catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 18 :: 2003.09.26 — 2003.10.09


Favorite mistakes

Making rock music is, like anything that's worth doing, a difficult
process. These days, being a successful rock band requires a high level
of proficiency in marketing, merchandising, engineering, production,
live sound and lighting techniques, negotiating with labels for
distribution and sales rights etc. Of course, one band cannot have such
a wide range of expertise, so it's important to develop a team of
people who can help in all these areas so that the band can focus on
their particular craft. But what is the band's particular craft?
Certainly, it varies from one group to the next and continues to change
as rock 'n roll evolves. Now that new technologies allow people with
enough money to make professional-sounding music out of their own
bedrooms or (with the help of laptops) anywhere they happen to be, the
process is changing once again. Grant Elgersma and Joel Zuidhof, two
members of the band Overhang, have been working with a computer program
called Digital Performer, which has forced them to learn new techniques
for making rock music. They share some of the things they have been
learning in the process of making their forthcoming album, Another Hole For You to Crawl Into.

Grant: First of all, we should probably explain why we feel
we have something to say on this topic. Joel and I have been playing
music together for six years?

Joel: Eight years.

Grant: Has it been that many?

Joel: Just over eight years. We started playing together in September of '95.

Grant: So this is our eighth year anniversary. I didn?t get
you anything. What are you supposed to get for eight years? Stationary?
China? I think it's bronze, pottery or rubber.

Joel: Rubber?

Grant: Rubber or no rubber, that's eight years of
discovering how the recording process works. It's also eight years of
talking and thinking about the music we like or don't like, what makes
a song "timeless" or "trite," what makes a performance "soulful" or
"passionless," an album good or bad, a person's musical motivation
selfish or not.

Joel: W'?ve been able to work together on this while taking
in lots of different experiences. While Grant's been studying
philosophy and aesthetics, and working on his songwriting and vocals,
I've been working on theatre and film sound scoring at Purdue
University for the last three years. My work taught me a lot about
collaboration and music composition. The Purdue experience also
solidified my passion for doing rock and roll over anything else. There
is something about the spirit of rock and roll that makes it so
relevant to our times. The long process of making this album allowed us
to experiment and refer back to music magazines and other bands for
ideas. Up to this point we haven't worked with outside producers so
we?ve developed a unique approach to making rock and roll.

From what we've read and experienced, I would say that the two main
ways of recording rock music are probably "jamming" and "editing". Most
purist jam-based bands record a song over and over until they have a
good take. They try to get the right vibe from everyone at the same
time. Once the primary instrumentation and performances are set in
stone, they might put extra percussion, guitars, and vocal overdubs on
top of what they've done. Though we have used some jamming techniques
in the past, I would say that our process for this album falls more on
the editing side of things.

Grant: Our first album was made with a drummer, so we did
more composing as a whole band. We'd record all our practice sessions,
then review the tape throughout the week, picking out our favorite
parts and building songs that way. Then I'd put lyrics that seemed to
fit the mood of the songs on top of the music. I think that's similar
to the way U2 and Radiohead typically work. Since we didn't have a
drummer to work with for this album, I started learning how to write
songs on my own and would bring them to Joel so that we could start
making beats for them. I think this way of doing music is more similar
to the way NIN, Beck and Bjork often work?

Joel: I would add Garbage to that list, too. What makes the
computer-based albums of these bands unique is the way they work with
sampled beats. An organic interaction between making beats and
recording guitars and vocals takes a lot of tedious time and effort.

Grant: Since you have been working on the beats, you should
probably say more about how you learned to make the percussion on our
album work.

Joel: As we began to realize we might not find a drummer we
decided to work with samples and make the drum beats ourselves. The
process developed over a period of time. Usually Grant would have a
basic song structure down and we'd record it to a click track. Once we
had a scratch rhythm guitar and vocal we?d start importing drum beats
and hits from different albums we liked. This consisted of finding a
section of a song where the drums were playing alone and isolating a
kick drum, snare, drum, or cymbal. Then we would begin the task of
cutting and pasting the hits into place and fooling around with them to
find the right pulse of the guitar tracks. The process became
complicated when we?d want to change a guitar part after finding a more
interesting beat. Or we?d figure out a whole new arrangement after
coming up with different guitar parts.

Grant: I remember doing vocals that I thought were pretty
good, and then Joel would come up with a beat that was stronger and
better, which would throw off the timing and rhythm of my vocal. All it
takes to change the feel of the rhythm is a little gap between the
sounds or a change in the length of the hit so that the sound tapers
off differently. But these changes always made the newer vocals better
and more closely connected with the music.

Joel: We try to use the strengths of the computer rather
than being concerned about its limitations. Sometimes, we'd just pick
up a soundbite and drop it somewhere, anywhere—in the song and see
what it did. That way we could discover things that were much more
interesting than anything we could have thought of ourselves. From
these intentional accidents, we'd find ways to cut and paste and
arrange the music in interesting ways.

Grant: Basically, what you mean to say is that we found ways to make things harder for ourselves.

Joel: Yeah, the process for recording guitars would often
involve recording the guitar part 30-100 times and going back and
editing together the best parts of the performances. As the music
developed we realized what we were trying to do and why it was so
difficult. Being guitar players at heart, we ended up composing the
guitar parts before most of the beats. It would have been much easier
to finish a beat and then record guitars to the beat. We naively did
things backwards. The result, though, are sampled drumbeats that are
totally married to the guitar and vocal lines. It is about as close as
you can get to an organic interaction between guitar composition and
beat composition. We think it works. We?ll have to wait and see what
the audience thinks.

Grant: Sometimes it seems we have a pretty good idea what
will work and what won't. Other times I wonder if we know anything
about anything. Then I start to get nervous and suspicious and I say,
"Joel, I think we threw away something good three months ago on the way
to this crappy beat that we?re working with now."

Joel: I'm still not sure what makes a beat work. The process
is kind of trial and error. The best thing to keep in mind is to try
anything. I would put the sounds through plug-in effects in the
computer. I would cut them up and layer sounds to make new sounds.
Sometimes I would play the beats through guitar amplifiers and sound
systems and record that. You never know what is going to work. On the
song "Silence," the rhythm guitar wasn't working so I cut every other
half note out of the track and made different rhythms and sounds with

Grant: That's pretty much how we work in most cases. We use
ignorance as a tool. I don't know that much about Digital Performer, so
I might ask Joel to try something that seems impossible or really
ridiculous. But we often find new things this way. I think Joel
intentionally refuses to read the "how to" manual so that he's not
polluted by it. That's kind of the same attitude I used to take with
guitar. I avoided learning chord names until I had been playing guitar
for seven years. I just sort of made up my own chords and learned what
they were called later. I felt like I was an inadequate guitar player
for a long time until I heard that the Beatles didn't know chord names
at first either, and they were great songwriters! I basically learn how
to play the guitar as I write new songs. I?ll make a really brilliant
mistake and then learn how to repeat it again and again. I don't pay
attention to time signatures, but I like to use lots of different ones
that often happen unintentionally.

I used to think songwriting would get easier the more I did it, but
I learn something new with each new song I write. If anything, it gets
harder because you?re always battling bad habits and trying to do
something that you haven?t done before. That?s really difficult,
especially as you get older and you really do know what makes a good
song. You know exactly how many seconds of verse ought to go before the
chorus and what kind of hook should go where etc. You have to keep
yourself honest and avoid getting lazy. It?s easy to rely on tricks or
short cuts you?ve learned over the years, so you have to stay
disciplined to avoid getting too smart for your own good.

Joel: We practice guitar every day, not by playing scales
but by improvising and making things up. Every once in a while we come
up with something interesting. It could be a riff or a chord, or a
rhytthm. Once you find the musical idea, you keep playing it over and
over until you can actually perform it. Then you think of what kind of
melody you might want to sing to it. Or you just start improvising
melodies. Every once in a while you come up with a vocal line before a
guitar line but most of the time the guitar idea comes first?

Grant: That's how it works for us, anyway. I think I'm still
used to making the lyics and vocals much later in the process. I
usually have the vowel sounds and melodies first, and then I try to
find words that fit the vowel sounds and the mood of the music. In the
end, a good lyric will mean exactly what the music itself means. I like
to think that the lyrics on Another Hole? say what the music
means to say. But let's not talk any more about lyrics. Too many people
talk too much about lyrics. They're very important, but they're also
very overrated. Koo-koo-goo-choo. Enough said.

Joel: So, once you've got one riff or chord down you start
thinking about where else you can take it. Sometimes you'll string
together a couple of riffs or chords that you've composed previously.
The writing of the song blueprint is a trial and error process. Most of
the time you'll write something and throw it away immediately. Some of
the time you'll write something and like it. But the next day you'll
realize it's crap and throw it away. Very seldom do you find a part
that you'll keep for good.

Grant: I think time is your best friend when it comes to
making a good song. Usually, the richest songs are the ones you gave up
on eighteen times already. These are the songs that have gone through
so many styles, moods, inspired and uninspired moments that they're
packed with ideas, nuances, different colors and textures. Usually I
forget many of the reasons why the song turned out the way it did,
which is why it is hard to explain what the song is about. The song
reflects the whole process, which can sometimes be a year or two of
work. How do you sum something like that up in a few words? The song is
what it is!

I am typically suspicious of artists who say they can't explain what
they do as artists because they make it seem like art is a magical
special thing that ought not be talked about lest we defile its sacred
purity. But recently I tried to explain every thought I had while
making one of my songs, and it took me half an hour, for a 2 and a half
minute song! And I'm sure I left out lots of stuff. But my wife had
already fallen asleep and I was starting to get the point that the song
speaks for itself better than I speak for it.

Joel: Once Grant or I have the blueprint for a song, we'll
bring it to the band. The band gives you objectivity, which is helpful.
Even when you think you have a finished song, you have to be ready to
change it at any time to accommodate the great things the band is
bringing to it. Nobody can see their own art completely objectively, so
the band helps pare down the weak parts that still exist in the song. A
band could bring entirely new production ideas into the song. Maybe
you'll end up throwing the original acoustic song out completely and
just keep the vocal. Maybe you'll decide to sing the vocals in a
completely different style. We've found that at any point in the
process a song can become really hard-rockin or smooth out into a soft
ambiant style. Generally it seems that the lyrics direct which way to

Grant: Which might be another reason why I don't like to settle on lyrics too soon.

Joel: Then comes the recording process. An infinite amount
of approaches can be taken during this process too. The studio is an
instrument itself. It can be used to create sounds and performances.
With the advent of computers it has become easy to create a continuous
vocal track out of many performances. Most pop or electronic based
bands will record to a click track. This way, you can layer drum
machines and other instruments without having to think about whether
they will sync up with the drums. Recording to a click track also
allows us to arrange and rearrange songs. In a sense it's a lot like
working with a word-processor. We can move around riffs and verses like
you move around sentences and paragraphs. Our process of composing
music is all about trimming the crap. Generally the mistake most bands
make when starting out is that they think they're not supposed to make
mistakes. But rock and roll is born out of mistakes.

Grant: I love the story about how electric guitar distortion
was discovered and used for the first time on a rock'n'roll record.
When Ike Turner and his band, The Kings of Rhythm, drove from
Mississippi to Sun Studios in Memphis to record Rocket 88, one
of the guitar amps fell out of the back of Turner's car, and the
speaker cone was damaged. The legendary Sam Phillips decided they
didn't have time to get the amp fixed, so he stuffed a wad of paper in
the damaged diaphragm. He liked what he heard, and recorded the song.
Now distortion is a staple in the rock and roll vocabulary.

