On Wednesday, February 11, CIVILIAN started working on a new album. It’s hard to know what people think when they hear me say that, so I figured I would take some time and let anyone who would care to know in on what it means when I say, “I’m doing a new record.”
You know when you meet that cute gal and the two of you are trying to find a night that works for a proper date, but none of the details fall into place without a nightmare? She works most nights. You think you’ve got the flu. She doesn’t mind waiting until Thursday night, but you don’t get paid until Friday.
And all of the married people in the world breathe a sigh of relief.
That’s kind of like what doing an album is like. Except you’re trying to put together a whole bunch of dates. And everyone has a different schedule. And all four of you are broke. But you’ve got heart and a hope that this one is going to be different. You’re prepared to not eat until Saturday if it means that Thursday night gets a chance to be special. Then, once you get all of the schedules coordinated you, from Nashville, have to get one of the others from Tampa to Nashville. And that’s all before you learn that all of the outlets where you’re practicing have two prongs and your guitar amps all have three.
It starts as a romantic-horror-comedy. Or, as we call it in the business, a Rohoco.
By the time the laughter turns to giggling and tears and everyone thinks to themselves THIS BETTER WORK, the real work is all ahead of you.
THIS IS WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT RECORDING.
Let me back up. In January, I had a stomach virus. The symptoms were… all of them. I was shivering when we were playing. I kept apologizing to the guys in the band in between every song. I was turning to the band and saying things like, “I’m sorry—I’m not blowing it like this on purpose” and “barf may be coming” and “If I die up here, tell my roommate I’m sorry for dying on stage in his jacket”. You get it. You’ve been sick, rocking up a sweat in a basement venue and a thousand miles away from your mom.
That night, a buddy of ours had come out to the show and brought one of his friends. He makes it pretty clear that he thought we were pretty alright. What tipped me off was him saying (emphatically), “that was fucking awesome.” I knew that he couldn’t have been talking to me (at this point I was WHITER than a ghost in the dead of a Midwest winter). I was sure that I had never played worse. And I’m still convinced of that until this day. However, this guy saw something I didn’t that night. He saw what I hoped to show people: you should show up in the same room as CIVILIAN—give us cheap beer and an hour of your time and it’s a party. As Dan, our bass player pointed out: the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Turns out, this guy (now, friend) works for pretty awesome studio here in Nashville. We started talking about recording and music and blah, blah, blah. He tells us to come by the studio some time and hang out. We talk about recording some more. You guys should come by and let’s all work on a song for you all.
“OF COURSE.” At this point it quickly occurred to me (like a break in the ice) THAT I DIDN’T HAVE ANY NEW SONGS. I HADN’T WRITTEN MORE THAN TWO SONGS IN THE LAST THREE YEARS. An incredible opportunity, that any small town band would want to have offered to them was an opportunity that I wasn’t prepared for because I never thought it would happen. Even Homer Simpson would have been dumbfounded. How could a writer like myself not have ANYTHING?
Later the next week Dan and I went by the studio. It’s a BADASS studio on Studio Row in the heart of the part of Nashville that the show is based on (I’ve heard). Three diapers later I knew I had to write an album. So I went home, set up the dinkiest little demo studio you could ever hope to never have to work at, and wrote more in the three weeks that followed than I have written in the last five years. I wrote an album. Maybe two.
I wrote all of the songs in Ableton Live (for all you musician nerds out there). All of the demos had really clean sounding guitars, lots and lots of weird twists and turns and… Drake beats. Not even kidding—you may or may not know this, but I listen to rap (and old-timey jazz) almost exclusively. Hip-hop has always played a HUGE role in how I write. I really wanted to capture that element in these songs, and the drums and bass reflect my affinity for guys like Aesop Rock and (laugh away, but) Drake.
20+ new songs in all.
It was at that point that Dan and I decided to go ahead and record a full length. We didn’t really have anywhere close to the amount of money it costs to undertake it, but that’s never really stopped me from doing anything (expect going out on classy dates with women donning enchanting accents). We also didn’t have much time to pull this off. This is because DAN IS HAVING A BABY. Granted his wife is doing all of the work, but nonetheless, Dan is going to be a great dad and part of being a great dad is not spending of every waking moment your newborn's life laying down fuzz bass (the baby is coming out at the end of April, by the way—I think that’s how you say that).
So after writing songs it came time to start assembling a team of players to work on it. After a few weeks of kicking around some different line ups, we confirmed the final lineup for recording the album. So we landed on Dan (you know, because he’s in the band), Jonathan Thomas on drums and a good friend of mine named John Fiorentino. Jonathan Thomas and I have known each other for several years now. We first met when my last band, Alexander, toured with Cool Hand Luke and we had a show in Tampa with his band Ascend The Hill. Alexander ended up touring with Ascend the Hill and I got the honor of helping produce their album O, Ransomed Son. Jonathan is one of the most amazing drummers and story tellers I have ever had the privilege of knowing. He has been an inspiration for me when it comes to wrestling with life.
After we had finished tracking drums on Day 2 in the studio all of the guys went to a bar down the street for a few celebratory $1 beers. In case you were wondering what makes a beer $1, its typically indicative of the flavor and the amount of time it takes the server to bring them to you. Jonathan intensely looked at everyone at the table and Fiorentino asked him, "you good, man?" And Jonathan, usually the one making everyone laugh shakes, his head and says…
And with that, his eyes welled up with tears (from the skunky beer, I’m sure). Like a bunch of chumps we raised our near room temperature cans and cheer’s-ed like a bunch of bro’s who just won VIP tickets to a Ted Cruz meet-and-greet. Jonathan was a part of this record for that exact purpose (not the Ted Cruz part).
John Fiorentino was the last addition to the team. I’ve known John for a lot longer than we’ve been friends. We first met when I played a show at least five or six years ago in Florida. He and I moved to Nashville at about the same time. He is a fellow reader and such a wonderful thinker. The two of us have spent more than our share of late nights talking about our favorite writers and watching Honkey Tonk bands with tourists. One night, he and I were playing darts and he (knowing I love basketball more than anything in the world) told me that it’s easier to make a free throw in the NBA than it is to throw a dart and get it to hit ANYWHERE on the dart board from seven feet away. This reaaaaaaaally riled me up because nothing could be further from the truth. That’s John Fiorentino: pressing all of the wrong buttons at exactly the right time. In addition to being a fantastic friend, he learned ALL of the songs I wrote in a weeks time and has absolutely knocked it out of the park in the studio with us.
Four days before we went into the studio, no one in the band had even played the songs together. A week prior to getting together, I emailed a bunch of demos so everyone could hear what I was thinking the songs could sound like, but none of us knew what the other guys were thinking. Before we started playing the first song on the first day of what we call “preproduction”, I said to the guys, “Remember this. Remember the tension and the anxiety. Remember how it felt right before you found out if this was going to be magic or a middle-school-dance type nightmare (not an exact quote).” When we started playing it felt the way I remember riding a bike for the first time felt. You know, when your dad is holding the bike stable so you can start with your feet on the peddles. And then he gives you a shove that was WAAAAAAAAAAY too fast and you just lift up your feet and the wind turns your scream into a laugh. And then your handlebars start wobbling and you steer into the grass and wipe out. I don’t need any goddamn training wheels, you think. I was born for this. Born to ride on the back of this Huffy hog. We were on our way and setting up ramps using recycling bins and plywood in no time at all. Helmets off.
We did this for four days. Those four days started at 10am and went until sometime around midnight every night. We needed every minute of that time because we had so many things we wanted to change and perfect and scrap and then reintroduce. Miller Lite was on sale so we had to pass on the more expensive, far superior tasting Bud Light. Other than that, the process of preproduction went well. We accomplished what we set out to accomplish and managed to laugh a little along the way. Jonathan and I would go out onto the drive way every handful of hours and smoke cigarettes because sometimes we are idiots. Dan and Fiorentino would stand out there with us and we combined our forces to become a collective pun factory.
<Cat video finishes>
“You’ve cat to be kitten me right meow.”
“You don’t have to tail me twice.”
“Guys, let’s put the puns on paws.”
You get it. Furry clawver stuff.
One afternoon in particular Jonathan and I were standing outside (post-cigarette) and I started telling him about some things that have been going in my life that have been far too terrifying to deal with. I was explaining to him that I was terrified that the weight of life felt unbearable and that my desperation was keeping me up at night. This is nothing new to anyone—we’ve all loved and lost and done our best to look our demons in the eye. We’ve all had moments where all of the things that we normally keep to ourselves come pouring out and you look like a crazy person both trying to speak your mind and hold back tears. You end up turning into a mess. The type of mess where you wish you had sunglasses so you could play it cool. But I couldn’t play it cool, and Jonathan didn't let me. That dude gave me the biggest hug I’ve gotten in years and, although my problems didn’t disappear, I was reminded that every once in while you get lucky enough to encounter your fears with a friend by your side. That moment meant the world to me. That moment meant EVEN MORE because we walked back inside and played through songs that were about the very things which led to his consolation.
An important note here: when you listen to a CIVILIAN album, you are listening to me working out things that bounce around in my head and heart for months and years that I don’t talk to others about. Most of the time, the things that I am singing about make me uneasy, insecure and are sometimes embarrassing because I know that I may completely change my view over time (as had happened with how I view meaning, religion, the war in Iraq, etc. to name a few). Songs are a means of expressing the things that I will most likely have kept a secret from nearly everyone I know. Whether this is healthy or not, I don’t much care. All I know is that when I think about these things, they crush me—when I rhyme these very same things, it has the effect of tearing the snakes teeth out and they are far less threatening. I feel like I have a fighting chance when I write that I don’t have when I talk or think.
DAY ONE: Sunday, March 15.
Our first day in the studio we had the tall task of recording 7 songs. And we were recording them live, nonetheless. The focus of these first two days was drums and bass. Because Jonathan was only in town until Tuesday morning, we had no choice but to do at least 6 songs a day. Basically, all four of us stand the same room and we all play through the song together. Then, as the rest of the band plays their parts as perfectly as possible we all leave the room and Jonathan, in the end is the only person in the room playing to what the rest of us recorded just minutes earlier. The idea behind this is to keep the feel of the songs as “live” as possible. What makes us sound like us is the fact that we sound the same way when you see us live as we sound on our albums. Using this method of recording is a way to insure that we maintain that sound.
On the first day of tracking we recording in the room called Ronnie’s Place (there are three rooms in total). This studio is the room which was run by the recording legend Ronnie Milsap, after he purchased it from Roy Orbison. Other acts who have recorded in the room are Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kings of Leon and a ton more. Oh, and now they can add CIVILIAN to that list. Playing in the studio these legends made hit records in feels a lot like how I imagine walking around in a Bill Murray skin suit: worth going to jail for.
Jonathan Thomas is so great. So great. There were at least a dozen times that he did something so great that all I could do was laugh. I would just stand there, screwing up what I was doing because I was in awe of how he does half of the stuff he can do. He would play something that would have me laughing so hard because of how cool it was and then he would come in over the talk back and say, “screwed it up.” He really has made this record special.
DAY TWO: Sunday, March 16.
For day two we moved into another room. This room didn’t have name that I can remember, so we’ll just call it, uh, Ryan’s Room. This room felt just as awesome as Ronnie’s Room. It’s hard to exactly know what I mean when I say the room “felt” like something, because whenever I hear people say something like that I think… no. But now I know what people are talking about. It’s kind of like how you will never take a bath in someone else's bath tub. Because (1) you’re an adult and baths are kind of gross if you think about laying in bubbly water full of dead skin and (2) the only thing worse than lighting candles and sorta floating around your own discarded skin is laying in a pool of someone else's dead skin. This room felt like the exact opposite of taking a gross bath. That’s probably the worst way of describing what it FEELS like to be in a special place, but I like the way the words tie together so I’m sticking with it. Ryan’s Room felt like the opposite of being mostly submerged in epidermal debris (think: mashed potato flakes).
Now, for those of you who are still willing to read the rest of this…
We ended up keeping all of the bass from these two days as well, which was a bonus for us. Dan and Jonathan played so well together that it’s hard to imagine it could have come about in a more natural sounding way. It was like watching twins shadow box: I personally wouldn’t do it because there is no championship belt involved, but cool to see other people doing it so well.
Since we set up the night before we were able to really knock stuff out from the moment we got into the studio. We accomplished the remainder of the songs that we wanted to get done and were able to get out of the studio by 5pm, just in time for HAPPY HOUR! With Jonathan Thomas leaving tomorrow, it was a treat being reminded that playing drums is just one of the several things he is dumbfoundingly wonderful at.
DAY THREE: Saturday, March 21.
Our objective was to record all of the guitars and vocals for half of the songs we recorded last weekend. One thing you have to know about me as a “vocalist” is that I am terrible one when it comes to know what in the hell I should do to save my voice. After a week of preproduction and a weekend of singing my butt of in the studio I was really worried that my throat was going to quit making sounds. But, lo and behold, I opened my mouth and sounds came out so, game on. The easy part of the day is guitars because I play the easy parts and John Fiorentino gets stuck with anything that twists your brain up.
Part of the terror of recording vocals comes right before I have to sing something I am going to be stuck with forever. I don’t hesitate because I fear that something may be lame (although this has definitely occurred before). I pause and ask myself if I am sure I want to sing this because of how easy it would be for it to
- be used against me one day
- embarrass me because people will know this song is about her
- embarrass me because she is going to know this song is about her
- inadvertently give someone the wrong impression of me
- be the reason I get struck by lightning
- make more waves than it’s worth.
It’s no secret to anyone that what I write about can be less than endearing—it can be downright polarizing. By the very nature of the topics I write about it’s hard to feel completely confident that I am not about to create a shit storm. Then, I am immediately reminded that yes, I am aware of what I am about to do and no, I wouldn't want to have it any other way. Once you resolve to really go for it, and to say to hell with self doubt, your vision clears up almost immediately. That’s not to say that I no longer wonder what’s looking at me in the shadows, it just means that I am going to act as if I’m clever enough to outwit those things.
DAY FOUR: Sunday, March 22.
There’s something ironic about realizing that your $129 guitar is plugged into $20,000 (or more) worth of amplifiers, microphones and preamps. Cam, the engineer, pointed out that we could have saved a lot of money if only I had spent more money on my guitar—then, we wouldn’t need all this extra expensive shit to make it sound good. We set up at least five microphones in a line to a shootout of which one sounded the best. I opted, simply, for “the most expensive one”. But, as with anything in life, the most expensive thing isn’t always the best thing for the job, so I just let Cam decide which one sounded the best and I yelled into it.
A few things about Cam, the engineer. This f’ing guy is so awesome. He has been the gears in the watch. Really funny gears that never seem to have an end to witty tautologies about shutting up and just getting it right. I have spent a ton of time in studios and working with different producers, engineers and bands, and I would be hard pressed to find someone who does what he does better than him. His role, if I can dumb it down, is to look at what sounds we need to record. He then selects microphones and preamps and other pieces of gear to get the best versions of the sounds he can. This is no small task when there are 30 tools that can adequately do every job. He has to be so connected to all of these tools that he’s able to be critical of 30 really great sounding things—he’s looking for THE ONE. After the mics are set up he runs the computer that all 200 GB of audio are being recorded into. I’m playing something and screw it up and he has to record all of these mishaps over and over and over and over. Then, after you finally have to quit because it’s not working, he makes you do it again and again until you either cry or get it right. In my mind I could have nailed it. He tells me to do it better.
DAY FIVE: Thursday, March 26.
No CIVILIAN album would be a CIVILIAN album without doing at least a portion of the album in a bedroom. This means that Dan has to clean up cat hair because we are using his house today and I am as allergic as you can be to cats. I’m also allergic to guinea pigs. When I was in first grade, my teacher Mrs. Hejja allowed us to get a class pet. We got a guinea pig because we were all idiots. We named it Tootie. The students were allowed to take it home on the weekends (partially because the teacher probably had no interest in having this unfulfilling pet in her house and also partially because she didn’t want it in her classroom either- read: kids kill small animals.). The best option seemed to be letting the rowdiest kids in the class take it home until one of us threw it in our pool or the dryer. I don’t remember it dying and I vaguely remember a girl named Rebecca Lavigne keeping it after the school year was over. The most clear memory of this beast was what it did to my face when it was my turn to be its weekend caretaker. My eyes were as red as the devils… eyes. My face was swollen. I was snotting and sneezing like an entire 3K class… and yet I would only held this thing up to my face in the way that the crazy little girl from Animaniacs (Mindy) used to carry around that miserable cat.
That’s how allergic to cats I am. Take note.
Dan and his wife clean the cat off of everything when I come over, so we were able to get some background vocals done. We got cut off at around 6:30 because some friends of ours were throwing Dan and Natalie a baby shower. Did I mention Dan is having a BABY?!
In review: guinea pigs bad, new CIVILIAN record good.