This blog is kind of becoming “Things I Forgot to Blog for a Couple Months.” Sorry about that. The podcast eats up a lot of what I might have otherwise posted here. But I feel a little like writing, so we’ll do kind of a life-update.
Not a lot is going on.
Thank God that’s over.
Okay seriously though. I’ve got a handful of things going on. I’m writing some music. That’s happening mostly because I moved all of my favorite guitars upstairs into my office area, where I spend a lot of time. So it’s sparking creativity. If nothing else, I’ve had a few ideas sitting around that I needed to get into demo form, so I’m working on that.
I’m also just kind cleaning up in the house. It’s been a mess for a while. Like almost “he might be a hoarder” levels…but I’m not. I’m just incredibly lazy and it gets worse when I live alone. So I’m cleaning and just trying to put stuff where it goes. It’d be nice to have someone over now and again and give them a place to sit.
For those wondering, the migraines have continued. I’m kind of used to them, to be honest–which sucks. They’re about weekly or every other week. Seems to vary. Usually they follow something stressful. So that also gives you a window into how often I feel stressed. I should still see additional doctors about it…but how do you even do that? Patient rosters exist and I don’t even know who I’d call if I wanted to start calling. It’s dumb. Guys like me just end up in the emergency room some day and follow up with doctors after that. Not that I want that to happen, of course…
The migraines themselves aren’t even that big a deal. Yeah, my head ends up hurting and it’s not PLEASANT, but it’s a headache and I can get through that. It’s the visual part that gets me. That part’s difficult. Although now that I know how they behave it’s easier to deal with it. I just wish that part would stop. But the brain scan and blood draw I had and the subsequent eye exam revealed nothing serious…so I think it’s just a thing that’s happening. Although I did notice that the timing of it all correlates with the floaters and flashers in my eyes (which are a normal thing that happens to some of us as we age–yaaaaaay). So maybe that’s all related and when the gel in my eyes finishes separating (yaaaaaaaay) it’ll get better? But I also thought it was tooth-related last year. So, who can say?
The only other thing really going on is work. And I’m getting excited for the Jason Isbell concert next week. My friend Amanda is coming into town for it and we’ve not seen each other in a while. Excited about seeing her too and hanging out. Isbell’s music just might be my “happy place” these days, so I’m looking forward to a great show. The sets and reports back thereof lately have been stellar.
And, I don’t know…I guess that’s it. See why I don’t blog more often these days?
Wanted to write something before going to bed. So let’s do a random post.
I’ve gotten migraines the last two days in a row. That’s rare. I’ve been stressed and tired though, so I think that’s at play. Sick of it though.
A couple weeks ago, someone with whom I’d had a falling out 10 years ago died. (No names.) We never patched things up, and I feel like I was right to walk away in that circumstance.
It was actually something that I wrote here on this blog that drove the wedge–something political, of course. I think there was probably more to it than that… At the time they threatened to tell my employer what I’d written (as though I was worried about someone seeing my publicly viewable blog) and said some very hurtful things on my Facebook wall for anybody who happened by to see, including telling me that I was going to hell, etc… I believe the last words they ever received from me were “Don’t contact me again. Ever.” Being that the trigger for it all was one sentence on my blog with no conversation about it, I just wrote them off as a lunatic and moved on.
So yeah, I feel like I was justified at that time to walk away. But it also sucks that those were the last words between us. They had cancer in the end, and apparently it was a painful fight from what I understand. I wouldn’t have wished that on them. I’m sorry it happened. I don’t think we were meant to patch things up and be friends again, but I hope that person didn’t carry any of that dispute with them in the end. When I’d think of them over the last 10 years, I’d hope that they knew they were wrong to act like that and maybe they’re acting better now. I still hope that part is true. I hope they died a good person with no grudges. I hope that somehow they know I didn’t hold on to mine. That they knew it made me sad when I would think of what happened–we’d been friends before. But I didn’t feel safe reaching out and prompting a new fight. So here we are. So it goes.
You can’t change what happened, but you can change what happens next. I hope they knew peace in their last days and that they know it now. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye.
Well that wasn’t very fun to write. Let’s write something fun.
My brother had a birthday last week and I got him a retro Atari console with a bunch of games loaded on it. He set it up pretty much right away and we sat around playing some of the games we grew up playing and letting his kids play them too. That was a lot of fun. Space Invaders, KABOOM, Pitfall, Frogger, etc… I might need one of those for the house too. I like how far games have come, but those early Atari and NES games had a charm to them that you just don’t get with a high bitrate.
That was better.
I’ve been writing some music. Completing the pedalboard motivated me. Coming up with some interesting stuff, I think. I’ve got one ambient piece that features the Mel 9 pedal and also the Shimmer setting on the Oceans 11 pedal that seemed to come from somewhere outside of myself. It doesn’t have words yet. When I write something I think is pretty sometimes it’s hard to decide what it’s about.
I have been thinking about making a small change to the board though… I mentioned in my post on it and on my podcast that I’m using a Line 6 MM4 modulation unit that might not last much longer, based on prior experiences with their effects. So I’m thinking of putting a different modulation unit there. Strymon makes a cool one called “Mobius” that has everything that I use on the Line 6 plus some cool, weird effects I’d like to play around with. But Strymon stuff is insanely expensive. Maybe if I come into some money or bump into it used. The Line 6 works for now. The Strymon is just a “wish list” item.
I’m playing bass with the Michael Feldman Group at the Boschertown Bar (in Boschertown, I bet) on Saturday the 28th from 8-12 (midnight). Should be a fun one. Hoping I don’t have headaches every day leading up to it. Or during it. Etc. Should be fun. I’ll be singing a few, including Doucette’s “Mama Let Him Play” for the first time. It’ll be something.
I think that’s it. Going to bed now. Very tired.
The Get Up Kids – Kicker (EP) – Enjoyed it a lot. Made me happy.
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – I just put all their albums on “shuffle” and hit “next” when I didn’t want to hear one. This also might have contributed to the migraines.
