Creation Of Your Musical Roots

People have different relationships with music. Some people really never have a personal affinity for music and at most it serves as background noise for them. Some people listen to the radio or streaming and like certain songs and styles but it really goes no further than that. Then there’s some people for whom music is an integral part of their daily lives. Like a lot of others my relationship with music falls in to the last category. Listening to music, reading about it, searching for new songs and playing instruments and writing songs are a daily part of my life. I couldn’t imagine not being involved with some aspect of music. Both my parents enjoyed music. I’ve always payed attention to the music playing for as long as I can remember. When I was ten I began taking guitar lessons and have been consumed by music ever since. I continue to search out new styles and bands to this day.

I think there’s a certain time in your life when a lot of your musical roots are set. Your late teens through your twenties are an especially fertile time in your musical education. It’s pretty logical as a lot of what you will be for the rest of your life is set during this period. For people who are more casual consumers of music, the music you latch on to during this time may be what you stick with for the rest of your life. This becomes the “they don’t make good music like they used to” group. The music from that era of your life brings back all the memories of discovery and intense emotion that took place then. It’s a time of constant discovery that may never be duplicated. As you settle in to adult life you’ll hold on to those times. They’ll remain the peak of your involvement with music. You’ll move on to other things that are more important to you. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Even though I continue to search out and listen to new bands and styles, still go to see live music when possible and try to learn new instruments and song writing techniques, that period in my life will always be special. It was more than music. It was a huge part of my identity. It was how I dressed, how I thought about life situations, who I hung out with. It wasn’t occasional. It was a daily affirmation. I hit this age at a time of musical change. The beginning of the first wave of punk rock. I certainly got caught up in that. But what really became my life was the beginnings of what became known as ‘post-punk’. The music, clothes and attitude of everyone in to it was definitely out of the mainstream at that time. Which suited us just fine. If you were highly involved you felt ‘part of the tribe’. A lot of factors kept it tribal. It was the early 1980’s. There was no internet (although the internet is a great source for finding or putting out music, I’m not fond of the fountain of negativity and anonymous vitriol that it has created). You learned about new bands from magazines, fanzines and friends. It was the high time of college radio – we were lucky to have several great stations in our area. Living in the Lehigh Valley in PA we were close to Philadelphia and New York and got to spend a lot of time in smaller clubs up close and personal to the stage. We’d often go to the clubs without knowing who was going to be playing – you just knew it would be a good show. Special shout out to the East Side Club on Chestnut Street In Philadelphia. It was a ‘membership’ club (so they could stay open later) and was our home base for a few years – you can find sites on line that talk about it and list some of the shows (http://punks-on-acid.blogspot.com/2016/09/east-side-club.html is one example).

For this post I thought I’d pick out three bands from that era that made a big impression on me musically and how they specifically informed my song writing. If you read our blog, you’ve seen them mentioned before.

Echo And The Bunneymen had it all. The look, the sound, the mystique. Their first two albums remain on constant play for me to this day. Even though some songs were released as singles, the albums were cohesive and felt like they needed to be listened to start to finish. The song writing lesson I learned was keeping the groove locked in as a pulse throughout a song. Second, the drums tended to be played more as multi measure riffs rather than a straight beat with fills thrown in. Most people have heard of Ian McCulloch (vocals) and Will Sergeant (guitar), but I always felt that Pete de Freitas’ drums did so much more than just keeping a beat. The first song ‘All That Jazz’ establishes a solid pounding groove with the drums, bass and vocals. When the guitar comes in it is crisp and rhythmic. You keep the rhythm sharp in the instrumental parts – again, the drum snare rolls are tight. The second song, ‘Over The Wall’ taught the song writing lesson of making the song a journey. It builds slowly and keeps the instruments in the background until they suddenly burst in. The idea of having drum riffs instead of a simple beat with fills is best heard at 3:02 in the song. You hear how to write a song with peaks and valleys so that the entire piece has changes in dynamics throughout the song.

The next band that had a big influence on my playing and writing is Medium Medium. They only put out one proper album, ‘The Glitterhouse’ and a few singles, but had a heavy influence on how I wanted to write songs. I had always been a fan of funk music. I loved the sound of some of the foundational bands, Sly And The Family Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, The Meters. Medium Medium showed me how to merge funk with post-punk. The idea of leaving a lot of open space in the song. The outsized presence of bass guitar tying in to the drums. Having guitar and vocals skitter across the bass and drum foundation. The sound of another instrument, in this case sax or guitar, blasting in here and there. The first song, ‘Further Than Funk Dream’ has an example of the beauty of the ‘drop out’. At 3:45 it drops down to a simple drum beat. Vocals come in on top. Then you bring everything back in a 4:38. The second song, ‘Hungry, So Angry’ is still one of my favorite all time songs. We’ve covered it several times. This album honestly made me switch from being a guitar player in bands to being a bass player. The joy of controlling the groove.

The third band we’re going to talk about today is Joy Division. They had a huge influence on a whole generation of bands and song writers. There’s a number of song writing style ideas I took from their music. The idea that music could feel so ‘dark’ and still be enjoyable. To this day, I don’t know that I write a lot of ‘happy’ songs. Even if the music sounds upbeat, a lot of the themes are dark. Joy Division reinforced the idea that the song production could be very spare and empty without being ‘boring’. The bass guitar was played in higher registers on the instrument. This made me think of writing with the bass guitar being the more ‘out front’ and melodic instrument and the guitar tied more to rhythm and dynamics. They demonstrated how to use drums in a different way sonically. You can really hear this on the first selection ‘She’s Lost Control’. Their songs made me think about writing songs where the music doesn’t overwhelm the vocals or lyrics. Hearing songs that are so tied in to emotions is really interesting when you’re at an age where emotions are felt so strongly. It lets you know you can tackle these type of issues when you write songs, it doesn’t have to be all sunshine and happiness (although we need those type of songs too). One of my favorite cover versions we did is our cover of ‘Isolation’, the second song here. We replaced the keyboards with guitars – you can find the video on our YouTube channel. I’ll always be sad about not getting to see them live (their live shows were a lot more ‘punk’ – if you get a chance, see Grant Gee’s documentary ‘Joy Division’). We had heard they were coming to tour the U.S. for the first time and were crushed to hear Ian Curtis committed suicide right before they left. There’s musical lessons and life lessons. Joy Division gave me both.

From The Vault 7 – ERP Plays ‘Overboard’ Live

We’re adding another entry in our ‘From The Vault’ series. ‘From The Vault’ is where we scour our old hard drives and CDs to find songs that we wrote and recorded preliminary versions of but for various reasons never made a full studio recording. ‘Overboard’ was recorded live at ChurchHouse studios. The song has vocals, guitar, bass and drums. We made the recording with everyone in the same room. The guitar amp was placed in a separate room to keep the sound from bleeding through to the other mics. The bass went directly in to a pre-amp then the mixing board. We would usually have some sound barriers around the drums to cut down on the bleed through to the vocal mic. For songs like this we didn’t typically do any punch ins because the idea is to capture the essence and parts of the song and we didn’t want to worry about the ‘small things’. This song has been around in various forms for quite a while. It started out as a guitar practice routine. I always liked the sound of creating a chord figure on the guitar and moving it up and down the neck while leaving a number of strings open. You can do this with a normal guitar tuning or by using various ‘open tunings’. Using open tunings (something other than the standard E-A-D-G-B-E) allows you to create a variety of sounds and chord structures that you might not be able to physically do on a guitar in standard tuning. All these little changes can enhance your creativity. The photos are from Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park.

May 2022 Grapevine

May has arrived and in our area we’re still waiting for spring to appear. Two weekends ago we went out to create some video footage and ended up being in a snow squall. The funny part is that it probably improved the feel of the video footage for the song we’re going to use it for. If life presents you with lemons, make lemonade. I think that a lot of what makes creating fun, whether it is music, photos, video or painting is the ‘happy accident’. It’s happened to us when writing songs or recording. You make a ‘mistake’ while playing and when you listen to the replay it sounds better than the original idea. People who enjoy photography know it’s all about the light. I’ve taken pictures with overcast, stormy skies where one break in the clouds allows a stream of light to illuminate the main focus of the photo. What were the odds of that happening? When I listen to my favorite songs and they get to a part that really hits home I often wonder: was that planned or was it a ‘happy accident’? I think anyone who creates will have those moments. Just keep creating.

First Up: The Nude Party – ‘Lonely Heather’

This song starts out blazing and never slows down. Great keyboard intro with a pounding, honky-tonk feel. One of the tricks in mixing a song like this is getting the volume of the intro just right as you’re going to have to pull it back in to the rest of the mix once the other instruments come in. The next thirty seconds of the song brings in the rest of the instruments. The pace is just right. The parts are kept pretty simple and they fit together perfectly. There’s a nice little guitar riff thrown in before we get to the vocals. You can hear all the instrumental pieces, but nothing is pushed too far to the front. Then a piano slide introduces the vocals. Nice touch. The vocals match the pace of the rest of the instruments. Straight forward and full speed ahead. Not a lot of stereo separation for the instruments. That works for this tune as you want the pace and feel to wash over the listener. In the middle of the song you get a drum break down in to the guitar solo. I like that they kept the sound of the guitar solo in line with the rest of the song. Not mixed too far out front, not too crisp so it sits in the pocket and not on top of the rest. The vocals come back in and the song races to a built up and sudden stop. Two minutes of pure fun.

I wanted to throw in a bonus cut from The Nude Party. It’s called ‘Chevrolet Van’ (my van when I was that age was a customized 1971 Ford Econoline). For anyone who’s ever played in a band and then ended up in a day job because, well, having food and shelter is kinda nice, this song’s for you. The video is also hilarious.

Next Up: Benchmarks – ‘Wolves Outside The Door’

One of the things you decide on when you’re writing a song is what part of the song you want to highlight. Sometimes it’s a great riff, or the interplay of the instruments. In a dance song it could be the rhythm. In some songs it’s the lyrics that take center stage. In ‘Wolves Outside The Door’ Benchmarks put the lyrical content front and center. It’s definitely the right choice. The song starts with a guitar playing chord arpeggios. It’s a very clean sound. Next an electric with some distortion comes in strumming the chords. These instruments are placed on opposite sides of the stereo field. A third guitar is brought in filling the middle of the stereo. Finally the drums and bass come in and the middle guitar plays a melody style line. This build up goes for the first minute of the song. It’s a great move as it develops the mood before the lyrics even begin. When the vocals come in the music drops down to just drums and bass. The vocals are clear and up front giving full attention to the lyrics. In the middle of the first verse the arpeggio guitar returns softly in the left channel. The rest of the instruments return for the chorus and a lead guitar part takes over after the vocals stop. Everything that is played maintains the song’s mood. In the second verse the vocals are accompanied by the more distorted guitar in the right channel. There’s backing vocals added towards the end of the verse. All the instruments come back in for the break which is matched with the payoff lines of the lyrics. The song outros with the chorus repeated with spare, then full instrumentation. The lyrics give you the feeling of sitting on a mountain watching the sunset and reviewing your life. Beautiful.

Finally: The Asteroid No. 4 – ‘Northern Song’

Let’s finish with a song that feels both retro and modern. ‘Northern Song’ has the feel of a song that could have been written back in the 1960’s. The highly reverbed guitar arpeggios have a throwback feel to them. There’s numerous parts of percussion and vocals in the background, but everything is tied together with a great wash of reverb. The sound in this song is achieved by blending most of the instruments together rather than separating them. How you mix a song can have just as much to do with the overall tone and feel as what instruments are used and what they are playing. The drums are layered back in the mix and if you listen you can a percussion instrument in the left side of the stereo mix. It could be a tambourine, or it could be electronic percussion and it adds to the jangle sound the song is putting across. There’s lots of vocals throughout the song, and the heavy use of reverb blends them together. A good example of this blend is heard at about 1:40. A lead guitar part comes in at 2:07 but even this is draped in reverb and is not put out front in the mix. The mixing strategy in this song was used to create a mood rather than to heighten each individual instrument. The way the parts of the song were written work with this strategy. When all the components of a song are pulling in the same direction you can achieve your sonic goal. The band has certainly achieved this with ‘Northern Song’.

