296. Pop Muzik

The bus dropped us off at the hotel around eight in the morning. None of us are at our best at that time of day, as you can imagine, but everything had been planned like a military operation, down to the slightest detail. Bunches of our equipment had been packed in the bus instead of the truck the night before, and now we swapped it all into a smaller van. Marty was off until tomorrow night, and he gave us a little wave as he took the bus off to wherever one parked that sort of thing. Probably at the venue, but I didn’t know. It wasn’t my job to know all the details. Carynne told the driver where to take us and then she supervised everything at the hotel.

The smaller van took the four of us first to a place to grab breakfast, which we did as quickly as possible, and then to the recording studio, which was outside the French Quarter but still didn’t seem very far. The driver warned us not to leave anything on the curb for more than four seconds. I assured him I was from New York City and neither guitar case was leaving my hands until I was inside. We managed to get everything inside without mishap. What we brought was mainly instruments, but no drums: we were renting those.

Inside, there were three men I didn’t know. So I took it upon myself to walk up to them and shake hands and introduce myself.

One of them was Jouett Hansen, the producer who had been hired for the occasion. One of them was Van Robards, the manager of the studio. And the third guy was our new drum tech, Fred Trachtenberg, known to everyone as Trackie. I was sleep deprived enough that for the first few minutes I couldn’t have told you which one was which after the introductions, though. It became clear enough. The short guy with the receding hairline talking to Chris was Trackie, the guy having a smoke outside was Van, and the guy beckoning me over to the control board was Jouett.

“What kind of a name is Jouett?” I asked him as he sat down in one of the rolling chairs.

“The kind my mother liked,” he said with an easy smile and a soft drawl. He looked mid-twenties, in a plain black T-shirt and cargo pants. Unpretentious, I thought. “Have you been here before?”

“New Orleans?”

“No, here.” He patted the sound board. It was a Neve, kind of like the one at Remo’s, but bigger.

“No, first time.”

“Well, I’m planning on tracking you with this puppy here,” he said, running his hands along the edge of the Neve, “and then do the mixdown on the SSL in the other room.”

“Whatever floats your boat,” I told him. “I used to work in a studio, but I won’t get in the way unless you want me to.”

“Cool. So tell me what you guys are thinking.”

“We’ve worked on this one song a little. That guy over there,” I pointed through the glass into the large studio room that Bart and Ziggy were wandering around, my finger tracking on Zig. “He’s the star of the movie the song’s for.”

“He’s the singer?”

“Yeah.”

“That makes it easy. Look, why don’t you guys set up how you want for a run through or whatever.”

“Yeah, we haven’t actually played it yet. He and I have worked on it in the back of the bus, but we haven’t done it as a four piece.”

“Take your time. They’ve paid me for the whole day regardless.” He put his feet up. “If I look asleep, I probably am. But wake me up if you need me.”

“Okay.” I went through the door into the live room. It had a thirty foot ceiling, was big enough to put a small orchestra in. The floor was strewn with “Persian” rugs and a drum kit was already on a riser. That was interesting, since a lot of the time in studio the kit sat on the floor with everyone else. Then I saw a bunch of the mic setup and figured they had a rationale for setting it like that.

Through another window I could see a separate vocal booth and on the other side another small recording room. Pretty swank.

The upper portion of the walls in this main room had high, soundproof windows letting in natural light. I looked around at the tired faces of my bandmates.

“I don’t suppose it’s realistic for us all to get a nap,” I said. “No? Didn’t think so. I guess we better just get to it, then. Zig?”

He sat down backwards on a chair so he was facing Chris, who was sitting on the edge of the drum riser. “Let’s noodle through what we’ve got.”

“Okay.” I pulled the Ovation out and checked its tuning quickly and then sat down on a chair myself. “We haven’t really worked out how the opening goes yet, but if we start with the chorus we can get into the verse after.”

“Yeah.” Ziggy and I didn’t have to count off. We just looked at each other and then off we went.

