“You’re Wrong, You’re Wrong, You’re Wrong and YOU…You’re Way Off Base.”

Today I feel defeated by everything, that my world is too hopeless to blog about. Is it? Probably a little bit: the weather like my mood, overcast and blurry. But there should be something to write about, shouldn’t there? Shouldn’t I be excited about the future? Well, to be honest I am excited about it: about playing shows and having people hear the album, about getting back out there. But there seems so many obstacles, such an enormous shit storm hailing down over The Dears, over the entire music business. The cynicism is devouring people left, right and center…chewing them up and spitting them out.

The thing is, is that I can’t let go of the hope. I believe in music too much; I believe music is more powerful than money or success. Those things are intangible, unreachable and in some ways, they don’t even really exist. So, *deep breath* I say fuck it. Fuck the past, fuck today, fuck popularity and pretention. This is art. The Dears is art — again — and these songs are fierce and uncomfortable, just as they should be. After nearly a decade of struggling to fit in under a forced, false identity, I feel like maybe we are finally free to be, well, you and me.

Post Scriptum: Recognise the obtuse KITH reference from the title? As good and quotable as: “We need an exorcist in here and this time I mean it.”

Playing the Record for People

On Tuesday, Murray and I embarked on an Ontarian adventure. We drove down to play the record for some people. This album is precious to us, and we would be totally devastated if our past year’s work was misused or stolen from us. So we never sent out any CDs to anyone, and in fact the only way anyone who didn’t play on the record can hear it is to come to one of our impromptu board room meetings for a listening session. We came to Toronto to play it for friends and also some industry types: at least, the ones who were open to the idea of a listening session. We would gather people together, put the CD on the stereo, then leave the room. After 58 minutes we’d come back, reclaim the CD and that’s it. That’s how we’re rolling: no burns, no iTunes imports, no files somewhere on a server. No ripping, burning, leaking or stealing allowed until we’re ready. Because we know it’s going to happen eventually — we’d just like to be involved when it goes down. Call us crazy, but these songs are the keystone, our main conduit keeping us connected with our fans, and we want to enjoy that communication, not live in fear of it.

So we’ve got a lot of convincing to do: our works’ cut out for us. Murray and I are kind of on a reconnaissance mission: collecting information, seeing who’s into our outsider ways, observing people’s reactions, their favourite tracks and single selections, what they did and didn’t expect. It’s been interesting, and the common thread (for me) is how good it sounds no matter where we play it. It carries itself with a creative consistency across several platforms: headphones, car stereos, amazing stereos, crappy stereos, computer speakers and other small systems. Even after hearing it dozens of times in its finished state, I still hear things I’ve not heard before.

Now we’re simmering, letting all the ideas come to us as sort of a natural reaction to how the music is being perceived. The music industry has forced our hand, compelled us to let go of old world methods and marketing templates for organic ways and the opening of an unconventional, artistic discourse. We want to put something out there for you to hear soon, too. Stay tuned for the news of listening sessions, because we might get crazy and invite you to the next one.

So now that mastering is done…

Murray and I got back from mastering on Tuesday night. We drove down to Portland, Maine to work with Bob Ludwig. It was a really nice, scenic drive from Montreal. Here’s what it looked like:

Anyhoo, a lot of people don’t really know what mastering is, so here’s a quick rundown of the whole process:

1. Recording or Tracking: Each instrument is performed and recorded individually. A dense song can have more that 50 layers of instruments.
2. Mixing: All those 50 layers or tracks are balanced together into two tracks: Left and Right.
3. Mastering: The mixes are then kind of “mixed again,” compressed together, hopefully resulting in a unified sound. Also the songs are put in running order and any fades or gaps are added.

Or, in Jughead Jones sandwich terms:

1. Recording: Picking out all your ingredients for your ultimate, multi-level sandwich: slices of havarti, provolone, tomatoes, Swiss, lettuce, sprouts, (veggie) meats, pickles, and five to seven slices of bread. Don’t forget condiments such as mustard (regular, Dijon or en grains), mayonnaise, corn relish, etc.
2. Mixing: Assembling the towering sandooze.
3. Mastering: Pressing assertively (but not too firmly…don’t want to bruise the lettuce) down on the sandwich to achieve a height suitable for the most openest mouth. Finally placing toothpicks in each corner before slicing diagonally, into triangles.

…and one year later you have an amazing album/sandwich in your hands!

It’s been an emotionally and psychologically rough year for The Dears, and especially for Murray, so it’s really good to have the album done and sound REALLY incredible. BTW, we’ve mastered with a lot of people, and Mr. Bob Ludwig is a genius: he’s got that bag of magic pixie dust and he’s not afraid to use it. I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Death To Indie Rock

Being part of a band that has been plunked into the “indie rock” category, I often struggle with the genre and what, exactly, it means. What is indie? I believe it is a dead identity: like how the title “alternative” was borne from grunge in the 90’s, and has since come to define bands like Nickelback. It’s outgrown its meaning: Death Cab is indie, but on a major label. So WTF?

The term “indie” essentially used to mean “not major label” and oftentimes “not on any label.” But now the new “indie” had been commodified and major label bands can be indie rock. And to me “indie” still means angular guitars, you know, like Pavement. Let’s see what the my go-to knower of all things says:

“Indie rock artists place a premium on maintaining complete control of their music and careers, releasing albums on independent record labels (sometimes their own) and relying on touring, word-of-mouth, and airplay on independent or college radio stations for promotion. Some end up moving to major labels, often on favorable terms won by their prior independent success.” – from the Indie Rock wiki.

OK, well that kind of explains it but doesn’t fully satisfy me, because it doesn’t address the indie rock sound or aesthetic. I mean, I don’t even think I could easily define it, but I know it’s out there, and everybody is trying to do it. And then this morning I read this: The Question Mark: Is Feist Still Indie?. This appears in the Canadian broadsheet ‘National Post’ who are notoriously conservative, but are trying hilariously to be ‘with it.’ Anyhow, the article is flimsy at best but addresses the issue: “What is indie?” It seems that we can’t agree: it’s an important label for some people, so important that they won’t listen to it if it’s not indie (even if it’s totally amazing); and yet for others it’s entirely meaningless.

As frustrating/obsolete as retail CD shopping has become, at least we can rely on a shop’s inability to define any sub-genre beyond “POP/ROCK,” which I am just fine with. You really, really cannot please everyone. I mean, is being indie that important to you?

So as The Dears put the finishing touches on our orchestral sci-fi noir-funk opus, we prepare ourselves mentally for the inevitable: being lazily lumped into the indie category. This is me, being curmudgeonly about the whole thing: *grumble*. We always say that making an album is like raising a child: you give it everything you can and then release it into the world, as if sending it off to its first day of school, and you can hope for the best, pray it makes good friends, but really, it’s beyond our control. We’ll see what the fates allow.

Glass-Half-Full Blues

Murray and Rob (Arquilla) have passed the midway point in mixing: working on song seven now and quickly running out of time. Murray negotiated a few more days at the Hotel to finish the album, and due to scheduling conflicts we had to move our mastering date to April 21st. Aside from being totally exhausted, working fourteen-hour days and barely sleeping with Neptune waking up at 7AM, Murray is starting to burn out, worried that his mixes aren’t going to cut it. He says his ears are so hyper-sensitive to frequencies and sounds that he can’t see the forest for the trees. The unity is ceasing to exist and all he hears coming out of the monitors are layers.

This morning I listened to the six finished mixes and they are really impressive. I referenced them to some other albums with great production – Air’s Virgin Suicides, Beck’s Sea Change, Doves’ Some Cities, Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Kid A (lots of Nigel Godrich) – and one thing struck me about the production of these albums: they each have a unique sound. The textures created by effects and unconventional instruments are what make those albums stand out and, well, special. When I went back to listen to The Dears’ mixes, I was struck by the same nuanced sound: these tracks already have an identity, and aside from needing to be squashed in mastering, I think it’s all there.

Mixing this record is a huge feat: some songs have over sixty tracks, recorded digitally. They’re being sent out of Logic, through a pair of converters that are hot enough to fry an egg on, and into an analogue Neotek board. They’ve had to do in-the-box sub-mixes of grouped instruments to make everything fit on the 32-channels that they have. After running all the outboard effects and compressors, the patch bay becomes a total entangled mess, and Murray has the habit of stepping back and saying: “It looks like we’re ready to print a mix.” It’s intense, and I know I couldn’t do it in the amount of time that we have given ourselves (if I could do it at all). Actually, if I did it this album would sound pretty jazzy, and not in a good way.

I’ll just stick to keyboard playing, administrating, childrearing and blogging.

A Conversation About “Money Babies”

Murray: I T-Pain-ed your voice.
Me: What? You autotuned my voice?
Murray: No I T-Pain-ed it. I distorted it a little, too.
Me: Wow. I can’t wait to hear it. Its not cheesy is it?
Murray: It’s amazing.
Me: Awesome. I thought those vocals made me sound like a 12-year-old anyway so maybe that’ll add some sophistication. How’s the mix sounding?
Murray: Good, I mean this song is a beast. There are A LOT of keyboards.
Me: It’s gonna sound great.

Like I said before, everything is fair game. The things we’ve made fun of just might make it, and these same things might make some people forsake us forever. This record is beyond indie rock. There’s no turning back now: I don’t think the Dears will be defineable by any category, except maybe “Other.”

Future Rock, no, this is more like Intellectual Sci-Fi Rock. Like if the citizens of Gattaca were permitted music, “Money Babies” is the song they would listen to.

Day Two at the Hotel

Yesterday I overheard Murray on the phone and he said: “This is the album I’ve always wanted to make.” I think he was still on a high from the killer string session. Wednesday – the first day of mixing – was spent tracking at Mountain City. From noon to 7PM. Murray kicked out the lead vocals for two songs, I did backing vocals on three, and Krief came in and did some backing vocals, too. We did a gang vocal on one track and it sounds very…motley. This is definitely not a very polished record, performance wise, but sonically it’s incredible. So from 8PM to 3AM, Murray, Rob and Drew started building the “studio within the studio.”

