I Go Signifying
I just finished listening to a James Rabbit album from about two years ago now called Artillery. It's strange thinking about how much things have changed for me as a "musician" (with fingers-in-air quotations) since then and before then. It's strange and unrealistically depressing and kind of glorious.
If you have a copy of Artillery put it on right now. If you don't, then I'm sorry, you're missing out on something that's a big part of me. I'm going to give you some un-called for background.
When I first started doing music in 1996, it was as an outlet for needing to get abstract, funny thought out of my head, writing lyrics in the seats of the Veteran's Auditorioum as a reaction for having to memorize lines that I hated for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, it was hard memorizing that crap and I wanted something else to be at least partially in my brain, something that was mine. I made a tape later that year which consisted of me singing into my mom's boombox with no musical accompaniment, save for the 'Waves' preset of my Yamaha Portasound PSS-270 in the hidden track, called "Welcome To Supreme". I probably stole about half the songs from different radio places or things my friends had said at recess, I had no idea how the radio or television worked at the age of 12, so I probably thought that I had written all of the songs myself.
Later, my friend Alex Warkentin taught me about chords over the phone and it was a revelation, and like Charley in Flowers for Algernon first learning punctuation for the first time I wrote songs for a good while with every chord in it that I could think of, nevermind any melodic presence, C D B A minor F Bb diminished, it was a great thing to put lyrics to. My friend Grayson and I spent most of a summer writing songs about the funniest things we could think of and then not being able to sing them, he with no melodic ability and me with no talent to put words to chords.
And then somewhere along the line came a gift, I could write something resembling a melody, at least something where the words could pass through the music without being a nuisance. Lyrics and music became a thing that I was obsessed with placing together for the next six years, I had a recording group with my friend Dan Frank called Ultra Secret where I used the same three chords over and over in every key with most of the keyboard's drum presets and when I got a computer of my own I started the same project with a different name, James Rabbit. In high school and junior college I thought I was the shit, making album after album in my back room by myself and in my head inflating each of them to be bigger and better than the last. "Turbulent Turbulent" was light years ahead of "Sea of Tranquility" and when "James Rabbit Versus the Strings" came out, watch out! Because that was the one that proved that I could actually compose multiple melodies at the same time! But "Archeological Bloopers!" What a triumph of stream-of-consciousness narrative, UNTIL we got a new microphone for christmas 2000 and "Between Sidewalk and Stars" shone like a constellation of the entire sky lit up like the holidays.
I did a trilogy of albums in 13th grade where I wrote songs that were loosely associated with Pablo Picasso in that I would write some lyrics about crime or terrorism or something that I was afraid of and then name it "Surviving the Blue" and it would be about Picasso. And when I had done this for three albums those albums became "Picasso", "Surviving the Blue" and "The Cubist" and I was a genius! To myself, probably, only.
Various things happened in my live, some sort of Pythagoras' Love Triangle (as I had so cleverly written about/predicted in "James Rabbit Versus the Strings"), I did some surviving of the blue and all of a sudden there was the last James Rabbit 1 album. It was called "Distracted" and it was about a girl I had a crush on at the time and the kind of subconscious theme of the album was my head being locked on her without really thinking about why I was locked onto her, just kind of needing something to be interested in and it showed in the songs and the songs were terrible and all keyboards and no energy.
Then something happened where I kind of found a reason to write songs about and I started writing these songs that were vaguely about exactly what was going on at the time. This was during a particulary turbulent turbulent romantic (Love for the first time!) period in my life and I had begun somewhere deep in those lyrics to mean what I was singing about. This is also the beginning of James Rabbit 2, in which my brother began drumming with me. He had appeared briefly playing drums in earlier songs either intentionally or I couldn't get him to stop drumming in his room, but now we were planning out the parts together.
And this album coincided with some of the biggest changes in my life, I gave it away to people that thought it was about them and I gave it to people whom I'd written it for unintentionally, and people who I'd written it for on purpose and it seemed like it had an effect on all of this, made some friendships better, some worse- it may not actually have, but in my mind, I had created a piece of art that moved the world around me.
More important than all the girls was the relationship between my brother and I, we had been pretty much enemies up until this point (his incessant listening to of Green Day and Weezer was always at odds with my occasional listening of They Might Be Giants), but working on this album together we realized that each had something that the other didn't have. Songs and drums. Our growing friendship is best exemplified by the hidden track of "Heart of Gold" where an answering machine message, having accidentally recorded a conversation he and I had, plays out. I sound like I'm drunk or stoned, but really I'd just gone to sleep maybe two hours prior to the phone call and you can hear the kindness in his voice as he deals with a stupified Tyler, he asks if I'd been up all night and then asks if I want to get a soda, I reply "I don't know" probably because I can't figure out what the words are that he's saying. But when he says "I'll buy" I immediately come to: "Okay."
"Trauma Season", with its grittier take on recording of instruments paved the way for "Le Fou" which was long agonized over (the Continental of '03) and took me all the way until I had to start school in Santa Cruz to finish. It is where the title of this website comes from and is written about in the begining of the website, if you check the archives. I moved to Santa Cruz and immediately began planning the penultimate James Rabbit album = Love Drums.
It was going to be a mix of where Conner and I had been taking his drum ability and where I felt that I could really soar with my songwriting talents and we would become world famous. College didn't really have anything to offer me in the way of meaning and so I was trying to find it through tons and tons of mix cds that I made for myself to contemplate the current (Static) state of affairs with my life. Through this period I found out about Electric Light Orchestra and Paul Maccartney and learned all of the Queen singles by heart and heard my favorite Bow Wow Wow singles and fixated on specific parts of them the whole time. When I came home for winter break, my brother and I recorded an EP called "The Heart that Ate New York" which was full of energy and innovation and spontenaity and I love it dearly.
The beginning of summer found me scrambling around town to borrow instruments, hanging out at parties to the point where people had begun drinking the Nyquil to follow up leads on where bass amp heads could maybe be so the next morning I could walk in on adult situations and then maybe the next week come back for the cab and when the work on the album finally begun we had signed on a third member, Sterling Cook, to videotape us as we went. (Conner didn't know Sterling was a part of the ensemble for about thirty minutes of videotape, where Sterling is filming us through the window on the morning of the first day). Every morning we would start out with me ranting about how we were going to change the world and then kind of piecing a song together.
None of the songs had any names or aims, I had three songs that I had in mind to become singles, but they were ideas, with the exception of the song "Cuba", where I had a chorus in mind = "Cuba... coudn't... Break. My. Heart.", so we kind of went into it very militantly where I would bark idealistic anthems at my brother and he would try his best to imitate what I did in drum form and then he would be demanding of me (perhaps not vocally enough) to play good bass parts and we would rehearse it and maybe get two or three songs' rhythm parts recorded in a week.
This was the first time that we had written the songs together, and the first time that I had no idea with what to do with the rhythm tracks, I had no lyrics and I had no idea how to play the chords and on what? Le Fou presented similar problems, but at least those recorded tracks belonged to some songs, with Artillery it was the other way around. We had weird snakey drum and bass parts that escaped my mind with exactly how to transmute them into something listenable, and so parts I threw up in the air of people that I would not have considered part of the art previously, Grayson came in for a few guitar parts and though it took a while, he ended up contributing some lines that I would not have been able to come up with. Sterling provided valuable insight into the song "Speed Dogs" both with his enthusiasm and his suggestion (and performance) of the 'yip yip'. My cousins Grace and Taylor came over and mewed like kittens for "C.A.D." My friend Sandra gave me some suggestions on how to write the lyrics to "Cactuses", things came together in a weird communal way where people I would not have associated with my music helped it along.
At one point in "Regime Change", one of our more appreciated songs, I'm overdubbing a guitar part and somebody shows up in my back window, which was once a pretty common occurence, I stop the guitar part and let out a startled 'AH!', as I am wont to do when in high concentration situations. That's kind of the moment where Artillery stopped being mine and started being everybodies. For the first time when I released it I gave it out to people and actually thanked them for their involvement, and they were looking forward to it, people were the same kind of excited with hearing the CD version of "Cactuses" as they would have been had they seen it performed live, seeing as they had contributed to its creation.
It contains some of my best technical writing and playing, all the rollicking basslines and different time signatures and semi-soaring guitar parts and most interesting ideas for overdubs, I think. "In Motion" is all the aforementioned PSS-270 and it is one of my favorite compositions. "Maraschino Dub" was really exciting to me that we were doing something in a reggae vein but way off. The piled on overdubs of nothing in particular still sound really exciting to me, and we have this part at the end where the bass and drums get 'stuck' on the note they are playing for too many beats and this guitar is soloing over it and I'm really happy that we wrote that part.
Artillery was a failed attempt at the Love Drums album, and we realized that pretty early on in the recording process where "Speed Dogs", though interesting and energetic never seemed like it would be a crossover hit, from my back room to any ears outside of there, but maybe it didn't matter. All the lyrics, everything, maybe for the first time was about the music, and the music was about everything, when I sang "All of my friends, all of my friends are dead! DEAD!" I meant it. I was enraged with a lot of my peers at the time, as also evidenced in "I'm Not Breathing" which was a satire (that had no humor or actual connection to reality) about a Fresno band with high expectations for themselves. I sing about the mix of instruments and the miking of the drums in "Wide", "Concane" is about someone moving into the house down the street temporarily because their house was being fumigated. "Thunder" contains the disclaimer "Album's all shouts, Speakers blow out". It was the first time where everything musically and lyrically seemed to be working together in tandem and where all of my ideas came out pure and fresh.
We opened up the floodgates after that and tried to get everybody we knew into the band and the result was an excessive joywonder called "The Drop". That one's good too.
I'm doing a lot of looking into myself for how I write songs. This summer is going to be the start of something great, everybody will be in the same place since "Le Fou" and I want to have songs that will inspire the same kind of brilliance-as-we-go. We might have enough people in this band to play live, and I don't want to blow it. I had returned to closely writing songs out with the album "Continental" and I'm not sure how that works out, because it takes away a lot of the spur of the moment sense, as well as most of Conner's role as songwriter. We did "Cavalier" the same way (which is probably not being finished in Fresno as I type this). I've written "Colossuses" mostly out, but maybe I'll try splitting it half and half, with the pop ones written out and the more experimental tracks just being hoofed as we go. I'm excited for the future, almost as I'm excited about the past.
As for the present, work is working out really really well and taking me in unexpected directions!