recording

Any Weirding Invention.

.IMG_6109.jpgIt was not early. Mid morning. He stood at the kitchen counter looking through the pane of glass above the sink. The scene beyond was unremarkable. Smoke colored sky. Tree like a broccoli crown. A bulky-house contest facing off across the street.

Using the tip of his finger to work a bit of sleep from the corner of his eye, he turned his attention to the machine before him. Now the mug sitting beside the machine. He leaned against the counter and bent his torso until he could see inside the empty mug without touching it. It appeared to be clean. He straightened, grasped the handle and placed the cold mug on the perforated plastic platform created for this moment. 

Beside the machine was a metal carousel of small plastic cups, each sealed with a colorful label denoting the contents inside. He withdrew one called Donut Shop. With his other hand he lifted the plastic handle that opened wide the machine's black throat. There was a distinctive pop as the hinged worked against itself. He lowered the lever. The throat closed. He opened it again, slowly, closed it, opened it once more and placed the small plastic cup inside the throat. He lowered the lever and the machine swallowed. 

He scowled. How was it possible that a Keurig could make him feel lonely?

He pushed a button and a green light appeared. He pushed a bigger button. A loud buzz filled the room like an airplane propeller. He placed his hand on the lever and felt the vibration. He wondered what was going on, exactly, inside the machine. He wondered why he wondered. The machine stopped buzzing. There was a click like a washing machine and then a sharp hiss. He watched a faint wisp of steam draw away from the thin brown liquid now shooting into the cup. A new sound, a gurgle, joined the hiss. He watched the black line of rising coffee climb the white cup’s wall. The phrase Keurig piss entered his head. He scowled again. He was hoping for something wittier.

While he sipped his coffee which was delicious and convenient he thought about what it was he should write. He felt he was in a difficult spot. Three weeks abroad in the train parade of European travel, through countries German and British. This demanded an accounting, or at least a summary, of sights seen and feelings felt. But while the items worth discussing were several, he couldn’t discuss them all, and choosing which, felt impossible.

There was the fact of his having just turned forty, the nip of which he felt acutely, because he was still in show business where oldness and obsolescence are almost synonyms. For another, his newly lame voice, which he was sick of talking about, was probably at this point permanently altered, and in his mind, not for the better. Notes had dearly departed and never returned, in their absence an exhilarating feeling akin to what might be called paralyzing fear had materialized, wherewith he was sorting out a number of possible alternatives to his current form of employment. Then there was the problem of the music album currently under construction, the existence of which was pre-paid by a fairly large handful of friends and well-wishers. He was under an obligation to produce said album.

In short he felt that the sweater of his life was unravelling around him, and while in polite company he was perfectly capable of maintaining a cadence of positivity and even a kind of high-tenored élan, his nights and alone times were in the exclusive possession of a grave uncertainty.

Also there was the difficulty of his girlfriend ex girlfriend future wife arch nemesis who had generously flown out to meet him on tour, among the cafes and cathedrals of the Old World. In his hour of urgent need, she had come. Even after everything he said, wrote. The simple gratitude he felt toward her. The ensuing complicated feelings. 

But wait. That didn’t have to be brought up, did it? A personal matter. He was under no obligation to disclose his stuttering love life to an online coterie of friends and strangers. Furthermore, writing is always a process of selection, of separation (wheat from chafe, bud from stem): why not narrow its scope to the merely musical, or culinary, or peripatetic?

He already knew there would be no narrowing. Not in that sense. This project was about singing, playing, telling the truth as best he could. He was no longer interested in playacting at art or music or life. No, that wasn’t quite the way to put it. He had never been interested in playacting. It was just that, now, he was taking a sharper tool to himself, actively seeking to uproot the weeds of vanity and insincerity wherever he found them. At whatever cost. Here he was, a man who by any economic standard was, shall we say, languishing, but he still had the two things he valued most. Namely a ruthless approach to self-inquiry and a healthy loathing of bullshit.

While he waited for the machine to produce a second cup of coffee which was also delicious and convenient, a cat appeared, long-furred and calico, leaping onto the counter and sniffing casually at the unwashed plates lying in the sink. He thought of his own cat at home. He thought of his own ridiculous fascination with all things feline. He thought of his annoying tendency to return to subjects already covered in full. He shooed the cat down from the counter. The cat looked up at him from the floor, swishing its bushy tail. Why do you have to make everything so difficult? It said.

Good question, cat. He peered into the empty coffee cup of his mind and saw no answers worth sipping.

For years he had been plagued with a nagging feeling that he may in fact be a bad artist, or worse, a mediocre one. It was one of the unwelcome guests that kept him awake at night. Much noisy chatter.

But lately he had been revisiting the idea of his creative worth, and decided it didn’t matter. No, it mattered. Of course it mattered. But the world didn’t get to decide how good he was or wasn't.

True, the terms of his financial freedom or lack thereof were inseparable from a participation in the capitalistic culture of which he was apart, where fans were won or not, and a numerical value could be (and inevitably was) assigned. But art has no number. Any weirding invention fulfills its own purpose, is complete unto itself. The sincere creative act is about risk and by necessity includes at least the possibility of growth, and so, even if he was tanking his own career by letting everyone have a good long look at the unshaven armpits of his life, he yet gained in the balance.

Armpits of his life. Way better than Keurig piss. His mood improved slightly.

The second cup of coffee gone, he looked around for his laptop. He realized it was still in the car. He had only an hour to write before his recording session began. He had better get started.

18 Hours in Bellingham with Bruce's Banjo.

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I saw Bruce Shaw months before I actually met him. He was onstage at a club (a Bellingham institution called the 3B Tavern), playing mandolin with a band I can’t remember the name of. I had just turned 21, and that night was the second time I’d ever been to a bar.

Up till then, I could count the number of times I’d seen live music on one hand, and I’d never seen anyone play mandolin before. Bruce was up there tearing it up, making a whirlwind of music while the rest of the band tried to keep up. I watched from a booth and drank Rolling Rock, transfixed. The feeling was simple. I have to play music with that guy. I said it out loud.

I was too shy to approach him that night, but we ran into each other at a party a few months later. The place was called Randy’s Roadhouse. Inside there were Dead posters and church pews and girls that spun in circles when they danced. I was full of determination and little actual talent, but I brought my guitar anyway. I remember being really into Doc Watson at the time. I knew Deep River Blues and would play it over and over like it was the only blues song in the world.

Bruce was up there on the little stage in the Roadhouse, older and wiser and more at ease with himself. He was jamming with another band, so I waited for an hour and watched. When things quieted down, I took the last swallow from the flask I brought and stood up. He was putting his mandolin away. I was intimidated as hell, because he could already do what I was only trying. But I walked up to the stage and asked him did he know any Doc Watson. And he said, “I know all of em!” and laughed his trademark giggle laugh, and took his mandolin back out, and we sat on the stage facing each other and played all the songs I knew, one after the other. He played slow so I could keep up.

A few weeks later, he came over to my house with a Norman and Nancy Blake album called Blind Dog. He left it on my kitchen table. Maybe check this out, he said.

The next week it was old time fiddler James Bryan, and then Dirk Powell. He never talked much about what I should listen to, they were just gestures, unspoken suggestions. It turned out that he had great taste in music, and at 21, I had a few things going for me, but taste was not one of them.

Bruce and I went on to form a band called the Barbed Wire Cutters, with Adam Carp, Josh Brahinsky, and Chris Glass. That was a pretty great time in my life. Not only was the band my day job for a lot of my twenties, but it had kind of a cultural impact on the Bellingham music scene in the early 2000’s. It seems sentimental to say it now, but it was important to me and to Bruce and to our friends too. Those years in Bellingham were pretty magical. Playing at the Boundary Bay, or rehearsing at the park or just jamming on a Washington State Ferry headed out to Orcas Island. I still run into people who met their now-spouse at a Barbed Wire Cutters show.

Bruce plays a lot of instruments, but my favorite  is the clawhammer banjo. I called him up a few weeks ago to set up a date, and the day after I recorded Reischman in the hotel room, I drove up to Bellingham for a quick visit. We met at Randy’s Roadhouse. I texted him before I got there.

You want anything? I asked.

Cookies and soda

is what he texted back.

So I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a box of Oreo Thins and two bottles of Dad’s Rootbeer.

We hung out for a couple hours and drank root beer and ate the Oreos. He played clawhammer banjo on Nothing Really Matters and Stormy Seas and I listened along with my big white headphones. Then we just hung out for awhile. I played with a sweet dog named Ace and he told me about his latest girlfriends. And then I got back in my car and drove south.

I love this man and I owe him a lot. I'm excited to share his music with you. And if you ever get to hear him play live, lucky you.

White Mortuary.

IMG_4563 This is the casket elevator at White Mortuary, the place my dad worked for my entire childhood. It's ancient. Works on arm muscle and pulleys. Remember that diagram you saw in your junior high physics class, where the guy lifts a car with one arm because of the application of science? Well I do. Something about the more pulleys, the less effort. I don't understand how it all works. But I do remember the sound those huge gears made. Every time we visited him at work, my little brother and I would beg Dad to take us in the elevator down to the basement where the bodies were embalmed. Dad was cool so most of the time he said yes.

