August 21, 2011

30 Songs #4 - The Shivering Sand: Neo-Victorian Surf-Noir Love Letters

Just kids, summer 1999.

"The Shivering Sand" is special for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I have never written a song as fast as I wrote this one. The whole thing—riff, arrangement, lyric, everything—arrived in a glorious six-hour fit of inspiration one evening in August 1998. When I introduced this series three weeks ago, I mentioned that I'm not a first-thought-best-thought creative type—and that's true—but I don't think I used the best example of a comprehensive exception to that rule. "Fatal Flaws" was a great quick riff, but "The Shivering Sand" was a fully-formed song right off the bat:

That's the song as recorded by the Mojo Wire in September '98 at the Nerison house in Laguna Niguel, with a great spiraling bridge and some ice-cold surf guitar on the solo. Adam, Bryn, and Kevin play on it with me. The song's changed slightly over the years, but not by much. Here's the story:

"Shivering Sand" grew out of a slippery bass riff in C# minor that I was fooling around with one night after work. At the time I was the only one living in the Bedrock apartment on Sabado Tarde in Isla Vista; the Modesto crew had moved out in June, and Bryn, Adam, and Ryan had yet to move in, so I could make noise with impunity. I was taking two classes that summer before senior year and working part-time at the campus bookstore, so my days were pretty full. At night, though, I had plenty of time to mope around I.V. and write lonely love letters to my girlfriend Emily, who was back in Oceanside at her summer job as a pool lifeguard.

The first draft of "Shivering Sand" lyrics was actually one of those letters, scrawled in multi-colored ink—and it was one of only two songs about her that Em's ever had to endure from me (more about the other one next weekend). She's never been one of those silly rock girlfriends or wives who wants love songs written for her, but for a very brief period in our relationship I was one of those silly smitten rock dudes who wrote songs for his girlfriend, and this is what it looked like:

"The Shivering Sand"

Don't you know how much I want to get you all alone?
The walls and halls are empty and my house is not a home
I miss the way you shiver and I miss the way you tease
I miss the way you shudder when I get between your knees

Shall we stand in the shivering sand?

Don't you know how much I want to get you all alone?
The fireworks behind your eyes don't sparkle on their own
All you need is passion and some rhythm on the side
A little wave will be enough to feed the rising tide

Give me your hand, give me your hand
Shall we stand in the shivering sand?

Don't you know how much I want to get your all alone?
I miss seeing the shadows when the sun is sinking low
Promise when you come back you will take up all my time
Promise when you come back I am yours and you are mine

So yeah, it's an unapologetic little lust jingle, but there is some weight behind it. I'd been mainlining music like Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (fallout of two bad breakups earlier that year), which made everything seem a little more intense. I swiped the title phrase from Wilkie Collins' novel The Moonstone, which I was slogging through at the time for a Victorian Literature class. I didn't enjoy it—Collins' "shivering sand" metaphor was supposed to represent repressed Victorian female sexuality, in all its desperate glory—but then of course I turned around and wrote a song about that very thing (I guess I was being the angsty one).

For balance, I tried to inject the mood of detached cool from songs like Dire Straits' "Down To The Waterline" (their first album was also on heavy rotation back then), and so "Shivering Sand" helped define the "surf-noir" sound on the Mojo Wire's subsequent Seaside Hamlet Skids demo album.

When the Mojo Wire roster shifted in early '99 to include Joe Zulli on guitar, Bryn moved to drums, and "Shivering Sand" became a harder-rocking song in concert. During 2000/2001, we re-recorded many Mojo Wire songs with this lineup, and since "Shivering Sand" had evolved a bit in the lyrics department (that's actually the 2001 version above), we took another crack at it for You're On Your Own, the final Mojo disc:

When Bryn and I started Honey White with Brian and Bill, we brought this song and several other Mojo tunes with us to pad the live set. "Shivering Sand" went through the same double rebirth as every Seaside song played by the Mojo Wire and Honey White. It gained a furious tom-tom intro from Bill and a full-stop break after the bridge, and was further punctuated by a screaming, dive-bomb guitar solo from Bryn. It usually showed up within the first 3-4 songs of every gig during 2002-2003. I was still using a pick to keep up with how fast we played these songs back then, and for this one in particular I'd switch the bass tone to something a bit sharper, emphasizing the riff that drove it all. Here's a Honey White live take from 4/30/03 at the Wildcat in Santa Barbara (complete with Bryn transposing verses 2 and 3):

So an old classic was made new again, and it survived in the set until early 2004. "Shivering Sand" hasn’t been played live since then, but Honey White took a few stabs at creating a ska/reggae/swing version in 2005 and 2010:

mp3: "The Shivering Sand" (ska/reggae jam, 10/23/05)
mp3: "The Shivering Sand" (swingy version, 12/27/10)

Now that I think about it, is it a little weird that I made Adam and Bryn sing it all these years? Heh. "The Shivering Sand" is one of my favorite accomplishments as a songwriter, because I'm not a songwriter very often—I'm a bass player who writes riffs and lyrics. Thankfully, every once in a while something more arrives and the guys in the band can help me make something really special. Tune in next weekend for more of the same.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1998)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, August 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Epic Noise Now! by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

Live video: with Honey White, 4/22/03 on Musical Cafe TV:


  1. I still feel lame for transposing the verses in the version that ended up being the (more or less) definitive take for Honey White. But at least no one noticed while we were playing it, right?

  2. Indeed: 80% how you look, 15% how you sound, 5% what you actually say.


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