True story.

A few years ago, I was doing some pro bono work with a small, rotating-cast musical ensemble.  I was doing a lot of this kind of work at the time, which amounted to 1) show up, 2) get handed a stack of charts, 3) learn 30-45 minutes worth of music in an hour or so, and 4) play it.  It’s great for extending your musical reach, particularly if you’re not familiar with the musical genres you’re being asked to come up with parts to (which I wasn’t, really).  There’s a lot of down sides to this kind of ensemble, though.  The biggest being that you will never sound better than the least experienced member du jour.  Woe befall everyone if it happens to be the drummer. 

It was shaking out to be one of those days.  The team wasn’t overly strong and we were trying to get to a lot of songs.  The bandleader, who we will call Jerve, was clearly struggling.  In these kinds of gigs, it’s not my job to be the place where the buck stops.  But I do know a thing or two about music and arrangement, and Jerve made it clear from the beginning that he wanted my 2 cents, so I was offering what help I could. We got to a brand new song (let’s call it Blarfingame), and everything just stopped.  I mean, literally ground to a spark-spitting halt.  It wasn’t a hard tune by any means, but the band chemistry and this song just didn’t get along. 

Jerve plowed forward, leading the song largely by himself on guitar.  After we’d taken a pass through the tune, I had an idea or two of how to make Blarfingame easier and more dynamic.  Jerve listened to me, agreed it was a good idea, but in the interest of time, he wanted to stick with the arrangement we had just slapped together.  Fair enough; been there myself. 

So we did.  And Blarfingame didn’t sound bad.  Not great, but sometimes any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. 

Flash forward a week.  Smaller group and Jerve has the week off.  Ah, but the keyboardist from last week is the bandleader this time, and Blarfingame is on the setlist again!  Okay, cool.  So we practice the other tunes in performance order.  We get to Blarfingame.  I make my suggestion about arrangement again. 

She informs me, in all earnest and without an ounce of duplicity, that “this is how we’ve always done the song.”

I ponder that whenever someone appeals to tradition as an authoritative benchmark.



Spotlight: Defiled

If it’s true that moments of beauty can be found in the midst of ugliness, then we have to accept that the reverse is also true.    

There’s a place in the California mountains that’s the closest I’ll ever get to having a personal spiritual retreat.  Literally out in the middle of nowhere, with limited internet and in a cell-dead zone, there’s nothing to do but revel in natural splendor.  Smell the pine and creosote. Walk along the ridgeline and see down into the Fresno valley, surrounded by trees, tall grass, and meadows as the warm sun embraces you.  It’s easy to empty yourself of all your cares and just…be.

It was on such an outing that I was empty enough to ask a curious, unanticipated question.  That being: “What if everything you ever believed is a lie, and you have only lived to advance another’s agenda?”

Weird question.  Even weirder response. 

I’m glad nobody was around.  I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t see straight.  All I could do was feel a burning, haunted, acidic rage.  I wanted to break something. I wanted to burn the skies down.  I wanted to shout rebellion and defiance to the universe.

When I got back, still seething with anger, I didn’t so much write as open the emotional floodgates and get out of the way. In less than 15 minutes, the lyrics to the song Defiled were complete.  And for the record, this isn’t how my songwriting process usually works.  Which is good – it would be way too fatiguing if I had to go through this every time.

Defiled is not a pretty song.   It’s a revenge tale dripping with sadomasochism and torture imagery. As a songwriter, I don’t go out of my way to shock or offend; I don’t have anything to prove one way or the other lyrically.  Sometimes, though, there just aren’t words jagged, or hateful, or malicious enough to communicate what you’re really feeling, so you punt to the imagery our culture understands.  If turtles and rainbows communicated all the angst I felt in writing the tune, then the song would be about turtles and rainbows.  And it would still be ugly. 

The up side about writing lyrics like this is that it pretty well dictates where the music should land.  Aggressive and unrelenting.  Current heavy music usually dictates a slower, grinding tempo, but this felt more like it belonged to the thrash metal days of barely in control riffing.  I think the basic musical sketch took less than 2 hours to form.  The use of synthesizers and loops on this tune was in the plan from the beginning. I wanted some tones that sounded epic (and even intentionally dated) without sounding hokey. Distortion-saturated guitars can only give you so much sonically, and I’m quite happy with the contribution of the keys on this one.  It was also liberating to bust out the metal chops and push to keep up with the tune.  Don’t ask how long it took to record the guitars.  This one was literally painful to play sometimes. 

