Friday, April 26, 2013

Rockin' in Dennis's Basement

The WannaBeatles are getting serious about our new album. 

Not that we weren't serious before, but now it's taken on a more intense quality, as we scrape away normal items from our schedules to make room for the real nitty gritty of bouncing ideas back and forth to find out how our own group-written songs will go.

There's a sad but revealing scene in the movie "Let It Be" where Paul and George are seen working together in the studio, somewhat listlessly, and George says, calmly but with a lingering hint of bitterness, "I'll play whatever you want me to play." 
What happened to the Beatles, psychologically, creatively, emotionally - as they made their way from charming pop idols to world-weary professionals - is not without its sobering lessons. 

While the Beatles may have inspired millions of us to become musicians, to embrace the dream that being in a band was a uniquely exciting prospect, it's also true that they broke up, went their own individual ways, and became very different people from the inspiring characters we first met in '63 or '64, if we're old enough to remember. 
And although they were a band, they were also individuals who exerted their own individual visions, or, by nature of the dynamics between them, imposed their visions on each other. John and Paul were the driving forces, writing most of the songs and determining the overall musical course, even when it dispersed into the "home movie" informality of the White Album. George was basically an unappreciated younger brother, until nearly the end, when his songs on Abbey Road, "Something" and "Here Comes The Sun," established him as an equally valid contributor. Ringo was never in the band as a writer or singer; his role was to serve the creative expressions of the others, which he did cheerfully and patiently.
The group was presented and viewed as four guys, but the musical output was overwhelmingly dependent upon the energy, style, and ideas of John and Paul.

With us, there's no obvious imbalance. We're all four qualified and experienced, to varying degrees, as writers, singers, players, arrangers and producers. What's unusual is the process of embarking upon a songwriting effort where four minds - all loaded with ideas, but coming from various stylistic backgrounds - attempt to coordinate the intricate process of putting songs together.

We've been humbled, and challenged, by realizing that our assumptions, and skills, were not enough to prepare us for the complexity of making something that we're all involved in and feel excited about.

It's a great lesson in relational dynamics, and the nature of creative work. 

The most recent example is "We're Still Rockin'," which started as an idea from David, who wanted to do a fast number in the manner of "Good Lovin'" by the Rascals. We had recently learned and performed that song, and came to appreciate its energy and simplicity. David, being Cuban and very conversant with Latin grooves, helped us see the roots of Dino's drum part, which was largely the Puerto Rican presence in New York. (Check out "West Side Story" or "Spanish Harlem" for other signposts of this major cultural influence in pop music history.)

But our influences are far too rich to take one song as a model. Another one David mentioned was "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." by John Mellencamp, which is not quite as fast, or rhythmically complex, as "Good Lovin'" but equally powerful and simple. 
David presented a rough draft of his song a couple of weeks ago. 

Dennis got a hold of it and put his own New York spin on it, changing the order of the words in the title, to rephrase the melody. I took Dennis's version, and made a rough demo, rearranging some of David's chords in the pre-chorus to allow four beats on an F#minor chord rather than two. 

Then Dennis came up with an alternate lyrical concept, which was called "Now We're Rockin'." This version doubled the length of David's original pre-chorus section. 

Two days later, we were at Fox 17 to do a promotional appearance for Fabulous Females Fighting Cancer, a benefit show we're doing tonight, and Dennis took the opportunity to gather us in the break room, where we looked at the song in its most recent form. That's when Nathan came up with the idea of changing the key for the chorus, giving the listener a real surprise. 

So I went home a made another demo trying out some new chord changes for the chorus. Dennis responded in an email, suggesting that the new key be extended for four bars, rather than two. 

Meanwhile, David took Dennis's suggestion of "surprising us" and changed a chord in the pre-chorus, making it sound, as he said, more like Philly - one of those sophisticated Gamble and Huff productions from the 70's. 

After all these versions and trials, we still weren't finished. We spent much of Wednesday looking at lyrics, and trying out chorus structures. David had made a new demo, and added another surprise: a whistle solo. This was totally unexpected - even to him - and we loved it. 

As we continued to quote other songs and ideas, I commented that the process was "an idiomatic picnic," where an abundance of treats were available to us, like treats in a picnic basket, and we kept reaching in to taste this or that influence or sound or approach that had caught our attention through the years.

We tried playing the song together, first just two of us. I had Dennis's acoustic guitar, and David sat at the drums. As he played the Latin groove which he conceived for the intro, I found a simple little guitar lick that went along with it - primarily echoing the changes we'd already established, but with some variation in the chords. We were starting to move from "La Bamba" changes to something a more like Steve Miller's "Living in the U.S.A."

At this point we started to record in our "home" studio at Dennis's basement, taking David's rough demo and importing it into a new ProTools session. We played it together as a foursome, with me adding some guitar fills and Dennis trying out an acoustic guitar with a capo. All the way, we're looking, trying out parts, finding bass lines, experimenting with chords and sounds. 

It was in rough shape, but ready to put some ideas on tape (so to speak...) Nathan played a bass and keyboard part, and David sang a scratch vocal. I tried putting on some guitar parts, but when we listened back, Dennis thought it was too "safe." 

David pulled out his iPhone and located Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." for reference. What was it that made that record kick so hard? My impression was guitars not necessarily distorted, but rather played with ferocious intensity - strummed with total abandon. Although, of course, total abandon has to have rhythmic accuracy. Otherwise, it's chaos rather than groove.

But it was a clue to a different approach. I switched to a simple, and relatively unrestrained, rhythm part, letting the A string ring, while the upper strings traced the chord changes. 

Dennis and David smiled - they knew we had something. Gone were the polite guitar fills. Now the verse was just the simple lick, under the vocals, alternating with ferocious strumming, to fill those spaces. David said we'd found the key to unlocking the song.

Another part of what we're doing, as we create this way, is encountering the durable dichotomy between thinking and feeling. We've done plenty of thinking, as we've studied the Beatles songs, and determined exactly what parts to play. That's an important part of being a musician. But the feeling part is equally important. And it's hard to do both at the same time. 

What we were experiencing as we played "Rockin'" as we were trying to learn it, is that it lacked energy. It was not inspiring. We were too involved with the intellectual process of learning the song to enjoy it.

But when we simplified it, and Dennis and David encouraged me to try a wilder approach, I immediately found something that felt good, and that helped the whole song come alive.

We still aren't at the finish line, but we're discovering a lot as we work to put these things together.

I know it's at least a little like what the Beatles went through. But in some ways, it's better. Being four guys who're all creative and all willing to listen to each other is harder than being two leaders and two followers, but we're willing to do the work to be who we are, and we're looking forward to other people listening to the results.

I'd be inclined to show examples of the rough drafts of the song to illustrate the process, but out of respect for the other members of the team, I will restrain my impulse, and ask you to wait for the album to hear "Now We're Rockin'" and a big bunch of other songs I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Believe me, it's a lot more fun to hear it than to read about it.

Bloggin' Bryan 26April13

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