Retro: Matthew Sweet – ‘Girlfriend’

This song is from Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album ‘Girlfriend’. There’s so much I like about this song. To me it epitomizes the ‘power pop’ genre at it’s finest. Let’s start with the guitars. The intro is a master class on how to record and mix guitars in this type of song. It starts with the rhythm guitar that has a great, crisp distorted sound. In the background you hear the sustain from the lead guitar. Drums come in. The rhythm guitar slides in to the right channel with the lead down the middle. Then a second rhythm guitar is added to the left channel and the bass appears. All this before any vocals even start. When the vocals start they have the rhythm guitars in opposite channels, with the left channel guitar only playing sporadically. The vocal is not overwhelmed by reverb. There’s multi tracks of background vocals in parts. When the first verse ends, the vocal starts the second before the music comes back in. The starts and stops give everything a real loose feel. Another cool feature – the music stops and there’s a vocal count in before the lead guitar part. The leads are played by Robert Quine. His style adds so much to the overall sound of the song. The lead guitar stops and starts are wonderfully ragged. The drop out at 3:00 is great: drums in first, scratchy leads and then vocal back in. It takes a whole lot of work to make a song sound so live and loose. Another interesting choice is that most of the video is taken from a 1982 anime movie. A song from the days before ‘pop’ became so computerized and auto tuned.

From The Vault 6 – ERP Plays ‘Life Goes On’

We’re back with another recording From The Vault. In our From The Vault series we’re posting songs we’ve found hiding in various hard drives in the studio. We also have older recordings on tape and we might blow the dust off those some day, but that’s a whole different level of searching through the caverns of the studio. Most bands that are doing original music probably have a lot of song ideas that are fragments: basic chord structures, melodies, lyrics, rhythm tracks. Sometimes these ideas get finished, sometimes they just fizzle out. When we would get a relatively complete song idea we would try to make a simple live recording that we could go back to. We’d record together in one room with a minimum amount of mics on the drums, the bass direct in to the board and the guitar amp in another room. The idea wasn’t to get a perfect copy of the song. We just wanted to capture as complete an idea of the song as we could. Some songs never moved forward beyond that for a variety of reasons. We decided if we come across one that is relatively complete, we’ll put them out on line. This song is titled ‘Life Goes On’. Since it’s spring I thought we’d put up some pictures of flowers from the studio gardens for the video.

April 2022 Grapevine

We’ve moved in to the second quarter of the year. It’s “April showers……” time. Of course we basically had March showers becoming April showers which will continue with May showers. I couldn’t imagine living in places like Alaska (although the state is absolutely stunning) where you go through periods of no daylight. I can barely deal with our constant cloud cover around here. For most people I do believe there’s a huge correlation between sunshine and happiness. So I’m definitely looking forward to some spring sunshine. On another note I watched a video discussing the vast amount of music created that no one other than the creator sees or hears. Why do we write songs? If you’re doing it for money or fame you’re most likely going to be disappointed. It would be interesting to know what percentage of songs written really become known to the general public. Obviously it’s a percentage measured by a decimal point. We like to at least throw our songs in to the public forum and are happy if some people outside the studio get to hear them. With equipment more affordable then in prior generations a lot more tunes at least get recorded. But most probably don’t go any further than that. So why do it? We do it for the fun and challenge of the act of creating. Seeing a song start as a kernel of an idea, working to discover what that kernel becomes. The joy you feel if that idea works out. That’s why we usually try to celebrate songs that get less attention in Grapevine. Hopefully that gets the creators to the final step – having a total stranger enjoy the music they created.

First Up: Water Tower – ‘Anthem’

This song has a great combination of styles thrown together. When I find a song I like I usually look at several different songs from the band to get an idea of the type of music they do. Water Tower has a lot of wonderful Americana style songs using double bass, fiddle, guitar and vocals. For this song they did some change by addition. The song starts with a distorted electric guitar and then Ron Reyes, who did some time with Black Flag, comes in on vocals. They also have some added sonic sound effects which you’ll hear come in and out throughout the entire song. The song then drops down to acoustic guitar and vocals. The double bass and fiddle drop in. It’s a really nice and different dynamic build up. When it drops to vocals and guitar again they have a (probably) keyboard generated sound effect in back. Again, I think this little added touch gives the song more character. They add in some kit drums, courtesy of another guest, Don Bolles, who played with The Germs. The drums don’t over power the other parts, acting as another effect that comes in and out to add some flavor. The combination of vocalist and fiddler Kenny Feinstein’s vocals and the vocals by Ron Reyes are mixed just right without one dominating the other. The playing is stellar and the mix allows you to hear all the pieces. The animated video is cool. In some ways the video is a very important part of the tune as many of the sound effects tie in to the action in the video. The video and the music enhance each other and create a great piece of art.

