Thread: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

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  1. #1
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    Default Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    Well it's not real-time but I wrote a diary for some sessions I did last week & thought it might be on-topic to post them here.

    So here goes.

    Mike Watt & The Black Gang Recording Diary





    Tue Apr 01, 2008 5:14 am


    This is a session that has been a long time coming, twice postponed due to illness since December. I'm the only one that hasn't had to call it off yet so I'm hoping to make it through the night in one piece.

    But what's a couple of months considering this band last played regularly in 1999?

    Back in 1997, Mike put together a band with Nels Cline (guitarist for Wilco, Geraldine Fibbers and his own phenomenal combos), and Steve Hodges (Tom Waits' drummer around he time of Swordfishtrombones) to record his rock opera "Contemplatin' The Engine Room." Nels bowed out of touring because of Fibbers activity, and Joe Baiza (Saccharine Trust, Universal Congres Of) was brought in. For the next round in Europe, Hodges had to bail at the last minute, which is how I came into the picture. I learned the piece in two weeks and did a European and US tour with Mike and Joe. When the final round for the opera was due in late 1998, Nels was enticed back into the fold and the three of us did a long US tour followed by some sporadic gigs around the west coast in 1999.

    I've been in lots of bands since arriving in LA but I have to rate that one among my favorites. I'm still proud of those gigs we did ten years ago.

    Mike got us back together to play the Sunset Junction street fair for the next two summers but other than that, we haven't been in the same place at the same time. Mike started talking about a Black Gang album of new songs before the tour was over, then he started another band. Now that Nels is touring with Wilco, and Watt with the Stooges, it's been even tougher to make anything happen.

    But tomorrow that all changes. We're going in at 10:30AM and starting up.

    I wish I could tell you what the music sounds like, but I haven't heard a note of it yet. This is part of Mike's idea, to bring us into the music and record it as we discover it. We're due to be out on five days with a record under our belts.

    This is a whole new thing for me. I'm used to working fast, on a budget, trying to complete recordings as quickly as possible. Five days is luxurious compared to most of the records I've made. But for every other record I've made, I was able to walk in PREPARED. Rigorously rehearsed, tight as hell, with the hope of going in and nailing every song on the first take.

    So this will be a new and interesting experience for me & I hope to document it here. Real-time updates will be provided whenever possible.

    So for now I need to go change my drum heads out, and listen to some far out shit to prepare myself for anything.

    Wish me luck.
  2. #2
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    Monday April 1
    April Fools' Day is D. Boon's birthday, and as such, a somewhat sentimental day to be starting a new mission with Mike Watt. The last piece we played together, the "Engine Room" opera, was a metaphor involving his dad's life running the engine room on a Navy ship, representing the life of a touring rock band. Two missions, mirrored. And the piece ends not with a bawdy jig, as stated above in an attempt at humor, but with the death of D. Boon - per the Naval theme, cast off the ship and lost at sea. I played this piece over 100 times on stage and it never lost emotional weight.

    I never met the guy, in fact the first time I can remember hearing the Minutemen and thinking I needed to buy their records was at a Circle Jerks/ DOA show in Trenton, NJ when they announced that D. was dead, in late December 1985. But his presence was strongly felt as we did the piece every night. So as I drove to the studio at 10AM, fueled by strong coffee and pepperoni pizza (breakfast of champions, eh Feeb?), I cranked "Double Nickels" and thought about him a lot. Any advice for the week ahead? No response, but the voice that came to mind was that of Bobby Notkoff, crazed violinist for the Rockets, who became Crazy Horse, and is himself heard on Nels Cline's favorite song from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere "Runnin' Dry" who told, I think, Billy Talbot the following sage advice: "There are only eight notes in music. You don't ever have to be afraid."

    Recording will take place in a rehearsal room at a gigantic warehouse filled to the brim with rock and roll bands, one of many such legendary buildings in LA. I've actually been to this building before, yet I manage to blow by it twice, hidden as it is off the edge of 7th Street. But as soon as I manage to navigate the frontage road, our man, Jimmy Messer, is on the scene and we are loading gear into the room.

    Jimmy's an Austin fellow - obvious, despite his proclaimed lack of accent - and has himself a nice little setup in this warehouse of metal cheese. He has, in fact, one of the most famous board known to man hooked up in his room: the 20-track board from the Rolling Stones Mobile c. 1969-71. The one used to make fuckin' ZoSo and shit. There's a temptation to pry off the lid and see how many ounces of cocaine have accumulated behind the circuit boards, but discretion prevails.

