Editors note: What follows is a guest post by the infamous musician, fictioneer, and budding poet Louie “the Kid” Land.
I’d played with Tom “Bad” Bailey, one of my professors at Susquehanna University and now a good friend, and his son Sam, for about a year and a half. We’d never gigged together, but I went up to their house often, sometimes a few times a week, and we played for hours in their music room, “Studio B”. Tom and Sam wrote country-style songs that took influence from the Allman Brothers, the Band, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. I came from blues music, primarily, and my heroes were players like Freddie King, BB King, Eric Clapton and Joe Bonamassa. When we jammed, we’d play the first verse and chorus of the song (which is usually all we would have lyrically) and then we’d keep playing through the song over and over again while I took an extended guitar solo. Truth be told, we weren’t very good, but we had a hell of a good time. We drank shitty beer and made worse jokes. (One time Sam said, “One day I’m gonna release an album called The Long Haul” and when I asked why he said, “‘Cause life is the long haul.” Tom shook his head and said, “Gawd, that’s deep.”) We scribbled our names in permanent marker on the wall (next to a sign Tom had drawn that said “THE WALL”). We’d have other players up all of the time and joked with them, “One day, maybe you too will be good enough to be on THE WALL.” There wasn’t any pressure to be serious musicians, though once in awhile after we played a tune we’d look at each other and say, “You know, that one could turn into something.”
Then Tom called me up this October, while I was away at graduate school, and said, “Sam’s getting serious about the music. He’s been writing his own songs since you left and we’re going to record them over the winter break when everyone is back.” After I returned to Pennsylvania, I spent several days over at Studio B. Tom had wrangled up a computer with recording software and some decent microphones and we planned to have everyone come up on a weekend to record. Tom wrote in an email, “We’ll be sure to get a pallet of the coveted BUSCH LIGHT!”
We’d never actually planned to sell the songs and make it rich. Really, I think the project was meant more to help Sam get some of his songs out there into the world. The album wasn’t the type of thing we’d try to get stocked on music store shelves, though we would sell the tunes, but I think we were more interested in seeing, once they songs were recorded, if we could sell the songs themselves to an artist, or maybe use them as demos. We billed ourselves, in the vein of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, as Sam Bailey and Go Down, Moses. Tom sat in as our producer. We recorded five tunes that right now are still being mixed but should soon hit iTunes: “Time,” “Run My Way,” “Hold On,” “Day After Day,” and “Don’t Cry, Little Bird.”
I spent a few days with Sam and Tom recording guitar and drum tracks. Sam and I switched off on the rhythm duties. I took the lead guitar parts and he played drums. We wanted a foundation before the rest of the band showed up. When the weekend came, we had the bones ready for the rest of the band to fill in.
Because it wasn’t my record and they weren’t my songs, it was pretty easy for me (and the rest of the band) to stand back and offer helpful suggestions as we went about recording. Sam had his own idea of what he wanted and sometimes he would say “No, that doesn’t work,” but since it wasn’t our record, we were ok with the fact that it didn’t work. There weren’t any hard feelings. All of us were just there to help.
We stumbled into lots of happy accidents. We tried adding backing vocals on the choruses of “Time.” As we hit each successive chorus we layered on another vocal part, so by the end we had four voices singing harmonies. When you’re recording, everything else is quiet. You’re wearing headphones and singing into a microphone and so you can hear everything but the rest of the band, standing there watching and drinking beer, can only hear you. As we put down each vocal part, we all got pretty nervous and said, “I don’t think this was a good idea.” By the time we listened to the track we were ready to cut the vocal harmonies all together. Then we heard the playback and we all kind of looked at each other and said, “Hell, that actually sounds pretty good.” We tried the formula again for “Day After Day,” though, and in that case we sounded like a bunch of drunks singing along to the song in a shitty bar, which is not the sound Sam was looking for. (We didn’t ever get a pallet as Tom promised but we did run out of beer by 2pm). Another happy accident came from playing a xylophone by running violin bows up and down the keys instead of hitting them with the mallets. We stumbled into a swelling, bell-like sound that’s pretty cool.
All in all, recording five tunes took probably a week, though in individual sessions scattered throughout the month. I spent maybe two or three days out at Studio B helping to put down the foundations of the songs and then we spent the weekend filling it in. Since this was the first time most of us heard the songs, we needed multiple takes. That was also partly because we would play through the song and it would sound good enough, but we all knew we could do better, so we played it again. (The exception was our bassist, Chris “Che A”, who learned the songs that morning and recorded the majority of his parts in one take. To be fair, though, Chris was supposed to write a rap section for “Day After Day” which he didn’t compose until he arrived at Studio B that morning.)
Not everything was sunshine and roses. It probably took me a dozen tries to record my guitar solo. The first take, Sam said, “That was pretty good, that’s mostly what I want.” Getting the other 20% or 15% of the solo the way he wanted it, though, was tough. I’d play a take and we’d decide I shouldn’t go so far up the neck at the end, or that I should stay in a certain pattern of licks for a longer period of time. We did a lot of fine tuning with the tone coming from the amplifier and a lot of close listening and deciding, “that specific phrase, right there, play that but here.” That phrase might have only been two seconds in a solo that lasted thirty. I was proud of myself, though, because I could play mostly the same thing over and over again and offer up variations for them to listen to.
I can’t explain just how fun the session was. Since Tom wasn’t playing any instruments, he was capturing the more exciting bits on a video camera, but most of the clips begin with Tom saying, “Wait! Ok, now say that again!” Or, when we played “Don’t Cry, Little Bird,” the jazziest of our songs, Chris said seriously, “this song sounds like the Doors!” (The song sounds nothing like the Doors in any way.) When we made fun of him later, saying, “Great take, guys, we sound just like the Doors!” Chris would say, “Not yet, but we will!”
The tunes should be mixed in the next couple of weeks. Keep your eyes peeled.