Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Biography of a Song - "Here At The Door"

Okay. If you're here you most likely know me, and at least have some vague idea, thanks to a relentless barrage of twitter and facebook messages, that: 1. I'm in a songwriting contest, and 2. I use twitter and facebook messages way too much for your taste.

That aside, the SpinTunes #1 Round #2 listening party took place last night, which means it's time for a little blurb on my song. But before I get into my own song's nuts and bolts, I have to tell a short story, not of what my song is about, but why it exists in the first place and for whom it's written. To skip to the bio, look for the red text below that says something to the effect of, "This is the bio".

The Back Story

The Round #2 challenge was titled, "John Hancock Time", which is a delightfully punny way of telling us that we'd be playing with time signatures. As soon as I heard this I knew I was going to write my overdue gratitude / tribute song to Katy Perry.

Let me repeat that, because it's not what you were expecting and you might've missed it.

Disregarding lyrical content for the moment, my song is one big 'thank you' hug to the oft-maligned pop oddity of 'I Kissed a Girl' fame. Without her, and without that song in particular, The Lightbulb Mouth Radio Hour would not have a house band, or at least, the Write Bloody House Party 2 Band would not exist in any form. In the spirit of the Superhero-themed SpinTunes challenge not far behind us, I give you our origin story:

In November 2009, the Write Bloody House Party 2 Band began like all great bands do: out of a lie told to a hot chick at a party. My friend Alex met a gorgeous woman who told him her own fascinating story about how her kids and all her friends' kids formed bands recently; she and those intrepid friends of hers saw how much fun their children were having and decided to form their own 'mom band'. They all chose instruments, learned to play them together, and now gig regularly in the OC. This is what the real real housewives of Orange County do.

So naturally, Alex, wanting to keep the conversation going, told her, "Oh, yeah? That's awesome," and then the bastard looked at me with eyes pleading for a Hail Mary wingman pass and continued, "...we're in a band too!" Obliging my friend's innocent ploy I gave a rather unconfident, "...why... YES. Yes we are! In... a band... yeah. We are that."

Best mistake of my life.

Raundi, that darling little OC housewife minx I described above, immediately said, "Oh really? We have a big show coming up in January. You guys are gonna open up for us!". By this point I was getting quite accustomed to the taste of 'foot', so before Alex and I really had a chance to think about what we were doing, we said, "Absolutely."

Second best mistake of my life.

We excused ourselves and found Shelby to discuss what just happened. We weren't a band, but we were all musicians. No reason not to make good on the promise, after all. Shelby loved the sheer ridiculousness of having a gig booked before the three of us ever sat in a room to play together, and was happy to round out the power trio. We exchanged contact info with Raundi, told her that we were a relatively new band, and offered in lieu of an entire opening set to instead play one song as a 'special guest band'. She accepted and we went to work.

We decided immediately that we'd what talent and coherency we lacked we'd make up for in humor, so the idea sprung almost out of itself that we'd play one cover song, preferably as ironic a choice as possible, and beat the life out of the damn thing. Having a 20-something dude singing 'I Kissed a Girl' to a bar full of homemakers and preteens seemed an obvious choice.

We wanted to give it our own special touch, of course... change the style up completely, and groove on it in a way that came more naturally to us. We were shocked to discover that Katy had beaten us to that particular punch:

We loved this version of the song, and decided we'd perform this cover exactly as she did in Unplugged. This song starts with a delicious jazzy 5/8 intro, then transitions into a sultry 6/8 for the first verse and chorus, then snaps out to 4/4 for a rockin' finish.

The day came that we showed up to the gig, walked onstage, and blew the damn roof off the place. Everyone fell in love with the song; they laughed, they sang along with us... we all reveled in every minute of it. The jam morphed into a rock epic; I popped off the ragingest guitar solo of my career, and the universe smiled on us.

From that point forward, our band snowballed through one accidental good fortune to another until we got hooked up with the people behind Lightbulb Mouth. Katy Perry, in the time since, has grown from original inspiration to a veritable component of our band's identity. She became a verb at rehersal: "Ooh, we need to come up with a new piece for the 'Radio commercial 2' skit; let's take this riff and Katy Perry it." She will always be synonymous in my mind with "taking something and making it dirty-sexy and reeking of awesomeness." Thanks, Katy. This one's for you.

This is the bio

'Here At The Door' began with its time signatures. Thanks to 'I Kissed a Girl', I love the way 5/8 and 6/8 interact with each other. 4/4 is rock n' roll bread and butter; 'nuff said. I follow an un-rule from Tool's playbook, which basically states, "There is no goddamn reason why a song has to sound at the end like it did at the beginning".

I really like composing songs in movements, where there's a tone set in the beginning that gets dashed against the rocks by the ending. I like them to feel like a progression from one place to another, rather than a closed loop that finishes right back where it started. That's not to say that songs that end that way are at all inferior; it's just one stylistic trait versus another; I write plenty of songs that go both ways. So, following my Katy Perry roadmap, part 1 was going to alternate between 5/8 and 6/8, and I'd bring it all home with some 4/4 in part 2.

The guitar came next. Much like comic artists (or anyone who produces serialized content, really) who build a 'buffer' of advance material, I keep a collection of 'prototype' riffs in a dusty corner of my mind. With the exception of the chorus (which contains a pretty direct homage / ripoff of the tasty 'I Kissed a Girl' "ba-dum-DUM--dum, bada-dum-DUM--dum" bass intro), the entire song was fleshed out from little guitar riffs I've come up with over the years that I never managed to make complete songs out of. And, as often happens, I find that two bits of song that I've written years apart from each other, with no intentional association, fit quite nicely.

I decided not to record this song with a click-track. By which, I mean "I'm not a good enough timekeeper with any instrument to be able to manage this many changes without a little trouble." A song as convoluted as I decided this one was gonna be, I was fine with it breathing a little. I set the pace and length of the song by recording guitar first. A few fingering mistakes into it, I accidentally wrote a nice bridge. This happens to me all the time and I am grateful for my luck. The clean electric guitar was recorded on one track, and the distorted electric on another; I wanted a slight overlap between the two as part of my part 1/ part 2 transition.

A note on the part 2 guitar: I wanted to play a little trick here. The guitar riff consists of five 16th note triplets, but with one leading 16th note in order to fill out the measure. So, it's a 4/4 riff, but it 's disguised as a fast 3/4 and really sounds like one if you're not counting notes.

Drums were up next, and were an absolute pain to record, not because of the time changes, but because of the sound of them. I have to record the entire kit with a single mic, and I couldn't manage to get them reproduced in a way that didn't clash terribly when played back. Eventually I settled on disengaging my snare drum and playing it like as a tom tom. This really warmed up the tone and salvaged what felt like a complete disaster up to that point. The polyrhythms that show up in the song are all played on the crown of my favorite ride cymbal, and I have to admit - I cheated here. I can play polyrhythms, but to do so I need to write them down and practice them over and over before they're ready to record. I saved a lot of time by recording the ride on a second track; this also allowed me to fade it out independently from the rest of the drums at the close of the song.

Bass guitar parts tend to write themselves for me. I like intervals to exist as often as possible between guitar and bass, as this fills the sound out quite a lot. In fact, with the exception of the ride cymbal polyrhythm I mentioned above, the entire instrumental component of this song consists of one guitar, one bass, and one drum track; no overdubs anywhere. So, the bass kinda walks around the same notes the guitar is playing, but rarely at the same time the guitar is at that note. It ends up making a nice meandering "wave-interference" kind of sound, except during part 2 where I have guitar and bass playing largely in unison to really drive the ending home.

I love to harmonize. But there's nothing I can say about how I do it; I'm kind of an idiot-savant when it comes to singing them. As long as I know the melody, I just sing something over it and the notes that come out, fit. I don't know what they're gonna be 'til they come out. This song features a few 3-part harmonies, though there's one section that has four vocal tracks, with a low octave mirroring the high harmony.

As I was approaching the weekend I was devoting to this project, I knew that the ideas I had planned were going to make for a song that shifted gears a lot. It was going to be hopeless trying to write lyrics to something that I didn't know exactly how it was going to sound, so I had to wait until the music was fully in place before I could even think about words or a melody. I had a couple phrases in my head (the 'please please please' that shows up in parts 1 and 2, for example), but no topic, no story, nothing.

Saturday was for writing and recording the song's tracks, and Sunday was for writing the vocals and melody, and adding them to the song. I panicked a bit at around 2pm and started visiting random wikipedia pages, in hope that an article would pop up that I knew something about or was interested enough in to write about... but that yielded poor results. Later, my friend Caitlin, who had offered up her apartment as a quiet place to get to work, had mentioned an incident while driving back from her errands for the day, about a person a large SUV who was encroaching on her lane. For whatever reason, that idea stuck with me and I got right to work.

As Dave Leigh pointed out in his flattering review over at Dr. Lindyke's music blog, the lyrics I wrote were ambiguous, and that was by design. Cait's story just got me thinking about things I've gone through in life, and stories I've heard about enthusiastic and interested people that were members of a disregarded minority, but desperately wanted to join whatever public discourse was relevant to their interests.

I wrote a single metaphor of someone wanting to come inside and sit at the grown-ups' table where all the action is... because it's a template for many social scenarios. Examples that came to mind were, "young people interested in politics", "3rd world communities trying to emerge in global commerce", "individuals overcoming racism /sexism /gender-identity prejudice", etc. Dave's suggestion that it could be about illegal immigration never even occurred to me... but that illustrates the idea that I wrote the part to fit whatever issue the listener was aware of, even if I wasn't aware of it myself. It's a common sentiment, even if the particulars are disparate.

In my particular case, it's more closely tied to my personal belief structure. I'm a rational skeptic, which is a nontheistic, anti-supernatural stance by default. In the United States today, being an atheist is largely seen as worse than being a member of the wrong religion... it's an erroneous belief, but it's widely held. But, that's only what it means to me...

And it's really not "my" song in that regard... not at all.

...It's Katy Perry's. Whatever she says, goes.


  1. Cool Kevin! I really love hearing the process of how it all comes together. And that is a really neat story about your band before a band! :D

  2. Thanks so much, Heather. This one was definitely a lot of fun to do :)