Playing that first gig after injury feels like a dam breaking. I’ve been working on songs all winter — singing bits and pieces of vocal melody into my phone, jotting down chord changes I can hear in my head but cannot yet shape with my hands — and I am ready to get some down. And with no gigs on the calendar for Roscoe’s Basement until May, I figure it’s a good time to get some of this stuff out of my imagination and into my ears.
That’s not to say I haven’t been keeping my hand in. Shortly before breaking my arm in December, I finally broke down and bought a cheapie microphone interface for my laptop. This lets me record vocals and acoustic instruments through a real mic, rather than through the computer’s built-in pinhole condenser. The quality of my sound improved immensely at a single stroke; I spent part of my recovery rerecording the vocals on demos I’d laid down during the previous spring and summer.
One of these is “Ding Note.” Any of you who follow me on Twitter have surely seen this one; it began as a dare from Chuck and developed into a riot of harmony and stunt vocals. Inspired by the rejections I’d been gathering for my latest round of fiction submissions, I imagined it as a rewrite of “Paperback Writer” from the publisher’s perspective, built around a riff that’s literally “Paperback Writer” played backward.
Home demo for “Ding Note.” Manipulated samples and sound effects, all voices, electroacoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, words and music by Jack Feerick; recorded August 2016, additional recording March 2017.
But I want to do more than just put a new shimmer on old recordings. It’s time for something new. So I start in my usual bass-ackwards fashion, with something old.
The fresh material still needs work; I write by working things out on the guitar, and though my bass chops are returning, my chording is still unreliable. In the end, I fall back on a tune from my We Saw The Wolf days, a stomper very much in the mode of the Pogues circa Hell’s Ditch. The single-note lines come easily enough. (Of course, it helps that I’m playing a nylon-string with low, slippery action.) For the rhythm guitar, though, I have to tune my Martin to an open chord and slide one finger up and down the neck.
But my sound is expanding in other ways, as if to compensate. My bass amp has a mic-level output, so I can now run the preamp signal to my mic interface without bypassing the speaker — so now I can actually hear myself play, which means I can add keyboards to the mix. I can even record amp feedback , though I have to turn up ungodly loud to get it.
Home demo for “The Ballad of William Walker.” Drum loop, environmental recording, live tambourine, bass, steel-stringed electroacoustic guitar, two nylon-stringed guitars, two distorted electric guitars, keyboards, all voices, words and music by Jack Feerick. Written 1997. Recorded February/March 2017.
I’m not thrilled with the lyrics — their sketch of the historical Walker presents Confederate talking points more or less with a straight face; if I were writing it today, I’d do it rather differently. But it’s close to hand and easy to play, and when it’s done I can’t help but feel good about it. Neither “Walker” nor “Ding Note” are exactly Roscoe’s Basement songs, I know — and that’s okay; I love being in this band, but it will never be the be-all and end-all for my songwriting and performing ambitions. I fit here — but not in the manner of a cogwheel, where every aspect meshes wherever you turn. It’s more like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle; one side of me is locked in, but there are other sides that fit into other situations. That doesn’t take anything away from Roscoe’s Basement — and it doesn’t make me damaged or “difficult” for failing to cut myself down to fit into this one exclusive slot.
This is something that I have not always understood as I understand it now, and it has hurt me in the past. I have occasionally had unrealistic expectations about my place in a given collaboration, and staked too much of my self-worth on the outcome (hello again, We Saw The Wolf). But I’m in a better place now, thank heaven.
And anyway, we are working on new original material. Craig’s been woodshedding a new thing called “We’ve Broken Reality” through the fall and winter — a midtempo strummer with a lyric about holding on to love in the age of fake news; in fact, when he first told me about the idea, “fake news” was a brand-new phrase for all of us. I’ve been looking forward to this song since he sent me the first acoustic sketches.
To be honest, I feel a little possessive of it; although it’s not a co-write by any stretch, Craig did workshop the words with Chuck and me, looking for a way to crack such an abstract idea. We kicked ideas back and forth by e-mail; none of the actual lines in the finished song are mine, I don’t think, but some of the images — some of the feel of it — sound like me.
We’re starting from nothing but chords and a vocal melody — which is very different from our usual process for either Craig’s songs or mine, where we normally start with a more-or-less completed demo — and the push-and-pull takes the song in a couple of different directions. The chord progression chimes along prettily, with some gorgeous discords in the pre-chorus, and I start off thinking it’s a psychedelic slow burner. Craig keeps upping the tempo, working up a melodic bassline on the fly, which takes us into R.E.M.-style jangle-pop territory. Mike drops some scorching fuzztone leads, which sort of splits the difference. But after working n “We’ve Broken Reality” for a couple of weeks in a row, we shelve it for the moment. I put in my vote for pushing through and debuting the song at out May gig, but Craig feels it needs more work.
I shrug it off and concentrate on my own stuff, inasmuch as I can. I’ve had a jazzy blues waltz churning inside my head since December, growing out of a conversation with Craig; after my accident and his hernia diagnosis, we were half-expecting bad luck to strike somewhere else close to the band, on the theory that trouble comes in threes.
Home demo for “Trouble Comes in Threes.” Drum loop, samples, four electric guitars, bass, keyboards, voice, words and music by Jack Feerick. Written December 2016/January 2017. Recorded April 2017; additional recording October 2017, final mix and edit March 2018.
The bassline has been haunting me, but the chords are beyond my still-rudimentary skills. In the end, I record each note separately, like horns playing a jazz riff. And because I’m feeling mischievous, I toss in little nods to both Jimi Hendrix and Kind Of Blue.
The effect is pleasantly ghostly. I work hard to get the sound I want — chorusing, echoed, shadowy — harder than I would need to, strictly speaking, if my goal were only to produce a sketch for the band to follow. And it’s about here when I acknowledge that live performance with the band doesn’t have to be my only goal for these songs. The recording technology is such that I can realize my ideas more fully than I’d ever dreamed possible, back in the old days — and I will be able to do so ever more effectively as my equipment and my playing skills improve. I can make proof-of-concept demos for the band, sure; and I can also make weird little pop records for myself — and thanks to Soundcloud (and to this column, as well), those little records can find an audience even among people who will never hear the band play live.
So I’m content, for now. I can rock out with the band without feeling the need to dominate; I’ve got recording as an outlet to keep me from getting restless, allowing me to be generous. I’ve got representation, without feeling the need to claw to get my songs included in the set list. And I don’t have to tamp myself down, don’t have to force the songs into a Roscoe’s Basement-shaped mold. They can go where they will, because even of they don’t make it to the stage, they can have life in full-blown form outside my head.
It feels, for the moment, like the best of both worlds — and it looks to get only better as I rebuild my playing style. And if that third piece of trouble is out there, it’s not giving me any grief just now.
Not yet, anyway.
Next month: A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel