|1:35||The Beach is Closed||(Alan)|
|4:03||Anywhere But Here||(Tom)|
|11:37||Behind the Mask||(Tom)|
|13:27||Pity Party – reprise||(Alan/Tom)|
My cousin Tom is a music hobbyist like me, a singer, songwriter, and largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist. When we were teenagers I was envious of his extensive discography of home-recorded material, and I think he was envious of my garage band that played regular gigs. Over the years Tom and I have made music together many times and have had a lot of cross-pollination of musical ideas and recording techniques in our solo work. This mini-album is the latest and greatest of our collaborations.
The following are Tom’s extensive notes on the creative process, with a few notes from me. When my wife Marisa read them she observed, “The ideas that go behind the art and music are the creative urges and are translated into the art form as we try to express and figure them out. They seem as important as the finished product in our minds.”
Album Notes by Tom
“Pity Party” mostly came to me as I was driving home on the I-10 East Freeway from San Bernardino to Calimesa on February 25, 2020. However, I believe that the notion of the lyrics/topics were ruminating in my brain much in the winter of 2019/2020. I seem to recall the title and idea of “Pity Party” popped in my head while jogging once or twice during this time. The idea I had was probably due to the fact that I’m trying hard to make conscious my subliminal thoughts – the irrational ones that get in my way. I frequently struggle with guilt and self-criticism. Additionally, my expectations of myself and others are unrealistic. So I do realize the illogic my subconscious carries but at the same time I have yet to wave a magic wand and dissapparate these degenerate notions. So, with the idea for “Pity Party,” it’s certainly a parody of my subconscious since I can’t seem yet to make big changes to it. I feel unhappy when even at times my rational mind’s tally on my fortunes seems heavily in my favor. And also, I feel guilty feeling sad when others problems better merit unhappiness.
At any rate, this is the lyrical idea and the campy music popped in my head while driving. I stopped at a gas station off of Calimesa Blvd and used my phone to record my idea. I was a bit ashamed of the idea and didn’t record it, but also life got really busy at this very time when Lori’s mother took very ill and passed away. It made the guilt of feeling sad over little hit home and the song became more meaningful. And then COVID-19 shut the country down in mid March. Like many Americans, this altered my work conditions, eventually clearing the slate to finally record this frivolous song.
I first recorded a pre-programmed march rhythm and accompaniment at, I think, 112 bpm. I knew the song structure more or less but needed a skeleton to musically build around before removing the scaffolding. I realized after I transferred the sequence that I had recorded a different rhythm – a straight 4/4 as opposed to the shuffle rhythm I pictured for the middle part. I decided to keep the straight 4/4, hoping to shake some of the unintentional borrowing from musical sources. In particular, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” shares a small melody phrase and it wasn’t as similar in a different rhythm. I think I unconsciously borrowed from “Light Brigade” by Franz von Suppé for the “wouldn’t you like to join me..” section and probably some Italian Opera I can’t yet place. In my mind, I was trying to sound like Queen – more particularly like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Early in the recording I added a piano in the beginning and a separate piano in the middle. I also added keyboard drums, minus the high-hat and cymbals because of the volume mismatch in the Casio sample. I added a bass to the middle and end and initially was not very pleased with the result. I recorded another bass track and copied the best parts to replace the bad spots in the initial bass track. Then I recorded vocals, starting with the highest part. I sang the part on another track and again on a third track to triple-track the part. I did the same with the second highest part. As six tracks were already used up, I needed to reduce, so I bounced the three highest tracks and second highest part tracks to two new tracks, erasing the originals for the process to repeat for two more vocal parts.
When it came time to record my ideas for having a guitar choir like Brian May of Queen has been apt to do, I was unable to perform my ideas to track, except for a single simplified guitar. Perhaps my confidence was reduced at having the bass track not come out to my liking. I relented to perform a simplified version of my guitar ideas on two organ stereo tracks. After deciding to finish the song, I performed the bass again and took my better ideas to replace some of the original bass track. Then I had the confidence to wrap up with cymbals, accordion (for beginning part). I managed to fill up the stereo tracks quickly so I had to erase the original sequence, but by that time things were coming together.
