February 11, 2012

30 Songs #29 - Stranded (Keep it Surreal): Broken Things from a Broken Past

Boring scenery shot #1: Strands Beach, facing north/Monarch Bay.

I've never been that interested in writing ballads. Most of my own songs are uptempo, faster pieces, and when I do write ballad lyrics it's usually because 1) I wrote a slow tune (which is extremely rare), 2) one of my faster songs has been revised ground-up, by the full band, as a ballad (which has happened at least twice), or 3) one of my bandmates wrote a really fantastic tune and it totally inspired me (usually by Adam or Brian in the vast majority of cases). Today's "30 Songs" entry is definitely in the latter group, and even though it's relatively new and mostly untested, I'm willing to bet it's easily one of my best. That's a bold statement, which will never be proven by an amateur demo, but hey—I can always try, right? The song is called "Stranded (Keep It Surreal)" and it goes like this:

That's "Stranded" as Radblaster recorded it during an April 2011 rehearsal at Wall of Sound in Anaheim, over a year from when Adam first presented the music to us at our reunion rehearsal in March 2010:

mp3: Stranded (Instrumental Demo)

That's Adam singing on both versions (he does a guide vocal on the 2010 instrumental). The finished, semi-syncopated 2011 demo is still a bit rough in a few small places, but I'm really happy with it, and I know the other guys are too. As with the other new Radblaster songs, it has no live history, but there's so much relevant backstory to this thing that I'm not sure I'll be able to condense it into one post, but here goes.

Adam said something very gracious about me a long time ago, something like "some of the best Mojo Wire songs are my music and Keir's lyrics." Now, I would not for a second discount anything that the other guys came up with—Bryn could very well write his own great "30 Songs" series for all his tunes, too—and of course Adam didn't mean it that way either, but truthfully I'd felt for a long time that I hadn't lived up to my half of that particular bargain. Adam's music for songs like "Wishing Well Blues," "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down," and "Sunset Down" are all great, emotionally moving tunes—but personally I don't think my lyrics for those have ever done them justice. At long last, however, "Stranded" put that problem to rest.

It was sort of a perfect storm. Adam—who'd always been a gifted composer thanks to his classical training—had spent a few years stockpiling music while Bryn and I played in Honey White (for me, a crash course in texture, dynamics, and other musical subtleties with help from Bryn, Brian and Bill). After that band went on hiatus in 2007, Bryn and Adam began making music together again while I got lost in my own wild opus of bass-driven, ambient nostalgia that was the Weapon of Young Gods novel and soundtrack album (which included a prophetically-named instrumental):

That project, with its setting in my O.C. home town and vague projection of rewritten history, primed me like no other for some major retro-navel-gazing. I can't stress enough how much of a cumulative inspiration it was when Adam brought a new instrumental ballad to the first Radblaster rehearsal at his San Clemente home (the first time he, Bryn, Kevin and I played in the same room since 1998). Like I always do, I recorded everything, and spent the next three months with that song boring into my retro-wired brain.

Boring scenery shot #2: Strands Beach, facing south/Dana Point.

The big moment was actually when I was driving back to Bryn's after our second rehearsal (later in June), up PCH in Capo Beach during the late afternoon. The heat, the sunset, the exhaustion from rehearsal, the sluggish traffic, and especially the feeling I've always had about Dana Point ever since my parents moved away—that I'm a tourist in my inevitably-changed hometown whenever I go back, even though my brother and many other friends live there—all contributed to this overwhelming feeling of sad weariness. Not a bad feeling—more a benign observation—but certainly a big one, in an epic-scope-of-history way, like the decline and fall of (insert your favorite ancient empire here). Profound and final. I'm sure every thirty-something goes through this at some point—looking back, that is—so I know it's not exactly an original impulse, but I knew it could be a great lyric and I could do it. I'd already run the full emotional gamut with lyrics drawn from the novel or my experience writing it ("Tempting Fate," "Historical Friction"), so I figured this would put a killer coda on the whole shebang. I finished the lyrics within two months:

Stranded (Keep it Surreal)

Coppertone and Churchill fins
tourist season's about to begin
and you get used to it all
sure as summer decays into fall

but I need someone to blame
when the scenery don't look the same
sacrificed to entropy
in this subdivision by the sea

cause time never heals, it only conceals the damage we do
I keep it surreal but that's how it feels to get over you

superficially profound
memories echo all over town
from Aliso Pier to Palisades,
and Harbor House out to Saddleback Lanes

until I'm hung out to dry
underneath the Naranjastan sky
sacrificed to entropy
when the locals don't recognize me

