Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Making Music on Memorial Day

Enjoy the demo for the new Zak song "I Like You". I'll be pulling it down in about a week, so listen now, or wait for the album in the year 2073.

Hello, Reader. Let me tell you about my weekend, as Pete Townshend once wrote.

Making music is fun, or at least it should be. If you find that making music is shitty and fills you with angst, you should try a different hobby. Unfortunately, like most arts, making music can also be a pretty anti-social activity. I can't imagine anything more boring than watching an artist of any kind -- writer, sculptor, painter, musician, whatever -- go about their tasks of creation. That's why, when Kat's parents were visiting and I had much of the three-day Memorial Day weekend to myself while she spent time with them, I did something that I wouldn't have done had we spent our typical weekend together: making an entire song.

There is no "way" to create music. At some point, you think about certain sounds that seem to go together in some way, and then using anything from a pen and paper to a recording studio and dozens of musicians, you capture the idea in some way. Beyond that, it's all a matter of personal preference, and the way you go about doing what you do is going to be very different depending on the genre of music you're creating, and your own comfort level in the tools you have available to create and capture sounds.

A Song is Born
In my case, I began the tune on Thursday evening. How does one "begin" a new song? I have no idea. I found myself semi-humming along to a little chord progression I heard in my brain while I worked, and after a moment of confirming that I wasn't just recalling a song that already existed, realized that I might have had something worth exploring. I did not have the entire song; it's very rare that a whole song is birthed in the way that a baby is (i.e., all at once). You get parts at a time. All my song had at that stage was the first four measures, which I envisioned being performed on piano.

The important thing at that point is not to worry about the rest of the song. Start by capturing what you have. I grabbed a pen and wrote this down:

E |Bm7 |Amaj7/D |Dmaj7/G |

My most effective songwriting tool: a pen and paper.

So, without playing a note, the ball was indeed rolling on the new tune. The next step I took was dictated by necessity. I opened up an application called Pro Tools, and using its MIDI functions (disregard all this techno geek crap if you're not a musician; none of it really matters), recorded the beginning piano part that very night. That's all I did for then. Some songs don't get beyond that stage; they die there, sitting in a folder on the desktop called "Songs In Progress". I've got a big batch of them, so I know how this goes.

The Little Song Grows Up
However, this time -- and maybe it was because I know I had a long weekend coming -- I kept rolling. On Friday, between while in between work projects, I extended the first little bit to include the first few chords of the verse. So that was cool. I could now start humming some melody ideas while continuing to write the song. I'll boil down the rest of the tedious process: I got through writing the entire song on the piano alone. I then wrote the drum part, and -- having neither a set of drums nor a great drummer available at a moment's notice -- programmed the drums to be played by the computer. I'm pretty good at it, though all things considered I would ALWAYS prefer having the real thing.

I now had a piano part with drums over them. That meant the structure of the song was pretty well set. I took my trusty pen and paper (take that, technology!) and jotted some notes on the locations of the important parts of the songs -- verses and choruses, bridges and solos, intros and outros. Then I built the song the way that a baker prepares a layered cake. I added my bass part, which is essential for my music. I went back and refined the drums so that they got along nicely with the bass. Then -- and this weighed heavily on the subsequent vibe of the entire song -- I decided to put down some horns, again using the computer to do the job.

Words and Things
By Monday morning, I had the entire song ready, with two exceptions. Ironically, as a guy who's known for singing and playing guitar, my new song had no vocals or guitars at that stage. The guitars were easy; I knew what I was going to do. But to do the vocals, I needed lyrics. The cool thing was the song itself was there to help me along, and by that point, it had a vibe that helped me think through what I wanted to say on a literal basis. I found the verses to impart a musical feeling of being friendly and laid back, and that's where the theme of "I Like You" came in (which, by the way, is the name of the tune). I paced around on my patio for awhile with a yellow notepad and a pen, and once the right words started flowing, they just kept on coming until I found myself with a song to sing.

Back up in the little room that I can't quite call a recording studio, I set up a mic and immediately recorded the lead vocal. I then did several more passes to record my own harmonies and backing vocals as well. The last thing I did was add short guitar solos in a few sections of the song, and then did a quick mix.

Be It Done?
The writing part of the song is done. The recording? Far from it. Because of the fact that I am at least temporarily forced to record here instead of a real studio, everything I've done so far is just a well-polished demo. I will likely re-record the entire thing at a later point, but for the time being, feel free to enjoy the tune.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New Music & Video: "Eclipse (Stolen by the Sun)"

Many people think that I only strum acoustic guitars and sing songs of yore. Then again, many people think that whales are fish and that the Earth is 6,000 years old. I'm not saying these are the same people; in fact, I've barely given that first group a chance to learn some more about the types of music I play. The second group I can't help.

After my amazing night on Saturday watching Roger Waters perform "The Wall Live" at the Coliseum, we were pretty burned out on Sunday. We relaxed much of the day until about 5:30, when I grabbed my camera and went outside to see what was going on with the annular solar eclipse that was visible from here on the West Coast of the USA. On a whim, I decided to let the camera run for awhile, pointed in the general vicinity of the sun. After it started getting lower on the horizon, I moved to a different location and kept filming.

Later on, I was looking at the footage that I'd edited, sped up, filtered, and messed with in many ways. I was thinking that it would be cool to run it with some kind of ambient music happening under it, but I didn't want to just start randomly borrowing (i.e., stealing) someone else's music. So, I opened up some digital audio software and made my own.

Anyway, I know it might surprise some folks who only know me as a writer/player of more organic sounds. The reality is that while I choose to perform as an acoustic singer-songwriter because it's one style I enjoy, I have spent years and years writing, recording, and playing everything from metal to progressive rock to jazz to classical to funk... there's really no musical genre that I can't dig in some way. Speaking of which, please enjoy the video and the song -- which I've called "Eclipse (Stolen by the Sun)" -- that it inspired below.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Roger Waters "The Wall Live" at the L.A. Coliseum (May 19, 2012)

There's a theory that only a certain number of incredible things can happen to any one person in a given day, but I don't subscribe to it. I think an infinite number of amazing things go down all the time, and Saturday's experience for Kat and I at Roger Waters' "The Wall Live" is a good example of this theory.

The Warm Thrill of Confusion, That Space Cadet Glow
We took off from home toward downtown very early. This turned out to be a blessing, but not for the reasons you might think. Traffic on the Harbor Freeway on the way in at about 5PM was surprisingly very light, and we arrived at the L.A. Coliseum and parked without incident. There was a very interesting crowd gathering there. Pink Floyd (and therefore Roger Waters) attracts a really wide variety of people and age groups. One thing that is very pleasing to me is the number of high school and college age people we saw there. Roger's music crosses generations, and seems especially relevant today, given his refocusing of the socio-political aspect of "The Wall". As we cruised through the parking lots, the people around us were old and young, drugged and sober, straight and gay, wealthy and not-so-wealthy, and mixed in racial makeup. That's a good thing to me.

Kat and I are generally pretty happy people, but being in front of the stage at "The Wall Live" was one of our happiest moments.

Goodbye Blue Sky
When the gates were about to open, Kat and I went toward the entrance. The moment we first walked out of the tunnel onto the field area and saw the stage and the wall structure was one I won't soon forget. However, we still had to figure out where our seats were; due to some ordering confusion, we'd ended up with wheelchair access seats, and neither Kat nor I have any disability. One of the security staff -- to whom I am eternally grateful -- recommended that we seek out one of the ticket hospitality desks to see if they could exchange them for more standard seats. We strolled up to the area, and after awhile of explaining the situation, they gave us new tickets. We were literally first in line at the hospitality desk, and if we'd arrived any later, there's no way that the next thing that happened would have ensued.

Empty Spaces
The first good sign I got was when we entered the stadium again and a security guy glanced at our new tickets. "Field 2? Whoooo!" he exclaimed as he waved us on, and Kat and I went down the stairs to the field, then toward the stage. And we kept going. And going. The next thing I knew, I was entering that holiest of holy places, the set of seats in the front and center of the stadium. Kat and I have since decided that we quite possibly had the best two seats in the entire Coliseum. We were close enough to see the facial expressions of Roger and his band, and yet far enough back to see the incredible spectacle of the stadium-sized wall. More on that later.

I think if we were ever going to have the best stadium show seats of our lives, this was a good time for it to happen. Top photo by Kat.

Holy shit, these are our seats?!?! YEAH!!!!! Photo by Kat.

Seriously? We're actually sitting here?

Waiting for the Worms
After all the running around for the tickets, Kat and I got some food and drink and relaxed for awhile. In fact, we relaxed longer than we'd expected; the concert didn't start until 45 minutes after the scheduled time. It wasn't a big deal. I suspect that in typical LA fashion, so many of the seats were still empty right at 8PM that they held out the start of the show. Traffic was kind of a nightmare right around the Coliseum, so it's not a surprise that the stadium didn't fill up until later. But fill it did. And then, the show started.

Local kids join Waters onstage during "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2). Photo by Kat.

With Your Ear Against the Wall
The first error you can make in thinking about Roger Waters "The Wall Live" is that it's a rock concert. Granted, there's an amazing rock concert that happens along with the context of the overall show. It has Waters sounding stronger vocally than I've ever heard him before, and being a shockingly animated and engaging front man, staling the length of the hundreds of feet of stage throughout the performance. It has a cast of supporting musicians who do a perfect job of bringing the music of The Wall to life flawlessly. The sound system was without a doubt the best I've ever heard at an outdoor stadium show.

Beautiful Kat smiles at me as we return to our seats during the intermission.

The Hammers Batter Down The Door
But the music was just one aspect of Waters' masterpiece of live performance art. The titular wall itself acts as a projection screen for 42 high-definition projectors, and purely from a graphic/aesthetic standpoint, the look of the entire stadium was jaw dropping. But it wasn't just a batch of pictures and animations; Roger Waters has brought out The Wall this time for a specific reason. He says:

30 Years ago when I wrote The Wall I was a frightened young man. Well not that young, I was 36 years old.

It took me a long time to get over my fears. Anyway, in the intervening years it has occurred to me that maybe the story of my fear and loss with it’s concomitant inevitable residue of ridicule, shame and punishment, provides an allegory for broader concerns.: Nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, Whatever! All these issues and ‘isms are driven by the same fears that drove my young life.

This new production of The Wall is an attempt to draw some comparisons, to illuminate our current predicament, and is dedicated to all the innocent lost in the intervening years.

I found that the messages of the show were very much in line with my own guardedly-positive outlook of life, and it added tremendously to the experience.

One thing that particularly impressed me: during the second song of the night, Waters was singing "The Thin Ice", and there was a problem with the PA and the stage monitoring. A notorious perfectionist, he stopped the song for a few minutes while the tech crew rectified the situation, and started again. That told me of his complete commitment to bring this show and its message to all 50,000+ of us in the exact way it was meant to be delivered. I loved it.

Are All These Your Guitars?
Given its task of replicating The Wall on a note-for-note, sound-for-sound basis, the band was incredible, and merit some well-deserved recognition and kudos. Three guitarists -- Dave Kilminster, Snowy White, and the always excellent G. E. Smith -- were employed to fill in for the absence of David Gilmour. Kilminster handled most of the lead guitar work, but all three were fantastic. Graham Broad handled drums very well, while Jon Carin and Roger's son Harry Waters were respectively excellent on keys and organ.

Some special credit has to be reserved for the vocals. Obviously, Waters himself handled the majority of the lead vocals, as per the album, but the parts sung by Gilmour were handled adroitly by relatively unknown singer Robbie Wyckoff. There were also four backing vocalists who did an amazing job (those of you who know me and my music are aware that I have an appreciation for good backing vocals). Jon Joyce was joined by the singing family comprised of Kipp Lennon, Mark Lennon, and Pat Lennon (the latter three known as a local folk band called Venice).


You Are Only Coming Through In Waves
I won't go through the experience of "The Wall Live" in any more detail than I already have. If you need a more clear picture of what it was all about, look at some of the videos below... they're all from the show Kat and I saw Saturday night (thanks, people who put them on YouTube) and mere words don't do justice to what we saw.

The bombastic start of the show.

This video of "Mother" was shot from almost exactly where Kat and I sat.

We get machine-gunned by Roger Waters during "In the Flesh".

You can see some of the amazing wall projections during "Comfortably Numb". Watch at about 5:20 for a particularly cool one.

All Alone, or in Two's, the Ones Who Really Love You, Walk Up and Down Outside the Wall
Kat and I had an interesting conversation when looking back on the show immediately afterwards. It's probably more telling than anything else I can say to describe it.

ZAK: What was your favorite part?
KAT: All of it.
ZAK: Yeah, me too.

When the show was over, I felt like I'd fought 10 rounds in a boxing ring... but happily so, and sad that I couldn't fight some more. Photo by Kat.

The show finally ended at about 11:30, and we made our way back to our car, and then enjoyed the hour-plus that it took to get out of the parking lot and back to the freeway. But it didn't matter; both Kat and I knew we'd had an experience that was far beyond memorable. It was something we'd never again replicate, nor would we want to. It stands alone as a singular amazing memory that will last a lifetime.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tomorrow: "The Wall"

Unlike "Mother" from the Pink Floyd album The Wall, my mom is cool. Last November, she called me and said, "I think I have a good idea for a Christmas present for you and Christina, but I wanted to run it by you first."

I said, "Well, I'm sure whatever you give us will be-"

"Shh," she said, being not known for unnecessary politeness or sentimentality. "If I get you tickets to see Roger Waters do 'The Wall' next May, would you want to go?"

"Um... hell yeah!" I replied, not doing much to hide my enthusiasm.

So that was six months ago. Well, time goes by, and here we are in mid-May, and tomorrow, Kat and I will head over to the L.A. Coliseum to see Mr. Waters put on his show that, by all accounts, is incredibly spectacular.

Young Lust
From the moment I discovered The Wall in my teens, I was a huge fan of PInk Floyd. The Wall, both the album and the movie, is what sucked me in. Like any good fan, my love for the band and its music caused me to look backwards and forwards from that point, and I soon became familiar with everything from the Syd Barrett-era Piper at the Gates of Dawn all the way through the version of the band that David Gilmour ran with after he and Roger had their infamous split. But it was definitely The Wall that opened my eyes -- and brain -- to the wonder of Floyd.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives
I've seen Floyd before. Last time was on their tour for the "Momentary Lapse of Reason" album, back in 1994 or so. It was a great show, but something tells me that this will be quite a bit more amazing. It's probably the most expansive stage set for a rock show in history. They say the projection parts are worth the price of admission alone.


In the Flesh
So, tomorrow's the big day. The show starts at 8PM, but with all the craziness of being downtown, getting into the parking area and all that, Kat and I will probably take off several hours before then. In any case, we are ready for a damn good time. Apparently our seats are in the "these completely do not suck by any definition" zone, so we'll let you know how it was after it's done (assuming our brains don't melt during the show itself... it could happen).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Going back to the desert!

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who realize this is a ludicrous idea. I'm one of the latter, but if I were to make such a ridiculous sweeping generalization, I'd say there are those who "get" the desert, and those who don't. And really, nothing against those who don't. It's not for everyone. If you're afraid of insects and reptiles, don't go there. If you don't like getting dusty and dirty, stay somewhere else. If your idea of a perfect vacation is to be pampered at a spa, with haute cuisine restaurants and boutique shops all around you... well, that's kind of fun too, but you really won't like the desert.

Fortunately, I took a chance and introduced Kat to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park for the first time back in 2010, and she loved it immediately. So much, in fact, that we returned in June 2011, this time with our friend Jess. What's the appeal of the desert? It's very difficult to put into words. As opposed to talking about the specifics -- scenery, wildlife, incredible landscapes, nice people, and so on -- I'll just say that there's a vibe that permeates Joshua Tree that allows one to relax and be at peace. Most people ask, "But what do you do there?" and there really is plenty to do, with one of the nation's great national parks right there and plenty of interesting things to see and experience. But moreover, in the desert, you can find yourself doing nothing at all, and still appreciating it. I tend to talk less in the desert; the silence is too pretty to be broken by unnecessary words.

If you don't find this beautiful, well... we can probably still be friends, but I doubt we have much in common.

Just looking at this photo makes me want to dive into the picture and start scrambling around the rocks.

Dawn and dusk in the desert brings out all manner of wildlife that you won't find in any other environment on the planet.

So Why Am I Telling You All This?
Because we're going back. And this time, we're kidnapping our friend Bunny to come along for the ride.

Kat has been through huge turmoil at work for the past few months. Bunny has his own difficulties with the day-in, day-out challenges of modern life. And me? Well, most of you Loyal Readers know that I'm a single dad and a business owner while also trying to be a rock star of sorts. I tend to push aside most of the stress in my life, but every so often, no matter who you are, you need to find the release valve for the pressure that builds inside you. I'm no different. So something is in order for each of us to break up the outlook of everyday life, and in my mind, there's no better place to do that than the desert.

We're once again going back to the Desert Lily Inn, our hidden jewel of a home away from home in Joshua Tree. Like last time, we've rented one of Carrie Yeager's cabins, Casa Rosita, to call home during our trip. Her bed & breakfast is lovely, but the seclusion of the cabin really allows one to get away from it all on a 24/7 basis. Kat has been urging me to book this trip for awhile, and despite the fact that we can have a great time with just the two of us getting away from it all, we decided (without informing him) that Bunny would really love it there and would be s fun addition to our little fellowship, so we're going to kidnap him and take him with us.

What Will We Do There?
Who cares? Really. We don't make huge plans on these trips. The last thing we want to do is have some trip where every single event is scheduled moment by moment. We'll cruise around the park... that huge, indescribably gorgeous collection of rock outcroppings, desert plants, and amazing wildlife. We'll probably make some music; if you can't be inspired to write music in Joshua Tree, you should probably hang up your instrument forever. Bunny and I will bring some guitars and some percussion stuff that we can use for writing tunes, doing jams, and all that good stuff. We'll eat some meals, both those which we cook and those we have in some funky desert restaurants.

But for the most part, we'll just... be. You can do that in the desert, perhaps better than anywhere else I've experienced. Try sitting for an hour, not really saying anything or even thinking anything, and not needing to or wanting to. It's not as easy as it sounds in most environments. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose one word that Joshua Tree represents to me (an unlikely scenario, but go with me on this), I think that word is this:


Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Bean Counter (05.12.12)

Ah, real life. I remember you, with your bright lights and crosswalks. Your PA systems and guitar cases and cables. It had been far too long since I performed in the flesh, so I scheduled a semi-random Saturday afternoon show at my local coffee place, The Bean Counter here in Redondo Beach, CA.

In one aspect, I could sit here and complain about the show. First, we were supposed to do a simulcast on Ustream, but time after time, the Ustream servers kept losing the connection. We stopped bothering with it after awhile. Second, even for a Saturday, the Bean Counter was unusually quiet that day, so we only had a small crowd there during the show. However, none of that matters. We all had fun, and it was actually a great way to dip my toe back in the pool of live in-person performances.

The set was completely random; I'd intended on putting together more of a specific set list well in advance of the show, but I decided instead to just grab my entire massive stack of lyrics, and make it an impromptu performance instead.

Set List for The Bean Counter...
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Beatles)
Losing My Religion (R.E.M.)
Jane (Barenaked Ladies)
For the Turnstiles (Neil Young)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
About a Girl (Nirvana)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Oh Susannah (Traditional, arr. Zak Claxton)
Here Comes the Sun (Beatles)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Tangled Up In Blue (Bob Dylan)

I ended up playing for over an hour and I'm really glad I did. I can pretty much guarantee you that I'll be doing some more live shows in the near future. Meanwhile, enjoy the video that Kat shot of me doing "Falling Down" at the Bean Counter below.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Molaskey's Pub (05.10.12)

While my first show back after my six-week illness hiatus was on April 26, and my second show was on April 29, both of those shows were special fundraising events, and both had me being tentative about my singing voice. Last night at Molaskey's Pub in Second Life was the first show back where a) it was a regular old Zak Show, and b) I felt confident enough to tackle more of my typical repertoire.

As is typical for any weeknight show at 6PM, it's not easy to scare up a crowd. But as usual at Molaskey's, by the time I was a couple of tunes in, we had a nice-sized audience of fun and cool people. I felt great; it had been way too long since I was able to do a performance that I was really happy with, and everything really came together well. Also, it had been way too long since I was able to do some of my own tunes in my higher singing register, so pulling out songs like "Broken Day" and "Perfect Girl" for the first time in a couple of months really made me appreciate being able to sing again.

I finally remembered to put on my SL harmonica that Kat bought for me. Getting even closer to reality. Photo by Kat.

Molaskey's is such a great place to put on a show, for performers and audiences alike. Photo by Kat.

Speaking of songs, I also did a couple of premieres: it was the first time ever that I did my arrangement of "Oh Susannah" live, and I followed it with a Zeppelin song that I'd never bothered even learning until a couple of nights ago.

Molaskey's Pub Set List...
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
*Oh Susannah (Traditional; arr, by Zak Claxton)
*Friends (Led Zeppelin)
Shine (Zak Claxton)
I Am A Child (Neil Young)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
You've Got To Hide your Love Away (Beatles)
The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
Perfect Girl (Zak Claxton)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Tribute (Tenacious D)

*Indicates my first-ever performance of this song in SL.

Massive thanks to all who came out to the show, especially those who helped support it!
Phobe Cazalet, Kat Claxton, Sesh Kamachi, Magnalov, Diana Renoir, Christine Haiku, TheaDee, Thinkerer Melville, Molaskey's terrific hostess team of Stace Silvercloud, Mia Kitchensink, and Cicadetta Stillwater, my manager Maali Beck, and Molaskey's owner Katydid Something!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Story Behind My "Oh Susannah"


Toward the end of April, while I was getting myself ready for my comeback to live music performance, I had wandered by Thrasher's Wheat, the de facto Neil Young fan site/blog, and saw something interesting. I knew that Neil had just recorded a new album with Crazy Horse to be released rather soon, and that the album was comprised of classic American songs (hence the title Americana). What I didn't know was that Neil had put together a contest for people to cover one of these tunes.

Now, I'm not a contest kind of guy. In fact, on an overall basis, I don't believe that music should ever be judged as a competition. But just for fun, I took a look at the list of eligible songs that could be covered. The choices were as follows: “Oh Susannah”, “Clementine”, “Tom Dula”, “Gallows Pole”, “Get A Job”, “Travel On”, “High Flyin’ Bird”, “Jesus’ Chariot”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Wayfarin‘ Stranger”, and “God Save The Queen”.

Obviously, there are a ton of true classics in there. In narrowing the list to one I thought I could do well, the problem was that there are so many great definitive versions of these tunes to the point that I felt it would be pointless to cover them again. Johnny Cash did an amazing “Wayfarin‘ Stranger”, while Zeppelin's “Gallows Pole” and the Kingston Trio's “Tom Dula” are both superb. There are many more examples I could cite, and it wasn't going to be worthwhile doing unless I could bring something new and cool to the party. I didn't have much interest in most of the other tunes, but then I thought about what could be done with a song as open, honest, and simple as "Oh Susannah". Hmm.


Old Song... New Direction
I knew that Neil, when performing the song as he's done occasionally, used an arrangement from 1963 that was originally done by a folk outfit called The Big Three (singer Cass Elliot, banjo player Tim Rose and guitarist Jim Hendricks). While it's a gritty and cool version, it wasn't the one that resonated strongly with me. I also knew that I didn't want to do an ultra-traditional rendition per the original 1847 music that Stephen Foster wrote.

I suppose the best way of describing what I did was to take Foster's words and melody (and basic harmonic structure in places), and add them to the type of music and overall vibe that I'd create for one of my own tunes. I don't know that this was a conscious decision; it just kind of happened that way. In fact, heh heh, the whole song just kind of happened. I really didn't plan much; just picked up the guitar and magic came rolling out. I don't know how it happens any more than anyone does.

I created a rough demo and shared it with a few friends. They supported the direction I was going, so I decided to go ahead and record the tune "for real". I mean, what the hell... why not? It was a good reason to get some recording done and give my friends/fans something new to listen to after 2-1/2 years since my last album came out.


How I Did It (For Recording Geeks and Others)
The one thing that I am unable to do well here at Frothy Studios (my home recording setup which is amateurish at best) is record live drums. The problem is not so much that drums are loud; I have cool neighbors. The difficulty is that I'm right on a fairly busy street, and the external noise of brakes squealing, engines revving, kids playing ball, and life in general makes it hard to get good, clean tracks with a bunch of open microphones on drums.

So, having no choice in the matter, the one thing I did non-organically was to program the drums using samples in Pro Tools. I do this in a way that some others don't; I am incredibly tedious with the placement of each drum hit and the velocity at which it's played. Over the previous weekend, I had jotted notes about the final arrangement, and over the next few days when I had spare moments, I'd work on those drum tracks, making sure that everything sounded as natural as a computer drummer could be.

The entire remainder of the recording was done on Saturday May 5. I woke up, showered, had coffee, and then got to it right away. Because I'd used sampled drums, I made sure to layer a good number of acoustic percussion over them to bring back a little of the organic vibe I desired. The basic recording setup for "Oh Susannah" had me using good-quality studio condenser mics into a Groove Tubes Brick tube mic preamp (which is sadly no longer made). From there, it went into my little Mackie mixer (bypassing those preamps), then into my ancient Mbox audio interface, and then into my MacBook Pro and Pro Tools software. Bass and electric guitars were recorded direct through the Brick. In case you really want to geek out audio engineer-style, here's a track list. Unless otherwise indicated, all individual sources were recorded in mono.

1. Drums -- stereo submix
2/3. Acoustic Guitar -- doubled and panned
4. Bass
5. Djembe (hand drum)
6. Tambourine
7. Egg Shaker percussion
8. Glockenspiel (bells)
9. Electric Guitar lead (w/leslie effect)
10. Slide guitar (w/delay effect)
11. Lead Vocal
12. Harmony Vocal
13. Backing Vocal 1
14. Backing Vocal 2
15. Backing Vocal 3
16. Backing Vocal 4

The acoustic guitar was my trusty Martin D-18V, the only high-end piece of gear I used other than the tube preamp. The bass was my Squire P-bass, while the electric guitar was my son's little Squier Strat. You'd be surprised what kind of sounds you can get from cheap guitars if you work at it a little.


How I Sound Like "Me"
My sound, if such a thing exists, is an amalgamation of all the musicians whose music I've loved over my lifetime. On this song, though it certainly wasn't intentional or pre-planned, I think it's pretty obvious that my years spent listening to the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Neil himself shine through rather clearly.

Oh Yeah... the Contest
Since the song was inspired by Neil's "Americana" cover contest and it came out pretty good, I went ahead and uploaded it as an entry. You can listen to it any time at the Talenthouse link for now. The actual voting for the contest starts June 5, so while I won't be doing a massive campaign about it, I do hope that some people like it enough to give it a vote. Who knows? Maybe I can win the thing and get some more people exposed to this and my other songs as well. After all, most songwriters only want one thing: to be heard. I'm very appreciative of the folks who have already listened and given me their feedback. It was fun to work on and the result is cool, which is really all I wanted from it. Anything else is just gravy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Zak Comes Back: My Short Film About Me

What do they tell you in school? "Write what you know."

Well, I know me, probably too well for my own good. That's why I decided to document the time period during which my singing voice was recovering from pneumonia by making a short film about the process. As I mentioned earlier, I started out making what was going to be a video blog, but then remembered that I hate video blogs. So it turned into a little film project. It's not going to win any awards, but it does have some fun moments with my friend Bunny, some whiny introspection about my voice not being where I want it to be at that moment, and a triumphantly happy ending. It also has snippets of a bunch of my songs, so if you like that kind of thing, it's all there.

Give it a watch below, or in HD on YouTube. Enjoy, hopefully.