I made a mix on the Tascam multitrack unit and another on my computer and presented them to friends and family. Initial reactions seemed to relate the lyrics directly to COVID-19 pandemic. In truth, though I added a couple lines about the quarantine, to me personally it still is mainly about my emotional garbage. However, I often write lyrics, whether unintentionally or not, to mean more than one thing. And these days I am happy when other I share them with find a different meaning than the things that it speaks to my mind. In truth, I was surprised to have a few warm receptions to the music. I think the beginning section still reminds me a bit of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” by some group whose name escapes me.
Anywhere But Here
The introduction to “Anywhere But Here” was a response to a musical suggestion by Scott Church, a person who has collaborated with me often in the past. He suggested doing an “accordion fugue” and also a “Low” album era David Bowie song. The latter didn’t spark any ideas but the former did. I called to mind the mock-seriousness of Hipster Wes Anderson films and the campy film scores. Having an accordion play a fugue (a counterpoint musical interplay of two melodies) seemed to be just this Hipster notion – a mixture of serious discipline and campy minimalism. I attempted one evening to make this fugue and came up with nothing productive.
As I was jogging around this time (right before my left knee started having issues), I imagined an instrumental piece from a Super Nintendo 1990’s game called “Earthbound” scored by a Japanese video game composer which was a breezy but campy take on a 1960’s era Burt Bucharach type instrumental – not too dissimilar to Mr. Bacharach’s production “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” The context of the video game music was a seaside vacation resort town. I had some similar ideas inspired by this game music, the source material and also a healthy bit of 1960’s Hollywood pop music.
I imagined that musical idea could be tied into the COVID-19 pandemic, in that I was desiring very much at this point to have a vacation but having to settle for a “virtual vacation.” To add context, Lori and I had been planning to vacation with my parents to central Europe in May 2020 and the pandemic eventually cancelled this getaway. As a person who struggles with discouragement from time to time, it is very helpful for me to have something to look forward to in the not-so-distant future to lift my eyes from my troubles. So I imagined this piece could be about this longing for some vacation, perhaps imagining leisure while stuck at home. Also around this time, I watched a few hours of YouTube of virtual amusement park walk-throughs and that seemed to narrowly fill this longing for a getaway but not really satisfying.
So my thought was to make a Bacharach-type vacation song about a virtual vacation. I revisited the fugue idea in a relative key and the same tempo as “Pity Party.” Temporarily, I slowed the tempo down drastically so my limited keyboard skills could keep up with some of the ideas I was working through. I sequenced each “hand” on my Yamaha keyboard on a floppy disc MIDI file and quantized each (rounded up each note to line up to the nearest 1/12 note – or 6/8 imposed on 4/4). I was actually very happy with the end result after I sped it back up to 112 bpm. All of the sequence was performed without touch sensitivity, so my fingers could hit each note better. The intro reminds me a bit of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
I decided to keep going with the sequence but in real time and fairly quickly came up with a electric grand piano line that was different than my notions of a Bacharach-type vacation road-trip sort of song. The keyboard line felt more intimate and shaped the direction and topic of the lyrics. The group AJR probably had some influence in the direction it took once the keyboard had been sequenced.
Slowly I started building the track up. I decided to be more sparse with drum track, featuring some Pet Sounds era percussion sounds on top of the bass, snare drum and rim-shots. I think the bass line took a few revisions until I was satisfied with the track. I really tried to leave out simple mistakes that would grind on me upon future relistenings. A keyboard string line really helped round out everything.