Recently I undertook a massive, expensive project that ended up moving a lot more quickly (and expensively) than I thought it would. As you’re all aware if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, I’m a musician. I’ve played one instrument or another for about 25 years be it bass or guitar or banjo or whatever. One of my great pleasures is playing around with effect boxes, crafting new (or familiar) sounds and coming up with stuff I like. I’ve built and rebuilt my pedal board countless times over the years.
And I’ve done it again. And this time it’s worth sharing.
So in this post, I’m going to give you a window into my madness and show you how I got to what I believe will be my last board for at least a minute or two. I’ll try to keep it interesting even for those of you who aren’t musicians or effect geeks. But, ladies and gentlemen, this is how I built what I have come to refer to as “Ultra Super Mega Board.” I’ll list the full inventory of the current board at the end of the post. Skip to there if that’s all you want to know. But…
It might be worth stating that my interest in effects dates back to the early 90s when I was jamming around with friends and none of us had the faintest idea what we were doing. I’m not sure who introduced me to the first effect pedal I ever saw, but I have a feeling it was my friend Marc and that it was his old Octave pedal that I seem to recall never quite worked right. Nevertheless, once I learned you could make your guitar (or bass) make weird sounds just by buying an accessory, I was all-in on exploring them. This was made worse when Van Halen released the “Live: Right Here, Right Now” album and Michael Anthony’s “Ultra Bass” solo showed me just how much effect boxes can do.
The first pedal I ever got was a distortion box, because I thought it would be cool to make my bass sound like a guitar. It was a DOD Super American Metal pedal. I don’t have it anymore. A guy whose name I won’t share stole it from me, along with several CDs, videos, and other things. He was a bad friend. I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years, but the last I checked he was on the sex offender registry. In many ways he did me a favor by stealing stuff and killing the friendship. But that’s another story.
After that, I got a Boss Flanger pedal, which I liked a lot and still have to this day, and shortly thereafter a DOD Digital Delay. Then one Christmas, my Dad gifted me a DOD TR3B multi-effect pedal with a Compressor, EQ, and Chorus all on the same box and thus began my obsession with tone contouring and modulation–both things very much present on my board today, although in different boxes. All of the boxes in this paragraph are still in my possession, but they’re all more-or-less retired. They’re on hand for sentimental reasons, or as backups if something else breaks. All were used primarily for bass in my younger years.
I’ve played in a variety of bands and used a massive amount of random effects over the years. I’ve kept most of them. I used to love DOD pedals back when they were all over the place and cheap. I had a bunch of their distortions and choruses and so on. I won’t give the full history or do the full list…but let’s just say over the 15-20 years between the Christmas of the TR3B and now, I’ve bought a lot, learned a lot, and figured out what I like. And somewhere along the way, I started playing guitar and became a songwriter, too. The effect-world is kinder to guitarists than bassists. There’s just-plain more stuff out there if you’ve got six strings.
By the time I was in my band Blue Tattoo, my board had gotten out of hand. At its craziest, it looked like this…
Ultimately, I had way too much on there for Blue Tattoo. We were an Americana act and I’d set up a prog-rock board that was too cumbersome to gig with. I trimmed it down to just a handful of selections on the left board and the two bigger units on the right board, and even then I wasn’t using half of it. I’ve just always liked having stuff around and wired IN CASE I needed it.
Blue Tattoo didn’t go near as far as it should have and fell apart like most bands do. But my obsession with finding a sound I liked kept going. It’s always going. I interact with a lot of guitarists and watch a lot of YouTube rig-rundowns. Premier Guitar does a great series of Rig Rundowns where they talk to famous guitarists/bassists and ask what’s in their rig. I found several effects that way and got into some of the weird and cool stuff made by TC Electronics and Electro-Harmonix thanks to those videos.
I also kept recording solo albums. Blue Tattoo fell apart a little bit after I recorded my “Out from the Light” album (my 3rd) and I released several projects thereafter. By the time I got to the “Trigger Warnings & Sunshine” album (my 8th) I was largely just running direct into mixers and only using an effect or two as needed. But when I started that album, I decided to use a handful of the Blue Tattoo effects and add in a couple I’d used in my subsequent band The Social Gospel, then also throw in a new distortion made by TC Electronics called “Dark Matter” which has become one of my favorites. But even then, I’d trimmed down a lot. Remember the two-board photo from earlier? Now my whole rig fit on just the smaller, right board.
I also decided I needed a smaller amp, which is more or less my “recording” and/or “small rooms” rig at this point. I went to Music Folk in Maplewood and was just kind of poking around. I came upon an amp that’s actually more or less a micro-PA. It’s got a dedicated channel that works great for acoustics and a channel that will work well for electrics or vocals, too. I’d never heard of the brand, but it was a cool set-up and the price was right, so my heavy, bulky Fender Blues Deluxe kind of takes a backseat, waiting for a big room these days. Instead I’m playing through this (and often only HALF of it):
With a new amp, I started re-thinking the board again. I knew I’d have another album coming up and I had some far-reaching plans for how I wanted it to sound. Of course, that would eventually become the “It Could Be Worse” album and some of the ideas I had at that time will also be used moving forward on my next project (which is not really in progress yet). I used a couple of old friends but also bought some new stuff, chiefly an Electro-Harmonix POG and a Boss Digital Delay. The latter of which was bought to supplement an analog delay that I didn’t want to be my main delay unit.
I’d been using a Line 6 Digital Delay multi-effect unit (the DL4) up until then. I liked it a lot because it had a TON of different delays and stuff in it. In several bands I used it as a quick-delay, a David Gilmour-esque delay, and an always-on slap-back just for a little presence. It was the main box in my arsenal…but like most Line 6 products of that build it started developing a problem where some of the triggers wouldn’t push down easily and Line 6 stuff is in NO WAY user-serviceable. So it came off the board. At one point I had three different Line 6 units of similar build (the delay, a modulation box, and an amp modeler). Now I’m down to only one left, the big, blue, MM4 unit that’s present in most of these photos. I’m disappointed that Line 6 made such a simple repair impossible to make at home. Kinda killed my desire to use them–and I’ve noticed they’ve largely stopped making those units, so I bet I’m not alone. The one I’m still using is only there because it still works and it’s convenient to not have to replace it. But I imagine it doesn’t have too long left. Oh well. It’s more fun collecting the little boxes anyway. Plus when one of the little ones goes, you only have to replace one thing. When a Line 6 box goes, I have to replace FOUR.
But I digress… When I started work on the “It Could Be Worse” album, the board looked as follows and it stayed that way up until about a month ago. Since I took a year to work on that album, that means this set-up was the only one I used for a full year, which is kind of a record for me…
And that brings us up to the last two months. I have a sort of habit of buying myself something cool every time I complete an album. It’s part “job well done” and part inspiration to work on the next one. Usually it’s a guitar. This time I decided I wanted to buy myself a new board.
In watching a series of YouTube videos I’d come across the concept of signal-buffers. They serve a dual purpose and I’ll start with the easier of the two… Every guitarist has to think about how to position things on their pedal board for “ease of reach” purposes. Especially if you’re also a singer, you need your most used effects that you’re going to need to turn on and off mid-song the most frequently as accessible as possible. In brief, for me that means I need my distortions and delays at the FRONT of the board, in order to reduce risk of losing my balance or just flat out missing hitting the right box at the right time and messing up the flow of my playing. The thing that first attracted me to signal buffers is that they’re big, long units that sit at the front of your board and you can hook your effect boxes into it and control any pedal that’s set anywhere on the board from the switches on the front. It was a lifesaving concept…but it comes with an added benefit as well.
Signal buffering is hard to explain. In brief, it cleans up your sound a lot by removing the pedals that aren’t in use from the signal chain when you’ve turned off the switch for that pedal. The more boxes you put between your guitar and your amp, the more your signal is degraded by small amounts. It may not even be noticeable, but it’s happening. And if you’re a guy like me who likes a lot of effects, it’s a big difference, even if you don’t actually know it’s happening. Signal buffering puts each box plugged into the master unit into its own “loop” effectively removing the degradation of the signal for each effect you turn off. Confused? Me too.
Long story short…many amps have an “effects loop” that addresses this problem up to a point. A signal buffer box is basically multiple effects loops in one box. I bought one. It has ten loops. That means my signal now has up to 10 less boxes between the guitar and the amp. It’s a MUCH cleaner sound. I almost didn’t believe it when I heard it. There are lots of those boxes out there…but I recommend Loop Master. Even if you have them build something custom and they don’t have something in-stock, it’ll be worth the wait and it’s the least cost you’re going to find on the market. I thought what I was buying was going to take 3 months to complete…but it turned out to be in-stock and I had it within 2 weeks. Which SEVERELY expedited how quick I had to do everything else!
The trickiest part of a signal buffer is that it’s a BIG piece of equipment. My board that you’ve seen above was never larger than 24″ wide. The Loop Master unit I bought is 26″. I needed a bigger board. I shopped around and the board that’s currently the most used in the industry is the Pedal Train. I was initially trying to avoid them and find something a little cheaper, but I kept coming back to their design…so I sprung for the Novo 32 board. It’s a full 32″ wide. Enormous. This is the box it came in…
That photo, of course, is slightly misleading. That’s way bigger than 32″. But it was so absurd, I wanted to share it. The board itself is just plain aluminum rails with space to allow for wiring and so on. It doesn’t even come with the Velcro on it (although they do provide it). You have to stick everything down yourself. I purposely chose something that allowed me to start absolutely from scratch.
The most important part was choosing the stuff that was going to go on it. I had some old stuff I wanted to include (including some stuff I hadn’t used in a long time) and also knew I’d be buying a couple of new pieces I’d been wanting to add. I knew it’d look crazy in the end. That was my goal, in fact. But I wanted it to be FUNCTIONALLY crazy. I wanted it to be a board so versatile it would fit any project I walked into, no matter what instrument I was playing. A board for guitar and bass alike. And even acoustic. So I selected a wide array of effects. Here’s the pile I chose.
Alongside the tried and true effects I added two that I’d been wanting for a while. The first is an overdrive pedal (more or less a distortion for the laymen–but for the non-laymen, I’m sorry I called it a distortion). It’s made by the TC Electronics people, who have fast become one of my favorite companies out there, especially for distortions and similar effects. I first ran across it on the board of Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big (and others). Paul is one of those “next level” guitarists. He did a video demoing the TC MojoMojo pedal and by the time it was half over, I was clicking over to Musician’s Friend to price them. They’re stunningly cheap, so I knew I’d be picking one up eventually. That was about two years ago…for some reason I didn’t pick it up until after the new board arrived. I’m using it in a “cleaner” setting than Gilbert does, but I like it a lot. It’s a nice warm overdrive and I think it’s going to be a mainstay…like my Blues Driver, but warmer.
I also picked up a pedal that just came out this year. In fact, I had to wait for it to be in stock at the start of this month before I could take it home! But the Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 is easily my favorite pedal I’ve bought in 10 years. It’s a reverb pedal. Strangely I’ve never had a reverb pedal and I knew I wanted to put one on Ultra Super Mega Board for those times I’ll be running into an amp that doesn’t have reverb built in. What sold me on the Oceans 11 wasn’t so much the fact that it’s got 11 preset reverbs built in…it was the one called “Shimmer.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful reverb mixed with a synth effect that you’ve got to hear to believe. (Check out my podcast next week for that.)
Once I had all of the pedals I thought I wanted, I needed to figure out how to power the thing. My previous board had built in power–it’s one of the things that attracted me to that board. Unfortunately, the power on it was a little unstable. Some of the power cables would glitch every now and again and send a static sound through the amp. Apart from that probably being a fire hazard, it was also annoying. For the last several years that I’d been running that board, I was powering stuff using a “1 Spot” power supply, which was essentially a single adapter that powered nine pedals. But that wasn’t ideal. That system tends to create a lot of what is called “proximity noise.” Essentially all of the transformers are powered by the same source, and that results in some hum. What I needed was ISOLATED power. So I started looking at the bricks made by Voodoo Labs and similar companies… And in that process I found out that Truetone makes what I was looking for. They made the “1 Spot” unit I’d been using previously, but had since expanded to make isolated supplies. So I bought A 1 Spot Pro and installed it. Then basic math told me I needed more spaces…so I bought a second one.
As you might imagine a board that takes up that much real-estate and power also needs a crapload of wires. While the Loop Master provides the convenience of putting all the controls right at the front of the board, it also results in the inconvenience of having to buy about four times as many cables as you had before, since every pedal going into it is now isolated. So…this happened…
They don’t tell you when you start playing guitar that you’re also going to have to become an amateur electrician. Wiring everything and worrying about milliamps and DC power vs AC and all of that is something I only started worrying about when I started building this board. I’ve learned a lot over the past two months…but that’s all useless now, because I plugged it all in, it worked…and it looked like this:
I noodled around for a couple hours, setting volumes and changing tones. The signal buffering means my tone has not only clarified but also CHANGED. I needed to tweak and dial in a new, cleaner tone. I’ve always used compression to even out my playing a little, so that’s present…but I’ve also put an EQ at the start of the chain and a pedal called the “Sonic Stomp” that adds some clarifying processing and low-end boost. In brief…my clean tone is clear and crisp without losing the low-end…I’m finally happy with it. I never thought I’d say that!
Of course, after all the planning and work, once I started playing through the board, I almost immediately realized there was something I wanted to change. Which of course meant unplugging everything. Which was an hour’s work. The silver pedal that is second from the right on the bottom row in the above photo is an acoustic pedal. I thought it would be good to have in there for plugging in my acoustic, but I had forgotten that it has some signal hum that I can’t get rid of easily. It just wasn’t a fit and needed to come off. I don’t use much on my acoustic tone anyway, so it was no big loss. Unfortunately, it was in slot “1” in the Loop Master, which meant everything else was out of order if I put something else in.
But that also allowed me to do something differently that was a blessing in disguise. You have to put a lot of thought into the order of your pedals. Some pedals feed into others in specific orders to be used in certain ways. A Delay pedal is essentially an echo. One of my favorite effects is to put a Flanger after a Delay so that the echoes trigger the wave of the Flanger…essentially I let the one pedal play the other. But I also like my chorus at the FRONT of my chain before my distortion. The Line 6 MM4 box I use was chiefly used for chorus but also has a Flanger and similar effects in it that I’d prefer to have at the other end of the chain…but I was keeping it at the front and mainly just using the chorus. Taking out the acoustic box would allow me to throw in a single chorus pedal and move the other stuff to the other side and use it the way I’d been wanting to.
The problem there was that I didn’t have a working standalone chorus pedal. I’d been using an old DOD Ice Box until this year, but it started emitting an overwhelming hum any time I turned it on, making it unusable. So…yesterday I went to Guitar Center and bought what should be the LAST thing I’m buying for a long time and threw an MXR Analog Chorus on the board. (I like MXR pedals a lot.)
So…after completing it, then re-completing it…this is the FINAL version of Ultra Super Mega Board.
For those who really only want to know what’s on there and why, here’s the chain.
Guitar Signal – I then run into some basic tone pedals before it gets into the signal buffer.
TC Electronic Polytune – It’s just a tuner.
MXR Dyna Comp – Compressor pedal. I always like a little bit of compression on my electric tone to even out the dynamic between the chords and the leads.
Danelectro – Fish & Chips – EQ pedal. I rarely used it before, but now use it to dial in the crispness on the treble side.
BBE Sonic Stomp – Or if you zoom in you’ll see I’ve put some tape over it and renamed it “Sonic Screwdriver.” I use it to round out my low end and warm up the overall tone.
Loop Master Signal Buffer
MXR Analog Chorus – I don’t overdue it with chorus. Just a little sparkle.
Electro-Harmonix Nano POG – Essentially an octave pedal to make single notes and chords tastefully huge.
Boss Blues Driver – I use it as a slightly crunchy clean overdrive–just a little bit of break.
Foremost, sorry about not blogging for a while. I’ve been busy and lazy at the same time.
I’m sick. I kinda felt it coming on as far back as Tuesday. I’d been tired and jittery all at once and that’s never good. I went to bed super early that night, got ten hours of sleep, and woke up tired. Went to bed earlyish on Wednesday too. And woke up early on Thursday aching all over, just knowing nothing good could come from eating anything. So I called in and went back to bed.
I slept for a while and then called my dad to ask if he thought I was having a heart attack because my back and shoulder hurt and I didn’t have any appetite. Went over to his place for a while and he kinda talked me down. He called an Urgent Care for me and was ready to take me there and get an EKG done if I felt like I needed it. But talking about it out loud, it started to feel silly, and ultimately I’m the only one who can decide if I’m going to a doctor or not…and I decided that since the Ibuprofen is helping and I’m not falling over or anything…maybe I’ll save the deductible for my first REAL heart attack.
Then it rained. POURED. There were tornado sirens and the power was blinking in and out. Out of nowhere, it was nighttime outside at like 5:30. One of THOSE storms we’re lucky enough to get here from time to time. The kind where my cable and Internet have been blinking out ever since. Since I was there already and not stupid enough to try to drive home, I spent the storm hanging out in Dad’s basement. Going up and down the stairs without getting winded convinced me that my heart is working and my back just hurts because of course it does.
After the sky had cleared a bit, I went to the grocery store to get some soup. And they were on generator power, so that was pretty much the only kind of thing they were selling. The power had been out there for an hour and a half. It was one heck of a storm. There was a stoplight completely blacked out right in front of the place, too, and I could see the block of shops across the street was also without power. The grocery store had a bare minimum of lights and was still selling anything that wasn’t refrigerated or frozen, but they were going to have to trash all their cold food by that time. Rough afternoon for everybody, I guess.
I bought and ate the soup and it went fine. I still didn’t really WANT it, I just thought I *should* eat. It’s weird for me to not feel hungry. I spend most of my day thinking about what I’m going to eat next…so being at “I guess I should cram SOMETHING down” levels is pretty unwell for me. But I forced down the chicken noodle soup and all went well.
I got up today and still felt very uneasy so I stayed home again. I’ve got a very understanding work-group, staffed with great people. They lost power today, presumably somehow because of last night’s storm, I guess. So I guess I didn’t miss a lot by staying home. I talked to one of my team-mates by phone a couple of times throughout the day as much as I could to help with some questions and whatnot. They’re helping me out, so I tried to help them too.
I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich around 12:30 (noon), again not out of hunger but because I figured I should. And a few hours later I discovered that my stomach didn’t appreciate the PB&J in the same way it did the soup. Remind me to shop for pants, by the way. It’s been a while since I’ve done that…
I had some toast about three hours ago and so far have been sitting comfortably on the couch ever since. I’m kinda hoping I just bought spoiled jelly.
Of course, I’m writing all of this in case it does turn out that my heart is failing so there will be some record of how I died and my stupidity in overlooking it. Or this can also stand as a warning: If it was the jelly, someone should throw it out instead of making another sandwich.
It’s been a year in the making. I’ve been talking about it and talking about it and it’s finally time to inflict it upon my family and friends and who whoever else. My new album “It Could Be Worse” is available for free (or best offer) via download or on CD RIGHT NOW. I’m excited about it. I think it’s one of my best albums, and since I’m giving it away, you can trust I have nothing to gain by lying about that. Here’s the cover:
I’m going to write about all the songs and such in this post and give you a look into the themes of the album and also a window into my year long process. And that’s an interesting thing. I chose to take a year to do this album. I wanted to take my time and not cram everything into a few weekends. And in the long and short of it, all that happened was I stretched those few weekends out over a whole damn year and didn’t learn a thing about myself or my process. So the next one will come quicker. Taking a year was a good idea that didn’t really work out in practice. Nevertheless I enjoyed working on this one and I think everybody who likes my stuff is in for a few surprises, but ultimately a solid Derek Brink style release. Here’s what I wrote in the liner notes:
This album contains 10 songs about survival. It’s a punk album, a folk album, and almost a light FM album. The title, of course, is a reference to the Mel Brooks movie “Young Frankenstein.” You know the scene. My favorite lyric on it is in “Who I Am” where I say, “My heart is an old drunk. Last call came and went, I should probably be getting home…but come on, man, you know me.” My least favorite lyric is in “I Still Believe” because I bet people are going to think “I still believe in survival” is “I still believe in the Bible” and they won’t read the lyric sheet. By my count this is my 9th album as a solo “artist” whatever that is. All songs are made up. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is hilarious. Tracks 2-4 contain swear words, including the word “fuck.” I’m not sorry about that. They’re just words.
…and I know that’s all a little confusing without hearing the record. I’m not sure if it gets much less confusing after you have. But you’ll be able to decide for yourself if you listen to it.
The song list is packed with some stuff I’ve had sitting around, some stuff that was newly written that convinced me to start work on an album in the first place, and also a track or two that sprung out of the recording process. While I was starting out on the project, I was deeply immersed in listening to Big Star’s “Complete Third” set, which takes the listener all the way from the rough demo stage to the completed (and remastered) “Third” album (also known as “Sister Lovers” among Big Star fans). It’s a heck of a listen that teaches you how a song can grow and change throughout the process of making an album (with acoustic guitar tones so incredible that they literally made me cry). It also serves as an interesting chronicle of how sometimes in making an album, you add an idea, drop an idea, and just generally mess around a little seeking the end result.
If you want a behind the scenes look at making an album, start with “Complete Third.” I was eager to try out some of the stuff I was learning by listening to that album and particularly “Always” (the last song on my album) came out of that. As did my approach to having an acoustic guitar track on every song, even where I normally wouldn’t have, and several of the microphone placements and mixing techniques I used. Without “Complete Third” this would be a very different album. I don’t know if you can hear it in the song construction, necessarily…but it’s all over the production.
As I said above, all of the songs are in one way or another about survival. And now I’ll go song by song and tell you how.
1. So Anyway
This is a track I have had sitting around in various forms dating back to probably 2003. It has always been a short, punky tune and the first line has always been “So anyway, like I was saying before, I don’t like much of anything anymore.” I think that’s a good opening line at this point in my career. I did in 2003, too. The rest of the words went through a few changes over the years. I only wrote the part referencing Pete Townshend when I sat down to do the demos for this record. I reference the Who’s song “The Seeker” so heavily in that verse that they might deserve a writing credit.
The song itself is at once dismissive and also seeking depth. I said in my description of the album that each of these songs is about survival. “So Anyway” is a summary of taking the step of owning one’s own mistakes and flaws and trying to figure out what to do with them. I guess I don’t really offer any answers or insights…but at least I’m acknowledging the problem. That’s the first step.
You can’t really tell unless you know what to listen for, but this song features my first and so far only usage of the Electro-Harmonix “Pog” pedal. It’s an octave generator that plays an octave above and an octave below the note you’re playing to generate three tones at once. I used it on the main lead line. Should’ve turned the effect up a little louder, probably, but subtlety is a fine art. I like the pedal and it’ll show up more on future releases, I bet. 2. Nobody Else
“Nobody Else” is a song about betrayal. We’ve all had a friend bail on us and show their true colors. I wrote a song informed by one such instance in my own life. It’s not a blow by blow description. Most people won’t know who I was writing about (or will assume the incorrect person, maybe). But I told a version of the story, anyway. I was surprised to find out that the story had a harmonica in it and was in a major key.
The lyrics on this one are pretty rough when you really look at them. The song sounds deceptively happy. But lyrically, “…if you want compassion then you’d better pray because nobody else can stand you anymore” is a pretty brutal thing to say to someone. There’s a comeuppance factor in this song that you don’t always get in real life in that it’s indicating that the betrayer is abandoned by mutual acquaintances. That’s a rarity in real life. Usually they’re so manipulative they can keep their friends for a while. But in the case I was writing about and also in this song’s narrative, the asshole bailed on everybody. Sometimes life is fair.
That said, I thought it was important to include the line, “You’ve got your side of it, but I believe mine” and to admit that there’s culpability on “my” part, too. Everybody’s the hero of their own story, y’know?
In the bridge I used a line I’ve been wanting to use forever. “If you want to start a fight over this then just take a fucking shot, but bring a lunch, it’ll take you all day (etc)…” I had a professor in college who used to say, “You can probably whup me, but it’s gonna take you all day, so bring your lunch.” I liked that. So it’s here.
There’s a lot I like about this song. The “fucking shot” line was in and out once I realized I was in a major key, but I still think it works. I delivered it like Michael Penn would have, so I think I struck the right tone. I like the harmonica. I like the “Leslie” whirl in the bridge where there might otherwise be a solo if I hadn’t done that. I like the lyrics in general. It’s a fun little song about getting hurt but coming out stronger and smarter. One of my favorites on the record. 3. Everybody Shut Up
I should start by saying this song isn’t specifically about my workplace. But it’s a little bit about every workplace. Every office, anyway. I wrote a white-collar anthem. Didn’t really mean to…but I did it.
I had the opening line in a notebook for a couple of months, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write anything to go with it. “Everybody shut up, I’m trying to think. I can’t hear myself fuck up.” It’s a good line. It suggested a work-environment to me and once I committed to that, it was easy to write, mostly just using standard office tropes. It’s a fun one. It’s a song about just trying to get through the damn day so you can relax. Who hasn’t been there?
I don’t have a lot else to add to this one. It’s not that complicated to understand. It was once of the first ones I finished writing specifically FOR this project. Once I had this one together I started thinking, “Maybe I’ve got an album coming soon…” I had a couple of ideas of what I wanted to do…I considered writing a full-on Americana album and playing a lot of old songs from bands-gone-by, but when I wrote this one, it became a half-punk, half-acoustic-driven mishmash that ended up capturing almost all sides of what I do. This one was important to the project in that way…it’s the song that made me realize I was going to be needing a distortion pedal on the album. 4. What I’m Dying For
In line with what I said about “Everybody Shut Up,” I didn’t fully abandon the idea of doing some songs I’d done in other bands. “What I’m Dying For” was something I wrote and performed in The Social Gospel and I think also Blue Tattoo (both with my brother Dave). It’s one of those songs where I finally felt like I’d hit my stride as to what I “should” be writing for that band…and then the band broke up. Ahem. But I liked the song and always knew I’d play it elsewhere. So here it is.
This is a song about discontentment. When I suddenly found myself staring down my 30s (and now seeing signs on the road ahead directing me to my 40s) I took stock of who and where I was in life. I’d thought I was going into ministry. Imagined I’d have the wife and kid and all that bullshit they tell you that you need to be happy. And I got angry for a very long time. I felt like I was slowly burning out and marching to the grave…and for what? I didn’t know. Clock in, clock out…still angry…
There are no real answers in this song either. I’ve found them personally, don’t worry. But sometimes describing the struggle is more important than writing a happy ending. That’s why the movie puts the happy part at the end…it isn’t the interesting part.
The line, “All I do anymore is suck up–shut the fuck up–like it doesn’t matter” is one of my favorite lines I’ve written. The word “fuck” is integral to the rhyme scheme. You don’t get that a lot.
This one was hard to mix. It went through about a dozen arrangements until I was happy with the final sound. And even so, could it have used more bass? Less background vocals? I don’t know. I just like it. Listening to this one over time made me realize how influenced I’ve become by Bob Mould (formerly of Husker Du). The “hard” side of what I write probably owes more to him than to anyone else at this point. So props to Bob, is what I’m saying here. 5. No One Leaves St. Louis
This song is very abstract. Stay with me.
I know that the tense shifts all over the place. Sometimes it’s past tense, present tense, and even future tense within the same line. Don’t try to make grammatical sense of it. It’ll drive you nuts. And that’s on purpose. I considered trying to clean it up, but I thought it helped the point of the song to leave it baffling.
I guess you’d call this a love song. Although I think the line “it doesn’t count as a love song if nobody’s in love by the chorus” is one of the most important phrases in understanding the lyrics. It IS a love song. But love is more complicated than a love song. Sometimes “I love you” isn’t as simple as “I love you too.” Sometimes it’s “let’s not fuck this up by dating, but I love you too.” And when that’s left hanging there, everything is fucked up. Time, location, emotions…they’re all out the window.
I guess in this story, it’s two people meeting up after not seeing each other for a while. The guy obviously has deep feelings for the girl, but it’s not meant to be. And that kinda sucks. But at least they’ve got whatever they’ve got, and whatever that might be is walking down Delmar in U City looking for a beer. He’d do anything for her, but the best thing he can do for her is not press that. No matter how long it takes to put those feelings away.
Yes, it’s semi-autobiographical. Of course it is.
When I wrote this I had a line in the song that I had to change because of the passage of time and events. The line “Worst case scenario, there’s that club where we used to go” USED to be, “Worst case scenario, there’s probably parking behind Cicero’s.” Cicero’s was a bar/restaurant in St. Louis that I liked. It closed while I was working on this album, with very little fanfare. Nothing lasts forever.
I also added a line to the song. I was writing about St. Louis and my pet theory that even if they move, no one ever really gets out of there. People are always drawn back. Or they can move to Detroit or Minneapolis or someplace and live there for 30 years, but when anybody asks they say, “I’m from St. Louis.” In the song, it’s clear that the girl has left…but she hasn’t. Something keeps her coming back–maybe it’s him and maybe it isn’t. Then while I was writing the album, Chuck Berry died. And I wrote “I guess everything changes. Even the best things. Nobody expects Chuck Berry to play here again.” It seemed like a perfect metaphor. Chuck Berry’s dead. But he’ll always be part of this town. No one leaves St. Louis. The love never fully dies. 6. Who I Am
This song came together while I was working on the album. I’d already demoed a few songs and set things to click-tracks and so on. But I had a few stray ideas sitting around both lyrically and musically that turned into this song. I’m glad it happened. It’s one of my favorite lyrics and songs I’ve written in years.
Self-identity is something we all wrestle with. Especially when we know we have to change. Even if the change would be good, it’s human nature to think, “I know the doctor said I should quit, but if I’m not a drinker, then what am I?” Even if we don’t like him/her very much, there’s comfort in at least recognizing the person in the mirror.
It seems like every few years, I look in a mirror and think, “Who are you this time?” (This is a metaphor. I’m not nuts.) That thought is usually followed quickly by “this again, huh?” and I spend a bit searching for myself and boiling myself down to the basics. I think that’s important to do from time to time; remind oneself of your fundamentals. It’s important to see if they’ve changed, and if so why. You’ve got to know yourself to keep living with yourself.
I mentioned in the CD’s liner notes that the “my heart is an old drunk” line is one of my favorite things I’ve written. But there’s a verse in the song that’s very personal and reflective of my music career…
Is anyone listening to this? Am I just giving it away for free again, or is anybody buying? Pouring my soul out again. I’ve got a million confessions to blurt out to a catchy tune. But it feels like I’m lying.
That’s what it’s like being a musician. 7. Amanda, I’m Tired
Let it be stated throughout perpetuity that sometimes a name is just a name. I used the name “Amanda” in the title/song because I like the name and for various reasons, I needed it to be a three-syllable name. It worked for Waylon. It worked for Boston. It works for me. Don’t bother my friends named Amanda with this lyric. If you read it out to them, I don’t think any one of them would reply, “Yep. That’s definitely describing the week we broke up.” The working title of the song was “God Knows,” but when I’d jot it down on lists and things I kept calling it “Amanda” and I added the “I’m Tired” just so people wouldn’t think it was a cover song.
Now that I’ve said that.
I LOVED working on this song. The lyrics mean a lot to me and I’m very proud of them. In much the same way as “Nobody Else,” I think I did a good job indicating that someone ELSE might have a clearer version of the story than I do. In this one I flat-out say, “This is YOUR story, too.” We all forget that someone else was involved in the narrative. That someone else felt not only the same things we did, but probably a bunch of stuff we could never hope to understand. That someone else got hurt. As much as I felt like it was important to express “my” side of that, I am proud of the searching of the other person’s feelings that comes out in the second verse/chorus. This one means a lot to me.
Producing this one was fun. I love the change from the soft acoustic part to the rumbling, overwhelming electric. And I love the string parts. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but this one feels a little like a movie soundtrack to me. A friend heard it and described it as “Tom Petty meets Radiohead.” I don’t consider either one of them a main influence on what I do. But I hear it too, now that someone’s said it. Especially in the louder part.
Of all the things you have to survive in life, I think “the one who got away” probably leaves the most lasting scars. Especially when you’re the one failing to patch them. 8. That Was Then
The turn from “Amanda, I’m Tired” to this track is one of my favorite 180s in my career. From the deep, lush, grandiose production of “Amanda…” to the complete, childish irreverence of this song… It makes me happy every time I listen to that transition.
This one’s pretty clear, lyrically. “I loved you then…but that was THEN.” It’s just a good, old-fashioned kiss-off song. And it’s short and punky. It ticks all the boxes of what I like about this side of my writing.
I initially sang “I don’t fucking need you” in the second verse. Decided to dial it back. I don’t mind using the f-word, but it isn’t always necessary. In this song I was saying it just to say it. So it got cut.
I used to do this one in one band or another with my brother too. We had a lot of good songs that need to see proper releases. I hope (and think) I’ve done this one justice. 9. I Still Believe
People are going to think this is a religious song. I can see why. I even mention God in it. But it isn’t a religious song to me. To me it’s a song about keeping hope in the goodness of everything around you, despite the evidence. And that CAN include religion, but I didn’t mean that specifically here. In fact, this song was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who is a staunch atheist. He told me about what he “still believes” about good and evil. I took stock of myself as well, and this is the song that came out.
I also was writing about depression. I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life. “It comes on like a fire” is the best way I can think of to describe my “down” cycles. Sometimes they come as an explosion, but a lot of times they come as a gentle smolder that goes unnoticed until suddenly the living-room’s fucking GONE. And in those times, it helps to try to remember the goodness I haven’t given up on yet.
I recently saw Rufus Wainwright in concert and he said that in his down times, he’s realized that he can only get through it by finding his gratitude. (He was speaking specifically about the death of his mother.) He has to find what he’s grateful for to find the road back to himself. I’d written this song before I heard him say that, but I think that’s what I was trying to say with this one. When life gets hard, focusing on what I believe and the goodness I am grateful for is part of what helps me feel better again.
As I said in the CD liner notes, I’m a little afraid people will misunderstand a line in the song and won’t check the lyric sheet. I’m afraid they’ll hear “I still believe in revival” as “I still believe in the Bible.” The latter is a stupid lyric. That’s why I didn’t write it.
As an interesting side note, I never start work on an album until I have a “Track 1.” I have to know how it all starts before I can begin working on it. When I wrote “I Still Believe,” I thought I’d written my “Track 1” for the album. And yet, here it is at track 9. I almost couldn’t have been more wrong. 10. Always
“Always” was in progress when I started recording the album. I had enough of it that I knew I would put it on the album, but not enough of it that I knew quite where it was going. I bounced around between what point of view the song would be written in (first person/third person) and ultimately what message I wanted to give.
Most of the song is a down-note, lyrically. It’s describing someone who’s definitely struggling. It’s trying to tell the listener that it’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to hurt. Then it turns it all around and says, “But you can ALWAYS come home.” Struggle while you need to, but come back to where you belong. And you don’t belong in the dark place.
It’s basically me in a good place giving advice to myself when I’m inevitably in the bad place.
I like that the bridge sounds almost gloriously, decadently happy, but if you look at the lyrics they’re “It’s always never getting better. There’s always something in the way.” It’s one of the saddest, most defeated parts of the song, but it sounds climacticly happy. Then, again, there’s that line… “But you can always come home.” It justifies all of the happiness in the music balancing against the sadness in the lyrics. There’s always good right there just waiting for the bad to stop. And that’s maybe the best way I could’ve ended the album.
My aunt Clara died today. She’s one of the aunts from Arkansas that has been more or less a central figure to that side of the family, or at least that’s how I’ve always viewed her. Maybe I should take a step back and explain that.
There’s a family farm on my mom’s side of the family. It’s not a property I’d ever have any real legal claim to. It would be a misread to think I’m part of some kind of wealthy land ownership situation. But it’s still right to call it “the family farm.” It’s the place where my mom’s mom and all of her siblings grew up. And until recent years it was tended by “the girls;” four of my aunts who lived together and looked after things–Stella, Clara, “Deet,” and Naomi. When I was a kid, “going to see the aunts” was a regular thing in the Summer and it meant spending a week staying in the farmhouse with the girls. I have a lot of fond memories of that. The house was a gathering place for everybody in the family. You’d see all of the cousins, most of the aunts and uncles, and a few people you were pretty sure you were related to, but who can tell? And the girls were at the center of it. They had the gift of hospitality above all else.
In 1994, my mom died and I stopped going to Arkansas over the summer. I was 14. If I’d been in my 20s or so and could drive a car, maybe things would’ve been different. But as it was, I largely only saw Mom’s side of the family at Thankgiving, weddings, and funerals from there on out. And over the years, Naomi then Deet and now Clara have died. Stella is the only one left, and her health isn’t great.
I don’t know what becomes of the farm house soon. Someone probably has an idea. Probably more than one someone. Probably more than one idea. Probably an argument to be had sometime soon by somebodys… As for me, if nobody has claimed it, I’d like to put a bid on the piano in the front room. It’s the only one I ever heard my mother play.
But I’m not sure we’re there quite yet.
Clara was the one who you called if you were playing in the yard and came upon a snake. She’d take care of that for you. And she was the one who knew I’d want to play dominos or the board game Aggrivation every night I was there. She’s the first person I’d ever heard say, “you’re gonna get GOT” in a gaming context. And she was also the one who baked the GOOD bread. I’ve never had bread as good as Clara’s. And I guess I won’t again.
The thing I won’t ever forget Clara doing was something that happened when my mom died. We were at the funeral parlor and there was a family member (by marriage) who was known to be fairly rude and semi-intentionally say the wrong thing present at the wake. Said family member was talking to me at one point. I remember she was saying something about the carpet in the funeral parlor being cheap, as though that’s anyone’s problem. Clara made eye contact, marched over, grabbed my arm, and said, “Derek, have you seen this floral arrangement that so-and-so sent? I just know you’d like it…” and drug me away. Once we were by some set of flowers or another she said, “I didn’t think you should listen to that right after your mom died.” I don’t think I’ve ever said “thank you” so quickly.
And another memory. My brother and I went to Arkansas for Deet’s funeral several years back, but failed to tell anyone we were doing so. We’d gotten a hotel room nearby, but decided to go over to the family house to say hello. We knocked on the door and everybody got excited to see us–we had even forgotten to tell Grandma we’d be there! We were in the house for all of two minutes before we realized that Clara had gone down the hallway to fetch some sheets and blankets to make up two extra beds. “The boys are going to need someplace to sleep.” We had to stop her and tell her we’d gotten a hotel room so we wouldn’t be under-foot. She just assumed we were family, so of COURSE we would be staying. In hindsight, it kind of breaks my heart that we didn’t. Sometimes you forget about hospitality until it hits you over the head.
My Grandma called me about two weeks ago to say she’d been down to see Clara and she wasn’t doing well. She’d been in poor health and the writing was on the wall. I said something about it being comforting to know she’d be at peace…but even when they’re true, those are just the words you say. They don’t really help that much when someone you care about is struggling. Maybe they do later. I’ve never been sure.
While we talked, Grandma started talking to me about liquidating her assets. She had a stroke earlier this year and is now living with my uncle and aunt. “Derek, do you need any quilts? Would you like some old pictures of your mom? Do you have a Foreman grill? Would you like that clock you gave me for Christmas back?” She kept saying she doesn’t have room for things. But she’s 93. We both knew what conversation we were having. It made me nostalgic for the times she used to ask me when I was going to find a nice girl and settle down. Not that I have any answers to that, either.
Time keeps passing and with it people pass away. That’s how life works. It’ll happen to all of us. So it goes.
There is a lot I love about being from a big, Southern-with-a-capital-S family. I love that despite the fact that I haven’t kept in touch in the right ways, I’m always welcomed. I love that Uncle Eddie and I are going to talk guitars when we see each other; we speak the same language. I love that when I randomly bump into one of the cousins it’s easy to say hello. I love that some of us have stayed in touch on Facebook in the ways I’ve failed to in person. But the one thing I hate about it is that when it’s a big family, a lot of mourning gets crammed into a few years, every generation.
I posted on Facebook the same thought that I’m going to use to end this post. If I had it to do over, the one thing I’d do differently is I’d have gone to the farm in Arkansas more often as an adult, and I’d have kept in better touch with Mom’s side of the family. I guess I’ve lived long enough to regret some things. Unfortunately the only way a lot of us figure that out is by outliving somebody else.
I’m going to write a longer post that will go up when the album comes out…but yeah. The new album “It Could Be Worse” will be out on May 18 in digital format on my Bandcamp page or on CD if you see me in person or ask for one to be mailed to you. Either version is “pay what you want” pricing, and I’ll totally give you one for FREE, as usual. It’s one of my best albums, and I can’t wait for you to hear it!
Here’s the cover (which I hope you can click on to make it bigger, but if not…sorry):The track list (which won’t mean much to most of you) is:
Everybody Shut Up
What I’m Dying For
No One Leaves St. Louis
Who I Am
Amanda, I’m Tired
That Was Then
I Still Believe
It’s about a 40 minute listen. I play my 1973 Martin and my Rickenbacker guitar and my Rickenbacker bass all over it. I’m really happy with it, and I hope you will be too! See you again on the 18th!