Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Salty Waves Of Blue

As with Fortis Green, Salty Waves Of Blue is hinged heavily to Mary H. By 2007, I'd moved beyond perceiving her as a poor-little-girl or Catherine Earnshaw, and seen that she was craftier then she'd seemed at surviving. Mary did PAFA at Penn; a system by which PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) graduates could do work at Penn and receive a Penn diploma; and she was 29, older and wiser. She had a studio in Port Richmond and lived at 49th and Baltimore in West Philly, several blocks from where she'd lived in the early Aughts. Yet some of the old demons still circulated beneath the surface, compulsions and addictions. I was frazzled, also, by fulfilling my full-time University Fellowship at Temple. I couldn't pick up my guitar, by the time we did the Eris Temple EP tracks in the spring of '07, without feeling awkward and overextended. I felt the same way about shacking up with Mary H. We were careening slightly out of control; Mary, still at Barnes and Noble for a day-job, me in academia. The relaxed exuberance of the early Aughts was lost; and we weren't seeing too much of Abs, either. 

So, I was writing out of these impulses. Mary H had moved from one form/manner of shadiness towards me to another, even if we still cared about each other. I went through a few weeks of writing in Open G (influences being the usual suspects), and Salty Waves Of Blue was conceived then. The sound and ambiance of the track prove that by the Eris Temple EP in '07, Matt Stevenson was completely the master of his domain. The fullness and well-balanced richness of the sound competes with any acoustic recording in the history of rock music. Once we'd done a number of tracks, I abruptly scrapped the project to focus on another task at hand in '07; the release and dissemination of my first books. Yet, Salty Waves Of Blue taps into something very raw and edgy about me and Mary H at the time which proved to be prescient. We had another year or two in Aughts Philadelphia, and then the party really did end definitively.

More Eris Temple studio space recording deets: as has been illustrated elsewhere, a high ceiling and crepuscular darkness were the name of the game, perfect for Salty Waves Of Blue. Fair. What I want to add is where Matt Stevenson was located, which for physiological reasons was also pivotal. In an inversion of the standard studio set up, which features the producer and engineer either on the same level as the musicians or elevated above them, while we recorded our parts (or just I, depending on the situation), Matt was down several steps from us, due north of the standard recording space. The psychology is interesting: if the producer/engineer is several steps beneath you, rather than on the same level or above you, you have more intense feelings of empowerment and control, as if you yourself are running the ship. While you were laying down tracks, you could see Matt's head and shoulders as he moderated his Pro Tools set-up; leaned against the west-facing wall, with the staircase leading up to the rest of the Temple running above it. To hear a take, you'd climb down several granite slab stairs to join Matt in his domain. Besides the steps, there would be nothing separating you from Matt. It all added up to something eerily unique, as if the Eris Temple recording space were a spaceship into another galaxy, with you at the helm.      

Why Won't You See Me Tonight?

By the fall of '97, I had my own bedsit flat in North Halls. I waited to play the bounce-around sublet game until '98. I was also beginning to gig as a solo act around State College. I even bothered to play the Cafe 210 West, State College's equivalent of the Khyber or the Arlene Grocery. Still, I felt the gigs were rather tepid. I needed a band to bring the whole enterprise to life. I wrote Why Won't You See Me Tonight, as I had written Leaving Me Lonely, for Carrie Thomas. The song was unconventionally structured, but catchy enough that I started playing it at gigs. Other facets of my life at the time- my academic career at PSU and my work with Outlaw Playwrights, for example- were in a state of flux. Neither could really be resolved until I transferred to U of Penn later. I did, however, have the bright idea then that it was finally time to enter a professional recording studio. Since there were none in State College, to my knowledge, I scouted out Philly and came up with East Side Studios in Manayunk as a likely bet. Arrangements were made for me to do an eight-hour session over Thanksgiving break in November.

The session which produced Why Won't You See Me Tonight was a day-into-night session. Jim Boggia happened to be at the helm in Manayunk that day. Adding harmonium to the song was Jim's idea, and he played the part himself. The work was brisk and I left that night with a DAT tape...remember those? The East Side session became my calling card for my last year in State College. My friend Krystal Houghton also bothered to play it on the radio a number of times from East Halls. When I got the opportunity to put out Darkyr Sooner in 2000, Why Won't You See Me Tonight was an obvious choice for inclusion. It was my first real studio moment. That it was done from Manayunk is also interesting to me; Manayunk being where Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum was stationed for most of his adult life. I did, in fact, meet Jeremy in Manayunk at roughly the same time as the East Side session, and established a bunch of common interests. The coffee-shop La Tazza in Manayunk, on Cotton Street, was huge then, and Jeremy was putting out 'd' magazine with his cohorts. So, the seeds of what The Philly Free School was to be were starting to be in place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Brown Eyes Like His

To have lived through the 90s as a rock kid was to have seen something which was then called the Alternative Revolution. The premise of the Alternative Revolution was this: rock, over the course of the 80s, had reached saturation point regarding corporate interests and phony-baloney dinosaurs. To put commercial rock back on the cutting edge, independent rock music would have to cross over and independent bands and artists be willing to sign to major labels, compromising and "going corporate" but putting the music first again. MTV was still huge then, and making commercial videos was seen to be part of the compromise. In terms of what music came out of the Alternative Revolution, I still heavily favor Gish and Siamese Dream, two albums by Smashing Pumpkins which happen both to be sublime masterpieces.

The two Pumpkins albums were absolutely massive in State College, where I spent four years, '94-'98, and el primo years they were for the Alternative Revolution. I wrote Brown Eyes Like His in the summer of '94, while living in South Halls. The chord progression is a tangent variation to the kind of chord changes Kurt Cobain and Nirvana tended to favor; while the subject matter, the torment of growing up in America in a fractured family, was also standard for Alternative Revolution songwriters. I skipped over this tune during the Darkyr Sooner sessions in New York because I thought only a full band arrangement could do it justice. By Main Street West in '04, even with me playing all the instruments, this fell into place the right way. Now that the song has charted, the fourth track from Ardent to do so, I look back at Main Street West as itself an interesting milieu in which to work. Matt Stevenson's own Alternative Revolution had to do with running a studio in a manner as raw, personal, and individualized as he could possibly do it, down to the idea that sessions could be as long or short as we wanted them to be. MSW was not just anti-corporate, it was the complete refutation of the corporate in almost every respect, and uncompromisingly so.

P.S. The picture of me here was taken by Kelly McCabe in the autumn of '94 around the environs of North Halls in State College.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ardent: Hinge Online '04

As per Aughts Philadelphia: worth noting that two of the songs currently riding or having recently appeared on the Soundclick charts, Fortis Green and Streetlakes, also appeared in Philly arts journal Hinge Online in 2004, ed. Marilyn Bess.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fortis Green

For those who value candor, a cards-on-the-table confession: the character Fortis Green, in this song from Ardent, is modeled very closely on Mary H. Because the song is now a hit single, I feel that people might want to know this. Ardent herself is not Mary H. We'll meet her later. As for Mary H, a varied and variable character; but that part of her who remained an unhappy child did surface sometimes. Mary approved of Wuthering Heights because the archetype of the doomed Romantic enchantress appealed to her imagination. Yet her desperation in the Aughts was often very real. She suffered continually from moodiness, depression, and anxiety; battled addictions to drugs and pills; and often hit creative impasses which made it impossible for her to paint for long periods of time. My first major break-up with her occurred at the end of '03; as of the time I wrote this, in early '04, I despaired of having ever been the knight in armor she wanted. Mary's big Romantic dream-man, Lord Byron, fulfilled her fantasy not only of Bohemia but of boundless wealth and material ease. Aughts Philadelphia was long on spirit, but often short on money and/or the monied. If I wasn't saved myself, it's because I knew I had a long hard road ahead of me too.

As per the music: the keyboard sound which dominates the track is as close to a Mellotron as Matt and I could get it. A Mellotron is a specialized kind of electric keyboard which produces a sound (hopefully) like a full string section or orchestra. The Moody Blues used one constantly on their early records, and it appears on 2000 Light Years From Home by The Stones. I'm not much of a keyboard player, just good enough to bash out tunes and write them in a rudimentary way. I had an electric keyboard myself for a while as a teenager, and taught myself what I could. My dorm in State College (Holmes Hall, North Halls) in the mid 90s had an acoustic piano in the basement, adjacent to the laundry room, and I hung out down there for hours a day sometimes, writing tunes and playing through Beatles, Bowie, and other songs. What the Mellotron sound is meant to produce here is an ambiance of edginess or creepiness, of things being unsettled.