Monday, December 3, 2007

Above You Anniversary

This is one of my absolute favorite Stickmen bootlegs. Matt and I recorded the song, with overdubs, on the first night of December, in my dorm room at Harvey Mudd College. Matt drove out from Santa Monica with his TASCAM four-track, and I scrambled to get my song finished.

Matt really acted as our producer on most of the early recordings, even before he bought the four-track. He would drive the agenda. Not that he would issue instructions, but he would keep us focused on our song arrangements, and when it was time to record one, he would usually be operating the equipment. So Matt was both producer and engineer. And, of course, performer.

For Above You, we were up at Harvey Mudd (Third Floor Atwood), so it was just Matt and me. Matt deployed the microphone while I sat at my desk and strummed the rhythm track on my old Gibson acoustic. We overdubbed electric guitar using my Fender Squier. I don’t recall whether I amplified it with my brand-new Peavey, or used the “crunch” setting on the R.A.D. amp. Probably the R.A.D, because the Peavey was a tube amp with a cooling fan that made a high-pitched noise.

We did vocals together, with Matt inventing the high harmony. At some point, Matt added tambourine and bongo drums, including the three extra bongo taps at the end – an improvised flourish that immediately became a permanant part of the arrangement. All of this would have been done through Matt’s stage microphone.

Why do I have such affection for this recording? First off, it’s a foot tapper that doesn’t sound forced, with some faintly clever turns of phrase, and only a couple of “cringe” lines. As a Beatles pop-single devotee, I liked its brevity (90 seconds). It was also the first song I ever wrote that made the transition to tape in anything like a final form.

Moreover, it was a song I had struggled with for weeks, and had actually abandoned for a while. But then all of a sudden, like a bolt out of the blue, I got a middle-eight that I loved, and (presto!) there was Matt with the four-track. The immediacy of the task at hand forced me to complete the lyrical editing.

Within a couple of days, Matt played the tape in-store at The Wherehouse, to strong positive feedback from his coworkers. This was a welcome change from past experience, playing demo tapes of “Nothing Special” to decidedly mixed reviews at Comic Quest. Also, I think Matt was ethused by the song, because I remember him phoning me with his interpretation of the title phrase. Something about holding the moral high ground, but “I’m not immune to your barbs.” Victor liked the bit about standing in your shoes. It was nineteen months before he wrote a bassline that perfectly suited the song.

Alas, the master tape has been lost, and only a few mixdowns remain from the dorm-room session. Perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder. Don’t get me wrong – I like the version on the CD with the full band arrangment, but the demo version has a certain elusive charm that only happens when you’re not even trying.

1 comment:

MattMunson said...

Excellent write up, and good details. Shows how the passage of time really does soften the rough edges!! Seriously though, good stuff. I actually recall that night pretty clearly. That was fun. I too am a big fan of recording... but only when I'm in charge! Hah! Just kidding. Well, not really. I should say I am a big fan of recording when it isn't dominated by all the nonsense that typically accompanies putting all four of the stickmen in the same room. I think "two" is the magical number. Two stickmen in the room can produce some good results, and some good times. Any more than that, and you're thankful to end up with good results. Good times? doubtful.

But I don't want to distract Bill's poetic reflection of what was a good time. Above you has always been considered by me to be one of the "backbone" songs of the band. Even though it's short, I think it's a very mature sounding song. Though there are a couple of "zinger" lines in it, they fit with the theme of the song, which is "eff you, bee-otch", if I recall correctly. I think this may have been one of the earliest songs penned by us that wasn't deliberately intended to be a "funny" song, or even a clever one. It does turn out to be a clever song, but not because it had that as a launching point. I think songs like "Nothing Special", "Probably Not", and more peculiarly "Dr. Brumbacher" stand out as good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) examples of the "joke song" category. Bill made mention of this in an earlier post. Something to do with forking down the Yankovic road, or soemthing like that.

Personally, I always felt very pigeon holed (not to be confused with "Corn holed", mind you) by those early songs. They were successes, don't get me wrong. But I think the momentum we gained by the acceptance of those songs pushed us down a dangerous path. We pulled out of it, but by the skin of our teeth. It wasn't until the album was recorded that we started to crank out songs that didn't have a line in them that was intended to make you laugh.

For me, Girl #134 was THE turning point. It was years later, but when that song came out of me, I KNEW I was done with the "comedy song" genre. Maybe it's a maturity thing, maybe it's a desire to succeed on a different level. The joke song phenomenon makes me think of that guy you see at the party who says something that nobody laughs at, and then repeats it again a couple times, assuming that the only reason nobody laughed is because they didn't hear it. The notion that the joke wasn't funny (insert Warming Hut photo here) never enters his mind. it MUST be the audience that's wrong. How does this apply?? Well, our attempt at serious songs never really gained any traction in the early years. Halloween shows are a prime example. Truth is, that first Halloween show was a total blast. We were very well received, and it was a ton of fun. However, it was a comedy show. I mean that literally. Our songs were designed/written to make people laugh, as were our stage costumes and antics.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have rather had a medium-well received "serious" show, than a well-received "comedy" show. But then, if we had anything other than total success out of the gate, we may never have gotten to December fifth!

Speaking of which, happy anniversary.