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:

 

The Morning Breaks: My Life in Music

I just released a new video from our album The Ghost of John Henry, for the song “The Morning Breaks.” It goes like this:


This an intensely personal video for me, and I have to be honest it feels a little weird putting it out into the world. The earliest footage in here dates back to 1993, when I was a kid. That’s twenty years of my life in about three minutes, from the first show I ever played (performing Metallica and Pantera songs on a flatbed trailer at a church carnival, right after I started playing drums), through four bands (there have been more, but I don’t have footage of them all), five or six relocations, my transitions from drums to guitar and heavy metal to folk music, and the John Henry recording sessions earlier this year. I was reluctant to tackle this video, too, because I figured it would either come out really honest and evocative…or totally fail and feel wildly self-indulgent. Hopefully it’s more of the former.

This video takes the song in a different direction from its context on the album, but that’s ok. I realized maybe a month ago while visiting my parents that I had all this VHS performance footage dating back to before I could drive a car, and as I dug through old boxes and drawers and rediscovered more footage, I realized that there was a pretty solid chronology hidden away in there that drew a bright line across most of my life. I think the video still fits the theme of the song quite well. We know who we are, but not who we’ll be.

I wish I could speak intelligently about how it felt to go back through all of this footage, but the only thing I consistently felt…was lucky, really.

So, there you go. Now you can watch me grow up. Like the Harry Potter kids.

PS. Thank you to everybody I played with in these bands – Black Spiral (Chris, Ryan), De Profundis (Matthew, Rob, Chris, Robyn), Mission 13 (Chris, Matthew, Karen), and Sci-Fi Romance, today (thanks, Kurt and Jody).

How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.