The Making Of El Oso

from doughty’s post to the aol music board on dec 1, 1997

1. The studio Tchad Blake uses is the one he’s been working at since he was a lowly assistant engineer; now it’s virtually his second home. Every musical item he’s collected in the past ten years is stored over there–the recording room is this wondrous junkpile of effects pedals, old keyboards, guitars, strange amplifiers and speakers, and all kinds of bizarre musical miscellany. He’s got a huge trunk filled only with toys–toy xylophones, party noisemakers, whistles, a plastic apple with a smiley face painted on and little chimes inside it. The room looks like the laboratory of a mad and messy scientist. We’ve hatched many a plan to bilk the record company and record in some exotic locale–Harare and Malta have come up–but the fact is that Tchad can’t move his shit. He’s never had to.

So recording a song would usually go like this; a basic track is laid down, then a vocal, and then while Tchad spends an hour hitting switches and knobs everybody else is running to the junkpile and writing riffs. And when Tchad is done knob-twiddling, suddenly I’ve got a vocal harmony through the Ahuja–an Indian P.A. system with a huge bullhorn for a speaker–Mark’s got a celeste part to overdub, Yuval’s been elongating and fucking with a vocal sample from another track, and Sebastian’s got a part for Hammond pedals.
By the time we’d be done tracking a song, the tracks would be overgrown with weird bits and overdubs. So the rough-mixing usually involved hacking out large bits of wild underbrush, cutting down to the essence of the song.

A number of songs–“Rolling,” “Misinformed,” “Monster Man,” “Needle to the Bar,” and others whose titles elude me because I lent my friend Jason my cassette of the rough mixes–started out with vocal and drums alone, and the rest of the song was augured with the aforementioned process. Yuval’s got these sort of genre-areas of beats, like little cells with infinite variations. I got a tape of a bunch of them when we demoed in San Francisco last June, went down to Pensacola, loaded them into my sampler, looped them, and wrote melodies to them.

So the prime tension of the songs would be the tension between the words and the tunings of the drums, the intricacies of the beat. That’s a switch for us–usually the words would exist in a tension with a guitar part, and then when we got into the studio either an arrangement would come up around the guitar part, or everybody would be fucking around with a groove that’d turn out to be pretty dope, and I’d take a song that was previously nailed to a guitar part, remove the guitar part and layer the melody over the new groove. “Super Bon Bon” is a decent example of the latter, “The Idiot Kings” is a decent example of the former.

When we got to Los Angeles, I’d play the drum-loops onto the tape, then do the vocal and the harmony vocal. Then Yuval would go into the drum booth and expound on the drum-loops, variation after variation. Then we’d remove the loop, so it’d just be the live drums and the vocals, and everybody would go wild piling shit on top of that. A few hours later we’d have a song.

Other than the songs we’ve been doing live–for which we just went into the room, picked up our instruments, and played them–it was a remarkably different process for us, where usually nobody would know where the song was going until it had gotten there. I formed Soul Coughing because I was sick of dreaming up arrangements in my head and attempting to translate them to actual musicians–I wanted to bring in the melodies and have the song develop according to whatever inkling anybody wanted to follow, to not have to spell out or explain to make a song into a song. Over the years, even that process has gotten familiar. It gets more difficult with every record to surprise everybody else.

2. This record is thus far without a gangadank. A gangadank is a kind of guitar rhythm that I invented in an attempt to recreate a hiphop groove on an acoustic guitar–it goes, gangadank, gank-guh-did-dank–that nowadays I gravititate to naturally every time I pick up the guitar. “Chicago,” “The Idiot Kings,” “Moon Sammy,”–all examples of gangadanks. There are numerous superstitions about gangadanks within Soul Coughing–no two gangadanks in a row in a given set list, for example. There are also arguments about the defintion of a gangadank–Mark, for instance, maintains that “Idiot” is a false gangadank, because though there is a clear gangadank being played on the guitar, the heart of the song is the bassline. Gentleman Jim defines the gangadank as any song with an integral guitar part–thus making “Soundtrack to Mary” a gangadank, a song that actually utilizes a guitar rhythm I call a choogler.

There’s an essential tension in that Yuval is loathe to play the same beat twice, while I move towards the things I love and know, invariably. It’s a tension between the big pop obvious and the sophisticated curve ball. I’m kinda unresolved on the question myself–take the Stones, for instance, who perfected an unmistakeable and individual groove, used it brilliantly for ten years, and now are utterly stuck. Does this mean that if they sought out new grooves they wouldn’t be stuck now? Or would they have missed out on the brilliant perfection of a groove at the heart of their identity? And do any of these questions justify me contrasting my lowly hiphop band to a Gargantuan Legend of Big Rock?

Gus Brandt is the most vocal exponent of the gangadank. Every time we speak, he goes, “You need some of them gangadanks, Habba. The kids, they yearn for more gangadanks.” The one gangadank we had been playing live for a couple of years, “Don’t Go Wreck the Car,” wasn’t recorded–there’s still a chance we might track it when we go back to Los Angeles to mix in late January–and I think it broke Gus’ heart.

3. Tchad Blake is sitting around the Sound Factory’s lounge telling stories about mixing the Dandy Warhols record. “So I get the tape,” he says, “and it’s this real straight rock stuff, and I start mixing it like that, like I heard it. And then the guy comes down and listens and he’s totally not into it. ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘I want the whole song to trip out here, and I want a weird digital delay here, and I want the vocals to distort really extremely here…’ I mean, I was totally baffled. That’s not what I heard on the tape at all.”

“So, Tchad Blake,” I say, “what you’re saying is that it confuses you that someone would hire you for your *TchadBlakeness*?”

4. We stayed in a hotel just above Hollywood Boulevard, behind the Chinese Theater. It was affixed to a nightclub for magicians, and was minorly magic-themed. In the parking garage below the hotel, the parking spaces were all spraypaint-stenciled with the names of magicians. I always hoped nobody was parked in the Siegfried and Roy space when we got home from the studio. But it was always taken. I wondered what would happen if Siegfried and Roy showed up and found their space was occupied.

I don’t drive, so every day I’d walk down Hollywood Boulevard to the studio, down the walk of fame. I’d get my coffee at the joint in the ground floor of the Roosevelt Hotel, which runs parallel to a stretch of stars that includes the Everly Brothers, William Haines, Jo Van Fleet, Cybill Shephard, and Angie Dickinson. I always sat at the table adjacent to Cybill Shephard. And, invariably, sometimes more than once in the span of two triple-lattes, a tourist couple would amble by, staring at the sidewalk, and exclaim “Oh! Cybill Shephard!” They would then proceed to videotape her star. Every day.

I watched “Girl 6” on cable one night–the most depressing movie ever, and written by a woman, Suzan-Lori Parks, that I used to study playwriting with. There’s this one part where Spike Lee asks Theresa Randle “Is there a phone sex hall of fame?” like that’s the ulimate measure of an endeavour’s worthiness. And then the next morning I was suddenly attuned to the subtle–maybe random–hierarchy in this, the ultimate in halls of fame. For instance–why do the Everly Brothers share a single star, while Bud Abbott and Lou Costello get independant stars, located five long Los Angeles blocks from one another? How come Liberace has two stars, one with the little brass two-mask theater symbol, and one with the little brass record? And what of poor Jo Van Fleet, forever slighted by the love heaped upon her neighbor, Cybill Shephard?

The day after John Denver died, down the block a star had a wreath set up on a kind of easel. I assumed it was John Denver, but in fact it was a silent film star from the 20’s–I forget her name, it was no one I’d heard of, and if there’s anything I know it’s silent film stars–that had died at a nursing home in the San Fernando Valley a few days previous. In the middle of the wreath someone had taped up a xerox of the one-paragraph obituary.

5. Casual–the rapper from Oakland, one of the Hieroglyphics crew that includes Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Souls of Mischief–came down to do the verses on a song called “Needle to the Bar.” For kicks, we put up the reel of “212” and let him freestyle over the tracks. Now, Casual is, in my estimation, maybe the greatest rapper still working out there, with an incredible sense of melody. For me it was kind of like, say, if you were in the horn section of some Orange County ska band, and Coltrane were to come in and overdub your parts for you.

The first take was astounding–he hadn’t heard the track before, so each switch in dynamics, each time the tune shifted, it would throw him off a little. It was kind of like watching a trapeze artist suddenly in mid-air, stretching for the next bar. Absolutely amazing. He did one take, and then another, and he kept going–like he was trying to top himself, each take entirely different from the last. We ended up with like six tracks of individual freestyle takes.

6. Warner Bros. bought us a video camera with which to immortalize the dull studio life, and I used it to make a brief demo of Yuval Gabay to submit to “House of Style.” If this band ever should do anything, Yuval Gabay should at least have his own regular segment on house of style.

Doughty: What do you have to say about style, Yuval?

Yuval: Style, yes. Style. Highly.

Doughty: What kind of style do you like, Yuval?


Yuval: House of Style! House of Style!

7. T-Bone Burnett once said: Recording studios are breeding grounds for despair.

This is mostly true–endless dreary hours waiting for microphones to be set up and drums to be tuned. Myself, I usually get driven a little crazy listening to my voice over and over again. At some point it occurs to me that I am not, in fact, Mary J. Blige, and I wonder why the fuck I’m doing this for a living. I bring shitloads of books but can’t read anything but magazines. I bring a notebook but don’t write anything down in it but phone numbers.

Weirdly and wondrously, though, I came through these six weeks of recording without hating myself. Though we were mostly writing the arrangements in the studio–making it an unusually slow process for us, we averaged one song every two days were usually we’ve done three in as much time–in seemed to move incredibly quickly. Dull stretches would come every once in a while, and because the rest of the time was so smooth and productive, they’d seem particularly brainsapping and tortuous. All said, though, this record was a joy to record. I’m a little uneasy that no Crisis of Self happened while we were in there.

Tchad has a unique sanity when it comes to record-making. You start at noon, you’re done by nine p.m. The generally accepted method is to start at 2 pm and work far into the morning, at which point you’re completely exhausted and it’s driving you absolutely mad that that one little stretch between the chorus and the next verse can’t seem to find the little musical gem it needs. You work yourself past the point of usefulness. Tchad has come to the amazing discovery that the less time you spend in the studio, the more work you actually get done. “Mitchell {Froom, the producer Tchad works with often} and I would tell Los Lobos we were starting at noon and none of them would show up until dinnertime,” he said. “And the records always got done ahead of schedule.”

Equipment geeks take note: the mic used predominately for the vocals was a D112, a mic usually used for kick drums. Maybe that’s why I didn’t spend my days despising my own tone.

8. Mark speaks his own inscrutable language, one that can only be learned through usage. There’d be parts of songs–usually long jammy bits around the ends–that he’d hear and say, “Oh, that’s lumber. That’s lumber right there. Gotta get that lumber out of there.”

And: “You know, I think I need to do a little more sloganeering on this song.”

9. Randall Davis Kaye came down to the studio every other evening or so, and had dinner and got stoned with us. It is the general practice of people that work at record companies to attempt meaningful musical dialogue, to use words like ‘bridge’ and ‘hook’ and have no real idea what these words mean in context. For avoiding these words entirely, RDK is a genius among record company people.

“Oh, I don’t care,” he would say. “I just want your band to buy me a house.”

One night he came down and we played for him the keeper take of “St. Louise Is Listening” at an insanely loud volume. After it faded out, there was a long pause.

“Okay,” RDK said, finally, “I’m visualizing a front porch.”

10. Warner Bros. asked us to record a Christmas song to send out to radio stations on a CD with a bunch of acoustic performances we did at radio stations over the past year. So our publishing company sent over a big stack of paper, lists of song titles, all of their Christmas song properties. We selected the more interesting-sounding titles with a highligher pen and sent it back to them. The titles included: “Little Donkey,” “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto,” and “What Do You Get A Wookie For Christmas (When He Already Has A Comb)?”

“Wookie” was the clear contender until we discovered that the sheet music was xeroxed poorly and we couldn’t read the melody. So we cut “Suzie Snowflake,” a particularly evil little slice of mass-produced Christmas cheer, written by Roy Brodsky and Sid Tepper in the mid-50’s. We played it with a total pokerface–Tchad on bells, Mark on celeste, Yuval on sleighbells, Sebastian on a Zamfir-style plastic pan pipe. What was meant to be a one-hour toss off turned into a full day’s toil. I mean, we took that song as seriously as any of the songs made for the record, with overdub after overdub. Yuval translated the lines “Here comes Suzie Snowflake/dressed in a snow-white gown/tap-tap-tappin’ at your window pane/to tell you she’s in town” into Hebrew and recited them over the midsection.

In the middle of the recording process I had an attack of chronic migraines. I know that I’m getting one when I see a little spot at the center of my vision; in the course of an hour the spot grows until the entire field of my vision is a sheet of shimmering, painful light. When that subsides, god-awful pain and nausea begins. I had ten migraines in two weeks, which is exceptional even for me. And every time I saw the spot I went back to the hotel and lay in my dark room.

And as I’d lay there in the dark, a little, insidious melody would sprout in my head: “Here comes Suzie Snowflake/dressed in a snow-white gown…”

11. I was walking to the studio down Hollywood Boulevard one morning, and as I waited at a crosswalk a baby-blue pickup truck screetched to a halt in front of me. The three Mexican guys sitting in it started yelling “Hey! Clown! Clown! You fucking Clown! Ha ha ha!”

And for a moment I was wondering why three Mexican guys in a powder-blue pickup truck would randomly select me for taunting, but then I turned around and a saw a forlorn man standing behind me, wearing a clown suit.

12. We had–are still having, actually–tremendous troubles recording “Maybe I’ll Come Down.” I’m unsure why. We’ve learned to play the song live–maybe we learned too well to rely on the space of the rooms we were playing it in. We learned how to let the song hang in the air, to hear the expanse of the hall as an integral part of the song. So how to get that onto tape? We haven’t figured it out yet. On tape it sounds small and flat–like the song’s in powder form, we haven’t discovered what water to add.

Other songs had happier and quicker discoveries. There’s a song called “Pensacola” that we came up with at a soundcheck the last time we were in Minneapolis. Basically, Sebastian started playing this bassline and I remembered this song I had recently decided was chordally uninteresting and junked. So I started singing it over the bassline, in a Billy Bragg imitation–a loud-ass cockney bellow from deep in the gut. But I guess I found something useful in the caricature; Gentleman Jim hounded me about the song for weeks afterwards, saying “Man, that Pensacola song, you really *sing* on that thing, I’ve never heard you *sing* like that.”

When we got into the studio we tried it with just the bass and the vocal, but it wasn’t working, and while we glumly checked our monitor levels for another take, I turned up my vocal real loud in my headphones and sort of slurred the lyrics to hear the volume. And Mark, who was in the control room, exclaimed, “Oh, man, you gotta do a take like that!” So I did–real low and wan and whispery. It sounded absolutely nothing like me.

It sounded fucking dreadful to me. “Erase that,” I said, “I sound like a drunk guy.” But they pleaded. “Uh-uh, no,” I said, “no drunk-guy-vocal.”

So I redid the vocal in the Billy Bragg bellow, and we laid out the other parts around it. It didn’t sound particularly special. Then Tchad, with a mischievious look on his face, hit a button and the old drunk-guy vocal comes in. The thing is, when I redid the vocal I did it a little off from where the drunk-guy vocal was, so everything we’d layered on top was slightly out of whack, slightly off-kilter. And it sounded beautiful.

RDK’s reaction was; “Is that you? It doesn’t sound like you. Nobody’s gonna know that’s you.”

Gentleman Jim’s reaction was; “It’s good. I like it. But I miss the show-tune thing.”

13. At one point in the hours and hours of fuckaround tapes we have, there’s this bit where Mark’s playing the piano chords from Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” and I’m screeching the Biz Markie chestnut “Oh baby You! Got what I neeeeed!” simultaneously. Were it not for those bedamnable copyright laws, it’d surely make the record.

14. In the course of six weeks, I played the riff from Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness” on every instrument in the studio–to include the FunMachine, the celeste, the Nord Lead, the Optagan, the Thai bell boxes, both grand and upright pianos, and innummerable guitars.

15. Elliot Smith was in town doing music for this Gus Van Sant movie, and we persuaded him to come down and play a few songs that we might sample. The idea was to get a melody that went through the entire curve of an Elliot Smith song–strange turns and curveballs–in under thirty seconds. And like the way a hiphop producer shifts the ground under a continuous loop, we’d shift the context that the song was in.

We got him to sing into the Binaural Head, a microphone Tchad has that’s shaped like a human head and reproduces the way a human head hears. So, for instance, if you’re listening to a Binaural recording on headphones and the sound of somebody walking through the room is on the recording, it sounds like somebody’s actually in the room you’re in.

We did this kinda swell instrumental jam with Elliot playing piano, me playing the FunMachine, Mark playing sampler, and Sebastian playing Hammond organ. The next day I was listening to it on headphones in the control room and I hear people talking behind me and I turn around to say wouldja mind keeping it down a little?

Only there’s nobody in the control room with me. Very trippy.

We haven’t done anything of note with the Elliot recordings, but, you know, if worse comes to worse I get to hear three new Elliot Smith songs before you do. Nyah nyah.

16. In summation: we’ve got a lot of work to do, yet, and this record isn’t coming out for a long-ass time. We’re back with Tchad in January, to mix, and hopefully to cut a couple more things. It’s a very different record–there’s a lot of jungle in the mixture, it’s a denser and more soundscapey record than we’ve done before. Hopefully we’re gonna be doing a collaboration with the Reprazent guys–Roni Size, DJ Die, and DJ Krust–sometime in the beginning of the year.

What else to say? We’re happy fuckers, making sounds we like. Please stand by.

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