Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Creation of They Stole My Crayon's "The Emptiness"

Happy Independence Day! Yes, I know it was last week. But I haven't had a spare moment to get on this blog because along with Christina (aka Kat), I spent my three-day weekend writing, and then recording a new song for my band They Stole My Crayon, one called "The Emptiness". Before you are invariably disappointed, I'll let you know right now that you won't be hearing "The Emptiness" for quite awhile, or certainly not within this blog post in any case. The song has a ways to go before it's ready for human consumption. But I thought you'd enjoy understanding one of my many processes for creating a new tune. Here's how this one went.

Really nothing that had anything to do with this song happened on Thursday. I only bring it up because after I'd wrapped up work that day, and with nothing specific planned for the holiday weekend, I said to Kat, "I'm going to write a new song this weekend." She seemed to approve of this idea. But to be clear, I did not have any specific song in mind. That evening, I asked Kat what kind of song that she felt was missing from what we'd done so far on the album, and she said that we needed some stuff that was a little more on the edgy side of things, and referenced some of the bands that we both enjoy who can bring the more interesting hard rock... Queens of the Stone Age, Fatso Jetson, Soundgarden, and so on. Perhaps I went to bed with those ideas in mind.

Ah, Independence Day. Or, as it's commonly known here, "Hang A Flag, Cook Meat, and Blow Up The Neighborhood" Day. I did none of the above, because I awoke with a purpose: make some damn music! Now... how do you go about making music? Well, I could write pages and pages of bullshit about how instruments and mics are connected to mixers and then to recording devices and software and all manner of crap, but you still wouldn't be able to create a song. Making matters more confusing, I have about 50 different ways I go about writing a song, none any better or worse than the others.

For this song, I started out by thinking. It's a good way to start (or, sometimes, not thinking is preferred). I decided on a feel of the song, which is at least somewhat dictated by the tempo and vibe of the drums. While there is a drum kit sitting right behind me, I'm not a great drummer by any means. Since I just wanted to get the demo created, I programmed sampled drums in my computer. I didn't do any of the detail work. Just created a basic beat and then copy-pasted it so that there was plenty of time for me to add the next steps.

I write most of my songs on acoustic guitar... but not this one! Instead, I did something unusual for me: I wrote it on bass. Yes, bass. That low, rumbly, 4-stringed thing that looks like a large guitar. Many of my friends/fans aren't aware that I spent a good chunk of my musical youth as a bass player. And yes, there's a huge difference between the way one performs on a bass versus a guitar. But I digress: I did the bass part of this song before any other harmonic instrumentation. It turned out to be a great thing, because it put up a structure for the song that I might not ordinarily have achieved.

After that, I added a guitar part. Bang-o zoom-o, I had a song with three pieces of interlocking instrumentation. I was like a one-man Police, or Cream, or Rush if you're into that kind of thing. But the song was not intended to be an instrumental. It needed singing, and to sing, I needed lyrics. It was time to take a break and go enjoy some lovely July 4 weather outside.

That's my laptop, which might die at any moment, and it's running an ancient version of Pro Tools, and you are seeing the waveforms that make up the newest song from The Crayon. And yeah, those are my Nilla wafers. You go something against delicious cookie snacks? No? Then shut up.

Christina arrived in the late afternoon, and I played her what I'd done thus far. She was digging it. I was digging it. But it had neither words nor a melody to sing them. I'll tell you right here and now: she is a straight-up better lyricist than me in many ways. Since she's also a member of They Stole My Crayon, it made sense to get her contributions to the song. We thought about the vibe of the song. What was it saying musically? What mood did it have? I turned to Christina and said, "It reminds me of the petulant, selfish person that Louis CK points out in his comedy." I'm not sure why that was so, but it came to mind. And basically, that was all it took. Christina started busting out phrases, and then I chipped in to help make them singable. I'd say the entire lyric was written in maybe 20 minutes.

By then, then sun had gone down, and we were hearing all kinds of booms and bangs as both professional and amateur explosive enthusiasts started up the July 4 festivities. Probably not the best time to record vocals, right? No, fuck it; this was a demo, so who cares if some explosions were happening in our lead vocal track? We certainly didn't. So, after going through the tune once or twice to see what kind of melody could work, we hit the "record" button and did a pass. That pass sucked; I was still learning the melody as I sang it, which is not what you want to do to sound good and confident. Plus, as you'll hear when you eventually listen to the song I'm describing, there are some rather odd harmonic intervals in the choruses, which weren't exactly easy to sing the first couple of times.

Finally, right at about 8:45PM, I sang a version of the song we both liked (which, now having lyrics, gained its title "The Emptiness"), and we left to go stand around a few blocks from here, where there's a great view of the fireworks show at the Redondo harbor. When we returned, I sat straight back down at the computer, and did the first rough mix of the song. I immediately posted it in our super secret They Stole My Crayon web studio so that the third Crayon (Bunny Knutson) and our mixing engineer (Spencer Crewe) could hear the basic idea. Then I realized I was quite sleepy, and went to bed (after listening to the tune another 37 times).

I didn't do much on "The Emptiness" on that day. Sometimes songs need to gestate a little bit before you can step back and objectively listen to see what comes next. I did, however, create a chord chart of the song for Bunny, and posted some stems (aka, individual tracks) of what I'd done so far so Bunny could start playing around with his contributions at the earliest opportunity).

Mixing on Sunday morning. I love Sunday morning mixing.

Songs are kind of like cheese. You don't want to leave them out on the counter for too long.

So, by the time Sunday rolled around, I'd given some thought to ways that "The Emptiness" could improve. We did four things in this regard. First, I changed a section of the song that's a lead-in to the solo. It's the "breakdown" in modern parlance. Next, I added in some of the details of the drum parts that I found were missing from the simple first pass. None of it matters; we'll eventually re-record the entire drum part with a good drummer on a real kit. Next, I added another guitar part. I often do what I call "texture guitars" that aren't quite solos, but also aren't part oft he general harmonic progression. That part added a lot to this tune. Finally, Christina wanted to put some of her desert rock magic on the track, so she performed flawlessly on a wood tone block to give percussion to the solo section a la Queens of the Stone Age. I then did another mix of the tune with these new elements, and then posted it where Bunny and Spencer could check it out. I think Spencer's reaction says it all:

"I want to mix this tune so fucking badly...!"

And we feel the same, our fine Canadian friend. But long before that happens, there's a crucial element missing from "The Emptiness" as it stands today, and that's Bunny. In The Crayon, we count on Bunny to take my rather predictable pop-infused tunes and make them... well, "unique" is probably the best word. I think the reverse is true in cases where I take Bunny's songs and make them a bit more palatable for a wider range of people with my contributions. No one I know sounds like Bunny or makes music like Bunny, so the next huge step for "The Emptiness" will be the Bunnification of the song. And, as of now, we're in the same boat as everyone, patiently awaiting for inspiration to strike Bunny so that he can add some magic. It will happen when it happens.

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