Slouching Toward Greatness?

The plan to release In the Spirit of Almost two-songs-at-a-time was created in response to obstacles, contingencies, and inner monologues about logic, reason, and rational thought. First and foremost, there are 17 tracks on the album, 16 if you discount the acoustic version of “Mountains of Honey”, and 15 if you consider the “Sandy Beaches” remix, which technically belongs to a different record.

And then it occurred to me. One word. The name of today’s featured song. “Slouch”. This track will correct the balance. It deserves two songs’ worth of attention.

The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit (1998)
Golden Tones, The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit (1998)

“Slouch (aka S.L.O.U.C.H.)” was originally written and recorded by Golden Tones and released in 1998 on The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit, the double-disc set which captured the apex of our creative powers as a musical unit and contains a couple of my personal favorite songs. One of those songs, “S.L.O.U.C.H.”, co-written with Ron Kwasman and Matthew Tucker, happens to be one of the biggest regrets of my artistic life.

Here it is in one sentence: The vocals on the original (“S.L.O.U.C.H.”) version are awful.

[In order to avoid confusion, click here to listen to the original.]

The Portable Thruster was recorded on a lo-fi chain of Tascam 4-track and 8-track cassette machines, bounced to ADAT, and mastered to DAT. Engineer Pete Most once said, “It might not sound all that great, but it definitely doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.”

The main tonal theme of “S.L.O.U.C.H.” was based loosely on a series of Ronnie’s guitar loops and my bass lines, both of which were improvised. It really came together after I wrote the chord changes on acoustic guitar, and all three of us hashed out the arrangement in the practice space. The loops were pretty simple and it was a really fun and exciting piece of music to work on. The tune is anchored by the live take of bass, drums, and guitar, but the bulk of the song was overdubs and some good and bad decisions.

To the best of my recollection, the idea to distort the vocals came late in the mixing process, and I can’t say for sure who came up with that bright idea. Maybe it’s better if I didn’t know. 50/50 odds it coulda been me.

GTpolaroid06The feeling and emotion of the performance is there, but the execution didn’t come to work. Or it showed up five hours late with a 12-pack. Though I’m my own worst critic, if I could go back and do something over again, it would be FIX THAT SONG. For whatever reason, I let it slide back in the day. Might have even thought it was cool and sounded neat. Doesn’t matter. Too late.

Or is it? Although Ron and Matt played major roles in the recording, it’s generally conceded to be one of My Songs; so there would be no harm in revisiting and revising the jam – they would have been supportive anyhow. So I sad, “I’m gonna do another version” and it became part of the writing phase, as I basically had to re-learn the song from scratch, and transpose it to a different key. And that was fun. Seriously.

Anyway, I didn’t want to mess around with the song’s structure, but I did want to change some of the lyrics and phrasings. There were a couple of bits on the original that made me cringe. With the tangental input of R.C. Beldone, I got rid of a couple of awkward spots, and the final result was something I could live with. In terms of the overall feel, I just went with where I was at the moment – which is what I’ve always done. My goal was never to recreate the original, it was to renovate the existing vibe.

Slouch

 

To the casual listener, the new and ‘improved’ version of “Slouch” might sound a bit cleaner and smoother, with more gain structure. The vocals are not as distorted and screamy; they don’t sound any better – it just sounds like it was recorded in a better environment. This is true, in a relative way.

Most importantly, I am honored to say that the new version features two of my all-time heroes on guitar, Billy Dolan (Five Style, Heroic Doses, Das Boton) and who else? Ron Kwasman (Margot and the Nuclear So n So’s).

After recording the basic tracks, I sent mixes to Billy and Ron, who recorded their parts in Rockford, IL, and Chicago, IL, respectively. For the most part, Billy plays the main lead pedal steel-sounding parts, and Ron is doing all the spacey atmospheric stuff.

Not only are Billy and Ronnie two of my favorite guitarists ever, they are the two best musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

Ronnie 1Ronnie is not just a friend, he’s a brother. Though he may be a crazy good guitar player, he is one of the nicest, most humble people you will ever meet. When I needed a place to sleep, Ronnie let me crash at his place. When I needed a job, he gave me one, or got me one. If I was hungry, he would give me something to eat. When I didn’t have any money or any weed, he would pack me a bong hit and loan me some cash. That’s the way he was. If someone was your enemy, he was Ronnie’s enemy, too. If you were down on your luck, Ronnie helped you take the first step back to good fortune.

The short version of this story is that Ronnie and I met in high school and we played in bands together (and separately on occasion) for the better part of 15 years. Our musical partnership created a treasure chest of good music, some of which is still ringing in our ears. Now even though it’s been 15 years since we’ve seen each other in person, we remain in regular contact. That’s what brothers do.

Ronnie is also kind of a sneaky guitar player. He’s one of those rare cats who can get inside of a song and hold it up like air pressure in a bubble. And amazingly, he’s still doing it with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. They have a new record about to drop, Slingshot to Heaven, and it’s hot.

After I recorded the skeleton arrangement of “Slouch” on acoustic guitar and bass, the first person I called – the first person I emailed was Ronnie. “Hey, you wanna play on this jam?” Despite being busy with half a dozen projects, he agreed to work on the track. Thanks to Dropbox, I sent him the .wav files, which he dumped into Pro Tools and worked his magic. The result is classic Ronnie.

Bill Dolan - The Man
Billy Dolan

Meanwhile, when I interviewed Billy last year, I did not to ask him to play on the AH record. I thought about it, but I felt like it would be inappropriate. Much to my surprise, Bill brought it up. And I said, startled, “Will you?” He said, “Sure, let me hear some of it,” so I sent him a bunch of tracks and said, “Pick out the ones you want to play on.” Bill picked “Slouch”, unaware of its origins or Ronnie’s involvement.

Then I got Billy’s tracks in Dropbox and they were killer, too. The choice was obvious. Use Ronnie’s tracks or use Billy’s tracks. Or use them both, which is exactly what I did.

Epilogue

It’s funny how off-handed, slight, or innocuous criticisms can worm their way into your memory, and you may never get rid of them.

When I moved out to S.F., Chris Lanier introduced me to his friend, Ross. Chris played drums for Ross’s band: a country-ish, jokey kind of fringe outfit. But Ross was a nice dude and when HMS got their first gig, we asked him to play keyboards for us.

In the earliest days, HMS only had nine original songs to work with, so we picked a few Golden Tones cuts and worked them into our set. “S.L.O.U.C.H.” was one of those songs. One day at practice, Ross said something about playing the ‘John Cougar song’, in reference to “S.L.O.U.C.H.” He said it in a slightly demeaning tone, but without malice. It was kind of snarky – before snarky became a term. Anyway, my first reaction was, “What’s wrong with the Coug!?! Why are you fronting on the Coug!?!” In the end, it was just good-natured back and forth between musicians and forget about it, right?

Ross wasn’t wrong in his assessment. I knew what he was saying. Without Ronnie’s space guitar and the loops from the original, the HMS version had kind of a lazy “heartland” feel.

Even drawing on the memory of a drug-addled, alcoholic mess of a human being, I can tell you exactly what I was going for when I wrote that song: John Cougar drops acid with Robert Smith at a party hosted by Simon and Garfunkel and featuring Van Halen on the main stage. That is to say, I like John Cougar a whole bunch.

The first HMS show was kind of a disaster, and Ross faded out of the picture. As a band, I figured HMS was one-and-done. But then we got another show, and another, and pretty soon, Chris had to make a decision: HMS or Ross. He chose us.

For the longest time, whenever I thought about “S.L.O.U.C.H.”, even though I hadn’t seen or heard anything about the guy in ages, the first thing that popped into my mind was Ross and the snide comment about John Cougar. At any rate, the jam remained on our playlist for a year or two until we had enough material to drop it from rotation. I played it live for the first time in God knows how long on June 8, 2013.

Chris Lanier always told me that it was one of his favorite songs, so that’s good enough for me.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s