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Two Sentences About Every Band I Saw At Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest

15 November 2014 in [blog]

howieAustinWeb

(Not counting comments about gear…)

Friday

Peelander-Z – This punk “band” is a series of audience participation bits (barely) strung together with approximately three songs spread across a 40-minute set.  Brilliant.

Pallbearer – With a reputation as more of a studio band, they held up live (except for the backing vocals).  Looking forward to seeing them again in KC in December.

Mineral – These guys are taking a well-deserved reunion victory lap.  It was a big crowd for a 3 PM slot, and we ate it up.

This was the beginning of what seemed to me to be a high number of bands playing through Marshall JCMs and sounding pretty pedestrian and one-dimensional in terms of guitar tone.  Over email Drew pointed out that JCMs are plentiful and affordable, and while that’s true, I also heard plenty of guitarists rocking things like Twins, Stereo Choruses, and 6505s that meet those criteria and sound better.

Run The Jewels – The sense of joy emanating from the stage and reflected back from the crowd was palpable.  Killer Mike is a treasure of humanity.

Sun Kil Moon – Just OK.  Mark has moments of brilliance for sure, but for me, those are separated by extended bouts of tedium.

Death From Above 1979 – They blasted through a ton of songs, and we loved it.  Turn up the bass, though!

Judas Priest – Still.  Bringing.  It.  You forget how many hits they’ve had until they’re lined up, one after another after another.

alt-J – CA enjoyed them thoroughly.  To me they kind of noodle around without ever making much of a point (maybe that’s the point?), so I went back for the end of Judas Priest.

Saturday

Glassjaw – There’s always time for some solid New Jersey hardcore.  Maybe now I will finally be able to remember consistently which band is Glassjaw and which is Jawbreaker.

METZ – Fun, loud, and loose.  Nailed it.

The amps started to improve here, and continued throughout the festival.  The mixes were better on Saturday and Sunday, too; Friday was kick-heavy, as is all too common, but the weekend featured really nice mixes.

Fred Armisen – We got tied up in the crowd in the middle of the day and didn’t see much for an hour or two, other than a couple of covers by Fred and his band from what was mostly the comedy stage.  Sounded good, though.

The New Pornographers – Perfect, they could have played the rest of the night and I’d have been thrilled.  Shut up and take my money, my ears, and my heart, voice of Neko Case!

Both Carl and the bassist were playing through Orange cabs!  Amazingly, for all the heavy stuff we heard, NPs were the only band I saw rocking Orange on stage.  Not Pallbearer, not Deafheaven; The New Pornographers.

Nas – Illmatic in its entirety was brilliant, of course, but the rest of his set made the case that the rest of his catalog is underrated and probably due for a critical revision.  See him if you can.

Cass McCombs – No offense to Cass, but after a long two days and almost dying on the way to Austin this was nice to nap through as we waited for Dinosaur Jr. at ACL Live.  Did he put out a second record?

Meat Puppets – I was not as up to speed on my Meat Puppets as you might think headed in; they felt like the Grateful Dead filtered through ’90s sensibilities.  CA enjoyed them, out of nowhere.

Dinosaur Jr. – The sound check on J’s amps was louder than most bands.  Great to see them in a relatively small, impeccably tuned room.

Sunday

Pissed Jeans – These dudes made fun of their own fans crowd-surfing to their music.  Made fun of themselves, too; awesome.

Deafheaven – Sunbather, which everyone loved, never clicked with me but seeing them perform it did.  CA got into them, too, to my surprise.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Freddie, admittedly, had a lot of substances in his system.  He was still rapping like nobody’s business, and Madlib is a minimalist genius, but we cut this kind of short to squeeze in dinner.

Yo La Tengo – Probably should have rolled with Freddie & Madlib longer.  They can be great, but this set was mostly a 20-minute krautrock freakout, and not in the good way.

Failure – A real highlight for me.  They might have sounded better than on record, even, in a set heavy on Fantastic Planet cuts.

No amps on stage (but a cool Electrical Guitar Company aluminum guitar); they must have been using Axe-Fx or a Kemper profiling amp or something.  Sounded great, though there was some switching trouble.  I’m not sure how many shows they’ve played, so they may still be getting used to the gear.  They didn’t play any new songs, which surprised me.

Neutral Milk Hotel – Jeff & Co. presided over a hi-fi (yes, clearer than the albums) sing-a-long weirdo jamboree, and converted CA to fandom in the process.  I’m so happy to have seen them.

A Tribute to the Stooges featuring J Mascis – We hoofed across Austin in a hurry, only to find a reasonable line rendered impossible due to a guest list that took up 95% of the club’s capacity.  Disappointing, but I listened to three songs through the window, and even that was pretty rad.

J’s solos were nuts.  I don’t imagine he hauled his whole rig into the club, but his tone was right there, unmistakable.

Monday – Though not part of the festival, I will here mention the excellent electric bike tour we experienced courtesy of Rocket Electrics.  Their bikes look and work like regular bikes, but have a battery that will take you up to 20 miles at 20 mph, which is handy for hills and acceleration.  We took the music tour led by Johnny Austin, had a great time visiting some historic Austin music sites, and wrapped up with a rooftop concert.  I opened it with “Coast & Plains” (hence the photo above, courtesy of Johnny); we highly recommend the tour if you’re in town.

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Ventura Outtakes

8 November 2014 in [blog]

As promised, here is the gag reel from the Ventura background vocal recording session in Kansas City.

Mostly, it’s Drew being belligerent (AKA it’s fantastic).

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mr|ten Originals and Covers, Part 3

2 November 2014 in [blog]

mr|ten has inspired some of you to go back and check out the original versions of the songs we covered for our 10th birthday.  In this series I’ll put the originals and covers side-by-side with commentary.  (Part 1Part 2 – Part 3)

Things We Know Now

howie&scott’s original, from the 2xCD signs.comets:

  • I thought of this as a very poppy song on signs.comets… you know, with a time signature change and verses/choruses of varying lengths.  Super-poppy!
  • It wasn’t until Cari Ann and I were searching for candidate songs for her to sing that I realized the arpeggiated verse riff really outlined some straightforward chords that might translate to autoharp
  • Scott adds a lot to this with the unorthodox drum part, solo (of course), and harmony vocal that I love.  That really creative harmony takes the chorus to another level
  • That “I know your heart is in my teeth” lyric is pretty strange, when I stop to think about it.  I don’t remember where it came from – maybe a dream – but it’s always meant for me a warm, intimate, but frighteningly vulnerable feeling

Cari Ann’s cover:

  • Gorgeous vocal, of course.  The totally stripped-down arrangement puts the spotlight directly on her voice for the whole song, and she carries it beautifully
  • I pushed her a bit during the recording session – she may have been a little frustrated with me by the end of it – but I think the result sings for itself
  • Some nice changes to the bridge melody
  • Mic’ing the autoharp was a bear; the muted strings make weird, dissonant noise as the pick rakes over them, and it was hard to find a mic position that minimized that.  I ended up using a dynamic mic on it for that reason

Just Observing

Original from It’s A Trap by Sally Ride:

  • This song is about my real emotions regarding a real thing that happened in my life.  That may sound unremarkable, but it actually makes “Just Observing” a very unusual song for me; I almost never do that.  Just scanning the track list for It’s A Trap, there is only one other song on that record that’s simply about me and something that happened.  Of course, in both cases the lyrics aren’t literal.  This song is really honest but not nice, like fluorescent light.
  • The lack of drums (or even a steady pulse), backwards-Cory vocal, and structure (verse/verse/bridge/verse, no chorus!) are other weird things about this tune
  • I don’t imagine this is anyone’s favorite jam, but I love it because it nails the emotion I wanted it to capture harder than most

Scott Morris’ cover:

  • Scott asked for suggestions for his cover.  At first I thought it would be hard, but as I thought about his skills and started listening, I came up with a ton of songs I was excited to hear his versions of.
  • He adds an entire theme that isn’t in the original (the first two chords and their subsequent recurrences and variations), and uses the bass to create complex chords that go far beyond the source material to great effect.  The theme suggests the original’s bridge, but is distinct.  The original bridge doesn’t appear; the theme and verse alternate with various textures to create Scott’s dynamics
  • Such a cool pitter-patter beat.  Makes me think Scott could have a second career as some sort of downtempo electronic artist
  • This gets stuck in my head constantly; that’s a big accomplishment for an instrumental track!

Bust My Teeth

Continuing on with White Air’s version:

  • The shifting textures and production are what makes this song work for me.  There are so many different sounds (going far beyond the obvious, and awesome, possessed children’s choir).
  • The lyrics of the final verse get obscured by the “Liar, liar…” theme; I eventually had to ask Greg for them

Sally Ride’s cover:

  • This is my second cover of a song from White Air’s self-titled record on mr|ten.  As I was collecting ideas and trying things to see what worked, both this and “Am I Getting Thru To You?” were working for different reasons.  I went ahead and recorded both, not knowing if the compilation as a whole might need the second one to reach my goal of 10 covers.  We got there without it, but both tunes seemed to work in the track list, so I left this in
  • I tried to recreate the feel of the original’s production with different echo settings, octaves, and chord shapes on the guitar.  It’s not as dense and interesting as Greg’s, but the changes give it some movement…
  • …especially on the last verse, where the guitar drops out.  The original faded out from there, but I brought back the “chorus” and lyrics from different parts of the song, including the “Liar, liar” phrase which I thought was too important to omit
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mr|ten Originals and Covers, Part 2

25 October 2014 in [blog]

mr|ten has inspired some of you to go back and check out the original versions of the songs we covered for our 10th birthday.  In this series I’ll put the originals and covers side-by-side with commentary.  (Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3)

In Circles

The Sleepover 2.0’s original:

  • Professionally recorded at ARC in Omaha by AJ; that was a pretty fun weekend.  The ribbon mic he used on Cory’s guitar was amazing.  I can hear so much detail in that tone
  • Constantly shifting texture due to Scott’s keys
  • We gave Scott the assignment of writing a lead part for the chorus, since the vocals were so sparse, and he wrestled with it for a while and came up with the killer part you hear
  • Cool weirdo non-linear reverb on the guitar solo
  • The verse/chorus tempo change is pretty unusual.  We demo’d exactly how the click track needed to change on those parts, how many bars long each part was, etc., so that we knew exactly what we needed AJ to set up when we started to record
  • Another point for Scott for writing the chorus vocal harmonies.  I believe the parts are Cory on lead, me on harmony, Scott on high harmony

Here’s Panda Face’s (Brandon McKenzie) cover:

  • While changing plenty of sounds, Brandon aces the feel of the original, which I love
  • Lots of cool details in the drum programming; the knocking 16th notes, the noisy open hat sound
  • Nice choice to maintain tempo throughout, instead of mimicking the original’s changes
  • More great synth/guitar textures.  Watch out of Scott and Brandon ever get in a band together
  • First part of second verse, drums drop out, vocals go up an octave…  !
  • Aaaand it ends with that same 7th as the original.  Good final touch

The Biggest Choice You Make (Every Day)

Original by Sally Ride:

  • This is one of my favorites, in terms of both songwriting and production
  • Matt’s on drums on this whole record
  • The wah-wah bass riff was done in ProTools with an EQ sweep, which helped me nail the depth of wah I wanted vs. doing it live
  • Only one backing vocal in the whole song, but I make it count!
  • And the bridge just flies off the cliff…  that’s the emotional peak for me, though the outro jams for a while

Cover by Jerry Chapman:

  • Jerry’s a long-time friend of MFR, though this is his first release on the site.  I met him in the early-’00s at Doane College, where his band Life In General would tour a couple of times each year.  Scott and I even opened for them, and I’ve followed his solo career and kept in touch
  • The first time I heard this, I wasn’t sure about it.  Something seemed ‘off.’  It wasn’t until my second listen that I realized he’d changed the time signature from 4/4/ to 6/8!  It sounded so natural, I didn’t realize what the change was on that first pass.  Once I wrapped my brain around it, I loved it
  • Jerry recorded this in a month when he also moved and got married.  That’s dedication to the scene
  • The way he transformed the bass riff into a guitar lead that has some of the same flavor, but is quite different… and then harmonized that lead at the end… so cool

Nature vs. Nurture

Beach-Puppy’s (Cory Kibler) original:

  • Possibly my favorite song of Cory’s…  One of my top five MFR songs ever, for sure.  I just love this.
  • Unusual for Cory to throw that odd meter hiccup in the instrumental version of the verse riff.  It sounds very natural; if you’re not counting or playing along, I don’t know if you even notice that a beat disappears
  • Also unusual, but less so, for Cory, this song as three main parts: verse, chorus, and bridge (or 2nd chorus, if you prefer).  He goes bridgeless pretty often
  • I loved doing the little harmonies and piano bits on this EP.  If we had time to burn and lived close, I’d love to perform this stuff (and Cory’s other material) as a duo

Mars Lights’ cover:

  • I’d wanted to cover this song with Mars Lights for years, long before we hatched the idea for mr|ten.  You could think of mr|ten as an excuse for me to get this cover to happen!
  • Obvious changes: slower tempo, deeesstortionnnnn, echo, extra guitars and drums, blowing out the end of the arrangement
  • Non-obvious change: I throw some Gs into the 2nd chorus/bridge riff.  I always heard them in my imagination
  • Non-obvious change #2: Drop-D tuning, tuned down to a reference pitch of A=432
  • Matt’s approach to the odd-tempo riff is perfect.  I couldn’t hear how it would work with drums until he did it, and then it clicked immediately
  • I loved having my guitar right on the edge of feedback.  I could control it a bit just by turning side to side
  • Matt and I tracked the drums and rhythm guitar together, live.  Drew dubbed his stuff in later
  • Drew’s atmospheric lead loops and layers!  Very cool.  As we finished his parts, he said he’d like to do more of this type of stuff in Mars Lights
  • I used the old Jimmy Page reverse a part / run it through an echo / reverse the echo for the vocal effects at the end.  We used that back on Cold Burn, too.
  • The vocals sound pretty clean, but they’re actually all run through the overdrive side of my GT500 pedal for a bit of grit, to put them in the same sonic space as the rest of the tune
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Moar Dabbling

19 October 2014 in [blog]

Part 2 of my dabble session with Jill is up at ClassyMcGraceful.  (Part 1 here.)

Rather than rambling about it here, why not just go read it?  Jill and Sandy to a great job with these posts, and it was fun to hang out, snack snacks, be interviewed, and sketch.

Still can’t parse the bangs, though.  -h

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mr|ten Originals and Covers, Part 1

12 October 2014 in [blog]

mr|ten has inspired some of you to go back and check out the original versions of the songs we covered for our 10th birthday.  In this series I’ll put the originals and covers side-by-side with commentary.  (Part 1 – Part 2Part 3)

Am I Getting Through To You

To kick us off, here’s White Air’s “Am I Getting Through To You” from White Air:

  • I love the drum programming, and the weird, off-beat way it launches the song
  • This tune has a lot of background vocal layers, and semi-improvised guitar parts.  These posed a challenge for a solo acoustic version
  • The arrangement is basically variations over the main bass line; it’s pretty static, harmonically.  This was a second major challenge for the cover

Here’s my cover, as Sally Ride:

  • After learning the bass line and some of the guitar hooks, I tried to come up with several different options for the same main part, with different levels of intensity, to give the arrangement some ebb and flow
  • Without the crazy backing vocals to weird it up, I aimed to just play and sing with a lot of energy, kind of on the edge, to try and get some of that slightly un-hinged vibe
  • I recorded this track with a reference pitch of A=424, which turned out to be awesome for my voice.  This was the first vocal take!  (Though it’s only one guitar and one vocal track, I recorded them in separate passes)

Break This Dollar

Mars Lights’ original:

  • Tim actually wrote the original vocals to this track!  He’s featured on backing vocals in the recording, too
  • I couldn’t understand all of his lyrics on his demo, so the lyrics here are a combination of his originals (including “Break this dollar!”), my mondegreens of what I thought I heard him singing, and me writing some stuff around the edges, a line here or there, to fill it out
  • Matt and Drew brought some awesome edge-of-chaos punk energy to the recording.  I kind of anchor it

Timothy Scahill’s cover:

  • This was the first track I got back from an artist participating in mr|ten, and it really amped me up
  • Tim recorded all of this on an iPad!  Incredible.  I love the nutso drum programming
  • Tim captures the rushing-forward feeling of the original, while actually changing quite a bit and adding things – guitar parts, vocal hooks, arrangement details, the whole coda – of his own.  Very cool

Clockblocking

Robot, Creep Closer! from Real Awful, Real Quick:

  • The band holds the loud rock-out bit off until the end; this was unusual for R,CC!
  • This tune is really built on the rhythm section; bass riff and off-beat kick against the 1-2-3-4 snare on the verses, then the interesting drum part and guitar wacka-wackas on the chorus.

D-Rockets cover:

  • Derek nails this; he took a song that I’d never expect to hear an acoustic version of, and makes it his own, and makes it beautiful
  • Cool details; the slightly flamenco guitar riff, the chorus vocal harmony, the shaker throughout
  • Somehow, the verses become even creepier and sadder than the original (to my ears, at least)
  • Because it’s layered and doubled subtly, it doesn’t draw attention, but by the end I think there are at least three guitar tracks, four vocal tracks, and the percussion track happening at once

Those are my thoughts.  What jumps out at you between these originals and their covers?

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Dabbling with Jill

4 October 2014 in [blog]

Last Saturday I hosted Jill for one of her Share-With-Me Saturday sessions.

I know so many gifted professionals (in Kansas City, back at home in South Dakota, just all over this crazy country) that I thought it’d be fun to get outside of my own head and go into their heads for awhile … I’ve created a 10-item survey (that’s all I could get free on Survey Monkey) and have asked over 50 artists/business owners/lovely people to complete it. Within the survey, I ask them questions about life, the work they do, and if I can come “dabble” with them sometime. If they say yes, I’ll go spend some time in their element, whatever it looks like, and I hope they’ll spend a little time sketching and feeling feelings with me.

Part 1 of her blogging about the auspicious event is up today.  I had forgotten how real those survey questions got.

Dabbling so hard

Dabbling so hard

DSC_0746

Jill makes bass face!  Este Haim, you are on notice.

Just a couple of the photos, all by the wonderful Sandy Woodson.

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An Artist’s Purpose

30 August 2014 in [blog]

A proposition, for discussion and reflection:

An artist’s purpose is to create the things only they can create.

On one hand, it’s absurd to propose a normative purpose for art.  Art is many things to many people, to the point that it’s very hard to define what is and isn’t art.  (Perhaps the question “What is art?” is a mysterious question, to be dissolved into questions like “Who made this”, “What were they trying to say,” “How to audiences tend to perceive this,” and so on.)  On the other, perhaps the proposition is a way to make more concrete the nebulous idea of originality in art.

Originality is always a matter of degree; something that was literally entirely original, making no connection or reference to anything in our experience, would be incomprehensible.  Art always mixes originality – something unique which could only have been created by the specific, individual artist who made it – and tradition.

Artists chase originality, but “be original” or “do something new” are such abstract maxims that they are impossible to follow.  “Be original” makes me think of standing in front of my amplifier, dumbfounded, trying to play a note that no one has played before.  I’d be standing there a long time, without writing any songs.

“Say something only you can say,” though, seems to give me some direction.  It spurs me to look around for something in the world or in others that only I’ve noticed, or that I have a perspective on that’s never been offered before.  It pushes me to not only express my emotions but think about them, searching for what makes them mine and not anyone else’s.  Raw feelings are universal, but the conditions that provoke them and the choices we make as a result of them are specific to each of us.

Looking for inspiration?  What chords would only you think to put together?  What fresh metaphor blew through your thoughts in the shower yesterday?  What unusual spices do you want to try in a classic dish?  What underlying colors do you see in the world that others miss?  What story are you in a unique position to tell?

It’s all been done before… until you give us your take on it.  Forget convention for a minute; why not make something only you would think to make?

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Tim Scahill (Rent Money Big, Knots, Irkutsk) Releases “Overthrown”

17 August 2014 in [blog]

Our friend Tim’s new solo joint, Overthrown, is up for streaming on SoundCloud!  Check it out below.

I think this is a new high-water mark for Tim, and I’m really digging this.

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The July of Experimentation

27 July 2014 in [blog]

I’ve tried a bunch of new things over the past couple weeks, all of which are worth playing with if you’re interested.

  • Harmonica – With the help of some great YouTube videos, I’m finally learning to bend notes on the harp in preparation for a specific overdub I want to do on Cory’s solo record.  As one of the videos said, it’s kind of like mimicking Darth Vader’s breathing, but with a harmonic in your mouth.
  • Funkbox – A really fun vintage drum machine emulator and then some for iPad/iPhone.  I’m trying it before dropping semi-serious money on a VolcaBeats for a back-burner project with Drew.
  • Slide guitar – If by “slide,” you can imagine “a Sharpie held awkwardly in my left hand.”  It’s gone well enough that I probably need a real slide, though.  This is also in anticipation of some overdubs on Cory’s album, in concert with…
  • Open G tuning, also known as “how Keith Richards plays.”  All those brilliant Stones riffs that are nigh-impossible in standard tuning?  No problem in open G.  Differing slightly from Keef, I’m using the top 5 strings for open G, and tuning my low string down to D so I can still play two-note power chords on the two lowest strings.
  • Tilt/Slant EQ – This simple but underused approach to EQ takes a center frequency and boosts treble / cuts bass (or vice versa) with a very even response, just like it sounds (more details here; the link is about a specific product, but does a good job of elaborating on tilt EQ generally).  It’s best used at lower levels, up to +/- 6 db or so, to brighten or darken sounds very naturally and transparently.  I’ve been testing it on an overly dark bass track to lighten it up a bit, with good results, and I think I’ll be using it a lot on future mixes.  Dedicated Tilt/Slant EQ hardware or plugins can be hard to find (there are some VSTs out there that I haven’t tested), but you can make your own by combining high and low shelf EQs with the same cutoff frequency and lower Qs.  Center frequencies typically range from 600 – 1000 Hz.

Have you tried anything cool lately?