passages, and do a good job as a songwriter. Being in this band has been a fantastic and educating experience. I feel there are certain points in any creative type’s life/career, where if they are paying attention, they are presented with opportunities or advice that aids them in transitioning to their next phase of creative development. Perhaps one begins to realize that they don’t have to do “everything”. Or, what we once considered: “The way.” to write a song, is no longer the case, or solely a singular method. Realizing that being married to the concepts and patterns that used to get them from Point A to Point B no longer serves them well. Sometimes the scenic route is the one to take. I learned quickly, that this band was one of those opportunities.
Being a drummer in bands since I was a teenager has always been a cool thing for me. But at the same time it was challenging for my Id.
There, I said it. It’s out there.
I always wished I could be more involved in writing the songs. I was never satisfied with my role. The antiquated, if not, stunted notions that the drummer had very little to do with the melodies and harmonies of songs. I get it that there have been examples of drummers that have moved from behind the kit, or had a lot of involvement in the creation of the song (beyond the drive and heartbeat). But for the most part, growing up in the music era I did, there was a certain 3rd string quarterback aspect to being a drummer that came to practice saying: “Hey guys, I got this idea for a song!” As a result of that, I tended to be pushy if I had an idea. In turn, as a result of that aggressive nature, I became defensive and sometimes unwilling to acquiesce in the face of a better idea. My need to hold on, and stand my ground for the idea that “came from inside me” made me unwilling to see the other options that were just as good, if not better in some cases. I got over that mindset near the end of my former band Sometimes Why. But I realized by doing the last Vast Robot Armies – Goodnight Myopia as a one man band, I had swung the pendulum far back into my old methods and dogmas.
When Joe, John and I discussed how we wanted to record this, and the instrument responsibilities, it was very amicable and lacking in any pressure. Both John and Joe are great guitarists. That is not a biased, band member observation. It is fact. They have differing styles, but both are seriously accomplished players. We decided early on it would be fun to switch instruments. Not have the: “Bass player”, “Guitarist”, “Singer” roles. As a result from song to song, it was switched up. I’m confident this decision will end up being a nightmare when we are trying to recall who played what on each song. (* Note: a good rule of thumb for guitars is to assume Joe did it. You’ll have a 60-70% chance of being right). Even though, leading up to this, we charted out specific parts for each of us to “learn”. In the end we couldn’t help but have overlap and ended up learning each others’ parts. This ended up being immensely invaluable when it came time to do the bass, guitars and keys. It truly is the reason that the songs on the record developed a personality way beyond the demos. Everyone involved has made this record a living breathing thing.
When we finished the drums and were packing the previous evening, Allen suggested that we all meet at Longman & Eagle the next morning for breakfast. This was John Agee’s White Whale. John is a foodie. He lit up at the suggestion. That morning he was up and far more alert than any of the other mornings. There was no habitual OCD shuffle that accompanied our exit that day. John, I discovered, has the habit of 3 different “sanity checks” before leaving any room. That morning, he was first out the door of the condo and first in the door at Longman’s. I can vividly recall all 5 of us lined down the bar, not speaking. Just carefully combing the menus and weighing carefully our choices. Longman and Eagle has received a Michelin Star for the last 5 years. This is apparently a “thing”. Being Canadian, I would just look at John blankly when he would mention this to me, invariably responding with a quizzical “…Cool?”
Like most of our meals (if not all) while recording this record, it was fantastic. We certainly did not suffer in terms of food quality during our time there.
When we arrived at the studio for that day’s work, Allen and Eric set up a wall (literally) of amps. Fender Deluxe amps, Cully from Sequoia’s Orange, Allen’s Hiwatt, and Eric’s bass rig. Much like our food consumption, we had no shortage of amazing gear to work with. Allen asked which guitar I wanted to use. Even before he could finish his question I blurted out “Yours.” I would then shoot a glance at Joe, as if to suggest “Mine. I called it. Fuck off.” I figured Joe can make an elastic band stretched across a stick sound good. Whereas I was going to hang on to any possible edge I could get. I’m an only child and it was quite clear in that moment.
The fellas had a slightly different plan for recording the bass and guitars than what I was accustomed to. Instead of the traditional: ‘throw a pass of bass down and then move down the line until all the bass tracks were done, and then begin that same sequence with guitars’, they suggested we attack each song as an entire entity. We were game for anything. There was barely any push back making this record. We all collectively existed on the same page. Except for the bass during outro for the song: ‘Your Ex Knife Set’. That was the only moment where I found myself digging my heels in against the entire band and Eric. It all worked out in the end (I think/hope), but I had my own doubts as I wasn’t entirely sure then, it was worth me fighting the battle I was fighting.
