Aztec Hearts Recording Update: Wrangling With Woody, New Blood and Flutes!

Family Pics and Video 018Today’s update is a mixed bag of recurring themes, changing plans, and the occasional spoiler alert. First and foremost, there was a two-week break from recording while I went home to Makati. One day I played the skeleton mixes for Janice and she predicted that “Barnyard Stomp” will be a hot dance jam for Henry. As I said in the update from April 5, that’s how I’m going to judge this record: if the kid likes it, I’ve done a good job.

Prior to the vacation, I spent a good deal of time on “fixes”, particularly on bass. Here’s the video that I promised to post and the first spoiler alert of the day: stick around for (or fast-forward to) the final 20 seconds.

It’s hard for me to watch that little outburst and one of the reasons I held the video back. Another reason was the fact that Miles the bass belongs to Rajah Cheech Beldone, and he’s the last guy I want to see traumatized. Anyway, I thought about it for a while and decided not to edit it out. On one hand, it’s not as if I swung Miles like a tomahawk on the BR-1180, altho’ the thought did most certainly cross my mind. Believe me, it’s just scratching the surface of a true meltdown, and nowhere near the Godzilla episode of March 18. There is more video footage of that session, but everything went smoothly after I wrangled the crackling input pot with a squirt of WD-40, and that’s pretty boring to watch and defeats the purpose of making a video.

Aztec Pics and Video 045Forces beyond my immediate control have forced me to re-think the direction of the record. The main switcheroo is something I should have seen coming: despite saying that I wasn’t going to play a lot of guitar on this record, the fact is, I’m going to be playing a lot of guitar on this record. Meet “Woody”, another loaner from Beldone, and the first Telecaster I’ve wrangled with since the first Henry Miller Sextet record in 1999. [That was also a “borrowed” axe; I’ve never actually owned a Tele.] Man, let me just say a few things about this guitar and move it along. One, in the words of Bryan Adams, “It cuts like a knife / And it feels so nice”. Two, it saddens me that I’ve basically ignored Telecasters for the bulk of my life. I’ve always been a Strat/SG/Les Paul guy.

Having said all that, I am not the only dude who will be wrangling on the record. Up until this point of its third incarnation, Aztec Hearts has been a one-man operation (in terms of musicianship—on the other hand, there has been quite a bit of logistical input from Stu Morrow and the aforementioned R. C. Beldone). There have been vague mentions of other people contributing and it’s my policy not to announce or insinuate that anybody else will be playing on the record or joining the family, until they’ve actually played on the record or joined the family. Therefore, I am thrilled to announce our first official member of the family, Ronnie Kwasman on guitar.

Ronnie 1
Ronnie recording “Bleary Eyed Blue” with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. Photo by Chris Fry.

As frequently noted and documented here and elsewhere, Ronnie Kwasman is as close to a brother as a friend can get. We met in high school and started playing in bands as early as 1985, and continued to play together for the next 15 years. He is one the most (if not the most) rock-solid guitar player I have (a) ever heard and (b) had the good fortune to play with.  And most importantly, he’s been a best friend and musical inspiration in many ways. Ronnie turned me on to so many bands and records over the years that I can’t even count ’em, but my favorite story is the time in the mid-90s that he sat me down and made me listen to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Even before that, Ronnie was always the first guy on the block with new and exciting stuff’; for instance, he was the first cat in our group to own the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. Meanwhile, his credentials are impeccable.

Me and Ronnie, circa 1990 at Batteries Not Included, Chicago.
Me and Ronnie, circa 1990 at Batteries Not Included, Chicago.

Currently, Ronnie is a long-standing member of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, a fantastic indie rock band based in Chicago (with a highly anticipated new record coming out). You should drop everything and check out their last album, Rot Gut, Domestic. Over the years, Ronnie has played with a slew of bands and musicians including our bands (Brain Kiss, Whitey, Golden Tones), plus:

Ronnie 2
Recording with David Singer and the Sweet Science circa 2012
Bombay Bicycle Co.
Ballsniffer
Tarpit
McEnroe
David Singer and the Sweet Science
Trautmann (with Brian Deck and David Singer)
Ike Reilly

Additionally, when he’s not touring with Margot, he is the head engineer of Astro Recording Lab (also in Chicago). And don’t forget, he’s one half of Bob and Ron’s Record Club.

Having previously recorded two Aztec Hearts records in almost exactly the same fashion, The Inner Distance occasionally deviates from the artistic m.o. I’ve established and identified with, but for the most part, it’s being made in the same way. No offense to my friends well-versed in the visual arts, but my process runs parallel to almost exactly akin to painting. OK, so I know that every artist isn’t DaVinci or Van Gogh or even Jackson Pollack; everybody has their own gig. But the way I currently make records is the way I would paint a picture.

For the majority of my (non) career, the way we made records was Keep It Simple, Stupid. We wrote the jams in practice, played the piss out of them, and went in to the studio for anywhere from one day to a month, where we played the tracks live, adding vocals and overdubs later on. S.O.P. for every band I’ve ever been in with the brave exception of Golden Tones, who did things so fucking backwards we are now convinced that band was light-years ahead of its time. Nevertheless, at no time were any of those bands working from a particularly artistic angle. I mean, musicians are artists; making records is an art form. However, our approach did not deviate from what everybody else was doing: KISS and don’t fuck it up.

From the very beginning of AH, what I wanted to do was “paint” what I heard. That would have been a hell of a lot easier if they made audible watercolors, but they don’t. The first step in any case was to write some goddamn songs, which is a lot like walking around a city at night, looking for some shadows you can stuff into your pockets without anyone noticing. Once I write some songs, the next step is to make a sketch of each and every one. See, for me, one song is not enough to qualify as a portrait or a landscape, let alone the triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch. The album is the picture; the songs are its components. The components however are interchangeable and can be removed from the picture without losing any of their intrinsic value.

The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights

Right, so I make the sketches, in every case, with an acoustic guitar and a click track. Once satisfied with the form, I record the drums, which is kind of like reinforcing your lines (or shadows in the case of free form paintings). Then comes the bass, which puts perspective into place. Once this is finished, we are ready to add the background. This could mean any number of things. It could mean doubling the acoustic guitars. It could mean adding electric rhythm. In the past in meant using digital keyboards to add color—this is one of our present deviations: we are only using analog and organic instruments.

The next step can be the most rewarding and the most gut-wrenching period of the entire process, and that is, working with other people. With Ronnie, it was easy; I asked if he’d play. He said yes. I sent him the tracks, which he downloaded and swapped into ProTools. He is now at this moment laying down his tracks without a single word of direction or suggestion from me. In fact, I told him that he would be one of two people set to play on the record who I emphatically would NOT tell what or when to play. My input amounted to saying, “Do whatever you want.” That’s because I know Ronnie and I know what he does. That’s what I want on the record. There is one other person who exists in the same space, who doesn’t need me to tell him what to play. While I would love to name this individual, he has not (to the best of my knowledge) hit the “record” button. But he’s close. He’s committed to playing on the record, however much or as little as he sees fit, but until I know that he’s actually recording something, mum’s the word.

Which brings me further along in the subject than I expected to go, but here we are and let’s deal with it. In total, I asked 10 people to contribute to the record, though that number may go higher in the near future. So far, four of those individuals have agreed to sing and/or play without reservation. Three people have agreed to play but aren’t sure how they fit in or if they have anything to contribute. One individual is on the fence. That leaves two people who politely said, “Thanks for asking, but I’m really busy.” And I’m super cool with that becuz it’s an answer. Yes or no, that’s all I want. And it’s not as if I expect people to willingly participate out of the goodness of their hearts. Aztec, or otherwise.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, those two individuals most likely would have made the greatest impact on the overall sound of the record, mainly because they play instruments that (a) I can’t play and (b) have almost never been used on any of my songs. And in writing the songs, I specifically left gaping holes in the arrangements to accommodate their parts, which I more or less had written in my head. While I was initially excited about having them play, their rejections came as somewhat of a relief; it occurred to me that two less people to deal with was a positive thing.

Aztec Pics and Video 050So this brings us back to why I’m playing a lot of guitar on this record. Rather than abandon the ideas for those alternative instruments, I thought, “Fuck it, I can just play those parts on guitar.” At first, I tried to get the Tele to sound like those instruments, and it just…wasn’t happening. Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t appreciating the guitar’s strengths. What does the Tele do and do well? Uh-huh, that bit about Bryan Adams and cutlery. Once I took that approach, it was like a light bulb going on over my head. Meanwhile, I borrowed yet another pedal from Stu Morrow, a Digitech DD-5 delay pedal. Between the No Name, the Volumizer, the delay, and the plethora of built-effects on the 8-track, I’ve had myself a solid week of excellent wrangling and I’m absolutely loving it. I might even say that I’ve captured some of the best tones of my recording career. Of course, there’s been a lot of fiddling and twiddling and tweaking, but that’s part of the deal.

Aztec Pics and Video 049While the family and I were out at SM Mall of Asia, the fourth largest mall in Asia (according to Forbes), I picked up a couple of bamboo flutes for 225 pesos a piece—one in C major, the other in B flat major. It’s funny how I manage to unwittingly contradict myself. Way back when I started doing drums at KHS, there’s a guy there who plays flute. And being gung-ho about recruiting alternative instruments – and generally thinking of the record as somewhat of an experiment in chamber pop music – the thought once again crossed my mind: “Do I have anything that could use a flute?” And I answered, “Nope.” Well, I was wrong. Again.

Aztec Pics and Video 044With just a marginal amount of ingenuity (read: a delay pedal, reverb, and double-tracking), I figured that I could easily replicate some of the ideas in my head by using the bamboo flutes. I don’t know if this qualifies as some kind of first-world artist problem, but it’s one of those things I really enjoy about recording. It forces me to be resourceful. OK, the saxophone guy is out. Would it be possible to scrounge up a similar sound using these silly five-dollar flutes?

Don’t get ahead of yourself, Chief. First, you gotta learn how to play them.

Back when I was recording the first AH record, I wanted a real violin part on a track called “Cuz”. At the time I was really digging on John Cale and the Velvet Underground, so I thought, “Well, it doesn’t look all that difficult to do. Let’s learn how to play violin.” So I asked around and a friend loaned me his beginner’s violin and I commenced to learnin’…sort of. In fact, it took me several weeks to even get the fucker to make a sound, which truly and verily resembled that of a cat being tortured. Then I brought the violin down to a Mom n’ Pop music store in the Sunset and said, “OK, what am I doing wrong here?” First thing Mom says is, “Did you rosin the bow?”

Did who to the what?!? No, I didn’t rosin the goddamn bow. I didn’t know I was supposed to. You got any of that rosin shit laying around this joint? Mom opened the violin case, fumbled around for a second, and pulled out a small tin of unknown origin. “We carry bow rosin, yes. But you already have some right here.” Thanks, Mom.

So I got home and looked up “How to play violin” on the internet. Duh. Step two: rosin the bow. Anyway, a week later I managed to scrape out the part I wanted to play on the jam. Then I promptly put the violin back in its case and attempted to return  it to my friend, who to this day has never returned my calls. Anyway, now I’m learning how to play the flutes and I am dead certain that my learning curve is not going over very well with my neighbors. Oh well. I’m enjoying myself.

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