Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 1
I released Western Blot's debut album Muscle Memory in November, so here are some notes on the recording process, song by song.
Track 1: ETC
There are a couple of stupid jokes embedded in the first song on Muscle Memory. One is that "ETC" is an acronym for the lyric "entirely too comfortable" and not the abbreviation for "et cetera," And of course "etc." would be a counterintuitive phrase to put at the beginning of something (and I'd never make a song with that title because there's no topping R. Kelly's "Etcetera").
There's also some semi-intentional bitter irony in opening the album with the lyric "patience is a virtue, well lately I don't know about that" because of just how long this record took to put together and release. It was always a strong candidate for the first track on the album, and as the years dragged on, it seemed right to open the record with a song about procrastination and missed opportunities. The recording of Muscle Memory spanned pretty much my entire twenties -- there's a bit on the album I recorded at 19, and we finished it up a bit after I turned 30. But it wasn't an epic Chinese Democracy effort of hundreds of hours of recording, there was a lot of just accumulating ideas here and there, letting them sit for a couple years, then coming back to them until they became real songs.
I've been intent on making music since I was 10 or 11 years old, when my mom's house got MTV and I went crazy for Guns 'N Roses and Pearl Jam, started playing percussion in school band, and filling notebooks with "lyrics" (I didn't have music to go with the words, but I was always writing words for "songs" with verses and choruses, never thought of it as poetry, and of course for many years most of it was hilariously bad). I got my first drum kit at 13 (and the kick drum from that set is what I still use today and played throughout Muscle Memory), and soon started playing in bands with my brother and friends. But we mostly just jammed or learned covers, and I learned that it's hard to really write songs from behind a drum set. I once threw my "lyric" notebook open for my bandmates to try and use but nothing ever really came of it.
I loved drumming and didn't particularly want to learn guitar, so in my teens I started to think that what I really needed was a keyboard. I'd start to love what a lot of new wave and classic rock bands had done with synths in the '70s and also some of the contemporary indie and punk bands were starting to use synths more at the time in the '90s, so for Christmas one year in high school I asked for a keyboard and my mom got me a Casio. And, like the kick drum I got at 13, that Casio is still what I use all the time and play all over Muscle Memory.
I got a Tascam 4-track in college and started to just record a lot of little keyboard ideas and just let them pile up. "ETC" was one of the first things I came up with where I had 2 different parts that I realized would fit together as a verse and a chorus. Around the same time, I wrote a draft of the chorus lyrics in one of my Towson University notebooks, but it would be years before I thought to put those words to that music. For a long time I just kept recording instrumental demos and writing lyrics but not really putting together music and lyrics successfully or recording my voice at all, I knew I wanted to write songs with lyrics but didn't particularly want to sing.
Around that time I befriended Mat Schulman (now Mat Leffler-Schulman), who was a few years older than me and finished college around the time I started college. We loved a lot of the same bands and went to shows together, he had a fan website for Soul Coughing and we went and saw them before they broke up, and he was a Prince fanatic who turned me onto a lot of Prince stuff I'd never heard before. Like me, Mat was a drummer who played in guitar bands but also dabbled in synths, and he made 3 albums under the name Mons full of weird spacey Brian Eno/Trans Am experiments with synths and drum machines. So I was really inspired by that and would make Mat tapes of my demos and made plans with him to record my stuff with him.
So around the time I was finishing college and playing drums in a weird metal band called Zuul, every few weekends I'd put my drums and my keyboard in my car and go down to Takoma Park and record with Mat at Olympus Mons Studio, which was in his basement. We recorded instrumental tracks for about a dozen songs, some were just just drums or drums and a single synth line, some were pretty complete arrangements. And then Mat moved into a new house with his wife Emily, and so we made a CD of rough mixes of those tracks before he packed up the studio
After we mixed down those Takoma Park demos, Mat ended up not setting his studio back up in the next house he moved into, and we didn't work on music again for a few years. I focused on writing about music and my freelancing career started to take off, so that took up a lot of the time I used to spend on making music. And then, Mat and his wife Emily decided to move to Baltimore and start a studio in Charles Village, and Mobtown Studios was born. I helped them paint some of the rooms, helped out with PR and various Mobtown projects and was really excited for them to get involved in the Baltimore scene and for Mat to realize one of his longtime ambitions. And eventually, after Mat got settled in at the studio and made it a viable business, he invited me to finish my record at a real studio.
We kept some of the Takoma Park recordings and kept adding to them for the final Muscle Memory tracks, but "ETC" was one song where we basically scrapped the entire Takoma Park version and started over. The original was pretty much the same without the intro and with minor differences in the outro, but it was a few clicks slower, mostly because I was really married to this syncopated bassline that wouldn't have worked at a higher tempo, and wound up with something that really sounded kind of slack and subdued compared to some of the other songs. I have a habit of trying to make songs as fast as they can be without them being so fast they feel rushed or fall apart, and one of the few times I didn't do that, it didn't work out, so louder and faster was generally the guiding principle for this project.
So at Mobtown we started it from scratch, and I kind of had a eureka moment with the drums and came up with the snare fills on the chorus that give it this cool push and pull to the rhythm, and figured out a new bassline that worked well with the faster tempo. And it was one of the songs where Mat let me run the Casio through an amp and then mic'd the amp for the bassline to give it a nice dirty sound. My goal with the record was to really make a bombastic guitar rock album with no guitars, which meant always figuring out how to use distortion and mixing to give synthesizers the same kind of noisy attack that you get very easily with electric guitars, and Mat was really instrumental in making that a reality. I remember one day he put some filters on the synths in "ETC," which are most or all just my cheap Casio, and suddenly everything just popped so much more than it did the day I recorded it.
Mat listens to more instrumental music than I do, so I don't know if he ever really cared if I added vocals to the songs, but it was always my ultimate goal, and I write so much about rap that he kinda wondered if I was gonna put MCs on the song, but I always wanted it to be a rock record with sung vocals. And since I had very little ability or inclination to sing on the record myself, I settled on the idea to kind of make it a patchwork of different voices, and started thinking about local people from Baltimore bands that I might be able to ask.
I was working on a story about the short-lived Baltimore venue Lo-Fi Social Club once when I stopped by and one of the bands that was playing that night was called Vinny Vegas. And I was immediately struck by how great their singer's voice was, because even if you see a lot of awesome bands in tiny clubs, vocals are really their strong suit, so that always stands out. And I picked up an EP they had at the show. So when I was thinking of singers for the record, they came to mind, and I looked up their singer, Scott Siskind, and sent him an e-mail. "ETC" was really one of the easier songs on the album for me to sing and I could've used my own voice on it, but I knew it could be better with someone else on it (at one point we tried Andy Shankman on the song but didn't finish recording him, but he's sung it live many times now and sounds a lot more comfortable with it now than he did in the studio that day).
We recorded both of Scott's appearances on the album in the same night, and "Child Of Divorce" was kind of the delicate challenging one that we had to figure out first before moving on to the somewhat easier "ETC." I didn't write anything in the way of harmonies, but he ended up coming up with a great little backing harmony to add to the bridge. It's an odd song, vocally -- the first verse and the second verse each have a completely different meter and rhyme scheme, and the pre-chorus is an odd number of measures -- but Scott is so good and just nailed it.
The keyboard intro was one of the last things I recorded for the album. For a long time the song just started just hammering down on that one piano chord, kind of in homage to the beginning of the first Ben Folds Five record but also to the way a lot of old Neptunes productions would open with the first note of the song repeating 4 times. But as "ETC" became the clear candidate for the first song on the album, I felt like it needed something else at the beginning, so I took three bars from the pre-chorus melody and turned into an intro, kind of thinking of the way Bruce Springsteen's "10th Avenue Freeze-Out" opens with the horn riff from the bridge, and the way the E Street Band will stretch out and repeat that intro in concert, which I've been trying to do more and more with the "ETC" intro when we play it live.