    He's got me mic'd up and sounding good in no time, and I have the chance to run through a bunch of my favorite songs to practice - "Red", side two of Zen Arcade, "New York New York", "Can't Stand Myself When You Touch Me". Drums are sounding pretty good. Mike and Nels roll in around noon, and much time is spent moving mics around and shooting the shit, as per usual. After a sandwich run (Quiznos, if a chain it must be, it might as well be that one), we start work shortly after 3.

    Despite the fact that there's a control room on the other side it feels exactly like a normal rehear.. (oh shit! I can hear Watt now "Actors rehearse! Musicians practice!") ahem, practice situation, the three of us right in each other’s faces, running through parts until they sound right. Amps are kept low and Nels isn’t even using headphones. And so we get down to brass tacks, Watt showing us riffs, letting us come up with our parts, until we’re ready to try one on tape. It’s like practice, only permanent.

    We nail the title track, "my shubun no hi", by 6. This is a relatively straight-ahead rocker, but fueled by a “keep it weird” ethic that keeps it from venturing too far into Creedence territory.

    Weirdness abounds in the next one, "kazan", essentially a sonic evocation of a volcano. “Lots of toms, Bob Lee, but the fills should go from low to high, always UP!” No melody at all on this one, but lots of rumbling, a few bubbles popping the surface and at least one good explosion. Nels has fun trying out combinations of pedals to get the lava flow happening at full blast. With thirty-six to choose from, plus Jimmy trying to turn him on to new ones, it’s a wonderland of merriment that could go on for decades. But we still manage to get two good takes before calling it at 9:30.

    Well so far, so good. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    TUESDAY APRIL 2
    Today brought shit. Aargh. Aggravation from all sides. Work hassles, technical hassles, all kinds of hassles leading up to severe and unexpected time shrinkage. It was not a good morning. At the last possible minute to make a 1 PM call time I threw myself out the door in a state; not an ideal beginning to a new day’s mission. I tried blasting some Creedence on the way down and it helped a little. “Oooooh, oooooh… down the road I go!” Fogerty didn’t let it get to him. I wasn’t going to let it get to me.

    Today we were shooting for three tunes but only got two. Despite my best efforts to purge, I think I brought emo baggage and found myself unable to shake it. We still got two good ones - a mellow waltz called "eye/mouth/face" and a Beefheartian (floppy boot) stomper called "silent message", in which the bands keeps trampling the singer before he can get a line out. What’s interesting about this session, Mike’s not stopping anything to play back takes, I think I’ve only heard back one or two of these songs since we started.

    So tomorrow we’ll try to kill the third one that never got on the right path today. For some reason I found myself unable to HEAR anything or respond to it, and kept losing the one, which is bad for a drummer. I think Mike sensed what was happening with me and we called it a bit earlier tonight despite a late start. I was grateful that he did.

    Once I got home and opened up the demo he’d emailed me, the whole thing made sense.

    There’s not shit can be done about lost time except determine to make it up tomorrow, for whatever that’s worth. So that’s what I’m gonna do. Go to bed and come in fresh tomorrow, unladen and unleaded. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

    Until then,

    Excelsior!
  4. #4
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    THURSDAY APRIL 3

    A good night's sleep can make all the difference, and I hit the road with a whistle and a grin this morning. The previous day's awfulness had melted away and I was ready to hit the ground running. When the three of us pulled into the parking lot within a minute of each other, I had a feeling this would be a good day.

    It was.

    There's a different vibe working with Watt this time than ten years ago. I don't suppose it's a highly guarded secret that he can be temperamental, particularly around musicians. It's different now. The intensity and focus is still there, but the withering sarcasm is less frequent. Not entirely gone... "Stumbleoni, Bob Lee!" has been heard once or twice. But it's said with a smile and we get back on it. It doesn't feel like a gasket could blow at any time. I felt like I was at my worst at the end of last night, but there's no hard feelings, and the new day goes smoother from the get go.

    As the only other guy in the room, Jimmy has been a true champ: nice guy, knows what he's doing, offers good advice on the takes, and even made a trip to Pasadena to pick up drum mallets which turned out to be necessary for our first order of business, "Summer", a rumbling Western number reminiscent of "Ghost Riders In The Sky".

    The arrangements are getting more specific as we go, so in this case it's not bad to have the luxury of practicing the tune over and over while Jimmy's on his run.

    Next up, Watt informs us that he's finally decided to make a dance album. This record's going to have two jigs on it. Something told me I should have worn the kilt this morning. Having married into a proud Scottish family, I do in fact own one and all of the accessories, and they're comfy to play drums in. And as it says in the classic advice novel "So You're Going To Wear The Kilt", if you don't feel comfortable wearing it in normal social situations such as the office or the grocery store or aerobics, then you're NOT FIT TO WEAR IT AT ALL LADDIE!

    The first one, "The Rememberin' Dream", turns out to be a jig with a Keith Moon-inspired drum bit, followed by an incredibly long, spacy psychedelic part, so the 12-inch DJ mix may require some tweaking for club use. But once we start going for it, we get it in a couple of tries. This one we do hear playbacks of - finally - and we're laughing pretty hard by the end, sure sign of a good take. This may have been my favorite one to date. Fun as hell to play anyway.

    At the end of the night we come back to the tune that I'd slammed up against the night before, and we actually get it working pretty well in short order. Entitled "Messed-Up Machine", it's an attempt to get a robotic, Kraftwerk feel without actually going mechanical. Watt has the idea for me to play these spastic triplets on the kick drum, which I doubt I can do, but indeed I find that if I muster all my strength and concentration, and apply them every ten seconds for about six minutes, I can actually pull it off. It's a sweater, though, and we struggle with it till call time, ending up with a couple of takes that feel OK but wanting to do more, deciding to take it back up first thing in the morning. So fucking close ...

    But it felt like a good day's work all the same.
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    FRIDAY APRIL 4
    What do you know? We DID get "Messed-Up Machine" last night. The one piece of fluff that was bugging us so much turned out to be easily fixable with a quick punch-in. So, no need to mess with the past, however recent, time must keep slipping slipping slipping into the future. We start mapping it out and go for it.

    Jimmy's an interesting guy, a Black Flag and DRI fan who ended up touring the world with Enrique Iglesias and others, wrote and co-produced on Kelly Clarkson's last album (and was an ethusiastic supporter of Watt's participation in some of the sessions for that album, see her: http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/articl...larkson-record) , and still plays the LA clubs in a straightahead rock and roll band called The Shears. We are apparently the first band doing stuff not his own in this space, as well as the first band to track live. But he's got the know-how to get good tones to the hard drive, and we're comfy in his room, and he's added nothing but positive things to the proceedings. Including some hilarious tales of the pop world... he's got a write a book about his experiences in the music industry, although he should probably wait until a few people are dead.

    First up, another indescribably wacky one, featuring Nels on electric sitar. Nels tells Mike, "No one but you is making these fucking records anymore" and it's true. We're like 3/5 done and there's no punk rock stomping happening at all. And it's all really weird, and yet it feels good.This one's got some heavy changes in the arrangement and we take a couple hours wrestling with it, but nail a good take before too long.

    By now, I have learned to write myself roadmaps. "Crutches", teases Mike even though we're all using them. Not charts but, well here's one of the "crutches" I wrote myself for the track we worked on last night.



    Anyway, this one wasn't as tough as that... I only had to use one column on the cheat sheet. But it's still kind of odd having to read and play at the same time, I haven't done that since high school band. I think Watt likes to see people on the edge, teetering at the precipice of their abilities.



    For the next one, it's announced that we will crowd around the overhead mics and lay down a four minute percussion track - a human click track if you will. I ask Watt if we should employ a real click track and he just gives me The Look and says "Coward!" Over this relentless ching-ching-ching we lay down a walking bass line, some frilly jazz lick drum solos and more psychedelic guitar from Nels. Unless I'm mistaken, this is not an instrumental song... I can't even imagine what kind of lyrics are going to fit over this jumpy, relentless thing. But it's good fun and we have it within a few passes of the virtual tape.

    Now we come to the next jig on the record, only this one gets expressed as a real fast rock and roll stomper, with lots of fills and clattering hoo-hah under a driving BOC style riff. It ends with something that Watt keeps likening to the end of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", a repetitive triplet-line that gives Nels a chance to soar some after holding three minutes of Hendrix-y rhythm parts. We don't quite have it down by the time we call it for the night but lo and behold there are only two more to get tomorrow, so we agree to tackle this one first thing. Unlike this morning, I don't think we're going to find any of the old takes suitable. But it's OK. We're close to the end. Time is tight so we gotta loosen up. Dream-state will help us conquer that which remains out of reach tonight.
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    SATURDAY APRIL 5

    This is it, last day. Time to be great and then be gone. But we've been on such a roll for the last couple days, I have a lot of confidence.

    Sure enough, we have the "Funanori Jig" in the can before too long. This brings us to another soft, cloudy one with a heavy rumble on the floor tom with the tympani mallets. It's lulling and hypnotic, and we get it finished without too much difficulty, particularly once we decide to overdub the cymbal hits. I would like to say it's for the "spaciousness" of the sonic effect from a cymbal resonating alone in the room as opposed to my inability to follow a fucking roadmap and chew gum at the same time. Maybe I will say that, if asked. "Oh yeah - the spaciousness... can you hear? Poooooshhh... the sound of space itself!" Anyway. It sounds really nice if you don't think about it.

    That brings us to my zen koan - a number with a drum solo. I haven't done one before. Every once in a while trying to do jazz with Joe Baiza's Mecolodiacs, or Richard Derrick's Solo Career, I'd take 12 bars. Watt wants a couple of minutes. The tune is a funky New Orleans second-line call and response between the bass and kick drum that sets up my Moby Dick moment - hopefully in the Bonham sense rather than the Ahab sense.

    What is there to do but do it? We run through about four passes and I'm actually feeling OK about some of it. Watt likes the crazier more out-of-sync attempts, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed till I hear the mastered album.

    This one ends with another super-long Nels Cline guitar wig-out on top of the main second-line groove looped over and over. After the first two takes top out at seven and a half minutes, Watt decides to try a third where we just don't fucking stop. Serious Humble Pie territory, a return to the days when one song that took up an entire side was considered a good sign. After our hands finally fall off, we're told the machine cut off at fifteen minutes, at which point Jimmy immediately set up another track and start rolling, which ran for another four minutes. That Nels Cline, man... at least fifteen of those ninteneen minutes was him soloing, and he was showing no signs of tiring at the 18 minute mark either.

    Here's digi-cam footage of 13 minutes of the last 19-minute take, all Nels Cline all the time. If you don't like long solos, don't click!

    pt 1
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=LKcDZp6E9wM
    pt2
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=RtkBTSXK8Yk


    Is that it? Not quite. It's time to fill out the "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" part for "Funanori Jig", which they let me do a solo take on, although Watt would suggest patterns for some of them. Tablas, wooden slit drum, tambourine, and maracas, and it feels like enough. Played back all at once it's Real Acid Shit, and for the first time I get to hear some of what we played more than once!

    That final playback was a good way to end the session. "Hey everybody... check out my one-man drum circle!"

    And that was it, a wrap. The photo below shows us with Jimmy mere moments after the final playback of the percussion jam, as Watt was on his way out. There's still overdubs and vocals to be done before mixing so I won't get to hear some of this stuff for a while. I'm already having difficulty remembering exactly how some of these songs go as I review my roadmaps; there just wasn't TIME to internalize all of it with an average three hours a tune from first hearing it to nailing the take, for five straight days. Listening to the mixes whenever we get done is going to be strange, like deja vu. Nels described the same feeling as we were packing up gear. "I don't remember exactly what we did but I remember I liked all of it!" Maybe that means we achieved Watt's stated goal of breaking free from over-practice and memorization.

    I certainly hope so. I've always been proud of the playing I did with Nels, he's truly one of the guitarists I hold in the highest esteem. He came up with these tasty, inventive parts so effortlessly it was kind of incredible. Mike Watt is one of those guys, when I was at the end of high school, I used to sit around and read lyric sheets for, practiced my drums to his songs, played them on my boombox for the crowd of local metal heads (so stoned, "Double Nickels" was once mistaken for Led Zeppelin). As a fan, it feels like responsibility; you have this vague sense in the back of your head that you could be condemned to history with a sign around your neck saying "Fucked Up Perfectly Good Album By Mike Watt." You know... it's something to take seriously. So if I managed to help him realize his thing, it's the least I can do.

