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Working with a Real Pro

The Bear Jew

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OK, I'll try to give you the Cliff Notes version...


Back in the mid-'90s, I edited a relatively low-profile music magazine. During my time there, I made friends with artists in the industry who also wound up writing for the magazine as a favor to me. I've lost touch with some of them, but I speak to a few on almost a daily basis.


One of them is an indie rock guy who enjoyed a minor level of recognition in the later '90s for his work with a bigger artist. In fact, some current critics think the recent craze of oddball instrumentation in indie rock (ukelele, toy pianos, etc) can be linked directly back to those collaborations.


Anyway, he's a really nice, talented guy who lives in NYC, and, during a recent conversation, he told me about a track he planned to record for a vinyl-only release on a small label--a reboot of one of his older songs. He just wants something to release before he tours Europe in December.


The original version of the song was sort of gospel/country, with layered vocals, strings and harmonized acoustic guitars. Very pretty music... which sort of served as a counterpoint to some very biting lyrics about the hipster lifestyle in Brooklyn.


He wanted to bury that version of the song with a new one--an uglier version in a new key with a different feel.


Weirdest part? He wanted me to play something on it... bass or guitar, whichever I felt like playing.


While I'm not easily intimidated by music challenges from indie rock people, I really respect this guy, and I didn't want to screw up his song or waste his time. So I said I'd play on it. Because what's life without a little challenge?


Normally, when it comes to something like this, I'd almost always choose to play bass because I tend to feel pretty confident that I can make a good bass line for the average indie rock song. It's not exactly the most difficult thing in the world, you know? I can get up under most chord progressions without much difficulty.


He sent me a bare-bones version of the song as an mp3, and I put in some time inventing a bass line. It sounded good. I even had a little double-stop chord moment in a relative-minor scale in there... something that made me a little proud because it harmonized with the vocals without being too obvious.


So, of course, after I'd put in the time with my bass, my friend informed me that he was able to get a kind-of-famous guy to play bass on the song, so... could I switch over and play guitar instead? Um. Sure. Write a guitar part for the song in a day... when I hadn't even thought about a guitar part? Sure. Why not? Who doesn't love another challenge?


This made me a little nervous. My instincts on guitar are more blues-based and aggro. Toning things down and playing soulfully (but not bluesy) is foreign territory for me. Plus, he wanted "ugly." I know what "ugly" means to me, but I had to sort of guess what that meant to him.


I sat down with the song for about two hours, and I came up with about six different approaches to offer as options. One was kind of Curtis Mayfield-like, with little flourishes around the chords. I kind of intuited that he wouldn't want that, but I had it in my pocket in case he wanted to hear it. I had another that ran octaves throughout the verses as a counterpoint to the vocals. I felt like that was also not quite what he'd want, but I had it in hand... just in case. I had another version that reminded me of Brian May--high-voiced chords with more muscle for the chorus. It sounded kind of "arena" to me, but it did fit... I had a few other ideas, but the one I thought he'd like best was this sort of forlorn, chimey thing and a few "invented" chords--ones I didn't know how to name, but sounded good to my ear.


I figured I was ready.


I drove into NYC from Philly on a Sunday morning. The plan was to meet for brunch in the Lower East Side and then hit the studio in the early afternoon. I brought my trusty Tele Esquire (an early, one-pick-up version of the Telecaster) and an old Rat pedal. Traffic was what you might expect--minimal on the turnpike and kind of ridiculous at the tunnel.


Now, I am a pretty urban dude, and I've been around a bit, but NYC always kind of takes me out a little. It's just kind of awesome--big, dirty, cramped, open, free, pushy, friendly/unfriendly. There's no place like it.


I wrangled my way down to the East Village and managed to park. I only had to circle the block once. I met my friend for a really excellent Polish brunch. Salmon Eggs Benedict over a latka. Wow. That was good. Really. We caught up and had a nice conversation.


We hopped into a cab and rolled to the studio, which was in a sixth-floor walk-up... on the sixth floor. Ugh. I can't picture moving into that place with a bed... or anything big. The studio wasn't huge, but it was nice enough--drum/live room, control room, lounge, bathroom. They had a Mac set-up with Pro-Tools. Pretty standard.


Out with the guitar, tune up. They had a nice little Ampeg Super-Jet amp in the live room for me, and the cables were already laid out so I could sit in the control room and play. A little Rat, a little amp tremelo...I was ready to go. They cued up the track and opened up a channel for me.


I immediately started playing the forlorn guitar part over the track. My friend looked at me and said, "Yes! Perfect. That's it. Exactly what I was thinking."


He then named the chord I was playing (I have since forgotten the name) after only hearing me play it once and told me I must have thought I was clever to sneak in that suspended/extended/demented (whatever it was) chord over that progression. I couldn't even lie or act like I did it on purpose. I said, "Actually, I had no idea what I was doing--I just landed on it and thought it sounded like the kind of thing you'd want to hear in there."


We had a laugh over that, but I also recognized that this guy has ears for years. He knew exactly what I was doing without looking at me or having heard the part before. Every single part.


After I did the "forlorn, tinkly, chimey" part, he asked if I had any other ideas. I showed him my "Curtis Mayfield" for a laugh. He did laugh, but he told me he didn't want that at all. I started to show him my other idea with the counterpoint octaves, but I started playing the part as single notes just to make sure I had the part right. He heard it and said, "Yes! A cello part! With that gorgeous vibrato. Start on the 5th... drag it out... lazy... but don't you dare land on the root before the vocals start... that's just too obvious..."


It's almost scary to work with someone who can hear the parts so clearly and so quickly. He heard another part, too, and he sang it to me. Perfect pitch. Bastard. I mean he just landed right in the correct spot with zero difficulty. So the octave guitar part wound up sounding a bit like a Beatles cello part.


He then asked me to bash out some big chords toward the end of the song... that was easy for me. Pure Nirvana stuff... except it's probably going to lay wayyyyy in the back of the final mix. We wrapped the session, and he was really, really appreciative of my work, saying he wants me on some more stuff when he's ready. I figure I could only learn from the experience, so of course I told him I was down for whatever. Hugs and goodbye.


The drive home was pretty uneventful, but I must admit that I always think I'm going to be stuck in NYC forever before the traffic lets me into the tunnel again.


The next day, he hit me up via e-mail to thank me for my work and outlined his plan for the rest of the song...


There will apparently be some "Lighter Shade of Pale"-style organ, the aforementioned bass part (can't wait to see if that guy does anything like what I considered), a pedal-steel guitar and some kind of horn part... and a three-part harmony vocal line. Pretty full mix, I think. Can't wait to hear it.



"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

--Sun Tzu

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This cool... thanks for sharing. Breakfast sounds gross, the rest is something i wish I was ready for.... don't think I'll get there. I think it is cool that he called and then liked what you did. Proud to know you sir....
"When I take a stroll down Jackass Lane it is usually to see someone that is already there" Mrs. Brown
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+1, your stories are always enjoyable to read, most of them make me grin knowingly or laugh out loud at the outrageous parts.

"Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.'-Hamlet


Guitar solos last 30 seconds, the bass line lasts for the whole song.



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OF course, we will expect to hear it as soon as is practicable. I have 2 questions;


1. Is the guy with the ears the same guy who produced the Copperhead DM recordings, Mr. Time?


2. Was this done as a favor between friends, or will there be a little remuneration involved in your continued participation?

Always remember that you are unique. Just like everyone else.





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He should at least pay you for your travel expenses.....


But it's cool to work with people who have "ears for years" and actual concepts (what a concept!!) to work around.


It IS interesting how, with modern recording technology, you can go in after the fact and add and subtract anything.


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Hey guys... Sorry, I was away from computerland for a few days.


I can expand on this story a little.


First off, I would never, ever try to put myself out there as some kind of "hired gun," session guy. I'm really not that skilled. I've been playing a while, and I can fake most stuff decently, but I am certainly not knowledgeable enough to walk into a studio and read charts or anything like that. I'm really only kind of good at doing my own thing, and I'm sure my bandmates might quibble with that claim from time to time, too.


So I'm probably not going to get calls to play for commercial jingles anytime soon, and that's for the best. I have enough to do as it stands.


Ross, breakfast was really pretty yummy. My description didn't do it justice. It was a poached egg on top of a potato latke with a slice of smoked salmon. I'm telling you, I think you might have enjoyed it.


As for the "not being ready for it" part--you never know what you could do until you take a shot. Admittedly, I do have a bit of experience as a songwriter, and I am also pretty familiar with the recording process. And I had time to mess with the song in advance... and I know the genre (somewhat), so I guess I am probably more prepared than you are for this kind of assignment right now.


But, then again, so are about a zillion other people in the Lower East Side alone. I just happen to be friends with the artist, and he already had a good idea of what I might be able to do with the track before he asked me to contribute. And, out of respect for my friend and the studio time, I made sure I had a few different part concepts ready to go before I left the house that morning. I think you could have done it, too... at least the bass part, anyway. I don't think you play guitar, right?


There will be no book. I get enough rejection in my daily life without getting involved in the book publishing industry. I don't even really enjoy writing very much. I just talk a lot, and my writing is basically the closed-captioned version of me speaking... Anyone who has met me will tell you I talk too much. I'd say I'm working on it, but that's not true.


Picker, this guy is unrelated to Mr. Time. My friend in this story is in the indie rock world of smaller labels and the like, and he is more known as an artist than a producer, although he has produced some stuff Mr. Time is more known for bigger stuff and is primarily known for producing.


Although I looked at this as primarily a favor between friends, I was paid for my work, including travel and time. And breakfast was also part of the deal. But I must admit that I told him that I owe him a meal when he comes to Philly. Because I'm that kind of dude.


Having said this much, if he gets this song into a movie or on a TV show soundtrack, I don't think I'll get a check.


As an additional humorous development, I think I mentioned that he's headed to Europe in December for a shortish tour of about 30 days. He's flying to Madrid to meet his "pick-up" band at the end of November and then starting the tour after a few rehearsal days. I told him this made me a little jealous (who wouldn't be, right?), and he said, "Well, I'm supposed to go back in the summer. Why don't you come along and play guitar for a month?" I'm kind of intrigued by the offer...




"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

--Sun Tzu

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