“Every single time I step into the studio, I say, ‘Can I still do this? Do I still have it? Have I ever had it?’ I suppose there’s a good amount of self-loathing that goes into any form of artisanship.” – Ben Harper
The air of ending hung over us as we puttered about the condo on the morning of the 12th day. It wasn’t obvious, but there was a sense of melancholy as we paced around collecting the items we’d need for that last day. Discussions of what we need to remember to pack up at the studio and bring back had replaced what songs were left and how we wanted to approach the upcoming day. We were all a little quieter and the relentless teasing of Joe had calmed down to a dull roar.
We all felt really good about what we had left, and knew it wouldn’t take the entire day. John and I discussed redoing the takes I did for ‘Little Creatures’, as the originals were before I managed to rediscover my singing voice.
The drive to the studio that morning was unusually quiet. I suspect we were all taking it in, in our own ways. Realizing what had become old hat and routine was at its end. On that last day I was fully immersed in this existence and would miss it considerably.
We beat Allen there that morning. So we waited outside the studio. Not saying a whole lot to each other. The weather during the entire recording process had been perfect, every day had been clear skies and the temperatures were unseasonably high. It was Oct 29th and it felt like early September.
Allen showed up and explained Eric would be coming in later. We all went up to the studio. As he turned on all the gear, Joe and I walked around the recording room and discussed things we’d need to remember to grab later that night.
Allen called out from the other room, asking what we wanted to go with, before I could answer he said he’d been thinking and wouldn’t mind redoing ‘Little Creatures’. I laughed and mentioned we had just talked about that exact same thing.
With the mic ready to go, and the song cued up, I went into the recording room and blasted my way through the verses. Allen wanted to do the choruses in a separate pass as they were higher and louder in approach. Having found my voice it took far less time to get through my takes then it had on the first night. Even a day later, I was still in my comfort zone.
We finished the song in no time. We moved onto ‘Suckerpunch’, which was one of my favourites and sat well within a really comfortable range for me. Out of all the songs I ended singing (and earlier, struggling through) this one was by far the fastest. I did it in 2 takes. I wasn’t sure that was ok, so when we listened back I was stunned to hear it sounding exactly as I thought it should. Part of me felt like it the day was going too fast. It felt like it was racing by.
John was up for the next song. He went into the control room and began to track ‘Your Ex Knife Set” which would be the album closer and epic trip-out piece. This one ended up being somewhat funny to do. When we demoed this song, John had sent me a version with his vocal tracks, but left room for some harmonies and backups. So I ended up doing quite a bit, with the thought we’d drop or pull some of them out, as I kinda went a little over board. I guess we ended up living with those demo versions for so long we became quite accustomed to that version and didn’t hear anything that was an obvious edit. What I didn’t realize was John had grown so accustomed to them, he had forgotten what he had sung, and what I had sung. It was understandable, as the way the song plays out we strategically added more and more harmonies and voices to create an effect. It was by design. But after he tracked his main vocals and harmonies for the song, John came out into the control room and said, he thought he still had more to do.
Jay: “Sounds amazing man. You’re all done. You’re finished the record!”
(*that ended up not being the case later on)
John: “No, I’ve got that harmony on the first verse.”
Jay: “No, that was me.”
John: “Ok well there’s the call and answer stuff in the second verse.”
Jay: “Again. That was me as well.”
John: ”Really?! You sure? Fuck, I don’t remember who’s-who, and what part is what from the demos.”
Jay: “Ya man. That’s my part too. You’re done my friend. How’s it feel?”
Allen sent me into the control room to finish off my parts of the song. I went through them pretty fast. They both pointed out my rhythm/phrasing was slightly quicker than one of John’s during the first chorus. They were right, but it wasn’t something that really fucked with the part. I said after all the compression and effects are done, it will blend nicely. I was right.
We had one song left, ‘In The Other Room’, and we decided to go for it. We could have broken for dinner, but we decided to forge on ahead and wrap it all up. I had some slight reservations about this song. I knew the verses were really solid, but I wasn’t sure about the choruses. Something Allen had said while John was recording a day earlier stuck in my head. Allen said “make sure your vocal part is not dependent on a harmony to make it cool. It should be able to stand alone and be great.” That had gotten me thinking about the chorus melody I had written for ‘In The Other Room’. I had always dug the harmony part, but found the main melody was only ever “ok”. The other thing that was concerning me was Joe had changed the lead guitar line in the chorus for this song days ago. So I hadn’t actually sung the existing chorus to the new guitar melody.
I went into the recording room and worked my way through the verses. I told Allen I wanted to do the chorus on another pass, as I thought there might be an issue. I managed to get the verses down in no time. Allen cued up the chorus passes. Halfway through the first try, I knew we had a problem.
- My original main melody sucked. It did nothing to really improve the song, and was dependent on the harmony to give it colour and energy.
- Joe’s new guitar line did not un-shit my shitty vocal part. It served to expose its shitness all the more.
It was time for The Ringer again. At this point of the recording week I was done, my mind wasn’t sharp, and Joe and John were more than ready and capable of getting us there to the finish line. I leaned heavily on Joe and John whenever a new part needed to happen on the fly in the studio during our time there. They are both great at quickly diving into the moment and extracting cool parts. So I wasted no time in looking at John and saying “You do it. Turns out you’re not done.” John and Allen began to hash out a new chorus for the song, about 15 mins later they had it. John went into the control room and laid down his part. Allen had me go in and do the harmony I had already planned, they both came up with something that worked with Joe’s new guitar line and still managed to work with the cool harmony that had existed on the demos.
After I finished the part. I stepped back and looked at the mic. I thought to myself. That’s it. We’re done. All the writing, planning for months, a trip to Canada, a trip and large drive from Kansas City, 1 actually rehearsal as a band, and 8 days of recording were now done.
I was relieved and sad all at once. I walked into the control room and we decided to go get some dinner. Chris had mentioned he was coming by to hangout and watch Game Six of The World Series. The Royals needed to win it to force Game 7. So we decided to grab food and come back for the game.
My mind was racing. Did we get everything? Did we miss anything? Is that really it? Are we done??
When we returned to the studio that game had started. The laptop took its customary position on the mixing board. I asked Allen if it would be a good time to get some tambourine and various shakers for some of the songs done before we packed everything up. He thought it would be a good idea. With Chris there, it seemed like a logical choice to have him go into the control room and lay down some stuff.
One thing that needs to be known about Allen Epley which I’m not sure people do: He is a killer percussionist. I have heard him lay down some mean percussion tracks for a couple of records I’ve been involved with. So Allen ended up working with Chris on some Shaker and Tambourine parts for ‘In Shreds’, ‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Everything New Is Old Again’ while Game Six played out in the on the mixing board laptop.
It was a relaxed atmosphere at that point. We were all just drinking bourbon and watching the game. Allen and Chris worked out the shaker parts, Joe and I would go outside for cigarettes and John and Eric would alternate between hitting record on the computer for Chris and Allen, and giving updates on the unfolding game.
Around 8:30 Chris finished up recording the extra flair parts. He packed up his gear and said his goodbyes to Joe and John. I thanked him for all his work as he said goodbye, it was one of those moments where I found myself without the words. I was trying to convey just how much it meant that he was involved and the sole drummer on this record. I felt I just didn’t capture it correctly. It took me 20 years and 6 records to have a record where I could say the drum tracks were everything I wanted (and more), and took the whole album up a notch. All it took was for me to get off the kit, and let Chris do his thing. I won’t soon forget just how impressive it was. He had one practice and cut a rhythmic swath through this record. Bringing it all together as though that’s the way it always was.
After Chris split, Allen had to leave. He wanted to catch the last couple innings of the game at his house. He made his way around to the guys saying his goodbyes. By the time he got to me I could feel a clench in my throat. I was sad to be saying goodbye and I was super proud of what we had just done together. This was the 3rd record I’d done with Allen and Eric, and each one has gotten progressively better. I’m not going to lie and say that there isn’t always a measure hoping to not disappoint them when we work together. He, Eric and I have a lot of hours together in a recording studio, and every time at the beginning of each record it feels like it’s the first, and I’m trying to not embarrass myself in front of my peers. But without fail, by about day 3 of each of those sessions, any insecurities I may have had, invariably vanish. Without fail they both make you feel that they are just as invested as you are and they are with you on the whole trip.
After Allen split, Eric, John, Joe and I drank a bit more and watched the end of game 6. The Royals won and forced Game Seven. Everyone was in great spirits, John and Joe discussed how they needed to get up early and race home (8 hour drive) so they could catch the game in Kansas. I was bummed I wouldn’t be going with them to complete the entire journey (making a record plus a full World Series), as I had a 9 am flight back to Toronto. We slowly packed up all of our gear, realizing there would be no next morning at Electronical, John performed multiple sanity checks.
Once we had loaded all of the gear out and locked up the studio, the 4 of us stood on the darkened side street of Electronical. Joe and Eric were talking about gear and mixing boards. John was listening. I was thinking about how the day before the 3 of us had driven around looking for “Electrical Audio” (Steve Albini’s) studio. We knew it was close, as Allen and Eric named their studio “Electronical” as a bit of a nod in regards to the proximity of Albini’s place.
As it turns out, it was basically parallel to Electronical. Almost exactly adjacent to us. It was on the flip side of the building. Basically one large building (not attached directly) on the same block, just on the east side of the street/building. I thought about some of the cool shit that has been done there, and some of the not cool shit (Fugazi’s first go of In On The Kill Taker – They redid it after they weren’t happy with Albini’s job). And then thought about what we just did. In a smaller, less well known studio. At that moment John, Joe and Eric burst out laughing about something that was said in their conversation, it snapped me back out, I thought to myself as I shuffled over to Eric’s car to rejoin the group conversation: “Fuck Albini….What we just did holds up…” From a sonic perspective (not written song perspective – I’d never be as arrogant as to suggest I’d written anything as cool as some of the bands that Albini has worked with), what Allen and Eric did, and captured from the comfy environment of Electronical stacks up with anything I’ve heard coming from the building around the corner (no disrespect to Shellac or The Stooges).
We packed our car up and as we were getting in, Eric called out from his car. “This feels weird boys. This feels weird…” Then got into his car and drove off. As I climbed into the back seat. I knew what he was getting at. After 8 days in 2 small room with the same 5 (sometimes 6) guys, you quickly develop a routine and camaraderie. All pushing towards the same goal. Kinda of like a lost at seas scenario, all on the same boat lost at sea, rowing towards land. When you finally reach it you are happy it’s done and rejoice in the feeling you made it. But there comes that moment where you realize you did it, but it’s over and now it’s time to go your separate ways. This was that moment with the last of the guys from the studio. I thought it was nice of Eric to recognize that moment, and in his own way acknowledge it.
We put in the board mix CD that Eric had burnt for us and sat in silence as we drove back to the condo. The sounds of our last 8 days blasted out of Joe’s car stereo, with all our windows down and the unseasonably warm Chicago air flowing through the moving car we all just took it in. For the first real time.
When we arrived at the condo, John said we needed to go out for a drink to celebrate. The only place close by was the bowling alley across the street. The 3 of us marched across the street with a confident saunter, proceeded to sit at the empty bar and had some drinks together. The bartender asked what we were doing in town. John explained that we are a band and had just finished our first record together. She shrugged.
After our bowling alley drinks we went back to the condo and proceeded to polish off the booze that was still there, and Joe and John attempted to dress up the frozen pizza in the freezer the best they could. The mood was bordering on manic. All three of us were super charged. Fried from the long hours and effort of the previous days but buzzing on a high of booze and the unmistakable feeling of true accomplishment. The board mix CD blasted on John’s PS3 and we took turns at various moments of listening to say “Holy shit…you hear that part??”, “Listen to Chris’s fill here!!”, “Man, this doesn’t suck!” It’s an evening I won’t soon forget.
After we polished off the booze. I told the fellas I was going to bed, as I had an early flight. I turned in for the evening a buzz.
I awoke around 6 am the next morning and proceeded to scramble around packing and collecting my items. All the while I had a terrible knot in my stomach as I realized this was it. Once I had completed packing, I woke John up and we said our goodbyes. Joe drove me to the Blue Line station right outside Longman & Eagle. Joe got out of the car, and as we hugged and said our goodbyes. I took a deep breath and walked alone down the subway stairs. Having a task of getting to the airport helped block out the shitty feeling of it all being over.
I arrived at the airport in good time (use the Blue Line when in Chicago to get to the airport. It rocks). I didn’t have to wait too long to board. As I sat in my seat, awaiting our clearance to take off, it all finally came clear to me. I was so proud of all 6 of us. We did it. The thought that not 10 months ago, John Agee and I happened to chat on Facebook about how cool it would be work together on some demos I had been working on, had tuned into: a trip to Toronto, a Failure show, countless hours of demoing, writing and planning, getting a drummer at the last minute, and that drummer being Chris Metcalf, flying to Kansas City, driving to Chicago to have 1 and only 1 practice, and then finally spending 8 days crafting an amazing record, and a brand new real band.
It’s true: we managed to pack a lifetime of a normal band into 10 months. It was like the fast tracking the band experience. I was (and will be) forever grateful for the experience, and owe all the thanks for that opportunity to my bandmates John, Joe and Chris and my friends and producers Allen Epley and Eric Abert.
The captain’s voice came on over the intercom. “We have received clearance to take off…” I tugged at my seatbelt and thought to myself: “I hate flying…” I shrugged and turned up the volume on my iPhone and settled in for another listen of the rough mixes of the album. “This is going to sound amazing when it’s all mixed and mastered.” [Editor’s note: IT DOES.]
Author’s Note: I would also like to thanks Sam. He reached out to me the day after we recorded the drums, and asked if I’d be into capturing this experience for Sloucher. I was only too happy to do it. It’s something I’ve long thought would be a blast to do (and it has been), so I couldn’t believe it when he asked me, I was flattered and immediately stressed. “This is awesome! Fuck, I better not let him down….” [Editor’s note pt2 – electric boogaloo: It surpassed all expectations.]
I hope I didn’t, as this diary has enabled me to relive the entire experience again (this explains the tense issues I’ve been having writing this), which is a fantastic thing, and that is directly attributed to Sam and Sloucher. So I thank you Sam, this has been a fantastic opportunity and gift.
Words & Photos: Jason Thomson