Before I got too far with the instrumental tracks, I did have one lyric line in my head (the song’s title line) which played off the new direction the music was suggesting to me. I thought the sparse section of the music where just the digital grand was playing suggested a sort of frail optimism, perhaps like a small plant whose leaves were just shooting out at the hint of warmer weather in the uncertain spring. The vocal line was a play off my original idea of wanting to escape on vacation but also the unsteady positivity the music hinted to me of being content in my refuge, as it was really the best place to be. Maybe in my actual situation I examined my own disappointment at not being able to travel to Prague, Vienna and Budapest and realizing that most of my disappointment was just a surrender of will (we like to call our own shots in life) or a misalignment of expectations (that I needed to have fancy vacations to be happy or have less stress).
I suggested the idea of counterpoint vocals to Lori and she understood when I played back the bridge from the song “Windy” by The Association (“Above the clouds” line). Some inspiration to the chorus owes to this song which was also the same era as much of the song’s other inspirations. I recorded the chorus vocals in round format, triple tracked and four parts like “Pity Party.” And like “Pity Party,” I needed to combine/reduce the vocals down so I had enough tracks to add more instruments. I got out my middle-school trumpet to try to play trumpet similar to Burt Bucharach records. I double tracked my trumpet after many, many takes and almost didn’t use the end result. I saved the poor brass tone I put down by adding a keyboard trumpet to strengthen the actual trumpets.
When considering the lyrics, I think I finally put down mainly of the escapist notions and combined them with a fragile optimism and some of the previously mentioned self-realizations. Also, I loved throwing in the notion of boredom to be candid/accurate to the first couple weeks of my own isolation experience. I unconsciously matched this frail positivity of the verses to a single-tracked lead vocal.
I don’t recall the specifics of the mixdown process, but I was really satisfied with the mix produced on the Tascam machine versus the one I attempted using CoolEdit software. When sharing the song, I announced my intent to string together a modular song – sort of like a medley of songs but with separate records (similar to the Beach Boys’/Brian Wilson’s album “Smile”). Lori listened to the song several times on repeat the week following. Those I shared the song with provided rather positive feedback.
A Proposed Collaboration / Going Viral
My cousin Alan suggested to me that we collaborate on this modular project, his first submission being a piece called “Going Viral” that had its genesis while he was in High School in a band called “Claudia Doesn’t Like It” who were an influence on my music projects. Alan had already begun work on recording this track before I recorded “Anywhere But Here.” I really liked the guitar line with its hammer-on glissando notes. He decided to record it with a capo on the neck of the guitar to transpose to a key that complemented “Pity Party” and “Anywhere But Here.” Alan’s son played bass on this track. His lyrics were already pretty much done and his tracks were falling into place nicely without need of my assistance. What eventually took place was rather than jointly constructing the same pieces of musical fabric, we both provided nearly finished ones to stitch together. Alan was the chief tailor when stitching together this musical quilt.
I suggested some mixing adjustments and the addition on his recording of “aah” vocals in the chorus and was humbled that he implemented my suggestion. This song and recording has grown on me and I’ve found myself several times during this project with this song stuck in my head.
Alan: The words for this tune came to me in early April, when social distancing was still novel, the true threat from the virus was uncertain, and the economic impact was not yet really felt. I also adapted a cheesy slogan from a public sign at the hospital where I work: “Stand together by standing 6 ft apart.”
When I played an early mixdown of the song for Marisa one morning her reaction surprised me: she laughed out loud. I didn’t exactly intend it as a satire, but its somber mood is certainly exaggerated. This was a good reminder to not take myself or my music too seriously.
I submitted a simple string instrumental introduction to Alan that might be used for his recording with superimposed cricket sound effects. I had previously wanted to compose a more elaborate instrumental. Among those I attempted or conceived of were a jazz combo with trumpet (I don’t think my skills were up to scratch) and a more orchestrated intro. These ideas were not completed due to a drastic loss of confidence I was experiencing after the high of success with “Anywhere But Here.” On the existing simple string recording, I actually attempted to play the recorder (the woodwind instrument) but the results were not very pleasant and I hadn’t the patience to work through my playing inability. But later this recording seemed to function as a good lead-in to Alan’s recording.
