Archive for December, 2012

Stories Behind the Songs: “The Curse”

Posted by on December 31st, 2012

Bowed psaltery“The Curse”, a pivotal song in Act I of Transposition, was written during a burst of creativity in January 2005.  The chorus and second verse came to me while walking in the woods on the mountain behind my parents’ house.  In the days before satellite TV, our TV antenna was way up on this mountain; it seemed like every time we had a thunderstorm, we had to walk the whole thing and repair lightning damage.  It was a lot of work to maintain for only 2-3 channels!  The first verse was in part inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times”.  The bowed psaltery (also called a bowed psaltry) used in the final recording is an interesting-looking triangular wooden instrument with 24 strings, played with a bow.  My future wife bought it for me from a shop called Song of the Wood in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

This song, and the later “Vibrations”, explain most of the motivations for Jack’s actions in Act II , and his contradictory mixture of self-loathing, hopelessness, pride, and defiance.  Anyone who feels like an outsider in the family or the culture into which they were born may see a bit of themselves in Jack; even in the midst of his own home, he is a stranger in a strange land.

On Songwriting

Posted by on December 28th, 2012

CRExchange1_smI occasionally am asked, “How do you write songs”?  The real answer is this: I have no clear idea.  I mean, I know about song structures—AAA, AABA, and so on.  I know about meter, rhyme, alliteration, and other poetic devices.  I know something of music theory.  These are all useful things to know, and I couldn’t finish a song without them.  But those flashes of inspiration that are the seeds of the songs—where do they come from?  Ah, now that is a mystery to me.

Those flashes most definitely do not come from my conscious mind.  If I sit down and try to consciously write a song, I will almost always fail.  Although I can put myself into a frame of mind where I am more receptive to inspiration, I can’t by force of will make it happen.  Most of the songs I have written come from little bits of chords or riffs that come to me while playing the guitar or piano.  I’ll be playing, and then suddenly I’m doing something that catches my ear.  When that happens, I have only a limited amount of time to record it before it passes completely out of my brain.  Once I have those little bits of music, it’s up to my conscious mind to build a structured song out of one or more of them.

Similarly, the ideas for lyrics come out of nowhere.  Generally, when I want to write lyrics for a song, I try to come up with a title first.  Often I’ll wrack my brains trying to think up a title without success.  Then one will pop into my head in the middle of the night, or when I’m getting out of the shower.  Particular lines of lyric will arrive this way, too.  I usually think lyrics that come this way are superior to the ones I have to consciously squeeze out.  Though sometimes I have only a vague notion of the meaning of the words.  Again, it’s up to my conscious mind to put together all these pieces into a coherent song.

When I look back at songs I have written, I often wonder, “Where did that come from?”  I have heard some songwriters say that they don’t write songs, the songs come through them from somewhere else.  I understand why they feel that way; I sometimes feel a sense of awe and wonder when music is flowing through me.  Whatever the source of that power, I’m grateful to be a conductor.

The opening song of Transposition functions as sort of an overture in addition to introducing the setting and some characters; several other opera songs are foreshadowed in this one.  However, in its initial incarnation, it consisted only of the verses and choruses, which were written mainly in January 2005.  Nearly a year later, in December, I woke up one morning with the idea to put snippets of other songs in there, and even how to do it.  I was certainly inspired by The Who’s “Overture” from Tommy, as well as a piece from Pink Floyd’s live show of The Wall called “The Last Few Bricks”.  So I stuck riffs and melodies from “Stand Up”, “She’s Changing”, “What Am I?”, and “Won’t Do It Again” in the middle where I had formerly planned to place a guitar solo, and stuck the ending to “We Can Love” at the end of this song.

The opening, Who-like acoustic guitar riff is actually the oldest piece of music on the album, having been written in May 1998.  I often have little stray fragments and ideas that I store away, waiting for a time when I might find a use for them.  At the time that we recorded this song, most of the referenced songs hadn’t been recorded or even arranged yet.

While the vocal melody is mine, the vocal arrangement is entirely John’s; he wrote it all out on sheet on sheet music and Katie, Pen, and I learned it from there.

Happy Holidays!

Posted by on December 21st, 2012

We’ve been busy elves in the studio this week, brewing up new sounds for the coming new year.  Hopefully we’ll have the new album release sometime in the first half of 2013.  We’re also still working on new videos for select songs onTransposition, and will be continuing the new series of blog posts about the stories behind the songs.  So happy holidays, and stay tuned for more!

Stories Behind the Songs: Transposition

Posted by on December 17th, 2012

In beginning a new series of blogs concerning the stories behind the songs of Transposition, I thought it fitting to share a little about the creation of the opera as a whole.  I had toyed with the idea of writing a rock opera for many years, but could never come up with a suitable and compelling story.  In the summer of 2004, though, ideas started coming to the point that I had written a first draft of the story by September.  After learning about the Native American concept of Two-Spirits in a seminar, and also a witnessing a very inspirational speech by activist Jamison Green, I got fired up and wrote a second draft in October.

Once the basic story was written, I compiled a list of major plot points, and from that, compiled a list of songs that would be required to tell the story in November.  I began writing the songs almost immediately, though it would take more than a year to finish all the writing.  Originally there were only two acts, the main character was called “X”, and the story in the final act was significantly different.  In fact, the original climax was not very dramatic, so in mid-2005 I expanded to three acts and reworked the final third of the story.  When I recorded the demos of all the completed songs in December 2005, the main character was still called “X”, but by the time recording began a couple of months later, I had decided on the name “Jack”.  One reason was that it was nearly as generic as “X”, and also because it was easily convertible to a feminine form.  The assignment of the surname “Coleman” for Jack and his family, plus “Fleming” for the preacher, was fairly arbitrary; both those surnames are common where I grew up.

My original conception was to record all the instruments and vocals myself.  I had already recorded seven albums in this way, and besides, I was a bit timid about recruiting help, given the controversial subject matter.  I realized that it would be a much stronger effort if I got help, so I eventually approached John to see if he was interested; we were already playing together in an acoustic trio called “Unfrozen Cavemen”.  He responded with enthusiasm, and I was encouraged enough to ask Katie to contribute vocals.  Despite her very busy schedule, she readily agreed.

Recording began in February 2006; though I optimistically projected that we’d be done by summer’s end, the recording process proved more complex than I’d anticipated.  We recorded the basic tracks more or less in order.  Most began with me programming the drums using an ingenious program called Jamstix.  John and I would then record the rhythm guitar and bass together, then overdub other instruments as necessary.  For the most part, we finished the songs for each act before moving on to the next.  While we recorded Act II, I began mixing the completed Act I songs, and so on.  Recording finished in June 2007, and mixing and mastering were completed in July.

Review: Broken Open

Posted by on December 14th, 2012

I discovered Skip Regan this week while Googling something else entirely.  When I saw that he mentioned Hendrix and the Beatles, I decided to give the first song I saw, “Evolution” a try.  Then I had to listen to another.  And another.  It didn’t take long for me to decide I wanted to buy his latest album, Broken Open, released in 2009.  His music is indeed a blend of Beatlesque vocals and Hendrix-influenced guitar over a driving beat.  It’s very tuneful, full of hooks, and adorned by lush harmonies and expertly-played guitar licks.  His voice reminds me a bit of Ty Tabor from King’s X in that it’s on the trebly side, very smooth, and most of the time kind of mellow.  Check out Skip’s music on his website,  If you like this kind of music, you may find it as irresistible as I did.  And check out the rest of his site; he’s a man of many talents and interests, including meditation, stomp boxes, website design, and photography.  Standout tracks: “Distraction”, “If Only”, “All I Can Do”.

O Farfisa Where Art Thou?

Posted by on December 7th, 2012

John here.  Though I’ve primarily played bass guitar in my collaborations with Brian over the last 10 years, I started out as a keyboard player.  And the first keyboard I ever played (in the first band I was ever in back in 10th grade) was the Farfisa Combo Compact.  The sound could be harsh, but the keyboard itself had a great feel, and was awesome for both rhythm accompaniment and solos, especially when paired with a Mutron Phasor II, which I also owned.

Sadly, I never liked that keyboard when I had it — there was another (a Crumar something-or-other) I lusted after that I could have afforded, but that my parents forbade me to buy (confession: my friend Tony and I spent one afternoon cutting wires in the Farfisa guts, in hopes of rendering it unusable so that my parents would relent and permit me to purchase the Crumar — note to kids out there: THIS DID NOT WORK). A few years later, I bought a 3 octave organ/string synthesizer and gave away the Farfisa.

Gave it away.

But if I hadn’t, I believe in my heart that I would have eventually created this video: