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:

 

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Fun With Word Clouds

As I work on demos for the next album, I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics, naturally. Then I decided to have a little fun with the lyrics on our releases so far, and make word clouds out of them.

Here’s what happens when you plop all 40 Sci-Fi Romance original songs into a word cloud generator (I used wordclouds.com)

All Lyrics wordcloud

I was a little surprised “Don’t” made such a strong showing, but I realized it shows up in the choruses of at least four songs, so there you go.

Then I broke down each album, and tried to generate clouds in thematically-appropriate shapes. Here’s our latest, Dust Among the Stars.

Dust wordcloud

There’s “Don’t” again. I think it’s mostly from the songs “Autumn Waltz” and “Please Don’t Cry.” Here’s a look at The Ghost of John Henry.

John Henry wordcloud

“Love” feels about right. Finally, the first album, …and surrender my body to the flames.

Surrender wordcloud

Ok, I know I said, “finally”…but, actually finally, I decided to do one more. The EPs don’t really have enough songs on them to have a ton of lyrics, but since the site had this one more particular shape that was perfect, I decided to do our EP October, where all the songs were inspired by classic horror movies.

October wordcloud

There’s “don’t” again, but “Dead” and “Break” seem totally appropriate. I really like these. I’ll probably do one for the new record, and if you make any for your band, or your favorite artists (or authors), link to them in the comments or or Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to see them.

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees CoverHere we are, less than ten months after releasing our album Dust Among the Stars, with a surprise EP. It combines new recordings and previously released singles in one collection, most of which share a message of (cautious) optimism despite our current social calamities, and it was important to me to get this out before the 2016 Presidential election. These are our most political songs, and I’m sure I’ve never written an “important” song, but these are probably as close as I’ve gotten.

The EP kicks off with a brand-new song “In the End,” which was written in response to the constant howl of this election season, and recorded the first week of October. So that was, like, last week. It was the unexpected chance to jump in the studio and record this song that made the EP possible.

I’m basically a folk singer, and I felt like I had to get something out there about all this noise. Because the thing is, the votes are going to get counted and one of the candidates is going to go away, but we’re still going to be stuck with each other, and I think people have lost sight of that. I’m not a political party kind of guy, I care about human beings. I care about empathy and I’m terrified at how easy it is to lose that for other folks. You know, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitars, but Pete Seeger wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo. I think that second one is the sentiment I was going for the most.

To go along with the track, I also made an immersive, 360-degree music video shot inside the studio, showing four of me performing all of the instruments. This’ll probably hurt your head:

Lyrically, “In the End” focuses on all of us bearing some responsibility for how we treat each other, and the fact that when people are hurting, we have to turn *to* one other, not turn *on* one another. That sentiment ties the track to two previously-released songs on the EP that come from the same emotional place – “Just to Win the Fight” and “A Mile of Ground.” Both of those were released in slightly different forms in 2012 and remastered for this EP. They focus on the human aspect of struggle and conflict, and the human cost.

Two cover versions of folk standards “Goodnight Irene” and “House of the Rising Sun” round out the EP. Our take on Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” is being released for the first time, and was recorded during the Dust Among the Stars sessions.

The title of the EP, which has more words in it than the release has songs, is a metaphor for fear, which we could all do with a little less of, and is adapted from a line in “Just to Win the Fight.”