Studio Diary #2

Welcome back as we join our hero again, lost in the wilderness. Last we left him, the line of brave and stupid was blurring over. I arrived on the first day of pre-pro to find that Carrot (henceforth what I’ll be using to reference Brian Virtue, because he’s a vegetarian and looks like a carrot) had turned the artists’ lounge into a makeshift bedroom. Really cool of him. So until the rest of the boys showed up, I could sleep for free. Very important, since I promised myself this money was strictly for the record, not for my living expenses.

Pre-production is really interesting. I like to think of it as a listening party for new baby demos, where my mentor listens with me and, song-by-song, either gives me approving looks, or rips me to shreds in an attempt to get the best out of me. So, basically, it’s what I imagine hell might be like. In all seriousness, while it’s very emotionally difficult for me, it’s when I get to watch the Carrot make sense out of a billion tracks that are all over the place. After that initial day I could see a true direction for the first time.

Some of the early cuts came as no surprise. I have a habit of swinging for the fences, so when I miss, I really miss. Some of the tracks were obviously a bit too heavy for the first record, or didn’t make sense with the story we were piecing together. These guys were:

Broken Wings
Passion Rock

Patience and Circles have great stories, but understanding what your best material is, the next logical step is to eliminate the songs that use the same colors. Passion Rock is one of my favorites, but doesn’t belong on this record. I felt the same way about Almost Home, which might be in my top 5 ever, but doesn’t fit this album.

Next was the “maybe if we have time” pile. We took the night off to rest our ears, and came back for day 2.

Virtue had an XBOX in the lounge, so that night, the nerd in me collided with the pretentious artist, and I blasted the aliens of the Gears of War franchise with vitriol until I felt better. Had a lot of anxiety to deal with… The song I had identified internally as the closer (Castles) was one that Carrot didn’t really get; honestly was bored by. Now, most of the time we see fairly eye-to-eye, but he occasionally surprises me. The same thing kind of happened on look, and it’s why Time is Nothing ended up being a monster. Patience. Patience.

It became fairly difficult to kill babies on day 2. We had only wanted to record a max 11 or 12. Carrot really preached about making a great record, and not allowing any throw away tunes. He referenced early Jane’s addiction a lot, and how those records had a flow and that every song was really important. Of course making great record albums is what I’m most obsessed with, so I was right in line. Especially these days, in the canonized, cannibalized music industry, most records are 10 shots at a hit, with no story. After what I’d experienced with the pop side of birds, I’d be damned if I was going to focus on “focus tracks”. I really just don’t get it. Maybe I’m just getting too old to understand paradigm shifts in the way music is appreciated. But consider this:

“Here’s a copy of my FAVORITE BOOK! YOU’VE JUST GOTTA READ CHAPTER THREE! Read chapter three five times and give it back to me. Oh, read twelve too, it’s awesome.”
A great book can change your life.
A great song can change your mood, but a great album can change your life.
I know from experience.

We whittled it down to a list of definite songs to try, and maybes to attempt if we had time. I started to feel really great about the difficulty of elimination, and mentioned it to the Carrot. He replied immediately with, “You could look at it that way. Or you could look at it like there aren’t enough stand-out tracks to make a clear decision” …with a little wry smirk on his face. Point: Carrot.

The list of tracks to attempt:
Finder’s Keepers
Smoking Mirrors
Cry Wolf
Back to Madison
Alone Together
Heart Shivers
5 lbs
O Brother
Standing Still

If we had time:
A Free Shot
Separate Ways
Who Are You Going to Be

He wanted to cut several tracks live, with just a live guitar and vocal. On a few of those he wanted a four-string quartet. He told me way later that that’s what he saw in his mind at the acoustic show in Nashville: me, bleeding out in my dramatic fashion up there with a string section behind me, building and giving a lush darkness to the dynamics. I have a feeling that on the next record, it will be even more-so than on this one. He calls it my “transitional record”. I don’t think he expected me to have the hunger I had to try a million different things, to have a full band on a lot of it, to use every instrument we could find. I love that this is my transitional record. Makes me feel kind of like Phoenix rising.

Notes on the band:

Lillard: co-frontman in my side-project side/winders, also in a great punk band called Putnam Hall. He recorded and did some co-writes on the demos for the record. Lillard flew out for the experience, and to help where he was needed. He turned out to be integral to the process; the pianist I wanted had to cancel last minute, and the bassist couldn’t fly in until the drums were already cut. So Lillard kind of earned an MVP award, and really stepped up to help hold it all together.

Jono: the original drummer for Resident Hero, also played in Kissing Polaris and Mother’s Anthem. I spent 7 years in Texas making music with Jono. He brought a real positivity from the moment I made the first phonecall. No one put the emotional effort and time into the music like Jono did. I was really impressed. Also, from the first moment we started tracking live, we seemed to instantly recapture the chemistry as players that can only come from years of playing together and knowing each others’ tendencies. One of the loveliest moments of the process.

Pat: one of my best friends, and a truly unique artistic soul. He’s in the very successful band Flyleaf, who are all like family to me. I can’t really say enough good things about Pat without sounding like a fanboy, so I’ll just keep it short. It was a real honor that he took it seriously, offered multiple song arrangements, and genuinely really seemed to believe in the work.

Devin: the one artist that I didn’t bring in, Carrot wanted this guy from the start. He was amazing. Devin played electrics, lap steel, cello, acoustic, and mandolin. A consummate professional.

Jeremy: from a stranger to an honest-to-God genuine friend, Jeremy provided the composition of the strings for the record. A great and already accomplished composer that really loved RH, his impact on the recording has been extremely important. Love that guy.

Lillard and Jono came in within a day of each other, with a lot of excited energy between the two. Frankly, I needed it. After all the pre-pro I was getting a little stir-crazy, and living in my head too much. Nothing defeats self-doubt like positive buddies. They hit it off with each other too, which always helps. Pat had to reschedule his flight for a week later, so Lillard started charting immediately upon hearing the news. It’s really hard to cut drums without the other half of a rhythm section. Especially when none of these songs had EVER been more than acoustic demos to that point.

Imagine, for a second, going from being in a band that had played a bunch of songs hundreds to thousands of times, to building a band in the studio with mostly untested material. In many ways as a person, I’m hardly meticulous… I’m messy and all over the place. But when it comes to my love, I’m kind of a maniac. I actually feel bad for Carrot, looking back at my psychotic mentality during the recording. I can’t stress how important it was that the first song we took a swing at went off without a hitch.

That song was Back to Madison. Of course I’ve skipped a few days here, mostly with uninteresting information regarding drum-sounds and mic placement mixed in with scratch tracks and an elongated end to pre-production. Only the fun stuff. Anyway, imagine a big drum room. Lillard sat in the same room with his bass running direct into the board. I was in a booth across the room with a vocal mic, acoustic guitar and mic. The initial run-through felt surprisingly solid right off the bat. Audible sigh of relief had by all. This song was not one I expected to even be recorded in the first place, but Carrot really liked how straight-forward it was. I’m glad, because this song embodies where I was mentally when I started writing for the album. Less than an hour later, we’d cut the entire thing live, vocals and all. I’m really proud of that. I have a problem with never being happy with my vocal performance; perfectionistic to a fault, but Carrot knows how to tell me when I’m not going to beat something. He told me later that up until that moment we started tracking, he was a little unsure how it was all going to come together.

Instead of going through every take in the order which we tried them, I’ll generalize a bit. We did kind of fly through everything over the course of three crazy days, us in the live room, Carrot peering through the control room and giving thoughts in our headphones between each take.

Heart shivers, which will likely be the most produced song, came fairly quickly. The 6/8 feel is kind of hard to lock in, but the parts came quick, and it that was that. 5 lbs turned out way darker than I imagined, and almost… Kind of sexy? Hahaha, weird.

The kit on options turned it from a song we almost cut to possibly the catchiest tune from the sessions. The floor tom sounds massive. We learned which songs weren’t quite right, or at least didn’t fit. Standing Still was cut after an hour of work. It hurt. Probably the closest thing to an RH song, it wanted to be bigger. Wrong record. Finder’s Keepers was almost a keeper. Carrot left the studio for a while and we worked on that and SOS for hours. Turns out Finder’s was solid but too mid-tempo to sit alongside the others we’d already voted in. SOS may have broken Jono’s heart. I still think there’s something to that song, but after banging our heads against the wall for so long, we couldn’t get it to come across as anything more than heavy acoustic rock. Carrot never really connected to it in the first place, so we axed it. Smoking Mirrors turned into one of my favorites. Originally just a little garage band demo I did with Gavi, putting a band into it gave a whole new feeling. I really hope it makes sense… It’s an emotional climax to the storyline of the album. A dance party for self-loathing in hell. Did I mention this thing might turn out a little dark? Go figure… There were bits and pieces of percussion that came easy. My favorite drum part may actually be in Salvation, which I consider the Stars of the record. And on Home, a song I wrote for a close friend’s wedding, Jono upped the bar of his capabilities by recreating a drum loop, and by playing the kit with his hands. He displayed much more range as a player and writer than when I was in a band with him. It was a privilege, being able to see how he’d grown, and witness more of the progress as we worked together. I should say the same for Lillard too, picking up the bass and piano without fear. I was very lucky. It takes character, not just musicianship, to do what they did.

See ya in a week or so,


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