“Gates” by SPEAK, from the album Pedals.
I don’t think people understand how much isolation comes along with making a record. Even as a musician who grew up — mostly alone — making music on a computer, I’ve been surprised by the number of artists who talk about taking a trip away somewhere and holing up with a laptop or guitar for three weeks. There’s something about being with other people that makes you feel stronger, more confident, and more assertive. Ironically it’s extremely difficult to find the inspiration for great music when you’re feeling strong, confident or assertive. When you’re alone for long stretches of time the brain’s positive reinforcement feedback loop starts faltering and you begin a process of deep questioning, which can be dangerous if you lose yourself in it. It’s certainly dangerous for your day-to-day function as a human being. But if you can manage to crack deep enough into your own head without falling inside you start to get to the really good stuff, and I think most artists spend their creative lives struggling to maintain that balance.
I certainly struggled with it, and it required a lot of adjustments in my personal life. The recording process of Pedals was the first time in my adulthood I felt like I had more friends remotely than I did at home (and this has nothing to do with all my amazing friends in Austin who continually texted me invites on Friday nights even though I’d declined the past fifty weekends). The kind of lifestyle and mental state required to write and record fourteen songs over two years is at odds with the way most people live, and contact with ‘the outside’ can kickstart concerns about reality and bring surrealist exploration to a screeching halt. So I learned to lean on my network of musician friends around the country and around the world, sending frustrated late night emails asking for advice or listening to records of theirs I admired and thinking “if they can do it…”
I started going to a ton of shows, which means I ended up getting to see some of my friends in touring bands more than my friends here in town. If you read my previous post you’ll know that the touring existence is just as surreal as recording, and since most of us musicians are in one mode or the other the vast majority of our lives, I think we’ve hobbled together a loose support group without realizing it. There’s really no other way to explain the speed with which friendships can be sparked (then maintained through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, email, and text messages) with people who should otherwise have tremendous social barriers in place… it’s almost like we have our own small religion, one which counts among its sacraments pilgrimage around the world to seedy dive bars and (for the most fortunate) great gatherings in the backstage areas of summer music festivals. There aren’t many rituals other than sharing an occasional beer, a harrowing road story, or an exciting new musical inspiration, yet still it’s easy to spot a fellow member. As someone with no religion of my own I feel deeply proud to be a part of this community, and we can’t wait to pay back the support we’ve received from so many amazing people.
The other more traditional network I leaned on heavily during this time was our network of fans. I usually struggle with the term, referring to them in conversation as “fan-friends” or just “my friend”, since the word fan seems to imply a hierarchical and one-sided relationship and I feel awkward using it. I often have to hold back laughter when someone at a show asks if I recognize them from Twitter — DUH I SEE YOUR TWITTER PROFILE PIC EVERY DAY, @[namewithheld]. When I’m working I have audio software and social media open. That’s usually it. The number of times I’ve hit a wall, only to see a tweet impatiently demanding our new album… or gone to bed disappointed in our latest release only to awaken to dozens of comments calling this new song our best one yet — there’s no way I would have had the motivation to keep pushing through without these people as cheerleaders. After all, the creative process involves questioning EVERYTHING, including whether or not you’re a good musician to begin with. Somewhere deep down you have to hold onto the belief that you have the talent to make something worthwhile, but that faith gets constantly eroded. Each tweet, each favorite, each compliment… every one is a another tiny drop in the ever-draining well of self-confidence and the importance of that replenishment cannot be overstated. I am as impressed by our fans’ determination and energy as I am of any musician I know and I couldn’t be prouder for them to be a part of our world.
For this post I’ve included some songs that have inspired me, been stuck in my head, or soundtracked amazing experiences in my life. I’m honored that all of the artists are or have been heroes, acquaintances, inspirations, and friends — in various orders and often simultaneously (there’s nothing better than a “hero-friend”). I think when you ask musicians about the greatest perks of a career in music many of them will answer, in some form or another, “the people”. That’s certainly my answer, and we’ve got a whole hell of a lot more people to meet. I don’t have to tell you how much I’m looking forward to it.
In hindsight, when you zoom in on the jagged but contiguous lines representing a typical tour routing it’s incredible how quickly they granulate into distinct points with massive temporal and spacial gaps in between. The 1,000 miles from Minneapolis to Austin become one point: “the Subway at the gas station in Oklahoma that had the surprisingly fresh vegetables.” Colorado is represented by the killer comped meal at the restaurant next to the Hi-Dive in Denver; the week you spent trudging up the West Coast is a view of Mt. Shasta or Mt. Rainier. A cross-country month-long stint is remembered as the one incredible show in San Francisco or Virgina… the rest is hard to recall clearly. A grueling tour is like a trip to the moon: you get in your shuttle somewhere, travel through a lot of empty space, and end up in a very alien and unfamiliar landscape full of possibility (and, in the case of Denver, slightly less gravity and a considerably thinner atmosphere). To replicate the psychological effects of touring, I decided to write this post in the form of nonlinear vignettes. This is as close as I can get to the actual memories. They are rendered as poorly here as they are in my own head.
We’re on our way to our first show with Tegan and Sara, September of 2012. 2,200 miles from Austin to Vancouver to play the biggest show we’ve played at this point — obviously we’re all excited and nervous beyond imagining. Considering this is a 36 hour drive we stocked up on new music pretty heavily, and before we left I grabbed Grizzly Bear’s Shields which had just come out. We’re in the desert somewhere, nondescript but stark and beautiful, and the album finally earns its spot on the rotation. Our van has no aux-in and radio is spotty, so full albums rule the soundsystem. Initial impressions of this one are positive and we’re all attentive since no one is exhausted from the rigors of touring yet. This is really good in fact… we’re all into it and opinions on Grizzly Bear have been historically divided. But by God they’re flexing more and writing stronger songs than they ever have before. No one seems to be offended by the notion that these guys are the next Beatles when it’s brought up. Then the final track, Sun In Your Eyes, comes on and we get to 1:22, a moment, a chord progression so ostentatious it beggars belief. It’s probably the most transcendent experience I’ve had listening to music and I think the feeling is shared in the van. These guys are DEFINITELY the next Beatles. And I don’t think we’ve driven more than a few hundred miles without listening to this song since.
My friend Jasper recommended I listen to the latest Knife record. It’s hard for me to remember a time before I knew Jasper: I don’t think it was that long ago but the nature of touring and recording can really warp your perception of chronology and it seems like we’ve been friends for ages. Damn, I guess the first time we met was actually in Vancouver — he was playing bass with Tegan and Sara — but that was only 8 or so months ago? Well, ol’ Jaz hasn’t lead me astray with his music recommendations yet, so I’m excited to get into this album. We’re on our way back from playing a couple shows with Ra Ra Riot and feeling incredibly inspired — things are really looking up on the touring front lately! We’ve channeled some of that energy into an all-night drive back home but my shift is over… it’s probably 10:00am or 11:00am and I’m extremely caffeinated but trying to get to sleep on the floor between the middle row of seats in the van. This Knife record is pretty insane but I’m digging it so far. Actually, I think I may have dozed off because I feel like I heard a lengthy period of silence. The album must have ended and started over. It’s pretty heavy stuff, I mean… it’s kind of crazed. If it hasn’t started over it’s insanely long — how many hours has it been… two? Three? Six? I can’t really tell what just happened honestly but I’m definitely awake now and I want to listen to “Ready to Lose” again, and again, and again….
We’re somewhere dark… a Motel 6 maybe. Actually that was a few nights ago, tonight we’re crashing on the floor of our friend’s house in Seattle. AH right no, we’re on the Eastern seaboard and we’ve just played a killer show but I’m exhausted and I’m trying to catch an extra hour of sleep as we drive to a relative’s place outside of town. I had the late-night driving duty the previous day and we didn’t get to the motel until after 3am, so I’ve got a moment of respite tonight and I’d better not squander it. I’m in the back of the van listening to my sleeping soundtrack, A Strangely Isolated Place by Ulrich Schnauss. “In All the Wrong Places” comes on. I know the music but the not the title. Insomnia and touring don’t mix, and I always hate it when I’m awake by the time I get to this song… it means I’ve been failing to fall asleep for 44 minutes. I may as well be throwing our guarantee from the previous nights’ show out the window of the van as we cruise down the highway — sleep is as precious as gold on the road. I’m frustrated, but damn if I don’t love this song. I always forget to look up what it’s called but it’s beautiful… and you know… there’s actually something great about not knowing… if I listened during the day it might… ruin it… and this really is a great album… and…. song…. and it’s definitely making me…. drowsy….. and…..
…And then five minutes later, we usually arrive.
First, I just have to say this is an honor and I’ve written vastly too much after having been inspired by the amazing artists who’ve come before us on this blog takeover thing!
Second, this is actually the last post I’m writing in this process and I’m realizing that “the studio” is the most boring place in which we exist as a band. I mean, I think the most interesting product came out of it, but when I saw the opportunity to write three posts, I thought “hey, there are three metaphysical places that occupy equal importance in our lives, I’ll divvy this up equally!” Well… bad idea. The studio may be the most important of all three in the grand scheme of things, but the vast majority of the time it’s a dark and brooding place filled with waveforms, wall-punching, and logarithmic math. So I’ll take this opportunity to talk about music and production in a more general (and more specific) sense, and leave the gripping narratives to the latter posts.
Accompanying each post I’ve assembled a 10-song Spotify playlist. All the songs are important, but the later posts include songs I don’t specifically address in the accompanying write-up and the music itself is mostly there for context. So to keep some of this takeover about music itself, here’s a thorough analysis of all 10 songs on the “Studio” playlist.
