Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Of Brown Tooth, Burritos, and Music, Music, Music

The city of New York is rightfully famous for its cuisine. New York is where bagels taste like bagels, where pizza can make you cry, and where hot dogs that fester in off-colored water are somehow appetizing. When Sinatra sang "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," he wasn't talking about success, he was talking about food. He also wasn't talking about burritos.

Because, see, New York burritos are shit. Sloppy Joe meat inside inside a leather tortilla does not a burrito make. That goes for you too Michigan, and you Chicago, and Ohio, please, Ohio, don't make me come over there. The rule, essentially, is this: if your state isn't touching Mexico, I will not eat your Mexican food. It's that simple.

So when our producer Tom arrived from New York that first week, I wasn't that surprised to hear him hankering for a burrito. I wasn't too surprised the next day when, less than twenty hours later, Tom wanted another. I wasn't all that surprised when we returned for the third and then fourth days in a row. In fact, it's hard to say when I really did feel surprised. I suppose it was when Tom's head turned into a burrito, somewhere during the third week.

Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here---in fact, I just deleted a very long "history of the burrito" paragraph out of common human decency. We should still be talking about the beginning, or, as the case may be...

The First Burrito
The front door at Hyde Street Studios is always locked. As we've mentioned before (and trust me, will mention again), the Tenderloin is like the Thriller video and it's best to keep the brain-eaters outside when you're working. But that first day, no one was answering the door. We knocked. We kicked. We pounded. Then, we noticed the phone. You know how in action movies, there's always a bomb and Van Damme or Vin Diesel has to choose which wire to cut while that little digital clock ticks down interminably slow? That's how touching that phone felt. Which end has been in whose orifice? Which bumbling lunatic has spent all night calling his home planet? These are questions you never wants to ask yourself. Unfortunately, there was no other way in. I would wash my ear a hundred times that day.

That first afternoon was, let's face it, a bit boring. Microphones got placed, cords were run from room to room, engineers talked in abbreviations I couldn't hope to understand. We did a lot of crosswords and played some banjo. And then, of course, we got a burrito. But when we returned, we jumped right in. Our strategy was to get as many live takes as we could, so we set up Pete in a little glass cave in the corner, while the non-singing Birdmonsters cavorted around in the main room, which housed all manner of drums, guitars, and keyboard flavored instruments. And then we started.

By the end of the evening, we'd finished two songs and discovered our local liquor store, of which: more below. But that first night was a special one. We recorded one of my favorite tracks, we discovered damn near instantaneously that Tom was the perfect choice for the album, and I didn't get ear cancer from the phone.

The Second, Third, and Fourth Burritos
It didn't take long to fall into a routine. By our second dayrrito, we were arriving in the afternoon, enjoying trucker-strength in-studio coffee, and tracking about four songs daily. With keyboards, microphones, mandolins, and all manner of noise makers scattered around the room, choosing which song to do was never predicated on "what won't be a pain in the ass right now" but rather "what do we actually want to play." This was a luxury thus far not afforded to the Monster and we took full advantage.

Now, I've griped about the Tenderloin but here I should give it the props it fully deserves. See, if we were recording in the Minnesota wilderness or a barn in Oregon or even in the Mission District of our fair City, I would have, you know, actually wanted to go outside. Not at Hyde Street. It was like being an exiled Russian author in Siberia, except, you know, we actually had a cheerful outlook on life, and have yet to offend any tsars, communist party officials, or avuncular men with bizarre noggin stains. So, in other words, we just plugged along. There was really no reason to do otherwise. In fact, the only refuge we had was a place called Brown Tooth.

Actually named The New Princess Market, Brown Tooth earned its moniker when, on the first day, a gentleman with a mouth full of rot and fungus accused David of stealing some kind of bagged snack 'em. Dave claims this man worked there, but, on umpteen subsequent trips, he was never seen again. Still, the name stuck, and Brown Tooth become our daily destination for beers, cheap loaves of bread, newspapers, deodorant, and all manner of various sundries. Brown Tooth was also the home of the failed product. You couldn't buy Triscuits at Brown Tooth, but you could get Low-Fat Rye Triscuits, in case, maybe, you're a vaguely overweight mohel. You can't get peanut butter or jelly, but you can get Goobers Peanut Butter and Jelly in the same jar, which, most likely, has been opened and sampled by a customer who you wouldn't even share a bus seat with, much less some sandwich innards. Brown Tooth was the place where shivering drug addicts would emerge from the rain, cut in front of you in line, and buy six snowcones. It was, in its own weird way, a microcosm of the Tenderloin. It is, let's hope, a place I'll never go again.

But enough about Brown Tooth. By Tuesday night, we had half an album in the bag, and each of those was an honest-to-goodness live take, from the drums on down to the vocals. In fact, pretty much the whole album is that way. Sure, there are overdubs and harmonies and the like, but the album is, at its base, a live one. And, for us Birdmonsters, it was the right move.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And so we begin again

If I stop and think, I can remember the exact moment when my brain stopped working normally. It was a Tuesday. We had been recording for almost a week and half and I'd been doing that 18th century-Frenchman thing wherein you wear the same clothes for weeks on end, regardless of their slowly advancing funk, which is just a bad idea if the sweatshirt in question is white and you have a penchant for dribbling coffee down your chin. I was on the phone that day, talking to my girlfriend in an alley behind a wrought-iron gate that we later discovered was a popular urinal for passing hobos, and I asked her how the season premiere of LOST was. After a moment of speechlessness, she informed me that no, she had not seen season premiere, as that would have necessitated a car ride with either Dr. Emmett Brown or Marty McFly. "Ah," I remember thinking. "So, there's a Thursday now. Why was I not informed?"

See, we weren't going outside much. There was a rather pesky storm that hung around San Francisco like a family relative with foot fungus who watches TV-poker all day and drinks all your beer and, when you couple the weather with the always frightening environs of the Tenderloin, well, lets just say no one got a tan in the last few weeks. In fact, I'm sallow and translucent. Sad to say.

At this point, I'm coming back. I understand today is another Tuesday (they just keep coming, it turns out) and we're on a self-imposed two-day break from mixing. I went outside yesterday, saw humans with jobs and some semblance of hygiene, fell back in love with our City (or maybe it was just civilization), watched "King of Kong," and ate food that didn't end in "uritto" for the first time in, well, some time. Bear with me. I'm still re-calibrating.

So, with no small amount of effort, let us hop in that aforementioned Delorian and go back to the beginning. I think it was a Friday. It could, of course, have been a Wednesday.


The joke started on the first album. We had a grand total of three days in a real studio before going to our then-Producer's house to finish, well, everything. For four guys who'd squirreled away money from their straight-jobs for months just to throw together their first album, three days seemed like putting on your kid sister's First Communion dress: really tight, vaguely horrible, yet incredibly exciting. With this dramatically truncated schedule, with essentially our entire budget front-loaded into three days, and without having ever done anything like this before, it was definitely time for concentration, focus, and clutchness, which I'm aware is not a word but will be using anyway. In other words, it was Robert Horry time.

Now: I know. "More basketball," you're thinking. "First Shaq and now Robert Horry. You are a scrawny white boy. You must remember this." Thank you. I do. But when I think of being good when you have to be good, I think of Robert Horry, who, despite being one of the laziest men in professional sports, is also known as Big Shot Bob. You don't leave Big Shot Bob open when the game's on the line. He will make it and he will grimace at you and you will be sad.

Anyway, it's become one of those stupid running jokes friends have. When someone's suffering through the flu on tour and has to play for 45 minutes while sweating and hallucinating, it's Robert Horry time. When you have to drive 100 miles in an hour or you won't be able to play Toronto after the Canadian border tried to confiscate all your merchandise, it's Robert Horry time. When you have to eat beef brisket for breakfast, again, it's Robert Horry time. Granted, it isn't that funny, but we've spent three paragraphs getting here, so, uh, sit tight.

So here was the plan: the day before we recorded (WednesFriThursday, I believe that was), I set out to get a Robert Horry tattoo. Not a real one mind you, as my body is a temple of the holy ghost. No, a henna tattoo was what I was after. I figured it would be hilarious to roll up my sleeve on our first day of recording, say "it's Robert Horry time" and, you know, actually have Robert Horry on my arm.

Since I live near Haight-Ashbury, that famous district once home to a burgeoning counterculture, now home to the mush-brained remnants of that selfsame counterculture, I figured this would be easy. Why? Because henna is from India and hippies love India. I walked in the first place I saw, chatted up the European lass at the counter, and produced the following picture:

"I want this is henna on my arm," I said.

"It is impossible," she said.

Hmm. Maybe a Pistons fan. "Why's that?"

"Too intricate."

Here, I looked at the henna book on the counter. It was filled with all manner of looping spirals, paisley teardrops, and carefully constructed flora. I was confused. "This stuff looks way harder," I mused.

"I cannot shade in henna," she said. "It could only be an outline."

I thought for a moment: a miniature albino Robert Horry is better than no Robert Horry at all. "That's ok," I said. "How much would it run me?"

"It is not okay," she said. "I cannot do it."

"Why not?"

"Because I cannot."

"Ah," I said. "I see."

But really, I didn't see. I still don't see. If I want to waste some money and have the racially ambiguous torso of Big Shot Bob on my forearm, isn't it my right to have it? The medium didn't seem totally averse to my plot; it was just this woman, I told myself. She would rather draw squiggles on tourist's wrists. That's okay. Robert Horry is an intimidating man. So I went down the street and found another henna place. Then another. And another. Then I went home with bare arms, tried to draw a stick-figure Robert Horry in Sharpee, only to have it look more like Oswald Cobblepot, before washing him off dejectedly and breaking down in the bathroom, a la The Crying Game, except, you know: no trannies.

In the end, when we loaded into Hyde Street that first day, I was Bob-less. But by that evening, while enjoying the first of many cheap American lagers and playing an almost-in-tune piano, nothing mattered less. After all, Robert Horry was a joke; making a new album was serious.

...ah, who am I kidding? I'm still pissed.