Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 3
Track 3: As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants
The third track on my album is the first time you hear my voice, one of just three times I sing on Muscle Memory. I've noticed over the years that a lot of rock singers were just songwriters that wanted someone else to sing and reluctantly got in front of the mic when they couldn't get someone else to do it. And I kinda wanted to be like Pete Townshend, where you just hear my voice here and there, but most of the time someone else is singing my words. So I'm happy with the amount I sing on the record, although of course I had to record scratch vocals of every song in order for the other vocalists to record their tracks. And I end up singing more at shows, particularly if people from the record aren't available; at our show last month, we did the whole record, but I sang of the 6 of the 9 songs.
I've never particularly enjoyed singing, even just singing along with the radio is not something I do really often, and I don't like the sound of my voice, but then I feel like almost nobody likes the sound of their voice. So my priority in making this album was always in putting my best foot forward as a songwriter, not as a singer. I respect the craft of singing too much to spent much time not being gerat at it. The best singing I did in the scratch vocals was probably for "ETC" or "Time And A Half" or "Dull Dark Side," but the other singers' performances that we ended up with were better. I think listeners always carry the perception that a songwriter singing their own words is more personal or has more conviction, but it was kind of the opposite for me -- I had to really feel confident in the songs that I worked with other vocalists on, to walk them through each line and hear them sing it back to me without cringing. And in fact, "As Friends" is the least autobiographical song on the whole album, and I sang it.
Most of the time I was making this record, I put a lot of effort into making concise 3 or 4 minute tracks with verse/chorus structures, and "As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants" was the weird one where I just kinda threw a lot of ideas at the wall until they became this big 6-minute beast. The first part that came together was the middle section's rhythm track.
Back when I was making demos at home, before I started recording the album with Mat Leffler-Schulman, I had a digital 8-track with a built in drum machine, and a lot of the song ideas started with beats. As with singing, I have too much respect for the craft of hip hop production to not step into that arena unless I was taking it really seriously, but I really love to just put together drum patterns and synth lines. When I first got my Casio, I found it helpful to figure out the keyboard riffs in Swizz Beatz or Neptunes productions, it was inspiring to realize how simple the basic building blocks of those tracks were, kind of the way I imagine guitarists build up confidence by learning Ramones songs or something.
For a couple years in college I lived in an apartment on Loch Raven Boulevard, and I remember just listening to 92Q all the time and then making my little cheapo versions of rap and Baltimore club beats. And the drum machine bit from "As Friends" was one of those things I made back then that I was most proud of, like I was trying to make something Ludacris could rap over or something. My 8-track had all these effects, and one of them just made everything sound hollow and metallic, and it sounded cool when you put percussion sounds through it. So I took one of the preset drum tracks on my Casio, a marching band snare drum rhythm, and ran it through that effect for a few minutes. And then I sync'd up the BPM to the 8-track's drum machine, except they didn't quite sync up perfectly so after 3 or 4 minutes they'd kind of diverge and fall apart.
I wanted live drums on every song on Muscle Memory, and on the 2 other songs that had drum machine tracks, it made sense to just play over the loop. But I liked the "As Friends" beat as is too much to play anything over it, which led me to the idea of having a separate section of the song with live drums. The part of the loop where the marching snare does a drum roll and hits a cymbal at the end of every 8th bar kind of completes the phrase, and it feels like it builds to the end, so I knew I wanted that section to transition into something else. And since it kind of reminded me of the Purple Rain album's transition from "I Would Die 4 U" to "Baby I'm A Star," the closing section of the song is a pretty direct homage to "Baby."
One band that my dad loves and that I grew up listening to is Little Feat, and during the album sessions at Mobtown Studios, I was going through a big phase of reconnecting with Little Feat and digging into their albums. And I started to really lament that the kind of loose bluesy grooves they do were not really a part of this whole modern rock style of drumming I was doing on the album. So one day I came into the studio with one of those early Little Feat albums and played Mat a song, "Hamburger Midnight" or "Cold, Cold, Cold," something like that, with those big stomping Richie Hayward drums, talking about how I wanted to have that sound.
One of the things that Mat and I were always at odds about was that I wanted to have effects on the drums that I could actually hear in my studio headphones as I was playing. But as the person recording and mixing the record, of course, Mat wanted to have the ability to record the drums dry and then juice up the sound of the drums in the mix. So the opening section of "As Friends" was the one time I talked him into having this blown out sound for the drums were recorded, so that I could hear it in real time and kind of use it in how I played. A guitarist who uses delay pedals would want to hear that effect as they're tracking the guitar part, it just makes sense and enhances the performance.
We recorded the first section of the song in the morning, probably some of the loudest drumming I've ever recorded, and I always play loud. We started to record the third section, but the wear and tear caught up to my drums, and I broke the kick drum head on one of the first takes. So when we took a lunch break, we went down to Ted's Musician Shop, bought a new drum head, and recorded the third section in the afternoon. Mat had a recording of the moment the drum head broke, I wish it sounded like a cool explosion and not just the bass drum suddenly losing volume. A couple years ago I broke my bass drum head again in a Western Blot practice, during "As Friends," so there's something about that song.
Most of the synths on the album are my cheap little Casio, but here and there I'd try out some of Mat's more expensive Korgs and Rolands and find sounds I wanted to use. And he had this one synth that had a cool little 'feedback pad' where you could run your fingers over it and twist sounds in a theremin-like way, and I was obsessed with that and wanted to use it somewhere. So the transition between the first two sections seemed to be a good place to have a little feedback section where things get noisy and dissolve a little after the live drums stop and before the drum machine comes in.
I used no guitars on the album, and that feedback section was one of those times when I really thought I could kind of trick the listener into thinking there was a guitar on the album. I even caught Mat referring to certain parts of the mix as "guitars" even though he knew what they were. But of course, by the time the album was finished I'd already started the live Western Blot band with my brother in law John German and Andy Shankman on guitar (Andy switched to bass after the first few shows).
Since John is part of the live band but I didn't want any guitar playing on the album, I decided it would be fun to include him by letting him do some backup vocals on the album, and I kind of wanted the final refrain of "As Friends" to have this gang shout thing. So he came with me to the session where we recorded Kathleen's "Dull Dark Side" vocal, and at the end of the night, John and Kathleen and I gathered around a mic and sang the refrain in the last section of "As Friends." Mat thought the group backing vocal clashed a little with my lead vocal, so he put it pretty low in the mix, but I'm happy it's in there. The first Queen album's liner notes noted that nobody played synthesizer, and credited John Deacon as "Deacon John," so I plaid homage to that by crediting "German John" for vocals and stating that "nobody played guitar."
I've been covering local music for Baltimore City Paper and other outlets for over a decade, and I've always been cautious to maintain a 'separation of church and state' between the music I make and the music I write about. But when City Paper did their annual Big Music Issue in 2013, someone had the idea to collect 100 unreleased tracks by local acts for a Soundcloud playlist. So they were just asking everybody for music, including projects by other CP writers, and I tossed in "As Friends," since at that point I'd only released Western Blot tracks sung by other people and it was a nice low pressure way to preview one of the stranger songs from the project.
"As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants" was this phrase I held onto for a couple years knowing I wanted to use it as a song title before I had any other lyrics. Then I wrote a chorus that contained that phrase, and realized it fit with the third section of this song, and kinda wrote backwards from there. As I said, it's the least autobiographical song on the album, and it was fun and liberating to kind of go off in this strange lyrical direction on a long track with a linear structure.
There are bands I love listening to like Firewater and My Chemical Romance that excel at these kinds of dark crime narrative lyrics. I don't even necessarily know what's going on in the song, just that there's some kind of Bonnie & Clyde or Dog Day Afternoon thing going on with 2 people banding together and doing something terrible until it all ends in disaster. It's always been a weird chaotic song to play live, sometimes it's great and sometimes it's a mess, but I love singing the middle section. Once Andy suggested doing some between song transitions, and we went straight from "Dull Dark Side" into the second and third sections of "As Friends," that was fun. We played a show at the late Charm City Art Space about 5 days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and it felt strange to sing those lyrics then, and it made me really think about how current events can color something after you've already written it. But I decided to kind of lean into it and perform the song anyway, and it's the only time we've closed a set with it.