    And so that's it... my involvement with this is pretty much over until the accolades start pouring in. We made it from point A to point B in five days with no practices, no demos, not a fucking clue. I'm proud of us. Jimmy deserves credit for running the sessions like a pro. And in the mean time I await the release date with everyone else.

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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    I see Mike has recovered nicely from his tour with the Stooges

    Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with it
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    Great stuff Bobzilla.

    Sounds like a great gig! Although a little pressure packed.
    "If you don't try new things you will miss out on many of life's great disappointments."
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    I'll tell ya, I'm in two bands that practice once a week and gig once a month; both have been building up new material to record for over a year now. To go from learning the first riff to completion of tracking in five days was kind of stunning.

    Hard work but very rewarding, relatively stress-free and a lot of fun. We felt pretty old-fashioned, having to fully commit to a band performance because of the amount of bleed in the room mics, even quick punch-ins wouldn't always work. It would have been tempting to focus on a good drum performance first and let those guys fill in the space later, but if any one guy wrecked his own car the whole train would derail. But on the flipside, once we got it, we could move right on to the next thing without having to fuss over punches and overdubs. And hopefully it will be obvious that you are listening to a performance rather than a piece of computer craftsmanship.

    My three passes through the CAPE made a good primer for this kind of session. I'd always go into Bubba's having learned the piece, but not necessarily having sat down at the kit with it. Bubba doesn't like to work on one thing forever either so I had to just go for it, come up with something and then nail it to the ground in about an hour. It helped me be a little more fearless in the face of the red light.

    Nobby - Stooges "tour" continues in Europe on the festival circuit this summer, if you ever have the chance to see them I'd recommend you take it. Truly one of the best reunions ever.
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    Fucking jam bands!








    J/K
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    awesome dude!

    ... Bubba doesn't like to work on one thing forever either so I had to just go for it, come up with something and then nail it to the ground in about an hour. It helped me be a little more fearless in the face of the red light...
    yup and yup.

    "We cut, but we don't paste. Do the whole thing again!."
    fucking Bubba classic.

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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    Fucking jam bands rock. Ideas spill out, notes spew, shit happens.

    It's better than sex.

    Good read, Bob.


    Now that I think of it, you and Eddie would make a good mix in the room next time he comes down.

    I'll keep you posted.
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    That stuff I heard from the last Eddie session was right on... do keep me in mind.

    Man you do one 15-minute solo on a single riff and get tarred with the epithet "jam band"... harsh. Think those guys use two-page roadmaps?
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    Just remember that you got your big break on Team Artisan!

    GREAT blog, bob! had me on the edge of my seat.

    dwoz
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    also, am I mistaken in thinking that the one lead sheet is written on Charmin double-quilty soft?

    dwoz
    "...but ma, audio engineering IS gainful employment!..."

    "...If I wuz at that club where Miles played one note I would have bounced ONE BOTTLE off his shiny fucking coconut. What? He's Phil Glass now?..." -Slipperman

    "...never attribute to magic, that which can be explained by conspiracy."
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    Spellbinding stuff. I was no great fan of The Minutemen, but now I guess I'm going to have to get up to speed.

    Who's who in the pic, or did I miss that?
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    GREAT blog, bob! had me on the edge of my seat.
    +1, great stuff.
    Got more?
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    Here's a gig that bobzilla turned down; the guy they got is pretty good though...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPII0...eature=related
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    Spellbinding stuff. I was no great fan of The Minutemen, but now I guess I'm going to have to get up to speed.

    Who's who in the pic, or did I miss that?
    Left to right: studio dude Jimmy Messer, your humble narrator, Mike Watt & Nels Cline.

    Definitely the place to start with Minutemen is the 2-lp Double Nickels On The Dime. I also love their earliest stuff but it's pretty bizarre, kind of like "Trout Mask Replica" interpreted by a punk trio with song lengths topping out at 54 seconds.

    Some as little as 30 seconds... meaning we are now doing pieces almost 40 times as long as the old days!
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    Default Re: Last Week With Mike Watt: My Recording Diary

    +1, great stuff.
    Got more?
    This was the first time I ever tried to do a recording diary. My 1998 tour diaries are still up on Mike's hootpage though.

    "Hola Marinaro" Europe tour spring 98:

    "Third Time Before The Mast" US tour spring 98:

    "Puttin' The Opera To Bed" US tour fall 98:

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