Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 8
Previously I wrote about tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 on the Western Blot album.
Track 8: How Can I
One thing I’m proud of with Muscle Memory is that every song on the album feels somehow essential to its character for me. Your mileage may vary for any given song, but nothing felt to me like it was redundant or included as padding, which is the main reason I’m primarily interested in making records that run under 40 minutes.
Still, it’s impossible to make a record without having your excitement about different tracks and different elements wax and wane. And one thing that was interesting about assembling an album so slowly over the course of a decade is that some songs gradually came into their own as favorites, while others felt like they had the most potential from the beginning and ultimately kind of staggered to the finish line.
“How Can I” was one of the first songs, along with “ETC,” that I wrote on a keyboard with what felt like a complete song structure with musically distinct verses and choruses. It was also one of the 3 tracks (along with “Sore Winners” and “The Power Let Me Down”) that sounded so good as we recorded it in Mat’s basement at Takoma Park that we simply added vocals and minor instrumentation to it at Mobtown Studios instead of starting over from scratch (as we did with “ETC”). And I know it was always a favorite of Mat’s as well. We’d be working on it and he’d say things like “this is the single.” It was, I think, track 1 or track 2 on the CD-r of rough mixes we threw together at the end of the Takoma Park sessions.
In the end, though, “How Can I” wound up being track 8, and one of the only songs that I never separated from the album for any kind of single or compilation release. That’s not to say that being the second to last song on the album is a bad thing, though; I’ve always thought that the penultimate track should be kind of a special spot in the album. And “How Can I” is in some ways the most personal song on the album, certainly the most personal lyrics I sing on the album. But it was the last one we finished recording, one of the hardest to figure out lyrically and vocally. And it’s also one of the last songs we figured out how to play live, and one that remains pretty difficult, on a technical level, for me to play and sing at the same time.
The song started with the keyboard line in the first half of the chorus (the one that runs under the lyric “How can I love you for so long without writing you a love song?”). I’d done a drum machine demo with that keyboard line, really it was probably one of the best hip hop beats I’d ever demoed, it was this funky syncopated wannabe Rick Rock kind of beat, I’ll still probably use the drum pattern in something someday. But once I came up with the verse keyboard line that kind of went with that bit, it became a rock song.
A lot of Muscle Memory is about me trying to make synths sound or feel like guitars in some way or another, and “How Can I” was probably the most deliberate example of that. I always loved the way Keith Richards used his guitar to imitate a horn sound on “Satisfaction,” and I kind of wanted to do a bit of that, a synth imitating a guitar imitating a horn. I was also really into the guitar sound of Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me,” as sampled on Usher’s “Throwback” and State Property’s “Want Me Back.” And one of the few times in the making of the album that I brought a song to Mat and said “I’m thinking something like this” was when I played the Usher song for him as kind of an indication of the keyboard sound on “How Can I.”
So we went through Mat’s synths, and I think it was one his Korg that we found this buzzsaw sound that became the driving force of “How Can I.” One of my favorite bands of all time, one that I think has always been a major songwriting influence on me in weird little subtle ways that probably only I can hear, is The Posies. And “How Can I” is a song where I hear a lot of Posies. Even the drum fill transitioning from the first chorus to the second verse is very “Solar Sister.”
There were a lot of songs where I toyed with different lyrics and titles before settling on the final idea. But “How Can I” was the only song where I completed one set of lyrics, recorded a scratch vocal at Mobtown, and then scrapped them and rewrote a whole new set of lyrics. And that original lyrics was much darker. The period in which we finished the album was really one of the hardest times in my life, I got laid off from my job a month after my first son was born, it was a struggle to make ends meet, a lot was going on. So I had this incredibly dark lyric that, one of the only ones I really felt weird even tracking in the studio with Mat. And if it had worked a little better musically and melodically, probably would’ve been on the record (and honestly I still might use that lyric somewhere down the line if I find a new musical arrangement for it).
The music on the song sounds kind of ominous and brooding to me. But when I wrote the second set of lyrics, it ended up really I think contrasting with the music more with something kind of loving and romantic, really just it’s a song to my wife about how we met and what it means to be devoted to someone for the rest of your life. And kind of by coincidence, the session where we recorded the vocal ended up being on Valentine’s Day. And on our wedding anniversary a few months later, I gave my wife a flash drive with a rough mix of the song, and a 2nd version of the song, a stripped down keyboard and vocal version that I did at home later, kind of a reverse engineered ‘demo.’
I don’t like the idea of putting a lot of effects on vocals, at least in terms of the Western Blot project. But I had an idea of there being this weird muddy ethereal sound to my vocal on this song, so Mat and I tried some different effects and landed on this one. I think if it wasn’t the last song on the album we finished, I might’ve gone back and changed it. I wasn't even that happy with the title "How Can I," although I decided after the fact that I like it as an homage to the title of Superchunk's "What Do I." I still think this is the song I’m most likely to remix or rerecord someday and try and get it close to my ideal of what it could be. But I’m happy with it overall, I feel like at a certain point, you just have to lock down the mix, stop tinkering with things, and live with the record as it is.