April 23, 2006

Feeling Gravity's Pull


How Far is the Fall, aka "Welcome to the rest of your life. Do not pass Go and do not quit your day job."

Some people are fearless in the face of the unknown. Some people long to test themselves against the most sublime experiences life throws at them. Some people need to push every boundary, voraciously explore every avenue, and risk danger in order to feel alive. Honey White's full-length debut album How Far is the Fall is not about those people. Instead it revolves around the feeling of standing at life's cliffs and taking a long, hard, appraising look at every possible detail before making choices about anything.

That wasn't a pleasant revelation when it first occurred to me, well after the album was completed and released—but listening to it with a year's removal from the writing and recording process threw everything into stark relief. Paralyzed indecision and self-conscious over-analysis pervade almost every lyric of each song, and everything is blown up to newly epic proportions by a hazy, spacious void of sonic effects and instrumental textures. It's not the soundtrack to the rest of your life. It's the background noise for the time right before you have any idea what the rest of your life will bring.

The creative process that spawned this album didn't begin auspiciously, but it turned out to be just what we needed. During Honey White's first whirlwind year together, we'd navigated the Santa Barbara scene on the bare-bones strength of our debut E.P. and semi-chaotic live shows. Throw jobs and other obligations into that, and everything became a lot to handle, even for four guys in their mid-twenties, so by mid-2003 we agreed to put the brakes on Honey White. Bryn took off for a three-month European tour, Brian finished school and left for San Francisco (with a brief detour to Tokyo), and Bill joined up with punk band Futureman to play and record in Austin. While everyone else recharged and sought inspiration, I found myself in a familiar place: stewing in Isla Vista, bashing my head against the wall of an anemic local job market and Santa Barbara's perpetually indifferent music scene.

The hiatus wasn't permanent, though, and when when we finally did reconvene in early 2004, we knew it had to be for good reasons. Making music had to be fun for everyone, with no preconceived agendas (especially from me) and no single correct way to play. What that meant was an organically-grown Honey White sound; it developed without forcing anything, but profoundly redefined each player's role into what it probably always should have been. Once that happened, we began exploring a new pool of material that was challenging and exciting to create together. Billy and I truly became the rhythm section in ways we hadn't before, creating a solid base for Bryn and Brian to drench with their galaxy of new guitar tones. I stopped singing except for backing harmonies, which freed Bryn up to explore his full vocal range and style.

Bryn brought home three songs from his trip, "Let Go," "Keep Moving," and "Bottlerocket," which we rehearsed and quickly mutated into porously monolithic slabs of echo, tremolo, and reverb. We also worked the new sonic colors into other recent loud, downtempo songs like "Sweet Oblivion" and "Famous Last Words," and even touched up live staples "Mercy Rule" and "Polarity" with a few shiny tricks. It was so much fun that we actually lightened up, thanks to Brian's obtusely crazy instrumental "Sean Goes to Africa"—which to me, drew a straight line back to the bent humor Bryn and I knew from our previous band The Mojo Wire.

Those laughs were rare enough among the new lyrics, though. Everything Bryn and I wrote oozed frustrated impatience, false bravado, mild boredom, and an absolute lack of solutions to all of the above. "Mercy Rule" covered a bouncy, semi-syncopated groove with my morose attrition of confusion: "too smart to waste the effort/too stupid to appeal/to any one too superficially unreal." "Sweet Oblivion" seized on a drifting, wavy rhythm guitar only to shrug, mumble "if only you could see me now," and passively float out to sea. "Keep Moving" tried to "keep busy, keep moving, go on" as if mere forward movement was the only course. "Let Go" imagined a love affair at the precipice of dissolution, wondering not about the fatal impact but instead "how far is the fall?"

Without the lush instrumental backing (or Bryn's sensitive vocals), the words—and songs—would be hopelessly insufferable. Some lyrics accepted holding patterns at face value; "Island Fever" admitted there's "no surprise on this horizon" and "Famous Last Words" lamented "familiar wreckage in the aftermath of fucking up again." Distractions curdled into alcoholic cynicism on "Bottlerocket" and bewildered hangovers in "Blacking Out." Lyrical malaise even seemed to infect Brian's instrumental "Polarity," which ambled perilously between quiet and loud. The one exception, "Sean Goes to Africa"—inspired by a friend of ours who escaped to the wider world and made good—is the only relief, flipping a giant middle finger to the rest of the album.

The best thing about mentally purging all this crap was getting it out of my system, and I suspect that was true for Bryn too. We solidified the songs further with a few local gigs, which went well enough for us to pull the trigger and properly record everything. We chose Nate Perry's Take Root Studio in San Francisco, enlisting engineer Jonathan Mayer, a total pro who proved masterful and empathetic for the duration. The sessions encompassed day-long (and state-long) drives, gallons of caffeine, baseball on the radio, and an entire Simpsons VHS library. Our first trip alone was massively productive; we warmed up with Neil Young's "Dead Man" theme, then powered through three takes each of our originals and spat out two formless jams. With Jon at the helm refining, arranging, and employing Take Root's full arsenal of noisemaking flotsam, the album steadily came together with overdubs, mixing, and mastering over two weekends per month in fall 2004 and winter 2005.

By the time we began gigging regularly again, we'd comfortably become the model Bill proposed a year prior: Bryn's vocals took precedence over his solos, Brian's effects took over the lead guitar work, and I stuck to backing vocals, keeping in lockstep with Bill's drumming. At shows, we ditched most of the covers and all the Mojo Wire songs in favor of the longer, epic tunes from How Far is the Fall, which was finally released in April 2005. It was a bargain at about $8,000, our friends and fans loved it, we got great press, and we finally felt accomplished as musicians and songwriters. Where My Band Rocks flexed and posed, How Far is the Fall threw punches with precision. Where My Band Rocks defined range without filling it, How Far is the Fall exploited and redefined that range. Life's background noise can seem like a crushing deadweight, but it can also be a push in the right direction, or even a catalyst for explosive inspiration. It was for me; making this album was the best creative experience of my life.

Play this album:

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