“Voices” Music Video: Process Blog

For “Voices,” the first single off of our latest album, I worked with multi-hyphenate artist Mark Landry to create this video:

Here’s the process we took to get there:

For the song “Goodbye at the End of the World” on the last album, Dust Among the Stars, I created an animated music video. I loved how it turned out, but as not-a-professional-animator, it was a colossal undertaking. So when it came time to think about music videos for Dreamers & Runaways, I knew I wanted to do something that was similarly unique, but I also knew that I couldn’t take a bite from the same apple.

The ideation process for the “Voices” music video literally began in the dark, with me thinking through the lyrics of the song, and allowing whatever images they might conjure to come. It was about the same time that the U.S. had decided to separate families — literally ripping children from their mothers’ arms — at the southern border. As an American, and a parent, this was simply too much to bear, and it’s no surprise that those images crept into my darkened little mental theater, and a story began to take shape from there. But a scenario that starts with militaristic thugs in masks yanking a baby from a mother’s grasp and that ends with a rally full of thousands of followers started to feel like an animated project again, and one that I would simply not hold up under.

That’s when the idea of doing this story as a comic came to me. I am very fortunate to have a friend in Mark Landry, who created the comic Bloodthirsty: One Nation Under Water. I reached out to him, to bounce ideas off of and see if he might have any interest in drawing the comic. So Mark came on board.

Step one was the script. I’d never done a comic script before, but there are some great resources out there. I relied on Dark Horse Comics’ sample pages that they make available.

Mark had a ton of great insight on my first pass of the script. After we talked it through and I made the necessary changes, Mark moved on to thumbnails.

We massaged those a bit, and he went to pencils, working backward through the book. The final pages were the most difficult and time-consuming, with all the detail and crowd work, so he started there.

Thumbnails through layout through ink

As Mark did all the pages by hand, scanned them in, and sent me inked pages, I started lettering and coloring them. For lettering, I bought fonts from Blambot, which were an absolute joy to get to use. Please never use Comic Sans. Please support these great craftspeople.

To get the aged comic look, I relied on a set of tools called DEBASER from True Grit Texture Supplies.  It’s an amazing bunch of tools, and I thought the results they created were outstanding.

As a matter of fact, in order to learn DEBASER, I colored a black-and-white version of the first page of EC Comics’ legendary story Judgment Day and tried to make it look like the original. You can see the results here:

Original (L), Fantagraphics Key Art (C), After DEBASER (R)

But during the coloring process, Mark and I hit a snag in terms of scheduling after his light table broke. The song premiered online while I was literally driving to San Jose for WorldCon 76, so we needed to get the video done quickly. With Mark about to start another project with a hard deadline, and his light table out of commission until a replacement could arrive, we discussed me creating the cover of the book. I don’t draw well, and this seemed like an impossible task…but I took a couple of reference photos in the hotel at WorldCon, and started doing pencils for the cover on my iPad.

I created the finished cover in Illustrator.

I started putting the actual printed book together, and pulled in some vintage ads from real 1940s comics. These public domain sources are available from the Digital Comic Museum, a site I simply cannot recommend highly enough if you have any interest in vintage comics.

One painful, explanation-heavy trip to FedEx Office later, and I had an actual, printed comic in my hand. I put it on my kitchen table, and filmed it to create the finished video, shooting in 4K so I could push in for greater detail, since the video was mastered to 1080.

That’s about it. If you buy Dreamers & Runaways on Bandcamp, a digital download of the comic is included as a PDF. If you want to check out Mark’s other work (and you totally should), you can see much of his brilliant painting output at LandryImages.com.

And finally, if you are an eligible nominating member of WorldCon 77, the “Voices” video is eligible to be nominated in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category. Help spread the word!

Half My Life: In the Studio 20 Years Apart

Three months before I turned 20, two friends and I — we were a band called Black Spiral — loaded up a car in Houston, drove to Austin and crashed at a stranger’s house, then went into a makeshift studio early the following morning to try to make a record. That was June 20, 1998…twenty years ago today.

We got breakfast tacos on the way in, recorded nine songs live to tape before lunch, and spent the rest of the day doing vocal overdubs and mixing. I played drums. We finished the day having finished an album. 20 years on, I remain proud of the record (except that one spot in that one song where I sped up noticeably…it still irks me), and deeply grateful for Chris Crowson (bass/vocals) and Ryan Dawe (guitars), with whom I shared that experience.

Me, there. On the right. Stopping on the way back from the “studio” for a hillside band selfie.

Also 20 years on, I find myself three months shy of my 40th birthday, and working on another album, this time in Los Angeles. That long-ago day in June, with the breakfast tacos and the impossible task ahead of us, was exactly half my life ago. And, through an accident of the calendar and because we try to impose order where none would otherwise exist, I am taking this opportunity to finish another record on the same day.

My “new” band, Sci-Fi Romance is itself almost a decade old, and this will be the band’s fourth full-length album. On it, I play a dozen instruments, and have been trying to get it recorded by grabbing hours here and there since December. It is a far cry from nine songs in 5 hours. But it is, hopefully, representative of growth. 20 years ago, I didn’t play guitar, didn’t sing, didn’t write songs, sure as hell didn’t play piano and wouldn’t have dared try to navigate a vibraphone or theremin, all of which I’ve done on the new record. 20 years ago, this was not a day that I could have foreseen. Today, I’ll be in the studio doing the final mixes. Wish me luck.

I feel like there’s a grand conclusion out there I should be able to get my arms around with this unexpected symmetry, this simple, harmonic ratio of life lived…but really I just feel grateful. I am grateful for my wife, a person I could not have imagined 20 years ago. For my children, one of whom also plays piano on this album (not why I’m grateful for them — free musicians!!). Grateful for my father, who has supported me making sounds by hitting things since I started hitting things. Grateful for my many bandmates across many bands. Grateful for my distributor, who reached out after hearing the Spiral CD and has been there since.

Last week, on the day I finished tracking this album.

If there’s a moral, it’s this: our paths are unknown. Every moment of Sci-Fi Romance has been one of me going, “I don’t think I can _______” and then doing it. Me and two talented friends should not have been able to record nine songs before lunch. That’s nuts. But we did it.

I have never easily believed in myself as an artist. I have set barriers I did not think I could overcome, and then, somehow, usually overcome them. Artist or not, musician or not — student, or awesome mom or dad, or whatever — I would hope for you to be nicer to yourself than I’ve usually been to me. I would like you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. I would like you to be able to surprise yourself, and enjoy the feeling.

I hope you guys dig the new record. Last year, dozens of Europeans bought Black Spiral CDs. It gladdened me. If, 20 years from now, teenagers on whatever continent are swapping Sci-Fi Romance mp3s, I’ll be equally proud.

Defeat, by Black Spiral:

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees, by Sci-Fi Romance:

 

Strange Dreams on a Nervous Night

Over the course of maybe the last year, I have had a series of dreams that I had not thought much of and I thought were unrelated, until last night, when they all came together. They clearly Mean Something, or Are Trying to Tell Me Something. But I don’t know what.

Here are some facts:

  • I grew up outside of Houston, and my extended family lived in two rural towns — one small, one very small — about ninety minutes away that we would visit often
  • My paternal grandmother lived next to the cemetery
  • My maternal grandmother lived on land that backed up to the Colorado River
  • To get to my maternal grandmother’s, you had to know the way. The roads were winding and unmarked. Written directions would have included lines like, “When you reach the ‘T’ where the road is paved again, go left.”
  • As a teenager, I believed I had once had a dream that, standing by the river, you could crane your neck and see a scene out of a Dutch painting…a farmhouse surrounded by blooms of every color. This seemed so unlikely because everything around the property was corn and cotton fields. But I was wrong — it had not been a dream. It was something I had actually seen as a child, decided must have been a dream, and yet saw once again, completely unexpectedly, many years later.
  • My father recently sold his mother’s house. Now someone else lives next to the cemetery.

Here are the dreams:

  • Dream #1, about a year ago: I was a teenager, on a drive somewhere with a friend. There was a small, remote cabin my family owned, but no one occupied, where I had played as a child. On the car trip, I recognized the area, told my friend about the cabin, and wondered if I could still find the way. I did. We found the cabin, and spent some time exploring the dusty, empty shell of it, surrounded as it was by tall grasses and trees in the middle-distance. It was magical.
  • Dream #2, a couple months ago: Driving again, now with my wife, I remembered a small town on the way between two places. It was a shortcut that probably didn’t actually save any time, but was lovely. When we got into the town, it was as I had remembered, until we reached the main street. A big box store had been built recently, and it had become the central hub of the town. (We went inside and found they sold guitars, and while a few of them looked nice, they were all off-brands and played shitty.)  We drove on.
  • Dream #3, a few weeks ago: I dreamt that in college, I had driven a lonely stretch of Highway 290 many times, moving between my home and college (this is actually true), and that there was a big, swooping, 270-degree exit off the highway that would take me to a late-night diner (this is not true). They had the best pancakes. I had gone there many times, on many overnight drives, and I wondered if I could still find it. Happily, I did. But the diner was run-down. A strip-mall had sprung up around it and, in the years of my absence, it too had grown run-down. Everything was grimy and forgotten. There were a lot of empty stores in the strip-mall. I went to the diner and got lousy service.
  • Dream #4, last night: Driving. Now. I remembered each of these places in turn, and tried to find them. I could not. I could not remember the secret way to the cabin, or even if my family still owned it. I could not remember the shortcut that wasn’t through the town that now featured lovely, hundred-year-old Victorian houses and wide aisles of fluorescent lighting. I could not find the swooping highway exit that would lead to pancakes. On the radio was Conor Oberst’s “Gossamer Thin.”

I don’t want to eat or get out of bed
Try to recall what the therapist said
Ego and Id, the Essential Self
You are who you are and you are someone else

Waking up with that running through my head was really the last straw that made me wonder what the hell was going on. All interpretations are welcome in the comments below.