Hotel2Tango is 100% analogue, which is wicked since Murray wants to mix analogue. Only we recorded digital, so we had to rent some converters and put the puzzle together atop the Hotel. Murray came home tired and wired: he just wanted this day to be over and the next one to start so he could keep working.

Today (Thursday) was day two at the Hotel, but most of the session was spent trying to get the converters to talk with Murray’s laptop. Between tests, we had a children’s choir come in to record four or five takes for one track. We were all getting teary-eyed: it sounded pretty frigging awesome. After the choir left, it was back to the converters. Turns out it was something very nerdy like telling Logic which clock to use.

Anyhow, it all works now and the setup is humming. Two weeks and thirteen songs to go.

The Broken Speaker

Click to see Murray’s introduction of the Broken Speaker. Sorry the video is so…dark (literally and metaphorically)…you actually can’t really see the speaker at all. All you see is a pack of strings bouncing on the patched up cone. You don’t see any of the duct tape! That’s the best part. At least you get the idea…if you’re wondering, it’s an old speaker Murray had to replace in one of his Traynor amps. He still has the busted thing, proudly displayed in the basement. Never know when it will come in handy, I guess.

The Big Crunch

These past few weeks, Murray has been in the basement studio, poring over all the recorded tracks. He’s choosing which takes to use, re-amping things, experimenting with effects, comparing microphones, doing some editing, and on and on. He starts mixing tomorrow at the Hotel2Tango: Murray’s pretty comfortable there, and he’ll be manning the boards for over two weeks. It’s the longest The Dears have ever taken to mix a record, but I personally feel super confident in what’s going to come out of there.

The other day, Murray was working on getting the tracks ready for mixing, when he realised what he had to do: he just said f*ck it, and is going all the way. Now what, you may be asking, does that mean? It means no restraint. Not chaos, but a very careful, controlled density. I mean, this album is huge and full of crazy depth, and I’ve said it before but this is a real Dears album. I really doubt we will get played on the radio, or get a video into rotation, but we were never really good at those things anyhow, so why try to go there?

The strings came in today. We start mixing tomorrow, and today Murray is still tracking at Mountain City. In fact, we are tracking tomorrow morning, right up until we move into the Hotel. But I was at Mountain City when they showed up, just two players, viola and cello, and even as they started to rehearse the simple chords that were to replace the Mellotron, I knew this album was about to be elevated to new heights. This record is going to destroy you. I promise.

I have to go in tomorrow to do my last vocal tracks. I’ve kind of taken the lead on one track, and do some harmonies on others, and I’m always really self-conscious about my vocal tracks until I hear them in the mix. Listening back to a solo-ed vocal take is excruciating, so I try not to do that, but I did realise that I really love singing. It’s a lot of fun. Maybe I should start a vanity side-project? Naah. I’m not a song writer, so I would have to pull a Scarlett Johansson and just do covers, but I’ve always found those sorts of endeavours a bit masturbatory. I have thought of doing a not-lame album for kids that wouldn’t drive parents crazy…like re-worked lullabyes or something. I could do “Asleep” by The Smiths…though that would be kind of dark…maybe forget the whole idea.

At any rate, Neptune and I are going to be at a lot of the mixing sessions (mixing is more toddler-friendly than tracking), so I plan on posting more about how that’s going. Maybe I’ll add some multi-media as well so you can see the crazy lengths to which Murray’s hair has grown.

More on the Music Industry

I saw this in an email sent to Murray last week, but I wasn’t sure if it was one of those velvet-rope, for your eyes only things or something else. What’s the protocol on stuff like that? Anyhow, David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars is an informative and practical take on the music industry from the artist’s point-of-view. The email I saw was, I think, a bit more detailed than what’s printed in Wired, but still it addresses many questions Murray and I have been asking ourselves lately. Where do we go from here?

Working on a new album always signals a new beginning and fresh start. This Dears record is no exception, and is like a new/old beginning, as we revisit our roots and the creation of a modernised orchestral pop-noir romantique (a style we pioneered six years ago). Without getting into too much of the complicated (and unnecessarily dramatic, which we’ll tell you about later) details, The Dears are at an incredible crossroads, and we’re trying to figure out whether to take the usual route, the road less travelled, or carve out our own, exotic path with a machete. It’s a sometimes trying place to be, one without security or definition, but that is grounded by an art of incredible calibre. We’ve made a career out of doing things our way, have acquired a reputation of being a “difficult” band to work with, and still it seems that whenever we take anyone else’s lead, things just fall apart.

Seeing as how we are neither an emerging artist, nor a megastar, Byrne’s suggestions must be adjusted slightly to accommodate The Dears. And it could go either way, because the pitfalls for a band like ours are not so easily defined. Its definitley refreshing to hear that there are other people on every level of the music biz that are willing to use their machetes to slice through this jungle.