January 27, 2012

30 Songs #27 - Tempting Fate: Just Enough Awesome to Power Two Bands

The I-5 freeway near Santa Ana. This is what I'm doing while you're reading this.

Okay, so today in "30 Songs" we have a real treat—or at least I think so, and you all will just have to deal with me. This week's song is called "Tempting Fate" and I love it. It's one of my favorite songs that I've written and I think it's one of the best, too—not least because of a stone cold killer opening lyrical couplet, but more about that later. This song was a gift. Well, it feels like that now—but at the time, I sure earned it. Writing "Tempting Fate" was tough (bass player composing = hard), it took too long to finish (eating up all of 2006), it was pillaged for scrap (for my side project in 2007), and it was rebuilt from the ground up (by Bryn in 2009). On top of that, both of my bands had their way with it in 2010 before it was finally considered "finished."

One of the great things about playing in two bands at once is that you get to see how each group plays some of the same songs. In our case, it's not that different—my brother and I play in both bands, and he sings this song in both settings—but it's interesting to see how the other players in each band take the song and run with it. Namely, playing this particular song made both bands reach back to previous sonic incarnations in order to get it right:

That's Honey White's version as it was recorded in December 2010, about a month after playing it for the first time. Then there's this:

That's Radblaster's version from April 2011 (later added to our debut demo), after that band had been rehearsing the song for about a year. Originally, we seemed to pick up right where we left off in 1998, when Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I recorded initial backing tracks for the Seaside Hamlet Skids album at Kevin's parents' Laguna Niguel living room. I think that was the last time we four had played together before we reconvened in March 2010 at Adam's in San Clemente. The setting (O.C. beach town) and recording method (three rinky-dink microphones capturing the vibe in a small room) more than ensured that the classic Mojo surf-noir sound would survive. Adam took on the solo like a pro, first swaggering through it on his old Hamer, then flat-out shredding it on his new Strat. We even tried to segue "Tempting Fate" from another old (and now re-made) Mojo surf instrumental, "Blue Lantern Cove," and it almost worked.

Radblaster rehearsing in San Clemente, June 2010.

When Honey White played the song during rehearsals in November and December 2010, that band ended up harking back to its own early days as well—in this case 2002, when we'd padded our live sets with older Mojo Wire songs, including several of the surf-rock ones from Seaside. Thanks to Bill's background in punk, we'd played songs like "Shivering Sand" and "How Far Away" at relatively blinding speeds, but Bryn and Brian still managed to rip through some reverb-drenched solos before the songs crashed to finale. Well, in the recent rehearsals, Bill noticed "Tempting Fate" was really similar to those songs, and drew on that to power Honey White's take on it. We syncopated the breakdown, so Brian added a more laid-back solo, and Marika added first keyboards and then melodica in the background. Et voila: the leadoff track for a new Honey White demo E.P.

Honey White rehearsing in Santa Barbara, November 2010.

The song obviously has no live history—Honey White hasn't gigged since 2006, and Radblaster hasn't yet, at all—but it took a long time to get "Tempting Fate" to the point where it was ready for either band to play. It all started (I shit you not) in a dream. Seriously. I dreamed that for some reason Emily and I were being chased (by unknown pursuers) though a train station (or ferry port, or something), and the whole time an ominous bass line played in the background. Now, I rarely remember my dreams, so when I do, they're worth mentioning. The riff stuck with me, so I transcribed it and, the next chance I could, recorded it with a band. That just happened to be a Bryn-less version of Honey White, during summer 2005 (July 3 to be exact), and the short little jam that resulted was this:

mp3: Tempting Fate (original snippet)

I thought it could go somewhere, so I worked on it for the rest of 2005 and into 2006—but while the song gained a chorus part, it got fairly overblown pretty quickly. Here's a demo I assembled from Billy's drum samples and my own hyper-processed bass guitar sounds:

mp3: Tempting Fate (2007 Demo)

It's a bit too much, isn't it? Furthermore, only I could take samples from a real drum kit and make them sound fake. On the other hand, after a year of work it finally had lyrics, and good goddamn, for the most part I did well here if I do say so myself:

