Monday, June 23, 2014

(Tour Recap Intermission) Belated 'Automatic Writing' song-by-song synopsis

SO I have a new instrumental solo album currently available as a digital download for now.

'Automatic Writing' (2014) follows on the heels of 'Leap of Faith' (2012) and 'Ocean of Stars' (2010).

This is my 6th entry in The RPM Challenge -- an online open challenge to bands/solo artists to challenge themselves to write, record, mix, master and come up with album art for an entire albums' worth of material (10 songs or 35 minutes of music) during the 28 (or 29) days of February every year.

And this year put the fucking CHALLENGE into RPM Challenge... I knew going in that I'd be on the road with Adrian and the Sickness for 14 of 28 days. Fuck.

Like every year, I drag my feet up until Jan 31, the entry deadline. Wondering if I have time. Wondering if I'm out of ideas (I say that every year) and then saying to myself, "Fuck it, let me see what I come up with. Maybe I'll surprise myself..." and each year I usually do surprise myself.

So... of course said hell with it, registered again, just to see if I could bang out an album in 14 days this time around.

Needless to say, I did miss the deadline, but only because I wanted to do the bass tracks a bit more justice -- by Feb 28 I could have submitted the more-or-less completed album with scratch bass for 4 of the 6 tracks that required it, but I opted to miss the deadline and rest for one day, before finishing the album.

But still. 15 days flat is pretty impressive if I may be so bold as to toot my own little horn.


The album cover is a cellphone pic I took while riding through the Lost Pines in Bastrop County TX, heading east to Houston to begin a 10-day run with Adrian and the Sickness. During the height of the continuing drought in fall of 2011, much of Bastrop County burned out of control for about a week.

The album art istelf I also did on my iPhone as my laptop was out of commission.

The title, 'Automatic Writing' I chose as appropriate. Watching paranormal documentaries as a kid, I would see stories about "automatic writing" -- a practice by which a medium or normal person was able to go into a trancelike state, or not, and messages from the spirit world would pour out of their pen onto paper, writing "automatically." Not sure I believe it or not, but I thought the concept was pretty cool.

This album felt exactly like that. By Feb 1 I had basic improv arrangements, written in one take and kept as-is, for first 2-3 songs. By Feb 2, I had 6 songs laid out. I don't know where this music comes from. And I don't question it. Due to time constraints I kept the original improvised arrangements EXACTLY as is, and for an extra challenge, decided that certain parts I didn't think would work I would MAKE work.

The resulting album is like a snapshot of everything that I have been dealing with my life over the past year. And from certain songs, you can tell I've been dealing with some shit.

The song order is the order in which they were written. Or more specifically, the order in which the songs wrote themselves.

1. "Lifting The Veil"

Began with the opening chord progression, and took it from there. Improvised arrangement kept as is. Played guitar to a click track (iPhone app). Next track, more rhythms.

The existing rhythm tracks were cleaned up when re-recorded, 79 Iceman into my little Marshall Lead 12. The two accompanying lead tracks were a preset in my 8-track, which has a nice fuzzy tone and works good for certain applications, guitar plugged straight into the 8-track. Both of them are the original two passes I did when I had the scratch arrangement.

Drums were recorded at the Music Lab, where I rented rooms for two drum recording sessions. I probably banged it out (pun intended) in one take. More on the drum recording process in a bit.

Unfortunately due to time constraints, all the bass tracks were either my Trace-Elliot Boxer 30 bass practice amp, or plugged straight into the 8-track. Wasn't able time-wise or financially to set up my Epiphone Valve Standard 15w amp chassis powering an Ampeg 4x10, which is to this day one of the best sounding bass recording rigs I have ever used. Bummed, but the show (album) must go on. This bass track was the Boxer 30, and probably done in one shot.

The whole song has a psyching-yourself-up-for-something vibe, and descends into beautiful controlled chaos at the end. Again, all improv. The title "Lifting The Veil" seemed very fitting: a long process of working yourself up to finally see the truth about something, and you don't know if that truth is something you really want to see, but it must be revealed. At the end, the veil is lifted and you see what really there or what lies beneath, and you can finally move on with your life.

Did I mention these songs are reflective of everything that's been going on in my life the past year?

2. "Automatic Writing"

Written on Feb 1. Scratch improv guitar track to a click track. Played it through in one shot, and wondered what the fuck just happened. Had the initial riff, and just played. The bridge parts just popped in mid-tracking, and I did several variations in the main riff without any concern of how this was going to work as a song. 79 Iceman in drop D.

The accompanying track which comes in at 1:42 was another plugged-straight-in improv track. It was perfect as is and I left it. More on this particular track in a bit.

Went back in and cleaned up the initial 2 rhythm tracks, but kept them EXACTLY AS IS arrangement and variation wise. Something told me to do it that way, and I don't question impulses like that. Keeper rhythms were my Epiphone Valve Standard mic'ed and recorded here at the Hobbit Hole.

Drums were the main problem. I had the basic tracks for the album on my iPod, and while in the van on the 10-day Adrian run I had to sit there with headphones on and pen/paper handy, and chart the song out to a T. No easy feat by itself. Lots of variation and odd numbers of certain variations. Fuck.

By the time I tracked drums (and I put it off, cause... fuck) I had attended the Ortiz Bros Blues Jam on a Tuesday, and they had forgotten Chris' snare. Well, since I had already been tracking drums for the album I just happened to have my snare with me. Chris tuned it up for me (I don't know what the hell I'm doing), and he tuned the bottom head waaaay higher than I would have thought to. When playing it I didn't know if I liked it or not, but hearing it recorded, there was a VERY pleasing CRACK to it which wasn't there before.

I recorded the drums at the Ortiz Compound, which they were very generous to let me use their studio space to record in for several days.

My kit (late 70's Slingerland student model, great sounding set) at the Ortiz compound

Drums were/are recorded as two tracks:

Track 1: my PA mixer mono out with mics for kick, snare and an overhead
Track 2: a single room mic set about 5-6 feet from the kick and pointed generally at it

Mix both together, pan in a way to simulate a stereo drum sound. Boom.

Had my notes VERY close by, tried to follow it to a T, and still got lost right before going into the bridge the 2nd time (3:55). I left it as is, no way I was going to drive myself insane attempting another pass...

The nylon string classical track was added later, as after getting most of the songs in order I realized I'd been too busy (lazy) to pull it out of my storage closet and use it. So I spent part of a day adding classical tracks in places where it worked, and purposely put it onto this track, because why the fuck not? Make a weird song even weirder. Nothing to lose.

Of course, I didn't have a mic stand and had to improvise:

Anything + duct tape = mic stand.

Bass was recorded here at the Hobbit Hole as well, using a preset and plugged straight in. Gave it a nice dirty grit to it. Was mostly a single pass, as this song I could have spent a month trying to perfect, but instead just let it do whatever the hell it wanted.

The accompanying guitar track that comes in at 3:22 was again plugged straight in, and I spontaneously just started playing the weird violin-esque descending line. I don't know where that came from. I could have cleaned up where it came in, but I left it as is as I didn't want to clean up the spontaneous nature of it. And it "wouldn't go away", as evidence to later in the album.

The ending was also improv, and the way it ended led me to know that this idea would have to be revisited and expanded upon. But I'll get to that.

Mixing the song down, I discovered there were accompanying plugged-straight-in improv rhythm tracks which I had laid down early on and completely forgot about. Mainly ringing chords. I put them back in and they added that little extra touch.

3. "Gaze Skyward"

Began as an all electric track. But quickly saw that this would be the "quieter" number, which made it easier for me as no drums and no bass would be required.

And the song wrote itself. I cleaned up the original rhythm and melody tracks, but left the original improv arrangement intact.

Added classical guitar rhythm track in lieu of the original distorted electric one. Gave the song more of a sense of "peace", and what that means I really can't say.

The title is inspired by a phrase that a good friend is fond of. A very beautiful and poetic pairing of words.

Easter egg alert: 

The accompanying clean rhythm track (right side) was recorded here at the Hobbit Hole, Epiphone Valve Standard/79 Iceman/Phase 90 and occasional tremolo. Used two mics for stereo room sound, one up close, the other to take advantage of all the wood in my entry/office room.

As a result, there was some ambient noise picked up. More precisely, the tambourine sound at 1:45 is my dog Nacho rattling his dog tags. I kept it that way. Thanks little buddy! You can also hear the click of certain pedals being engaged. Again, left it.

The Bag End mobile studio, is indeed mobile as fuck:

4. "Amateur Genius"

Song title came about as someone had gone on a tagging spree near my place and this was written on a dumpster. Another song wanted to be called that but was too "beautiful" to be named after something written by some dumbass onto a waste collection receptacle.

Started with the main riff, built the song around it. Rhythm tracks are my Paul Stanley Reissue Iceman in D Standard thru my mic'ed Marshall Lead 12. This was the only song I used the PS-10 on.

The lead track was my initial pass using a preset straight into the 8 track, all one take. I kept it like that as it was perfect in all it's imperfection. On mixing down went "Voodoo Child" on it with the 8-track's onboard reverb. Took a few tries to get it right in the right spots, but sounded bad ass.

Drums were initially recorded at the Music Lab, but I was trying to match the odd signature of the riff. Sounded like shit. Re-tracked at the Ortiz Compound playing straight and adjusting for the missing measure at the end of each time through. MUCH fucking better. It's just a stupid rock jam. Maybe it was the mental soundtrack for the dumbass paint-huffer on a tagging spree.

Bass was plugged straight into the 8-track, using a preset for the grit.

Blasted through it in one take, using my 2002 P-Bass (Cate Blanchett) tuned to E Standard. Come to think of it, I think all the bass was Cate, as she had newer strings at the time and she just happened to be laying around out of the case.

Was too lazy to tune it down so just adjusted. Also I had and have always been rather conservative in my basslines over my own music. Which is weird as I make my living primarily through playing bass.

So I just fucking uncorked. Played whatever the fuck I felt, went nuts on runs and solos and didn't give a rat's ass if I missed a note or an entire part. One take, done. Next!

5. "Sinners & Science"

Again, improvised arrangement with minimal cleaning up.

Main rhythm tracks recorded using my JCM800 + V30 loaded 4x12 at the Ortiz Compound. Used two mics, an SM57 right against a speaker and an SM58 1.5' away. Used one mic for one track and the other mic for the second rhythm. Friend and producer Matt Smith had suggested I get more variety in the guitar tones after listening to my past albums. So this was a quick "poor man's" way of getting more tones without having to re-EQ or move mics around. Very pressed for time.

The main lead track was my original pass plugged straight into the 8-track. It worked, and was damn near perfect as is, so I left it.

Drums had been recorded in a Music Lab rehearsal room before I re-did the guitar at the Ortiz Compound.

Classical guitar recorded at the Hobbit Hole using the previously pictured stool mic.

Bass was the Boxer 30 here at the house.

This song wanted to be called "Amateur Genius," as you can sing that over the main chorus riff. But again, too pretty of a song to be named after something some idiot tagged on a dumpster. So "Sinners & Science" popped into my head as I seem to encounter the growing rift between Religious Fundamentalism vs. Scientific Progress daily while trolling Facebook.

6. "Abstract Expressionless"

This is the most aggressive track on the whole album.

The ending of the song "Automatic Writing "definitely left some unfinished business. So I took that and turned it into its own song. And again, improvised arrangement, which I could have cleaned up but I chose not to due to time constraints and the challenge of making things work that didn't quite work at first. All of the twists and turns of the arrangement were left exactly as-is, only the original tracks were re-recorded and cleaned up slightly.

The song is frantic, and long, and washes out into a beautiful kind of peace towards 5:22. Only to have the frantic opening return. Repeatedly. Perhaps the message here, that I am constantly trying to apply to my own life, is enjoy and appreciate the peace when it comes.

The opening violin-esque melody I can't decide if it is something I am trying to escape from but can't despite the twists and turns of the arrangement, or if it's a guiding melody to remind me to keep pressing on regardless of the twists and turns in my own life. That is up to you, listener.

All guitars are my 1979 Iceman in drop-D. The left-side rhythm track is my JCM800 recorded at the Ortiz Compound. The right side rhythm is my Epiphone Valve Standard recorded here at the Hobbit Hole. The violin-like melody is the Iceman thru stage rig on the neck pickup with the tone rolled back. And I'm sure I drove Jim and company nuts as I recorded that, heh

Easter Egg Alert:

On the right-side guitar rhythm at 1:21 it suddenly cuts out. This was me hitting the low E so hard it popped off the nut. If you listen close, you can hear me put it back into place, hit a few notes, realize it is out of tune, and re-tune it on the fly. I thought that was cool so left it, hahaha

This was the song where I literally poured out my frustrations into the song. The guitar is dark and pummeling. And when I recorded the drums at the Ortiz Compound I would have been yelling a steady stream of expletives, blasphemies and obscenities but I knew the mics would pick it all up...

And when it goes back into the 'main part' at 2:55, I am really fucking pissed. I am hitting so hard I am causing the drum tracks to clip. All I could think of was the bullshit I had been/was still dealing with from my ex, financial troubles, losing hope in maintaining music as a career. I was going through a very brutal and dark time, and 2:55 is where it all came out. I have never hit drums so hard in my entire fucking life. Didn't solve any of my problems, but goddamn it was therapeutic. I'm surprised I didn't crack all my cymbals and rupture all the heads. Just, wow.

Bass was recorded plugged straight into the 8-track using one of the guitar distortion presets for grit. I did work on it a bit, to enhance certain things in the guitar.

Also, the song was accidentally 10 seconds longer than it needed to be due to me not re-setting the end point from when I was recording the bass track. Shit. I wasn't about to completely re-mix a 9-minute song to correct that. But, if you turn it up REALLY loud at the end,  (Nigel Tuffnel voice) you can hear the sustain of the bass carrying out throughout those extra 10 seconds.

But turn it back down immediately, as due to another mixing/mastering error, the next song is louder in volume than anything else on the album. Oops.

Had to start charting out what was what to not lose track of what was done and what needed doing, as well as to make it easier to mix:

7. "Diamondback"

The title of this one came from hanging with Eric Tessmer briefly, who was talking about the tires he had just gotten for one of his BMX bikes. "When I was a kid, Diamondbacks were the SHIT!"

The last song written, and the only one not done when the floodgates opened during the first two days. I needed one more song, so came up with a quick idea, set the tempo on click, hit record and just went for it.

And again, making things work that didn't seem to work at all. During the first overly-repeated pentatonic tag line (2:54), as I was playing it I knew I'd completely lost count of how many times I had done it. Fuck it. I'll make it work. Somehow...

For the rhythms, I again used the two-mic system on my stage rig, recorded at the Ortiz Compound. Left rhythm is the SM58, right rhythm is the SM57. This track also marked the last time my wah pedal was worked properly for a good two months (after taking it apart three times to see what the fuck is wrong with it, it finally dawned on my to replace the battery... well shit!)

The added percussive rhythm track at 3:17 was a re-tracking of an original rhythm I had recorded straight in. Wanted to add a muted-strings percussive chug, but accidentally hit harmonics when I did so. Re-recorded that to clean it up, but had to first sit there a few minutes and try to figure out where the harmonics were that I accidentally hit... Was probably done on my Marshall Lead 12.

The slide solo at 3:54 is my first recorded appearance as a slide player. I don't know what the hell I'm doing so I just went for it. After about 6 stabs, this was the result, heh. I'd been wanting to try adding slide to "Rare Earth Metals" on 'Leap of Faith' in 2012 but had lost both of the ones I had in my storage unit. When downsizing to a smaller unit late last year, finally found them!

Drums were recorded at the Ortiz Compound. I was originally going to try doing an upbeat-on-the-hi hat thing during the pentatonic tags, but that wasn't fucking happening so just played straight on it. Bam.

Bass was a distortion pre-set straight into the 8-track. Worked with it a little, as the repeating pentatonic tag at 2:54 needed something extra to make it not an obvious arrangement error. So counted out how many times, pedaled the E for awhile, then did some moving around, then on the last time came up with the descending chord progression under it. Bam!

The both ascending and descending note/chord progressions on the outro were tracked here at the Hobbit Hole on the Epi Valve Standard. Needed to drive the song home and this totally did the trick.

That was the last official tracking I had done on the record. And I gotta admit, while tracking that things started getting weird.

Really, really fucking weird.

Perhaps it was a combination of mental and physical fatigue, malnourishment and life stress...

RPM time for me is when I go completely mad composer and put off all other things (food, sleep, life, etc) to give myself completely over to Music, and let it do whatever it fucking wants with my body and my musical equipment. I forgo my own self, and become a conduit for whatever music wants to pour forth. I don't know how else to describe it.

I don't write this music. I just hit record.

As a result by end of February I am usually exhausted, sick, half-crazed and have lost weight. I consider it like taking a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. If I return (and I may not) I will not be the same. But I will return with a CD of finished music and not really knowing where it came from, other than it needed to be come out.

It was night, and while doing the last bit of tracking (the ascending/descending progression) I started seeing things out of the corner of me eyes. Moving things. And I was left with the feeling that I am not alone, someone was in the house with me. Luckily my dog Nacho wasn't freaked out a little like I was, or I would have grabbed a weapon and searched the house.

It was very unnerving. I have not felt that way in my own home in the 2.5 years I've lived here, and have not felt that since that last night of tracking. Crazy.

I should have taken a pic of myself after completion of tracking and the resulting mild freakout, to see how different I looked from day 6:

And this is the backstory of 'Automatic Writing', my third officially released instrumental solo album, and my 6th stab at the RPM Challenge.

Thank you for reading.

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