Piano pop and rock music, under the singer-songwriter genre umbrella, took a blow to its reputation thanks to people like Daniel Powter—which is totally fine if you enjoy listening to music at the hair salon. Nobody takes it seriously anymore. But we owe a lot to the genre (i.e. Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel) and Nathan Angelo could provide a boost to its reputation. He boasted an incredibly clear and powerful voice: As malleable as a Jason Mraz but infinitely stronger, yet not as weightless as Jay Kay’s of Jamiroquai. With a backing band that included another pianist, playing mostly organ, he added subtle touches to his funk sound, like curious syncopations, accents, and stops. When he wanted to, he serenaded with American-Idol vigor, but he seems to have his head on straight, opting for the low road. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, played near the end of his set, was a simple reminder of why this genre is still so great and why it shouldn’t ignore people like Nathan Angelo.
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WHAT THE… ?!!
Alright seriously, why in the hell does this take so long? I mean writing, rehearsal, recording, mixing… it all takes a long time and I can’t figure out exactly why. Well, I guess I know but only because I do it. I think it’s me… drrf!?!
We started recording this album in late January. Aaaaand, that was five months ago. The only thing that is slightly more embarrassing than having only finished seven songs in that amount of time, is that this is just my fifth blog entry. Thanks to all the PopMatters readers and writers for being especially patient. But wait, why DOES this take so long?
Being in a semi-professional rock band is a full time hustle. Anyone out there drumming up shows and tours and trying to make albums and sell them knows that we are very tiny fish in a very large sea. Making ends meet as a band is difficult, well, I don’t know how difficult it is because, see, I have a job. I have always had jobs since I was 12 and started my paper route. I have been doing a lot of freelance and temporary jobs over the years to keep free enough so that when it’s time to get in the van… I can get in the van. Thing about doing temp jobs though is that when there is work you had better do it, cause it might not be there tomorrow. Anyways, reason (excuse) number one is… my work was, like, totally busy. I build architectural models for a living, and yes, it is an awesome job. Every once in a while though, for a couple weeks or sometimes a month or so, you can do nothing else. That’s the job. So for me this year, those months were April and May. Luckily, I get paid by the hour.
Somehow, somewhere in my life, i turned into a critical freak. I have always considered myself a reasonably laid back guy, but I think I might be wrong about that because I seem to be able to find fault with almost anything… anything I do that is. I am a little more lenient with other folks, though Dave might not agree (so don’t ask). Reason (excuse) two is… it takes me four hours to do one crappy lead vocal take. I don’t know how long Axl Rose takes, but it can’t be much longer than that.
Speaking earlier of being small fish in a large sea, we are not currently “enlabeled”. Our last record fulfilled our contract with our then label, Lookout Records. Since then we have been adrift in the sea of bands and music and albums and all that. It is a curious and uncertain place to be, but the upside is that no one is nagging at us about finishing this record. Wait, is that good or bad. I mean, five months?! We could certainly use a wee bit of nagging (from someone other than my father, that is) Anyways, Reason (excuse) three is… no one is knocking down our door to finish this thing.
But that is not such a bad thing. Because one thing that has been really cool about this process is that I have had opportunity to reflect and consider every stage in the process. It’s a luxury that will definitely result in a better product. I am sure of it! I mean it is a little bit torturous to constantly consider and conspire and create and re-create and tweak and change, but it seems to be for the best. Reason (excuse) four is… trust me, it’s for the best!
And instead of tweaking and considering and changing and altering this blog entry. I am just going to send it off. No pictures this time, cause what does a picture of me taking forever to do something look like? Wait, I have one of those….
Next time, guest players in the house. The all picture blog!
Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry
Under Mics with the Oranges Band
PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part four…
I really have a great time singing in the studio. For some reason the set up seems so pro. The room is cleared of the instruments, the baffling goes up and instead of microphones hanging all over the place, like when the band is tracking, there is just one. It is a strange experience also, in the context of writing, practicing and recording your songs because, as long as you are a singer who plays an instrument, it is the only time ever you will sing a song without playing it as well and the only time you will sing a song without anything in your hands. So besides being a little anxious and overwhelmed by the formality of the studio setting you also have to approach the song in a much different way. It is rather exciting but also very nerve racking. For me, walking into the room after you do your first vocal take on a song is a roller coaster ride. You’ve worked hard to perform the song but you haven’t any idea what you sound like. The voice is very sensitive to placement of microphones and slight changes in sound can make a huge difference in the perception of the vocal take. It’s like the perfect storm when it happens to come together. And for the first time, you are hearing the lyrics resonate within the song and the voice is totally audible. Anyone in a band can relate to the fact that you never hear the vocals at practice.
Me at the mic part 1. I had to take off my jacket because it was making a ton of noise.
So why, with all these “hardships”, is singing in the studio fun? It’s simple. For me, when it works—when you get a great vocal take—it is the most satisfying part of making, playing or recording music that there is. I guess it is a risk/reward thing. Which is why, in a demonstration of appropriate cosmic duality, that when it doesn’t happen it is the most frustrating part of making music.
In approaching this album I wanted my lead vocal tracks to be distinct and adventurous. I wanted them to be energetic and irreverent. In the end though, I knew I would settle for them to not suck and be on pitch. A lot to ask in some cases I am sorry to say. I guess we are all our own worse critics and for me, if I am ever feeling a little over confident, I could take a crack at singing a song in the studio to bring me back to earth.
But as I said in an earlier installment, a record is a document of what you did when the tape was rolling so you don’t really have much choice but to step up and do something, right? And so I did. When Adam (co-producer, engineer) and I were doing vocals I’d start by describing which song I was trying to rip off and he would respond with an appropriate microphone, mic placement and effect scenario. The best part about trying to rip off songs, though, is that you can never recreate someone else’s magic so you hope to stumble upon your own. So here it goes, first song.
Me at the mic part 2. Less noisy…
We started with a song called “One More Dog”. Why? Well, it was the shortest. Short and fast and to the point. It reminds me of a Pink Flag-era Wire thing so that is where we started looking for sounds. When ripping off other songs (take notes, kids) I like to go right to the source so we played some songs from Pink Flag. We decided they were relatively dry (no reverb), mid-range (not quite a radio voice, but close) with maybe a slight delay on them. We picked out the right mic for the job and ran it through the effects and got the EQ just right… and it sounded nothing like the Wire song. Of course. The other thing about trying to rip stuff off is that what you are hearing is the whole song. You can’t isolate the vocals, necessarily, and predict how they will fit into a totally different song in a totally different context. It’s why trying hard to rip something off is a great way to work. It provides the parameters, the boundaries, and I think I said before that in the context of recording, I need some boundaries.
OK so, here we are with this vocal sound that doesn’t do quite what we thought it might, but it does sound pretty cool so we tweak it just a bit and forge ahead. Once you have a sound you can concentrate on the performance. This song was pretty straight forward, meaning I didn’t expect that it would change much from the practice room to the recording so it was just about getting the lines right—one at a time. I feel like I can always find some reason to re-do a line. A quiver in the vocal, just a little flat, I don’t like the “r” sound in that word, etc., etc. Basically, it is really hard to commit to the idea that the line you just sang will be the way that song exists… pretty much forever. Scared of commitment? Yikes. Oh well, you gotta say yes sometime and I am paying for this thing by the hour so eventually we make it through the song. The funny thing is that when you finish a vocal take you are so sick of hearing it that you can barely listen to it and appreciate it. In fact, coming back to it the next session is always kind of scary… did I really get it right or was I just sick of trying? Am I a hero or a heel? Like I said… a real roller coaster ride.
So instead of recounting my triumphs and tragedies while singing these songs… and there were a few of both, let’s just do a quick run down of what a few of the songs on the record are called and what I tried to ripped off while recording them. I imagine this could be an incriminating document in a court trial, but luckily I was unsuccessful in truly copying ANY of these brilliant works. When our album does finally come out (in 2012 at this rate) you can check these against the originals… you’ll see, total failure!
My view. With my favorite mic, the fabulous Shure SM-7.
“Everyone Burns Out” (working title): The Replacements - “Takin’ a Ride” complete with a… “referential” line.
“When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”: Peter Gabriel “Steam” and “Shock the Monkey” also ESG for the female back up vocals. This one doesn’t sound at all like those things… but it came out ok anyway.
“Gordon’s Night Club”: I thought could be a Kinks song… but it totally isn’t. I did do a Phil Lynotte thing in the beginning that is really funny and a weird trill at the end that was ALL ME (or is that Paul Macca?).
“Absolutely (Instru)mental”: As the name suggests, this song doesn’t have vocals but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to rip something off to get it. Ha ha! It is modeled after Laika & the Cosmonauts - “NY ‘79” a truly complete and catchy song with no vocals. It was recently announced that Laika and Co. will be breaking up at the end of this year… say it ain’t so!?!
“Ottobar (Afterhours)” - Hot Snakes - “Automatic Midnight” and “Salton City” (whoos!)
“I Wouldn’t Worry About It”: This one is pretty original, really. I was going to come up with something to steal eventually but we were doing some back up vocals on a different song (Ottobar) and had a really cool sound going. Really distorted and delayed and weird. When that song was over, this one was next on the reel so we just let it roll and I did the lead vocal… in one take. Easy. It also relieved me from having to rewrite the lyrics, which I was going to do for some reason. I mean why would you need more than two lines in a song?
This is the studio room cleared out for the vox.
Well, that ain’t quite all of them but it is most of them. All secrets revealed right here. Man… these things take forever; albums that is. There are so many tiny parts to get right and it’s like an automobile or a golf swing… so many things working in harmony that when one things is off, your whole program is interrupted. This is just to say that here we are, nearing the end of tracking and it still feels a light year away. OK well, stick with me here. Thanks for reading.
Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry
Under Mics with the Oranges Band
PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part three…
I feel like when we play live or rehearse, the songs we are playing are always subject to the performance and the instruments and the room and the energy. That is, clearly, what makes a live performance unique. It is also sometimes why the song itself must take a back seat to that energy and performance. Over the years, we’ve all heard about those incredible live bands that can’t seem to translate their talents into a recording, right? I always heard that about the Poster Children… maybe Jesus Lizard, too. I never much agreed with it because I was a huge fan of both band’s records and maybe, because I came across the albums before I saw them live, I had an appreciation for both the recorded and live dynamic. Their records are so great.
Anyways, this is just to say that in conceiving this album we approached the tracking as a live band in order to get a, sort of, natural feel. But the idea was never to make a “live” album because we still want to be able to highlight the songs so the next step was to begin the overdubbing process. It’s, ideally, a best-of-both-worlds scenario that will hopefully allow the songs to develop and focus outside of the mayhem of the practice room… but not too much. Get it?
Roman and Adam setting up for the overdub.
Dave, the Oranges Band’s all-time drummer, has both the easiest and the hardest job in the band. He has to put up with me in the practice room trying to describe how I think a song should feel in this sort of broken drummer language that consists of me trying to mimic bass and snare drums with my mouth and by beating on my chest and stuff. We should get Doug E. Fresh to be a translator. The other part of his job that is really difficult is tracking. Drums, in my opinion, can not really be overdubbed… not without sounding like it at least.
So in going for the live takes, Dave pretty much had to nail each one. Not easy. Guitars and basses, even when meant to be live can be “fixed” without too much evidence but the drums have got to be there. BUT… once Dave gets through the songs, his work is mostly done, that’s the easy part. He gets to soak in a job well done while we try so earnestly not to ruin his hard work. And there has been more than one occasion when we’ve had some really awesome basic tracks that didn’t make it through the rest of the process. I guess that’s a lame part of his job, too.
Doug lighting it up, pt. 1.
OK, so Dave is done and Pat, the youthful bass player of the group, comes in to “dial in” his parts. There are a lot of recording terms for the process that describe fixing up the things you screwed up while tracking like “dial in” and “tweak” and “tighten up” and maybe, more so in Pat’s case, “caress”. Anyways, it was funny because we made a big production of getting Pat into the studio at a certain time that worked for everyone involved and having the equipment available only to realize that his parts were all tight as is. The stuff we thought needed the fixes were other people’s mistakes… mostly mine, of course. Well, we had fun listening to the tracks at least!
This is an interesting stage in the recording because you pretty much have your basics covered. Bass and drums are good to go. The guitars are present and accounted for, at least in their “live” state. So now you have to determine what to add to make the song better. Problem is, the world is available to you at this stage but, as is the real challenge of making an album, you must restrict yourself in some way. Luckily for us, we have budget restrictions and really no access to an orchestra so the process, at least, begins to come into focus. Rule #1-There will be NO orchestra on this record. Rule #2- This will not be “Chinese Democracy II”.
Doug lighting it up, pt 2.
OK, so without an orchestra, or a string section, or a grand (or even baby grand or even upright) piano we begin the overdubs with what else… MORE GUITARS! My personal approach to overdubbing guitars has always been a bit of a shotgun styled attack. Plug the guitar in, turn the tape on start playing and see what sticks. In some cases this has yielded some pretty cool lead lines. They have been sort of one note melody lines that just kind of boost up the chord structure… at least that is how I think of them. The approach to my guitar overdubs on this album, though, is rather different. I have to say that while overdubbing lead guitars is fun and I think I have had reasonable success, I am NO lead guitar player. See when our previous lead guitar player left the group, he did so… mysteriously. I mean, it wasn’t clear that it was happening and we had shows scheduled. Now I am too proud and altogether too stubborn to cancel shows so the show goes on, right?
Well, we did go on as a three-piece for a little while. And then as a three piece with an occasional fourth guitar and backing vocalist and then kind of back to the three piece. We struggled with line-up fluctuations for most of the year last year. We were trying to figure out how to present ourselves live while we were putting together our next group of songs and figuring out how they would be recorded. It was a pain the ass and I learned a very important lesson… that I am NO lead guitar player and that I needed help!
Doug checking the goods, pt. 1
The other thing that I was reasonably sure of, in the context of the recording, was that I was really looking for another player who could influence how these songs sounded and affect their outcome as recorded pieces. So, what does this have to do with my guitar overdubs? It means that I didn’t really want to do any… or very little at least. I wanted to crank out my rhythm guitars, add to them in the context of the rhythm only and let Doug open up on the leads and second guitar. So my guitar overdubs took about a day, I think, and consisted of me just peppering in a little rhythmic addition here or there, an acoustic guitar that mimics my electric and oh yeah, the “guitar takeover”.
Wha? Listen, I will let you in on a secret technique that I have devised called the “guitar takeover”. I am perfecting the style and approach but, what you need to know is that while the band is playing a microphone marches across the room focusing on a guitar and as it gets closer to the speaker, that particular guitar engulfs the entire song like an avalanche. That’s all I can say for now… be prepared.
Doug checking the goods, pt. 2
When Doug Gillard came down from New York to join us for our first practice back in January, we had a show scheduled for the next night. It was cutting it a bit close but I certainly wasn’t worried about it not working out. See, we had traded some tapes and I got a sense of what kind of ideas he had and also, he and I had practiced in New York the week before. There I got a sense, not that he was completely ready and decided about what he wanted to do, but that could learn the songs without problem and that he definitely had ideas and could execute them. You know, I’d also seen him play with Guided By Voices on no less than 30 occasions and in those 30 shows I must have seen him play 100 different GBV songs.
As far as job interviews go, those shows were pretty convincing. So we are gathering to practice and the other guys in the band must have been a little apprehensive… I mean to play a show with someone they’d practiced with one time? It’s a little nerve racking. Well, about one minute into our first song at practice, everyone is all smiles and it’s pretty much like, “Yes, I am the genius that I suspected I might be!” A very smart person will come up with a way to do something themselves, but a genius will be smart enough to get someone who is better at it to do it for them.
This is all to say that in doing guitar overdubs, Doug was the man and had everything in place. I will admit to you that I actually slept through at least some of his takes. It was so awesome because I think I was working hard at my day job at the time and would be tired when we were in the studio… so I’d kind of doze off and when I woke up there would be this great guitar part that wasn’t there before. Pennies from Heaven! This is why I can only claim CO-producer credit on this album… it’s because I slept through part of the recording. This is also why I don’t have a lot of details about his overdubbing. I was sleeping or getting coffee or something while Adam (engineer) and Doug turned it out. Two days later and Doug had polished off all nine songs.
Now with pretty much all the instruments in place, I really have to concentrate on writing a few lyrics and we’ll start tracking vocals… next episode.
Doug working out the parts for “When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”
Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry
PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part two…
It’s a maze of equipment in the tracking room. Doug emerges from the “amp cavern”. I’ll admit to being slightly confused and just a little overwhelmed here.
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