Behind The Mask
My third song for this project was “Behind the Mask.” After the CDC strongly recommended use of face masks to avoid the spread of the disease, every store was full of people with masks and bandannas. It had been so surreal even more this point and the masks were just exclamation points to the story that future generations will likely have trouble fully believing. The masks made conversation difficult in grocery stores or carry-out restaurants, not only because it made for tricky annunciation, but also because it hid a good amount of non-verbal facial communication. I thought this was a good idea for another song because of the surreal cartoonishness of these masks (if people were to wear masks in the stores before the pandemic, the security might be called on these shoppers) and communication barriers they posed. Also, I considered the mask a good metaphor for both isolation (self-initiated or imposed) and lack of authenticity.
My recording of the song was rapid – starting and finishing the recording on May 3, 2020. I recorded it in a Soul/Rock feel. I felt pretty good about it, as some parts stood out like the keyboard horns, a few percussion licks and the organ. But when mixdowns commenced, I really started feeling ambivalent about it, having difficulty deciding between two mixes. I decided after distributing the mixes that I would rather re-record it in a different style.
A few days later I did commence in re-recording the song. It was riding my bike around this time that I had thought it would be a great way to start a song would be an a capella introduction, sort of like “Lonesome Loser” by the Little River Band, “When Will I Be Loved” by Linda Ronstadt or “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. In fact, I think Linda Ronstadt’s cover of the Every Brothers’ classic song inspired this re-recording. This recording had the same tempo as the previous recording, but a different feel (shuffle, which incorporates triplets, versus a straight 4/4). This changed the vocal phrasing, and necessitated an alteration of the chorus vocal melody.
Similar to the first recording, I used a pre-programmed keyboard rhythm and accompaniment to give structure while building the instrumental tracks. Early on, I attempted recording acoustic drums. It was either the fact that I was trying to be a good neighbor and finish quickly, the lack of good instrument microphones which made simultaneous play of the drum kit a tough thing to engineer (I recorded each drum separate like Stewart Copland on “Every Breath You Take”) but it made for a performance I eventually scrapped. I thought for a while that the recording was doomed to fail but I was persistent and eventually put down usable tracks with a guitar-oriented sound. I even did okay at the guitar solo. Both Alan and Lori much preferred this re-record of “Behind the Mask.”
The Beach is Closed
This song has great lyrics – Alan really frames this pandemic in adolescent perspective. Alan names many popular destinations throughout the world that were closed. I was amazed at how this recording came together. His son played keyboard. Alan provided incremental mixes of his progress and I admit the first couple mixdowns of the incomplete recording sounded rough. But he had a clear idea and achieved it. I love the end product.
Alan: Tom and I both grew up on the Beach Boys, and were inspired musically by them. I meant this song as an homage to that shared early influence. This song tries to answer the question: what would the teenage boy from Brian Wilson’s classic songs think about today’s pandemic lockdown?
The World is Closed
I recorded a short mini segment intended to be a lead-in to Alan’s song “The Beach Is Closed.” Basically, it was mimicking an overly-dramatic radio production. To that end, I filtered the treble and bass frequencies out of the recording, similar to the opening section of Pity Party. I think They Might Be Giants had some inspiration to this short segment, TMBG being fond of short mock-serious songs, especially in their Dial-A-Song album.
I think it was essential to mention this aspect of the way the stay at home order effected many people, including myself. Modern people tend to be ridiculously busy, and when faced with having hours of unscheduled time we sometimes might be unsure or even unwise in the use of this unexpected resource when given.
I like the way the synthesizer and the layered four part harmony voices give color to this guitar-driven recording.
Alan: This song fragment has been floating around in my head for 20 years, but this was my first attempt at recording it. It was conceived during a time when my life’s ambitions were forcibly placed on hold for a time, so I felt that it applied to the current situation pretty well.
The musical influence was primarily Ride’s second album, Going Blank Again. The synth is a new addition, although it plays one hook that I had imagined for a lead guitar. One of my sons helped flesh out the harmonies and the counterpoint in the synth.
At some point I thought it would be funny to reference the shortage of toilet paper during the pandemic, mostly due to hoarding but perhaps also because more people were home more hours of the day. When I heard Alan’s ending metronome sound which he intended to be a lead in to another segment, I thought of this song. Actually, the genesis came the night before when I listened to Brian Wilson’s performance of Smile all the way through. In particular the rhythm to the song “Plymouth Rock Roll Over” stuck in my head after and I knew I could use it to bridge Chronocide and “Behind the Mask.” I programmed about 1:40 of a drum loop I made and recorded it to a stereo track. Then I fooled around with a Wurlitzer electric piano sample (with vibrato on). Everything fell into place rather quickly, including the lyrics. Since the rhythm is similar to at least two 1980’s Depeche Mode songs, the recording unconsciously took a synthesizer route – I think it gave things a bit of a dark edge to this otherwise light song.
TP started as inspired by psychedelic pop but is more or less a spoken blues song with some synth coloring and sixth chords. The guitar solo was in a blues style. I like the synth-rock / blues mashup. Interestingly, I recalled as I was finishing this song up that I had previously intended to mention in the lyrics a desperation due to the TP shortage and a contemplation by the narrator about using advertisements/junk mail as toilet wipes. I thought it unnecessary to make the addition and I thought that extending the song too long would get repetitive and would detract from the charm of the song. And, for potential younger or more sensitive listeners, it might raise things up to a PG or PG-13 rating. Still that unused idea makes me laugh.
Pity Party – Reprise
Alan: This was my final contribution to the album, and by this stage I was feeling joint ownership with the project and was really having fun. I felt that it needed a harpsichord cadenza in a Baroque style, so I did my best to compose one. Never mind that I have never even touched a harpsichord!
I also imagined a reprise of the main theme played over the harpsichord, with Brian May-style harmonized lead guitars, and well over the top. Listening to this track makes me laugh out loud because it is so far away from my usual style, and so flamboyant. As a side note, it’s impressive what screaming tones you can get out of a Telecaster.
Pity Party – Vocal end tag
As Alan began work on a reprise that had inspiration from both J.S. Bach and Queen, I made an a capella rendition of “Pity Party” with 12 voices. I had some difficulties with both the lowest and highest voices and eventually didn’t include all 12 voices for this reason. I had to pitch correct a small segment of my highest voice – I think mainly due to a “punch in” (replacing an individual portion of a track) that didn’t turn out great. So this small segment was a first for me in artificially fixing a vocal’s pitch and for using the “punch in” feature on the Tascam machine. I filtered this mixdown with midrange only (old radio frequencies) and added a stock sound of tuning an FM radio. Technically, I should have tried to find an AM radio tuning effect.
Alan did an amazing job stitching together the segments. Originally, I intended to perform a composite edit independently of his, but his mix was turning out so well that I just offered suggestions.
I think that “Anywhere But Here” and “The Beach Is Closed” definitely all have a 1960’s pop/rock influence. The other segments have less in common apart from their theme and B flat major as their relative key. “Going Viral” is an Alternative Rock ballad with backing vocals reminiscent of the Moody Blues. “Chronocide” has its roots in Post-Punk but with three part harmony and synthesizer. “Behind the Mask” sounds mostly like 1970’s pop/rock. “Pity Party” borrows collectively from psychedelic rock (a la Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles). “TP” is sort of like synth-pop mixed with spoken blues. Alan’s Pity Party reprise is like baroque music mixed with “A Night at the Opera” era Queen.
With this mixture of genres and Alan and I each adding our own stamp on our segments, it turned out different but better than the composite song I had a rough concept of. This 15-minute composite song sounds more like a musical quilt of different hued segments, much more interesting than a large homogenous mixture that it might have become if Alan hadn’t added his invaluable input.
Alan: I enjoyed the pace of production, which was much faster with this project than for when I am working alone. I would get an idea, and would be excited to show Tom so I would start working on it as soon as I could. And I wanted it to be presentable, even in sketch format. Instead of taking months on a single song I would take a week, or even less, because I didn’t want to keep Tom waiting. It was fun to see how quickly this came together.
