October 30, 2011

30 Songs #14 - Island Fever: Epic Minimalism and Other Contradictions

Trouble in Paradise, Part MCLXVIII.

For some reason, one of the most difficult things for me to do as a lyricist is throw the blueprint away. I can do it in almost every other creative project—abandoning something that's not working is not only practical, it's necessary—but like other overwrought, self-absorbed people, I've had all kinds of hangups related to letting things go over the years. Thankfully I've got over most of them—and it's been a great lesson to apply to my professional creativity that pays the bills—but when writing lyrics I tend to fall back into the same patterns. One of these days maybe I'll write a lyric that doesn't rhyme…but not today.

Anyway, one of the best examples I have that proves I'm not completely stuck in a rut is "Island Fever," a Honey White song from 2004/5 and the second track on our How Far is the Fall CD. It's probably the most minimal lyric I've ever written, and it goes like this:

Lyrically, it's the coda to all my whiny abandonment/ending songs—but done detached and clinical as if writing about being lost on a desert island once you're back at home. I sort of go through the symptoms with both a weird, affected "wisdom" as well as a barely-suppressed relief that I probably won't have to relive or deal with those problems anymore. The big steps here were brevity (eight syllables per line in the three verses), and distance (no first person hypersensitive narrative). While the overall maturity level is still developmentally sluggish considering I was 27 when I wrote it, it's at least one step removed from the destructively narcissistic stuff I'd recently obsessed over in other songs like "Oblivion" or "Last Words." I felt like I grew up a little, finally, and was happy to do that, and didn't want to go back. Here are the words:

"Island Fever"

Same old deep blue-green ocean view
It's almost too good to be true

Same bliss and doubt, day in day out
It's all about deluge and drought

and no surprise on this horizon

Same myth is strong in every song
Stuck on the wrong island too long

with no surprise on this horizon

Wham-bam and we're done. Keep the solipsism to a minimum, dude. Less talk, more rock—and really, that's just what the song does: once the singing's done, Brian's massive Strat sound takes over again and blows away all my (now-minimized) melodrama. Like the previous two entries in this "30 Songs" series, Bryn's voice covers for me in a much more expressive form than I could sing it (yes, there is a demo take with my vocals on it, that no one will ever hear), once again injecting the big vowel sounds with just the right amount of emotion.

The "island" metaphor is about as barren as you can get in terms of lyrical fertility—writers have been abusing the community-vs.-loneliness cliché in every civilization going back to ancient Greece and before that—but I figured if I kept it short and sweet, it would be less aesthetically offensive. I tried to strike a balance between the "bubble"-type feeling of Isla-Vista-as-student-ghetto (which I'd done to death on so many other songs for the Mojo Wire) and the very real type of island fever that I only got a glimpse of during my first trip to Hawaii. "Oh sure," you say, "that had to be a really rough trip, man,"—but let me tell you, until you've had the Filipino Pawn Shop Jewelry Tour of Honolulu, you don't know the first thing about crushing boredom (a long story for another time). Throw in the reality of $10 jars of peanut butter, and it's easy to see why people who've grown up there might want to leave.

That's a lot to throw into six lines of verse and one chorus, but I think the music expresses it far better than I could in words. I must have subconsciously underrated the studio take of "Island Fever" over the years, because after listening to it for this essay I like it a lot more than I remember at the time (I'd always felt we nailed it better during the live shows). Maybe it's distance and time (which would be nice and poetic and fit with all that self-centered gibberish I just mentioned), but it's probably because I know how the song was made, and I saw it materialize from nowhere and then grow into this massive thing. Right off the bat, the amp buzz under Bryn's guitar tells the listener something's not quite right here. My echo-bass is randomly panned throughout the mix, itself buzzing around the listener's skull like bugs in a heat wave. Bill's drums are subtle until he hits a fill, when they almost ring like bongos. Then everyone comes in and we do the song until it breaks down into backwards-Brian guitar sounds, which build back up into the epic chorus and closer.

It sounds pretty awesome, but it started fairly small. The tune for "Island Fever" began as a promising little arpeggiation that Bryn would soundcheck with at our spring 2004 shows, like the Wildcat in Santa Barbara (mp3 #1 below). Later at Take Root Studio in San Francisco, we jammed it out as a band on the second day of initial recording for How Far is the Fall (mp3 #2 below).

mp3 1: "Island Fever" (Soundcheck jam, 4/26/04)
mp3 2: "Island Fever" (Studio jam, 8/1/04)

The bass line on that jam is only about half the part that I ultimately played on the final recording, and I remember being really frustrated when trying to come up with a second verse part, and then a chorus part, in the overdub sessions. It was just me and Jon the engineer in the control room (my guitar's signal was set to go direct, un-amplified, into the computer), and I almost panicked when I couldn't think of anything to play. That only lasted about five minutes, though—we got the parts and the song ended up being the album version you all (surely) know and love.

We knew we wanted to play the song live, but like "Blacking Out" (another purely studio-created song on that album) we'd never actually rehearsed the thing. We had at least three practice sessions (two at Table Salt and one in the main room of Billy's then-employer, a drafting/architect/blueprint company) before a January 2005 gig for the "I.V. Live" series at UCSB. Amazingly, the old Honey White magic kicked in and "Island Fever" debuted strong on 1/29/05, one of my favorite takes:

We played it at every Honey White show after (Campbell Hall/UCSB 2/26/05, Nicholby's/Ventura 4/20/05, Red's/Santa Barbara 8/7/05, Derby Club/Hollywood 11/17/05 and Ocean Institute/Dana Point 8/4/06) and it stayed really strong throughout. I don't think there's been a show where we've really screwed it up—the version from Red's is the fastest tempo we'd ever played "Island Fever" (mp3 #3 below)—and it's a hard bass line for me to play, too, so that's a minor miracle. During our last few pre-hiatus rehearsals of 2007, we tossed off an Unplugged-style acoustic version (mp3 #4 below), and when we reconvened in late 2010, "Island Fever" had lost nothing at all—and thanks to Marika it even gained a melodica part (mp3 #5 below).

mp3 3: "Island Fever" (Live, 8/7/05)
mp3 4: "Island Fever" (Acoustic, 5/26/07)
mp3 5: "Island Fever" (Rehearsal, 12/27/10)

"Island Fever" is probably in my top five favorite collaborative compositions—because it's collaborative with Bryn and Honey White, because it's a well-made recording, because the band's performances live and in the studio are spot-on, because I pulled off a relatively unpretentious, minimalist lyric, and because I came up with not one but three (okay, two and a half) compelling bass lines. I executed my parts well and the band took that and made it a great song to play. That's all you can ask for from friends and creative partners in a hobby-rock-band, right?

Okay, I think that's about enough of the Isla Vista stuff for a while. I have a few ideas of where i'd like to go with this series next week, but I haven't decided for sure yet. It'll be the halfway point, so it has to be something special. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Bryn DuBois and Honey White (2004).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, August 2004.
Appears on the following albums:
How Far is the Fall by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. I've always been very proud of the way this song turned out - an excellent mix of collaborative efforts! Hearing the various takes from over the years is nice, too. I'll have to go dig up my copy of that acoustic take. I like it.


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