Joel: U2 calls the rock and roll process "songwriting by
accident." As a musician, it helps to know your way around a
fingerboard or kit a little bit, but mostly it's about listening for
and recognizing an interesting thing when it happens. The best approach
to take is "anything goes." The "try anything" approach may sound easy,
but it's often difficult to do when you become emotionally involved in
what you're doing. It hurts (especially when you think you've come up
with a really great riff) when the band tells you what you did is crap.
But playing with other people is absolutely necessary. One of the
reasons the Beatles worked so well is that John Lennon and Paul
McCartney continued to work together even though their song writing
styles were quite different. Perhaps you could make the argument that
their solo work was less diluted, but the songs the two of them wrote
together were more solid and spoke to a wider range of people.

Grant: We've gone on long enough. Let's wrap this up.

Joel: The final stage of the recording process is mixing and
mastering a song. A song mixer is much like a conductor of an
orchestra. He tries to make everything blend by taking instruments and
frequencies up and down in level. Mastering involves taking the final
mix and playing around with the frequencies a little more to make sure
it blends and plays well on any stereo.

A good rock and roll song has great rhythm, frequencies, melodic
composition, great performances and a great spirit. Getting a good
performance of a song can be quite difficult. It's a bit mysterious why
a performance works or not. Sometimes you can have a performance that
you think you have really felt and you'll listen to it and it just
won't translate.

Grant: Especially with vocals. It's hard to detach yourself
from the performance while you're doing it. When you listen to it a few
days later, you can often tell if it fits with the music. But it
sometimes takes awhile to figure out exactly what you're looking for.

Joel: Most of what we're looking for when we write songs is
the spirit. If the spirit of a guitar performance is great, then we'll
keep it. Sometimes a performance will sound very professional or slick
or cool but it won't have the spirit we're looking for. I sometimes
think that, in rock and roll, the great songs are great not because of
their melody or rhythm or sound, but because of their spirit. The
spirit of a song is something that usually has to develop over a period
of time. We find that in certain parts of our songs, the spirit is so
great that we could almost play anything in the overdub stage and it
would work.

Grant: And the spirit is often something that isn't too
exact, but you know it when you feel it. It took a while of talking and
arguing, playing and listening, for Joel and I to feel it together. And
there may be so many competing spirits going on at once. There's the
overall rock spirit, you know, the one that tells you whether it's
genuine rock and roll or not. There is the hip hop spirit at times.
There is the spirit of apocalyptic Christianity and Old Testament
prophecy, though I didn't recognize it until very late in the game. And
then there is the spirit of urgency driving the whole thing from our
own personal struggles and day-to-day experiences.

Joel: Yeah, there's something about music that makes it good
at communicating spirit. And maybe everything communicates spirit, but
I really feel it most in music. When it's done right, music can make
you feel rich emotions, playfulness and seriousness, joy and sadness,
longing and anger. One of the things we like about Bach is the sense of
joy and struggle going on simultaneously in the music. Although Bach's
music is in a completely different style than ours, his sense of spirit
is very similar to what we're trying to communicate with this album.

Grant: Definitely. The sense of longing or joy in the midst
of sorrow that you find in much of Bach?s music is definitely something
that resonates with us. I tend to think that we are drawn to make the
kind of music we make because of the spirit in which we have been born
and raised. But it takes a lot of work to let that spirit be
communicated. It takes discipline, tenacity and persistence to prevent
any falseness or inconsistency from polluting the spirit of the music.
Because music is, like everything else, a spiritual activity, it
requires utmost attention and diligence. Without a good process of
trimming and editing, we can only expect to get the poorest quality
product. But we believe the process we've been involved in has yielded
and will continue to yield good results.

Look for songs from overhang's upcoming album at Starting October 1, overhang will begin posting two new songs every week.

Discussion topic: writing and recording music

For any musicians on the site, what is your writing and recording
process like? What are your goals when you?re working on your music?


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