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Song Sources: “(It’s Not) 1962”

December 6, 2010

This is part of an ongoing series about the recordings on our new album, due out in March 2011. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

A Stetson, a Slate.com article about Pavement, generational divides, and a boatload of frustration produced one of our strangest and best songs.

This was the last song written for the album, and, in many ways, it’s also the hardest one for me to talk about. So I might as well get it out of the way early.

The Lyrics

I had a hat that got too small for my head
And the leather band blistered in the heat

By the time we had finished pressing Fireworks, I was halfway through writing the material that would make up The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak. I was finishing a song every two weeks, which is extraordinarily fast for me. But then there was this handful of songs written between January and March 2009 that just didn’t work.

Writer’s block doesn’t usually bother me because if nothing’s coming out, I have plenty of other things to do, and as an independent artist who also has a full-time job, I don’t have the same outside pressures full-time musicians face. So what I normally do is set the song aside and come back to it.

Or never come back to it. Some writers will work on everything to a state of completion and then throw most of it away. I used to abandon something if it doesn’t coalesce immediately. At most I would steal a couple lines for another song later.

That’s what I used to do all the time. This time I decided to work through it, with perhaps one of the most tiresome ways to do so: With a writing prompt. I can’t even recall where I saw the prompt. It was “Write about your favorite article of clothing.”

I don’t really care much about clothes. There are a couple Animaniacs tee shirts in my dresser that I like, and the red four horsemen shirt I wear whenever we’re donning our primary colors. The idea of picking a favorite piece of clothing was unappealing.

But then I remembered that there was one piece of clothing I cared about at one point. I bought a Stetson while I was in Texas; it was antique white, with a thin brown leather strip around the middle. It wasn’t a big ten gallon hat or anything, just a fedora like someone might wear in the 40s. Or more accurately, it looked a lot like the hats that Dylan and Robbie Robertson were wearing in the 70s.

 

Hey look, hats!

 

It’s the only nice hat I’ve ever owned, and it’s the only hat I’ve ever intentionally put on my head for any reason other than to keep the sun off while fishing. For several months while I was in San Antonio, it was my costume when I went out to play music. Then one day, after I had left it in the back window of my car, it no longer fit. The glue and the heat from the sun shrank the hat.

Being an artist is a good way to get a big head, sometimes. But what if that’s not what happens? What if sometimes it’s the hat that shrinks?

Texas gave me water and sent children to sleep
All of us with shoes for our feet

I wrote the lyrics to “1962” right after our first show at the Baltimore Hostel, which was another frustrating experience. I won’t go into the details. I will say that I eventually got some advice that made me feel much better about the whole thing. A really internet-savvy person could find out what happened.

One thing I got from Texas was a sense of community among musicians, something that is not the norm among most Baltimore players. There are still some circles here, like bar bands, and especially older bar band players, where everyone else is competition. You can split your show with them, but they won’t reciprocate. They all act like they’re going to make it big, or if they’re old enough to know better, they still act like a band that thinks they’re going to make it big. They spend their whole lives getting theirs and never get anywhere. Big heads. And an outmoded may of thinking.

I thought the wheels on the rails
or the wind in the sails would take me back to you
But they’ve torn up the tracks
and put stones in my path
and it’s not 1962

I understand that Berkeley still tells incoming students that their fellow students are their competition. It’s not true. Who cares if you beat Boxcar Willy in a fight? You need to take down Drederick Tatum.

About the time I was writing the song, I read an article on Slate.com about Pavement, which got me thinking about generational divides. For those who don’t know about them, Pavement was one of the first bands for whom “Indie” was a musical descriptor, instead of just short hand for an independent artist or label. A lot of indie music might have grown out of college rock groups like R.E.M., but R.E.M. was still on a major label. It’s difficult to articulate exactly why the band is important to my generation (or more properly to the generation 5-10 years older than me), because the fact is that they don’t really “sound good” and they probably weren’t deserving of great commercial success. Nor would they have wanted it.

The music industry—the machine that produces artists like Lady Gaga, Hannah Montana, and Beyoncé—is still dominated and controlled, like most powerful institutions, by my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, or at least their values. One of these values no longer exists for musicians: massive celebrity. There are massive celebrities in music, but they aren’t usually famous just for their music. The world is too different a place.

Think of how dominant artists from the 60s and 70s are in the public consciousness. Make a reference to The Beatles and most people will get it. Make a reference to The Mountain Goats and most people will blink.

But references like this are starting to pop up nonetheless. And people my age get them, some of them. The editor of Pitchfork.com wrote that “Indie” is just what music made for and by adults sounds like now. Maybe it just takes longer now to decide what’s “great” and has cultural acumen, because the last generation’s metric can no longer be used. Or maybe it really has been some sort of generational oppression by the Baby Boomers. Who knows. Good music always endures, and there’s chaff in every era. Remember that next time someone says to you (or you want tell someone), “These kids today are all heathens.”

But that’s not to say that my generation isn’t still trying to bank on the older models. Trains still pop up in songs written by people my age. I’ve done it. I did it on this record. Colleagues have done it. Why? For no other reason than it’s a cultural trope; it’s either shorthand or a shortcut, something people think “belongs” in a “folk” song. I’ve never been on a train. I’ve never been on a boat for any reason other than recreation. I’ve been on an airplane and in a car. Trains are mostly gone. Why the hell do we still write about them?

I had a dream where I dreamed of a house
with a girl who was tall as a tree
She dyed her hair as black as Tennessee coal
and I loved her to a certain degree

It’s possible we’ll no longer have as broad a range of cultural icons as shortcuts to connectedness in our writing. It’s not the only loss my generation has to look forward to; the world has become a very different place. It’s more expensive, less prosperous, and seemingly environmentally doomed. There’s less hate, but more information. I sometimes worry that there’s less good to bother doing, certainly less at home, and that there’s more evil about which nothing can be done. I don’t think most people my age have any concept of an “American Dream”; I’m not certain my generation even has something as clear as “a little cottage with a white picket fence” to strive for or reject.

In some ways, this record, despite its more rock/pop/indie sound, owed more to the folk tradition than anything on Fireworks. Many of songs on the album reuse folk music themes and lyrics; this one critically deconstructs them.

The Music

It started out as really slow country and ended up being an almost electronica song.

I didn’t introduce it to the band for weeks because it bored me as a country song. The lyrics are obscure and were closer to private catharsis than something I would normally present to the public. So I didn’t have an impetus to work on this with others. I also had another slow country song at the time I was trying to get the band to do; that one got scrapped completely.

Then Tim and I had a practice with just the two of us. We did the initial arrangements on “Blue Eyes” and “Put on the Brake.” (“Blue Eyes” was another song that change significantly once the rest of the band got involved.)

We tried everything, from space rock á la Pink Floyd to reggae. I was getting more and more frustrated, which might have been a good place to go when working on a song born out of frustration. I started playing it really fast, and it felt better that way. Tim and I brainstormed drum parts and ended up using a 16th-note hi-hat beat like what that U2 uses at the beginning of “New Years Day.”

I happened to have gone to The Oranges Band‘s 10-year anniversary concert the previous weekend, and they often do this same sort of stompy fast beat with just the root and fifth that owes an awful lot to post punk, early R.E.M., and U2. My delay pedal happened to be on at the time and I used that to create the cascade sound (I’ll explain that further later), which also dictated the faster tempo of the song. I particularly liked how such a simple guitar part interacted with the drum beat and how it disappeared in the mix.

It does not sound as interesting without the delay pedal on.

The keyboard parts were added later. Jen and I did a separate practice on our own, and after quite a bit of discussion about the song, she found a Pat Metheny track on her computer with a similar pulsing electronica sound I was looking for in the bass. It’s really simple—just an eighth-note pattern with the root note of the chord in two octaves—but very tricky to play in time at full speed.

The Recording

Overall, we spent more time recording and mixing this song than any two other songs on the album.

The trickiness of playing these parts in time at such a fast tempo came up in the studio. Everything’s under a microscope, and Chris and I knew early on that it would be difficult to reconcile the “perfectness” required for a dance song with our habit of, you know, actually playing our parts. At one point we had chopped up the drums so much that it was nothing but a sampled drum loop. It was too inorganic, though, and before doing the final mix we pulled Tim’s original drum track in its entirety back into the song. Chris might still do a remix with a drum machine.

My bass playing it typically horrible, so Chris ended up playing bass on this song, too. I’m not a bass player, and I’ve spent so long playing without one that I often forget just how positive an effect adding one can have.

We took advantage of digital recording to get the cascade effect on the guitar exact. The other guitar delays were just us fiddling with my analog pedal settings until we found something close. In this case, we had to do math:

45/t = ms

where t is the tempo (150 in this case). You can see a graphical representation of what this looks like scored out on sheet music here. We added the same delay to the snare drum, temporarily cementing the impossibility of reproducing the track live, then took that back out for the same reason we had scrapped the drum loop idea.

I also knew early on that I wanted a choir. Jen was skeptical, but eventually came around once she heard it recorded. (Someday, we’ll get a mix of just her, overdubbed several times, singing the chorus.) Acacia Sears, Celina Taormino (Tim’s wife), and Heather Lloyd of ilyAIMY filled out the rest of the voices. Then we used a chorus/doubling effect. Presto! Forty voices from four people.

The keyboard bass part almost got taken out of the song. The initial take seemed a little off time, and so we muted it in the first mixdown (part of the “36” package that went to the attendees of our birthday party). Eventually we made it work with what we had (although it’s no longer throughout the entire song). Jen and I were going to be very sad pandas if it didn’t stay. The bass line appears elsewhere, very briefly, on the album, but that’s a story for another time.

Where the track really came together, in Chris’s opinion, is the acoustic guitar chords on the chorus.  Rhythm guitar parts don’t often get enough love. I find it instructive that even after all the really hard work put into all the other fancier parts, it’s just a guitar playing chords that ends up being the most interesting thing. I owe an additional debt to Acacia Sears for this. She plays with a really percussive palm mute on her songs:

The acoustic guitar part I ended up recording came about because I was trying to play like her.

It was quite a relief to see something initially so frustrating realized as something worth being so proud of.

We do okay with it live, I think. I miss the choir most of all. The backing vocals are arranged a little differently, and overall it’s a little softer, but it’s always fun because of the shouty chorus.

Here, as usual, for those interested, is the full song with the chords:

(Intro is the first two lines of the verse)

G                                      Am
I had a hat that got too small for my head
C                                    D                         G
And the leather band blistered in the heat
C                         G                         D                G
Texas gave me water and sent children to sleep
C    C9             G       D           G
All of us with shoes for our feet

Am                                D
I thought the wheels on the rails
G                                                  C            D           G
or the wind in the sails would take me back to you
G                           Gsus4   Em
But they’ve torn up the tracks
C            G                    C
and put stones in my path
C9                G  D  G
and it’s not 1962

I had a dream where I dreamed of a house
with a girl who was tall as a tree
She dyed her hair as black as Tennessee coal
and I loved her to a certain degree

Repeat chorus, guitar solo (verse chords), repeat chorus twice

[Edit: spelled “Pedal” correctly. Sorry, Brennan, it wasn’t in honor of Petal Blight :(]

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