Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 2
In November, I released Western Blot's debut album Muscle Memory on BandCamp and SoundCloud. I'm happy to say that it's now also on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Tidal, and YouTube, among other places where music is streamed and sold. I already wrote a bit about track 1, here are some further notes about the second song on the album.
Track 2: Button Masher
I've noticed a bit of a pattern in popular music history, that often the lead singles or early releases from an album are in fact the last song that was written for the album, whether it's because of mounting pressure to deliver a 'hit' or simply the artist being on a roll and making a crucial final addition to the project. And that is to some extent true of "Button Masher," which was the 'A side' of Western Blot's first 2 song single in 2012, and was the last song on Muscle Memory that I started writing.
As I mentioned previously, Mat Leffler-Schulman and I began recording my songs in his basement studio in Takoma Park, Maryland. And before he moved out of that house, we mixed down rough mixes for 12 instrumentals -- 8 of them eventually became songs on the album (the other 4 were underdeveloped ideas I put on the backburner and may come back to someday), and the 9th song on Muscle Memory that wasn't in that batch in any form was "Button Masher."
In the years between the Takoma Park sessions and the Mobtown Studios sessions, I wasn't playing in any bands (the metal band I drummed for, Zuul, broke up a few months before we finished recording in Takoma Park). My drums were sitting in my dad's house collecting dust, and I wasn't making many demos. I knew I would go back to those tapes eventually and make an album, but I wanted to do it with Mat, so I was waiting for him to be ready. And that was around the time that my writing career was picking up steam, so that took up a lot of my spare time that I'd once spent working on music.
I often get hit with inspiration for lyrics and have to run somewhere to jot them down, while musical ideas and melodies usually come from concentrated time at an instrument. I think of tunes all the time, but as I'm not any kind of real trained pianist, attempts to actually peck out a tune in my head on a keyboard usually end in failure as I start clouding the sound in my head with other notes until I kind of lose the thread. But the "Button Masher" melody was something I knew I needed to remember as soon as I thought of it, in my old apartment on the corner of Pratt and Washington in Baltimore. I ran into the back room and got my Casio and my old tape recorder and made sure I saved the idea before I forgot it. I played it slower, thinking of it as some kind of sad country song kind of thing. I had a lyric in my head that the melody came out of, but I often google lyric ideas to see if anyone already did something similar, and in this case they had. So I ditched the lyric and kept the melody.
When Mat and I revisited the project at Mobtown Studios a couple years after that, we mostly worked on those 8 songs I'd already started. But after doing a lot of work on those, some of which had grown into these proggy 4-7 minute monstrosities, I decided to break out that melody, play it as fast as possible, and knock out a punky 2-and-a-half minute song, the shortest track on the album. So I used that melody at the chorus, worked out a simple riff for the verses, and laid down a drum track featuring a variation on a fill I loved from one of Zuul's songs that we never recorded.
As with Scott from Vinny Vegas, Kathleen Wilson was a singer I'd seen around town performing with her band Thee Lexington Arrows, just a killer meat and potatoes punk band with bits of blues and surf rock and doo wop thrown in. They're great, they have a few albums and have been playing together for over a decade now, check them out. And I already had a bit of a connection to the band, since Alex Fine is an accomplished illustrator whose work had accompanied several of my Baltimore City Paper articles (including the very popular Baltimore Hip Hop Trading Cards). I reached out to the band and contacted Kathleen, and we got together once and listened to instrumental mixes and talked about the project.
From the point that I conceived of the idea of having several different vocalists on the album, I wanted to have a mix of men and women. But I also was kind of wary of the indie rock cliche of having female guest singers do the slow, pretty songs or accessible pop songs, so I kinda thought it'd be cool to stay away from that by doing a fast, aggressive song with Kathleen on vocals (I didn't ask her to sing on her other song, "Dull Dark Side," until a few months later). And really, "Button Masher" ended up having a really wordy, quickly delivered lyric, so it helped to have someone from a band like Thee Lexington Arrows that plays a lot of fast songs.
"Button Masher" is a very autobiographical lyric. I remember being in kindergarten and not enjoying drawing and getting teased by other kids for "scribble scrabbling," my parents got me multiple bikes that I never really properly learned how to ride, there were just a lot of physical and/or athletic things that other kids enjoyed or were good at that I was terrible at, I never thrived at anything like that until I started playing drums. And while I have passed the hours playing certain simple video games like Mario Kart or Tetris, I was never a really avid gamer like my brother and ultimately felt kind of alienated from gaming as a hobby.
One thing that didn't occur to me until after we finished recording the song was that having a woman sing those lyrics kind of gives it a different, unintended slant (i.e. a stereotype of girls not being into drawing or video games as much as boys). I'm pretty comfortable with all these songs being purely written by me and representing my perspective or ideas, but people can interpret it however they want to. I wish that had occurred to me before we made the song, but maybe not, because I'm really proud of both the lyric and Kathleen's performance, it just works on a musical level so well.
We've done "Button Masher" at pretty much every show we've ever done, to me it's really kind of an important, central song to the whole project. Kathleen has performed it with us a couple times, our show at the Ottobar was a really great night where everything sounded right. We usually stretch the song out a bit, doing an extra repeat of the chorus at the end. But it's actually been sung by every member of the band at various shows. The first time we performed, Andy sang every song, including "Button Masher." After that, it became one of the first songs that I got coordinated enough to sing and play drums on at the same time, but there was one occasion after that that John sang lead on it. I really enjoy singing it, though, it's one of those times when I really feel the lyrics and think about what they mean, because I'm playing drums and doing something I'm good at while looking back on being an awkward kid.