07 May 2008

the Adam Schmitt sessions

Fall, 1997, Urbana IL, the Indians-Marlins World Series underway, Adam Schmitt recorded us in his basement over three nights. We did 63 takes on a 1/2" Tascam 38 8-track deck. These were full "days" but often recording didn't begin until late in the afternoon and went on until 3 or 4 am. We used two different mic'ing strategies, so each song was recorded at least twice, some thrice.

At the time I was pretty worked up over how terrible records were beginning to sound. Between the increasingly widespread practice of 'peak level mastering' and the advent of digital recording, I vowed to engage in neither. I did not want our next album to sound 'big' - but I also didn't want to go as lo-fi as our initial 1995 sessions (the "Scissors Suite" was recorded on 8-track cassette with our first St. Louis drummer - and lead vocalist on one song - Ann Hirschfeld). Steve and Patrick were both originally from Champaign-Urbana and had known Adam for years and suggested we lay down our jams at his joint. He'd started recording very young and had even done some creative multi-tracking as a kid, bouncing back and forth between cassette decks, the mad scientist type. If there was ever a guy who could get the maximum results from minimal equipment, it's Adam. He has amazing hearing and stamina too. So off we went and Adam was all that and more. Although he's very much a pop guy, he understood what we were after (everybody playing in the same room, good aggressive tone, no gated snares, etc) and he delivered. When I mixed all the various recordings last year, Adam's were not only the easiest to mix (and not just because there were fewer tracks), but the band really jumped out of the speakers at us. Although the dynamic range is not as wide as on our later, 2" 24-track recordings, he got more out of that Tascam 38, Mackie board and a few inexpensive mics than anyone would think humanly possible. Even our engineer at Electrical, Rob Vester, was super impressed with these recordings. About a third of the album comes from these sessions, with a few of the songs being almost completely live, even vocals and some guitar solos: The Cut-Out Bin (first 2/3rds, drum fill and final chorus were recorded elsewhere nearly 10 years later), I Will Comment, Fuck Your Self-Esteem, Dream Along, The Understudy, It Was a Very Good Year, Favorite Hospital, and some of the middle freakout in Fake Your Own Death were all recorded by Adam.

So the why so long part. Despite being at the top of our game and having genial recording conditions, for many years I thought of these sessions as a near-total loss. I came home with four 60 minute cassettes of all the rough mixes and set out to determine which takes to finish. They generally sounded good, but we had been woodshedding the songs so intensely that I got lost in the details (do you see a theme here?) - I obsessed over tempi, feel and accents and was always able to find an unwanted flaw in everything we did. It's not that a perfect performance was sought, but for it to be perfectly broken. I always want the music to hurt a little bit. Though I didn't know it at the time, we did achieve all that in spades. But even moreso, it was apparent that some of the songs were not ready, regardless of performance, especially the early versions of Year of the Donk and what we called Nowhere Near at that time (and is on DM as A Very Good Year). We'd gone through at least a dozen different arrangements of each, if not more, with new parts added, old ones taken away, ad nauseam. I changed them every week for at least a year, then changed them some more, a few times, several years later. The more I listened to the roughs, the worse it sounded to me, but I did settle on five songs that I thought were pretty good even though I thought at least two of them were "B-sides at best" but well-performed and we did a few overdubs on those a year later. If you'd asked me at the time how the album was coming I would've said, "we've got some stuff recorded, but most of it didn't come out well. We maybe have a short EP."

As time went on, I felt worse and worse about the recordings. After putting the band through hell for a couple years with the endless revisions, I didn't have the heart to put any of us through more of the same and our activity level began to really drop off. And after a while it starts to seem like there's no point to doing any of it. Why play out? We hadn't had an album in a few years, no prospects of finishing one, and to top it off it was really starting to seem like underground interest in rock music was hitting an all-time low. Grunge had been rechristened Stoner Rock and sent off to its own little ghetto while post-rock and pop twaddle ruled the day. Why finish the album? It'd probably just get slagged for being too rock and having guitar solos on it. I had a new baby, a wife, and nowhere near enough money. There were very, very few current bands I liked, so I lost myself in jazz and early 70s hard rock lacunae (Morgen, Dust, Buffalo, Bang, etc) and was much happier for it.

There are very few songs on Dirty Moons with a standard verse/chorus structure. When we made The Roaring Third the idea had been all killer, no filler, big hooks, big choruses, big rock, work the archetypes, etc. That was a good thing and many people connected deeply enough with it to ask about a new album for years afterwards (and without that encouragement from you all we might not have been inspired to finish this one, so cheers), but afterwards I was ready for something different, initially that was to create big contrasts within the songs themselves, but much of the writing was very intuitive and as a result rather hit or miss. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but I knew it wasn't just "catchy songs" (in fact I purposely avoided those to some degree, for DM: expression > hooks) so whenever I picked up the guitar and something struck me I ran with it without much thought. (another duality to smash: cerebral content vs. instinct) Listening back to our roughs, four hours of them, made it pretty clear that this was not the best m.o. - and maybe I just didn't know how to write the kinds of songs I wanted. Truth is, I didn't, most of the time anyway. Now I do, but I needed some time to get there.

So for several years I would not listen to these recordings, it just made me depressed. But then one day I decided to transfer some of the better songs to my computer and I was shocked by how amazingly great some of the tracks were. Time is a beautiful thing. I changed my mind about the five "good" songs, ditched two of them, and added a bunch more. Today I am beyond proud of these particular recordings, they are definitely a peak for us in terms of intensity and you-are-there live sound. But don't think that there are hours of great tracks lost, I'd still say at least half the recordings aren't worth hearing. At some point I plan to finish the best outtakes and release an LP's worth of them, though probably half would be different versions (often radically so) of songs that are on Dirty Moons. There are only a few "lost" songs, but there are a good number of "different" ones.

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