Wednesday, October 3, 2016
The band may be called Roscoe’s Basement, but in fact Roscoe — Tom and Deanna Finn’s ridiculously lovable spaniel — never comes down in the basement when we play. At best, he’ll listen from the top of the stairs. But tonight we do have a guest listening to our practice — a young guy named Joe Nauert.
Joe is a college kid, a student in the audio production program at Finger Lakes Community College. As part of the curriculum, each student has to record and mix an EP of at least six original songs by local performers. Our drummer, Tom Finn, has volunteered our services to any student needing a subject, and we have found ourselves matched up with Joe.
Ostensibly, Joe is listening to us play our originals so he can assess his production strategies; but in practice, it kind of feels like an audition. He’s a good guy, though, wry and laid-back, with a solid appreciation for classic rock — exactly the sort of no-frills, slightly old-fashioned brand of music we deliver. We agree to work together; Joe will get in touch once he’s scheduled the first round of sessions.
We try to keep our expectations in check. At the very least, Joe gets four credits and we get a couple of studio demos. And if the recording quality turns out better than that, well … who knows?
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
It’s a long drive in my ailing old Honda to the FLCC campus for the first night of recording. It’s dark and raining, and there’s no direct access to the studio from the parking lot; we’ve all got to hump our gear down corridors and up concrete stairs to the big studio on the second floor. Joe has an assistant tonight, and they start setting up the drums while the rest of us try to settle in.
I logged plenty of studio hours when I was in college myself, but the last time I did any proper recording was a marathon session with We Saw the Wolf — nearly twenty years ago now. However much the technology has changed, though, the atmosphere of constant, low-grade anxiety has not. You’re in a gray, windowless room, dimly lit and none too clean. You wait and wait and wait while problems you cannot see are resolved by people hidden in another room entirely; then you must perform with intense and absolute concentration for brief, controlled periods.
Time becomes elastic. The minutes of waiting drag, and the performance of a three-minute song feels endless as you hyper-focus on every wobbly pitch, every missed pick stroke; but somehow the hours roll heedlessly on, and suddenly it’s midnight, and there’s an acute sense of waste. Even if you’re not paying by the hour (and thank God we are not), there will be a cost attached to everything taking so long — a cost you will pay with your own body, with red eyes and cold hands and a stiff neck, with a weariness you will carry through the days like Marley’s chain.
But we are tight and well-rehearsed, and our songs are already fully arranged. We figure we can work (relatively) fast, with a minimum of punch-ins or retakes. We agree to try for eight songs, bargaining on this single session to record the drums, another for bass, one or two for guitars, and a couple for vocals.
These plans derail almost immediately. The studio is a profoundly unnatural environment, and what you’re doing hardly feels like music-making at all. It’s certainly not playing in any meaningful sense. There’s none of the feedback of energy you get from an audience, or even from the other band members. We all play along while Tom tracks the drums, and though we’re arranged in our familiar broken circle, we’re still isolated. Our guitarists, Mike Mann and Chuck Romano, play from behind baffles; Chuck’s amp is literally in a closet, and he stands half-in and half-out. Craig Hanson’s bass is run direct to the board. We’re all tethered with headphones, and the playback mix alternates between painfully loud and uselessly quiet.
And everybody hates working with the click track. Craig did some sessions years ago with his old band the Mooska Movers, and Chuck recently recorded a five-song EP with local musician and producer Dave Drago, but none of us are exactly studio veterans. We are a live band, and our sense of rhythm still hews to analog time. Before we lay down a single complete take, we sweat through what seems like dozens of false starts; the time drifts, and even though we all drift together, it’s no good because the click falls out of sync. There’s a reorientation that needs to happen when you play to a click, and Roscoe’s Basement in not managing it.
It’s long past midnight by the time we wrap up. By the end, it’s only me and Tom and Deanna (and Joe, of course). We have managed to track only five songs — meaning we’ll need at least one more studio date just for the drums. We’re behind schedule before the first session is even over.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
We’re closing the second night of Harvest Fest, a three-day live music event to benefit Rochester’s Veterans Outreach Center. It’s a good cause, and we’re happy to play. We’re just a little punchy because we’ve spent the last couple of nights in the studio.
After more than a week off, we reconvened on Thursday to finish laying down the drums. Craig was unavailable, so I played bass for the guide tracks; then he came back Friday to knock out his parts. At some point we gave up on using a click track — which will cause us problems down the road, when we have to sync up introductions — but even without that struggle, the sessions ran late into the night.
It feels good to be back together, though, playing live with no metronome and no ticking clock. It’s Craig’s birthday, and his beloved Chicago Cubs are in the World Series. We’re in good spirits.
The show goes down in the front room of Bernunzio Uptown Music, a local spot that sells and repairs instruments of all vintages, a hub of Rochester’s acoustic and traditional music scenes. Roscoe’s Basement is odd man out on a bill mostly made up of solo folkies and bluegrass cats.
We go on after a jazz quartet of kids from the Eastman School, and if we had any illusions about “closing slot” translating into “headliner,” they don’t last long. The music has been going since noon, and Bernunzio’s has been emptying steadily since we arrived. It takes us a long time to set up, and by the time we launch into “Honky Tonk Women” there are only a dozen brave souls left, standing at the back behind a sea of empty folding chairs. Well, fuck it; if no one else is using that space, I will. I bound off the stage with my wireless mic, prowling up the aisle. We don’t tone down out act one white in deference to the setting; we may be playing our (abbreviated) set under a wall of mandolins, but we are a full-on dirtyass rock ‘n’ roll band from first note to last — which is all we can ask.
FOREGROUND: Punkins. BACKGROUND: Punks. L–R: Tom, Deanna, Chuck, Jack, Mike, Craig (with Cubbies hat). Photo by Janice Hanson.
The thing of it is this: I’ve learned that sometimes you can go in with the best will in the world and your intended audience just isn’t gonna dig it — even if it seems they’d have every reason to. Earlier in the year, Craig shared with us, in the same batch of demos that yielded “Got That Girl,” an unfinished song that he called “Balada Da” — an instrumental with a scatted vocal melody, lacking only lyrics. I listened for months, wondering if I might make something of it.
Original home demo of “Balada Da,” recording date unknown. Music, production, all vocals and instruments by Craig Hanson.
Moved by the headlong rush of the music, I hit upon a scrap of lyric that took the form of a manic street preachment delivered by a homeless man in the grips of a religious psychosis — a little Tom Waits-y, maybe a little Nick Cave-y, folding in a highfalutin literary allusion to the visionary verse of the eighteenth century mystic and proto-beatnik Christopher Smart amid the babbling frenzy.
(This is why I’m the frontman — my foolproof instinct for what makes a great pop song.)
There was no clean recording of “Balada Da” without vocals, so demo the song I had to learn all of Craig’s guitar and bass parts and recreate the whole thing from scratch. This afforded me the opportunity to tweak and reorganize the tune slightly, and to add a new bridge. I laid down a scuzzy, lo-fi demo at the start of October, with a choir’s worth of vocal tracks recorded on the laptop’s crappy built-in mic — and man, I thought it was a sure thing. As when I co-wrote with Mike, I ran the demo past Craig as courtesy before thinking to share it with the group.
Home demo for “Rejoice in the Lamb.” Music by Craig Hanson; words by Jack Feerick. Drum sample, two electric guitars, two electroacoustic guitars, bass, all voices by Jack Feerick; recorded October 2016.
And Craig did not care for it. At all.
He just wasn’t big on God-talk in rock ‘n’ roll, he told me in an email. When I read this, my mouth opened — and then I closed it again. A man likes only what he likes, and I’m not the one to tell him he’s wrong — because he’s not wrong.
And so that was that. The song sat on my hard drive, and I never shared it with another living soul until just now.
After teardown, we lock up Bernunzio’s and head next door to Victoire for a celebratory beer. A ballgame is on the giant TVs — game seven of the World Series. We catch the final minutes, bering witness to the mother of all comebacks as the Cubs win it all. The room erupts in cheers; but the excitement is touched with a quiet astonishment. In the dark, in the warm, these seem the days of miracle and wonder.
November grinds on, and we continue recording when we can. Apart from the first night, we are never all in the studio at the same time; we gather in clusters of three and four, making fragments that will form a mosaic. Some nights are better than others. We gather to track backing vocals on the night after the election, and it is a welcome distraction from the feeling that our insides are falling down around our feet. Craig, Deanna, and I are joined by Debbie Stiker-Mann, Mike’s wife, who sang with me at Starry Nites during our surprise acoustic show. Deb is a studio novice, but she’s got a great ear and she’s game to try. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s simply a delightful person, either.)
The best part of it, for me, is getting to try a couple of variant approaches. For the simpler songs, we use a technique that Roy Thomas Baker used on Queen’s records; the four of us stand around one bidirectional mic, singing each part in unison (or octaves), one after the other, so we get a blend of timbres in each vocal line that results in a thick, creamy sound in the final mix. (This is amusing for me because I feel like I’m directing a choir again.) For Craig’s more harmonically complex songs, we take the Brian Wilson approach: Craig, Deanna, and I sing our three-part harmonies live in real time to three isolated microphones. The choral effect comes from multiple iterations of the same voice singing the same line, and there’s a New Wave-y, almost synthetic quality to it — a different sound to suit the feel of each song.
That night is probably the most fun I have during the whole process. Mostly, things just drag out; five recording dates turn to eight, and then I lose track. Late at night, everything gets unreal, listening to playbacks of take after take that all sound pretty much the same. Our arrangements are not so well-rehearsed as to be airtight; I sneak in some extra percussion bits, as well as a few acoustic guitar parts — a lively strum that gives Chuck’s “Offensive” an extra bounce, a touch of drop-D fingerpicking lilting through “Purple Jesus” — but sometimes I feel the songs are losing shape, homing in so tightly on the details that the outlines are growing blurry.
The guitars do a weekend session without me, but otherwise I am the first in and the last out for every date, driving home through deserted small-town back streets — Bloomfield, Lima, Avon, Mumford, Caledonia — at two or three o’clock in the morning. The dim glow of storefronts abandoned ‘til daylight; strange musics on overnight radio; sudden green flare of deer’s eyes at the edge of my headlamps. Joe is doing his best, but I’m well aware that I’m keeping him up late, too. This is no environment for a healthy, growing boy.
The lead vocals are the last thing scheduled, and because the studio availability is catch-as-catch-can, Deanna and I end up in the booth over a pair of frosty mornings. It’s a sorry state of affairs, trying to conjure the rock ‘n’ roll spirit at an hour when any real rock star would just be getting to bed.
But at last, on November 18 — a Friday morning, six days before Thanksgiving — I nail my final overdub. It’s just Joe and me. One last bang on the cowbell, and it’s over. Joe will do the mixes and get them to us before Christmas. We shake hands, and I’m gone.
The final drive is all barren trees and fields of yellow stubble. Even at noon, the little towns all seem deserted; but the way home seems unfamiliar in the daylight. I make a wrong turn in Caledonia and get pulled over by the cops. My inspection sticker is out of date, and all this time, I barely noticed.
The cop asks me if I’m lost. And in that moment, for the life of me, I’m not sure how to answer.