I’ve been back in San Francisco for a week after two weeks of recording in Los Angeles. By recording, of course, I mean “sitting in a dark room.” Besides a Vitamin D deficiency, I came out with a new album.
For the first four days, I played/sang with the core band: Jonny Flaugher on bass, Danny Frankel on drums, Danny McGough on keyboards, and Joseph Arthur on guitar. Recording live was a new experience for me. I mean, I’ve played with bands before, but I’ve never recorded live with one. The problem with recording live is, your microphone picks up all the other instruments, so you can’t go back and correct for your vocal deficiencies. In the past, I have done vocals alone, spending the time it takes to ensure that I’m hitting the right notes, communicating the right sentiment, etc. Literally, I would spend half an hour working on one syllable. Not this time!
The great thing about recording live is that you can’t go back and fix things. Instead of worrying about word-by-word pitch, you think about overall performances, which is liberating. It can be frustrating in playback – my pitch is pretty reliable, but not perfect – but in a live setting you simply have to let it go. So, when you hear a line that’s a little under, you’ll know that it’s in service to the Big Picture.
Another difference between this and previous recordings is the loops. Loops are all the rage, but that’s not why we used them. We used them because, every time I ran down a new song for the band, Joseph would come up with something and it would sound great. We used loops as a rhythmic element – practically speaking, they helped us keep time – but also for texture and as melodic hooks. This is definitely not an approach I would have taken on my own, but I’m happy the right people were in the room.
After four long, intense days, we worked on overdubs. Danny and Danny from the core band added additional percussion and keyboards, and Mike Fortunato played trumpet on two songs. Cindy Wasserman from Dead Rock West – who have a great new album of Everly Brothers tunes – sang on three songs, and Mark and Kipp Lennon sang on three more.
I go way back with Mark and Kipp, who are cousins from two huge families from Venice, CA. Their band with Mark’s brother Michael and Kipp’s brother Pat – Venice – is renowned among my extended circle of childhood friends on the west side of Los Angeles. Seriously: everyone in that area is related to or at least knows one Lennon or another. They’re also related to The Lennon Sisters, in case you were wondering. But anyway, I first met them in the 1990s at the reconstituted Ash Grove on the Santa Monica pier, and later spent time with them at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, CO. In 2001, their cover-band side project – The Pine Mountain Logs – entertained at my wedding. So, obviously, I was excited to finally work these great singers, who are also two of the nicest, most supportive guys you’ll ever meet.
We spent the final four days trying to mix twelve songs, which was ambitious. We ended up getting ten, and collaborated on the last two over email. Mixing was not my favorite part of the project, because I had a limited role. Sheldon Gomberg did the heavy lifting – identifying the best performances, editing takes together, removing coughs/heavy breathing/stupid comments, setting the levels of each instrument so you hear the right ones at the right times, etc. – while Peter Case and I waited around. Once Sheldon had the tracks sounding good, he’d call us in to listen. We’d make a few suggestions – turn down the loop! Turn up the guitar! Make the bass sound clearer against the kick drum! Fade out sooner! – and then it was back to the beginning of the cycle with another track.
Since we finished mixing early last week, it’s been about practical details. For example, the sequence of the songs, and the title of the album. We haven’t finalized the title, but there’s a tentative sequence:
1. I Think I’ve Taken Enough Shit From You This Year
2. Overnight Failure
3. Big Sur
4. Saint Catherine Street
5. I’ll Replace You With Machines
6. Artificial Light
7. Lost Soul
8. Bad Business
9. You Started Drinking Again
10. War of Independence
11. Alison’s Part of the Equation
12. Party Dress
I’ve also had to make a call on formats. At first, I was thinking digital-only, on the assumption that the world doesn’t need any more physical objects. Then, I got sidetracked into considering a vinyl release, since it sounds great and is back in fashion. Vinyl is pretty expensive, however. The last thing on Earth I wanted to do was make CDs, but it looks like I’m going to commission a short run. That’s not so much because I want to clutter your homes with them, but because – according to my sources – CDs are still useful as “calling cards.” For example, it’s harder for a music writer or radio programmer to ignore a CD than an email.
The final step is mastering, the process by which an engineer makes the album sound consistent from track to track. That may take a while, if only because the person we want to use is in demand. But the end is in sight…