"Tempting Fate"

when I was younger I was still insane
I looked like Abel and I felt like Cain
I learned to fear, I learned the art of war
until I guess I couldn't take it anymore
or else I got too callous

so I grew up and I approached the bomb
with automatic cool and heroic calm
methodically defused her right in time
and now our reason overrules our rhyme
and interrupts our rhythm

as I hang in the balance sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel

sometimes I feel like tempting fate again
or wreaking havoc every now and then
or risking everything I got to slash and burn
up past another point of no return
and leave the rest in ruins

so why upend the balance? sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel
sometimes I feel like tempting fate again

so why upend the balance? sometimes I feel
okay and deal and I give up but then
sometimes I feel sometimes I feel
sometimes I feel like tempting fate again

The big win for me here was the irregular verse structure: five lines instead of four, with the melody coming in a whole line ahead of e chord. Great, great opening lines too. I mean, really—we learned last year that Herman Cain really was insane, right? I was prescient when I knocked this one out four years ago. That first line is also the first line of my as-yet-unpublished novel (in which, surprise surprise, I write about the mid-1990s angsty antics of suburban O.C. teens not unlike myself). That's kind of what inspired the lyrics, in a way—or maybe the lyric and the novel's concept of childhood nightmares and creeping nostalgia fed off each other. The narrator in "Tempting Fate" is (like most of my narrators) projecting like crazy; not only is he still insane, he's in denial about it.

I wrote more about the book here, here, and here, but the short version is that it's a stereotypically amateur first novel, with all the good and bad aspects thereof. It's a distorted version of things that happened (and didn't happen) to me, in that "write what you know" vein. The two main narrators are pretty transparent versions of me, too; they're not exactly Mary Sues but they're not developed enough as characters, either (and therefore I'd assume that none of the book's characters are sufficiently developed). I know, I know—we've crashed through so many levels of ego by now that it's probably unbearable—but like all self mythology, what I remembered was less true than what made the book (and now the song) a good story. I mean, I really did dream about defusing a bomb when I was 10 or 11 (see? Dreams again!), and was sleepwalking through it, too. Really.

I did get a good creative boost from the book project though—in the form of a self-produced, all-instrumental soundtrack that I released under my old "Low Tide" side project name. The songs are all ambient, bass-driven mood pieces, and several of them share riffs and other musical concepts. I took inspiration from all over for these tunes, and "Tempting Fate" (along with "Hold Still" and other semi-finished songs) was part of that. Since I'm a better lyricist than musician, songs where I wrote the music are either a) laughably simple, b) loose re-workings of other people's stuff, or c) relatively complicated stuff that I had to work my ass off to finish. My bass playing has thankfully improved over the last fifteen years, but I'm definitely not the world's most gifted composer. Lyrics are much…well, I was almost going to say "much easier" for me but sometimes they're not. I guess what I was thinking is that for me, words are easier building blocks to play with and plug in or replace or adopt or abandon.

Anyway, all of that got tangled up in the solo side project I did for the novel's "soundtrack" in 2008. "Tempting Fate" got disemboweled and buried beneath some echo-bass murk for my Low Tide "Weapon of Young Gods" CD, and these two tunes that are based on it make for kind of a weird listen now that I know the song's been revived in a rock-band context:

Those worked fine for what they were, but the original song and lyric were too good to simply shelve, so I asked Bryn for help, and in late 2009 we rebuilt the song acoustically (like "Lightning Rod" and "Hallelujah"):

mp3: Tempting Fate (2009 Demo)

From there it was a hop, skip and a jump to full-on Rock Band Awesome. We taught "Tempting Fate" to Adam and Kevin in March 2010, and Radblaster has played it ever since. Honey White learned it even faster when that band reconvened in November after a 3-year hiatus, and I gotta say I love both versions equally. The RB version is a great flat-out rocker, and the HW version is agile in obtuse ways (I was super-stoked on my backing vocal part and Billy's syncopated breakdown).

So much for "Tempting Fate." I could write more, but I've already barfed out too much already. I guess I should warn you all now that for the "30 Songs" home stretch it's all gonna be about recent work—songs and lyrics that inspired (or were inspired by) my four-year detour into fiction writing. I do that a lot—the O.C. nostalgia thing, I mean. In fact, I'm doing it again this weekend; by the time you read this I will probably be snarled in southbound I-5 L.A. Friday night traffic, but no matter. Maybe we'll find out what this song sounds like when Bryn plays mandolin on it.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois- w/Radblaster, January 2010; w/Honey White, Nov. 2010
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, February 2007.
Appears on the following albums:
The Weapon of Young Gods (as "Concussions" and "Leave the Rest in Ruins") by Low Tide
Corridan E.P. by Honey White
Hecho En Naranjastan by Radblaster

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