The first thing to know is that You Have To Wear The Boots was made to enjoy without knowing any of what I’m about to write. I want it to stand on its own, counting the lyric sheet as part of the record, and I think it pretty much does. OK.
Then, (you’ve probably figured this out) I have to confess I wrote another record with a story. Five short stories about cowboys, revenge, corruption, outlaws, and love, intertwined with each other and set in the city of Dodge in a mythic Old West with some twists, like TV and weapons of mass destruction. Beyond the basic parts for vocals, electric guitar, and bass, a different instrument colors each story. (Very Amahl and the Night Visitors, eh? Thanks, Mrs.s Pecka & Dudley!)
- The Cowboy & Clara (flute, Clara sung by Cari Ann)
- 2. Easy Kill
- 7. A Cracked Piece of Sky
- 9. A Come-On
- 11. Jenny Was A Friend of Mine
- 13. Set You Ablaze
- Gramp (drums)
- 1. Storm & Stake
- 6. Have We Forgot The Code Of The West?
- 10. goddamn
- 15. Ballad of the Ends of Our Ropes
- The Farmer & Mae (acoustic guitar, Mae sung by Mary)
- 5. Into the Fire
- 14. Harvest Moon
- The Knight & The Knight’s Love (organ, The Knight sung by Tara)
- 3. Iron Horse
- 12. Johnny Got His Gun
- The Barman & The Teacher (synthesizer, The Teacher sung by Doug)
- 4. August Wind
- 8. It Was You, Kid
- 16. Pushing Over the Continental Divide
Some listeners are already saying they like to focus in on specific stories rather than hear the whole album at once, and that’s great; we wanted it to work that way, to the point that you could even think of it as five little EPs/singles. Cory talked a little about releasing it that way, but as we got on toward 2011 I wanted to have it all out before the end of the year.
Another way of breaking it up is by acts I, II, and III, as listed in the lyrics. Act I is just the first song in each story, Act III is the last, and Act II are all the middle songs for the three stories that have them.
If it sounds intricately planned, that’s just hindsight. I wrote the first pieces of music that eventually became …Boots back around 2003. These included all of “Set You Ablaze,” the main verse riff of “It Was You, Kid,” (working title; Campfire Robots) the music to “Johnny Got His Gun,” and the chorus music, lyrics, and title to “Ballad of the Ends of Our Ropes.” They were just ideas and sketches, unattached to any particular album, though I had a vague sense that they hung together.
Then, they sat in my notebook of works-in-progress for a long time.
I’ve lost track of how we came around to working on them again. It wasn’t intentional. I may have written a couple new songs and realized they fit with those old ideas, or maybe finished off some of the sketches and felt my muse moving that direction. I think six or eight songs were done before the main concept – several short stories, Old West setting – really became clear. From there it grew; several more songs written specifically for …Boots to expand the stories (“August Wind,” “Harvest Moon,” “Pushing Over the Continental Divide”). Somewhere in there we also re-purposed songs from others sources; “A Come-On” from Don’t Let Them Take Us ALIVE, “Have We Forgot The Code of the West?” from It’s A Trap (where it appeared as “David S. Addington and Your Democracy”), “Jenny…” from The Killers, and “Into the Fire” and “Easy Kill” from Cory’s The Silent Woods.
I remember the night I came up with the re-imagined “A Come-On.” I was just messing around with the guitar, and the G / G minor figure (heard in the introduction, and again later). Played it for about a half hour straight, afraid I would forget it, because I was headed out to hang out up at Nick’s. I was driving through Raytown, 20 minutes late, trying to keep it in my mind.
Cory and I both remember the first time I played “Storm & Stake” for him, and told him I had another Sally Ride record to work on. It was at his old old house in Lincoln, probably earlier the night we played the Zoo Bar (which would have been 26 January 2006). It really hit us both hard; him hearing it, and me with the ears and heightened stakes I get the first time I play a new song for anyone else.
“Storm & Stake” is adapted from a true story in my family; Grandma really did hold down the center pole of the tent one night during a storm in South Dakota. Grandad was an electrician, and they were out on a job, everyone’s families living in tents.
Cory wrote the melody to “Pushing Over the Continental Divide” on my folks’ front porch. I must have been home for a visit during the summer or something, and I was stuck on the song; liked the simple music, couldn’t figure out what to do vocally. I showed the idea to him, and out popped the melody. (That’s how “Coast and Plans” went, too.)
“Johnny Got His Gun” has no relationship to the film of the same name (which sounds terrifying), which I just learned about this past week. It seems likely I heard the title somewhere and hung on to it subconsciously, re-using it for our outlaw Johnny and his WMD.
After an initial attempt to record …Boots prior to Mexico, I put down my base tracks live, playing and singing at the same time, in late June and early July 2007. Had to get felt guitar picks to keep pick noise down in the vocal mic, and put my amp in the closet; I crouched on my kitchen step and played and played. I wanted a lo-fi sound, so I bought the cheapest 4-track tape recorder I could find, and ran the vocals and guitars through that. (That’s the hiss you may notice at the ends of tracks, if you listen to the record on headphones or a good stereo.)
A lot of other music has been happening since then; Five Star Crush, There is Something and not nothing, the Band Formerly Known As Fifty Bears In A Fight And/Or Exploder Mode, MFR releases, etc.
Cory did his songs at my current place, so that’s November 2008 or later. Not long after, I overdubbed bass (thanks, Jill!) as the Cowboy & Clara’s instrument, but I liked the sound so much I wanted it on everything, and realized I could get Tim involved on flute. Perfect. (See how it wasn’t planned?)
Vocals have been overdubbed bit by bit, too, maybe starting with Bear’s in summer 2009. Oh, nope; B’s were first, I think. And I had to go back and re-record a verse in “It Was You, Kid,” after we realized that Doug was perfect for The Teacher and we absolutely had to have him on the album.
(For clarity’s sake, Cory and I each sing several characters; we take the lead vocals in the song no matter which character is singing, and the other voices come in with quotes or company singing.)
We did two things with the vocal parts in terms of technique and process to support their role in the stories. First, each singer wrote or improvised their harmonies against the main melody only, never hearing the other harmonies. This served several roles: singers brought their own ideas and emotions to the record, I didn’t have to try writing complex 4- and 5-part harmonies for the first time, it gave it a kind of live and dangerous feel that supported the whole campfire vibe.
Then, for the quotes – when a character speaks in a song that’s being sung primarily by someone else – I used a mixing technique called sidechain compression. It works like this; a lead vocal is going along, like the Cowboy’s “One million drops of water form to make a stream…” in “Easy Kill,” and when the second character enters (Clara’s “Oh, you wouldn’t have known it…”), that sound compresses the lead vocal, making it softer in the mix and creating the effect of the second voice taking over the song from the first. When the second voice finishes, the lead voice pops right back to the front of the mix, where it was before the quote. The process is automatic and dynamically related to the voices themselves and their volumes. The intended effect is aural quotation marks, different than just one voice, then two voices, then one again, and I think it works.
I hesitate to say much about the narrative; the story is in the lyrics and I don’t want explanation to get in the way of that, and the one-line introductions on the lyric sheet give the necessary context. It’s three love stories, one comic book adventure as seen though the eyes of The Knight’s Love, and Gramp’s story of political and social awakening, disillusionment, and whatever happens next. A lot of things end badly, but not quite everything. I didn’t have any larger purpose in writing the stories as I did, and that’s where some of their hold on me comes from. The characters are, emotionally, pretty real to me. I’m sure we could look at each story as a sort of stylized reflection on something going on in my life during the writing and the characters as blown-up aspects of my psyche, as we could with almost anything people create, including your own listening experience to the extent that …Boots rings true to you. Which is, of course, the idea; seeing if we can find something new or deeper to share through the music. You need your own space to experience the record in if that has a chance of happening, and I don’t want to crowd you out with commentary on the plot.
I can’t say enough how proud I am to have my family and friends on this record. I’ll love it as long as I live for their parts in it.