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Monday, August 30, 2010

Ophelia

Oblivion spent over a year writing, recording, and mixing our first record, Ellipsis (whose title was actually, "...", but since that is irritatingly difficult to write in any kind of easily understood way, I will from here on out call it Ellipsis, which is the official name for three dots in a row, signifying a continuation of whatever preceded it in the sentence, or sequence. A heady, arrogant title for a bunch of drunken upstarts don't you think?), which was entirely funded, and created by us five guys. We made the artwork, wrote the music, played the instruments, helped with the mixing, and we generally coddled the damn thing like it was our baby, which, of course, it was. It was the first living thing any of us had brought into the world and like all new parents we treated that record like it was the most special thing on Earth.

But also like new parents, after about six months we started to miss that feeling of making something special, so we dove right back into the writing process for what would eventually become The Garden in the Machine (A riff on Leo Marx's anti-technology diatribe, The Machine in the Garden. The idea was that Marx's fears had long since come to pass and the machine had swallowed up the garden. The "machine" being the complex technological system that both controls, and derives its power from, our humanity. I understood at the time the "garden" to be a Thoreau-ish, naive fantasy in which man could live at peace, separate from the pull of technology. That was a dream, I know that now, but it sure as hell was compelling when I was 22.).

TGinM was an ambitious undertaking from the start, since our last full length record had only come to fruition because we had employed an alcoholic ex-musician with a basement full of ancient recording equipment who was willing to record us for frequent bottles of Jagermeister and infrequent sums of cash. Ellipsis was recorded by a band of kids who had no idea what they were doing, led by a drunk who probably knew what he was doing at some point, but had long ago started the slow descent into alcoholic madness. Therefore, it sounds like a sack of nuts. But the ideas and skill and intent were clear enough. We had taken our lumps with Ellipsis and now wished to make something more mature, more concise, something that would last long after the band was done, something to launch us into the stratosphere.

The idea behind the record was that artistic endeavor was akin to plant food for the "garden," and that striving to create beautiful things could help the flowering of mankind, and help beat back the encroaching mechanization of society, or something like that. If the music on this album wasn't so darn good I'd probably be embarrassed about the ridiculous sentiments behind it, but as it is, there is something sort of refreshing about a group of young people actually believing what they are saying, believing with their entire being, rather than parroting the talking points of the zeitgeist.

So we played a crap ton of shows between Ellipsis and TGitM, saved as much money as we could, and practiced our asses off so that when we finally hit the studio (40 oz. Sound in Ann Arbor, MI) we would be able to rattle the basic tracks off so quickly that we would have enough money, thus time, to add all the cool little doodads we thought would make the record truly great. That wasn't exactly the way it went, as our ambition and perfectionism quickly outpaced our budget, but Ben Began at 40 oz. was more than cool and eventually cut us a per-album deal on studio time, which allowed us to spend as much time as we needed to finish the record.

All told I think the album took four months to record and mix, and cost about $4K between the studio time and the mastering. Ben may not have been willing to accept Jagermeister as payment but the relative increase in cost was more than matched by an exponential increase in sound quality and production value.

The Garden in the Machine failed on several levels (e.g. we never became rich and famous from it, there are some errors that should never have been allowed to make it to the final mix [admittedly, most of those mistakes were mine, and made it to the final mix because at the time my ego had that special mix of arrogance and fragility for which lead singers are so infamous], it's overly proud of its intelligence and design, etc...), but the one area it succeeded beyond any of our wildest imaginings was its thorough realization of our collective creativity. While certain songs may have been started by individual members, the end product was truly a hodgepodge of ideas. All five of us believed in this record and believed in its message and its music, and though there were plenty of arguments they were only because of that oldest of cliches, because we cared about it and wanted to make sure it turned out alright.

Nearly seven years on, I think it can be safely said that it did.

The lyrical content of TGinM was scatter shot. The only running theme was a generalized distaste for "conservative" America and an interest in teasing out the emotions of everyday life. To that end, I would say that "Ophelia" and "Sagawa's Son" are the two most fantastical songs on the album.

The music itself was begun by Jason and me during our "Lost Summer" (which I will explain in a future post, but which basically involved him and me being stranded in Ann Arbor during the summer with nothing to entertain ourselves but massive amounts of beer, our guitars, and a 4-track recording machine), and though we weren't entirely certain at the time whether it would find a home within the Oblivion pantheon, we knew it was something special from the minute Jay strummed those jagged, jazzy chords. By the time we finished it off the following year, the rest of the guys were in love with the song too and it was clear that it had a place on TGitM.

The lyrics of "Ophelia" came from the divergence of two loosely connected ideas that had been thudding around my head since before we'd even started recording Ellipsis, and which seemed to coalesce around the insistence of the chord structure. The first idea was an infatuation I had with Sir John Millaise's painting of Ophelia from Hamlet (pictured above), a poster of which I had on my wall in the apartment Jason and I spent so much time in that summer. I thought then, and still do, that this painting is one of the most beautiful and horrible depictions of death of all time. Ophelia is, quite frankly, gorgeous in this painting, and the way she seems wrapped in a literal death shroud of flowers nearly brought me to tears every time I walked passed it.

At the same time, and possibly because of it, I was having dreams in which I breathed underwater, a strangely transcendent experience, the reverse of flying, yet no less incredible for the differences. During one particularly vivid dream I imagined myself an 80+ year old woman who'd lost her husband to a long and bitter sickness. After 14 years alone, the old lady (me) looks around her house, which she'd shared with her husband and children and which was filled to the bursting with memories both painful and sublime. She looks around the house and decides that the time has come to leave this place and move on to whatever awaits her in the next. So she goes to the beach, which in my dream was preternaturally devoid of people, and goes out about waist deep in the water and she falls back, like a baptism, only this time she has no intention of emerging. The sun glints off the surface of the water and makes stars. She breathes in deep and closes her eyes, and finds she can breathe underwater, that her joints no longer hurt, and that all the pain of a lifetime is gone.

For the recording of "Ophelia" we employed the beautiful voices of two of our friends, Cat and Kristen. Since the song was essentially written from the female perspective it seemed imperative that we include female voices somewhere on the recording. The girls harmonized on the backing vocals during the second and last choruses. We also had Scott Doerrfeld (of the now-defunct Ann Arbor band De Novo, who deserve a post fully to themselves but will have to let this small shout-out suffice for now. We were tight with the De Novo guys and gals, being two of the only hard rock bands in a sea of indie and college music, and we played many a show with them. In hindsight it's a shame this is the only cross-pollination we ever got on record) to tickle the ivory for us on this recording as well. Jason played piano on ever other track on the record, but he deemed this part far too complicated even for his talented hands, so we entrusted the part to Scott. He killed it. Thanks Scott.

Also, Jason played a thunder stick at the end to get the effect of running water. And yes, he does shake off at the end.


Ophelia
Words by Tres Crow
Music by Oblivion

And she said, “I’ve had enough
of all this wreckage round and round
To stand tall and never flinch,
I’m not ready for this.”

“I feel so simple,” I overheard
bouncing like a ball down the stairs
fourteen bounces, an echo for each year
she’s spent grieving for his soul

So back to square one
learn to cope and open up
“I can’t believe that’s me
Standing tall and screaming for revenge,”

I said to her
“I’ve got this heartache I just can’t shake.
Please believe me I’m not going to break up
if our happy ending is stood up.”

Her insecurities
swirled into a whirlpool
and washed away the key
As she laid face up,
under three feet of water,
she breathed in deep and closed her eyes

Lyrics reprinted by permission Shire Reckoning Publishing House.

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