The Inner Distance, Make a Sound, and Come Closer

Almost Cover 003 with logo no titleHere we are at the end, where ambivalence meets its ultimate adversary – my attention span. These last three songs were not held back for any particular reason of their own; however, you won’t be reading the 8,000-word exposition of Who, What, Where, When, How and Huh? But it was written, you can be sure.

Frankly, that particular story didn’t want to be told. There is no further comment at this time. I’m pleased to say In the Spirit of Almost has been released from captivity in toto. All 17 songs are now available as free downloads on Soundcloud. Aztec Hearts bows gracefully, smiles graciously, and slowly walks off stage.

By design, everything about Aztec Hearts was mercurial, capricious and enigmatic. It is impossible to say how anybody else feels about it. The music is unquestionably esoteric in the sense that it was created with the knowledge and intent that only a select group of people would ever hear it, and even fewer would listen more than once.

Creating without expectations is the embodiment of personal freedom, although it doesn’t necessarily imply that nothing matters – in terms of the art itself. Quite the opposite; this music mattered more to me than almost anything else in my life, at least back in the beginning. My existence battled in the balance of the first two AH records. Five years later,  In the Spirit of Almost was borne of necessity. That matters.

DSC05559Although I used the “One man, one microphone, one year” as a mantra of sorts, there was not a timeline or schedule for this record. It would be finished when it was finished. But I think anytime you are working without a deadline, one of two things happen. You either get really lazy and never actually finish the project; or you find myriad types of motivation and allow the project to follow its own course—mutate, change direction—winding up somewhere other than your original intention, but fuck it, we’re here.

The one microphone deal just sort of happened. It was the one microphone I brought back from S.F. Having certain self-imposed limitations was part of the Aztec Hearts ethos from the very beginning. I wanted to write and record music that I heard in my head, but could never translate into a band setting. It’s funny in a self-deprecating way but my “dream band” – which is what AH was supposed to be – consisted of six clones of myself. When I started recording, I actually had a small variety of microphones to choose from, but I used the condenser on the first track and thought, “Hey, this sounds good on just about everything.”

There are certain perfections in life. You can get a perfect score on an exam. You can have a perfect day when everything goes your way. Similarly, artistic perfection is achieved not when the work is free of flaws, but when the artist is satisfied that the work represents their vision. There is a distance between the record I wanted to make and the one I wound up making. In the Spirit of Almost is “down the hall” from the initial concept, but it’s still in on the same floor, in the same building.

Some of the distance can certainly be attributed to my working methods, and certainly a lot of inspiration was found in a bottle of wine. Chemical recreation was never a waste of time for me. It helped me waste time, but it helped me, too. All I can say is that alcohol and or drugs can be dangerous in two ways. First, they can kill you. Second, it can make you see things about yourself that you never wanted to see or admit or know or understand or finally realize that’s why you’re so messed up in the first place.

new smoke
This guy, circa 2004

There is the temporal self – how you want others see you; and then there is the inner self – who you really are. Something happened about ten years ago and it freaked me out to realize how far away I had drifted from my inner self. The character I portrayed was light years away from who I wanted to be, or who I really was inside. The inner distance was vast. Most importantly, I began finding my way back. I haven’t arrived, but I think I’m almost there.

There are many special and unique aspects of the record, beginning with its unlikely inspiration. Life is constantly moving forward. We are always heading toward something, in the process of getting somewhere. But our consciousness has a fixed location. We may change and evolve as people, but being comes from and stays in the same place. It’s always there, reminding you who you are, and sometimes, what you’re doing.

As desperate as I was to finish this record, a part of me did not want it to end, mainly because I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Make another record? Start working on a new book? Then there came that feeling: it didn’t really matter. The songs would be posted on Soundcloud and nothing would happen. Maybe 30 people would listen to the tracks. Shrug. To spend a year on something and finally say it’s finished, is somewhat of a deflating experience.

So I found ways to prolong the mixing process, in order to stay in the “creative zone.”

Only an idiot starts making a record with the idea of not finishing it. But even in earnest you can get to point where you lose interest, which is completely subjective and contingent on any number of personal variables. In my situation, the only pressure to finish came from within. Time—my window of opportunity—is limited.

No matter what, it is a vivid though idiosyncratic representation of my work. That’s all any artist can ask for. There’s no shame, guilt or second-guessing in referring to myself as an “artist”. If you do something as long as I’ve been writing and recording songs, you deserve the right to call yourself an artist, for better or for worse. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t sold many records and now give your art away for free. Everybody is an artist as far as I’m concerned. The only thing that makes us different from each other is the subjective levels of self-awareness and intentional esotericism with which we express ourselves.

The Inner Distance

 

“The Inner Distance” was the very last song written, and the very last to be recorded. One Sunday afternoon I was noodling on my guitar and Janice said, “What’s that? It sounds good.”

The melody was based on a variation of a song I’d written almost 20 years ago, called “Piano Lessons”. It was more or less stumbled upon as opposed to discovered.

tvontheradio-britt
TV on the Radio

From there, I added a few more parts, cobbled a structure, and tracked the main acoustic part later that evening. The overdubs were spread out over the course of a month. The arrangement was based and recorded on a click track in 4/4; however, the drums and percussion switch between 3/4 and 2/4, which gave it an odd syncopated feel. Plus, I didn’t notice until much later that I’d shortened certain measures of the arrangement by one beat, against the click. Anyway, all you math rock kids can try and figure out the time signature on this one. There is no way I could ever duplicate that type of unconscious mistake.

Sonically, there’s an obvious Beach Boys influence, as well as TV On The Radio, who are of course massively influenced by the Beach Boys.

Make a Sound

 

Five Style, Minature Portraits (1999)
Five Style, Miniature Portraits (1999)

Way back in the day – January 1997 – my band Whitey was recording demos with Dale Meiners at his Ghetto Love studios. At roughly the same time, Sub Pop recording artists Five Style, led by guitarist Billy Dolan, were recording what was supposed to be their second album, also with Dale at Ghetto Love. Being friends with Billy and big fans of his band, we excited to be working there at the same time.

Billy was elusive about the subject, so every time we came in for a session, we’d be all over Dale about the Five Style record. What are they doing? How does it sound? Occasionally, Dale still had a mix on the console from their session the previous night, and he played us a track or two. Man, it sounded hot!

Ghetto LoveOur demo was finished within a week or two, but I frequently came by the studio to hang out or help Dale break down from a session. Wesley Willis was often there. Fred Mangan, too. A month or so passed, and the Five Style sessions ended. One day I came by to hang out with Dale and he was cleaning the main room, so I started helping him – picking up books and magazines and whatnot. Dale came across a bunch of cassette tapes labeled Five Style Rough Mixes and said, “Have you heard any of this?”

So long conversation cut short, Dale gave me the tape; but not without a serious warning, “Do not let anyone other than Ronnie and Matt know that I gave you this tape.” And so, I kept my word. For 15-16 years, the only people (in our social circle) who ever heard that tape were the three of us. It was like our secret bootleg. The cassette didn’t even have a case or song titles listed.

Bill 2
Billy Dolan

Up until then, Five Style had been an instrumental band, so it was extra interesting that they had chosen to work with a vocalist named Mike Hueneke – which Billy explains in this interview. The results were a super-human blend of New Orleans funk and British hard rock. We loved it. And as it turned out, the tape Dale gave me was not a complete mix of the album; it cuts off in the middle of the fifth song. Years later, Billy said there were at least 10 to 12 songs.

Unfortunately, that Five Style record was rejected by Sub Pop and never released. The band parted company with vocalist Hueneke, and wouldn’t release another record until 1999’s Mythical Numbers, by which time I had left Golden Tones and moved to San Francisco. But I kept that tape, and listened to it as often as any other record in my collection.

Even longer story cut short, last year I reconnected with Billy, and told him I wanted to cover a song from that record, but I didn’t have any song titles. The jam that I thought was called “I’ll Give You Love” was in reality called “Make a Sound”, and Billy referred to it as “one of Mike’s songs.” Anyway, he gave me his blessing to rock the jam in my own way.

Of course, my chunky version bears only slight resemblance to the original, which has a super-slinky feel; and I took a few liberties with a few lyrics and the arrangement. Sonically, I was shooting for early 70s Rod Stewart meets English Beat, except I didn’t have access to a horn section, so I had to cheat. In the end, I don’t think I came anywhere near the target, but I was satisfied with the results to set it loose upon the ears of the world.

Come Closer

One of my favorite little anecdotes from the entire recording took place while tracking the piano at KHS in May 2013. The piano rooms are located on the fourth floor, and essentially dominated by teachers and their pre-teen students. On this particular Saturday afternoon, the place was almost empty, with only two out of more than a dozen rooms in use. Even though I asked for a room as far away from everyone else as possible, the young woman-in-charge put me smack dab in between the only two rooms already occupied. Fuuuuuuuhhhh. Despite my humble protests, she essentially shrugged and scurried away. Take it or leave it, chump.

It had been more than five years since I sat down in front of a piano. Although I figured this would strictly be a practice session, I went ahead and set up the BR-1180 and the microphone anyway. The first hour was pretty humbling. It was a bit of a challenge, but all I really wanted to do was to play some right-hand chords with octave bass on the left in D.

Noise from the adjoining rooms was also a source of distraction. On my left side, was a kid doing rudimentary scales, while on the right side there was a 10-year-old girl absolutely shredding her way through Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 No. 2 in F Minor. At one point, I was simply hammering down on octaves of Ds and As and F#s in the lower register. Tape was rolling. An hour went by and I had maybe 10 minutes of workable piano parts.

The girl and her teacher took a break just as I stepped out to go downstairs and have a smoke. The girl looked at me said, “Oh hello! That was you next door?”

I said, “Yeah,” slightly sheepish. “What were you playing?” And then she told me: Chopin. So we had a nice little conversation about classical music. Upon saying goodbye, the girl poked her head in my room, saw the microphone and the 8-track, furrowed her brow and said, “Good luck on whatever it is you’re doing in there.”

Quite rightly, all the piano tracks from that first day were keepers. For this record, piano was used for color, not as a lead instrument like so much of Bigger Brighter. There were a total of three KHS piano sessions, and all of them went pretty much as described above.

IMAG0280The drums were recorded and played manually on a Roland electronic kit also at KHS. Yes, that’s the 808 setting. Technically, I suppose it could be considered a violation of my “no drum machine” policy, but there were actually sticks, sweat and blisters involved; and it was my first experience playing an electronic kit. Truth be told, I really enjoyed it. No, I had blast doing it. The electronic kit was also used on “Slouch”, which might not be as noticeable because they are mixed with live drums, as well as several jams that didn’t make the cut.

Some of the percussion was played by Tim Hogan, although due to the crazy amount of bouncing I had to do—remember, I was working with eight tracks—all of his contributions are combined with stuff I did later. It’s easier for me to tell you what he didn’t play. If memory serves, this was one of the first songs we collaborated on.

The intro sound collage has been cut down to :15 from its original 1:59. This being the third overall track to have its intro shortened, it occurred to me that musique concrete is really fun to do, but it’s not so much fun to listen to. In fact, I think 15 seconds is too long for an intro. People don’t have time these days. Let’s go. Chop-chop with the entertainment.

And that’s it.

In the Spirit of Almost is dedicated to Janice and Henry. Thank you to all the folks who made it possible for me to make music, and those who listen as well.

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