I need this to be familiar to me and foreign to you
but you understand it, I know, you were stranded in paradise too

cause time never heals, it only conceals the damage we do
I keep it surreal but that's how it feels to get over you

Coppertone and Churchill fins
and yesterday's sand on her skin
do you miss me at all?
we should talk, but I don't want to call

"Stranded" is essentially my attempt to write a David Lowery-style ballad. Lowery is one of my songwriting heroes (his "300 Songs" blog inspired this series), and seems to express his epic heartfelt side often in his bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. For my money, three of his best in this vein are Camper's "All Her Favorite Fruit" (1989) and Cracker's "Big Dipper" (1996) and "Sidi Ifni" (2006):

Those songs wouldn't be what they are without crucial contributions from the other Campers and Crackers, of course, but Lowery has a particular talent for elegaic pathos and I really respect that. "Fruit" has the same stark, Faulknerian/Old Testament austerity that all the songs from its (excellent) parent album Key Lime Pie possess, and I always imagined it as some late Victorian-era narrative from a distant British Indian colonial outpost (even though it's actually more Pynchon). "Big Dipper," with its bittersweet nostalgic tone, is one of several Cracker songs about Santa Cruz, where Lowery went to university and where Camper Van Beethoven formed. "Sidi Ifni" uses a Casablanca-era Morocco town and its UK/WW2-expatriate past as a metaphor for The End Of Everything, with nothing to do but drink and stare west out across the Atlantic.

I'm a total sucker for stuff like this—I've mentioned my susceptible weakness for nostalgia many times, right?—but (I assume) as with so many other creative people, I was only ever really able to express this impulse as art once I'd been removed from the subject (or person, or place) for a while. Thankfully I had some great examples of how it's done. Where "Big Dipper" uses the Giant Dipper roller coaster, I use Strands Beach—which has changed dramatically from my childhood playground into a sandy doormat for new luxury mansions—because it's familiar and foreign all at once. Experiencing the juxtaposition is as surreal as any other jarring change, so the idea of "entropy" when applied to my home town seemed like a great metaphor for the passive, semi-destructive passage of time. Keeping it surreal is much more fun than keeping it real anyway.

Citing specific artifacts (Lowery's "cigarettes and carrot juice," my "Coppertone and Churchill fins") and calling out place names (like "Sidi Ifni") helps rope the lyric in from that personal vagueness. I really like Aliso Pier being in there, since it literally doesn't exist anymore—a perfect metaphor! Harbor House and the bowling alley are both places my friends and I spent time at (and they're in the book too), and Palisades is simply the street in Capo Beach above Hole in the Fence beach. The key line though is about "superficially profound memories." These things only seem profound in my head—and maybe I'm not even remembering them correctly—but then since this is fiction, that doesn't matter, right? "Naranjastan" is my pet name for Orange County, as it is both a Spanish and somewhat crypto-fascist religious name. There's a real Naranjastan somewhere in central Asia, but they don't have McMansions like we do, so I stole it. Hilariously, I've also seen it used to describe another place where I've done too much time: the lefty/liberal website Daily Kos.

Boring scenery shot #3: View of the mansion lots going up in 2007 from above Strands. They're mostly full now.

The narrator in "Stranded" is one of the two main protagonists from the novel (the other narrates "Tempting Fate"). Writing "I" vs "you" lyrics is an easy fallback for me, but I think first person vagueness is ok as far as making something sound personal. I mean, you don't have to name your antagonist if you get specific with other things. In my songs "you" is usually a stand-in for either a) a girl who dumped me, b) my father, or c) something cool and literary like Satan in "Paradise Lost" (which was what "Lightning Rod" was, all rolled into one!). This song can be about any of that or none—like "Big Dipper" I also repeated the first verse at the end with a cowardly twist, which gives the "you" all kinds of scattered potential—the point being that something bad happened in the past, but now it's so far distant that the only reminder is a vague ache in the narrator's bones.

