Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 4
Previously, I wrote about track 1, track 2, and track 3 of the Western Blot album, so here we continue.
Track 4: Sore Winners
"Sore Winners" kind of has the oldest roots of any song on Muscle Memory, and is the only one that was used in some form for a previous band. The main keyboard riff was one of the first things I wrote on the Casio I got for Christmas as a teenager, when I was starting to get really heavy into non-standard time signatures, and got really geeked out about writing something that's three measures of 7/8 and one measure of 5/8, or 26/32 is I guess another way you could say it.
I played drums in several bands before Western Blot (not counting school band, which I also did a lot of), but only 3 bands that I would call 'real bands' that wrote a set of original songs and performed in public. And even those 'real bands' were never of any renown whatsoever or left any kind of digital footprint. But the most notable semi-accomplished one was The True Human Motive, which I joined early in my senior year of high school in Lewes, Deleware, and played with for almost a year.
The True Human Motive, as I remember it, was led by my high school's one serious underground emo head, who roped in three of the only other punk-leaning kids in school who played instruments into joining the band. I wasn't into the whole screamo thing but it was my first experience of really grinding out regular practices and songwriting sessions with a band and being productive and I was really proud of my drumming. We only played a handful of shows, and once tried to book a tour that turned into a single show in Pittsburgh, which was still kind of fun crazy adventure for an 18 year old kid.
We journeyed upstate to Newark, Delaware on a couple of weekends to record an album at Clay Creek Recording Studio, where DE emo heroes Boy Sets Fire had recorded. The album, Hope, consisted of the 8 or so full-fledged songs in our repertoire and was padded out with a short improvised instrumental jams, some of which had spoken word vocals over them.
As we were doing these, I volunteered by little keyboard riff that eventually became "Sore Winners" and got to take over a studio session for the first time and do my thing. The Hope version was called "Stiff Legs," and it was essentially the same keys and 26/32 drums as the first section of "Sore Winners," and the same 4/4 drums as the second section. But I didn't have a keyboard part written for that section yet, so band's bassist and one of the guitarists improvised over it. Since I had a notebook full of 'lyrics' or pretentious poetry or whatever, I was going to try to do a spoken word track over it. I went into the vocal booth, with everyone in the studio watching and waiting, stared at the notebook page I'd decided to use, couldn't begin to even say a word, and just decided to leave the track as an instrumental.
That fall, I left for college, and The True Human Motive broke up, after one last little performance at my house when we threw a party while my mom was out of town (if I recall, she knew something went on because a potted plant got broken, but wasn't too mad). Hope was never released in any real capacity, although I think our singer, Ben, got pretty involved in the screamo scene and passed it around. Years later I'd see us mentioned in the 'favorite bands' bricks of text in MySpace profiles of people who weren't anywhere near Delaware.
That was in 2000, and I remember picking up Radiohead's Kid A a few months after we finished the album and feeling somewhat bummed to hear "Everything In Its Right Place" open with electric organ chords in a non standard time signature that reminded me a tiny bit of "Stiff Legs." Not that I think anyone would really hear my song all these years later and think of Radiohead, but anytime someone famous has an idea that resembles one of yours, you kinda feel like you missed your chance to plant that flag first. And as long as it took me to put out that record, that feeling obviously happened many times.
It was a few years later that I had more keyboard compositions and started recording with Mat Leffler-Schulman, first at his home studio in Takoma Park. And we laid down a far amount of stuff in those early sessions that made the final album, including most of the instrumentation on "Sore Winners" and two other songs ("The Power Let Me Down" and "How Can I"). I mapped out the song, with the completed ABA structure (as opposed to the sparer AB structure of "Stiff Legs") on a home demo with a drum machine, and then used the drum machine as my click track for the Takoma Park session. And then I took the 4/4 drum machine pattern and the 26/32 drum machine pattern, and put them on top of each other and ran them through the same funky effect heard on "As Friends," to get this weird flange sound with all those weird rhythmic accents that you hear at the very beginning and end of "Sore Winners."
I loved bands like Soul Coughing and Lake Trout that adapted the fast breakbeat rhythms of drum'n'bass to a live drum set, and "Sore Winners" was really the one track where I just went nuts with that style and tried to push it into something new with that unusual time signature. I have broken a lot of cymbals over the years, so something I have done since the True Human Motive days is put two or three broken cymbals on top of each other on a stand, to get kind of a harsh sound somewhere between an open hi-hat and a trash can lid. And the middle section of "Sore Winners" is pretty much the one time on the album that I use that a lot (besides a few measures in "The Power Let Me Down").
When we revisited "Sore Winners" a few years later at Mobtown Studios, we added a few synths, and it probably has the most different synths layered on top of each other of any track on the album. The synths on the middle section of "Sore Winners" that we did in Takoma Park mysteriously disappeared from the DAT when we came back to the project later on, so we re-recorded them. We also used the foot pedals from this cool old organ Mat had (also used more prominently on "Time And A Half") to record a bassline and gave the song such a monstrous low end. I put a lot of different synths on the final section, trying to thicken up the sound and make it feel climactic, including this one synth sound that reminded me of Van Halen's "Why Can't This Be Love" that I thought was kind of hilarious to put on my album but also sounds really cool.
"Sore Winners" was the first vocal track for the album that we recorded. I reached out to Shawna Potter because I was a huge fan of her old band, Avec, and since she sang over some pretty unusual time signatures in that band, I figured she might be one of the only people who could really handle the odd groove of "Sore Winners." I talked to her about a particular studio date, but then as the date approached and I wasn't sure the song was ready, I thought I just wouldn't remind her and would record with her at a later date. But she's pretty organized and got in touch a few days before the session and asked me for the final set of lyrics. So I ironed out the lyrics, and recorded a very rough scratch vocal in my apartment, with my young son babbling in the background.
Shawna Potter came to Mobtown and recorded with us for a few hours and was just amazing, I'm in awe of her. It's a very wordy song in a strange rhythm and she just navigated it like I think very few vocalists would be able to. There was one line that had an odd number of syllables and didn't roll of the tongue very well that we rewrote on the fly. She sang so loudly in the closing section of the song that her voice went into the red and the microphone clipped, so there was a little bit of natural distortion on her voice. I thought it sounded incredible and insisted Mat use that take in the final mix.
We recorded the vocals for the first and third sections, and then did the middle section. And Shawna sang the entire middle section, but didn't have the cadence I wanted for the "right there in the middle of it all" part. And at that point we'd been at it for a few hours, and my son, who I couldn't find a babysitter for that day, was in the studio and getting fussy. So I decided to just call it a day with the middle section. Shawna was so generous with her time that day that I didn't wanna both her with another session to redo anything, and just faded in my vocals for a few bars of that section to hit those lines the way I wanted them hit, which is the only reason my voice is on that song at all.
After the session, I grabbed a bite to eat with Shawna and she told me about the new band she had just formed, War On Women. And at this point, that band is much more well known than Avec ever was, and they're just amazing, I went to one of their early shows and volunteered to write some PR copy for their first EP. It's kind of funny now, to think that I thought of "Sore Winners" as the one quasi political song on my record, not realizing that the person that I asked to sing on it had just started a band that writes nothing but incredible, scathing political punk rock with a much sharper ideological viewpoint than my little song.
We recorded those lyrics a few months before the whole Occupy Wall Street thing happened, and over the past few years things kept happening that made me think about the words of "Sore Winners" in different terms. Mostly I just kept seeing all the inequality in the world, and seeing people who were on the winning side playing victim, and as a privileged straight white man I just felt mortified about people with some or all of the same advantages as me trying to act like the underdog and whining about everything. And then I kept building off of that thought and going into different tangents like "everybody knows that it's not easy to be the boss, but noone wants to hear that from their own boss," which was kind of a seed of a different song that I'd started to write about my old job.
I released "Sore Winners" as the last pre-release single from Muscle Memory in October, a couple weeks before the election, and by that point it had kind of taken on yet another meaning in my head. It was the only song from the album that we hadn't played live at all in the first couple of years of Western Blot shows, mostly because it was so hard to teach the crazy time signature to John and Andy. So at the release party in December, I performed the song for the first time as a solo synth-and-vocals arrangement, also the first time I'd played keyboards in front of an audience. It was nervewracking, but I'm glad I did it, it just felt important to perform the song now, which, as I said in introducing it, was written years ago, so "it's not a Trump song, but it's not not a Trump song."