So, with the understanding we would move from song to song, until all the instruments (minus keys and pianos, as they would have their own day) were done we commenced with that day’s workload. We decided to begin with ‘Foxtrot’. This was a Joe bass song, with John handling lead guitars and me doing the rhythm tracks. We figured that it was one of the easier songs, in that it has an obvious groove and straight up arrangement. Joe got through the bass track in no time. Next up was me for the rhythm tracks. After a quick discussion with John on how to navigate which parts we’d each play during the song’s verses, I sat down with Allen’s tele and dove in. Interesting thing about that tele: I was shocked at how low the action was on it. Now, keeping in mind above, I pointed out I don’t consider myself to be a “guitarist”, playing Allen’s guitar really solidified that thought. I needed to go home and spend some time reconsidering the action of my own guitar. His guitar was effortless to play. The thing just hums.
It was within the second verse of the song when Allen’s head popped over the dividers in the room, and where he stopped me and began one of his succinct, yet highly dense in practical information suggestions/observations. There is a part in the first verse, right before the chorus, where all the instruments drop out except for the guitars. They play a staggered, almost “rounds” (one line starts just as the other ends) like lead progression. That involved overt octave harmonies. I grew up in the 80s. I grew listening to what some would call bad heavy metal. Ratt were one of those bands. In the song ‘Round and Round’ there’s a part within the guitar solo where one of the guitarists (…who am I kidding? Warren DiMartini) is playing his solo. About halfway through, as a dynamic shift Robbin Crosby comes in and doubles up his solo with a harmony of the lead Warren is playing. I love this shit. Sorry, but I do. Call it cheese, or wankery. Whatever, it has always stuck with me. So, when I was writing ‘Foxtrot’, I found a very basic run, that was something of a nod/wink to that sort of thing.
Problem was, I played it somewhat stiff and with a certain lack of flair. Allen, in about 17 words, came in a suggested if I am going to do something like that, do it, but give it personality. Don’t just play it. Get into and attack the notes. It worked like a charm. I gave it a bit more personality. After that John came in and flew through his parts of the song. The slight flair that Allen suggested for that part set a nice base for John to do his harmony part. Which in turn took the metal out of it, and gave it a less nostalgic, more purposeful sound.
Next up was ‘Everything New Is Old Again’.
Going into this we all knew none of us was a “bass player” in any true sense of the word. John welcomed the challenge, and said he would like to play a majority of the bass on the record. Me being a “drummer” (I will now always question that. Thank You, Chris Metcalf…) was careful, but totally unsuccessful, in trying not to hold him under a microscope of expectations. I’m not going to lie. I was curious (anxious?) to see how recording would go. It went so smoothly in the end. Any unfounded judgements I had quickly disappeared. It’s not easy to play bass. I believe it’s the hardest instrument to master, as it dances between rhythm and melody constantly. John and Joe being guitarists would invariably be coming at it from that aspect, the melodic, pick it like a guitar. Whereas I (on Goodnight Myopia) would attack it from a drummers feel. It’s a bitch to wield a good bassline.
It was funny. I had long forgotten the lecture/instruction I had received from Eric during the recording of Goodnight Myopia. During that recording, Eric and I split bass duties. Early on when I was recording bass parts, he stopped me and gave me some valuable pointers. The main ones were pick positioning and attack (*if you are going to play bass with a pick). While I was recording bass, I would hold my hand somewhere between the 2 pickups on the bass, sometimes quite close to the neck pickup. Because I was picking the strings much too hard, and in that odd nether region of pickups it would create a “clicking” sound. The kind you hear when someone has recorded a bad bass track. Additionally, because of my aggressive attack, I would end up cutting the sustain of the notes. Basically, not allowing the bassline to breathe and have some space.
Well, within the first listen back to John’s 2nd pass, I was hearing the same lecture being delivered again. But it was John getting the pointers. Unlike me (who would need periodic reminders) John listened and immediately adjusted. After a couple more passes John had the bass track down.
We moved onto ‘Revenge For Nerds’ next. Being the last song that was written for the record, I always assumed it would be the least familiar, and subsequently the trickiest one to record. I was wrong. At every step of the way, that song was the easiest to get down.
Feeling a good flow from the last song we moved onto ‘Mousetrap’. This required an instrument switch as it’s a Joe bass song and John guitar. It was a lot of fun working this way. By constantly switching instruments, everyone one was far more dialed into parts and instruments that were not their primary responsibility. By removing the “I’m the guitarist” or “bass player” titles, and any sort of preconceived ownership that comes with that, It made the whole recording process even more about the songs.
After we had the four down it was getting late and we decided to pack up for the day/evening. I remember bringing up something Allen had mentioned to me before I began my trip. Just going over pre-production notes (via text) with him. He mentioned about the possibility of borrowing a 12 string electric guitar, and thinking its sound would add an interesting twist to the songs. I remember being intrigued by the idea. I brought it up as we were leaving. He said we could check it out for the next day. In hindsight I’m glad I brought it up. It ended up being game changer #1.
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson