Making Movie Music

Yesterday a Rolling Stone article mentioned that Maktub (really just Davis, Thaddeus and me) had helped out recording a soundtrack for a movie called Faces In The Mirror. It was a project that was in Boyd Tinsley’s head when his manager contacted us three years ago to see if we’d be interested in recording music in the studio with Boyd. I recall raw footage taken from a hot air balloon in Charlottesville, Virginia … but other than that there was no dialog, actors or plot. So, we just started recording and, although I haven’t heard the result in it’s finished form, in the moment is was a magical recording session. We recorded from midnight to 6am-ish for 5 nights (a time I’m almost never awake) and the music just seemed to invent itself.

Last year I had a similar experience helping David Nixon write music for The Shelf

The 30 minute song

A while back Thad, Davis and I had a loosey-goosey recording session that resulted in a bunch of great tracks. Like many sessions, the tunes are now trapped on a hard drive in my office (I’m looking at them now) buried in a ProTools session (which I don’t know how to manipulate). I was able to pull one session off the drive and deliver it to Michael Cozzi for mixing and mastering.

This was the first time I met Choklate (a friend of Thad & Davis) and the tune was written in one take. I started playing these simple chords while Davis and Thad stayed still and only came in on bass and drums for the last bit of the song. Choklate more or less invented the lyrics on the spot.

A Single Story

I’m proud of Brangien’s essay about our house which appears in the latest issue of Arcade Journal. Here is an excerpt to get you going …

During the first months of owning our new house, which we purchased in the spring of 2010, my husband Daniel and I told our story over and over—a gripping tale concerning the condition in which we found the place. We told people about the previous owner, who’d neglected the house to the point of serious, Grey Gardens-level disrepair, who shouted, “I hate this house!” at us on the day we picked up the keys. We spoke of the standing black water filling the kitchen sink. The broken dishwasher stuffed with garbage. The raccoons so accustomed to being fed they knocked with black, infantile fingers at the kitchen window each morning, demanding breakfast … (read more)

More photos of the house (the further you go back, the uglier it gets!)

Oh, Viaduct!

An ode to Seattle’s Viaduct by Braniel.
Song: Brangien Davis
Music: Daniel Spils
Video editing: David Nixon

Recently, Brangien wrote the lyrics and melody for a song about the Viaduct.  After days of her casually mentioning the song idea (repeatedly), I finally got the clue. I had her sing the melody to a click track (telling her this was just so we wouldn’t forget the idea) then proceeded to write the music around the melody when she went off to work. As it was sung without a key in mind, her singing fell between keys and I had to tune all the instruments down about a 1/3 step  (40 cents, to be exact). Here’s the original idea track (sorry Brangien!):

My proudest moment was playing the drums and nailing the intro drum fill. I’m a crappy drummer at best, so this was an exciting musical achievement! Next up, we drove along the Viaduct with my Canon S95 and shot some video. David Nixon then pulled video together, editing our footage with other footage of the Viaduct coming down and some excellent WSDOT animations of the Viaduct collapsing in an earthquake and the digging of the tunnel that nobody agrees on. From a married morning recording session, to drums and guitar and backup vocals in the basement to video editing with David’s cats. Go team!

The Haves and the Have Nots

Tonight Brangien and I are attending The Have and the Have Nots at the Hugo House. I was lucky enough to help David Nixon work on the tunes for his 3 videos that will show tonight as part of this series. I’m especially excited to see the music paired with the video of which I’ve only caught early glimpses.

David playing banjo somewhere

David’s songs are very personal, wonderfully sad and … short. I love short songs! The 10 songs that comprise the second video section have a total length of 11:30 (one song called “Wealth”clocks in at a whopping 19 seconds!). The theme of haves and have nots got me thinking about how we worked on this music together. Collaborating went something like this: a musical file from David would appear on my computer via the magic of Dropbox. I would open it. There I would always find David’s vocal and maybe some banjo or keyboards tucked into a Garageband session file. I would add some more music to it (drums, piano, bass, guitar, backing vocals), beam it back for David’s review and more music-adding. Then I mixed it all together. Some would call this the role of Producer, but the lines weren’t that distinct in our case. We never played music physically together or talked much about the tunes other than by adding to the composition. I’ve never worked like this before, but I have to say that if this is the future of music making, sign me up! It was fun, creative and had an exciting feeling similar to writing and receiving hand written letters back in the olden days.

There was a time when the only people who could record were the haves (those with money or a label interested in buying studio and producer time) or those who excelled at recording technology (people smart enough to figure out multi-tracking with tape or, eventually, software that was always just a little too complicated for the likes of me). Then the future arrived in the form of Garageband: a simple way for smart-but-not-overwhelmingly-technically-savvy musicians to record their ideas. In the last year or so I became aware of services like Dropbox and SugarSync that allow us to send these ideas back and forth with ease. The have nots have officially dropped the “not.”

I never imagined writing tunes with so little physical musical interaction or direct communication, but the experiment worked in this case. David’s tunes are fantastic (and, yes, they’re lovingly sad). Congrats, Mr. Nixon, you’ve made some great music. And thank you to the people that created Garageband. I know you’re probably referred to as a “product team” and have meetings about features and market share and such … but you should know that there are many formerly “have nots” out here in the world who love the simple tools you’ve created that allow us to have music.

