Aug 5, 2014

Manifest Focus, I Dont Throw Lightning

I've spent a good amount of time (year and a half maybe?) at home songwriting/recording our next project. And if that sounds like a long time... it is... especially for us. This is actually the longest time we've had to work on writing music since we started the band. After the release of our first record, we've been running non-stop touring, writing, recording, touring, and so on. We wrote the next two albums each with about three months prep, and under one week to record everything. ONE WEEK EACH. *

Usually tracking two songs a day, for four days, and two more to do all the vocals. Usually leaving the studio straight to the stage to perform the tracks before they were even mixed. That is incredibly fast. It's 1964 fast. 

When you have a great producer and engineer, like we did, and a tight band, great things happen with a little time. Most of our songs were recorded in one, maybe two takes. A very exciting and creatively volatile atmosphere. There's a lot to be said for this sort of pressure cooker creativity: plenty of spontaneous bursts of ideas but overall it's not a lot of time to dig in and create.
While we were in the studio for a song that eventually became Don't Turn Out The Lights, our producer Dan Auerbach was unhappy with the working chorus. We played the demo. He made some notes on the groove. Did a practice run then went back to Dan to get his thoughts.

Dan leaned back in his chair, and with a sigh and a look of tiredness worn like a comfortable shirt, Dan announced he was going to take a coffee break,  'I want a great chorus by the time I get back.'  He is a man of few words, but he means every word.
Dan has always pushed our band. I don't know how he works with other artists, but for us he always asks for more than I thought we could do. Can you do it all live? With Vocals? Can you sing it better? Write it better? Play it better? And I'm grateful. His drive has taught me a lot about myself and what I'm capable of, so when he asked me to write a better chorus and walked out of the studio without a single word of direction, I knew he was testing me, and I knew I could succeed.

I sat down on the floor of the studio live room armed with an 60's flat-top Gibson and a legal pad, and started running through the song's chords. Repeating them. Listening to the notes. Playing variations on tempos and octaves, listening for a melody hidden inside. Feeling the clock and trying not to worry, I focused on the music. Strumming. The vibrations. Visualizing the notes, the waves bouncing against themselves in the air. Strumming. The subtleties, the patterns.

Then the melody came in focus like a distant image on the horizon. Closer and clearer. Walking to me. In no hurry. Just traveling at its own pace.

I leaned in closer to hear. Pressed my jaw into the shoulder of the wood and felt the chords ringing through my head. I shut my eyes. Closer the details formed. The shape, the feel, the words...

It was about ten minutes when Dan came back with a half emptied mug and sat back in his chair. He was perked up. Everything was done. I gave him the legal pad to read along as I sat on the couch playing the newly written idea to everyone.

Halfway through my performance, Dan put done his mug, whispered to the engineer and when I was done, he clapped loudly and we were ready to get back to work, "Yeah Son, that's right!"

That chorus was born out of a time crunch. I needed a chorus at that moment. And with focus, it manifested, it came to me. So I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining when I talk about now and the amount of time we are taking. I want to try working a record with a different feel and pace. I wanted to know what we could do with a little more. 

A little more time to write. More time to practice. More time to do takes, and mix, and sing. And it all adds up to a lot more time in the long run but that was the plan.

We could've easily retread the same musical territory we've run before. Could've put out another album like Shakedown, our last, but that's not what we're about. Since then I've learned a lot about writing and playing where I feel we can improve technically, but I've also changed emotionallyBut most importantly I want to be a man in the present, not history.

This has been a crazy year for me and the band. Our family has grown and shrank. On the industry side, we've had so many highs and lows, from the top of the world to the lowest slugged out tracks of the gutter, that it makes my head spin just thinking about it.

All of that gets filtered into newer and newer songs. It was almost too much to keep up with, leaving me with used notebooks, forgotten computer files and recordings, filled with songs, ideas, and fragments at every level of completion.
Those albums are past. Artifacts. Preserved moments of time. A memory, and I'm not yet at a place to be nostalgic for our own work. I like to build off of the past, not recreate it.

Anyways I've been enjoying my own bed. My own city. My own life. And on my own time. These precious things pass by quickly, but they are the riches of life. So I have no guilt about seizing the chance to wake up to the sounds of my neighbors riding their lawnmowers, my son babbling, or my wife heading to work; not highway truck stop engine revving, hotel cleaners, lobby check-out calls, or a tour manager nervous about the next gig.

I love walking Boerne streets, looking at the changes in my city. Business come and go while I'm gone. I recently came back to find one of my favorite restaurants gone forever... oh well. I love being home for the longer days of summer staying up watching movies, reading books, and playing a violin concert in the afternoon to myself. I like becoming a better person and musician, not just a more popular band. I love writing and writing and throwing it all away and starting again. I love working a song and trying it with just a shade of difference. And those things can't be done while touring.
So day after day I drive a short road between my house and our studio, lock up with my brothers, and think of words/melodies, approach/delivery, style/substance, all in an attempt to move our band forward.

As I'm writing this to you, I'm a few feet from our speakers, listening to songs come together in the final stages (We've been mixing all day which means generally balancing the track. This is close to composition/color/balance in photography) and I've got this feeling... somewhere between anticipation, nerves and ecstatic craziness.
Anticipation because I've been bouncing these ideas in my head for a so long and this'll be the first time I get to hear a result in full. The culmination of hard work. A birth. Finding out if the songs were as good as they were conceived to be. That brings me to Nervousness: working so long on an idea puts the creator so close to it, they are never able to see the faults. But creation isn't easy. It comes with a lot of hurt. I'm not too worried though, I've got much more of the Ecstatic Craziness burning in me and I'm really digging what I hear: the best test for a song. This last feeling comes directly from my state of trying to do something I haven't done before. Challenging myself to go further, the way Dan always has; Challenging myself to dig deeper into myself, be more vulnerable than I've ever let myself; but mostly because I feel like we are pulling it off.

These songs will be of home. Of love. Of this moment. Of loss and change and growth. My reality. The life that grows outside my window. I'm happy to be out of the past, and more than willing to take as much time as I need to get there.

I don't throw lighting
I make no thunder
no way to transcend bone

No ambitious dagger
poison truth, no
shimmering hell for home

Devils play for bigger
game, starry seas
tomorrow and her works

Leaving me stolen strings
breath of body and
all good places of earth


*photo source: