Friday, January 2, 2009

A Nashville Halloween for a "Blind Cat Black"

I recently discovered a session note from Halloween 2002 when we tried to finished the score to Blind Cat Black in Nashville. This is long, but worth it for those who want to know how we work or who enjoy studio stories. Lots of free embedded mp3s so you can listen as you go.


A Nashville Halloween for a "Blind Cat Black"
By Chris King

We had converged at Lij's home studio in Nashville to finish a record of Turkish poetry set to music. Matt Fuller came from Los Angeles, where he works as an illustrator; I came straight from our travel magazine's office in New York; and Lij, his hair pared down to a mohawk, came from Chicago, where he is producing a rock record in Steve Albini's studio.

Home studios once carried the stink of amateurism, but no longer. Computers revolutionized the art of recording. With a software package called Pro-Tools and plenty of hard drive space, anyone can now have a subtle, flexible, sophisticated multi-track studio in their home. The only problem is importing the musical values of old, pre-digital sound - warmth, crackle - into the computer's cold clarity.

To perform this trick, people like Lij are constantly on the scrounge for vintage gear, especially microphones and mic pre-amplifiers (known as "mic pre-'s"), which boost the sound coming from a mic into a soundboard or computer. Lij had a line on some vintage mic-pre's, so in the morning we went off down the streets of Nashville looking for them and for phantom power. It being Halloween, I would prefer not to spoil the magic by describing phantom power (something you need to run old mic-pre's); suffice it to say it was Halloween and we were in search of phantom power.


Once phantom empowered, we were joined by Heidi Dean, a singer trained for opera but with an ear for pop who drove down from St. Louis (with several pounds of kielbasa and her two dogs) to lend her pipes to our weird Turkish poem. Blind Cat Black by Ece Ayhan, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat, is the poem. Actually, it is a sequence of haunted prose poems, full of curses, sorcerers, blind black cats and "endless hallucinations of clowns run in ruins" - an apt project for a Halloween session.

Heidi howled and trilled behind raconteur barfly songster Fred Friction singing about coming drowned in the afternoon to the blue house on the wharf of brown broadcloth cafes. She harmonized to my singing about a son who is a queen and a brother who used to hold the boy's hair, black coal.


We took a break to meet friends at a German wursthouse. Freed from the deadtangles of Turkish poetry, we swayed with fishbowls of Pilsner, danced the chicken dance to the oompah band, and ate even more kielbasa.

"The oompah guy came to me and asked what band I was in," Lij said. Lij ran his fingers through his mohawk, the very item which must have attracted the oompah man's attention. "I told him, I am the chicken!" The mohawk did look like a rooster's comb.


The name of Lij's home studio is The Toy Box. True to name, it has its share of toys and childish things, but the same can be said of most recording studios run by rock guys. They are all islands of lost toys. As Matt said, pointing to a collection of gewgaws sitting atop the speakers Lij uses to monitor his mixes, "Somebody has to be the keeper of plastic dinosaurs and metal lunchboxes."


More Heidi Dean: she had to wail a snippet of a nightingale aria and then howl bloody murder behind the translator, Murat Nemet-Nejat, as he describes how the boy prostitute at the center of the poem steps on danger and comes to harm. Between takes, a train passed behind Lij's house, well within earshot. "Get that next time, if you can," I said. "It wouldn't be the first Tennessee train in this poem."

Years before, as we tracked Pops Farrar (a merchant marine seaman who has since died) reading with musicians from a nearby abandoned hippie commune, a train passed during a quiet moment. On that part of the poem, a Tennessee cargo train helps to illustrate the boy's adventures as a flower vendor.


Rock recordings typically start with the drums. Everybody plays through a song, but you stop once you have a good drum take, and then build up from there with overdubs, starting with the bass and guitars and finishing with color instruments (strings, organ, piano) and, finally, vocals.

As befits a score for an inverted Turkish poem, we were all inside/out on this project. The rock songs for Blind Cat Black began six years ago in Matt's garage in Los Angeles. He made rough home four-track recordings of song ideas and mailed them to me. I drove from St. Louis to Georgia to New York to Nebraska to Mississippi, listening to these tapes, finding words and melodies and fitting them into parts of poems.

Over the years I scheduled impromptu recording sessions with our friend Meghan Gohil, where people would sing or read poetry over Matt's guitar parts, and we would capture it on digital audio tape. The method used was live mix, meaning what went to tape was final in that form, with no possibility of separating the voice from the guitar and redoing one without the other.

Of the voices we captured in those sessions, one had now vanished forever (the Merchant Marine songster Pops Farrar), and the other is elusive and moody (the raconteur Fred Friction, who recently survived open-lung surgery). The only way to keep their voices in the score was to keep Matt's original garage guitar parts.

So in Nashville, Matt was in the bass-ackwards position of overdubbing drums to his own guitar. In a basement in Nashville he found the beat implicit in old guitar doodles he had made in his Hollywood garage, all to preserve the grit of these vanished and vanishing voices - all to keep some Ozark twang in the sadness of a Turkish boy with sewers for veins who tattooed pharaohs on his biceps and was destroyed by love.


We also spent time in Nashville matching various readers with fragments we had been given by a generous Turkish musician, Latif Bolat. Another piece we had in mind, an alternatively teasing and explosive blues guitar piece by Tom Hall, the National Steel guitar wizard of St. Louis, still needed a reader. We landed Warren Pash from down the street.

Warren had played bass for us on the last recordings the jump blues legend Rosco Gordon made, right here in Lij's house, before passing away in July. "I walked home that night and laid in bed and stared at the ceiling until 3 in the morning," Warren remembered. "All I could think was this was what it was like to be young in the Rolling Stones and play with all those blues legends."


Reality has a way of returning rudely. On the last day of our session, Lij fielded a call from the leader of the band he has been producing up in Chicago. This guy had been listening to his vocal tracks and decided each and every one needed to be re-recorded.

His band is going for a big, scary rock sound - Marilyn Manson is a reference for Lij when he mixes their tunes - which calls for the singer to practically eat the microphone when he records. Lij's sin, it seems, had been to allow some hint of wind, of actual human breath, to intrude into the vocal track. Nothing was usable. Every vocal must be done again. Lij was about to lose the next two weeks of his life to recording this man's voice without recording his breath.

Brother skulked around his home studio. Just when we should have been finishing our work in a mood of celebration of Turkish poetry, our own love for one another, and our ability to keep doing this despite living in far-flung cities, Lij was shattered.

He had one, final chore for us: a whistle solo. I had written a folk song setting for a piece of the score called "My Son is a Queen." It has a jauntiness that fits one of the poem's lighter moments, though the lyric does have one dark image - "a gradual burning is forgotten" - that calls for a disturbing musical undercurrent. So I had asked Lij for some sad, warped whistling.

He trundled downstairs, where he tracks vocals, and I hit "record" on the Pro-Tools up in the control room. "My son is a queen," I sang on the recording, "has spread his wings. A cape of fine taffeta." But you know that boy won't stay aloft for long. You know he is heading for the sewers of his veins, for "the hanging tree in me," and downstairs, out from under Lij's mohawk, came the whistling of a very unhappy man to finish the tune.

Free mp3s (embedded above)

(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

My son is a queen
(Three Fried Men)

(Three Fried Men)

(Murat Nemet-Nejat, Latif Bolat)

"Geranium and the child"
(Pops Farrar, Flatrock)

In the sewers of my veins
(Fred Friction, Three Fried Men)

(Pops Farrar with Three Fried Men)

(Warren Pash, Tom Hall)

From Blind Cat Black
Poetry by Ece Ayhan
Translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat
Produced by Chris King

Available at independent shops in St. Louis or through us directly.
Soon to be a minor motion picture.


Image is a still from the movie by Mathew Pitzer


dawnM said...

who made that cool photo?

Poetry Scores said...

Mathew Pitzer. He lit the scene as well.