Your Weekend Listening • 1/2/09
Untitled (Think Like a Soldier)
Long time followers of the Rambler will probably know what I mean when I call something a 'Dave Special,' but I'll refresh. For the first portion of my musical life - starting in 1991 and ending in about 1995 - it was a pretty rare thing for me to play with other musicians. This didn't slow down my musical output, as I'd bought my friend Dave's used Tascam Porta-One, the classic cassette four-track recorder that many musicians of my generation rightly fetishize. I put the TPO through its paces, and it put me through mine, with several albums' worth of poorly written, poorly played and poorly recorded songs - poorly played because every instrument was played by myself, and even the instruments I could play, I couldn't.
Eventually, I got better. And by the end of that phase, I'd gotten enough experience with using the TPO and arranging for my one-man-band that even if the writing didn't improve much, the recordings got better; almost, arguably, to the point of listenability. But one man's Joe Meek is another man's Kenny G (or something like that), so listenability is debatable. The point is, I can go back and listen to some of the last few Dave Specials from the day and not cringe, which is certainly a victory of sorts.
But then I met Edz, and I didn't have to play my own drums anymore, and then came Rick, and Ryan, and Rob, and Elliott, and Shaun, and Eric, and Bran, and Ansley, then Shaun (again), and now Karl and Christine, so I barely even have to play an instrument or sing at all anymore, and no-one lets me anywhere near the mixing desk. Now, the collaborative nature of P.C.M.A./DeScK means that the songs are generally complete as fully-arranged instrumentals before melody and lyrics are added - which is entirely the opposite of the way I used to write. And there's a not-so-small part of me that misses the days of living in the basement, sitting up in bed, reaching for the nearby acoustic and quickly writing a song - and then rushing it through production the next day, with a speed that makes CSNY's 'Ohio' look like Chinese Democracy. True, the finished product was never what you'd consider polished, but the immediacy and sincerity is something I've come to prize.
So, finally having some free(ish) time, I decided to try to see if I could resurrect the Dave Special last Sunday. Karl came over and kindly set up the drum mics, and we spent an hour or so getting 'the sound.' I've gone on at length about getting 'the sound' for drums before, so you can revisit that here.. Suffice it to say, mics were moved around several times, and then we called it 'good' and Karl went to do some laundry, leaving me to it.
Ah, but leaving me to what? I'd had the idea of recording a song, but no real song to record, yet. I'd been toying around with the idea recently of going back to record the lost Copper Man album, Americana, but that's all going to be Edz on drums. And, minus the material I'd contributed to P.C.M.A. over the last couple of years, I didn't have any other finished songs sitting around - after the demise of Copper Man, I'd taken to only writing when a song was 'needed' for a project, and seeing as P.C.M.A. writing is a group effort, I go out of my way not to write songs for it, and it's not a band that I can write effectively for, anyhow.
Still, there have been a few aborted ideas and sketches that I've had over the period - mostly things that started as possible P.C.M.A. contributions - a bridge, a chorus, etc. - and either didn't pass muster in practice, or never even got to the point where I felt they were worth presenting. And my writing engine has been a little primed lately, since there's a song needed* to complete the P.C.M.A. album that doesn't yet exist, and the process of searching for it has generated a few further ideas.
Also, a recent email exchange had P.C.M.A. singer Christine encouraging me to get back on the writing horse for my own emotional well-being, so I've been taking to sitting down with the acoustic - still my writing tool of choice - and trying to, you know, write.
As is the case with a lot of these things, I just chose the song at the top of the pile, the most recent one - still missing a bridge and lyrics and any kind of order for the various parts - basically, it was just three chord changes and a few sketchy melodies, with one embryonic stanza accompanying it. Having some faith that I'd be able to write a lyric (see, that's my 'thing') I quickly put the pieces in some kind of order - verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat, bridge, etc. - and went ahead and recorded the drums and bass before I thought better of it.
Of course, my feel on drums is different than that of myself as a guitar player, so I found that not only had I changed a couple of major accents, I'd also recorded the drums about 15 bpm too fast. I digitally slowed the drums, which actually improved the tone (although it did make the drums sound a little sloppier, ala 'Rain'), re-recorded the bass, and overdubbed a couple of acoustic tracks. Embarrassingly, the bass took the longest of all, maybe because I think of myself as a bass player. The lyrics came very quickly, taking about ten minutes to write and another ten to record:
I never know when it's over.
If I could think like a soldier, now,
I'd never walk into a room
Without knowing the best way out.
But my plan goes astray in every way, every time.
I can see that you're thinking it over.
Never one for pretending it's black and white.
Maybe I could be right.
My mind is a vacuum.
I wear my scars like a calling card,
Handed off in a back room
To the man from the Scotland Yard.
What the fuck did you think I was on when I called?
I never did have the patience,
But I'm making some headway, now.
What do you want to see?
That's what I'm trying to figure out.
If you can... indicate, bat an eye, anytime.
Not any kind of words of genius - lazy rhymes, really - but serviceable, and, most importantly, 'true.' At least in the sense of being a baldly accurate yet therapeutic snapshot of my frame of mind these days, which was one of the reasons I missed songwriting.
I put down some percussion - a tambourine and about eight tracks of handclaps - and called it done, about four hours after starting. The next day, I realized it wasn't done, and I laid down the guitar solo, mixed it, and then called it 'done.'
And, you know? I couldn't be happier with the results. The playing is still off and sloppy, and the engineering (minus Karl's mic'ing) could be better... but I wonder if perhaps there might be an entire 'Dave Special' album coming in 2009? I found this whole process very freeing, both from my specific role in P.C.M.A, and my own self-imposed sense of quality control. Just get down there, hit record, and play - I've been doing this for long enough at this point that something will come out.
PS: I realized after sending this song via email to a number of friends that I'd misnamed the genre the 'Dave Classic.' Apologies. Clearly, it's the 'Dave Special,' with 'Special' meaning that it arrived at the studio in the short bus.
*This is a hotly debated point, with myself feeling that there's a particular and specific musical and lyrical absence, and other members thinking it's fine as is. Such is the inner life of a band.