Writing “In A Perfect World” (A Guitarist’s Perspective)

For those unaware, my brother released his first solo record this week.  It’s called “Hits in a Perfect World” and is credited to Dave and the Not-So-Daves.  Not being named Dave, I’m one of the so-named “Not-So-Daves” and I had a lot of fun working on it.  Took a lot of time and effort and got good results, including some of the best guitar work of my career.  You can stream the record here, where you can also download it for $8.00.  (For the first month, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to cancer research.)

And this is what the cover looks like:

Not pictured: Whoever owns that building.

Last I talked to Dave, it sounded like the streaming was going better than the downloading. It’d be great if a few of you could help change that.  πŸ™‚  Or if you’d like physical copies, Dave and I both have them–they’re hand numbered and signed by Dave–THE Dave!–himself.

I wanted to write a post about what it was like working on the project.  (This is going to get long–I’m talking about each track.)  I can’t say a lot about the lyrics, because I didn’t write them, but I did do a lot of work in putting the guitar parts, solos, etc into place, and it was a different experience from what I normally do, so I thought it would be fun to write about it.  Dave came to me with the structures of the songs already in mind.  Lyric/vocal melodies were already established and he’d written out the chord progressions on his bass.  We threw together some rough bass-and-vocal demos, then he left it to me to do my stuff, coming back to redo his parts before we added the drums (via good, long-time friend Tim Heeley).

Of the process of writing the project, Dave says this on the Bandcamp site:

“When this record started to come together I had a “Vision”. I was going to make the ultimate power pop record. I just wanted something that was a lot of fun to listen to. Of course it didn’t quite turn out that way but that’s how it started.

When the songs were new, bare boned creations I had power pop on the brain. I was thinking Cheap Trick, Big Star, the Posies, Matthew Sweet, etc. But then the punk rocker in me raised his ugly head so the Ramones and Descendents fan showed up. And then, of course every classic rock riff embedded in my brain decided to have their say, and there’s even a little ’90s alternative in there too.

So there you go. The results are here. It’s a mash-up of all those things mentioned above. It may not be the record I envisioned, but I think this is a really good rock and roll record. Which is even better.

And it’s still a lot of fun!”

Some of the change in tone Dave describes is probably as much my doing as his.  I play how I play and my guitar work is definitely going to come out more Pete Townshend than Alex Chilton.  I still hear the Cheap Trick in it though.  πŸ™‚

Working from just bass and vocal presented me with not-exactly a BLANK canvas, but rather one with a clear drawing that needed color.  The color to me suggested Fender guitars–a Telecaster for the rhythm and a Strat for the leads.  (Except on “The Big Sad,” which was recorded last.  That is the one and only song on the record to feature my Rickenbacker 360.)  When I play the Telecaster, my brain snaps into “punk” mode–specifically a little known influence of mine in the form of the Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. Their guitarist plays like it’s less a guitar and more a machine-gun, and there are many times throughout my career when you can hear me doing the same–and it’s usually on a Tele.

Even with plenty of room for my own “color,” I wanted to try to stay true to the lyrics.  This wasn’t your standard Derek Brink record full of sadness, existential doubt, and lover’s-lament stuff.  This record was happy and fun–sometimes downright goofy in the best ways.  It was important to me to capture that in my playing, and I think I managed it in most places.  (Side note: Before proofreading, I’d accidentally written “existential donut” in this paragraph.)

That said, “Let’s Go” has a little bit of a bigger, darker guitar tone than some of the rest of the album.  It’s the record-opener, the attention-getter, the tone-setter.  I erred on the side of making the listener think, “what’s happening here?!”  I hope that comes across.  The lyrics are a lot of fun.  I think every line references a different rock song or rock band.  It’s a clever lyric and I tried to layer the guitars in a way to emphasize that cleverness and make you pay attention to it.  I especially like the high-pitched part at the end, where I’m playing the main riff high-up on the fretboard.  But my favorite part of the whole record might be the “clap-clap” after the “it’s a Saturday night” lyric.