Milk & Honey by Beck
For my money, this is probably the best-produced song of all time. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, digital and analog, organic and artificial… punk, rock, funk, folk, electronic. The final 2 or so minutes are almost insulting in their seemingly off-handed brilliance — who comes up with a chord progression like that and doesn’t even bother to base a whole song about it?
99 Problems by Jay-Z
The opposite of “Milk & Honey”, this song does one thing and it DOES IT WELL. If you think the drums on our song “Gates” are too loud you can blame this record entirely (one mix of Gates had the suffix “nigelmixspoonjayz”). A masterclass on how minimalism can create an enormous sense of scale, a lesson I hope we can properly put into practice on the next album.
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters by MGMT
Dave Fridmann was a huge influence on my mixing approach, and I think this song exemplifies his fearlessness when it comes to bizarre EQ and stereo placement. It hasn’t earned him a great reputation on Gearslutz or other circles concerned with doing things the “right” way, but it has certainly resulted in one of the most glorious and mysterious musical journeys this side of The Beatles.
Do You… by Miguel
We had the privilege as a band to collaborate once with the production team who worked on this song, including mix engineer Serge Tsai. I think I love this song so much because I can imagine him sitting down at the mixing desk at 3:30am, the rest of the team murmuring behind him about how they might have a hit on their hands. After 10 or 15 minutes he turns up the studio monitors to outrageous volumes and blasts the track. Everyone in the studio goes absolutely NUTS when they hear how hard the drums and bass slam — now they’re positive the track will be a hit, and they’re correct. Also, for something so truly soulful, this song is hilarious.
Gene by Gene by Blur
I got heavily into Blur about halfway through the process of recording our album, and while their early songwriting is killer, they didn’t come into their own as exciting producers until the tail end of their career. Their final album Think Tank in particular is a wonky and unstable thing, full of missing frequencies and gaping sonic holes. This song is possibly the wonkiest of them all, but when the backing vocals enter at 1:20 you know it’s glued together with potent musicality.
Nuclear Seasons by Charli XCX
One of the best pop songs of the modern era (so good I was compelled to pay tribute on my a cappella cover EP). The melody and lyric are flawless, the sound is a look into an alternate dimension where even pure gold can grow tarnished and rusted. Between Charli and Kimbra pop music has an incredible and prismatic future ahead.
Always Something by Cage the Elephant
As far as Cage the Elephant songs go this one is harmonically dark for my tastes, but somehow I find myself enjoying it immensely. This song kicks off their second album, and given the drum loops and industrial atmospherics you wouldn’t be remiss for thinking they’d gone full Kid A… until the bridge rip-roars into existence and reminds you that this is the quintessential rock band of the past decade. If “99 Problems” is a masterclass on minimalism, “Always Something” is a study in contrast.
Crack Music by Kanye West
Once again, not my favorite song by the artist. This one doesn’t even rank in my top 50 Kanye songs probably. But the mix… my GOD the mix. Perfectly balanced low and high end, crisp drums and pristine group vocals, yet somehow the song is aggressive beyond reckoning. The horns are warped, the drums drop in and out, samples are bitcrushed and pitched. Good mixing communicates a song’s message clearly… great mixing communicates its own message, and no mix has expressed rage and frustration so poignantly as this one.
Giving Up The Gun by Vampire Weekend
I tend to stay away from mix references that are too similar to our own work — I find it’s a lot more interesting to appropriate elements of wildly different genres than to merely lift best practices from indie rock. But wow this is a hell of an indie rock mix. The way the outro guitar line is foreshadowed by the copy-pasted snippets in the verse, the bizarre vocal reverb effects darting in and out like the first tinglings of a migraine — this is the work of master craftsmen.
Believe E.S.P. by Deerhoof
Listening to great music usually fills me with inspiration and ambition, and I don’t consider myself a jealous person, but I am just straight up PISSED OFF that this album was recorded in a bedroom and mixed on a laptop on the road. Even now when I listen to our album after this one I’m simply embarrassed. I don’t care how highly rated Deerhoof is: they’re the most underrated band of all time. Perfect in every way.
Now that we have the music talk out of the way, stay tuned for some tales from the road!
I’ve been keeping tabs on Austin outfit SPEAK for a little over a year now hoping to hear about a new album. After sporadically releasing a few tracks over the past few months, their new LP Pedals has been given a June 24 release date, and to hold us over until then, they’ve shared a new track in “Gates“.
Keeping some of the new shine they flashed with “Be Reasonable, Diane“, “Gates” is restrained by comparison to some of the past songs, but in not being as busy, it successfully draws focus to the rhythm and some of the best lyrical work we’ve heard from them. The song is several years in the works, and though it clocks in at just under four minutes, the ending comes at a bit of a surprise. It certainly makes me ready for this new album!