The first half of my new EP “Duels” is out right now. Like today. Have a listen to this folk n’ roll while you enjoy the rest of this post. See below for lyrics too.
Late last summer, Mike – my friend and a killer drummer – threw out an idea to hop in the studio and record some songs. Having largely been a solo player now for years, the idea that another musician actually wanted to collaborate was a welcomed offer. Hell yea I wanted to record some songs, especially if it meant I didn’t have to actually thump out rudimentary-ass drum beats myself, like I had done on all my other recordings. So with that, I put my then-plans for a solo acoustic record on the shelf, booked an October weekend at Wilburland Studios – my go-to studio here on the fringes of Ithaca, NY – and spent the next two months demoing songs on GarageBand. Whatever songs I could pull together inside that two-month window would be the record. Time, or lack thereof, would be the curator here, but I knew what the theme would be. I had been mulling the idea of writing songs specifically about one-on-one battles, the duels we all face, whether with a relationship, a system, expectations, traditions, or our own histories. I ended up with six tracks (and a couple other strays), some that had been laying around for a little while – like “Sentimental Things” and “Win Win”; some that originated partly out of that summer/fall writing session, like “Duels”, and others (well, one) that has been around forever, “Guaranteed Bones.”
October came. Mike drove up from the city, and we spent the weekend with sonic mastermind, Will Russell, owner of Wilburland, who helped us get decent drum takes. I took the drum tracks back to my home studio and spent late 2017 and early 2018 trying to make a rock n’ roll record and annoying the hell out of my wife with repetitive and very, very loud electric guitar takes. I toiled, a lot, through early 2018, stuck in that awful and inevitably futile search for perfect guitar tones and perfect takes (They don’t exist, in case you’re wondering). Weeks and weeks of frustrating work went by with little real progress. Mike was starting to ask more regularly when those songs were going to be ready. “Still flushing it out” was my answer for many months.
For starters, the songs were much different sonically than I was used to. I was treading into unfamiliar territory with straight-up rock n’ roll, and while the challenge was exciting, I felt uncomfortable with it, felt out of my element from a production standpoint. I hadn’t recorded a full rock sound before, with loud amps and 10 tracks worth of drums. “Duels”, the title track and the first song I’d tackle, would be my test case. It wasn’t exactly fun.
Like so many other of my tunes, “Duels” had started as a phone recording, with the initial chorus melody idea serving as the song’s center and everything else just sort of made up on the spot. I’ve learned there’s real value in that spontaneity – the chords you instinctively move to out of the chorus or the word-soup jargon mumbled over top of those chords. The finished, polished song oftentimes does not stray too far from those initial musical cues that bubble up out of consciousness.
Here’s that unsexy phone recording, which I had labeled as “Solstice Way Out”, meaning absolutely nothing, but serving as the dummy lyrics for the chorus melody.
And here’s the GarageBand demo that I’m still in love with and whose four-on-the-floor drumbeat was clearly inspired by all of the Tycho I was listening to then. Lyrics partly inspired by George Packer’s amazing book, “The Unwinding”.
But computerized drum beats aren’t human, and I wanted human. I wanted Mike’s playing on there, and real guitar tones from a real amp. It was work, but you want to know what the real hard work was? Accepting what the song was, letting it be whatever it wanted to be, and me gently guiding it there. Of course, it took me months to realize this, resulting in lots of hours-long sessions that would end up in the trash. I moved onto other songs, with decent success, and began to get a feel for how to wrangle all of these sounds into something that resembled my Big Idea (Side note: I read a great book called “Art and Fear”, which includes this priceless nugget: “Vision always exceeds execution.” This lovely line has brought me a sliver of peace in my creative endeavors). Still, though, I kept getting in my own way. The Record became this daily riddle I created for myself that I would never be able to solve. I was making this way more difficult than it had to be, and the irony wasn’t lost on me: I was having my own personal duel with my record called “Duels”. I should have written a song about how difficult it was to record this EP, and it would have slid in there with the others quite nicely.
Finally, mercifully, I got tired of being frustrated with the damn thing. I had reached the point where I honestly didn’t care how the thing sounded anymore; it didn’t matter if I couldn’t, for instance, replicate the stupid, GarageBand guitar tones from the demos, or if my vocals came in flat on take #9. I just wanted to stop thinking about the record, mulling it every day on my lunch breaks and agonizing over every detail. I wanted the project to exist outside of my own head so I could move on. To do that, I needed to return to simply playing the songs as they are, as I wrote them, and as I perform them, a revelation that – swear to god – hits me in my forehead on every. single. recording. project. and yet I still haven’t learned (maybe this time, though).
And a funny thing happened: when I just set up a mic, hit Record and sang the song or played the rhythm guitar through, it actually sounded fine. With perfection out of my mind, I was no longer laser-focused on the flaws. “Sound’s fine. What’s next?” became a kind of mantra. It was invigorating. “Duels”, the song, had taken me months and several different versions, all of which I scrapped. The version you hear on the record is version four, the “I don’t give a shit what this song sounds like” version. My whole mindset changed after that, and the work got fun again and progressed nicely. “Win Win” took me a couple of sessions over the course of two weeks. “Sentimental Things” a few days. There are so many flaws on these songs: one of my guitars is slightly out of tune during the bridge-breakdown of “Duels”; I could have sung “Sentimental Things” so much better, could have refined the melody more; the solo in “Win Win” is unsexy and simple. But I love that they aren’t perfect. Sound’s fine.
Here we are now, almost a full year since we went into the studio. So much of my life has changed since then it’s unfathomable how I managed to carve out little blocks of time to work on this thing. It made for comical scenes, like when my lady went out for a walk with the dog and those 20 minutes were enough time to click on the amp, set the mic, and get a good rhythm guitar take. How absurd, but that’s art, yea?
Anyway, if you’re still reading this, lyrics are below. Special thanks to the Tompkins County bus service, which served as my zen place to write lyrics during my commutes to and from work. I swear, I wrote more than half of the record sitting on the #21 bus.
As for the remaining three songs, two are finished, and I’m chipping away at the last one. Stay tuned, and thank you for caring about what I do.
Duels – bound for home / it’s never how you think / the road in gets slowly erased / for the kind of place / that starts off its day / with tv rage and the obit page / west of oz / east of eden / feeling though you lost / you hold tight to what you got / bottle the rain and bless the rust / the unwinding thread / .410 ‘neath the bed / the coming sound of turning to dust / west of oz / east of eden / note my smile of the rank and file / fool, if all else fails I’m overwhelmed by the vengeance of my god / and if the ground should tremble, I’ll be warmed by the force / of you versus me / us versus them / or only rage and I / steady on your duels
Win Win – north or southbound / getting up from falling down / either way you’re still gaining ground / it’s a win win / tramping into hurricanes / leaving from where I came / in a box or ticker-tape parade / hell it’s a win win / went rogue in Charlotte / ended with a busted lip / I got mine but he got his / it’s a win win / hey, you gotta hedge your bets these days / you’re riding high in April, and you’re fucked in May / old man and his old cane / parked it in the farthest lane / fighting to keep a few things / win win / if law’s got a line on medicine / and if Amy’s hungry or hearing voices again / she’s weighing arrest or sustenance / peace or a loaf of bread / it’s a win win / hey, you gotta hedge your bets these days / straddle that line between give and take / hey, I’d say it’s a hustler’s game / but I’m coming up roses any way I play
Sentimental Things – a nothing place / with easy saints / and easy histories / sentimental things / on the edge of Dresser / with beers to drink / a lone light in the train yard / sentimental things / a girl you loved / when you were young / read in the paper / got a newborn son / what it was / ain’t like it is / got a good, hard grip but threads are stripped / that far off land / when we were kings / we settle for laymen / sentimental things / a dead man’s trophies / in a vacant den / from shelves to boxes / two for 10 cents / and his house, they combed it flat / razed and seeded / and that was that / a tender pity / recurrent rage / they never leave / they get stored away / every step I took from youth / stems from more or less from these two / and here I am / on radiant streets / walking after midnight / sentimental things / a nothing place / with easy saints / and easy histories / sentimental things