It was a chronological retelling of the intertwining stories of Jeffrey L. Allen, William Donovan Junior, and Leonard Gardner. It was much like the script for a stageplay, with character names next to the lyrics. There was even a narrator. There was a title page, too. A guide to the whole lot. It specified three albums, an album for each of the characters. The project as a whole was entitled "This Is Normal."
jeffrey l. allen
1.01 quality over quantity
1.02 a homo sapien's mass of flesh, bone and muscle
1.03 pity versus sympathy
1.04 room 203, part i
1.05 the substance of nothing
1.06 a good conscience is one you have yet to find
1.07 a telephone conversation on a cold september morning
1.08 such things to such people
1.10 the gradual progression of loss, part i
1.12 it's the children that are hurt the most, part i
1.13 last resort, part i
william donovan junior
2.01 last resort, part ii
2.02 the root of all sorts of injurious things
2.03 standard issue
2.05 three fingers
2.06 ghetto gap gay guy
2.07 come and gone
2.08 pitying bowls of saucy lovelessness
2.09 a common path to a common problem
2.10 room 203, part ii
2.11 an ambitious attempt at failure before one's birth
2.12 it's the children that are hurt the most, part ii
2.13 last resort, part iii
3.02 heaven express
3.03 the gradual progression of loss, part ii
3.04 the end, part i
3.05 a study of human possibilities through household decoration
3.06 moment and moment ii
3.07 driving faster than one should on a wet road in a thick midnight
3.08 allowing oneself time for reversible reflection
3.09 an automobile's mass of steel, plastic and rubber
3.10 last resort, part iv
3.11 on account of the abuse
3.12 a thick, wet snow on a cold january morning
3.13 la fin, part ii
I have no idea how long this process took. I have imagined that it went quite quickly, like a week or two at the most. Jeremy can educate me there. Nevertheless, it couldn't have taken all that long, since the "lyrics" were not really written with song structure in mind, just sort of spilled worth from the pages of Sans Hands.
Before we ever sat down to write music, we did some planning. One Sunday at Olive Garden, we sketched out some logos on a napkin and wrote a big list of everything we would need to make this project a reality. That included instruments, software, equipment, and people. There was a timeline for releasing the triple album. Just over a year to get the whole thing done.
Electric Guitar & Amp (Eric/Mustang)
Drum Loops (Beazy)
Xylophone/Fisher Price Piano
Sound Forge 4.5
Logic Audio Platinum 9
Jeremy (Vox, Violin, Live Drums, Ambient Noise)
Josh (Vox, Guitar, Live Drums)
Graham (Vox, Bass)
Bryan (The Beaz) (Drum Loops, Noise)
This was followed by a trip to Toys 'R' Us to procure assorted toy instruments. Overall, it seems the original vision was more of a ambient/loop oriented music. This would change, along with many other things on the list, especially people.
Each Wednesday and many Mondays and Fridays, Jeremy would come over. He'd take a page off the stack, tell me what the emotional context of the song was, how he envisioned it stylistically. Sometimes this was straight-up punk music, sometimes weird pop, or funeral dirges. I'd play around on the guitar until I hit on something that felt right. He'd try to sing along. I'd suggest alterations to the lyrics to fit more of a verse/chorus structure. When we had something, we'd turn on the mic and record it. It was just Jeremy and I in front of the desk, recording into the computer mic. The date on our first recording is July 8, 2001. From the start, we recorded nearly everything we did.
On the original papers, we'd jot down lyric and structure changes. I'd write down some guitar notes, either quick tablature or just chords and capo position. When we brought in Carl as a bass player, he'd jot down his version of bass tabs on the back of the sheets of paper.
Sometimes it wouldn't work quite that way. I might have hit on something on the guitar that was good, but not right for the current sheet of paper. In that case, Jeremy might fumble through the stack until he found lyrics that did fit. So, although we tried to wade through it all chronologically, we jumped around from time to time, and those were often our finer moments.
The first few recordings have both me and Jeremy on vocals. It didn't take long before Jeremy was the sole vocalist.
On July 9, 2001, we were back at it, recording 1.03. It's a slow, mournful song about death and war veterans. It features Angie's music boxes in the background, a staple of that song to this day. 1.04 is a slow, more jazz-influenced song about a stay in the hospital. It started with Jeremy drumming on the desk, and towards the end Angie can be heard drumming on a pillow, to complement the lyric "I am a pillow/you're so shallow."
On July 10, 2001, we recorded our first multi-track song. It's was 1.01, the beginning of it all. I recorded three acoustic guitar loops, Jeremy hit the snare drum and hi-hat. We both recorded some vocals. The drum loop and guitar loops didn't really match. Not at all. We did it anyway. To us, it's a classic.
On July 13, 2001, we wrote and record 1.05, The Substance of Nothing. In a later form, this would become the most requested, quoted, and sung TMINM song. This was a poppy modern rock song in its original variation.
We got together four more times that July, and finally on August 1st. By that time, we had worked our way through the whole first album and onto a couple tracks from album two. All by ourselves, all acoustic. We had something to work with, and it was time to bring in the rest of the band.
August 2, 2001 marked the first full band practice/recording session for the band. Angie played drums, Graham played bass, I played guitar, and Jeremy sang. We made out way through four of the aforementioned songs during this session. Angie is no drummer, and Graham had only recently picked up the bass, so it's rough, yet has a charming garage-band quality to it. Jeremy took up plugging mic in through a distorted guitar amp for a unique effect we would use extensively later on.
That weekend, we went to our grandparents house on Cape Cod, and brought along the acoustic guitar and the stack of papers. That's how it was that in one creative burst on a lazy afternoon on Cape Cod that we wrote the music for 2.02 through 2.06. Not only was this five whole songs, but an amazing variety of styles. 2.02 was a Rolling Stones-esque riff rocker about money, 2.03 was a creepy night music meditation on common objects, 2.04 is chilling and frantic account of murder in a style somewhat reminiscent of REM, 2.05 was more playful, like Pedro the Lion at the carnival, 2.06 was an chimey, ethereal meditation on family with a Fisher Price Littlye Tykes intro. When we got back home on Monday, the 6th, we recorded these up acoustic, along with cleaned-up versions of some early songs.
The next major recording session happened over a month later. What happened in the intervening time was most interesting. We had a number of sessions to try out other performers. We found Graham to be not as committed to practicing as we would have liked. We tried out our friend T.J. on bass, but weren't feeling that. We brought in Eric Liversage (AKA Skippy from Cleary) as a second guitar, but were dissatisfied with his lack of timing and penchant for punk rock. The upside was the inclusion of our brother Carl to play bass. Carl had never played bass before. He may, in fact, have purchased his instrument and amp specifically to join the band. The other big find was one Vinnie "The Fish" Brovaco. He came over one night to play second guitar, which he did magnificently. However, the night ended with a conversation that went something like:
Josh: Wow, you're really good on the guitar.
Vinnie: Thanks, you guys are really good, too.
Josh: What we really need is a drummer.
Vinnie: You need a drummer. I can drum. I'm your drummer.
I'm drumming, look.
Vinnie sat down and started to drum along to our songs. He caught all the changes, and really brought something new to our music. To us, he was the best drummer we had ever heard. It was only much later that we found out that Vin had never drummed before.
Now, we must talk about Vin (also know at times as Rocko Brovaco) for a minute. We were all in our late teens or early twenties. Vin, on the other hand, was probably already over 40, and a devotee to prog rock bands of the 1970's. He was going through a divorce at the time. Maybe that in some way motivated him to come play us, as an escape. For whatever reason, he did, and he stuck with it. He was a faithful practice partner. It was a quite a juxtaposition to have him there with all of us young guys playing this weird music, that we didn't fully appreciate at the time.
By the time we next turned on the mic on September 5, 2001, it was to record a full band multi-track demo of 1.01. We weren't really set up to record multi-track properly at the time, and certainly not configured to record drums, but we managed somehow.
For the next six months, we were there, at least once a week, and often twice, playing as a band, recording often. We got really good at the core early songs, and eventually worked our way through the rest of the second album as a band and occassionally jammed on songs from the third album. Along the way, Vin got better at the drums, Carl got a lot better at the bass. By the end, we could pretty quickly tear through a new song, with Carl inventing original basslines that weren't mere copies of the guitar line, and Vin always coming up with accurate emotional interpretations on the drums. The last recording of this band configuration was January 18, 2002. It was 2.11, a song about suicide and happiness, with a poppy guitar picked part, a loopy bassline, and stomped out drum beat. It is wonderfully reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, and perhaps our shining moment as a band.
May 2002 brought tradegy. I was laid off from my job, and slipped into a funk for the rest of the year. Depression, illness, my life was a mess. The job market was as tough as it had ever been. Most days I'd sleep until 4 or 5 pm, get up and toss a couple resumes out through Monster and get no response. Then we'd go out to eat, watch some television, and I'd play some online game until 1 or 2 am. Rinse and repeat.
In late Novemeber, I got a call from an old co-worker in Phoenix with a job offer. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, not after six months of unemployment. Somehow through it all I had managed to get Cleary's album done and ready to release. That was how Cleary's CD release show became the first and perhaps the last TMINM show.
It was November 29, 2002. TMINM opened the show, with Carl on bongos and Micah on second guitar. Even in the local art gallery, we went for it in dramatic fashion. We started the show with the lights down and with 1.11, G.O.D., paying. This track is a 45 second industrial style track crafted out of very old guitar and organ samples that pre-dated TMINM. Just as that track ended, the lights came on, and we kicked into 1.09, Implode, a grinding metal-riff-rocker and kick in the face. Jeremy was the consumate front-man, putting on a show that involved a lot of attitude, a little dancing, and smashing of bell-sticks. Random Kate was next. Cleary headlined, but since Skippy bailed out, I was forced to play his songs solo. Sad.
That might have been it for the band. I think most people would have called it quits, having been split up by a couple thousand of miles. Yet, for some reason, we continued to collaborate. I started from scratch, and began recording all of the instruments for our first album. In September or October of 2003 I brought the laptop and some gear out to Mass. and Jeremy recorded all of his remaining vocal parts. Now I had all the tracks necessary and went to work, mixing and re-mixing, but never finalizing and releasing anything.
For my mega-vacation of two weeks spannign December 2004 through January 2005, I got crazy and booked two shows for TMINM. The idea was to get out to Mass. and assemble a band, targeting Carl and Micah, practice up and play the shows. It was a crazy idea. To top it off, we went with two completely different setlists for the two shows, so we had somewhere over twenty songs to learn in a couple days. Meanwhile, we shot a music video for Random Kate, shot a feature film starring Jeremy, and attempted to document our crazy band project. We even had an EPK to promote the shows to the press that I forgot about.
The end result was one poor show and one very memorable show. I've only watched back the first show at AS220 once. At the time I was surprised that we weren't as bad as I remembered. I thought we were really bad. We weren't. We were just really boring, which is just as bad, if not worse. It was a low point for the band, I think.
Two nights later, we played in Cambridge at the Zeitgeist Gallery. The place was packed, the crowd was friendly, we were engaging, and the songs were our newer songs, that were written mostly after the band had gotten together, and they were just plain better songs. It was a memorable show. I collapsed at one point from shear rock power.
Now that show may indeed be the end of the band. Since then I haven't so much as touched the tracks for the first album. I handed them over to Brock at one point, and he gave a positive review, but maybe he was overly optimistic? He gave good points to the thematic and storytelling aspect of the album, but as much as admitted that there was something unique and different about the music, and not necessarily in a good way. More in the way of 'this doesn't sound like normal music.'
OK, so having laid out the history of the band, I want to talk about the future. To me, the band is not dead. In a way it continues since Jeremy and I continue to collaborate on musical projects, including Schoolyard and Twelve Brothers. Jeremy has no problem churning out albums or mini-albums worth of narrative lyrics. It's me that has the problem getting the music to a state that is fit for public consumption. So, let me put it out there and get some feedback.
What we have recorded, the first album, has never sounded quite right. This is owing in part, to the low-budget, lo-fi manner of recording. Everything involved was crappy, from the guitars and amps, the mics and preamps, and even the software used to sequence it, and the lame effects used to punch it up. If it were up to me, I'd re-record the whole album.
But that's just the start of it. I think we have a more fundamental roadblock. Most bands write a vast quantity of songs to create a single album. They may write thirty or forty songs, work through them, and pick the ten or twelve best for their album. This is the way Micah got to his excellent album that should be out early next year (maybe just in time for his return next year). TMINM, on the other hand, started with 39 songs, and pretty much is ending up with 39 songs. It's as though it doesn't matter to use that some of the songs are subpar (and a number are), because we need them for the narrative construct of the album to work. It would be like a film with a missing reel. I think this may be a fatal flaw. We might be better off to reset ourselves and look at ourselves as a band, not a band based on a book. If we had the freedom to toss out tracks (like 1.07, which became 1.04, which has never been solid, and is downright annoying at this point), we surely do have a goodly album's quantity of good or great songs.
The other flaw is that once I got in to actually record songs, I took them in directions that may not be true to the music or best serve the songs. I tried to retain those unique qualities of the original recordings of Jeremy and me at a desk. Yet, Homo Sapien went from a garage/surf punk song to a dark-pseudo metal piece of trash. The aforementioned Telephone Conversation went from a folky song to a loop-based, keyboard song. Pity Versus Sympathy got too dramatic. Come and Gone got too poppy. And again none of them sound like real music, because I just don't know what I'm doing on the recording and mixing end.
But consider the songs we're getting hung up on. They are the first songs we ever wrote together. There are so many better songs we wrote later on in the process, and with more people involved. This original batch of songs are very generic. Often the bassline just follows the guitar part, there isn't a lot of variety within songs with the guitar parts, and simple things like congruence of bass and drum parts isn't even there at times. The songs we wrote later on were more interesting in every way imaginable, yet we may never get to them.
So, I have a couple of proposals for discussion.
1. We have to throw out the idea of three albums. While we do have three albums worth of songs, we do not have three albums worth of good songs. We need to pick and choose from the completed songs only the songs worth releasing, and go from there. Also, there's no way I can afford to release three albums that won't sell. One album is bad enough.
2. We need to get back to the essence of the songs. Every song does not need the full double-guitar, bass, and drums treatment. Some will be much better with simpler instrumentation, such as our original desk demos. In fact, we have to ready to release an original demo or two if they stand up.
3. We need to ensure some basic quality of instrumentation in all the songs. If the bassline and guitar match each other, we need to throw some diversity in there. Keep one or the other, and write a new part to fill in.
4. Real drums. The album suffers so much from the drum machine drums. We need Micah on this. His drumming at our live shows was amazing, and not to be matched by any drum machine in the world.
5. Seek professional help. I need to take a course, get some help, or something, to get the mix and effects on the tracks to resemble other commercially-released music. Normal music.
6. Re-record. Many of the tracks simply could stand to be re-recorded. If we are going to record new drums, and new bass and/or guitar parts, then we might as well re-record everything, you know.
Listen, we worked too hard and did so much, we can't just let this die. We need to release one album before we die. One big TMINM album that will be a testament to everything this band meant and did. I may need some help with this. I may need some independent evaluations of our songs (Brock and Gabe) to see what really is worth releasing and what is not.
Does that give us something to think about? More to come...