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The Power Of Bill Ray Compels Me

Required listening while reading this: The Power of Disco Compels You

Sometimes you just never know who will validate you seven years after you wanted or needed it. Artists are always in that bind; who can tell when their work will ever matter to anyone? And of course, it happens often enough that artists get dead before they get famous, or even recognized.

In late 1992, I wrote some silly song lyrics about a guy who had disco fever despite being a gross anachronism, and a first incarnation of the song was recorded by my buddy Matt and me in our drum-vocal duo Rhythmic Catharsis. RC was something that we did so we could get out and play drums and be loud and obnoxious youth. It worked. I never planned for it to be the start of my recording and composing history, but that is what it became.

I reprised that set of lyrics in 1995 when I embarked on another recording project and was looking for some material. This version was marginally better, but not worth writing about here.

Then, in 1997-2000 or so, I spent time re-recording a number of my older and completely irreverent songs and placing them alongside newer ones that were of similar character. The gear I was using was newer and would have been a total wet dream to an earlier version of me, given the various things I could do with it in the recording realm. Light years ahead of my cassette work, the VS 880 was the recorder I used for those years. I once again took advantage of my earlier work and wanted to give it a more refined recording while not losing the spark.

The odd thing about these re-recordings is that during my work as sound man and instrument tech, I happened into a number of professional gigging musicians who somehow were conned into saying they liked my stuff. A few of them came in to record bits, some specifically intended for certain tracks, and some were just off the cuff jams that got turned into something. Drummer Bill Ray is well known in town as a technically proficient and versatile player, and is among the upper crust in town, as far as players go. We had met at the Music Mart store back when it was on Convoy St. in 1990. At different times, we had both worked there. But after some early encounters with Bill, he slipped off the radar for me. Then I happened into him as he was doing this ultra schmaltzy corporate cover band gig with Polyester Express, for whom I sometimes worked as soundman/assistant. So Bill and I got a chance to reconnect and around that time, I was working on a new version of my song, and hitting road bumps. In fact, it was hitting so many road bumps, I was about to totally ditch a version of it which still goes unheard to this day!

I had a tentative drum loop which let me compose the track, lots of ideas for how to record things, but it was all getting real dense on my little eight track recorder. I asked Bill to come in and record some drums so I could get a convincing part in which at least would improve my sense of what needed to stay or go. So, one cold day in the last week of 1998, he came by my then-newish recording shoebox of a studio and proceeded to lay down the drums to this fourth incarnation of my little bit of disco fantasy. He did it with authority. I had what seemed to be a basic sound ready to record, and back in those days, I had no tracks to give to each drum on its own. It went down as stereo, and it was all EQ'ed and compressed as it was going to be printed. So Bill came in, and proving that no two drummers are alike, he played my same kit with my same mixer and EQ settings, and totally sounded unlike anything I ever did. You can hear it now; the snare drum hits the compressor and it explodes in your head. I was actually going for that lame dead 70s snare drum, but he just gets the sound out of any drum, see?

Anyhow, the song took all of 1999 to finally nail down and mix. The drums went down and were never changed a bit since he played them. All the other work was trying out doubled guitars, layered vocals, alternate vocals, solos, and so forth. With only eight tracks and two going to drums alone, my options were few except for all the sub mixing and bouncing, and finally, a lot of cutting of redundant parts of the arrangement. Mixing was made easier but by no means easy. Finally, in early 2000, over a year after the recording commenced, and years after the first idea for it, I got a version that was far grittier than I imagined, but far more fun and amusing when you factor in all the things I didn't plan on—Bill's explosive and dynamic but ultragroovalicious drumming, Todd's half-improvised monologue at the end, and then of course the fact that I finally improvised my way through whole new sections of lyrics while keeping the best of the old stuff intact. I also have to say that there is some bass playing on there that I did that I still marvel at because even now I don't approach the bass that way, despite bass being a favorite instrument of mine for the years since. The rhythm guitar is my work too, but it's totally uncharacteristic and another element of chance that keeps this track exploding. The guitar solo is by Danny Donnelly, the guitar player in Polyester Express, right along with Bill Ray. The whole lyrical story and monologue of Todd's is a tapestry of in jokes concerning Bill and Danny, and a nod to our late soundman buddy Phil Cole, who did in fact attend the last Led Zep show in the states in 1977.

Yeah, it was a victory to get that one in the can. I still listen to it and just enjoy it because it's funny. It's one of my finest pieces because it was one place where a lot of things came together for me. It's one of the few tracks that took a year to nail but still sounds spontaneous and edgy.

Skip ahead some time to the last month or so when Bill Ray sends me an email saying he thinks the time has come for my music to get heard and he wants to do anything he can to help. He heaps praise upon me for the stuff I've done. I'm sort of caught off guard; it's welcome but so out of the blue as to almost confuse me. He started talking up the song, and all things TAPKAE in his web world. He got me to create a MySpace account which I previously avoided like the plague. He got me played on some podcasts that were inclined to listen to his advice. He says he wants to play on some of my new stuff.

Flattered, me, but I'm at this point where I don't even know what I want to do in music. Not that I knew what I wanted to do back in the late 90's, but I did invest all the time I had in making music, not knowing if it would be heard, or when, or by whom. I wasn't concerned with peak oil or world economic collapse. I wasn't concerned with corporate mischief, or being a husband. I just recorded by throwing a load of shit on the wall then watching to see what stuck, and working with it accordingly. I didn't worry about if my gear was good enough to record professionally. I just threw myself at it because there wasn't anything else to do. I pushed the wrong button until I got the right sound. That's all I did.

So now, Bill is making himself at my disposal, and I have to wonder where the spark is. Do I record the various "serious" music scraps that have been accumulating for the past few years since Receiving was made? Do I just jam and hope that I get better stuff than all the things I've thrown out in the last few years with myriad other players and combos? Oh, there was no formula to my madness in 1998. Getting a guy like Bill or Danny, Marc Ziegenhagen or even Mike Keneally was utterly huge to me then, but I sort of had to take what I could get and make it work because it's not like they'd be at my beck and call. I guess I'm not used to someone of Bill's caliber stooping to my level and confusing me with a certain type of validation that I don't even get from most of my listeners. On one hand, I want to just shed all my complex thinking of peak oil and economics and all and reclaim my innocent halcyon days of recording into the wee hours. On the other hand, that is impossible, but it's not like my current musical output does much to reflect the current complex world-weary person I am now. I have long since burned a notebook of naive and cliche-ridden lyrical ideas that didn't have the goofy spark of The Power of Disco Compels You, or the utterly childlike love story of I Wanna Be Your Puppy. I've erased hours and hours of wanky jams that were possibly okay at least to keep around as notes, some of which were transcendent in moments, but the sheer amount of material, all with no particular focus became overwhelming for me.

I once used multitrack recording to hide my utter lack of ability on most instruments, but the current me doesn't want to do the multitrack recording thing, nor is the current me quite up to performance level on bass or guitar, nor is the current me bursting with ideas for things to compose. Nor is the current me loaded with enough clout to be a band leader. So what does a guy like me do when a guy like Bill Ray wants to play on my stuff mainly because he believes in it and would far rather do original music and stay clear away from the corporate cover band scene which took him to a desperate personal crisis? When do I decide it's time to not throw out all the stuff I record? When do I compose something that is "good enough"? Or when do I re-adopt the old habit of working with tracks until I know they are either good, or total shit? When can I shake the self consciousness?