“When I sit down to write a song, it’s a kind of improvisation, but I formalize it a bit to get it into the studio, and when I step up to a microphone, I have a vague idea of what I’m about to do.” – Paul McCartney
We had arrived at the day I was secretly dreading: Keyboards and piano day. I love keys and piano. They are both amazing instruments to write with. The problem that I’ve run into with them is that I over do it and construct tricky keyboard and piano lines. Computers being what they are these days, you can end up writing elaborate lines without having to initially play them conventionally at first. It can make for great parts, but you end up having to learn what you wrote, and how to actually play it.
Seeing as the previous day involved finishing off any remaining guitars and dealing with the keys and piano for ‘Little Creatures’ & ‘Your Ex Knife Set’, we were now moving onto some of the more elaborate and trickier songs. ‘In Shreds’, in particular, is a challenge to play the keyboard parts for. The left hand part and right hand part work independent melody and rhythm lines. Leading up to this, I worked the hell out of the parts, but still found them challenging. I could recall practicing them and saying to myself: “Why the fuck did I write this?!?”
The other challenge was getting a solid keyboard sound. When I wrote the parts, the sounds I’d used were from my iPad plug-in. Those sounds had become a part of the fabric. So we had to slave together Joe’s keyboard with my iPad, and hope there was no loss in signal along the way. Joe took over at this point and suggested in addition to doing that, we should try to amp the keyboard and mic that amp. He thought (correctly) would give us another texture to the tone of the keyboard, stripping away some of its digital lifelessness.
I thought it best we get ‘In Shreds’ out of the way, assuming it to be the nightmare song to get down. As often is the case with recording, the song I thought would pose the biggest challenge ended up going more smoothly that I originally assumed. After about 3 passes I had it down.
We then began to move our way through the rest of the songs. John had mastered the piano line to ‘Foxtrot’, so that ended up being the next song on the list to hit. John breezed through the parts. It was all going very well with keys and piano. My concerns seemed to be unfounded. Later on I would regret having those thoughts pass through my mind.
On the demo versions of the songs, a large portion of the extra keys and piano lines were used to thicken up thin sounding passages of the demos. For instance I would pull and old R.E.M. trick where I would duplicate the bassline on the piano bass notes to give the whole thing more depth. Now when R.E.M. did this, they would use it as a recording vs live option. The thinking goes, if they can only play one of the instruments in a live setting, the melody of that instrument would not be lost. The flip side being that the recorded version would sound richer and denser.
I made my way through ‘Suckerpunch’, ‘Mousetrap’, ‘Moving the Needle’, ‘In the Other Room’, ‘Everything New Is Old Again’. I ended up changing the octaves I originally played on some of them. We discovered what sounded cool and retro on demos did not translate as well to our newly recorded versions. We stripped away some of the more superfluous keyboard parts. I would tend to go too far with layers during the demoing process and was more than happy to cut these parts away to give the songs more space.
All the keys and pianos were done just before we broke for dinner. We all felt good about our pace and were excited to begin the vocals.
Dinner that evening ended up being trip number 3 to the burrito place down the street. I remember marvelling at the fact I still wasn’t sick of them. After dinner we discussed which of the songs we should start vocals on. ‘Revenge For Nerds’ was the song we all landed on.
I was excited to start putting the final pieces down on the songs. Both John and I had spent a great deal of time crafting the lyrics and melodies, so we felt confident in our parts. I especially was careful to write parts that fit within my own range. In the past, I’ve been guilty of overreaching my own range. I’m a tenor, but I’ve also grown up listening to bands like Supertramp, Queen and later on Jane’s Addiction. So I can sometimes try to go too far in the upper register with harmonies. When I was demoing the vocal parts for the songs I sung on, I was cognizant of those past errors, and made a great effort to sing parts in a lower spectrum.
When Allen and Eric finished setting up the mic and I had grabbed my glass of whiskey and bottle of water, I went for a pass. I can remember right away, feeling unsettled. It can be very different recording vocals within the confines of your own home. In the studio I feel a 15% awareness of things around me that I normally wouldn’t. This tends to take me out if the moment slightly, and I forget to do the basic singing things, like open your head and breath correctly. When I listened back to that first take, I remember thinking “This is not good, I need to collect myself.” I went back in and ran through another bunch of takes. It didn’t go well. We all sat in the control room and listened back. I had managed to get the verse parts down for that song, but I was quite pitchy in the choruses. I quietly stewed and went further down the rabbit hole of my own insecurities and doubt. It was Allen that suggested that it would be interesting to have John sing the choruses and for me to then sing the accompanying harmonies. Trying not to lose sight of the bigger picture I thought it best as well.
John Agee can sing really, really well. I knew this going in. He’s that guy that if you were to turn on the autotune software, the digital vocal line of his take would barely move, it would be just a straight line (which means he has consistently great pitch control). He flew through the 2 choruses he had to do. I had to go back in and do the harmonies for the choruses. I wish I could say I got back up on the horse and nailed my parts, but I didn’t. It took me a handful of takes to get them in the pocket.
When we sat around the control room to listen it all worked. But at that point it was too late for me, I was enraged at myself. Allen tried his best to get me to take it all in stride and relax, but I knew I was very far gone.
Next up was ‘Little Creatures’. It was even worse. There’s a slightly sassy edge to the delivery of that song that wasn’t coming through. I was living in my own head at that point. Everything sounded shit. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the instruments right in the headphones, I wasn’t breathing right. I was in a serious battle with myself. I felt like I was about to go flying off the rails. I struggled through my takes, and once again Allen suggested dividing the vocal labour up between John and I in the choruses. To be clear, Allen was absolutely right in doing so. John’s voice and mine ended up meshing great. It gave the song dynamics that were not there before. But I was so busy being angry at myself I was missing the point.
I remember having to go outside, so the other guys wouldn’t see the inevitable rage out I was about to have with myself. When I came back in, I knew my mood had cast a negative light for everyone else in the room. Mercifully, it was the end of the evening. Allen doing his best job as a producer had assessed the situation while I was outside stomping around beating myself up, and suggested we call it an evening. We had 2 full days left and what looked to 8 songs of vocals left so we were in good shape time wise.
On the ride home that night I sat silently in the backseat, furious with myself. Embarrassed and genuinely worried about how the next couple days would go. I began to assume John would need to sing the whole record. Joe and John, in the front seat picked up on my black cloud and did their best to try and calm me down. I appreciated their efforts and their sense of when to say something and when to just let me burn through my internal disappointment in myself.
When we got into the condo, I had a drink and then quietly went to the bedroom with my black cloud and try and sleep. “Tomorrow is a new day” I thought. I hung onto that thought, almost as though it was a lifeline.
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson