Nov 10, 2016

A Diamond in the Rough Mix

The dust has finally settled at Pershing Hill Sound after three intense days of recording drums for the next Loincloth album in our endless pursuit of sublimely twisted metal.  My monster drum kit and I set up camp in Master Greg Elkins' studio to lay down the beats that could potentially lead the world to a better place for all humanity.  A place where drummers are the ones who get the lead roles in movies talking about snares that go "up to eleven" and singers are those who spontaneously combust onstage. A world where gingers like myself have songs sung about them instead of being ridiculed for their superior intelligence and intimidating good looks.  A world where percussive brilliance buys access to the highest levels of power.  A Stevetopia where tolerance for all is based upon one hundred percent acceptance of my ideas and only those fools who disagree are led to reeducation camps, or shamed into silence.  That is the scale of Loincloth's dream, and as of two weeks ago the world is one step closer to its realization.

When Loincloth decided to record another album we agreed we should approach it in a slightly different way.  Our first album had everything but the kitchen sink, mainly because we thought that would be the only album we would ever record.  Once we agreed to record again we knew we wanted an album with a more aggressive sound, one that had more attack.  I would never suggest that the drums be front and center in a recording.  I'm not going to be the one to say "The spotlight really needs to be on me this time".  That's not how I was raised.  That's what singers are for.  It was the other guys in the band who expressed the notion that drums should have a more prominent role on this album.  

"Define prominent" I said. Are we talking about "world metal" in which guitarists plink around with nearly irrelevant notes while I conjure the spirits of a select few obscure gods of various polytheistic cultures like the one known to Westerners as "the flute dude" from light plate covers and napkin holders?  Or was I supposed to pepper the album with non-stop thunderolls and precision accents designed to peel ears off of heads to be sewn into sinister ear belts, or used as pads to keep my cabinet doors from making too much noise when they close? I have always wanted a belt made of ears, but the irony of ears used as noise dampers would have been delicious.  Decisions, decisions.  "No, Steve..." they said, "just try to focus on getting it right for once and you can have the front seat." Ha!  Silly guitarists, "getting it right" isn't what I do! No no!  What I do is get it all wrong, but in occasionally interesting ways.  Maybe if their ears weren't on my spiffy new belt they could hear that as clearly as the rest of us.  As an oppressed, red headed stepchild the idea of being in the front seat was appealing, so I gladly accepted the challenge.  I began begging people for their best drum ideas right away!  If I fall short in your eyes, I'll blame everyone else for failing to come up with anything good.

My experience at Pershing Hill Sound two weekends ago was different from any previous adventures I've had in a recording studio for a variety of reasons.  For starters, I was the only one recording.  All of the guitar had been prerecorded with a metronome so any edits that might need to occur would be much simpler to line up.  I had never recorded to a metronome before two weekends ago.  Hell, I had only even attempted to play to a metronome once before, and I hated it!  I found that I was playing to match the clicks instead of playing what my parts were supposed to be.  It was completely unnatural.  I understood the benefits to using a click track though, so I gave it the old college try.  I practiced for about six weeks by loading the guitar files, and the unholy click track onto an old mp3 player and taking it down to our practice space to run it through an old pa system we have held onto for those rare occasions when Scott can join us.  There were some wrinkles to iron out.  It wasn't as bad as having to flatten out a piece of wadded up aluminum foil, but it was far from perfect.

The first issue was that the pa system wouldn't get very loud.  It was quiet enough that I really had to back off from how hard I normally hit my drums.  About sixty percent or so if I had to guess. There is a big difference between moderately tapping at your drums and really whacking the crap out of them.  I shift my body in order to throw my weight into different things as I play. It makes certain transitions much smoother as well as making it easier to make sure you really nail the things that need to be loud.  When you back off as much as I had to your body motions are different, so you don't end up "training" yourself the same way as when you can cut loose.  The physical sensation of big swings with your drumsticks, and the solid 'thwacks' on your kit are what tell your brain that you're doing everything right.  It's like the difference between knowing academically what needs to be done, and having actually done the thing enough that you have the utmost confidence you can do it whenever you want.  Until you can pound something out consistently there is always some second guessing.  The connection between you and the music is as much based on how things feel as it is based on how things sound.  That comes from years of trying to be heard over two Mesa Boogie stacks and a giant bass rig.

Another problem with the mp3 player running through the pa was the fact that the sound kept going in and out of phase.  If any of you remember what it was like when your cassette heads would get out of alignment, it was kind of like that.  Imagine some jerk slowly turning the treble all the way up and all the way back down again while another a-hole slowly covers and uncovers your ears with their hands.  If you whisper "wheeeee-oooooo" over and over you'll come pretty close.  The fix ended up being to disconnect one of the two input lines, but then I was only getting half of the song.  It matters when you are accustomed to hearing everything the guitar is doing because all of a sudden the song sounds totally different and you lose some of your cues.  You don't realize how many things signal your next move until they aren't there anymore.  Fortunately I started practicing far enough ahead of my session dates that I got used to the changes.  I booked the studio time once I felt like I had a good enough grasp of the tracks to predict when I'd be ready.  I timed my studio weekend to come when there would only be a few last things to figure out.  It wasn't a perfect scenario, but it was one I was comfortable working with.

The biggest thing I had to overcome was the fact that many of the songs we were recording had never been learned by the Raleigh chapter of Loincloth.  That means I had not played them since I was going up to Richmond well over a year ago.  Even then many of the songs were riffs that had yet to be put together into full compositions.  Of the nine songs I had to record, no more than two were part of our regular practice routine.  A third had been a regular until Tannon and I made some pretty drastic changes a year and a half ago, but I never played that song again until I got the completed guitar files from him about three months ago.  Maybe it would be better if I break all of this down.  I get paid by the word after all.

The Task at Hand:

I had three days to record nine songs.  That sounds easy enough, right?  Well, it would have been if all nine songs were completed by the time I went in the studio.  As it was only two of the songs were completely done deals.  The word "were" becomes a little nuanced here. When the guitar was recorded there were two mistakes in one of those two tracks that never got caught.  That meant that I had to make some adjustments.  Once drums ( or anything for that matter ) becomes muscle memory to me, it can be difficult to break form and play something else.  Try using your left hand only for an hour.  You'll see what I mean.  Things are always just a little more stressful in the studio though, so what should be a five minute exercise becomes a thirty minute lesson in anger management.  It would have been one thing if Tannon and I had worked those accidental changes out at the space, but I had to make a conscious effort to remember those changes every time I played them because I could never play hard enough for new muscle memory channels to form. That's why it was such an issue that the pa didn't have enough ass to really crank it up.  It became a problem in the studio.  You know how sometimes you reach for a light switch on a wall where a switch has never been?  Inexplicable, right?  Well imagine if the light switch had actually been there for three years but was suddenly gone.  I know.  Only some superhuman brainiac could ever overcome that kind of adversity.  We thought it would be impossible, but after an hour or so I finally made it through the track.  Fortunately the second of those two songs actually went pretty smoothly.  No real issues there, other than my overall lack of talent. Hurray for small miracles!

A third song was composed here in Raleigh without much input from Tannon.  He did write the original riff that all other riffs were inspired by but Craig, Thomas and I arranged almost all of it.  That one was probably the easiest one for me to record.  Tannon did add two little things, but I had plenty of time to get used to those.  There was one small accent we had to change in order to keep the click track on a normal count.  We call it keeping it on "the bang", which means that the rhythm falls on the natural headbang one employs when listening to something.  If the rhythm falls between "the bang", meaning instead of your head reaching the lowest point of the headbang to match the rhythm, the beat actually lines up when your head is at the top of "the bang".  We call that a "chicken neck".  You have to focus so hard on keeping the headbang going when it hits the top of your swing that you end up exaggerating the motion so much that you look like a chicken prancing around.  It's a very cool look.  Ladies love it!  Try it at the bus stop or walking through the mall. You'll thank me for it later.  So those two bang styles; the natural bang and the Chicken Neck, are the two most basic bangs.  Once you get into rhythms that fall in the quarter beats it becomes too much to try and keep up with, and that's exactly when a metronome becomes your enemy.  That's why we had to add one note to the accent, otherwise I'd would have had to invent an entirely new 'bang' at which point I would stop playing drums to pursue a career in interpretive dance, and believe me... no one wants that.

A fourth song had been completed but Tannon and I decided it needed a little sum'n sum'n (does anyone know how to spell that?) so we added a section to it last year as he was recording his first guitar drafts, but I never actually played it on a drumset.  Think of Marilyn Monroe without the beauty mark.  I know... it doesn't work, does it?  Then there was a fifth song that had been completed for a long time, but we decided it needed major cosmetic surgery. If the other song got Marilyn Monroe's beauty mark, this song got a prosthetic limb which enabled it to run for the first time.  Those changes all happened one weekend about a year and a half ago but I never played those songs again until I recorded the drums the other weekend.  Sounds like a solid plan, right?  Learn songs, change the songs, never play them again before going into the studio.  Let's see... what other sections only existed in our heads?

Of the remaining four tracks I recorded earlier this month, two had been put together by Tannon and me over a year ago but had long, moderately complicated endings that had never really been played.  We played them in their earliest form the night each was conceived, but never beyond that.  They both went through some pretty serious evolutionary processes before settling into what they are today.  Finally, the last two songs were never much more than collections of loose riff ideas.  They riffs were solid, but they were undeveloped in terms of having finished drum patterns. I knew the vibe I wanted to shoot for in one of the two songs, but the other song had been a mystery to me for a long, long time. It had a solid center, but we wanted the rest of it to feel more loose and fluid than anything else Loincloth had written and without any way to work on it here in Raleigh, I never developed a real connection with the track.

As I sit here writing all of this it I have to admit that it's quite possible I had no business going into the studio at all!  What's done is done though, and I have to say it all came out pretty damned well for a collection of unfinished material.  I'll bet you'd never know if I hadn't told you all.  I hope you'd never have figured it out, anyway.  Crap, what have I done?  I should have kept my mouth shut!   Maybe I should start a contest to see who can figure out the problem areas once the album comes out.  On second thought, the last thing I need is a bunch of you writing to say "Yo Steve!  You really sucked on that one part here, and whaddup with the amateurish rolls in that other track?!?!  Were you on muscle relaxers or did you forget how to play drums for like a year or so before recording that one?"  Scratch the contest idea.  Instead, I want you to imagine you're floating in a warm, tranquil lagoon without a care in the world.  Now repeat after me, "These drum beats are impeccably composed.  This is drumming perfection."  Yes, that's it...  just keeeeep floating.

In reality there were only four sections I still had to work out by the time I went into the studio to record.  I had to determine the order I wanted to record the tracks, so I started the first two days off with easier songs to get some momentum built up before tackling anything too stressful.  It sounds good in theory but the truth is there is enough of a break between completing one track and starting the next that there may not be any momentum at all to carry you through the day.  Still, it made me feel like I had my act together by devising a plan of attack.  I hoped to knock four tracks out the first day which would have made the rest of the time a breeze.  Believe it or not, It didn't quite work out that way.  Even though my drums had been set up and mic'd before I got there it still took two hours to get tones and to make sure everything was where it needed to be and that I could play without destroying any of Greg's badass microphones.  Luckily you can hit them a few times without having to worry about it much.  Believe me, after you find out each tom mic is a few hundred dollars you pay attention to your swing.  Try and hit them in the gut so you don't leave any visible bruises.  You know the drill.

I finished three songs on the first day of recording.  We wrapped up a little earlier than I thought we would, but that was fine.  There was no need to overdo it on the first day.  I recorded the two tracks that were "done deals", which included the song that had the light switches that were suddenly on different walls. Tannon didn't have a second set of ears listening for things when he laid down his final guitar tracks for the fifth time.  It happens when there is no one to help when you record.  I also recorded the track that had the prosthetic leg, having just figured out how to properly attach the leg the night before.  It's the easiest of the nine tracks to play at practice, or I should say it was the easiest two years ago when we all knew it.  The last time Tannon and I recorded with Greg there were enough songs that we had to finish writing during the recording sessions that I wasn't intimidated by having a few "loose threads" to figure out this time around.  Otherwise I would have been completely stressed out.  I was able to hold that stress at bay until the next day.

We had a visitor come by the studio right as we were wrapping things up that first night. Confessor's original lead guitarist, Graham Fry rolled up and checked things out for a few minutes.  I felt bad that he came by as we were about to leave so I invited him to come to the house and have dinner with us.  In true "good ol' days" form he grabbed a pizza and he, Tannon, Monica and I laughed a lot, ate, and talked about music.  There was something very comfortable about having these two guys who I had spent so much time playing with over the years at the house while I was working out a few drum ideas.  It really did feel like we had gone back in time twenty years or more.  

Music, laughter, pizza.  Does it get any better?  Oh right, B-grade horror movies!  At midnight the three of them threw on a cheesy blacksploitation horror film from the early 80's while I sat at the computer a few feet away and did my drum homework for one of the unfinished endings.  There is no way I could do that around most people but this group would understand better than any.  Monica is used to it, and Graham and Tannon knew the deal.  It really was nice to have them around.  

This has turned into a much longer post than I expected, so I'll break it up into two posts. Hopefully they will make sense to you guys.  I have to leave in a few minutes to go over bass ideas with Thomas before he begins laying down his own tracks in Richmond tomorrow.  Boy am I glad my part is over!  It's been nice having time to breathe.

I'll have more posted later this weekend...


  1. Hey Steve,
    You mentioned nine songs. Does that mean the new album will have nine longer songs, or was it just nine for this session?

    Chicken Neck. I didn't know there was a term for that move, but I've seen it before. It was at a Melvins show about 20 or so years ago. They were opening for White Zombie, and there was a dude next to me, probably a White Zombie fan based on his t-shirt, unsuccessfully trying to head bang to the Melvins. It was total Chicken Neck. He finally gave up and complained to me, "Man, I don't like 'is. You c'aint do this to it!" then mimed the standard head bang movement.

    chickens = metal

  2. It is a proven scientific fact that no one who wears White Zombie shirts is capable of managing a successful "chicken neck" headbang. To be fair, it requires practice. Maybe I'll examine the phenomenon on a post one day. The easy way to introduce yourself to the wonderful world of stylized banging is to headbang while you count. Head down on the "ones" only and count as you do it "Bang 2 3 4 Bang 2 3 4". When you feel like you're ready add two numbers to your count. Whether you say "bang" to yourself or "one" it becomes "Bang 2 3 4 Bang 2 3 4 Bang 2 1 2 Bang 4 1 2 Bang 4 1 2 Bang 2 3 4 Bang 2 3 4..." Now you too, are a chicken neck master.

    Oh, we recorded nine songs total for the Loincloth album. They are "longer", which means that none of them are under two minutes. Once we add some soundscape intros it'll be just over thirty minutes long. We felt like forty to forty five minutes would be too much for most people.

    "chickens=metal"... Brilliant!