Aztec Hearts Recording Update: Sad News, Metal Ballads and Meltdowns

DSC05562Saturday night might be alright for fightin’, but it’s been disastrous for recordin’. I’m thinking about self-imposing a new “No Saturday” policy. This is the second Saturday night in a row that I’ve gotten liquored up and managed to screw something so bad that it can’t be salvaged. Last night, I went ahead and erased “Freight Train of Heartbreak”. All of it. The whole thing. Even though the machine has not one but two idiot warnings: Are you sure you want to delete this song? Yes/No. Followed by this action cannot be undone. OK/Cancel.

The machine has been acting weird and I know the hard drive is getting close to full. In an effort to free up some disk space, I was going through and deleting the multiple takes and old stuff that was of no use. That’s how I spend my Saturday nights; when everybody else is rockin’ out on the town, I’m sitting in my room either writing or working on the record, and drinking red wine. In this case, I’d just done a Skype interview with Mike Watt, which was preceded by five hours of compiling my notes and watching videos. Problem was that I forgot to rename the song so it only had a number as a file name, c.g. Song 59, which looks a lot like Song 58 when you’re boozin’ it up, right? It was a stupid move caused by the original, even more stupid move: opening a second bottle of wine and deciding to fire up the console—which you’re goddamn right I know better. Not even for easy listening pleasure. No. No no no no no no no.

Anyway, I’ll just have to re-cut the track, not that big of a deal except it’s going to involve a tricky re-tuning maneuver, which is ALWAYS fun on a 12-string. [CAPS denote an exaggerated amount of sarcasm.] This shit happens to me all the time and that’s why if something has an Auto-Save function, I always have it running. Even so, nothing is completely fail-safe. I’ve even managed to lose massive amounts of Microsoft Word data, which is not an easy thing to do; but I’m a Pro with a capital P. Here’s a pat on the back, tryhard. Self-sabotage is what I do best. I’m not just my own worst enemy, I’m my only enemy. Ain’t nobody in the world beefing on me (that I know of).

It’s been sort of a weird week for recording anyway; other than tracking drums on Tuesday night, nothing got accomplished. Or, as described above, I kind of went backwards. Meanwhile, I had/have a bunch of articles to write for BSM, so that took up a lot of my time. From Tuesday to Friday, when I did have a chance to turn on the BR-1180, I basically tooled around with the drum EQ and thought about re-doing “Freight Train”, but didn’t have the gumption to pick up my axe. I had previously thought that I was done with guitar for the time-being; my headspace is occupied by drums.

Sober evaluation of what I’ve done so far is pretty hard to come by. That is one of the few things that I miss about being in a band—the immediate feedback. You can play the cut for “the boys” and they give it a thumb up or down. Also, if you’re lucky, the boys have more input than just an opinion; they have ideas to make the song better. This is one reason why I’m asking some of my friends to be a part of it. The other thing I miss from a band is encouragement. Whether they’re totally gung-ho or just show up and do their thing, the boys represent a certain type of responsibility. In a microcosmic sense, the band isn’t going anywhere unless you re-cut “Freight Train”.

Poison roseAt this stage of my life, as I look at the catalog and evolution of my songwriting, the most important thing to me is purity of expression. If every song on this record sounds “the same,” that means I’ve done my job. Of course, I don’t mean it’s going to be 15 versions of the same song. But there will not be an ironic hip-hop song; there will not be a contemporary pop song with samples and manufactured beats; there will not be a faux hair-band metal ballad, mainly because none of those elements are on my palette or in my character. To me, doing shit like that is like wearing a goofy costume—look how clever I am! It’s a vain attempt to seem relevant and at the same time, like you’ve got a good sense of humor. Besides, I think I could try to write and record an “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, but it would come out sounding like Jandek on a really, really bad day.

JandekIf, for instance, dubstep had ever at anytime been a part of my life, then maybe I’d cut a couple of dubstep joints. On the other hand, the odor of early R.E.M. can be sniffed in the bridge of “Right Now You’re Feeling Me”. While musically light years away from Van Halen, “Ain’t No Man Of The World” was directly influenced by “Beautiful Girls.” That’s me digging on Jerry Reed and Leo Kottke in “Yeah Right”. Every song has its own little back-story of influence, but more importantly, the way I’m recording these songs make them completely unique, even if I choose to wear certain influences on my sleeve.

Even the cover songs have to sound like me (or I should say, Aztec Hearts). So it won’t matter who is singing or playing whatever instrument, they’re going to be doing it over the song which I wrote (or in the case of the covers, reinterpreted). Whatever fresh, new, or takeaway licks or riffs they contribute will strengthen the foundation and put the roof on the joint, so to speak. I can’t wait to hear what they do; that’s exciting. No matter how much or how little they put into it, their contributions will be in the final mix. The only thing I care about is that the song carries the original inspiration which compelled me to write it in the first place.

Matt SuharWoke up Sunday morning, feeling amped to track drums at KHS, only to find out that Henry’s fever from yesterday has not broken, and Janice has taken him to Makati Med. It’s worrisome and I feel powerless. Then I get on Facebook only to hear tragic news: Matt Suhar, an old associate from the Chicago days, tragically passed away at age 46. Even though I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in 20 years (and we were not Facebook friends), Matt Suhar was a cool cat and everybody loved him. He produced the first Brain Kiss EP and released it on his label, Big Jaw Records; he was a tremendous resource of encouragement and support for us. We played some of our first shows with his band, The Blind Venetians. Super bummer. Always hate to hear about good people dying young. Much respect.

Then another blow. One of the things I was so excited about playing on was “Freight Train of Heartbreak”, which I’d forgotten had been erased you stupid fucking jackass. In the space of 20 minutes, my mood has gone from pretty good to absolute shit, and I don’t even feel like going to play drums as I pack the gear and get ready to bounce, which is what I tell Janice. She tells me to go ahead and play. Henry’s OK; doc says it’s nothing to sweat; he caught a bug, and his fever is breaking. My hands are shaking as I tape them up with Band-Aids. Onward Christian Soldier.

The other day Janice told me that she was surprised that I get anxious before tracking drums or doing interviews with my heroes. “I can’t believe you get nervous before [insert activity here],” she said. “You’re the most confident person I’ve ever met.” Janice hasn’t met everybody in the world, nor has anybody else. Yes, I am confident in my abilities and it’s nice that she says that. But being confident doesn’t mean that I don’t have anxieties. You just never see them.

There are lots of times I’m kind of freaking out—like the morning of January 11, 2012, when Janice called and said she was in labor with Henry. Freaked the fuck out on the way to the airport. Never been so scared in my whole life. Anyway, I guess I’m good at hiding that stuff; not so much when it’s time for me to say goodbye and go back to Taipei. Big ol’ crocodile tears. So I’m always thinking about stuff unless I’m actually doing stuff. Anxiety is one part anticipation, one part expectation, and one part excitement. I get the “red light fever” when it’s time to record. You get self-conscious. You start thinking, “It’s got to be perfect.” With drums, the anxiety is heightened by the fact that I haven’t been what you could rightfully call a drummer since 1982.

Get down to Drum Room #2 (D2) and it’s the same deal. As I’m setting up my gear, all of the above negative thoughts and emotions are swirling around in my head and heart. I’m thinking, “What the fuck are you doing? This is a total waste of time! You should be taking care of your wife and kid. But no, you’re working in Taipei. Why are you doing this? Why are you here? This is pointless. Just pack your shit up and go home, dummy.” I’ve been in this place before—several times, actually.

Giving up the ghost at this point feels like defeat, and like everybody else, I don’t like the feeling of having “lost.” No, I will track drums today in spite of myself, and if they turn out to be shit, then so be it. This too shall pass. Gear is up, levels are set, and I run through “Kung Fu Gringo” to work up a sweat. Mission: accomplished. Even though I’m forging ahead, I’m still battling the voices in my head.

