The 2x, 2x, 1/2 rule: or, the making of The band known as Sea Water Bliss
July 20 2006. Okay, so in October 2004 Andrew, Olin, and I went into Darcy Beck's studio to record a five-song demo. Acoustic guitars and bass, no percussion. The songs turned out pretty well. Nevertheless, immediately upon hearing them Olin fled Saskatoon and spent the next year working as a surveyor in the southern United States.
A few months later, Andrew & I went back into Darcy's studio to record another acoustic demo as a Christmas gift for my father. This CD included The band known as Sea Water Bliss and The growl hole, both based on stories my dad came up with when I was a kid. These demos turned out pretty well, too. We realised we were getting close to having enough songs to release together as an album.
Now, at this time our drummer Dean was living in Calgary, a seven-hour drive away, with his Scottish girlfriend Anne. But they were already getting sick of all that sunshine and oil wealth, and making plans to return to the perpetual gloom of Scotland. We figured before he left Dean should get in on all this recordin' action, so we cajoled him into driving out to Saskatoon and laying down some drum tracks. We figured we'd just get him to drum along to the demos that Andrew & Olin & I had already recorded.
This was our first mistake.
Three-quarters of the band known as Sea Water Bliss outside Tim Horton's in midwinter. [Photo by Darcy Beck]
We probably should've just said, "Hey, these demos turned out pretty well. Now let's record a real album." Instead, we tried to add percussion and other instrumentation to the demos, which had been recorded on the fly and with scant attention paid to little matters like keeping a consistent tempo. Dean, after much frustration, was able to lay down fairly satisfactory drumbeats to the seven songs, and for good measure before he left we recorded a few more. Then Dean got on a plane and, like many a sentimental and artistic-minded young man before him, fled the New World for the Old.
So now it was early 2005 and Andrew and I were left alone in Saskatoon with Darcy and his hard drive full of half-finished songs. And slowly, ever so slowly, with much wasted effort and the barest discernible forward motion, we crept toward completion of our album.
Now, the great thing about the modern recording process is that, if you're willing to put enough time into editing & mixing, you hardly need to put any time into recording at all. In my experience, the ratio of computer trickery to actual musical performance is something like 10:1. For example, while we were working on the song My evil child, Darcy expressed dissatisfaction with Dean's kick drum sound. He thought some of the kicks sounded sorta wimpy. Now, if Dean had actually been present in Saskatoon we might have dragged him back into the recording booth and told him to do it again and kick that kick drum like a man. But Dean was already in Scotland, so we had little choice but to let Darcy work his magic, which involved digitally substituting every kick drum beat in My evil child with a meatier kick sound he'd borrowed from elsewhere in the song. I joked that we really only needed Dean in the studio long enough to hit each drum once, and the rest of his performance could be pieced together on the computer.
But it's a time-consuming and expensive process, using a computer to polish demo-quality recordings up to the approximate shininess of a full-length no-shittin'-you-this-is-for-real album. Andrew and I were consistently disappointed by the slowness of our progress. Eventually I came up with a maxim that I'd recite before each day's mixing session, to lower our expectations. And here it is, for the benefit of other young musicians who are going into the studio for the first time:
Everything costs twice as much, takes twice as long, and sounds half as good as you expect.
But in the end, the songs come together, and they all sound reasonably good. Of course, you'll always wonder, if we'd spent another couple days in the studio, would it have sounded that much better? Could we have smoothed out the jagged rhythms, sharpened up the flat vocals, trimmed the shapeless guitar solos? How much more time could we have spent, and how much better would it have sounded? Ultimately, you never really know. Unlike the painter who lifts his brush from the canvas with a conviction that the painting is finished, you walk away from the studio only because you're out of time, or out of money, or out of patience. And you hope that, as you listen to the album over the following months and years, all the glaring flaws that mar the recordings will recede to the background, and the essential quality of the songs will shine out. That's what you hope.
Anyhow, our mistake was that we recorded the original tracks in a rush and with little consideration for how they were eventually to be used. But we've learned from the experience. In early 2006 I went into the studio again and in just eight hours I recorded an entire song for my dad's 60th birthday, Half my age. It went remarkably smoothly.
So when we get around to recording our second album - if we ever do - it will cost half as much, take half as long, and sound twice as good. Right?
This was one of the original five demos we recorded when Olin was still in town. Olin did the guitar solo. Dean added drums later, and also banjo.
Andrew and I were always arguing with Darcy to bring the chorus of "ba-ba-ba"s up in the mix. "You don't understand," we'd explain, "we want it to sound like a roomful of off-key muppets." Olin did the guitar solo, which is awesome. He also contributed the line, "Bok choy, you've come just in time." Barb squeezed her baby Dylan into the microphone until he produced the crying sound that leads into the final chorus.
Barb's baby gets the squeeze as Michael looks on, cackling. [Photo by Darcy Beck]
Another chorus of off-key muppets, another pretty terrific guitar solo by Olin.
This is one of the ones we recorded with Dean after Olin had left. Probably the oldest song in the Sea Water Bliss songbook. It dates back to Season Two of Xena, Warrior Princess, to be precise. It was inspired by the episode where Gabrielle has to kill her demon-fathered child to protect the world from its evil. Of course, this being Xena, the demon-child came back to life a few episodes later. Still, it was pretty affecting.
Customarily we perform this song with just acoustic guitars, but somehow it sounded a little weak when we listened to the rough mix. So I added some ham-fisted piano chords. Here and there you can hear my fingers slipping off the keys. I also did the electric guitar solo, which turned out pretty well, if I may say so.
The band known as Sea Water Bliss
The full-length album version starts out with a forty-second intro that features lines from classic Canadian nautical disaster songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, and the Rheostatics. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge is in there too.) The idea is that we're wandering through a harbourfront tavern where all the Ancient Mariners hang out, endlessly reciting their tales of woe. Finally we reach the end of the bar, where our own Ancient Mariner is telling his tale: "I know it's only a drop in the sea..."
This song started out as a demo I recorded as a gift for my dad, the title having been lifted from a poem he wrote when I was a kid. I wanted the song to have a mournful trumpet solo, but we had to kibosh that idea when the only trumpeter we could find wanted us to pay her. Pay her! The nerve! Instead I plucked out a solo on a rented mandolin.
The Spanish-language verses in the intro were grammar-checked by our Chilean-born friend Elmo Basoalto. ¡Gracias, Elmo!
Another demo I recorded for my dad. Andrew contributed the growls, which we pitch-shifted down an octave or so, to make them even sillier.
Jesus loves you (Jesus hates me)
This is another one of the demos we did with Olin. There's a point midway through the first verse where the tempo abruptly speeds up. Dean was cursing us as he tried to synchronise a drumbeat. Dean also added banjo. The guitar solo is mine. Andrew is the one saying "Tell me, Jesus!"
Darcy liked to refer to this song as "Throw up and die". Damn, I wish I'd thought of that title on my own. We brought a bunch of our friends into the studio to sing the "ba-ba-ba"s at the end. The girls' voices made for a nice change; I wish we'd used them elsewhere on the record. Particular thanks to Jenn, Kate, and Melissa, and also to Warren, Kurt, Satyam, Steve, and Jay.
The ice age
Lots of electric guitars, all played by me. The "wind" effect was created by stepping on a wah-wah pedal plugged into a distortion pedal with the volume maxed. A technique I learned from Olin, who devised it for our windy rock opera 404.
PS, there's a video for this song now.
This was supposed to be our arena-rocking tribute to Poison, but my power chord riffing was a little too sloppy, so we ended up sounding more like a bunch of stoned teenagers in a garage. Andrew and I left a nice long space for a guitar solo at the end, hoping we could convince Olin to come in and fill it with spirited wailing, but he was unavailable, so I was forced to clumsily wank my way through it. The clapping, chanting, and wolf-howling are courtesy of the same group of friends credited above. Jenn did the "woo-hoo", Steve did the "alriiight!", Warren contributed the ululation, and Kate did the "yee-haw!"
I'd kinda like to record this song again someday. I think we could put together a pretty excellent album of rock songs...if we could only find a drummer who was willing to stick around...
You're not the one
Another one we recorded with Olin, who did the guitar solo. The delicately plucked mandolin is courtesy of yours truly. Another song with a varying tempo, so don't set your clock to it. The opening is gorgeous, but I think the song kinda wears out its welcome. When Olin and I played an early version of our album for Doctor Dirty in his home recording studio outside Buffalo, the only comment he had was that this song was too long. "Obviously, you've got some issues with this bitch," he said, "but do you really need to go on about her for six minutes?" Of course, most of Doctor Dirty's songs are about thirty seconds long, so his estimation of an audience's attention span is a little less generous than ours. Still, he may have had a point. (For the record, the "bitch" in question is entirely fictitious.)
Andrew and Michael in the studio, 2005. [Photo by Darcy Beck]
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