The east coast phase

April '97

We find ourselves in Los Angeles towards the end of our "promo tour" in support of our album Dare to be Surprised. While we've had some really good shows, the experience has made us feel like a fish out water overall. We've always defined ourselves as more of a studio project than a live band, and without much time or money to figure out how to translate our studio concoctions to a live setting, we end up mutating into some interesting permutations of the band that we never quite imagined: at Acoustic shows, we sound something like a Simon and Garfunkel-ish acoustic duo, while at the electric shows, we sound like a heavier two guitar rock band. We did the best we could and so did our backup musicians, but we end up feeling like we'd really need a fuller lineup and more rehearsal time to better represent ourselves, but then again, we ask ourselves, is this live thing for us anyway? Chalk it up to the learning process…

Following the last of our shows at McCabe's guitar shop, which we actually thoroughly enjoyed, we head to the airport but miss our flight back to Boston and get bumped to the red eye leaving 10 hours later. We decide to rent a car and go for a drive. As we make a big triangle across the city, I try to convince Lou that LA is a fascinating place, if you can get out of Hollywood. The palm trees look like alien saucers from "war of the worlds" hanging above the freeway, and as we go up the PCH past Malibu, the ocean air does us a world of good after the claustrophobic atmosphere of airports, hotels and clubs. We take a walk on the beach, two overdressed guys in pants and heavy shoes trying not to disturb the couples spooning in the sand like something out of Baywatch (yeech!) We drive up through one of the canyons, which is so beautiful Lou almost backs into a ravine by mistake. (That would have put and early end to this story!) (Lou says: wasn’t even close!) From there we head across the valley out to the inland empire for a visit with our friend Dennis from the Shrimper label, who put out some of our earlier solo releases as well as many other wonderful recordings if you don’t know about them already by the likes of the Mountain Goats, Refrigerator, Franklin Bruno, Dump and others. It was, as Ice Cube would say, a good day, one that clicked with a part of us that wanted some new possibilities.

May '97

In contrast to the fun feeling of our day in LA, something doesn't feel quite right as we work on a new song for a soundtrack to the film, A Life Less Ordinary. We were working in the same studio in which we made our last record, basically a glorified practice space with insanely loud Korn-esque bands chugging away on all sides. The proceedings feel tense, and while the feeling connects with the subject matter of the resulting tune, Kingdom of Lies, we feel like it's time for a change. Click on the song title to hear the germ of the song as generated by Lou, a four track groove of rhtym, mouth harp and chord organ.

Confronted with this experience as well as the mounting issues about the business side of the band, (how the record is doing, who will put out our next one, etc), we make a getaway plan: to run for the hills of up state new York, booking 2 weeks in July at Dreamland studios in West Hurley N.Y. Being in the country with lots of space and room to roam, it seems about as far from the experience of the last record and our tour as we can imagine.

But first, we must deal with the question: what will we record?

Up to this point, pretty much everything we had done had adhered to one of the main ideas we had when we started working together, which was that we would write the songs as we recorded them. We saw the four track or the studio as a canvas or a blank sheet of paper, and we wanted to feel free to fill that space with whatever came to mind, without thinking about whether we could play it live or whether new ideas fit into preconceived notions of what our roles were as band members. Recording this way was also central to how we’d write the lyrics; we’d rely on the music to create the hooks and an emotional vibe, and then we’d try and trace something out of that with the vocal parts that would make it feel complete.

But writing while recording takes longer. We never had to worry about that money-wise in the beginning cuz we were recording on four track at my house; then with the Kids soundtrack, studio time was paid for by the movie people, and we were mostly just doing instrumentals for the film, so we didn't spend much time thinking about structuring the songs for vocals. And with Dare to be Surprised, we recorded in our producer's studio which was very cheap, and on ADAT, a glorified video tape machine. But now here we were going to a real studio with money that was basically ours to make back, so we decided to try do our second new thing of the year... practice.

So we head to sebadoh's practice space next to the BFI stable of garbage trucks in Allston, Mass. There we work out blueprints for 8 songs, although no vocals as yet, (well, we couldn't go so far as to be totally prepared!) Click on the following titles in bold to hear a glimpse of these early versions, of the songs Merry Go Down and the instrumental B-Side Reservoir.

July '97

We load up a rental car full of stuff and head out the Mass Pike. Destination: the greater Woodstock area. We find some of that elusive space we have in been looking for in the following two weeks at Dreamland. Better air quality, better room sounds and equipment, and then there's the recreation: the fine
badminton courts, and even a lawn pool. Restored by the spiritual vibes of the former church setting, the friendly staff and the nearby reservoir, we get down to work on our new songs, hampered only by mounting carpel-tunnel syndrome resulting from our love for the studio's collection of vintage video games including Pac-Man, Centipede, Space Invaders.

We record 7 of the 8 songs written for the occasion. A highlight is the instrumental version of Gravity, which we finish on Lou's birthday, with John serenading him on the newly purchased banjo. Click here to hear an untitled and Unreleased Instrumental from these sessions.

But after we get back to Boston, the results seem to be missing a little je ne sais quoi. The songs sound a little flat and standard, like some of the energy has been lost from the demos we made of them. We decide that the influence of having toured as four piece band combined with then trying to write our songs out more carefully so we can sound more like a band has taken too much of the raw creativity of the process. But we would have to wait before figuring out what to do about it, because we were out of money. It was time to look for a record deal.

July Phase 2

We head to New York for some meetings with labels. Highlights: one executive calls our lawyer after the meeting and tells him, "this band isn't willing to do what it takes to win!" Ah, if she'd only seen us on the badminton court at dreamland. At a dinner meeting with a representative from one label, the Wallflowers' album plays several times in succession in the background at the restaurant, leading us to wonder whether Interscope knows the maitre’d. Elvis is everywhere. Our first meeting with the label that would become our future home occurs in an empty lobby restaurant with a lone woman playing an immense golden harp in the background. I remembered that day when we purchased a smaller and considerably cheaper harp at the country’s only harp store in Glendale, CA a year later. When we walked around the store shopping a blind woman that was playing harp there with a seeing eye dog started talking to me when I was on the other side of the room. She was very sweet. We laughed at the angel wings for sale on the walls and then went back and bought a couple pairs a year later when it came time to take promo pics for the record. I was reminded of them when I saw the Victoria's’s secret TV commercial and had the idea to do a parody….

September '97

We work on vocal ideas for the songs recorded at Dreamland at John's house. We fail on all of them except Gravity. Nothing seems to work, not even field trips to the park with a boom box to try a public approach to the writing process, although we do spot world famous economist John Kenneth Galbreath and say hello while we are trying to take a crack at Back to the Sunrise. Feeling doubtful, we wait for a new phase.

October '97- Jan  '98

Out of money for real, we focus on the record deal thing. We go to LA to meet with some folks in October. At the offices of another label, another sign from the ‘scope occurs as we sit watching MTV and seemingly every video is by a band on Interscope. We have fun going to the camera obscure on the beach in Santa Monica, looking out the dark interior at the tipsy-hazy pacific outside, Lou hears the other ocean churning and decides to move to the fabled city of angels, leaving his wife Kathleen behind to look for a place while we head back to Boston. From there, we go back to New York again, for more rec co stuff, and the last of handful of solo shows I played around this time with Mia Doi Todd, this one with Elliot Smith as well. Lou moves to LA in January, we follow the signs and choose Interscope, and prepare to get back to the musical side of things....

February '98

Lou sends me a DAT with some samples from the Optigan, (a sort of toy keyboard/proto sampler which Mattel made in the early 70's) with bass lines layered on top. Click here to hear this stage of songs which later became Someone You Love, My Ritual, Mechanical Man, and another unreleased bit using some of these same ideas which I always liked. A lot of these had the same "cowboy" loping beat to them, which we also used as the basis for the incidental music that appears in between some of the songs on the record.

March '98

I send Lou back a DAT with guitar lines added on top of his tape, which later became Someone You Love, Mechanical Man, and My Ritual. After some push-ups and stretches, it’s time for….

The West Coast Phase

April-June '98

I head out to L.A. along with our producer/programmer Wally Gagel and we begin recording the album at Lou's new house. We are psyched because the situation combines the space of the dreamland experience with the cozy funkiness of the way we recorded our early four track stuff. Like Dreamland, we have the equipment necessary to be more ambitious with our music, (thanks to our producer Wally's pro-tools set up and our new-found engineer Robert Caranza's selection of mics and outboard gear), and we're in a neighborhood filled with bizarre trees and animal noises ranging from the pitter-patter of Lou's new kittens to the woeful sound of a local dog being devoured by a coyote late one night. But like my old house, we're in our own space with our own equipment, where we can create our own environment without having to think about how much money it's costing us per day to be there or what's going on with the business side of things. We don't really know what's going to happen, we only know we're hoping, as Lou said, to discover something new about ourselves and our music.

We get to work and generate whole songs from the riffs sketched out in the tape trading and come up with One Part Lullaby and EZ LA entirely at the house. Inspired by the atmosphere of the city around us, some new elements come to the fore that satisfy our desire to get away from the standard side of the shows and recordings of '97: we use more non-standard instruments, we build the songs more out of samples of ourselves that we’d cut and paste together on the computer, and our producer Wally contributes lotsa drum machine programming. We also explore taking more separate roles in the way we record. Instead of always being in the same room at the same time making decisions by committee, we take turns recording (like tag team wrestling!) or work on parts in different rooms of the house and then come together to get suggestions, or just to be surprised and inspired by what the other person came up with. Overall, Lou ends up being the captain of the vocals and generating cool loops on the four track, while I focused more on the guitars and the arranging of beats on computer with Wally. Maybe this is some of the elusive space we were looking for. Click here to hear some rough mixes that we like from along the way; early instrumental versions of Free to Go, E.Z.L.A. and One Part Lullaby, and some outtake jams we never got around to making songs from.

July '98

We reconvene to mix the record and finish up some of the vocals at a studio called The Chapel in Encino, CA, aka The Valley. It seems like a bookend to the Dreamland experience: nice surroundings carved out of a former church with really nice people working there and plenty of recreational trappings, (this time its a tennis/basketball court and a swimming pool with jacuzzi). And like Woodstock, the environment suggests Rock: the studio was formerly the home of Dave Stewart, (we spend lots of time playing with his dog, who is so old he barks for help when he needs to get up), and it seems like every room has a portrait of the Traveling Wilburys taken on the premises that stare at you big-brother-like from the walls.

As we finish the vocals for Chained to the Moon, Back to the Sunrise, Merry Go Down and EZLA; Lou asks himself, what would I have thought if you'd told me when we started working on these songs at Dreamland that I'd be finishing these vocals a year later in the valley in 110 degree heat? We have fun contemplating the question while playing some of the worst tennis imaginable, and mix all the songs.

October-November '98 & January-February '99

After taking a step back from the Chapel mixes, the experience there ends up feeling similar to our time at dreamland in another way: the results sound a bit soft and flat. We decide we need to remix the record. We get back to work in the basement of Wally's new house in la, which stands in relation to the chapel as Lou's house did to dreamland; studio rockin' with home cookin'.

In these pared-down but more comfortable surroundings, we give the record a hair cut, so to speak, snipping away pieces of the songs so you can hear more of the different textures individually as opposed to just hearing everything at. We also try to make it sound less like a band by bringing out more of the non-standard instruments, and by adding some additional percussion and vocals to Chained to the Moon, the latter courtesy of Mia Doi-Todd.

We also work on a new song based on a sample from the Serge Gainsbourg song "requiem for a jerk", which I had thought of working with back in may of '97. Lou and I spend a lot of time generating textures on the sampler. Click here to hear an early version of the song as it we worked on it on four track at Lou's house. We finish it as an instrumental and then begin trying to work on vocals....and keep trying...and trying. But it's like knocking at the door of a house when nobody's home. Somehow the song won't let Lou's vocals in, even though he says he spent more time trying to do vocals than on any other song he's done. Hearing it at the mastering lab, it sounds complete as is and we decide to leave it instrumental to give some breathing room and texture to the album. It's also a Folk Implosion tradition: each one of our full-length records has featured an instrumental we could never figure out vocals for; Chicken Squawk on Take a Look Inside, and Park Dub on Dare to Be Surprised.

It all comes to a close, as I leave the mastering lab, with my first real celebrity sighting after all that time in LA. As I pull out of the parking lot, I spot a large Bentley pulling into a spot in front of my Toyota corolla, driving past I peek over thinking, is that Rick Rubin, when out pops something even bulkier: Fabio! with shirt open and flowing blond hair and everything. He sees me looking at him and I speed up, not wanting to bother the big fell as he gets ready to work out. But it gives me something to tell the friends at home when I get on the plane to go back to Boston. They'd always sound disappointed when they'd ask if I saw any stars in LA and I'd answer, well, actually, I spent almost the whole time staring at a computer screen or the neck of a guitar.

The end.TC