“Knee Deep” is one of those places where it’s a little goofy.  It starts with a paraphrase of an old dirty joke that my brother says our Dad used to tell.  I’d never heard the joke before.  Dave told it to me while we were doing final vocal takes, and I must say, Dad, I am appalled.  πŸ™‚  The song’s fun and kinda funny in places.  It’s super-catchy and is one of the ones I think would be a “single” if it were handed to a record company–but then you can say that about 90% of the record.  I kept the tones a little more airy and light–tried to keep it upbeat.  Production was fun–adding hand-claps was a no-brainer.

On “I Don’t Wanna Know” we came out of the gate at a gallop!  There’s a guitar part on this song that’s very sparse and open, and that’s because I was going to play something more intricate, but couldn’t play that fast!  When we did the demo, we both kept saying, “I think it should be a little faster” and apparently we both listened.  I know this was a workout behind the kit for Tim, too–but in fairness he’s in much better shape than I am.  Dave describes it sounding like it belongs on “a really angst-y episode of ‘Friends'” and that’s probably about right.  It ended up being one of the more pop-punk songs on the album, and I like it.  The background vocal at the end is an intentional nod to the REO Speedwagon song of the same name–we couldn’t resist.  I like how fun the song ended up being.

I think Dave had a Green Day “Insomniac/Nimrod” era sound in mind for “That Was Yesterday.”  I’ve never really been a Green Day fan, so it didn’t come out quite that way.  But it was a lover’s-lament piece, and as discussed earlier, that’s in my wheelhouse!  But even then, it’s an upbeat lover’s lament, and that’s a little bit of a challenge for me.  And that’s what I really liked about working on this record.  It was enough outside of what I normally do that the challenge of it made it worth the investment.  Plus, on this song, the background vocals were a lot of fun to put together.  I think I’m at my happiest as a musician when I’m in a studio setting working on background vocals.

“Short Songs” gives you exactly what it promises, no more and no less. It’s one-minute and eight-seconds of a song that’s a love-song to songs no longer than itself. (Huh?) And it was, as you might expect, one of the most difficult for me to accomplish and play correctly!  Take after take after take, and I kept missing the same very simple transition.  It got to the point that I started yelling at myself–calling myself the same things I used to get called in Jr. High–because I kept screwing it up.  Of course it did.  There’s no other way that could’ve gone.  But in the end, the frustration was worth it, because it created a fun, memorable, SHORT song!  πŸ™‚

I’m pretty sure that “I Need You” is the song on the record that Dave definitely wrote for his wife.  I mean, on some level, every love song he writes is probably a little bit about his wife–that’s how that stuff works…  But I think he probably especially had her in mind on this one.  Tried to keep it sweet-sounding.  This is another one where I really enjoyed doing the background vocals.  My only fear was that it might cross into TOO MUCH on the background vocals, but in the end, I think we got it right.  Also, this is probably my favorite guitar solo on the record.  I like how it just kinda floats in and meanders away when the vocal comes back in.

As I said, “The Big Sad” was the last thing we did on the record.  It’s named after a phrase a friend of Dave’s uses to describe the times they’re really bummed out.  And it’s one of those phrases that so easily turns into a lyric, whether you want it to or not.  It was added at the VERY end of the project.  I thought we were done and I had already put the guitars away.  Then Dave came in to do bass parts and had just this one more lyric with him…so we recorded it.  And I’m glad we did.  I think it helps round out the album nicely, and it’s always good to have an excuse to play the Ric.  πŸ™‚  One funny story: When Dave handed me the lyric sheet, the first words out of my mouth were, “The Big Sad…hey, that was my nickname in college!”

“My Rock and Roll” is about as straightforward a rock-song as you get.  Bombastic intro, cool punky-stops between phrases, lots of crashes, etc…  Nice to have a song that celebrates all that.  Had a lot of fun with the guitar stuff on this one.  Allowed myself space to be sloppy but still get it right.  It was a lot of fun to just completely let loose on it.  I did the solo-parts in one take.  You can probably kinda tell…and that’s exactly what I was hoping for!

Perhaps the departure piece of the record is “Face to Face.”  That might be stretching it…but it does have a different feel to it from a lot of the record.  More of a shuffle and an old-school, semi-country riff through it.  It’s Lou Reed inspired (from the “New Sensations” era) and that’s the main thing that drew me to it when I heard the demo.  Some of the songs in their bass-and-vocal form presented a challenge of “where do I go from here?” (and Dave was very generous in letting me get weird in places!) but this one was clear from the moment Dave presented it to me.  It’s another “fun guitar solo” song for me, too.

After “Face to Face,” we enter the “serious” portion of the record–y’know…for two songs…  “Better Days” is about looking for hope where you can find it.  That’s something a lot of us have needed in the past week (although I should mention this is not strictly a “political” song.)  Serious songs cause for a more serious guitar tone.  I didn’t mess around too much or do much experimenting on this one.  It was pretty clear what the roadmap was from the demo and lyric sheet.  I like stuff like this where I can do the big, Alex Lifeson-ish power chords in the background, though.

The other “serious” song on the project is “Dare to Dream” which is a little bit brighter than its predecessor.  It’s one of those where I’m not sure if the guitar part suggested the background vocal part or vice-versa.  I think I heard them both in my head simultaneously while Dave was doing the demo.  All those notes are suggested by what he’s doing vocally, anyway–they’re really just the surrounding parts of the scale.  In fact that’s true of a lot of what I did on this record.  “Dare to Dream” is an excellent example of how Dave laid a strong framework that allowed me to play around with ideas that were RIGHT THERE, but just needed to be recorded.

The last–and most insane–song on the record is “No Troubles.”  In brief, my niece (Dave’s daughter) Tessa started singing the words to this in her car seat one day when she was about 3 years old.  She was always making up little songs to herself–still does, in fact.  Dave and I were captivated by the “you do not know English very well” quality of the words and the catchy feel of it.  And I decided it needed to be a real song on a real record…so…here we are.  And this song is one of the main reasons I tell people this record contains some of the best guitar-work of my career.  Because this song is bananas!  I do a Chuck Berry slide down the fretboard.  I do a whole bunch of hammers in the outro.  I do Rick Nielsen 8th notes.  Pretty much, if it’s a trick in my arsenal, I pulled it out on this song, and also learned a couple new ones.  And boy is it fun!

So there you have it.  That’s what it was like working on the guitar parts.  Of course after that, Dave did his final bass and vocal parts, then Tim came in and did the drums.  And after that there was the mixing/mastering phase, which also took a lot of work on my end.  But the interesting bit was the guitars.  πŸ™‚  Tim played so evenly and consistently that the drums were an easy few sessions.  The bass and vocals also fell into place really quickly.  The guitars were the part that felt like, “Okay…this is work–but good work!”  And that’s the part I wanted to share.

This was a really fun project to do, and I hope a lot of people hear it and like it.  And give Dave some money for it–he earned it!  I probably make it sound like I did a lion’s share of work in this post–and that’s just because it’s my blog.  As much as happens in recording, actually WRITING a song can be grueling.  There’s a lot poured into just putting a pen to paper to get a lyric and this record has a lot of Dave’s hard work in it.  He did the difficult bit–I just got to have fun!  And I wouldn’t have had it without Dave writing great songs that were a pleasure to play.  So come on…  It’s $8.00.  That’s less than you probably spent on lunch, and this will last you a lot longer.  Probably.  I don’t know what you had for lunch.

So…there!  Thanks for reading all that, if you did!

Current Listening:

  • The Tragically Hip – Assorted stuff, but mostly the last record, “Man Machine Poem.”

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