Milking it for all its worth
Good to the last drop

There were still some rough patches. I mean, really rough, because all we had was a sketch of the song. Maybe that doesn’t happen to visual artists, I don’t know, but I imagine sometimes you draw a sketch and then later it turns out you don’t actually have room for something where you thought you would, or maybe the color and the background don’t really work out the way you pictured it in your mind.

There were spots where Ziggy and I weren’t picturing the same thing, too. So we’d be in synch one minute and then off kilter the next. We made a lot of false starts.

But we got into playing it as a foursome as fast as we could. I don’t know. Somehow one song, one day seemed like it ought to be really easy when we’d talked about it, but now that we were on the spot, it suddenly didn’t seem like enough time.

Especially when Ziggy was whapping me on the shoulder. “No, no, stop trying to change that melody. It’s got to go like thi-i-i-is.”

“Why? It flows better the way I’m doing it.”

“But that’s not how it goes,” he insisted.

I shut my eyes for a minute, trying to get it into my ears his way. “Fuck, I don’t know why that’s so hard. It’s your song. It is. It should go however you want.”

But damn if I didn’t blow it again the next time through. “What is wrong with me?”

“Stop with the passive aggressive bullshit,” Ziggy said.

“I am not being passive aggressive! I just suck today!”

“Like I believe that!”

“Believe it! I’m not fucking perfect and I’m not a machine!”

“Guys, guys.” That was Bart. “Let’s take five and go see if the coffee maker we passed on the way in works.”

Yeah, okay. So we did that. Everyone cooled down for a bit. When we went back in, I was the first one to wander back. My stomach wasn’t liking the coffee.

I played around some to clear my head and then I remembered the flamenco-sounding bit I’d been playing with before. I saw Ziggy’s ears perk up through the glass–I guess they had the monitor on out there. He gave me an unreadable look.

He came back in. “Are you going to use that in the opening?”

“And the bridge, if you think it fits.”

He made a face. “You know, I think it does fit.”

“Then why the face?”

“Because I’m worried they’re going to think it sounds too… exotic.”

“They being the movie people?”

“Yeah.” He grimaced nervously. “They’re already on a bit about how they don’t want me pegged as an ‘ethnic’ star.”

“Oh. Oh and you think the Spanish-sounding thing is going to somehow make you more… Latin?”

He nodded. “Which is a bitch, because that sounds really good. And you know, in the context of a Moondog Three album wouldn’t seem weird at all. But for a movie theme song?”

“I see what you mean. Should we get the producer’s opinion?”

“I’ll go ask him.” Ziggy went back out of the room to confer with Jou’. I looked around, then, wondering where Bart and Chris had gone.

If we had to chuck that riff, my head was empty. It was like tumbleweeds were blowing by. I wished I had slept, but it’s not like I didn’t try. I put down the Ovation and picked up the Strat instead. Tuned it waiting to see if I could hear anything. Nothing really came up.

Bart and Chris came in through a side door and I realized they must have been poking around the other rooms. Each of them had an empty styrofoam cup in hand and deposited them in the open can near the door. They looked at me.

I must’ve looked panicked. Bart said, “You okay?”

“Uh, just, we may have eighty-sixed what ideas I had for the instrumental run-up and the bridge.”

Bart shrugged like that was no big deal. And normally it wouldn’t be.

Chris didn’t even meet my eyes, just climbed behind the drum kit and waited.

Ziggy came back in. “He’s a music guy, not a movie guy, but I think I’m right. We can’t take the chance.” He stopped in front of me. “Save it for another song?”

“Yeah.” I winced, though. Once my head starts putting things together, sometimes they’re hard to take apart.

They all looked at me. They were all waiting for me to come up with something. This was the part that was really mine to do.

Ziggy even said it. “I can’t really do anything until you figure this part out.”

I shook my head. “Look, does it really need a lot of intro? Is that something in the song spec for an opening sequence or something?”

“Yeah. At least thirty seconds,” Ziggy answered.

“And we can’t just do a… crap.” I knew we couldn’t just start in the middle. That’s what it would feel like if we just did a run through of the main melody without words. This song really needed a run up.

I closed my eyes. I really, really wanted to sleep. I wasn’t actually sleepy just now, but my brain wasn’t in gear, either. I heard Chris rattle his sticks impatiently.

And then a bunch of stuff all just jelled in my mind. Steve Ray Vaughn, and what Cain said, and Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Eddie Van Halen, and Bob Seger’s song about the road, and Jackson Browne, and somewhere along the way some Johnny Cash had gotten stuck in there, too, and Elvis, and Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, and Remo’s bluesy style, and Bonnie Raitt, and what they wanted was something American, something “white” American, but what was important about all those guys (and one gal) wasn’t that they were white, it was that they were American in some fundamental way.

And I basically busted out a line that was… the kind of solo that’s usually in the middle of things. But when you use it as an intro, it just starts out quiet, builds up gradually, and then before you know it, you dive right in. Think about the way that Steve Howe opens up “Roundabout” by Yes. It’s rare, that kind of run up. If you’ve seen Dire Straits do “Money for Nothing” live, though, they lead into that opening solo like that too, sometimes. “Ain’t Talking About Love” by Van Halen, maybe. “Purple Haze” by Hendrix. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.

The guitar is not like other instruments. It can be a rhythm instrument or a melodic instrument. It can be at the top or at the bottom. It can be the chords or the voice. And 99% of the time it’s being played exactly like 99% of the other times it’s been played. You can’t always be reaching for that one percent. (Unless you’re Robert Fripp.) Everything you do is a new walk through that same territory.

Anyway. Out came this thing. This thing that mapped to a 12-bar blues, but it probably took until I went around the progression a second time for anyone in the room but Bart to hear it, because I was only given hints of the chords, as the solo line built up and the riffs became motifs and it started to MAKE SENSE. To the listener, anyway. It made sense to me from the first note.

When it ended, I plowed right into the riff for the chorus, not the verse, and it worked as seamlessly as if I’d written it all down and charted it out.

And then I stopped, to see what they thought.

They were all staring at me.

“Too much?” I asked.

Ziggy licked his bottom lip, which still had bruisey-looking remnants of black lipstick clinging to it, and said, “Can you do it again?”

I nodded. “In fact, I better, if I don’t want to forget it.”

Jouett’s voice came through the monitor. “I got it on tape if you want to hear it back.”

Ziggy turned around. “You did?”

“Yeah. Never know when something’s going to be useful to hear again. Even in rehearsal.”

“I don’t need it right now.” I shrugged. “Come on. Let’s do it.”

“Jump on boys, the D-train is leaving the station,” Ziggy added, with a little clap of his hands.

27 Comments

  • Autumn says:

    Go Daron! I was getting worried there for a minute. So glad that it all clicked into place and turned out right.

    • daron says:

      Thanks.

      It’s so hard to explain how it works. And the difference between a good riff and a lame one. You figure some day you’re going to just lose it and fall back on playing cliches the rest of your life. But not yet.

  • Stacey says:

    This is one of those times when I really, really wish I could hear what was going on! Instead of just imagining it…although what I’m imagining is pretty good.

    • ctan says:

      I wish I could produce music as well as words!

      • cayra says:

        Sometimes, I can hear the melodies you decribe in my head. Sometimes I just really really wish I did.

        • ctan says:

          And I do play the guitar, and a lot of the riffs Daron describes are real ones. But I don’t have time to get as good at the guitar as I would need to to make it sound right. I was better at it in the 80s! 🙂

      • Bill Heath says:

        http://www.finalemusic.com/products/finale-notepad/

        It’s free. The full suite is awesome. I can’t afford it, so I use the free version. Some real limitations (can’t change tempo so exporting to MIDI doesn’t sound quite right). It has a guitar and maybe 30 other instruments. The guitar sound sucks. And I just learned that the synthesizer sucks even worse. Horns are good, strings are OK (cello is probably best).

        • ctan says:

          Wow. I remember when Finale was first introduced. I was running a computer music lab at Brown University at the time. I’d lost touch with music software over the years and didn’t realize it was still the standard. 🙂

  • cayra says:

    Grah, stupid movie people! But good job, Daron, on finding an awesome intro!

  • Spaqueen says:

    Nothing like a large helping of Daron!

  • Nona says:

    And there we have the upside and the downside of being the resident musical whizkid.

    The difficulty level of having to compose to the dictates of the movie industry rather than just take what the cosmos gives you has to be maddening.

    • daron says:

      You said it. It’s not so much the restrictions like, we need 30 seconds instrumental, it’s more I get stuck wondering what the hell they WANT. I know what regular listeners and our fans want but trying to guess what some movie executive is going to want? A little paralyzing at first. Until I quit thinking about it and just took what the universe gave me and ran with it.

  • sanders says:

    Since this is a big month of posting, is there any chance we’ll hear directly from Ziggy? Would bribes of fanmixes and cookies help the odds of that? (Firstborn child, organs, souls are all negotiable, too.)

    I’m also curious about how old Ziggy and Daron are at this point. It’s hard to keep a handle on when a few weeks in the story can span a couple of months in real time.

    • ziggy says:

      I’m always here for you, babe. But I would love to hear your fanmix.

      • sanders says:

        It’s a work in progress, darlin’. You should look up Mumford & Sons’ White Blank Page since that’s my starting point. Whether it’s a song that should be heard as from you to Daron or Daron to you, that’s probably best left to the pair of you to sort out. The same band’s Little Lion Man also fits your relationship early on, especially with a fractionally more forceful and ironic delivery of the chorus.

      • sanders says:

        Adding on two Ben Harper songs from Burn to Shine:
        Less, where you have to set the player to the album and track:
        http://www.benharper.com/sites/all/themes/bh/player.php?song_nid=72153&album_nid=72144

        and Please Bleed, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, which can be watched: http://www.benharper.com/media/videos/music/please-bleed

        I’m also curious what Daron thinks of Harper as a guitarist. I wouldn’t have even considered how it’s the type of guitar (lapsteel?) that gives his music a rougher, kind of grittier sound had it not been for reading DGC. A guitar was a guitar was a guitar, unless it was a bass. Now I’m paying a lot more attention to the variations in the musicians I listen to, and the similarities.

        I want the pair of you to fix things.

    • ctan says:

      Probably *after* WeSeWriMo is done I’ll do some special things like letting people vote on who to tell a story or chapter from next. I know some folks want to hear from Bart, too. 🙂 Cookies and fanmixes are ALWAYS appreciated around here! (Probably the strangest “donation” I got on a blog was a case of beef jerky…)

      Daron’s 22 at this point in the story. Ziggy’s about a year older, and when I asked when his birthday was he said it didn’t matter, since he is special and the center of attention EVERY day.

      • sanders says:

        Beef jerky? Really? Please, I beg you, find a way to work that story into a liner note, because there’s no way it can’t be hilarious.

        I would be happy hearing from Bart, too, so count me among that clamor of voices. I cannot imagine what he thinks about the things Daron does, or if he even notices half of them. We’ve never really seen what he thinks about Ziggy and his antics either, and among the four in the band, Bart definitely seems to be the most well-adjusted.

        As cookies go, I’m going through some weird form of nesting that demands I send care packages. So if you let me know what you like, I’ll try to send some along to you.

        • ctan says:

          The beef jerky was a donation to one of my baseball blogs, actually, because I wrote up my trip to Seattle’s ballpark and mentioned the Oberto Beef Jerky billboard they have in the stadium. A guy who worked at Oberto and LOVED the Mariners sent it after reading the blog entry!

          I am pretty easy to please when it comes to cookies… it’s probably easier to say what I don’t like: walnuts. Pretty much everything else you can make cookies from, is on my “like” list (chocolate, other nuts, oats, jam, I used to be anti-raisin but I’m not anymore…)

  • Nia says:

    There’s Daron working that music magic 🙂 lol

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