Monday, April 9, 2007
volume 3 number 14
howard the piano sits in my living room. he has lived with me for 20 years now. how did I find howard? he was in a house I was buying in lake geneva. the sellers were planning to move to florida. I persuaded them to make howard a part of the purchase price. that's how I came into possession of my first and only piano. to be honest I am a less than adequate pianist but I use it primarily as a writing tool. my piano songs are very different from my guitar songs. when I first got howard I couldn't keep away from him. I was so thrilled to have a piano at last I began teaching myself by writing left hand bass lines like the one in p type and then building non-descriptive chord changes around them. by non-descriptive I mean chords which had at most a third or a fifth and did not dictate my choice of melody as would say a diminished chord or a flatted fifth.
for me, beginning a new record first involves a long process of contemplation. I like to sit quietly and imagine what I want the record to sound like. in particular it helps to have a sense of the musical components you want the record to have. the basic building blocks. stravinsky said a piece of music needs parameters, i.e. I'm writing this for these 8 instruments.
in early 1988 having settled into my new piano practice routine I imagined the left hand bass line piano parts as the main building block for a new rash of songs. combined with lean amounts of instrumentation, upright bass and light percussion (egg shakers or these cool japanese fans I would play with a pencil) with guitar used as color and for soloing, and a vocal sound enhanced with a certain type of processor called AMS. in that way I had a specific sound in mind for mr. music head which guided my production.
the earliest batch of songs all ended up on the second side of the record (remember it was the days of vinyl). songs like hot zoo, motor bungalow, bumpity bump, and bird in a box all have the sound I mentioned above built around the simplest of piano lines. after a break for touring (with the bears?) I started what would become the first side of the record with more songs from the same mold: oh daddy, house of cards, one of those day, and bad days. by then I was ready to move on to other musical areas like 1967 and cruelty to animals.
so what happened to p type?
when I write a song the melody is usually there from the start. then I labor over the words far more than I ever do the music. why? because when you place words on something you are defining it to some degree. the listener can no longer fully use his or her imagination. words color music. over and over I listen to an unfinished song until it tells me what it wants to be about. p type was one of the early songs and I knew it needed a soulful vocal. (in fact, I was using as my vocal inspiration a song from bowie's young americans record called somebody up there likes me.) but try as I did, I could never work up the emotional head of steam necessary to find the right words. so it was left behind.
ps: but it would make a fine candidate for our smarties contest coming up later this year.
piano, bass, drums, guitar, egg shakers: adrian
engineer: rich denhart
assistant: dan harjung
recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wis.
on february 4, 1988