And, of course, it went without saying that Oily would sing it.  We tried some supporting stuff with both Julie and hitch (hoping it would have that male/female duality a la KMFDM), but the female vocals never quite sounded right.  Oily kept pushing to have the single singer, and I kept pushing back with trying the girl thing ONE MORE TIME.  I’m glad he was persistent in his opinion; the tune is way more cohesive and brutal with just the male vocal energy paving the way. 

Funny thing, even after all that.  When we were mastering the song, Rick (our engineer) turned to me with a half-smile and commented, “You guys had fun recording this one, didn’t you?”

Yes, yes we did.   



Spotlight: All Fall Down

I often get asked what my songs are about. It’s fair question, although one I’m hesitant to answer.  We don’t usually ask what a painting is about, or a sculpture.  It could be that we’re more used to the abstraction of emotions with those art forms. Lyrics, however, are often very literal. Songs have been used as storytelling vehicles for centuries. Certainly, in popular music, we’ve become accustomed to some specific tropes – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, unrequited love, partying, etc. 

Sometimes, though, a song isn’t necessarily ‘about’ anything.  All Fall Down is one of those.

Funny thing.  This single, repeating “And we all fall down” chorus line was one of the first things that popped into my head some years ago when Tanya and I were starting a new band.  At the time, I heard it over a faster tempo, with distorted, heavily delayed guitar riding over busy tom fills. Hey, everyone ripped off U2 back then. Sue me. Maybe because of that, I could never figure out the rest of the tune. So it went onto the back burner – a dusty little folder titled “Lyrics: In Progress” in the low-rent part of my computer.  And stayed there. 

Fast forward a few years to Mirror Darkly.  We were finishing up the studio work and I was starting in on the collection we now call Infernal Divine.  Decided to see if there was anything worth working on in the back burner.  Usually the answer is no.  The folder is embarrassingly well-populated with orphan song ideas – a line or two here; a paragraph there; a concept that never made it any further than that.  Opened up the file for All Fall Down… and finished the lyrics in about 15 minutes.  Kinda helped that I’d heard a King’s X jam that, while totally different from my original vision, had the inspiration for the main riff that I could hang the rest of the tune on. 

There were some firsts on this song.  This was the first song where I wanted the drum programming to sound like an actual drummer.  Even though it’s fundamentally a 4-on-the-floor groove most of the time, we gave it some fills and turnarounds that a live drummer would use.  I think it’s also the first song where I started specifically creating synthesizer lines in bits and pieces as opposed to flowing through the entire song.  Mostly so it was easier to record them.  Nothing more depressing than having to play a part perfect for 6 minutes (because the part never stops), messing up at 5:54, and having to start all over. 

It's also the first song not performed by a self-identified member of the ensemble. I had planned on Tanya singing this one, but she didn’t feel like she was doing the song proper justice with her interpretation. I asked a friend of mine (Crode) to give it a shot. She agreed, and gave the tune a feminine, somewhat gritty vibe. She added the ‘ring around the rosy’ part without telling us she was going to; our response was “Yeah, that’s cool!  Let’s keep that!” I didn’t provide much direction on the harmonies either; I totally dig the eerie, melodic vibe she created. 

I suppose that if the song IS about anything, it’s about feeling overwhelmed.  There’s all manner of things that want our attention in this noisy world.  Some of them are welcome; most aren’t.  For me, the “All Fall Down” of the chorus is “I give up”.  Not in despair, or failure, or anything like that. More like throwing up your hands and saying enough.  So yeah – no great conclusions, no specific ideas, no boy meets girl, no lost love.   Just a musical expression of those times when you feel like everything is pressing down on you and you don’t see any easy fixes. 





I’m going to spend the next while highlighting some of the tunes off Infernal Divine.  Since we don’t exactly have liner notes or lyric sheets, I thought it would be kinda fun to let everyone in on what goes on behind the curtain in the writing and recording process.

Now, having said that, I almost don’t want to do it. 

Does anyone remember getting a new CD or (heaven forbid) LP when you were younger?  Or even now? You’d charge home.  Rip open the packaging.  Gaze at the artwork and liner notes.  Slap on the headphones.  Hit the opening track. And be lost in the experience. 

I think part of the reason that time seems so transcendent (other than the usual ‘good old days’ thing we all gain as we age) is that so much of the musical experience was your own interpretation.  Yeah, the artwork and the liner notes guide that, but everything else was your own.  As you listened to the music, you felt what you felt. Your mind’s eye conjured its’ own images. The music didn’t dictate your emotions… they gave you a diving board to explore it on your own. That’s how, for example, a song like “Southern Cross” can become Our Song with me and my girl, even though it’s a song about failed relationships. 

Enter MTV: the game-changer of the early 80s.  And yes, they did play music on it at one time. 

Visuals have long been a part of musical performance, to be sure.  And even though a lot of those early videos were embarrassingly bad, it gave artists a new dimension to play with. And for the first time, a mass-audience could actually SEE what the band looked like.  Being able to get a small slice of that live experience was pretty compelling for those of us who grew up in tiny towns with conservative parents who would rarely let us see shows.    

But that comes at a certain cost.  Visuals are strong associative cues. And once you get those in your head, it’s hard to let them go.  I like a good vid as much as the next person.  But too often I feel like videos have the (possibly unintended) side effect of telling you what you should get out of the song.  Or, perhaps more cynically, the song really doesn’t have any depth in the first place, and the video is simply a) a way to deflect attention from that fact, and b) something modern rock artists are obliged to do as a part of marketing their brand.  By the way… yes, I DO believe there are good songs and bad songs.  But that’s for another entry.

I don’t want to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t get out of our music, or music in general.  I’d rather you draw your own conclusions. If a sad song makes you happy, or an angry song gives you some serenity, then cool. I’d be the last person to tell you that you got it wrong.  It’s one of the reasons I’m reticent to do videos as well.  I’m not opposed to the idea… but the stars would have to align just so.  Probably for the better; my mental visuals of late would probably be considered too blasphemous or surreal for the average video consumer. 

So, having said all that, I’m going to regale you with tales from the writing desk and studio anyway.  And why not?  Some of it is pretty funny.  Some of it is uncomfortable.  Some of it is just weird.  I hope that knowing what went into this particular sausage doesn’t spoil your appetite for it. But the stories and insights of what went into Infernal Divine are worth telling, and who knows – knowing some of the grist may take you to new places when you hear one of the tunes.

Still reticent about doing a video, though.




One of the problems with making short communications (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is forgetting what I’ve actually said.  In looking back over what I’ve said for the past few months, I realize that for all the referencing of the projects I’ve done I haven’t really said much about them.  So, with that in mind, here’s where all the projects stand.

* Shai Azul

Infernal Divine – our second compilation – is 95% tracked.  We thought we were done a few weeks ago, but then we got the clever idea of trying out our new female alto (call her hitch) on one of the songs.  That gets done tonight.  We have a guest guitarist emailing us a few guitar solos as well.  We started mixing last week; that’s an interesting time.  It’s when you take everything you’ve been working on so carefully and diligently over the course of months and throw half of it out.  Not that it was bad, mind you.  Just too much stuff going on.  Album photography was completed earlier this year.  Beginning work on the art/packaging.  Still not sure if we’re going to press any CDs or whether this will all be digital.  Early 2012 looks like the release date.  Work on the 3rd album is already in progress, with about 6-7 song ideas being bandied about.  With our present lineup being pretty stable, I’d sure like to be talking about pressing CD number three this time next year.  Awfully ambitious, that.  But it could happen. 

* Redshift Heretic

Vic and I have combed through about 14 different scratch tracks and have landed on about 7-9 of them to start producing.  I still want to have a few more songs in the 85-120 bpm range, but we have plenty to work with as is.  Once Infernal Divine is mixed, this project is going front burner.  If you don’t hear from me between December and February 2012, I’ll be easy to find.  Just look in the home studio for the guy with headphones on.  People still keep asking us what the difference between Shai Azul and Redshift might be; after all, the music has a lot of crossover (techno/industrial/metal/pop/rock).  In short – the lyrics in Shai Azul have emotional weight and significance.  In Redshift, the lyrics are less about content and more about ‘does this sound cool?’.  It also lets us try out things like spoken word, wildly effected vocals, narration, and other ideas that don’t necessarily fall into the typical realm of sung melody/harmony.  For that matter, some Redshift songs are straight instrumental. 

* Starspawn

Oily’s solo project continues to evolve and write.  So far we have 3 songs solid in addition to intros and outros; we’d like to have 5 actual songs on the first outing.  Oily is working on the overarching story and arrangements.  I, on the other hand, am working my extreme metal chops, which is something I am really enjoying.  I didn’t get a chance to play in any metal bands until I was older, so this is like unwrapping musical Christmas presents every day.  First half of 2012 looks good for this EP. 

(Quick crash course in extreme metal.  Thrash=Metallica prior to the Black Album; fast, riff-heavy, intense.  Death=similar to thrash, good luck understanding the lyrics. Black=see Death, add overtly Satanic imagery, tremolo picking, and simpler production.  Doom=see Thrash, slow it down by 300%.   Starspawn has elements of all these.)

Time to head back into the studio; I just got a new keyboard module that has me rethinking the synth tones for ALL the projects…