Hi, Serene Dominic here!
The RPM Challenge is coming up for 2013 and I plan on again recording a new album in the month of February this year with active participation of my new band The GemSeekers. I thought it would be a good time as any to review the work that went behind last year’s effort Winter Trance Party by reviewing the blogs I wrote leading up to its 28 day completion. There’s a lot of missing blog when I was deep into the thick of it, but you get an idea of what went on every day and night.
Day 1: “Today begins my third RPM Challenge recording an entire album from start to finish in the merry month of February. In 2011 I did a 24 track album called 24 Originals Happening Now which I still feel is the best thing I’ve ever done so in my mind it will be very hard to top. This year I may not even try. For those of you who have ever been annoyed by music that I purposefully designed to please you in the past, with this new album I am going to try purposefully annoying you and see if you are inadvertently pleased with the results.
The new record will be called Winter Trance Party in commemoration of tomorrow’s 51st anniversary of the ill-fated “Winter Dance Party” that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper and the 45th anniversary of the suicide of Joe Meek. All four musical icons will figure somehow musically in the album, tentatively budgeted at 12 to 14 songs and under 40 minutes. I’ve also written a children’s story called Winter Trance Party that some of the album will be based on. Overall, everything will have a cold and wintry feel to it. I’m in Phoenix where it’s about 68 degrees at the moment but when I wrote and recorded demos for a lot of the songs. I purposefully let the house get to a chilly 56 degrees. I hope when you play the resulting album, you will feel that lack of warmth.
I have about 15 new song ideas, some more fleshed out than others in demo form. And yet I’m missing the crucial side one closer song that would make people want to flip over the imaginary vinyl album to side two (because I still dream in vinyl). Around midnight I sat down with Reason and a sample from The Raindrops and nothing else and hoped I’d come up with that closer. Instead I came up with a song that would be a great side two opener called “Don’t Lose That Rock Child”. Both are key song positions so I’m glad to have it. I’m of a mind that too many albums in the CD age get all aimless and dull in the middle and they’re too long to ever get to the end of anymore (my 24 song opus included- although it was a great album for an hour-long drive). Putting an album out on vinyl meant you had to start off strong and end stronger twice in one set, making for more classic albums. At least I hope so. Yesterday on Facebook I took an informal poll (because, really, is there a better kind?) and found out what people’s favorite side 1 closer was. Most people named Beatles cuts, which shouldn’t really count since almost every song of theirs sounds good enough to close a side. This album is trying to stay away from Beatles or British invasion sounds this time and concentrate more on pre-Fab and post-Fab music.
OK, so what this album needs is a “Stairway to Heaven” or “Let It Bleed.” Or “Time Waits For No One.” And the pressure in on to come up with a song that will probably sound forced and suck!
And then maybe I’ll get a better song once that one is out of the way.”
Day 2: “Barely 24 hours into the challenge and already the hatred for a barely week-old composition has set in. I have other songs that are in better shape than this so maybe I should’ve started with them. Instead I worked on “Please Don’t Tattle on Me,” one of three songs that just popped out of nowhere on Saturday while I was casually strumming on my girlfriend’s daughter’s pink guitar. If it were February 27th, I’d probably be chucking this one out based on my night’s efforts. But still I persisted, rewriting lyrics and recording before going into work hoping I’d enjoy the results in the car. I didn’t. Here are the gripes:
The melody sounds lazy to me instead of pretty, like a first draft.
I haven’t figured out how to sing this one. I hate HATE HATE HATE!!!!!! my first vocal attempt and all today I’ll be listening to Buddy Holly with an idea to try and sing it gentle and not in my usual McGruff the CrimeDog voice. “Everyday” is a good song to work from. Maybe I’ll add some knee slapping and glockenspiel. Maybe it would get it to sound less like a Mind Games outtake. I was trying to get this album to sound less Beatle-y but solo Beatles is hardly the answer.
I cut a passable slide guitar part, my first time ever attempt and my fingers are not quite where I’d like them to be.
I attempted to get a music box sound for the guitars by changing the pitch and also running it through Garageband helium, an effect I wish Reason had. Both were fails. In olden days, you could record on tape, slow it down to half speed ad record on that and you’d get the Bob Welch “Sentimental Lady” sound I’m looking for. I was dumbfounded on how I can achieve that digitally last night (“Where’s the easy button ? I can’t find it. Wah!” But time away from the computer and the lava lamp has given me an idea.”
Day 3: Recovered yesterday’s epic fail by fixing up “Please Don’t Tattle On Me” so it wouldn’t make me ill to hear it. Many things were tried- doubling a fey vocal, slowing down and speeding up the guitar track digitally using Audacity shareware. It sounds mechanical like a music box but not pretty like “Sentimental Lady.” I even did that Willie Weeks /70’s session player thing on the bass – it almost sounds as if I know what I’m doing besides lots of coke. I’m kidding of course. Everyone knows that cocaine was very hard to find in the 70’s.