The Canoe

Not "The Canoe", but a canoe I photographed in LA this past weekend

At our wedding (coming up on two years ago), Brangien and I asked that people not give us any gifts. Our reasoning was that we had two houses full of stuff and we were moving into one house and more stuff was counter-productive to our goal of combining our stuff. Our mantra was something like, “your presence is your present.” The truth can be corny, but now we find ourselves happily settled and “unstuffed”.

Somewhat surprisingly, most people played by this rule. However, a few rule breakers gave us great, unexpected gifts. One gift came in the form of a note from Brangien’s Aunt Candida and Cousin Walker, offering us a canoe. Earlier in the year Brangien’s Uncle Cary died in an accident at his new home in Montana. Cary was a lover of the outdoors and a fantastic guy by all accounts (he and I never met). Candida and Walker’s note still sits on our desk, telling us that Cary’s beloved canoe awaits us at a neighbor’s houses in Stevensville, Montana (near Missoula), for when we have time to pick it up.

This past weekend we attended Bruce’s retirement in LA (that’s Brangien’s dad and Cary’s brother). Bruce said something to me about how all the digital photos that we take tend to disappear and never get viewed. Printed photos, on the other hand, had a way of ending up in photo albums that sat on tables and, over the years, were revisited and enjoyed. That got me to thinking about the canoe, which until now has been a bit of an abstraction, like a digital photo that someone snaps at a family event, shows you on a tiny screen, but which then travels off into the ether never to be seen again. So, before Cary’s canoe pixelates any further in my brain I figure I’ll try to complete its trip from Montana to Washington.

It’s been nearly two years and we haven’t yet found the time to travel to Montana. One issue is we don’t have a rack on our van for carrying a canoe. Another issue is that it’s tough to escape for a 16-hour-there-and-back weekend drive. These are both surmountable obstacles, but a simpler solution may be to see if we can find an adventuresome soul(s) already headed from the Missoula area to Seattle in a truck or vehicle with a rack that could carry a full-sized canoe. We would pay for round trip gas (note: free gas!) and you’d help bring Cary’s canoe to its new home in Seattle. Interested? Let me know …

Cary at his home in Montana.

Abundant Asphalt

Davis set up an impromptu recording session this past weekend at Avast! in Seattle (thanks, Stuart & Jonny). The idea was to get Davis, Thaddeus and me together to write and record over the course of 2 days. We didn’t talk much beforehand but Davis did email us this Brian Eno Youtube clip about how beautiful things grow out of shit (starts around 0:35.) Considering I don’t know much about Brian Eno’s philosophy (somehow I had him categorized as a hippy in my brain—which is coincidentally a horrible habit I have of pre-categorizing people I know nothing about.)

On Saturday night Davis and Thaddeus ran into Choklate. She showed up on Sunday to “hang out”, which is coded musician-speak for wanting to record but only if the recorded material isn’t awful. Choklate ended up singing on two tracks (hooray!), one of which we invented in one take with vocals and piano, as she fortuitously captured it on video with her iPhone. We turned around and recorded it for real.

In other audio nerd news, I invested in a Roland octa-capture (who names these things?!) to enable the recording of drums in the basement. Hopefully I can replace drums on stuff I initially set-up in Garageband. Speaking of which, I have no idea where to take the following idea. I’m trying to use less reverb and delay in my mixes (drums, bass and vocals are dry in this example). Email me and I’ll send you the GB session to play around with if you’re interested.

P.S. here’s Ali’s 40th B-day song that pitted husband against wife in a battle of music/editorial control—end result, we both won.

Coldest Seattle April on record

A busy month of music making—during which I revisited the joy of Garageband. The theme this month is “found audio”. In most cases I sliced and diced audio that was sent to me or I stumbled upon, added drum loops and played along with synth and piano.

Brangien talking to our cat, Pepe:

Adding music to a Mumbai street recording by Gregg Bleakney:

Adding more music to another Mumbai street recording by Gregg … this time harmonizing with a person singing in the background:

Theme song for Ali’s upcoming podcast about the Historical Dictionary of Slang:

Niece & nephew go potty on Easter hip hop track:

Rhodes Warrior

Last Friday I loaded my 1974 88-key Fender Rhodes electric piano into the van on a road trip to Richland, WA for a complete tune-up and restoration with the Rhodes Scholar himself, David Ell. To borrow a phrase from him, this is intended to be my “forever Rhodes” and I want to do it up right. My roll top cover is scratched up something fierce. The rubber hammer points need some work and this 88 has been hauled around a lot, so there are some harp adjustments to be made. The speakercab is in particularly rough shape. It needs new tolex, grill cloth, external hardware and general attention to detail that is beyond my pay grade. To top it off, a fully intact “EightyEight” nameplate (mine, like so many others, reads “EightyEigh”).

In 2006 I considered getting rid of this Rhodes. Thankfully I repressed my  inner purger and held on to it. It’s already a special Rhodes (the keys have been counterbalanced) and it should sing when David is done with it.

I’ve owned a Nord Stage since they arrived on the scene and love it. I have no desire to haul this 88 to club or studio gigs, but there really is something special about the feel and sound of a real Rhodes. I’ve used a fake Rhodes on the last three or so albums I’ve recorded and I’m not sure that I can tell the difference when it’s buried in a mix. Well, maybe I can, but played by itself there are all sorts of personality traits that are lost in translation. I can’t wait to place my fully restored forever Rhodes in the basement studio.

Here’s the 88 (on the right) next to a couple other Rhodes that David is currently restoring.