Not Much To Say, But a New Record Is On Its Way

I actually don’t have very much to say. I just feel bad that it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything, so I thought I’d try to post something.

Airline acoustic with gold foil pickup

The new Airline acoustic with gold foil pickup

Well, there is this new guitar I picked up a few weeks ago. I wasn’t planning on it, but there it was and I couldn’t pass it up.

It’s an old Airline acoustic with a Teisco gold foil in it. It’s on “okay” sounding acoustic, but that gold foil sounds terrific. There was another one there, but this particular guy played better and sounded a little bit crisper. The high E string has a funky buzz to it that makes it sound like a really bad electric sitar. I need to learn how to play to that, but I haven’t put in the time just yet. I hope to be able to soon.

So this week, I got word that we should have the newest record mastered this week. That’s exciting news. I have spent a lot of time with the pre-mastering mixes and so I have gotten to know the record in that context really well. I have listened to some drafts of the mastered mixes and they really sound good. There’s some nice sparkle and shine to them. Among the Yellow Hope Project records thus far, this one is the one that could stand up strong to a bit of compression and EQ. The others were recorded so dry and live that we didn’t want to mess with that too much. Even though we recorded the vast majority of the songs live in the room, this new record has a bigger sound and was recorded on tape, so I think it’ll be nice to have pushed on the sound a bit.

Another big difference this time is that Jason and I aren’t physically present during the mastering. Since we heard about the sad news that Piety Studio closed down, Jason and I went about looking for another place to master this record. Jason suggested his friend, Bronson Tew, down in Mississippi. I trusted Jason on this and we made a good choice. Bronson has been really great to work with. He’s responded really quickly to our notes and he’s been able to really add some nice touches to the mixes. It’s a bit weird to not be there this go-around. I liked making that trip. It was an occasion. When it was done, I walked out with a physical object that was the record. This time it’s all emails, shared cloud folders, and text messages. It’s not a bad working situation. It’s just different. I miss the human interaction. Then again, for the Fifty Shades of Yellow mastering session, I was massively hungover, and I spent a good deal of time in the studio bathroom dealing. Perhaps I really don’t need to interact so much with other humans?

So the new record should be ready to drop very soon. I’ll do the normal thing — post it to bandcamp while I’m waiting for the physical CDs to be pressed. This time around, I think I’m going to order a limited number of CDs. Although I think this is my strongest record, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not going to sell too much. Now I’m not being poopy. I’ve just got some experience with this now. I definitely want to press some CDs because Scott’s design is really great and it came together well. It definitely needs to be. It just doesn’t need to be that many.

Regardless, I hope you will like the new record. I had a blast making it. I think that you can hear the band enjoying their performances in each of the songs. There are definitely some fun moments in there.  You’ll be hearing back from me soon.

 

Introducing the Reubencaster

I have just heard the news. The Reubencaster is done!

In a recent post, I described a few new projects that I have started. The major project of the bunch was having Reuben Cox at Old Style Guitar Shop modify a cheap Squier Strat to swap out the stock electronics to include two Lollar pickups: the Supro Steel and the Gold Foil in a configuration inspired by the famous Coodercaster. I picked up a Daphne blue Indonesian Squier at a local guitar store and then sent it down to Reuben. I got a message from Reuben earlier this week with a picture of the guitar in progress. Today, he told me that it is now finished. Below is a picture of the finished product.

The Reubencaster!

The Reubencaster!

Needless to say, I’m very excited abut this beautiful guitar. The workmanship is fantastic. The modifications are so clean and Reuben assures me that it has sustain “for days.” His correspondences with me indicate that he’s pretty excited about how this project turned out and that, in turn, makes me really happy. It’s nice to know that the kind of guitar I want built is the kind of guitar that builders want to build. It’s not that I had any lack of confidence in my taste, but it’s still nice to be validated. I’ve also gotten a few reports that some rather impressive people who have come by the store today freaked out over it. How cool is that?

I’m nervous about its trip up to me, but I can’t wait to play it. Just the thought of it makes me want to work even more on my slide playing. Perhaps I can bide my time by listening to all of my Ry Cooder records. Stay tuned!

Long Time Coming

I haven’t given this much thought, but I think at this point in my life, I have been playing guitar longer than I haven’t. Many of the few people that read this blog have not known me as a guitarist,  but there once was a time when I wasn’t.

One of the few times I've performed in a suit.

One of the few times I’ve performed in a suit.

I started off playing piano. I took lessons from my sister’s teacher. I think I took lessons for only two weeks or some very limited amount of time. To this day, I’m an idiot on the keyboard. It takes me far too long to spell out chords. I have a Wurlitzer around for recording demos, but for me to knock out a part takes hours and leads involuntary shouts of gratuitous expletives.

Next, I took cello lessons. My teacher was the same as my brother’s. See a pattern here? I can’t remember for how long I took cello lessons, but it was for a few years. For some reason I cannot remember, I just stopped taking cello lessons. I’m sure my interest in it faded, but I don’t think that was the sole reason.

After cello, I started to take viola lessons. Viola is a rather natural change from cello. The strings are tuned to the same pitches, just an octave higher. In fact, much of the viola music out there is transcribed cello music. I remember that transitioning from bass clef to alto clef was weird. Even now if you see a piece of viola music, the clef looks like a kind of a funny, goth “B”.

Less formal and with my trusty ’58 LG.

However, the physical playing of viola is quite different from cello. I don’t think I ever felt comfortable holding a viola under my chin. Moreover, my bow technique was always poor. My fingers bend rather strangely at the knuckles closest to the nails. Somehow, those knuckles didn’t allow me to keep my fingers “naturally” curved in a manner like my teacher insisted they should. This was a problem up to my very last viola lesson. My vibrato was manic and tight instead of being loose and flowing.

Despite my poor technique, I think I managed to play viola (and later violin) okay. I played in a number of orchestras, quartets, etc. I performed recitals, adjudications, competitions, etc. Violas are generally underrepresented, so it was easy to manage playing just okay. Playing that much was kind of fun. I met lots of friends. I think I managed to gain an appreciation and knowledge of playing in ensembles. I knew I didn’t really enjoy the competitive aspect of it, the posturing, and the grandeur of the classical music scene. Even back then I knew I wanted to play guitar.

I think it was my sister who bought a guitar for a special music class. It was a small-scale nylon string guitar. I remember that there were color coded stickers on the fingerboard between the frets to show which frets and strings you should play for certain chords. I think all three of us, my brother, sister, and I spent time playing this guitar. I clearly remember playing G, C, D, and Em chords. I also remember playing harmonics. I knew about those from cello and viola. Even back then I remember really liking it. I liked the idea of playing chords on a string instrument.

That must have had something to do with the beginning of my fascination with the guitar. I remember that my viola teacher had a classical guitar in his house. After my lesson, I would often have to wait because my mother and his wife were friends and would spend a long time gossiping. I would often try to sneak into the room where the guitar was. I’d just barely open up the case and play a few of the strings. I really wanted to pull it out completely and monkey around on it, but I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t even feel comfortable asking if I could. I generally assumed the answer would be no. Other times, we would visit another friend of my mother’s where I would be kind of alone while my mother and her friend would talk. That family had a steel stringed acoustic FG-style Yamaha that I spotted. Again, I was timid to bring the guitar fully out of its chipboard case. I’d just open it and play a few strings with it still inside. I think once or twice, I would pull it out, but I only played my coveted G, C, D, and Em chords quickly and quietly and then hide my tracks. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I also figure out how to slide a D chord up two steps to play an E and then back down to A, or something like that. I still do that trick whenever I can.

At the time, guitar wasn’t an option for me. It was this forbidden thing. I definitely had the seeds of obsession. I remember sitting in orchestra rehearsal after a break playing my viola like a guitar. I had figured out the chord changes for the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” My stand partner thought it was hilarious that I had the audacity to do that. If the sectional teacher would have caught me, I’d likely be in trouble.

The big change came when my parents and I moved to Shreveport.

As I’ve surely discussed before, my parents and I moved to Shreveport just before my freshman year in high school. My brother and sister had already moved out of the house by that point. It was a big move. I continued to take viola lessons with a very nice teacher whom I liked a lot. She wasn’t strict. She encouraged me to consider interpretation of pieces. She didn’t assign me a bunch of etudes. Rather, she told me to use isolated measures of the pieces I was playing to develop my own etudes. I really liked that. At the same time, I didn’t have the inertia of playing in a bunch of orchestras and other constraints to keep me playing, so I just kind of stopped.

My parents definitely felt bad about having to move me from all of my friends and the life I had. To help ease their guilt, they bought me a guitar because they knew I really wanted to play one. It was a steel string Takamine. In terms of giving me something to do, my parents’ plan worked. I played that thing anytime I was at home, which was just about anytime I wasn’t at school since I had no social life back then. I took lessons with the initial intent on learning classical guitar, but those slowly moved over toward blues, rock, and folk. I ate it all up. I bought Guitar Player and Guitar For the Practicing Musician. I collected as much tablature as I could and I worked at it. I remember when my teacher wrote down Travis picking patterns for me. I practiced them everyday. I remember practicing them in front of the TV before school, and then when I got back from school, I’d pick up my guitar and start playing them again.

I was obsessed. What had once been this forbidden thing now was available to me and I wasn’t going to waste a single moment.

I still play guitar just about everyday. I have always felt like I was meant to play guitar. I just really enjoy playing guitar. I never feel any sort of need to stray or move on from it. The opportunity to play a 6-string guitar, acoustic or electric, was such a huge moment in my life. The magic of it has never gone away.

Projects

I just gave this blog a bit of a face-lift, so that motivated me to write a new post. Do you like the new look? I changed the theme to be more consistent with the designs of my records. Look to the right. I just added widgets for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Isn’t it great? I am integrating all of my social media! Hopefully, this will motivate me work less and participate in social media more.

I’ve spent the majority of my day today in a hotel working. I’m traveling for work this week. Although I feel like I haven’t been very active, now that I think about it, I’ve been busy. As I mentioned in my last post, things are moving forward with record number 3.  I just spent weekend prior to this one in Los Angeles to play another gig at Cinema Bar with my friends, Scott Gagner and Kevin Garrett. I think the gig went pretty well, but it was a whirlwind tour through LA, so I don’t remember too much of it.

Whole chicken at Kyo Chon.

Our order of a whole chicken at Kyo Chon with garlic and hot sauces.

Wait. That’s not true. I remember a lot. I had three solid Korean meals in the course of 24 hours. Upon arrival to LA, I went straight to Olympic Noodle to have their steamed dumplings, kimchee, and hand-cut noodle soup. It’s fantastic Korean comfort food. For dinner after the gig, I went to Kyo Chon. I’ve written about this chicken before. They changed their service a little bit. Now they have a dine-in service. The thing that hasn’t changed is the chicken. It was still rather spectacular. Overall I think it’s fortunate that I don’t live in LA. I’m not sure I have the self control to resist this place. On Sunday, we went to an early lunch in Pasadena at Goan, a Korean BBQ place. We managed to order a set meal and add to it some additional items. You can witness the first set of beef briskets hitting the grill. It was a thing of beauty. There was a lovely variety of pork bellies, beef rib eye, and marinated short rib, too.

Now that I am back from that LA trip, I feel compelled to initiate some new projects. I suppose I get into these moods every once in a while. Perhaps I’m wanting to start new projects because work has been really busy. I tend to think of these things when other thoughts are heavy on my mind. I’m not really enjoying being this busy with the things I’m doing at work. I’m looking for an escape.

Raw materials for the Reuben-caster.

Raw materials for the Reubencaster.

One project involves building a new guitar. Actually, that’s a bit misleading. I’m not going to be the one to build it. I’m asking Reuben Cox to build me a guitar for slide that’s based off of the famous Coodercaster. Lollar makes a version of the Supro/Valco/National string through steel guitar pickup used in the Coodercaster. We’re planning to put that in as well as something funky for the neck pickup. I’m not sure Reuben likes this name, but I’m referring to it as the Reubencaster. Yesterday afternoon, I went to a local music store to see if they had a cheap Strat that I could use for this project. After playing a few of the inexpensive Squire Strats, I found the one shown in the picture shown to the right. Apparently, the color is called “Daphne blue.” For a very reasonable price, I picked it up. The plan is to use this as a dedicated slide guitar with heavy gauge, flatwound strings and high action. It’s about time I had a proper slide guitar, and soon it will be. The next step involves me shipping this down to Reuben to let him work his magic. Stay tuned.

The other projects I am contemplating are not nearly as interesting, but important nonetheless. I’ve started a new focus on my personal health. I’ve let myself go. I have to fix me. I’m not planning on doing anything too dramatic. I just am refocusing attention on wellness. I’ve started to swim. I’ve never swam for exercise before. It’s kicking my ass, but I’m enjoying it. Maybe it will improve my breathing which will affect my singing? That would be cool. Maybe I can stop belly-aching about singing in ALL CAPS and just join in the crowd? Then I’d have to eat my words. Words are carb-heavy, so perhaps not.

I’m also starting to feel the pangs of need to write songs again. Some ideas are cycling around. I haven’t been playing guitar too much lately, but I picked one up the other morning and generated several ideas. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m close. It would be consistent with my previous behavior to start writing a new crop of songs just as this new record is getting ready to drop. No rest for the weary. Onward and upward!

LOVE.

image

What happened?!?

It has been decided. The new record has a title. It’s going to be called “LOVE.” All caps. Period.

To be honest, this title has been banging around my head for a while. It was something that Scott suggested to me several months ago, actually after this blog post. But I wasn’t ready to think about it. I had been avoiding this title. It was uncomfortable for me. In the end, I figured out that it was because I was so uncomfortable with this idea was the reason I needed to choose it. It’s ballsy, but now I’m okay with that.

So here we are. Record number three is nearly ready to drop. We are making some final edits to the mixes. I have decided on the song sequence. The design is underway. I have to figure out how we are going to master it. Then, I have to figure out what to do with it. Or not.

The new album will have 14 tracks. 12 of them are original songs I wrote. 1 is a cover, and 1 is a different version of 1 of the 12 originals. I’ve been spending a little bit of time with the rough mixes we have now. They sound good and I think we hit on a good overall feel for the album.

So what to do with the record? With this third record, I am no wiser on what to do. Ideally, I want it to be heard, but I’m not entirely willing to do everything that one has to do to make that happen. I think I could put together a really great band to play live, but I don’t know how to get enough tour support to make that happen. To be honest, I don’t really want to do that hustle. If there’s a right gig to do and I can get the band I want to get, I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’ll play some solo shows and see how those go. I have been considering investing a little bit into publicity which might get some more reviews, for example. Someone has expressed some interest in making a video for one of the new songs and it’s fun to discuss creative ideas on that front. I think that some of the video ideas I’ve discussed with people would be really cool, but then I’m guessing that getting people to watch your video is only slightly easier than having people listen to your album.

All of this uncertainty regarding what to do with the finished product should probably bother me more, but it doesn’t. I’ve discussed this point with others. Making records is kind of my old man thing. I don’t play fantasy baseball or football. I don’t fish. I don’t ski. I don’t have a thing for expensive cars. I just want to write and record songs.

So here we are. My third album is entitled, “LOVE.” I’m looking forward to you being able to hear it. Stay tuned.

Sounds like a really good stereo

It’s the Monday morning after recording the songs for the next record. It’s a peculiar feeling sitting here, sipping a coffee, and being reflective.  For the past several days, I’ve had to be transmittive (I just made that up. Or did I?).

wpid-Screenshot_2014-01-07-18-32-16_1.jpg

Hanging out at The Root for my first breakfast in Little Rock this go-around. Indy took this picture when I was sitting back to relax after the flight.

When Jason and I were in LA last year to record the duet with Syd, we met up with some of my friends for drinks and dinner. My friend Jade asked me how I would describe the new (at the time) record. Up until then I didn’t have a good answer. I punted and made Jason answer. He had an interesting response. He said that the first record was more of a singular voice, while the new one was more centered around a band. I’m paraphrasing here because my memory of what was said exactly is poor. Nonetheless, that’s the essence of what I remember from that conversation. It struck me as so obviously true at the time, I felt silly for not knowing that myself.

It’s true. The first record is very much about a single voice. I made a conscious choice to minimize backing vocals, for example. I designed the arrangements to be as sparse as they are on purpose. I campaigned for dryer mixes for production. And so on. Looking back, it all makes sense. I had written a bunch of songs in various states of isolation about various states of isolation. That’s where my head space was, so naturally, that’s what I was going for on that record. I hadn’t played in a band for many years, so I had forgotten what that is. I had the notion of trying to make a vocal-based record, and so that’s what I tried to do.

With the second record, I had gained a bit of confidence in my writing and regained an appreciation and understanding of what it meant to play in (as opposed to “with”) a band. Without being too explicitly conscientious about it, we gravitated toward a live feel. The bones of every song involved the entire band, including me, in one room playing the song. I’m not sure I can articulate the difference between playing in versus with a band, but I definitely rediscovered how much I like playing in a band.

Having Al Gamble in those sessions was a revelation. First of all, he’s an incredibly gifted and thoughtful musician. But more importantly, it set up each and every song very differently than before. The organ parts became an integrated part of the foundation of the song rather than an afterthought. Everything for me changed from that point. I’ve now become very sensitive to hearing songs where parts sound or feel too overdubbed. That’s fine, but if that’s all there is, I don’t like it unless it’s hip-hop or techno, but that’s a different thing to me. I want to hear a band playing together. I want records to transport me into that room with the band. I want to hear moments when the drummer and bassist lock it down, or the emergence of a deep pocket emanating from the band. That’s the rub.

In retrospect, this makes a ton of sense. I have always gravitated toward live records. I want to hear what the band can do as a band, not what they can manufacture in a studio. The extreme for me is NRBQ. To me they were/are the ultimate band. The feature of the Q is the band itself. When I listen to their records, I hear it “backwards.” I hear the band first, and then I figure out that the songs are actually great, too. I don’t think there’s another group for which that happens. To me, that’s their magic. To some extent, that’s the greatness of the Nick Lowe records. His band is really great. You can tell they record it all live on the floor. In contrast to NRBQ, though, Nick is clearly the feature.

So what’s this record about? Now that we have it mostly done, it seems like we have put together a record of music we would want to listen to. That might sound weird, but that’s what’s going on. More than the last record, this one is about the band. Paul Griffith and Al Gamble are back again. We got the great Ron Eoff to play bass. That rhythm section is rock solid. It just so happened that Jesse Aycock was in town playing with the Secret Sisters, so Jason and I wanted to seize that opportunity to have him play guitar, lap, and pedal steel guitars on a few songs. On the other hand, I had lined up Greg Spradlin and Chris Michaels to come in and play guitars, too. We had an embarrassment of riches!

At one point in the session, all three, Jesse, Chris, and Greg, were hanging out in the studio. I campaigned to have them all in the song. I was doing it to be a little silly, but then something happened. With all of these great guitarists playing live on the floor with a bad ass rhythm section, none of them felt obligated to carry things as is often the guitarist’s burden. Each of them carved out small parts that banked off one another. Before that track, Jesse and Greg were in the room together with me playing, too, so that was happening this whole time. Later, Chris and Greg were playing. This approach started off with me basically not knowing how to deny having any one of these great players on the floor to becoming a thing for this record. The only song we used one guitarist for tracking is the extra cover we decided to do at the last minute.

So how did this work? Really well. What it did was give each of the song a finer finish. Instead of having bones for a song that we then do something with, we have the whole song and just have to decide if it needs a little more of this or that. The difference is the feel. I hear all of those guys in the room with me. I’m pretty sure each of us wouldn’t have played what we played if it were us along overdubbing. I like that.

I have a joke I sometimes say in sessions when we listen back or listening to someone play which is “that sounds like a really good stereo.” It’s meant to be a bit of a jab, but all in fun. Now the joke’s on me. While we have been listening back to songs, they sound like a really good stereo. They sound like the kind of music I would want to listen to at home on a really good stereo.

Yet to Be Titled

Mongoose: “What should the next Yellow Hope Project record be titled?!? Ahhhh!”
Cobra: “I don’t know! Ahhhh!”

Three.

세.

Trois.

Tres.

Kolme.

Here we go.

The dates are set.

The songs are chosen.

It’s time to make the next record. It will be my third.

I’ve been talking about writing new songs in recent posts. At the end of the day, I had 15 or so written, including some carry-overs that didn’t make the cut last time. I sent my demos to Jason. He chose 11.

I forget that  choosing the songs for the record is always the most awkward part. I develop strange attachments to certain songs I’ve written. I get caught up in the details of the demo rather than the overall feel of the song. That’s problematic because the quality of those demos depends largely on my own musicianship. Although I think I’m getting better at drums, bass, and keyboards, I don’t think I ever achieve a consistent “feel” on my demos because I don’t play them well enough. Sometimes I get it pretty close, though. That’s not immediately apparent until well after the record is done.

For example, I got the song, “When We Make Our Most Important Decisions” pretty close on the demo. I just listened to that demo again for a goof. I’m still very proud of that drum part I wrote. I spent a lot of time listening to a bunch of records and trying different patterns out. Even in the stupor of my sickness during the session, I was really flattered that Paul responded so positively to the drums on the demo. In fact, one of the key drums parts I listened to while trying to write this one was his part on “Vanish” from the first record. The key ingredients missing in the demo was the bass and organ parts, but still, I feel like I established the vision for that song pretty solidly when I wrote it.

I don’t have a title for the record. Although I have listened to the latest batch of 11 songs together, I am not entirely sure how to characterize the group of songs. It’s definitely more band-oriented. It’s not a lyrically deep set of songs, not that my songs are ever that lyrically sophisticated. But for these set of songs, I didn’t explore particularly deep or overly personal subject matter. I suppose this go-around, I have been really focused on more harmonic aspects of song-writing. I’ve really tried to explore different chord voicings and different chord choices altogether. Although most of the songs where I felt that I was really exploring different chord choices didn’t make the cut. That’s really okay with me.

The first record was so focused in its subject matter that a title kind of came to me naturally. The second record was titled by Chris Michaels. In fact, the title came before we even chose the songs. It just had to be. Now, I don’t have any particular notion. Anybody got a suggestion?

If I was to keep up the “yellow” verbal pastische, here are some titles that have been mentioned at one point or another.

  • Mellow Yellow
  • Yellow Is the New Black
  • Channel Yellow
  • Kind of Yellow
  • Tangled Up in Yellow
  • Yellow Rain
  • Songs In the Key of Yellow
  • Yellow Moses
  • None More Yellow

Yellow Rain. Eeeeww.

Playing Slide, Joe Perry, and Emeril

I’m working on a new record. We have a dates set tentatively to record it. The band is in place. Seems like yesterday that I was working on the last record. It will have been just a year ago.

I’ve been writing songs, but it doesn’t seem like I have been. When I stopped to take a look at what I have this week, I found that have written 13 or so songs with 1 or 2 more on the way. Not all of them are keepers, but there they are. I guess I haven’t been paying attention to the group of songs I’ve written as a whole. I’ve just spent a little time here and there writing songs over weekends and cutting demos during my spare time. It isn’t like last time with Fifty Shades of Yellow. For that record, I actually took a writing retreat for one week, focused on the idea of a project, and managed to hammer out a bunch of songs at once that mostly ended up on that record. From that week, I carved out an overall shape. I had a vision for what the record was going to be. I felt good and confident about the songs. At least it feel like that how it felt back then.

The first record was very different, too. For that one, I had amassed a large number of songs over a bunch of years never thinking that I was ever going to make a record. Then I did. That record was about stepping up and making a first record. That defined the project. My apprehension was focused.

This time around, I’m not sure how I feel about making another record. On the other hand, I have two records I’m very proud of under my belt. I’ve managed to play on several other people’s records, which has given me even more confidence and comfort in the studio. That has led to a new found confidence about making records that I never thought I’d have. I’m just not as sure about the songs, or the shape of the record. So I put that all on Jason. He’s sitting with my demos and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. I think he has a better idea of what this record is than I do. I’m glad to not be producing my own records.

I might play more guitar on this record than I have in the past, especially slide. For a long time, I was focusing on my slide playing. It’s something that I used to play a lot. I first got interested when I saw the movie, Crossroads. (Surprised? Of course not!) From there, I tried to play this and that. Then I got into Leo Kottke and started to mimic his style of fingerpicking + slide playing. I have his signature brass slide sitting around somewhere, but I can’t find it at the moment. It’s really heavy. Too heavy for my pinky. Then there was my real introduction to Ry Cooder through listening to Bring the Family and Little Village. From there, I started listening to his solo records. I listened to other players like Sonny Landreth and David Linley. It’s only then that I started to realize that George Harrison played a lot of slide. I also started to notice that Steve Hackett played a lot of slide on old Genesis records, too.

Slide is one of those mystical things. I suppose you could take lessons, or watch instructional videos, but it’s such a feel-based thing that I’m not sure those would help. To get a decent tone, you really have to know your guitar. Not all guitars like slides on them. I remember when I asked my guitar teacher about how to play slide well, he told me to sit in my room and keep trying until it starts to sound good. I think he’s right. People don’t sit around and talk about slide playing like we tend to do with other styles of playing. I think it might be because it’s a nerd thing. You have to sit in your room, suck for a very long time, work at it, and possibly emerge with a few decent licks.

My little Gibson and slides

My little Gibson GA-5 Les Paul Jr. and slides. The Joe Perry slide is third from the left.

That being said, I think I’m an okay slide player. Just okay. This is not modesty. It’s the truth. Now that I’m trying to play slide again, I’m watching videos of Blake Mills play slide. He plays slide really well. He plays everything really well. It’s not a fair comparison, but still, he’s there playing slide supremely well. I’m just playing it okay. Nonetheless, I think I play in a way that others don’t seek to play which makes my okay playing somewhat unique.

So, what’s the deal with Joe Perry and Emeril? There’s actually a connection going on between those two and me. I had forgotten about it until recently. Let’s see if I can explain.

A few weeks ago, when I decided to get back into slide playing, I went to Guitar Center to buy a few more slides. I have a steel one and one I cut from a wine bottle in college. Both sound fine, but I wanted to try some others out. I picked up a standard glass one that’s light and nice for quick playing, but the tone is a bit thin. I also picked up the Joe Perry signature ceramic slide. At first, I was hesitant to buy it. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Aerosmith fan in the world, but it is a nice slide and the idea of pulling it out in Little Rock and showing everyone made me smile, so I bought it. I have been playing with both a lot lately and I’m pretty pleased with them.

For research, I listened to the latest Ry Cooder record which is a live performance he did in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. That record is stupendous. His guitar tone is ridiculous. When the horns come in on “Why Don’t You Try Me” it’s just an amazing moment. I can’t believe I didn’t go to this show. It would have kicked my ass. It is now kicking my ass, and I didn’t even go. Anyway, that record has made me try to find the right amp that has the smooth growl like his that’s so great for slide. That led me back to this little Gibson GA-5 Les Paul Jr. amp I picked up a few years ago. This amp is really scrappy. It breaks up really quickly and gets pretty nasty. I never really used it for recording because it gets kind of out of control pretty quickly. But with slide, it seems to work great. I’ve been practicing slide on it and it’s working out great.

So what’s the connection? Well, I already mentioned that I picked up the Joe Perry signature slide. When I bought this amp at the now defunct Rocker Guitars in San Francisco, the owner saw that I was interested in the amp. To “seal the deal” he told me that he just saw Joe Perry play through a GA-5 Les Paul Jr the night before while watching Emeril Live. That struck me as probably the strangest reference I had ever heard in a guitar store. I totally forgot he told me that for a long time until I started playing it again using my Joe Perry ceramic slide. There you go. BAM!

“All art is, is just stealing. And all love is, is just dealing.”

I’m writing songs again. It’s been good to dust off my chops, and to focus on songwriting. Of course this is perfectly timed with the beginning of the school year which means my time is even less mine. I always struggle this time of  year with my obligations and responsibilities. But perhaps I need that sort of situation to force me to value the time I do have to myself to work on things like songwriting? Probably.

I’m not thinking too hard about what I’ve been writing beyond the particular song. I don’t have any concept in mind although I’ve certainly toyed with a few ideas. One was to try and write a New Orleans style dance record. Another was to write several songs that The Love Boat band could have played back in the day. Neither of those ideas have stuck. Instead, I’m just writing to write, and that feels pretty good. Maybe after writing a few more, I’ll see what’s forming. Of course, now that I’m writing about what I’ve been writing here, I’m starting to think more about what I have, but I’m going to try and resist.

As a self-diagnosed workaholic, I used to put all my time and effort into my academic career. You wouldn’t necessarily associate what I do for work with being creative at first, but it used to be a very creative activity for me. I would work on thinking about new approaches to solve problems, novel methods of implementing these ideas, propose them to others to try to gain acceptance, and eventually convince others that my ideas were reasonable and useful. There’s also a deep set of aesthetic principles involved in developing new theories. It’s true. Some theories are prettier than others. I don’t really have the pepper in my step that I once had. Maybe that’s because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve lost the buzz. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good life. I like thinking about what I think about. I’m still motivated to do it, and I think I have some interesting things going on, but it just doesn’t excite me like it used to.

Nowadays, I feel more compelled to focus my creative energy on songwriting. I’m still having my honeymoon with songwriting and making records. I’m excited by it and by seeing what I can do here. I want to see how far I can push myself. Have I ever written a good song? If so, could I write several good songs? What would that mean? What would I do with myself I were to establish that? There’s a healthy anxiety for me about these things. I’m motivated by that.

I realize that this post is rather ego-centric and introspective. You’re probably needing a picture of some sort. And it’s been a while since I’ve talked about food, so here’s a picture of some pork chops that I had for dinner last night at Wool Growers, a French Basque restaurant in Los Banos. Although I’ve lived in Merced for nearly ten years now, this was my first time here. Everything I’ve heard was true. It was a tremendous amount of very good food. Let it be known that when I have a cheat day, I make it count.

Pork chops (no applesauce, thank goodness) at Wool Growers.

If I have the good fortune to make another record, I’ve started envisioning it with less songs that my previous two (the first one has 13 and the second one has 14). Ten seems like an appropriate number. Since the release of Fifty Shades of Yellow, I’ve managed to write four fully-formed songs and some little bits here and there. If these were good songs that worked well together, that would be approximately 40% of a new record! Of course these sorts of numbers are arbitrary. Thinking about this sort of stuff is just a way for me to manage expectations until I have the next batch of songs.

I posted a video of me doing one of my new songs called “The Lesson” on YouTube. I was pretty hesitant to do it. I have been worried about self-promotion and getting a video presence out there, but now that I’ve done it, I don’t care that much. I guess it’s analogous to when I first started using facebook. I used to worry about who would see this or that. Now, I don’t care. It’s there. It might be embarrassing, but I find that after the initial shock, having it there helps me diffuse any embarrassment I had about it in the first place. Plus, I get to obsess over how many hits it has had!

Now about this post’s title. It’s a lyric from a song I wrote yesterday tentatively titled, “Shoulder the Pain.” I got the idea for this song from a magazine interview with Marc Maron that I read on a plane. I noted it as a memo on my phone. In the interview, he was saying some typical Maron stuff, but seeing it on the written page affected me differently. I was able to read it from a third-person perspective (rather than have him talk at me in his WTF podcast). From that perspective, I was able to distance myself from his words. I cannot articulate exactly what the difference was, but my reaction was “Wow. Really?” Anyway, he didn’t say “All art is, is just stealing. All love is, is just dealing.” I wrote that. In case you’re worried, I don’t believe that to be true. Well, I don’t believe that to be entirely true.

One and a half guitars

This past week was a busy one for me. I headed down to LA on Friday to celebrate my friends getting married. Just as I pulled into LA, I managed to stop by Old Style Guitars for a short visit. I saw a posting on facebook a while back of this Airline amp that just called to me. It was a bit expensive and I hadn’t been able to come down to try it down until this day. Well, I tried it out and it was amazing!

Meet my new Airline!

Meet my new Airline! Don’t be jealous M8. I still love you, too.

The tremelo (which is what I cared about most) was deep and thick. The surprise is the reverb. The spring is encased in this cardboard box and sounds crappy in the grooviest way. It’s like a slapback delay/reverb in that it has this harsh first reaction which then smooths out. If I can figure out how to play it right, I bet it will be super cool and give an unfamiliar nuance to a tone.

After trading a flurry of texts with Jason about the amp, I decided to get it. The key point is that I will never regret owning this amp. It’s true. I won’t. I’m going to enjoy learning how to use it. It’s the only amp of mine right now with 2 x 10″ speakers which I always thought was the right combo setup. I can already tell that they make a big difference. The low end feels great. The highs are clear without being too sparkly.

After making this profound purchase, I had a great time celebrating with my friends in downtown LA. The next morning, I went with some friends down to San Diego to surprise one of my oldest friends for his birthday. That was a great day and I was really happy that I could make it down for that.

After a relatively painless drive back from San Diego to LA, I then made the drive back to Merced. That was relatively painless. I listened to a really cool podcast interview with Johnny Marr which I found to be really insightful. Then I listened to another one with Allen Toussaint which was killer, especially since I’m spending a lot of time these days listening to old Lee Dorsey records.

The very next morning, I packed the car with two of my acoustics and set out for San Francisco. I got called by JJ at Decibelle for a session with Rachel Garlin. The band consisted of me on acoustic guitar, John-Paul McLean on bass, Rusty Miller on keys and electric guitar, and Michael Urbano on drums. Rachel played and sang on each song. It was pretty great band to play with. Everyone was really nice and supportive. Everyone but me ordered Hunan fish at lunch. I was the outcast.

To be honest, I didn’t know about Rachel or her music until this session. I had just received a few demos by email and that was my introduction to her. I like her songs a lot. The more time I have spent with them, the more I like them. Plus, getting to know her was also quite cool. She brought cuties and mambas to the session. Killer!

Tracking with Rachel Garlin at Decibelle. Rusty is in the back on the wurlitzer.

Rachel has a really earnest voice. She doesn’t sing in ALL CAPS. Her guitar playing is really good. She fingerpicks very well. In fact, her solid playing was the reason for the key challenge I faced in the session which I’ll talk about in just a minute. With respect to her songs, they are structured quite differently from how I structure songs. I had a hard time following some of her changes since they are moves I hadn’t made before. They’re subtle things: holding a chord a little longer here, changing it there, but if it’s out of your normal routine, it can really mess with your head. Working on this session has caused me to think about getting out of routines I have in my own songwriting. That’s definitely an enormous positive experience to come out of doing this session.

For each of the songs, Rachel played acoustic guitar and sang. Like I said before, she plays very well. For some of the songs, her acoustic guitar part is the foundation. So, for me, the key challenge in this session was figuring out what the heck to do. The question becomes, how do you play an acoustic guitar part that compliments a solid acoustic guitar foundation, but doesn’t add anything more to busy-up the song? For the recent Scott Gagner session I played, there were a couple of songs with a strong foundation of acoustic guitar that Scott played. For those songs, I was playing electric guitar, so I could mimic the kind of atmospheric parts that Bill Frisell did on Shawn Colvin’s last record, for example. I was rather pleased with myself about how those turned out. But for this session, I was playing acoustic guitar and those kinds of parts don’t work on acoustic. They sound trite, and don’t serve the songs. Anyway, I figured out some parts, and I think they came out okay. I must have played alright because Rachel asked me to come back and work on a few more songs with her. I gladly accepted since I was enjoying it and learning so much.

For the next sessions, it was just Rachel and me playing. I think it was the very first song we did where she Travis-picked while she sang. Her Travis-picking is rock solid, so this challenge became even more acute. With some anxiety and panic, I asked JJ and Rachel for advice on what to do. I think it was JJ who first said something like, “pick along with Rachel, but not as much” or something like that. After that, Rachel and I played along a bit together to try and work out parts. When we were listening to playbacks, Rachel and I kind of agreed that it sounded almost like one guitar, but a little bit more. That’s how Rachel and I coined the term “one and a half guitars” for the sound.

Travis-picking is based on an alternating bass line in quarter notes. With one and a half guitars, the idea is to play a sparse arpeggio of a different inversion of the chord in a time that weaves in and out of the alternating bass line. The nice thing about this is it can respond to and compliment the vocal melody naturally, which should set the rhythm of the part. Now, all of this technical speak is a posteriori based on my faulty memory of the situation. I wonder how well the tracks actually sound and how successful the approach worked. At any rate, I’m planning to spend some time trying to work out this approach to a guitar part since I think it could be really handy. So thanks to Rachel Garlin for inviting me to play on her records. I learned a lot and we managed to invent one and half guitars!