I’ve spotted this song as the runt of this month-long litter. It demands the most attention yet might only achieve passable status in the end. Aaaargh!
Was happy to leave that song alone and for a while and move on to “Calabash” a weird little song about a party of people not unlike the Donners who migrate west in search of gold, get consumed by the coldest winter on record and die off. That’s almost what the ill-fated Winter Dance Party was like- no one got rich there.
Feeling confident I turned to “Heart Breaking Machine,” a demo of which I constructed in Garageband over Christmas vacation. It being also being The Big Bopper death anniversary, it felt right working on his ersatz tribute song—the “Heart Breaking Machine” referred to in the title is, after all, the telephone over which so much breakup data is transferred and stored. Slapped some bass, handclaps and vocals on it-it’s nearly done. Poor Bopper —will the movie people ever come for you?
I clenched my body like a fist and screamed the lyrics to “Don’t Lose That Rock Child.” It felt right, what with no one being in the house and all.
Ruined my voice for “Friendly Angel” although I did get enough good stuff that I don’t have to redo the whole thing. Thought I could get a good finger snapping sound by sampling the beginning of “Killer Queen” but like most lazy experiments – it’s probably best to just keep doing them yourself. It doesn’t sound as creepy as I originally had it, without vocals but it still is strange.
So five songs in pretty decent shape. Went to bed at 3 AM where there was only a dozen people on the RPM Challenge site–I imagine everyone is playing Spot-the-Runt tonight.
Day 3 into 4: It’s happened early in the proceedings but in trying to find some percussion to put on another track I stumbled on a beat and before you know it I was working on a new track. This is what I love about the RPM Challenge- the sheer force of work powers and man hours always produces something out of nowhere.
I threw on some old lyrics and called it “I Met Her in the Boomerang Club” Used the opportunity to learn a thing or two about laying down beats and got my slide finger to cooperate a little better.
The result of all this busy work is that I now have to redo the track from scratch because there are bits where the drums just don’t work with what I came up with afterwards.
Runaway song, why can’t you just be CORRECT right out of the gate?
Day 4 into 5:
Worked on a song with a strange directive. “Take Your Little Heart and Go” starts off like a slow Roy Orbison ballad and ends with two minutes of pure hell which was achieved by taking some of my favorite girl group recordings and slowing the speed to a crawl while keeping the pitch the same. It really gives me the willies!
My inner George Martin tells me that this is a bit excessive but why settle for a minute and a half of sonic hell when an additional 30 seconds would be so much more hellish?
I took time out to go to the library to take out a bunch of CDs. There was a Rhino Best of the Chantels that provided some nice samples and a lyrical idea that will find its way into “Friendly Angel.”
Most of Super Sunday was devoted to the tedium of fixing what should be really simple rhythm tracks to “Boomerang Club” and a slow soul number called “Cold Day in December.” What winds up happening is you write directly onto the timeline and you ultimately hear what the song needs and have to remake the song, which is what will happen in both instances.
Revived an old song from two RPM Challenges ago becuase of a faulty rhythm track and I just remade it now. I’ve altered it a bit to make it more Buddy Holly-ish and added the bolero ‘March of the Toreadors” sample from the opera Carmen. Oh you kids will get some culture and you’ll like it!
Day 7: “On the seventh day I rested. Rest is important unfortunately I had to do OTHER work so I didn’t get the rest I required which would’ve probably been used up by the Challenge anyway but that’s all right. I stayed away from the tracking desk but I did conduct one sonic experiment, sampling the Bo Diddley beat to see what it was backwards. And it pretty much sounds the same.”
Day 20: “So far in this project I’ve been able to emulate all my favorite early rock and roll heroes in some stylistic way:
Hiccuping in a song like Buddy Holly
Singing a Roy Orbison type bolero
Writing a telephone song like The Big Bopper
Doing a song in Spanish like Richie Valens
Doing a freakbeat song like Joe Meek
My emulation of Joe Meek didn’t just stop with the song “I Rebelled Last Night”. Having read about how Meek used to upturn his leather couch to use as a vocal booth in his aprtment studio. I tried it yesterday for “Crazed Shape Shifter” and it does get a dead sound but sounded to me like singing into a coach for some reason. I used it for another two songs “Cold Day in December” and “Suspend Your Disbelief” before moving the couch back to the living room where it will stay the remainder of forever.
I went back to my old way of cutting vocals but it was worth a try.
Day 21: I stayed up till 3 last night and as I was shutting down, a session that I had hidden away off the screen but hadn’t saved meant that 4 hours of work was lost on “Suspend Your Disbelief.” I put up a rough mix on the jukebox so I have an idea what it sounded like but here is a time where I really miss the whole Mac experience over PC. You can;t sneeze without a Mac asking “are you sure you don’t need a handkerchief?” Usually when you try to shut down a MAc and usually my PC tells you there are stilll other programs open and it lets you quit out of them.
This time all I could see on my PC was the “Suspend” session still open …and the fucking thing shut down anyway. Nice!
The good thing is that most of the work was trial and error stuff that I no longer have to do so really it only amounts to rerecording vocals, bass and slide…..but STILL! The idea that my personal computer doesn’t have my back in moments of sleep deprivation is really distressing. Plus I lost the vocals that I sang into the leather couch vocal booth and I’m sure as shit not going to upturn and drag that down the hall again. Might try recording vocals in the closet as per Andy Samford’s suggestion.
Tim (Letter Seventeen) sent me a sample of what he’s doing for “Winter Trance Party” so I’m psyched about that. I have a fear that with nine days left “Rezo Para Donna” will probably not get its Spanish vocals and duet partner in the fabby month of February.
Added some Ave Marias onto a Valentine’s Night demo I did of Carbon Footprint Man, a last minute song that knocked Boomerang Club out of slot 6. I’m collaborating on lyrics with Ed Masley of The Breakup Society which is great since we did 3 songs together last year.
Day 19: “Also due on March 1 is my contribution to a Jim Henson tribute album. I picked the Oscar the Grouch classic “There’s a Big Heap of Garbage at the End of the Rainbow” to cover and it took time away from the RPM album and as a result. it wouldn’t sound out of place on it.”
Day 22: “I’m not one of those people that think filler on an album is a bad deal. Every record needs its rest points (check any Stones album for the proof.) And for this album, since I’m looking strategically looking at the dead center slot on side 2, traditionally the spot where you throw in a song maybe not up to the level of some of the others, that is where I’m placing my slow soul dirge “It’ll Be a Cold Day in December.” I was trying to write a kind of Chi-Lites or Dramatics type of song – the kind I’d find on any number of Soul Tarin compilation albums I used to find at thrift stores. yes, I wrote this the day Don Cornelius died and although it didn’t strictly fit in with the plotted course of the record I went with it.
Andrew Jemsek, laid down an accordion track on "Rezo Para Donna."
I think I succeeded with the song, even the singing. It’s the rhythm track that is still a little draggy. I’ve tried speeding it up and slowing it down – tonight I’m going to try correcting it to a cllick track which might make it even more wonky.
Why will I invest more time in this song? Well, it makes me smile. As the guy who is singing the song, I’m putting myself in the head of a guy who is good at mangling well-known expressions as well as inventing a few new ones. Some of these were acheived by shouting whatever popped into my head as I stared at a lyric sheet with my glasses askew.
In driving home the main point of the song, this man has been wronged and is saying it’ll be a cold day in December before he gets mixed up in love again. So he has a few months to strut around as a lonely man beholden to no one. But here are some of the expressions maybe you ought to try out on your significant other:
“What’s good for the gander is messing up the geese”
“Couldn’t tell my heart from a hole and my soul from a shack.”
“Sometimes love can be a translucent thing.” Huh?
“They say revenge is a dish best left cold.”
I keep my heart and my sleeve just as far as I can.”
“You know the saying ‘Once bitten, bite back.”
There’s a bunch of others climaxing with him saying “If you make it with this guy, my sky will fall and fold.” So not only will her shagging someone else cause his sky to fall, it will also cause it to double back over itself.
I will fix you, song. I will fix you good.”
Day 28: “Puppy threatened completion! A stray puppy who now answers to the name Shadow wandered into my carport and into our hearts at the Serene Dominic compound. Attempts have been made to find the owner but that meant me having to remix some tracks with a fluffy chow in tow that just wants me to stroke her. She is too cute. Anyhow, the record is done but if she’d entered the picture earlier I couldn’t have mailed in a copy of the CD today that I could stand to listen to.
Many thanks to Letter Seventeen and Monopoli for their contributions to the title song- the first time I ever had a title song on an album and for my friend Andrew Jemsek for coming by and taking time out from his challenge to play accordion and to no-Challenger Ed Masley (Frampton Brothers, Breakup Society) for coming up with lyrics for “Carbon Footprint Man.”
I’m going to write a self-serving blog on my own website that outlines the CD and all but let me just say here that of all three Challenges, this is the on ethat sounds most like an album and the only one I didn’t cry or have some emotional breakdown at some point in the making of. Which either means I’m getting better at these or becoming more of a cold, unfeeling prick. Nah, I’m rescuing a puppy! How bad can I be?”