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Monday, January 3, 2011

The Camp David Chord & If:Then

I was in a curious headspace during the recording of The Garden in the Machine. At once I was the front man, and principal lyric/songwriter* for a proggy hard rock band and very proud of that, and on the other I was listening to less and less hard rock bands and more indie and plain ole' pop music. This complication in personal taste made my contributions to the record borderline schizophrenic, which wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't also had such an inordinate amount of influence on the band's sound. As I just stated I was writing all the lyrics, I was creating all the vocal melodies, I was the voice, and I wrote a third of the music for the record as well**. Therefore, when I went a little off the beaten hard rock path, so too went the band's sound.

My wavering commitment to hard rock, or at least the effect it had on the final product, is one of the things I'm most proud of with this album. Sure it makes for uneven listening, and to some ears it makes the record too hard to classify (a record that upsets everyone, and satisfies no one), but to me the ambition of shoehorning as many elements as our young minds were capable into a hard rock record still makes me happy.

However, expanding outside of a genre is never going to come without a few missteps, and two of the most glaring are the "electronic" tracks I forced onto GITM, "The Camp David Chord" and "If:Then." As I'd done on Ellipsis, I followed my belief that great records need to set a mood from the outset, and, since I believed GITM to be essentially a political record, I wanted to make sure the audience was aware that they were going on a dark trip through the political landscape of 2003. War, catastrophes, politcal unrest, these were the things going on in that year and I wnated the record to feel like it was taking you to those places.

"The Camp David Chord" is an unsettling bit of noise, which probably does a pretty good job of setting the stage for the darker aspects of GITM. It starts promising enough: it has a clever title***, the snick of a tape recorder being turned on draws the audience in, and then the slow fade in of the mingled screams of all those tortured souls, followed by the pounding of the drums of war. This is the stuff of nightmares, the sounds heard on the other side of the door to Hell, as you wait your turn to join the fracas. But then I ruined it with a stupid quote from the devilishly good film Session Nine. "I live in the weak and the wounded." Ugh. If only I could take that one second away from this track, and I think I might have crafted the perfect beginning to this record. Perfect, but for one callow, arrogant mistake. Oh well.

The cool thing about this track is that it sounds very simple, and yet took a remarkable amount of time and tracks to complete. There are 4+ vocal tracks as we took everyone we could muster into the studio to howl like werewolves to get that screechy, tortured-soul sound. There are two tracks of the war drums, there are two tracks of the marching steps, both taken from a sampler/synthesizer I'd been given by a zealous Oblivion acolyte. There is a deep, thudding bass note to give the war drums sub decimal depth. There are at least two tracks of ambient, unsettling noise to bolster the screams. And to start it all off there is the tape recorder being turned on, which was in fact an actual reel to reel tape player that I found on the street during a spring cleaning trash day, that not only still worked but also came with a box of reel to reel tapes that provided fodder for two other interludes on this record. The first you can hear about two minutes after the end of this track. The other comes near the end of "Sagawa's Son," a ten second clip of the Michigan Marching band playing sometime in the 1960's, flipped backwards and sped up.

The second electronic track on GITM was the misguided "If:Then." Again, the track is cleverly titled (certainly I was a decent, if obtuse, song titler), but the ridiculously obvious cribbing of Radiohead's way more better "Fitter Happier" is really too much for me to bear these days. This is a throw-away track that should have been left on the cutting room floor, even if it does create a pretty darn good bridge between "Ophelia" and "Homeric Epic, Exit No. 3." The plagiarism is unforgivable; a magician never shows his tricks, but I was too young to realize how obvious I was being.

The track features me playing piano, and a few keyboard loops. But the part I was most proud of was the vocal, which was taken from the "poem" printed in the middle of the CD sleeve, and which was made from me writing each of the phrases backwards and then reading them into a 4-track recorder backwards. Once the recording was flipped forwards, it created this bizarre effect, in which I said the phrases correctly, but which also had the fade-in effect typical of things recorded backwards. It probably was kind of clever, but unfortunately it sounds just like the computer voice from "Fitter Happier," even if the effect was created using completely different methods.

So there you have it, folks, two of the blackest musical eyes I have in the closet. Very little of the music I made I'm embarrassed of now, but these two top the list. I hope you can find more to like about them than I do.

*That's not to belittle the massive amount of effort the other guys put into the record. The best songs on the album were the ones that were written by all of us, working together to craft something bigger than any one of us would have been able to do on our own. Even on the songs I wrote, they were just guitar/voice demos until the rest of the guys came in and dressed them up in fancy clothes that made them appear better than they really were.
**Again, I mention this as a fact, not as some dig at the other guys. There were 12 tracks on GITM and 4 of them were written by me. They weren't the best tracks on the record by far; they were mostly filler, proving incontrovertibly that I needed the other four guys to make my music good.

***"The Camp David Chord" of course referencing the Camp David Accord, which President Carter brokered to bring peace between Israel and Egypt. If that accord brought peace, this chord brings war, or at least a cynical unbelief in high-level brokered peace deals. This could be said to be the main thesis of GITM, that the governments of the world could be counted on only for photo ops and treaties and very little else. Oh so cynical for such a little child.

The Camp David Chord



Ben U. said...

I think those two tracks are pretty important to the overall flow of the album. But yeah, the Radiohead thing is pretty silly in hindsight. Ben Began deserves a gold medal for restraint for not saying anything.

Tres Crow said...

No crap, Ben. Began probably had to bite his tongue a lot during those sessions. I agree with you that they help slow the album down a little, so it doesn't sound so much like someone trying to rush out a story without taking a breath. I just wish I hadn't done the stupid vocal effect. Hell, "If:Then" would have worked fine even without the vocals, just the backing music.

Maybe when we release the 25th anniversary newly remastered version we can change all the thinsg we didn't like. LOL.

Tondar said...

All art is plagiarism to some degree. Think of these tracks like Steinbeck's f-ing turtle crossing the road for an entire chapter in Grapes of Wrath or Terrence Malick taking time to show us some nature. Proper editing sets a flow and feel to a piece of art. Regardless of your regrets they are important in elevating GITM from a collection of songs to a work of art.

Be careful not to go all George Lucas/Steven Spielberg and edit out your "mistakes." They help illustrate your time and place and world view as artists circa 2003.

Tres Crow said...

Wait a second! Star Wars was an epic failure until Lucas fixed it in the 1990s and completed the story in the 2000s. If only we all could be as courageous as Lucas.

I understand your point, Dar, though I still disagree in this particular case. Cribbing from others is a long-standing tradition among artists of all types, as you said, but when something serves the same exact function in both works of art it's just plagiarism. "Fitter Happier" is a noise-art bridge track that smoothes over the rough edges between the ending of "Karma Police" and the beginning of "Electioneering," which uses a computerized voice reading a poem about despair and alienation. "If:Then" is a noise-art bridge track that smoothes over the edges between the end of "American History XXX" and the beginning of "Ophelia," which uses a backwards voice that sounds computerized reading a poem about despair and alienation. On top of that I was listening to a ton of Radiohead when we recorded that album so I can't even go all Coldplay and claim I'd never heard the track before.

At any rate, I need material for these song posts and making fun of myself is a neverending spring of material. Zing!

Speaking of plagiarism, in "Homeric Epic, Exit No. 3" I took a sound effect directly from Broken Social Scene's "You Forgot it in People" without giving them credit for it. It's such a muinute and ridiculous detail that mentioning it at all is kind of self-aggrandizing, but I think the use of that effect is a better example of what you're talking about. I placed it completely out of its original context, thus making it new.

BTW, Journalist Rat has been writing some Pulitzer-level stuff lately. Pass along my congrats to the lil' guy/girl/thing.