Thursday, January 24, 2008

A first dispatch from the studio

We're five days into recording and I've officially lost all track of month, year, time, and reality in general. Sunday or Tuesday? Afternoon or evening? Rottweiler or centaur? These questions matter not to a Jedi. And due to this overall lack of cognizance, the details forthcoming may or may not be true. But veracity isn't what we're concerned with here. It's more a Impressionist thing. You know, if the Impressionists drank Tecate and played banjo. Which, really: prove to me they didn't.

This all began last Saturday. I spent Friday night not-sleeping and not-letting-anyone-else-sleep like the toddler-before-Christmas I knew I'd end up becoming. It had been a good year and half since we last recorded and that session was fraught with time constraints, questionable instruments, and an overall lack of good sense and experience. At this point, I wouldn't call us "mature" per se---I'm still laughing at this, for example---but we've certainly matured. We've gathered vintage. Eighteen months ago, we were a Charles Shaw whereas now we're, uh, whatever costs a little more than that. Carlos Rossi, maybe. I don't know.

So after a sleepless Friday night and a breakfast of "natural" cereal (which is really just a euphemism for "tastes like some twigs"), after a morning packing up everything we own that makes sounds, and after a harrowing drive to the studio, through the Tenderloin, a drive which at best reminds you of playing "Paperboy" and at worst gives you heart palpitations and an unhealthy dosage of misanthropy, after that, we were ready to go. Well, not quite. All manner of loading was done, all manner of tones were dialed in, but really: blah, blah, blah. What I really want to talk about is Tom.

In a profession where crazy eyes, hunchbacks, and borderline mania are the norm, Tom is a breath of fresh air. (Literally: before our first album, we had a face to face chat with a prospective producer whose halitosis wilted a large sycamore in the vicinity. Needless to say, we went elsewhere). And since a recording session is essentially just the band and the producer, its important to find someone whose personality, tastes, and sense of humor are compatible with your own. And, beyond the assumed normality of dental hygiene, Tom is working out perfectly. He's low key, spontaneous, and hilarious. And yeah, I know it sounds like I'm trying to hook you up with him on a blind date, but really, I'm not. He's a castrato anyhow.

So honestly, by the end of the first day, we knew everything would be fine. We tracked a pair of songs in the evening and it just seemed, well, it seemed effortless. Everything sounded like we wanted it to, nothing caught on fire. And five days later, we're nearly done getting the skeleton of the album on tape.

I only wish we could be showing him a less squalid part of our fair city. Unfortunately, we're in the Tenderloin. Instead of the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, the cultural milestones of North Beach, or the best urban park going, Tom's seen prostitutes of mysterious gender, drug dealer-hobo fisticuffs, brown-mouthed liquor store attendants, public defecation, and a general lack of persons with employment, good sense, and the gumption to shower once a week. I went grocery shopping so I'd never have to go outside. And, while a twice daily peanut butter and jelly habit might prevent me from seeing something depressing yet hilarious, like a man with underwears on his head playing chess with a cardboard box, it also prevents me from seeing something depressing and downright haunting, like that man losing to the cardboard box.

But Tom's been here before. He has friends here, knows the names of various neighborhoods and the names of far more low-rent strip clubs and bars where there are probably roosters fighting in the back room. It's not as if he'll leave San Francisco thinking it's forty-seven square miles are nothing more than one big George Romero movie. Which is good.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Making good on those answers

I'm here on my couch, in my robe, drinking coffee out of a mug that sports a torso of a mallard and the phrase "not playing with a full duck," laughing at that pun for the four hundredth time, and it dawns on me: I haven't put the crossword answers up. Now, I can either make excuses like "I'm recording an album" or "I was busy watching Tom Cruise cackle maniacally at nothing at all" or I can just admit I blew it. Of course, we have been recording an al---nevermind.

Here are the answers to the aforementioned crossword. Complaints, gripes, bitches, moans, vitriol, and mail filled with weaponized diseases can be left in the comments or sent to my house. More soon:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

And now, for something completely different

I'm aware of most of my Grandma tendencies. I enjoy making small talk with neighbors in the street, I can get down with Tony Bennett, and if I had a purse, you better believe it'd be stuffed with butterscotch. Ever since a particularly unsightly accident in which I concussed one of my closest friends, I drive at a speed more closely associated with the elderly, except, you know, I've still got depth perception and don't choose to wear those geriatric sunglasses that everyone over the age of 65 is required to wear by law. You know, these. But the oldest and most persistent of my Granny habits is a daily addiction to the crossword.

Now, sure, crossworders come in all adult ages, certainly, but to me, the crossword will always and forever be associated with my Mom's Mom. She was voracious. Every morning I slept at her house, I'd awake to that morning's crossword, completed completely, sitting on the kitchen table next to what I then craved in the newspaper: the comics. Specifically, Calvin & Hobbes. I think I may have enjoyed Garfield at some point in my life, but I've had those memories removed, Eternal Sunshine-style, because of the groaning agony that strip now produces daily. Of course, it took me until college to become any good at the crossword. That skill was honed largely in thousand-person lectures about subjects I'd soon get "D"s in, largely because I wasn't paying any attention, as, you know, I was actively trying to remember some six letter Greek god with an "R" and an "M" in the middle. Looking back, not my best decision, I'll admit, but in a way, it was strangely more valuable. After all, the crossword has taught me about all manner of vaguely useful things: geography (AGRA and URAL), arcane, discontinued pesticides (DDT), and the unorthodox spelling of Popeye's girlfriend's surname (OYL), while the professor I was ignoring was probably yammering on about Faulknerian wordplay or Hopi genital size. I think I made the right decision.

Crosswords have been around, in their current form, for roughly a century. It's odd to think that when they first appeared in newsprint, they were something of a fad, a fad that, at the time, most resembled the American population's lust for Mah Jong. Newspaper men and cultural prudes condemned the practice as fleeting, bogus, and silly, a diagnosis that should have been saved for pogs or troll dolls or any of the other risible absurdities that followed---and yes, Crocs count. Sorry. Crosswords eventually appeared in most American newspapers, either originally or syndicated, even in the papers that bemoaned their supposed idiocy and frivolity, most notably the New York Times, the paper which editorialized against the puzzles diligently before becoming the purveyor of what essentially is the gold standard of all crosswords. That's called "irony."

So, somehow, after spending oh so many mornings and far too many lectures and a few guilty times at my desk at work doing the crossword, I got it in my head that I should try and make one. I figured, "hey, I know all the ridiculous non-words they use, I'm well-practiced; how hard can it be?" The answer: really effing hard. I spent a large majority of my secular Jesus day vacation trying to make one. I had weird, obsessive dreams I haven't had since a relatively embarrassing Tetris addiction I suffered when I was nineteen. My brain started hurting. Yet, after probably twenty aggregate hours staring at a piece of pentimento-laden graph paper, I ended up finishing on the plane back home while my sister stared at me, probably praying she was adopted. If I'd been wearing a collar, I would have popped it.

Now, with Birdmonster about to cloister itself in a dank studio for three weeks, the upcoming posts will be, largely, about the album. After all, that's the idea of this here blog dealy, and, after months of practicing and writing, we're like a bunch of toddlers on Christmas Eve, only if Christmas was twenty-one, twelve hour days with ear goggles on. We start Saturday. But today, we take a pre-emptive break and, like so many of my other mornings, we do a crossword.

(And since I didn't spend several hundred dollars on a fancy-pants program, you'll have to print this one out. Sorry)


1- Shady deal
5- Floral groupings
9- The cheap seats
13- Face in Grenada
14- For an additional time
15- Bootlegger Butler of fiction
16- Bus beginner?
17. Org. for Cardinal, Volunteers
18- Speak
19- What this puzzle was nothing but, once
21- Kingsley Shacklebot's vocation
22- Brad and Ed played him in Fight Club
23- Digit
25- U2 single, 1992
28- 60's, 70's Browns quarterback Brad
32- Sport which involves paddling?
37- "______ little dream"
38- Consumer
39- What's hidden in 9 & 35 down, 19 & 59 across
41- Avoid
42- The Great Desert
44- Civilized meal necessities
46- Taken without permission
47- Lemony drink
48- Lemony auto
51- Dio's genre
56- Sambuca flavorer
59- Nervous system study
62- Bad, bad first name of song
63- Give's partner
64- Beloved
65- What a parent might take on a big day?
66- Free from fluctuations
67- Overhang
68- Cubs slugger Sammy
69- A pause in the music
70- Part of a RR sched.

1- "Move over"
2- Like a Waters film
3- Steve's successor in Journey
4- 23rd State in the Union
5- Causer of hardship
6- Contain, abbr.
7- Gave kings or queens
8- The sound waves make
9- What the Knights of Ni were, pre-Aurthur
10- It may be brought up
11- Ralph and Milhouse's bus driver
12- Hip ender
15- Aimless sort
20- Corn or cotton
24- Not yet stained
26- Wanderers
27- Producer of 25 across
29- It's often had with sushi
30- Recent Romanian President Constantinescu
31- Brief sleeps
32- One may be sour, perhaps
33- "___ the sign", 90's lyric
34- Brand of 35 down
35- Fizzy, fruity drink
36- Wildebeest
40- Probable hr. of homecoming
43- What might ruin a pirate's photo?
45- Verne sea captain
49- It takes you down a line?
50- Exit
52- One who should be respected
53- "How ___ Fried Worms"
54- Cactus juice
55- Troubadour's instruments
56- Mount Blanc is their highest peak
57- Famous Roman fiddler
58- It's more often brown than green
60- Four stringed instruments, familiarly
61- 90's rock musical

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Where

When selecting a recording studio, it's important to examine a variety of attributes. Are there instruments on site? What is the room made of? How much will it run you a day? Who else has recorded there? How many low priced hookers can you fit in the control room? These are issues of paramount importance.

For some time, we'd assumed we'd be traveling outside of our San Francisco home to record in less familiar surroundings. We did Los Angeles last time, but the poison cocktail of cat dander, couch hopping, apocalypse-flavored air quality, and general lack of a proper night's sleep soured us on a repeat trip. We tossed around ideas of New York, Minneapolis, Ohio but nixed them because, respectively: too expensive, too effing cold, too Ohio-y. That was before we stumbled serendipitously on Hyde Street Studios.

The bad first: it's in one of the scuzziest, stinkiest, bum-laden, pimp-infected areas of San Francisco. It's not the sort of studio you step outside from for a breath of fresh again: again, the air smells more of B.O. and methamphetamines. It's the sort of area where you might wear a SARS mask, a nose plug, earmuffs, and a condom, just in case. Better yet: I'm just going to have Zach roll me into the studio in one of those human-sized plastic hamster spheres.

Now, the good: everything else. Hyde Street Studios began back in 1969, when hippies were still making curious and innovative music instead of demanding my nickels for weed on Haight Street. San Francisco, as you probably know, was a mecca for these smelly artists and many of them, including Credence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Jerry Garcia, recorded some of their early work at Hyde Street. Of course, such success was not to last (said in the style of those "Behind the Music" voiceover, please). A conglomerate named "Filmways" bought Hyde Street and, when time came to replace and renovate, Filmways politely told the management at Hyde Street to suck an egg. While other studio both in the bay and nearby were upgrading to fancy 24 tracks and other once-modern conveniences, Hyde Street was like a geriatric dinosaur and business and employees fled to hipper, nicer studios. That is, until 1980, when the studio was purchased by a partnership of forward viewing music-types, updated, and reopened as it is today.

At least, uh, that's what their website tells me. I read it so you wouldn't have to.

Of course, by 1980, those trailblazing hippies that made Hyde Street so interesting and successful had long since either stopped making music, broken up the band, drugged themselves into an eternal stupor, or gotten straight jobs at brokerages specializing in junk bonds and currency trading. So who has peopled the studio since? A partial list must include Dead Kennedys, Bonnie Raitt, Cake, Digital Underground, Willie Nelson, P.J. Harvey, The Melvins, Tupac, Primus, Knapsack, Green Day, Prince, and E40 (who, really, might be the coolest man on the planet. Hell, Santa Claus is his homie).

Those names are nice and all but all they prove that the studio is a legit operation. I own albums by most of those people but still, something wasn't quite right. We liked the vibe of the studio, the copious keyboards and pianos on site, the availability, the price: everything was right where we wanted it. There was just a lingering doubt. After all, this was quite a decision: we'll be spending twelve hours a day there for weeks on end; it had better be gravy. And then, then dear friends, we noticed one last name of Hyde Street's client list and that one name made it all okay.

That name, of course, is Shaquille O'Neal.

Basketball fans of the 90's and early millennium will remember the imposing monster that Shaq was. I myself nurtured an active and vitriolic distaste for those dynastic Laker teams and was literally overcome with joy when the Pistons finally ended their run of ridiculous domination. But, as overpowering as Shaq was on the basketball court, he was equally ubiquitous off it: he starred in a completely humiliating feature film called "Kazaam" which would probably be his first career mulligan; he pimped the video game "Shaq Fu," which was a money-grab so transparent that Krusty the Clown would balk at it; he even has author credit on "Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales," a children's book that enjoyed glowing reviews and that I almost just bought for eight bucks and change on Amazon before remembering I just quit my job. Beyond all that, however, the foray outside basketball I remember most fondly was Shaq's music. Shaq can, perhaps, be credited for being the first in a long line of professional roundballers to crossover into the music industry, which we really can't hold against him but we're going to anyway.* Shaq penned and performed a staggering five albums, had such guest rappers as Nas, Jay-Z, and Warren G, and even released one of those "too soon!" greatest hits compilations (after just two albums, which, let's face it: chutzpah. Let's also face it: shameless).

Most importantly, he recorded one of those albums at Hyde Street. Which one, I really don't know. Perhaps it was Shaq Diesel. Perhaps Shaq-Fu: Da Return. Perhaps it was the gloriously punned "You Can't Stop the Reign." It doesn't matter. What does matter is that if it's good enough for a seven foot cultural behemoth, well, it's good enough for me.

So Shaq, here's to you. I know you're not having your best season and your team is one of the five worst in the league, but when you're a multi-platinum-genie-obese-child-personal-trainer-video-game-protagonist-
Yao-Ming-insulter, you've got nothing to worry about.

* I'm looking at you Tony Parker. Yes, you.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Plan, or, A triumphant return to Blogopolis, or, I don't really like that second title

With the exception of curly finger nails, Howard Hughes-types and those less wealthy shut-ins who smell vaguely of rancid cranberries and Grandpa's cardigan, everyone loves traveling. We hear that guy with the brogue during the interminably long commercial break between Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy admonishing us to "Visit Scotland" and we picture ourselves in some verdant meadow, wearing plaid, eating sheep's innards. We smell great gumbo and fantasize about a late evening, two-third blotto, watching jazz in a smoky New Orleans dungeon, drinking Brandy Milk Punch. We see a friends photographs from Eastern Europe and we imagine ourselves...ah...doing whatever cold-ass, root-vegetable things they do over there. To a certain extent, we all have a case of wanderlust, again, purposely disremembering about the Spruce Goose building contingent here.

The difference for me? I like actually traveling. Not ending up in a far off distant land, but, you know, the actual act of traveling. I enjoy sitting in the car between shows on tour, reading a Michael Malone book. If I can make it through take-off with losing my airport Sausage McMuffin, I really have no problem with flying, what with the free ginger ale, the little safety cards, the Sky Mall hawking cat massagers and Lord of the Rings themed condoms. Even the oft-maligned (and I'm pointing the finger squarely at myself) San Francisco bus system can be a downright enjoyable affair, if you're lucky enough to find a seat on a bus where a vagrant has yet to have his morning bowel movement.

I'll go as far as to say I've actually hankered for a longer commute. See, when I'm going to work, its about a twenty-five jaunt on the ol' electric bus and, frankly, that isn't enough time to really enjoy traveling. I like reading my book, doing the crossword, enjoying an album, or, doing all three in homage to some many-armed Hindu god of multi-tasking. Of course, most books have sizable chapters which are not easily conquered in short amount of time. Same goes for the crossword, unless its Monday or Tuesday*. As for albums, well, here's the thing: when a band puts out an album, not just a collection of songs but a real album, I have to listen to the whole thing, front to back. Like "Dark Side of the Moon": that's an album. You can't really pick a track or two there. You must hear the squealing woman for the full 43 minutes. There is no other option.

And there's always a new album. Last year, I went through a long, damn near monogamous relationship with "Astral Weeks" again. For a month or so "The Trials of Van Occupanther" kept me wishing for a trainee bus driver who'd yet to develop the "drive away while you cuss at me" move that the guy who usually drives my bus has perfected. "The Body, The Blood, The Machine", Aquemini", "Sticky Fingers": at some point, on some bus, in the not so distant past, I wanted to miss my stop and end up at the Ferry building buying overpriced cheese just so I wouldn't have to upset my listening experience and tread hangdog into the office to write a Motion in Limine no one will ever read.

Thankfully, I don't have to do that anymore. I quit.

Furthermore, the reason that I quit was to do exactly what made me not want to get off the bus in the first place. We're recording an album.

Was that a cumbersome enough way to announce that news? I think yes. But I'm rusty (as you can see from the date of the last post) and I wanted to build suspense. And nothing builds suspense like, uh, talking about the bus. In fact, most Hitchcock movies have extended conversations about mass transit conveyances. Event Horizon, you'll recall, is about a gigantic cosmic bus for a bunch of really unhappy astronauts. This blog is a mere follower.

And, so, it comes full circle. This blog was originally hatched to chronicle the recording of our first album, a few day sprint through all the songs we knew in a city we weren't in love with in a house with cats and a singer with cat allergies. This time? Much more organized. We're staying put in gloomy San Francisco, we're spending more than three days in a studio, and we're keeping Peter in a hermetically sealed man-sized Tupperware. In fact, there are plenty of details worth knowing. But for now, in the interest of brevity and some Christmas shopping I somehow, somehow still haven't done, I'll wrap it up. Until soon.


* The crossword gets incrementally harder each day, with Monday being the easiest while Friday and Saturday are nearly opaque to most. Sunday's just really, really big; big enough that finishing one has often made me question the reason I'm alive.