Next Up: This is the Kit – ‘This Is What You Did’

‘This Is What You Did’ is another song that uses an interesting combination of instruments to great effect. The banjo is an instrument that really lives in two worlds, rhythm and melody. The way it is often used in bluegrass is a chordal rhythm that also carries the melody line. It really is in part a rhythm instrument – the bridge for the strings does sit on top of a drum head. This song starts with a hint of keyboard and then the banjo comes in with what I’m guessing is a drum machine due to it’s sonics. In this song the banjo sticks to the chordal rhythms. These two instruments carry a very busy underlying rhythm throughout the song. The vocal line is really the focal point of the composition. It has a great melody and feel and the busy rhythm makes it sound like it is floating in the space on top. The vocal also has a lot of rhythm to it so the parts all fit together like a puzzle. After the first minute other instruments enter the mix. there are horns that have a jazz feel to them. There are also keyboards that hold notes and serve as a steady base for the rhythm parts. Whoever did the mix does some very nice subtle changes that you might not notice. The banjo and drums are slowly pulled down lower in to the mix to allow space for everything else. If the pull back had been done in a quick clumsy fashion it would have been jarring and halted the song’s flow. The middle break at 2:00 has the drums doing quick hits and the horns coming out front. The dreamy flow continues through the end of the song. A great example of how mix and production handled well can make a song beautiful.

Finally: Muck and the Mires – ‘I’m Your Man’

I thought we’d end with another musical turn and delve in to some punky power pop. There’s a number of things I like to hear in a song like this for it to work. Crispy, crunchy guitar sounds – check. Ability to hear all the instruments clearly in the mix – check. Clear, easy to understand vocals – check. Added credit for a nice flaming guitar solo – check. The well put together mix and recording production on the song really help the music come across. For me that’s the best part of this song. It has the key ingredient of a really catchy riff. But what allows the riff to work is the clarity of the recording and the way it is EQ’d in the mix. It seems that if you look around you’ll still be able to find bands that follow the best parts of the garage rock aesthetic. If you follow styles in rock music you’ll find some interesting facts. Some styles come and go. They’ll become ‘the new thing’ and then you won’t hear them anymore. It seems as if the style we call ‘garage rock’ has been around since the earliest days and never really disappears. It will occasionally come to the fore front and people will call it a ‘revival’. But I don’t see these times as revivals because the style has never left. When the ‘revival’ ends the bands head back to the garage and small clubs and eventually burst in to the mainstream again. I think this style is best seen in a sweaty, small club. Muck And The Mires would be a whole lot of fun to see in that type of setting.

Retro: Hole – ‘Violet’

We’ll end this month’s Grapevine with one of my favorite song’s from the early 1990’s. There’s not a lot of albums that hold their power and are great from start to finish. I think Hole’s 1994 album ‘Live Through This’ is one of those albums. Courtney Love is a pretty divisive figure in music. I think she is often judged more by her personal life than by her music. But I think it’s hard to deny that ‘Live Through This’ is one of the best albums of the early 90’s and of the style people refer to as ‘grunge’. ‘Violet’ is really propelled by the dynamics of the song. You have the quieter verses that are cleaner and moody. Then you’re hit in the face with the sonic blast of the chorus, distorted guitars and vocals that are a screaming howl. A lot of band’s used this style and it’s was actually around far before it became more ‘fashionable’ in the 90’s. But not many songs pull it off as well as ‘Violet’. For me one of the reasons it works so well here is underlying feel of the song. The dark mood and very personal feel of the music and lyrics push it to another level. None of that would have as much impact if the production and mix weren’t perfect for the song. Great snap to the snare drum. The vocals are placed out front without diminishing the power of the feedback laced guitar distortion. It’s tricky when you’re mixing a song with polar end dynamics to have the quiet and loud parts actually maintain a consistent overall volume for the recording. Great writing, recording and mix have made this song a classic for me.