SO NICE TO BE WITH YOU
It was March of 2003 when I put in the call to producer Joe Dilillo and told him I was ready to record my second CD. Joe and I had worked together on "Strength of Soul", my first project and I envisioned the next one to continue in the same vein. I showed up at Joe's studio with 14 songs that I thought were all strong contenders. Joe green-lighted 9 of them, nixed 3 and suggested that 2 of them be reworked a bit. He felt good about the material overall and was confident that we had enough material for a solid second effort. He told me right out of the gate that he foresaw this new CD being much edgier than the last, and that he did not want to play it safe. He wanted to know up front that I would be willing to take some risks and not be afraid of possibly offending those who were looking for a repeat of my last outing. I would have normally balked, but I had been listening to the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots", which expanded my horizons and opened me up to the infinite possibilities of what music could be. With that in mind, I said "let's go for it", not knowing at all what I was getting myself into.
A NEW BALLGAME
Like "Strength of Soul", most of the new songs were portraits of inner spiritual struggles and the hope one finds in the midst of them. Aside from my high school days, when I was writing songs about throwing up and terrorizing my Physics teacher, musings about life and inner battles have pretty much been the source of all my lyrics, without much lightheartedness. There were two songs in this new batch that were markedly different from this norm. Mr Irrelevant was about the last player chosen in the NFL draft and Wait Til Next Year was inspired by our two baseball teams in Chicago and their collective 181 consecutive years without a world series championship. These songs just came to me out of the blue and pretty much wrote themselves before I had time to question it. Were they metaphors for something else, a personal battle perhaps? Maybe. Or they could be enjoyed just for what they were? I decided that I would be satisfied with either interpretation, and felt that these two songs would fit in just fine on the project, despite being a departure from my usual material. Unbeknownst to me, this decision would begin to shape the direction of the recording.
ENTER THE DANCING KING
After two sessions, we had gotten started on two of the songs and things were beginning to take shape. The morning of the third session, I was tinkering around on the piano and a memory popped into my head out of nowhere. It was something I had seen at a dance in a church basement years ago that for some reason had always stuck with me. The dance was
intended for those in their 20s and 30s, but a guy who was clearly over the age limit showed up anyway. He quickly worked his way around the room, asking just about every woman there to dance, most of them appearing to be half his age. After getting turned down by all of them, he made his way to the dance floor and for about 20 seconds, put on a display of about the most over the top "bad white guy" dancing I had ever seen (aside from some of my own efforts at wedding receptions), arms and legs flying around every which way. It was like a bizarre, frustrated, ritual. Then, just like that, he calmly walked off the floor, as if it was nothing. What should have been a forgettable moment left an impression on me for some reason. About an hour before my third session with Joe, the Dancing King came to life in a song that was written in about a half hour. I basically took a two minute incident and turned it into the story of a life. What was the point? Was it a cautionary tale? Was the Dancing King a loveable underdog or a creepy lounge lizard? I had no answers, and had no real idea why I had written the song. I brought it to the studio and played it for Joe, not sure what he would think. He absolutely loved it and insisted we start tracking it that day. By the end of the day, a song that had not existed the day before was nearly in the can.
"What should have been a forgettable moment left an impression on me for some reason."
ON A ROLL
The next day, it happened again. I was sitting at the piano and began writing a song about my relationship with my wife, Violet. Many thoughts and feelings that had been stirring around inside for months came spilling out, set to a jazzy Bacharach-esque feel, and the song was completed with ease by the end of the day. I tested it out on Violet and when I finished the song, she was weeping, which almost always means the song is a keeper. The next day, I brought the new song, entitled "Something Very Strange", to Joe and once again, he loved it and we started tracking it that day! This project was beginning to take on an entirely different shape than I could have imagined, and it was only the beginning. By the end of the project, 5 of the 11 songs would be ones that were written during the recording process and a number of the songs originally slated to be on the CD were not even recorded.
TECHNOLOGY, OUR FRIEND
Four years had gone by since I had recorded my first project with Joe. Since then, the studio had changed. The basic strategy on Strength of Soul was to come up with song arrangements in a separate MIDI studio, send them out to the musicians and then record the tracks just as we had planned them out in advance. Joe felt that this time out, we had the technology to flesh out ideas and record them as they happened, keeping the ones we liked. This ultimately gave us a lot more freedom to experiment and build the songs from scratch and was a chief contributing factor in how different this CD would sound from prior efforts. Another factor was that Joe envisioned the project having a lo-fi, analog feel to it. So we were basically using digital, state-of-the art technology to create something that would sound like we actually didn't have any of it at all. This may have seemed crazy, but in the end, what we were trying to capture was the quaint warmth of those classic records from the 70s and 80s that we grew up with and loved so much.
YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?
One of the things that I admire about Joe as a producer is that he hears sounds and gets ideas that I would never think of, and they fit perfectly. In the past, there was a limit to what I allowed him to do, but this time I had given him premission to stretch me, and as usual I had no idea what I was agreeing to. About the fifth session, I came in to lay down piano tracks on "Something Very Strange", and sure enough, the piano was set up and ready to go but Joe had a different plan than usual. "I want you to pluck the strings inside the piano", he stated. Aside from an overzealous project in college, I had never tried such a thing, but I went along with it and once again, it was just the right thing for that song.
THE RETURN OF THE PROPHET
In order to achieve the lo-fi sound we were looking for, Joe felt it necessary to use some rather antiquated keyboards and sounds such as Mellotron strings, which were popular in the late 60s. He also had a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Hammond M-3 organ in the studio so we used those amply as we continued to flesh out the arrangements and record parts. But Joe had bigger plans. He began a quest for vintage keyboards from the 70s and 80s, snapping up whatever he could find- a Prophet- 600, a Korg Micro-Preset, a Juno-60, and then the ultimate score- the Arp String Ensemble. By the time he was done, the studio was looking like a Styx yard sale and more than one visitor thought that he had possibly lost his mind. We eagerly began adding tracks with the "new" synths to all the songs and I sincerely believed that we would somehow be getting into trouble for having too much fun. The vintage keys definitely played a huge part in the sound of the CD. "Wait Til Next Year" had started out as a funky dance tune and by the time we got done with it, it was an 80s Cars- like rocker and sounded nothing like the way I had written it. Another song, "The Life" owes nearly its entire existence to the synths. What I enjoy about "The Life" is that to me, the song is essentially about coming to a place of acceptance in the midst of unresolved inner turmoil and while the vocal communicates a peaceful contentedness, the synths and guitar are creating undertones of unrest, bordering on chaos. It's a contrast that feels exactly right every time I hear it.
OH YEAH, THE BAND
With the lines between pre-production and recording being blurred, Joe and I spent about 4 months working on the songs by ourselves. In addition to Joe and I recording keyboard parts, Joe was also laying down much of the guitar tracks as well. When we felt like the songs had begun to take shape, it was finally time to add the rest of the musicians. "Strength of Soul" drummers John Moser and Steve Godfrey were brought back as was bassist Alan Berliant. Mike Harrison, long time friend and fellow member of the liturgical lounge trio, Vatican III, played drums on two songs as well. Brian Peters brought his unique guitar stylings to the quirky "The Life", a song which also features Steve and John playing dual drum sets. Brian also played bass guitar on three tracks. Gerry Aylward played acoustic guitar on several cuts, and Justin Purtill played acoustic upright bass on "Something Very Strange" adding to its jazzy feel.
SONG IN JEOPARDY
We were on the last song of our last session with the insturmentalists. Alan was to lay down the bass track on a song called "The Longing" and then all that would be left would be vocals. But something didn't feel right about "The Longing". I always felt that it was a good song, but once we started adding tracks, it didn't sound like it fit the rest of the project. Joe expressed similar doubts and wondered aloud if the song should be scrapped. I didn't want to give up on it, so Joe suggested starting over and changing the feel to a 12/8 shuffle. He played a bit of it on the piano, and I liked where he was going with it. (Little did I know about the impending Beach Boys harmony vocals, another first for me!) I was scheduled to leave for a trip to Poland with Violet in just a few days, so we would bring back John and Alan and re-record the song when I returned. I left for Poland feeling good that it looked like I would have 10 strong tracks.
"HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO TO HEL?"
Normally, if my wife were to ask me such a question, I would be worried, but I realized quickly that she was referrring to a Polish resort town on the Baltic sea, not the fiery inferno. Hel turned out to be a beautiful place and was a definite highlight of a wonderful trip to Poland. Between my brother-in-law Marek and I, the puns involving the town's
name were endless and I just knew I had to write a song about it. By the end of a 7 hour train ride, the song "Ferry Ride To Hel" was completed, entirely in my head. I sincerely wrote the song about exactly what I felt and experienced in Hel that day, of course knowing the ironic name would give the song an added twist.
"Hel turned out to be a beautiful place and was a definite highlight of a wonderful trip..."
When we returned to Chicago, I played "Ferry Ride To Hel" for Joe, almost exactly as I had heard it in my head on the train. He loved it and insisted that it be added to the project. We decided that since John and Alan were coming back to lay down "The Longing", we would toss the new song into the session, and just like that we now had 11 songs. Joe added a great string track and some Queen guitar licks and we brought Violet in to play the part of a Polish ferry announcer for the bridge. All in all, I think it's one of the strongest tracks and the CD would not be the same without it. For one, the album title is taken from a line in the song!
Lest anyone think that the vocals were an afterthought on this project, I can assure you that not a day went by where I didn't think about them. I was mostly nervous, hoping I could capture the songs vocally as well as the instruments had. Joe felt like the best thing to do was to put me in a normal, everyday environment, so he set up a vocal mic and a chair next to the sound board and encouraged me to just relax and sing. It worked. I am happier with these vocals than anything I have done before. It's just me being me and for this project, it totally works.
Being that many of the songs contained a massive amount of tracks, mixdown proved to be a daunting task. Joe initially started out mixing on his own, until one day Brian Peters came in to drop off some photos. To make a long story short, he ended up staying and mixing down the entire project with Joe. The two of them did an amazing job of bringing an immense palette of sounds together to capture just the right feel for each song. Having Brian on board to help with mixdown was yet another cool twist on a wild and unpredictable journey.
What is "So Nice To Be With You"? It's a slice of a moment in time, seen through the eyes of one priveledged to capture and express it. That's the story behind it all. Well, at least part of the story. The rest will be written by you, the listener.