About My Recordings
Alan: Regular readers on this site will be will be familiar with my studio setup, which is a Linux-based DAW. I used the same tools as always for my work on this album: Ardour, Guitarix, AVL Drumkits LV2, Dragonfly Reverb, setbfree virtual tonewheel organ, and various Linux Studio and Calf Studio Gear plugins. The synth in Chronocide is a Yoshimi preset called “funky lead,” and the harpsichord is Fluidsynth using the standard GM soundfont.
Below is Tom’s description of his recording gear, which is quite different from mine. He is more of a hardware guy than a software guy, because of his years of working with cassette tape 4- and 8-track recorders and various synths. He is also a keyboard finger drummer for the last 25+ years.
I recorded each song on a Tascam 24SD multitrack machine, which uses an SD card as the media. The machine has 24 tracks: tracks 1-12 are mono single tracks and 13-24 are paired stereo tracks. I recorded the guitars, bass and vocals exclusively on tracks 1-12. Paired stereo tracks are helpful for keyboard voices, as many keyboard voices are in stereo. They can also be used as a stereo transfer if tracks 1-12 get filled up. I recorded each, apart from one bonus track, in 24 bit, 48,000 Khz (compared to CD quality which is 16 bit, 44,100 KHz). To be honest, my old ears haven’t noticed dramatic difference between the two formats – maybe slightly in the high frequencies. I haven’t tried a side-by-side comparison. I am uncertain if either of my keyboards produce sounds at better than CD quality, so I am not sure there is 100% benefit to 24 bit.
I used my Tascam 24SD to mix and master (adding EQ and compression) these recordings. I used wave editing software to further edit these recordings by splicing, trimming, adding EQ, compressing and pasting sound effects. I used this same software to make different mixes of the recordings (since I made multitrack backups of the whole project which I transferred to computer), most of which weren’t used on this project.
I used my Yamaha PSR-550 keyboard for all of the sequencing. Back in its day, this keyboard was on the high end of personal keyboards. This model dates back to 2001 (I bought mine in 2004) and has an antiquated floppy drive for storage, yet it’s sequencer (MIDI recording within the keyboard) is very easy to use and customize. The sequencing that can be heard on my recordings are the accordion and main keyboard on “Anywhere But Here.” I played the strings on “Anywhere But Here” on the PSR-550. I used the pre-programmed syles on this keyboard to makes simple sequences to keep my songs in place while I recorded them. Often I wouldn’t keep this simple sequence on the finished mix, as I already replaced it with better ideas. I used this keyboard for the “TP” drum loop. I love the organ sounds and the rotary speaker emulation, and used the organ sounds on this keyboard on “Pity Party” and also the unused “Behind the Mask” recording. The accordion and beginning piano sounds on “Pity Party” were played in real-time on “Pity Party.” The strings on “Viral Intro” were from the PSR-550.
The Casio WK-6500 is a newer keyboard and is/was at the lower end of the professional grade keyboards when I got it. I have tried to use it to sequence but it is rather more difficult to navigate and customize than the Yamamha PSR-550. I used the WK-6500 for all the drum and percussion sounds except “TP.” I used the WK-6500 for the electric pianos on “Behind the Mask” and “TP.” The synth voices on TP were from the WK-6500. I used the piano on the WK-6500 for the middle part of “Pity Party” (“all the world is upset and locked indoors…”) The strings, brass, chimes and tympani on “The World Is Closed” were all from the WK-6500. Since I didn’t use sequencing for the WK-6500, all sounds were performed real-time, however because of the volume mis-match in percussion samples I used two stereo tracks for the drums on most occasions.
I used a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar made in Mexico. It’s heavy to play because it’s solid wood. All the guitar effects were supplied by the Tascam recorder. I played a Peavy Fury electric bass (the same I’ve been using for decades) on all the songs but “TP” which has a keyboard bass. I used a Holton trumpet on two tracks for “Anywhere But Here” with some help from the trumpet sound on the WK-6500.