Making the Album, Vol. I
We arrived at the studio in the morning, probably around 10:00am. The wake-up call that day wasprobably the earliest we’ve had as a band, so it was surprising to see total compliance. Chris Harden,our engineer for the next three days, started getting set up as we milled about, admiring the décor andgear—both of which are as good as any studio you’re going to find in Chicago. After a while, beingsatisfactorily set up, Harden excused himself for a smoke break and we began discussing the plan forthe day.
Now, they say that deadlines help motivate people, and that was the case here. Our drummer, Chris “Blue” Tomke, was planning to leave town—nay, America—for a rather mysterious trip around the globe,ostensibly to raise awareness about human trafficking, but literally to get shit-faced and reckless in asmany random, preferably scenic locales as possible. This put the band’s hopes for finishing the albumthat it hadn’t started yet in a vice. And that vice was being tightened by a giant, I guess, because itwould take one big vice to fit all of us and all our shit in it. But I digress. The point is that we needed tofinish all the full-band live tracking in three days. So we had booked today and the next two. Schedules cleared. We were ready to hunker down.
The next three days were very long. I think we logged about twelve hours a day. We probably would havedone more but Harden warned us that doing so would burn us out, and being burned out would onlymake it harder for him to squeeze every last drop of potential out of us. Well, he didn’t say it exactly likethat, but it’s the truth.
And boy, those three days were rough, even with a twelve-hour cutoff. I remember tracking “Nothing toLean On,” a fun little tune that Zeb wrote and we just kept fucking it up. And this was mid-way throughthe afternoon on Day II and no one was in the mood for that shit. We just kept running it again andagain, and again. The conditions were like when you go to the auto shop and the mechanic—whom youdon’t want to believe but must, for lack of other options—tells you that you have to replace your breakpads today because they’re so worn down that it’s metal-on-metal, and, well, you just don’t want metalrubbing up on other metal like that. The clear implication is that you’re headed for destruction if you don’tchange course, and this creates a tension that drives people to make jokes that aren’t funny in vainattempt to loosen things up. But there’s a strange thing about tracking live in the studio, which I’m suremany musicians can understand: after a while, you become tempted to perform less and avoid mistakesmore. And this is no way to record.
So we took a break—tacos, beers, TV, anything. Down-time at the studio takes me back to the grade-school days of sleepovers, particularly the supervision-free variety. You could really do whatever youwant back then, and this meant you (read: I) threw gratuitous amounts of toilet-paper in the trees ofpeers, ate Nut-Rageous candy bars for breakfast, looked at your friend Clayton’s mid-1980s Playboystash, and made snow angels in the middle of a four-lane street. This type of no-holds-barred malecamaraderie becomes more and more restricted as one grows older, so it was with great joy that Irealized it still exists for musicians who drop everything and go into studio seclusion for three days. Itwas this excitement—along with our $500/day rate, of course—that kept us going. And without trying tomake this some sort of coming-of-age tale, it’s funny to note that I am now at a point in my life where Iam completely satisfied with nothing more than tacos, beers, and TV.
In any line of work, breaks are designed to recharge the mental and physical batteries, of course, andwhile I’m sure there’s no shortage of literature on performance and the brain, I have a right to throw in mytwo cents. So here it is: the brain is the most powerful and least understood part of your body, a messyand chaotic, yet awe-inspiring command center at the heart—well, no—it’s just…it’s involved witheverything we do. In the studio, on Take 1, you just got there; you need to settle in. You know, get yourbrain relaxed. Focus. Then on Take 4, when you realize the tune is not going to just roll over and allowyou to have your way with it like some last-place ball club in the final week of the season, you think Staycalm. I’ve done this before. Then you have to wait for the engineer to finish fixing a problem, or fiddle withsomething on the board, or resolve some technical issue you don’t understand. And it is thus that yourdear songs become the opposition, the team whose pesky difficulty is magnified by the fact that youassumed it would be easy. You think Be patient because you just know that getting impatient will makeyou play worse. So you’re just trying to Go with the flow, not just during this track but during the wholestudio experience. And part of going with the flow means accepting who you are as a person, and tryingyour best to pour that person out of yourself as realistically as possible, because that’s the kind ofmusic real people want to listen to.
Since I have a tendency to talk too much and drown others in opinion, I made a point during those threedays and during the whole production process to step back and listen, to think and reflect more and talkless. If you have a bunch of guys in a room just sharing self-assured opinions all day, you’re going to getnothing but a headache—look at our Congress if you don’t believe me. So Harden was made Captainand his perspective went largely unchallenged. (This was a great idea, as he’s a phenomenal engineerwho got all kinds of great sounds on the record that we’d never dreamed of.) And I tried to limit myopinions, support my band mates with positivity and encouragement, and communicate honestly andthoughtfully. These things are universal, actually, and govern most healthy collaborations.
Although the album, Sleeping in the Light, wouldn’t be done for another year—right around the time Bluereturned from his far-flung adventure—we knew at the end of Day III that we were on the right track.Employing the methods described above, we charged through three full days of mixing with RollinWeary, another gentle audio shepherd. And with a sigh of relief, we outsourced the mastering to CarlSaff, serene in the knowledge that studio band camp was finally over. No matter many people buy it,hear it, like it, or whatever-it, our album is the product of our own sweat. It is not just something I’mproud of—it is a part of me.