As I’m setting up the track and checking to make sure there’s no reverb or EQ, I take a deep breath and focus my attention, staring at the hi-hat while resting the sticks at my side. Even though I’ve been on this kit for a total of three hours, I never really paid too much attention to the cymbals. I don’t really dig cymbals all that much, but this song was going to be heavy on the hi-hat. So I’m staring at the hi-hats, which are Solar by Sabian, and there’s a logo, which I never paid attention to before. I’m staring and taking my breaths when all of a sudden, I notice there’s a logo on the top hat. I mean, I’ve seen gazillions of hi-hat cymbals is my life. They are taken for granted as long as they do the job. Zildjian, Sabian, Remo, Tama, Ludwig, Sonar, Solar…who gives a fuck?

Solar HiExcept for a flashing moment, the logo on the hi-hat read “Suhar” rather than Solar. Not a big stretch—two letters. I’ve done enough psychedelics to send an entire class of incoming freshman to the emergency room. Again, it’s happened before. My mind and its machinations had temporarily over-ridden the reality of my surroundings. But all of a sudden, a new voice began speaking to me. “You are fucking lucky to be alive, son. Think about Matt Suhar. Think about the fragility of life. Think about how blessed you are to be able to do this. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Quit bellyachin’ and fuckin’ hit the skins!”

I bounced off the throne and left the room, pacing the hallway for a minute as I listened to the voice in my head, which was now considerably louder than the noise coming from the other practice rooms. Remember, actors rehearse; musicians practice. You either do, or you don’t. Back at the kit, I cued up the track, hit record, and spent the next 15 minutes basically punching-in-and-out to get a good take. Wow. I’m nearing top energy level. Amped. Sounded great to me. Super psyched except for that last clam at the end—gotta go back and fix that.

The BR-1180 is going on 13 years old, and even though it’s been dormant for seven of those years, it most likely wasn’t built for endurance. Over time, it’s developed a couple of quirks, which digital devices are likely to do. One of those quirks is that it has a tendency to freeze up during automated punch-ins. After you set the IN and OUT markers, you’ve got to hit the REC button first, give it a second to flash, and then hit PLAY. If you don’t let the red REC light flash before hitting PLAY, it seizes up with a horrible warning buzz and you gotta unplug and reboot the machine. Plus, whatever you’d done up until that point which hadn’t yet been saved…is now gone. Bye-bye.

DSC05547Guess what yours truly has a tendency to do during multiple punch-ins? Impatient jackass can’t seem to wait for the red REC light to flash. And that’s exactly what happened as I was trying to fix the last clam on the track. Fucker seized up. OK, no problem. It’s happened so many times that I should know better but whatever. You saved all the earlier takes, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Didn’t you? No. No, I didn’t. And I’d like to say that I was thinking to myself right before it froze up, “Hey, dummy. Save the track.” But I didn’t. I was so caught up in the cut and nailing the final bit, that I spaced it. I brushed it off.

There are a few people who have ever seen me absolutely lose my shit. Janice has seen me angry, but she’s never seen what I’m about to describe. Losing my shit is not a regular thing. It’s more like once-a-decade I snap and freak the fuck out, usually over something traumatic or injurious. The last time I lost my shit was in 2002, when I got pinched for a DUI. Got sprung on bail, went home, got epically wasted and can’t recall what set me off other than the fact that I was now fucked and facing a year of soul-crushing reparations to society and probable financial ruin, but started screaming and throwing shit around my pad. Meltdown. The drum machine—threw that fucker through a window. Fortunately, it was in the middle of the day, so my landlord (who lived upstairs) was not around to hear it. But I did have to pay for the window.

DSC05556So 12 years have passed since I last threw, smashed, or otherwise damaged something in a fit of rage. Oh boy.

The BR-1180 seized up and I threw my sticks at the crash cymbal, ripped the headphones off, chucked them at the wall while simultaneously screaming “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” and kicking over the hi-hat. “Mo-ther-fucker!” Down goes the music stand, into the microphone. I picked up the throne and pounded it into the floor, still screaming, “Noooooo!!!” I’m hyperventilating. Spinning around to leave the room so I didn’t actually break anything of value—thank God I had that much restraint—it occurred to me that the doors have windows.

Usually, there’s never anybody out in the common area and hallway, so I never feel like I’m being watched. Not so this time, bud. Gathered outside are 12-15 college age kids waiting to get into their room, which is the big band practice room. It’s hard to say which of us was more surprised when I wheeled around, threw open the door, and stood there like Godzilla looking down on Tokyo. Clearly, some of them had been peering into my room as the events unfolded—witnesses!—since they backed away like someone had lit a Roman Candle. As for me, I wasn’t concerned that they had witnessed my tantrum; I was worried they were going to get in the way of it.

GodzillaSo I took a few steps out of the room and the group of kids parted like the Red Sea for Moses. Eyes like fucking saucers. Couldn’t get out of my way fast enough. I heard a couple of kids say, “Whoa!” In any other situation, I would have been embarrassed and said my bu hao yisi [Sorry, excuse me, forgive me in Chinese] and tried to get to the bathroom without making eye contact. But I’d kicked it into Godzilla mode this time. Rather than make any sort of show, I just moved along, staring straight ahead.

Walked down the hallway with the intention of cooling off and catching my breath. Stopping at the water dispenser, I discovered that there were no paper cups—hence, no water. OK, right there, I wanted to smash the fucker and maybe even kick it when it spilled to the floor. Deep breath. “Henry. Janice. Henry. Janice. It’s nothing, man. LET IT GO.” I spun around and banged my head against the wall several times before tilting it back and screaming—actually, it started as a growl—my favorite word. Fifteen seconds pass. My forehead rested against the wall and my chest heaved. Stayed that way for maybe 10 more seconds, listening to only the deep fuzz of my anger. There was outside noise but it wasn’t getting in. Finally, I headed back to the room. Curiously, I did not have tears in my eyes. I thought about that later. Anyway, as I turned the corner, the group of kids caught sight of me and scattered like cockroaches. That Godzilla image again. The previous occupants of their room, oblivious to what had just occurred, were pouring out into the common area, while the other half of the waiting group swarmed at the door like a Japanese subway train. Stampede type shit. Kids are pushing kids from behind, lots of hooting and hollering.

SubwaySeeing that made me chuckle a little bit, and I went back in with something of a smile on my face. The next hour or so went well and I was happy with stuff. However, I was getting gassed. Other than the short freakout, it’d been an hour and a half straight on the skins. That’s a pounding for an old man who hasn’t played competitive drums since junior high. Even though my hands are all taped up with Chinese Band-Aids, I still managed to get stickrash on both hands. Blisters in unfortunate places and whatnot. Keep going. Clock is ticking.

All in all, give or take a few minutes, in two and a half hours I got: “Kung Fu Gringo”, “Face”, “La’ hov” and a good start on “Rockford/Make A Sound”. Also tracked was “S.L.O.U.C.H.” but the drums don’t come in until the end of the jam, so that was the easiest minute of my life. Until I realized that the track was still set up in Bounce Mode, so the guitar got mixed into the live drums tracks; meaning the track has to be re-done. “Rockford” isn’t going to make the cut, either, since I gassed out halfway through and couldn’t finish the take. Still had another half hour on the clock but I packed it in. All I really wanted to do was go home and have a drink. Kinda felt like I’d been in a fight.

Drum sessions booked for Tuesday and Thursday. Final drum day on Sunday (fingers crossed). When I got home, I showered, briefly listened to what I’d done, and then beat it down to the supermarket for supplies. Later in the afternoon, I told Janice about the meltdown episode and she was very amused, so I don’t feel so bad about it. “Those kids got a show,” she said, and I could hear her smiling. Yeah, and it could have been a lot worse, ‘specially if alcohol had been involved. Thank God I don’t drink before sundown (anymore), except on vacation.

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