The platform shifted and creaked when the three of us took our places, the mediciney smell of the formaldehyde wafting up from below, making my little brother wrinkle his nose. Dad stood close to the gear side of the wall. First he would pull the frayed nylon rope until the attached grey metal bar swung freely. That was the elevator brake. Then he took hold of the black rubber cable, giving it a powerful downward tug. We would stare up at the strange machine overhead  as the wheels began to groan and spin, each in proportion to its size. The descent of the platform was simultaneous, gaining speed as dad whipped the black cable faster and faster. 

That he could power an elevator with his bare hands was just another of our dad's apparent superpowers. The times when my mom was there, she'd watch us giggle until we disappeared below the threshold, and then she'd take the short flight of stairs and be waiting there for us at the bottom. The stairs were way faster, but not fun. Looking back, I'm grateful my dad always had time to treat us to the mechanical elevator ride. It's not like it only happened once.

So today, recording, I made a discovery: the elevator might be charming, but it isn't really an ideal acoustic environment. The song I was recording - Nothing Really Matters - has kind of a brushy quiet guitar thing going. Quiet means the room doesn't matter as much, as long as you're close to the mic. But for some reason there was just this woofy sound no amount of EQ tweaking on the channel strip could ameliorate. After an hour of trying, I gave up and switched guitars. The Martin D-18V is my main instrument, but when I switched to the Gibson, all the problems disappeared. That Gibson is a student model and has about half the tone of the Martin. But in this case, half the tone was perfect.

After I recorded the guitar track, I sang a few passes. The song is all low register at the verse, with a few big loud notes in the chorus. Over time, I've tended more and more to sing quietly, but too much of the same thing is boring. Plus I'm trying to do things that scare me, and singing loud scares me. So I went for it.

I haven't listened to the takes yet, but it felt pretty good.

 

This is what I mean.

butter horzYesterday I posted up on the north side of the Snake River Canyon, about a mile north of the house where I grew up. That mound on the far side is what remains of Evel Knievel's 1976 attempt to jump the canyon - still the biggest thing that ever happened around here. The North Side is an unregulated badland of twisted dirt roads and spray-painted rocks and the black remains of illegal campfires. There are no houses, or cows, or cops. Less than 5 minutes from the nearest Starbucks, you can go somewhere and kind of do whatever you want, without permission or a permit. It's our own little Burning Man.

I took my time finding a quiet enough place to set up, and eventually settled here. It wasn't perfect. I had forgotten about guns and target practice. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Jerome County, shooting is a given, which is one thing, but yesterday someone nearby was testing out his machine gun, the invisible crackle coming in loud and fast and mechanically paced.  At first I was annoyed - silence being a prerequisite for recording - but I figured he would run out of bullets eventually. And he did. By the time I had set up the table, mic, computers, battery, tuned the guitar and powered everything up, the world was silent but for a cool spring breeze coming up out of the canyon rim. It was just me and the lizards.

I spent all afternoon making a new song. And getting a decent sunburn.

 

Westbound.

IMG_4311 Day One. Salina, Kansas

I woke up this morning happy because the hotel I stayed in costs $35. You know how I like my dive motels. This one was that. Stripped down. No counter in the bathroom. No coffeepot. No frills. I slept on top of the covers, which is probably an empty gesture but you gotta feel like you're doing something to protect yourself. It always seems to work out.

I'm in Salina, Kansas, for another hour at least. Then I make for Denver, which is on the way to Idaho, which is where I'm starting the recording of my new record, Thousand Springs. I'll be there all month, recording in the places that are dear to me: White Mortuary (where my dad worked doing mortician stuff  while my little brother I played in the caskets), my best friend Nelson's house, my childhood home (assuming the new owners let me -- why wouldn't they??), the church I went to as a kid, that sort of thing.

I bought an expensive battery (more on that in future posts) and I'm going to try some outdoor recording too. Wilderness recording. Like at Craters of the Moon if the snow melts. I'll keep you posted on what shapes up.

Got a carload full of instruments and recording gear. Here's what I'm bringing:

20 new songs 1999 Martin D-18vm 1963 Gibson LG Baritone Ukulele I bought from a guy in a parking lot 2 soprano ukes, one of which is mostly plastic 1975 Peavey T60, a guitar I am made fun of for loving Appalachian dulcimer my mom sent me Fiddle I stole from my brother 20 years ago Apollo Twin loaded with my favorite UA plug-ins Oxygen8 2 octave midi controller 2015 Mojave 301FET condenser mic 2014 Sennheiser 935 1989 Shure SM57 1 pair AKG K701 Reference Headphones Modified Canon 7D + tripod and dolly, for filming A couple laptops Modified 2001 Fender Blues Jr amp 1 crate of paperbacks, for recreation 1 bottle bourbon (Jefferson's single barrel), for same Way too many shoes