October 23, 2011

30 Songs #13 - Famous Last Words: Gimme Two Chords, and Get Two Melodies

Brian and Bill in the Seville St. rehearsal room, Isla Vista 12/4/03.

This week's "30 Songs" post is shortened a bit—I was in Orange County rockin' out with Radblaster—and for some reason it's a bit difficult to get my head back into "then" mode instead of "now" mode, but let's try anyway, shall we? Okay, carrying on from "Sweet Oblivion" last week, but on a slightly more fatalistic note, is its neighbor at the tail-end of Honey White's How Far is the Fall album, "Famous Last Words." Have a listen:

Like "Oblivion," "Last Words" is sort of a grow-up-and-get-on-with-it lyric, but much more bitter and bewildered, with some denial icing on top. The tune only has two chords, Fm7 and E, and to me it sounded like a steadily-increasing migraine: slow, uncomfortable, repetetive, relentless. The mental pressure seems dialed up more than "Sweet Oblivion"—that one sounded like aimless exhaustion—but "Last Words" has a desperate edge to it, like maybe the character is running out of patience or money or time or all three. That was certainly my state of mind in early 2004 when I wrapped up this lyric; I was still unemployed, 3/4 through a design certificate program that (at the time) showed no promise whatsoever, and I'd had about enough of the cliquey Santa Barbara vibe. There was no work, or so I thought—things are obviously much worse now, of course—and the one refuge I had from that ugliness was Honey White…but Honey White was reaching a turning point, too. We'd proved to ourselves that we could evolve sonically into something more organic and "us," but I still felt like we had to prove it to everybody else before we packed it in and got on with life.

Because we were getting on with life—Bryn was about to move back to Orange County, Brian had (if I recall correctly) already moved up to San Francisco, and Bill's sidestep into punk with Futureman kind of put us on notice that we'd better keep it interesting, and we needed him around in order to do that. We got a few gigs—another Giovanni's fiasco in Isla Vista, and a second Wildcat showcase downtown in April—but we agreed that all the tunes we'd come up with in the past six months were worth recording seriously. If there was a time to do a real album in a real studio with a real engineer & producer, it was now or never. All of that went into the mix for the "Famous Last Words" lyric:

"Famous Last Words"

Familiar wreckage in the aftermath
of fucking up again
As awful as if it took all I had
to fail in the end

Forever overwhelmed too easily
and always so behind
As if I oughtta lose a piece of me
to win some peace of mind

Cause I get along here, but I don't belong here

Ain't difficult to keep believing it
but I'm not gonna crack
If this is all there is, I'm leaving it
and never coming back

Cause I get along here, but I don't belong here
Yeah I get along here, but I don't belong here

I think that's the first time I'd used a curse word in a lyric. I love that the sample on iTunes doesn't bleep it. The music is a tune of Brian's; he was just beginning to churn out big monsters like this in early 2003, when Honey White took a summer hiatus after our first year of nonstop activity. The earliest recording I can find of it is actually from a one-off session on 8/15/03 that Bryn, Brian, and I did with Adam from the Mojo Wire. Bryn played drums, and we mostly jammed around with old Mojo songs. Near the end we did stretch out with this one, though:

mp3: "Famous Last Words" ("F Major 7" version, 8/15/03)

Later I cooked up a demo using that tune as a backing track. The next time Honey White got together in December '03, we were in a new rehearsal space (the Seville St., Isla Vista room shared with Futureman, pictured above), running through the new songs that would eventually become How Far is the Fall. The "Last Words" lyrics weren't quite done yet, but we jammed out the "F Major 7" song (as it was then known) on switched instruments: Brian on bass, me on Bryn's guitar (to test out a riff melody), and Bryn on Brian's guitar for rhythm. It was goofy and weird:

mp3: "Famous Last Words" ("F Major 7" version, 12/4/03)

I ended up using that riff for the chorus melody, and in an unusual fit of melodic inspiration, composed a second for the verse. Two chords, two melodies, and that was enough: I finished the lyric (and Honey White finished the song) in time for our Giovanni's gig the following February, but it was still a little rusty. We'd refined it substantially by the Wildcat show two months later:

For some reason, the double-pick guitar solo wasn't working, and I didn't know why (gee, bass player composes lead guitar riff—what's wrong with that picture?). A few months later, when we were recording overdubs with Jonathan Mayer in the studio, I couldn't justify keeping that solo as part of "Famous Last Words," especially when Jon and Bryn came up with a mind-blowing replacement part with multiple e-bow overdubs. That's what ended up on the album, and it works great—but three years later the band Interpol recorded a song called "Pioneer to the Falls" with a guitar solo using the sound I was looking for. It sure would have helped when explaining my argument:

Anyway, the e-bow carried the day, which like I said proved to be better—because once we started gigging again in early 2005, "Famous Last Words" sounded just as good with it:

That performance from the "I.V. Live" show on 1/29/05, and another from Nicholby's in Ventura on 4/20/05, are the last instances to date that "Famous Last Words" has appeared in a Honey White set. We didn't revive it when Honey White reconvened for three rehearsals in November/December 2010, either—but HW has a tendency to re-interpret our own stuff in weird and interesting ways, so I don't think we've heard the last of "Last Words" yet. Maybe a wild, hard-rock version like that one above with Brian on bass and Bill demolishing his kit.

That's all for "30 Songs" this week. Gotta delve into the Radblaster rehearsal recording now—but next weekend we'll switch back to Honey White for the final example of me successfully flushing the Isla Vista mentality from my psyche. "It gets better," as they say.

Song stats:
Music by Brian Wolff and Honey White (2003).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, February 2004.
Appears on the following albums:
Saturated Songs by Honey White
How Far is the Fall by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White


  1. Yeah, as soon as I heard "Pioneer to the Falls" I knew that the solo was exactly what you had been looking for. But then I've never quite been able to reproduce it myself; I should work on that, come to think of it.

    It was very interesting to me when you pointed out that "How Far is the Fall" ended up accidentally being a concept album simply because we all had the same concerns at the time: those of uncertainty, the need for fundamental change of some sort, etc. It's an idea that showed up in several of your lyrics and some of mine too.

  2. You mean this essay, right? http://dubiousventures.blogspot.com/2006/04/feeling-gravitys-pull.html

    Figuring out an album's theme usually happens way after the thing is done; I discovered that worked the same way with some other Mojo Wire albums too.


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