Music Story: Decay (repost)
Well after weeks of messing around, (over a year really) we've finally got our song Decay (formerly known as Bohemian Athenian) up on our page. The story on this song is outrageously long, and for a little four minute song it seems quite strange that it took so much effort to complete.
Back in March 2007 we'd recorded the original demo for a song then titled Bohemian Athenian. It had that title because in a dubiously inspired moment I'd started the song off with a little whispery chant of "I am a bohemian Athenian." I guess that lyric was born from our desire to one day have a little place in Greece to live in: somewhere warm, quaint and lovely, where we could hang out, walk to the village, have our friends over from North America or where ever and just relax and have fun. Of course the only little hitch to those words was the rest of the song had absolutely nothing to do with that intro! I guess I was hoping somehow that it might magically invoke a holiday spot for us or something because I left them in there for fifteen months! Isabelle was the one who finally questioned their presence and suggested we might not actually need them there. Funny how the obvious stuff is so elusive isn't it?
Anyway, the original demo had Jesse Smith drumming on it with his inimitable style and grace. In fact I think I had him do it twice because I'd rushed the first recording and hadn't gotten anything that sounded too great. His work was exemplary of course (Anyone looking for a fantastic drummer should look Jesse up, he is world class and a true gentleman - you won't be disappointed). We lived with that version for over a year. My initial concept was for a sort of Manchester feel, you know that early 90's shuffly beat and easy laid back feel. As time moved on it started to seem more and more dated and way too much like the original album (which of course made sense as we'd really only just finished the first cd and were working out the songs for our live show). It hadn't occurred to me that the song was way too slow: the first demo was cut at 85 bpm. If you've been with us for a while you may remember it was the track with the funky clavinet part and some dubious singing. It was also well over six minutes long. Additionally it had a questionable outro section where we were singing a silly lyric about "sing your song, I'm gonna sing along yeah." That didn't make much sense either, but I guess I wasn't looking to connect the ideas too much yet.
A year passed and we were looking for songs to put on our next release, Disagreements. The demo still held a charm but I knew there was something wrong- especially because I never got much of a positive feedback from Isabelle on it. It had always been my intension that she sing the lead vocals as the lyrics were written from her perspective. However, as it stood she never really got into it, nor did she seem all that bothered with experimenting. The song sat around for a few more months as we worked on Please and Fat Kids Big Cars.
Before we went over to the UK I was keen to post something new on our page in hopes of keeping your interest while we were away. Unfortunately everything we had was nowhere near ready to be released to the public and the then still titled Bohemian Athenian was sounding even more dated.
I'd attempted to speed it up a little bit, from 85 bpm to 86 bpm (beats per minute) but that made next to no difference. The song was just plainly sounding wrong. I'd even gone so far as to spend an entire evening practicing the clav part over and over, hours spent rehearsing one line until I could play it blindfolded, drunk and exhausted! Stevie Wonder's song Superstition had been the initial inspiration for that part, so I listened to his track and played along with it until I too could play that clavinet line; which is cool because now if we're ever on stage and somebody asks for that song I know how to play it! Even with all that work it didn't sound right. I left it once again.
While we were over in England I had a little epiphany. The tempo was obviously way too slow. It wasn't dancey enough because it was plodding along. Then I had the bright idea to try my hands at drumming once again. Hey it kinda worked on Fat Kids Big Cars, and I confess to rather enjoying drumming, it's a lot of fun. So upon returning from the land of exquisite pubs and sunshine (can you believe that?) I mic'd up the drum kit once again and began pounding my way through the song. This time I set the tempo at 96bpm. That had to be fast enough right? hmmph. This time I did do a little better than my last attempt at drumming, only 16 takes and about 30 edits to comp together a performance. All was running along smoothly. Isabelle was even excited now!
The bassline was fairly easy to write and record, an exercise in restraint. The guitars were frustrating as usual but I thought I'd come up with something that worked. Happy, I reckoned the song was ready for vocals and we recorded our parts for a first draft. Something wasn't working still but hey, it was moving forward.
A few weeks ago we had a listening party for the Sex With Strangers new album The Modern Seduction. Obviously the album was rapturously embraced by everyone at the party: it is that good, and while that spirit was still lingering in the air I set up a mic and had everyone help us out with some handclaps, percussion, and backing vocals. It was great fun and you can hear the party atmosphere in the background in the outro and ending. It's a bit chaotic but we like that, it evokes the right mood.
Now almost everything was in place so I attempted to mix the song. Oh. It didn't work. Still.
The guitars weren't happening in spite of my best efforts. And that's when I finally asked my friend Todd Simko to help me out. Todd was the guitarist in Pure, our band from the 90's. Even though he's been working away in the studio for the past decade or so, his playing was light years ahead of anything I'd come up with and suddenly the song started to sound stimulating. It was his idea to change the breakdown to a minor key, something which I'd never thought of and led to Isabelle's part where she repeats the line I'm trying to help you. That in turn led into the outro section where she just kept singing that line over and over and we both got really excited. The song was finally sounding fresh.
Once again I sat down to do a mix but there was still something missing: Cowbell! I know it's a running joke from the SNL skit but honestly when you play a cowbell you can't help but start smiling. And they're really quite expressive too - who knew?!? I put down the cowbell part and then recorded a cheeky little keyboard part the just plays two notes: C to B flat, then B flat to C again. It's reminiscent of a Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime where the bassline just plays two notes for the entire song. I've always marveled at its simplicity and minimalism, so to paraphrase that idea in our song was as big a compliment as I could offer.
Finally it seemed we had all the parts. Seemed like it.
We re-recorded the vocals with entirely new melodies, breaking up the lines between Isabelle and me. I think it works, and for the first time Isabelle sings the lead vocal! (We've had a few requests for that so it's nice to offer a song with her singing prominently displayed.) As we listened to the rough mix we'd posted on the myspace page and it occurred to us that the vocals could be stronger and the song seemed to drag a little bit. Back to the studio for another round.
Because I had no desire to retrack the drums once again I went through the chore of editing all the tracks to allow us to speed up the song from 96 to 99 bpm. Finally it had a liveliness to it that we both agreed was fun and interesting. Isabelle re-sang her lead lines and after a few days of serious doubts I finally sat down to finish the mix. This song had gone through so many different permutations now that I'd lost all objectivity. Honestly, I can't tell you whether it's any good or not, but at least it's in a state where I think it's worth a listen. I suppose big time artists like Micheal Jackson must have gone through moments like these when they'd spend over two years working on a single song (MJ's track "Black and White" reportedly took 18 months to mix and was edited together from three separate mixing sessions) but I've never spent as much time working on a single song in my life. I think it's worth it, at least today I do, we'll have to see in a few months whether all the time was well spent.
We've started rehearsing the song for our upcoming show on July 18th at the Biltmore Cabaret and instantly Todd and Kevin added in new ideas that I'd never heard before and left me wondering if THAT was the way we should play it! Oh dear, I might be going crazy!!
All right, thanks for taking the time to read all of this. I guess after the months of work I wanted to share a bit. Hope you're well and enjoying the summer (or winter if you're in Australia) Cheers!
Post Script: Oh and of course the title has been changed. It was Isabelle's idea to call it Decay, as the ep is going to be called Disagreements she thought a harsh sounding word like decay would suit it very well. Plus it's from the line "how did we decay, so far to never speaking." so it makes sense at least, as opposed to the former working title. Hope you like it! (no, really, I do!!)