That's a lot to put into one lyric—especially since I've only recently shaken myself out of that prolonged nostalgia fit—but I like it, so I don't care how much it drifts into "Keir's a pretentious egomaniac" territory. It also hopefully justifies all the drivel I just wrote for this post, which may or may not be enough to balance out a filthy truth I'm gonna lay on all three of my faithful readers: thanks very much for indulging me, and I hope you enjoyed this series, because it's over. Yep—sadly, as of right now, there is no 30th song. I've been trying this whole series to finish the next lyric, but it hasn't come. Maybe it will, though, now that I've got all the others out of the way. We shall see. If it happens, it'll be here next weekend, or more likely in the distant future. Thanks again for reading/listening/commenting. I really do appreciate it.

UPDATE 2/19/12: I made a video for "Stranded" from some old family film: early-'60s Super 8 footage. Check it out:

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and Radblaster, March 2010
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, August 2010.
Appears on the following albums:
Hecho En Naranjastan by Radblaster

February 03, 2012

30 Songs #28 - Historical Friction: Writing is the Most Hateful Kind of Work

Cover artwork for my "novel," The Weapon of Young Gods.

"Writing is the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling." —Hunter S. Thompson
Whappo! How's that for some Friday Night Freakiness? Well...sort of. It's more a reaction to a lousy week that I will happily wish goodbye and good riddance. However, that HST quote is tangentially relevant to this week's "30 Songs" post about a new-ish Honey White song called "Historical Friction." It's a great little syncopated reggae-like groove (sounding like the bastard spawn of "Blacking Out" and "Mercy Rule") with lyrics that are essentially a massive piss-take on the time I spent in recent years attempting to write my first novel. Have a listen:

I described the novel, titled The Weapon of Young Gods, a bit in last week's post for "Tempting Fate," but what I forgot to mention was that for that four-year-period, I re-immersed myself in some of my favorite old fiction and non-fiction, just to get in the right headspace. I read way more in that time than I had for years, probably since college. I mean, I never stopped reading, but I'd usually drift into exclusive binges like reading only non-fiction for a while, or plow through all my books by a particular author. For example, I took the opportunity to re-read all my Irvine Welsh when Reheated Cabbage came out, and did the same with Bret Easton Ellis when Imperial Bedrooms was released. The 2008 election happened during that stretch too, so of course I had to revisit all my Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi stuff as well.

Speaking of Thompson—another exercise I committed to back then was blogging like crazy, as a way of warming up and cooling down from writing the novel. Thompson, of course, did that in a way—after long nights working on the "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" Rolling Stone piece in 1971, he'd let it loose with the goofy, deranged semi-fiction that eventually became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now, I'm not saying I came up with anything remotely near as awesome, but some of my wild screeds that ended up on silly lefty sites like Daily Kos were pretty fun to write, and I'm only slightly embarrassed when I read them now. They're still collected on this blog, in posts like this. Might have to unearth some of those ugly things just for a laugh.

Back to the novel though (which I wrote more about here, here, and here), because it's the real impetus behind "Historical Friction." The whole idea seems a bit ludicrous these days, but after Honey White went on hiatus in spring 2007, I felt like I needed another creative outlet. The lyrics weren't coming (though "Tempting Fate" anomalously highjacked most of 2006), and I guess I just felt compelled to express, in novel form, that weird nostalgia that people sometimes succumb to in their early 30's. Well, maybe it was just me—but I vaguely noticed that people seem to think along these lines once they become secure enough with themselves to own up to their past. I didn't fully do this—even though the novel is set in the town I grew up in, and the novel's plot and events are often grossly distorted versions of real things that happened to me, my friends, and my family—I mostly followed my grandfather's advice and "never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

So, my New Year's resolution for 2012 is to finally self-publish the thing—it's been through two drafts at this point, the second wrapping in about January 2010—and I feel like I have enough distance from that period of debilitating nostalgia to accept the work for what it is and just let it go. I'd decided to avoid fiction as a career ever since I failed to get into the UCI and SFSU fiction MFA programs back in 2001, so I'm not about to barf out the Great American Novel. Maybe the Great Suburban Novel, but not likely. Anyway, by the end of the second rewrite, in fact, I had such a healthy sense of security about it that I could churn out a self-deprecating lyric like "Historical Friction." It goes like this:

You call this archaeology? It's desecration, man
Exhuming ancient melodrama just because you can
You're way too busy ripping fiction from the facts
to notice that the fossil record's still intact

but I know what happened, I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

You call this therapeutic? It's reckless shuck and jive
manipulating dead emotions just to feel alive
cause everything was epic until you lost the plot
and wound up with an epilogue that everyone forgot

but I know what happened, I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

You call this creativity? It's kleptomania
you keep a muzzle on the muse, she'll keep betrayin' ya
she knows all your secrets, she knows when you lie
she knew all about you when you were some other guy,

and she told me what happened, so I know what went down
and nobody rewrites history as long as I'm around

There's a lot going on in there, and I think it's just restrained enough to not tip the thing into serious "pretentious asshole" territory, but who knows? I thought it might be interesting to see if I could dismantle any alleged original motivation; "archaeological," "therapeutic," and "creative" are all essentially ways to figuratively bullshit my way through explaining what exactly I was up to, and why I even bothered. The narrator is calling the writer out, like I'm arguing with myself, and the bit about the Muse is probably the best; as much as I now know how to bait the creative impulse, whether at work as a designer or on my own time as a writer and lyricist, I can't force it, and conversely I can't redirect or alter pure creativity too much, or else it gets watered down and boring. It's kind of happening to me again on a lyric I'm currently trying to finish, too. But none of that matters much where "Historical Friction" is concerned. Seriously—one of my favorite things about the recording above is Marika's laugh near the end; it's almost like the Muse brushing off a creative's attempts to control or direct her.

Bryn had a different interpretation of it altogether—as a history teacher, he is well aware of how the past is manipulated and distorted when the winners try to tell their stories—and it's definitely a legit one. Perhaps he can elaborate in the comments. We've all been through enough bizarro looking-glasses in the past decade to lend credence to his take on it. And hey, it side-steps all my self-absorbed egomaniacal shit too—double trouble. There will be plenty more of that next week, though, so let's get back to the music. The tune for "Historical Friction" has a long and roundabout genesis. Its main riff, for instance, began as a guitar part, played double-time by Bryn. You can hear it crop up at the end of this jam from a Honey White rehearsal in April 2004 (listen to the left channel):

mp3: Historical Friction (original riff 4/25/04)

I always loved that riff but was never able to mold it into anything lyrical at the time. Then three years later, when I was writing some music that ended up being the novel's soundtrack, I remembered this riff and tried to make it work there. I slowed it down, overdubbed lots of bass and effects, and created a low-rock ambient monster. It ended up being the main "soundtrack theme" for most of that album, and specifically drove at least two of the 16 songs. They were:

"Morbid Frieze" and "Archaeology" were actually two different attempts to give the riff some identity, and for the most part it worked. I thought that's all it would be, but when the lyric bug bit me again (after finishing the novel's second draft), I thought I could build an actual song out of it. I've joked before about not really being much of a composer, but I think when the time is right I can make things work—in that simple, repetitive, groovy way that bass players do. About the same time (late 2009) Honey White's drummer Bill Fedderson began shaking off the cobwebs using this fancy thing:

Billy's electronic kit.

He sent us several samples of what that kit was capable of, which Brian and I promptly raided for use in demos. For my part, I built a drum track from about 20 seconds of Bill's original sample, and melded that with the vibe of "Morbid Frieze" to create the first demo of "Historical Friction":

mp3: Historical Friction (Keir's demo, 4/10)

That makes me woozy just listening to it. It's way more trippy and dubwise than what we ended up with when Honey White actually rehearsed the song in November/December 2010—the lighter-weight, less-pretentious Bryn-sung version at the top of this post. It was hard to get there, though; we struggled with it almost to the point of frustration, eventually omitting the original demo's fast bridge in favor of a more uniform syncopated groove. We haven't actually played the song all the way through in rehearsal—the "Corridan" version above is pieced together from a few different takes—and obviously the song has no live history. However, it's probably one of my better compositions—definitely living on the low end of my best stuff, but still not bad.

It's also not the last gasp of crippling nostalgia either. We'll have the best example of that next week. Hang in there sports fans—we've reached the "30 Songs" two-minute warning. The fourth quarter is almost over, but I intend to go out with a bang: one of my very best lyrics ever. Seriously. Stay tuned...

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and Honey White, January 2010
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, April 2010.
Appears on the following albums:
The Weapon of Young Gods (as "The Morbid Frieze" and "Artificial Archaeology") by Low Tide
Corridan E.P. by Honey White

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