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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Five Recording Studio Documentaries

I was going through some of the footage of the band in the studio recording the new album, and it gave me the itch to watch the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the unbelievably prolific LA session musicians who recorded most of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s. It was really good, so naturally it made me want to watch and re-watch some of my other favorite music documentaries.

I found a bunch of lists online of music documentaries, but to be honest most of them are either concert films (e.g., The Last Waltz) or retrospective interview-style profiles of bands of individuals (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). So that made me want to put together a list of some recording studio-centric docs in case anybody else wants to go down this rabbit hole with me.

It’s worth noting this is not an attempt at a “Best of…” list. It’s just some good flicks. We’re off!

Let it Be – The Beatles

This is the real deal, right here. The cameras followed The Beatles through rehearsing and recording what wound up being their final album. You get a sense of the dysfunction in the band, but there are some moments of joy, too, like the famous, impromptu rooftop concert scene. This movie’s been out-of-print for decades, but there are bootlegs floating around.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco

The story behind Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album is legendary — from the tensions between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which resulted in Bennett leaving the band, to the album being passed on by the band’s label, only for them to sell it to Nonesuch Records for buckets of money on its way to becoming a big hit. And cameras were there capturing it all as it happened. This movie was actually how I heard about Wilco.

A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica – Metallica

I don’t know how many times I watched this documentary as a teenager, but it was a lot. A LOT. Part one covers the recording of the black album, and part two covers their first tour in support of it. As much as Metallica became known as self-absorbed blowhards, this is on the whole a fun look at the making of an album nobody had any idea was going to change their lives forever. And the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Sound City – Various

I love Dave Grohl. This documentary tells the story of Sound City, its legendary Neve mixing console, the demise of the studio, and Grohl’s resurrection of the board in his own studio. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a music doc. Appearances by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, and tons more.

Muscle Shoals – Various

I’m cheating a little because I haven’t seen this one, but it’s about the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like The Wrecking Crew, it publicly tells the story of something that was never well-known outside of the recording industry. And also, a bunch of our fellow contributors to the annual Couch by Couchwest festival hail from the Muscle Shoals area.

New Year, New Record

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, Sci-Fi Romance’s third album has been written for a while now, but life has prevented it from being recorded…until now!

Right before Christmas, we went into the studio for three days and broke ground on the new record. We got six songs in the can, and have a few more to polish up and get done in the coming weeks. And then this beast can finally lumber out into the wide world.

Sci-Fi Romance song lyrics in the vocal booth

Sci-Fi Romance song lyrics in the vocal booth

It’s a diverse record that’s both as loud and as quiet as anything we’ve done before, with what I think is a nice balance of light and darkness. Not quite as bleak as the last album, top-to-bottom. You’ll dig it.

These drums sound amazing.

These drums sound amazing.