This beautifully strange record, which is lodged tightly in the gorge that divides avant-pop and art-damaged rock, is elusive and challenging enough to puzzle and enchant even the most fickle listeners. – CMJ
Handing over the mic to artists/musicians who break down their new albums track by track/share the thought process behind the creation. Today we’ll hear from Leah Callahan, Tom Devaney, Dave Nelson and Gordon Withers aka Betwixt, band that was formed in the wake of the dissolution of Turkish Delight.
The Salty Tang is Betwixt’s second LP that came out in 1999 on The Archenemy Record Company label. It is now getting a vinyl treatment which coincided with the reissue of Leah Callahan’s solo album Even Sleepers (originally released in 2003).
State of Betwixt at the Time
TD: By the time Betwixt recorded The Salty Tang, we had really come into our own as a collaborative songwriting unit. Our live shows were becoming much more expansive. We were mixing a lot of different musical elements, taking some chances, stretching out into non-linear rock formats. It was a highly creative and exciting time. That was the setting for the Salty Tang. Our first record, Moustache, was recorded when we had only been together for about six months. By the time we recorded The Salty Tang, we had been together for a year and half. There was the natural maturity. But we were growing quickly. We came up with a lot of material just as the first record came out. And as a result, the songs marinated for just the right time. For the first time in my music life, songs being recorded were ripe or just about there. And that is rare when you are in a band with no money and no control over the timing of recording and the release of records. And I won’t lie. I love the Salty Tang. It’s the record I am most proud to have been a part of. Hopefully, it will reach a new audience.
The Recording Sessions
TD: Salty Tang was recorded in two different sessions, in two different studios, with two different producers (Dave Minehan and Joel Hamburger), about four months apart. And the second session was stretched out over a two-month period. So it took six months to complete. That was a unique way to make a record for me. We didn’t feel we were under strict time and budget restrictions. Archenemy, the label we were on, were a small outfit, but gave us freedom to take our time. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t the Stones hanging out at a French Villa recording Exile On Main Street, but we were able to stretch out as we did live, especially on Back of a Hand and Needlessness. And that was exciting. We left some things up to chance and it worked out. I do recall for the second session, most of us were not feeling well. Especially Gordon, our cellist, who was still a student at Brandeis. He arrived at the studio looking somewhat close to death. We owe a lot to this record to Gordon’s heavily medicated state.
DN: This band was my first foray into actually listening while playing. In Turkish Delight I had such naive confidence that anything I did was great, and anything everybody else in the band did must be great too. Not a lot of listening to each other while playing. In fact I remember hearing some of Carl’s bass lines for the first time in the studio. No surprise, they were great too.
Joining Betwixt I quickly realized I would need to discipline myself and make it an exercise in listening, and making space for each band member. I was still learning how to not break cymbals and drum heads, and I even bought a set of brushes! I also felt free to introduce elements of odd percussion a la Chris Cutler or Jamie Muir. If I couldn’t immediately play softer, I could at least hit softer things. The band indulged my experiments, and I think it encouraged them to do some freeing things with their instruments too.
By the time we recorded for The Salty Tang we had a few songs that were well rehearsed, and a few that were sketches. The less worked over songs became my favorite recordings because of the surprises we ended up with.
TD: The first songs we recorded were Needlessness, Mosquito Bites, Jailbreak and I think Merkin. That was the Dave Minehan session. Dave was so fun to work with. He just knows how to get a great sound without much fussing. But I’ll hold my comments to the order of the record.
DN: Using a pizza pan hung over a rack tom, I was playing a faux “industrial” beat a la “siege” by Test Dept. then switched it up to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”
Made sense to me. This song shows us all at full force and the mix of sounds we could make. A good place to start.
GW: Betwixt: your source for premium Roma grunge riffs!
TD: Jailbreak was probably the most fun Betwixt to play. Totally full-out clang-fest. I couldn’t imagine starting the record off with any other song.
LC: “There’s a hole in my head and it keeps on growing, lets the air in.” This lyric isn’t as inexplicable as it may seem. In my 20s I had an avid interest in world religions and had come across stories that mentioned trepanation; this was once used in some ancient cultures “to allow the passage of spirits into or out of the body”. There’s also some very old slang, apparently of Yiddish origin, that when something is bad for you – you need that thing like you need a “Hole in your head”.
GW: Tom always said that the best albums channeled the season they were recorded in – Sonic Youth’s Sister sounded like winter in New York City, whereas a particular Can album sounded like a humid summer day. I maintain that this song sounds like the hot, oppressive summer nights over which it was written. We were all so sweaty and testy from the weather, that we couldn’t think straight, and ended up having to revisit and re-tool the parts over and over across the course of a month or more. It was one of the hardest songs to write I’ve ever experienced, but it was worth it – and it absolutely soaked up the feel of that Boston summer.
TD: I fully admit I ripped off the opening guitar part from Sonic Youth’s Burning Spear. This was one of the first songs we wrote for the new record. I remember we were going for a Wire 154 sound on the guitars on the chorus.
LC: I spent a high school semester in Japan which made a huge impact on me as a young adult, so much that I’ve written 2 songs about that experience, one for Turkish Delight called “Ghost” and this one. The area I lived, the suburbs of Osaka, had a lot more trees and was more humid than where I’d come from, there were lots of mosquitos. I spent most evenings walking with the family’s 2 little daughters, we’d sing to the mosquitos asking them to stop biting us.
Mosquitos are also a metaphor for vampires which I am using here as a metaphor for sex. We tend to do stupid, impulsive things – or have strong feelings we can’t seem to get rid of – “only at night.”
DN: With my notoriously short attention span, Playing this song always felt longer than it was, so I scrambled the beat toward the end to make it more interesting, to me at least.
DN: I had always kept a clarinet in my “bag of tricks” and had been listening to an Andy Statman’s Klezmer Orchestra tape I found at Amvets. Check out “bats and belz” by them. Side note, the high end percussion part is a toy wooden xylophone played with spoons, the same one I used on Smooth Karate for the Turks.
GW: I had a 102-degree fever when we recorded this song. The entire cello part sounds like a bizarro fever dream because… it was.
TD: I remember our happy faces in the booth listening back to the final mix of Sound of America. We captured some sort of nebulous Eastern European thing without intending to. Leah’s vocal style gave us a lot of flexibility. I think this is one of her best performances. Dave’s clarinet gave it added ethnic flavor. I think Dave snuck into the studio at 4am after we had finished and laid down the clarinet tracks. Dave has impeccable taste. And he can make anything sound good, as evidenced by his tea-cup percussion work throughout the song. Sound of America took a long time to arrange, but after playing it live for a while, it became a bit of a signature piece. My favorite part of the song is Gordon’s cello solo. It’s the perfect blend of avant-garde classical and metal.
LC: In a weird lyrical mix of sex, environmentalism and religion, I describe a love interest as “shaking like a leaf, on a tree that’s dying to live in your neighborhood park.” The smoke from his cigarette “rings like a halo around (his) saintly head”. I ask: “Will you kneel to worship on just any old bed?”
TD: We called it the “Jon Spencer” thing when we first started working on it. I was not in the studio when this song was mixed. I heard it was a long session.
GW: This was my first experience watching someone mix a single song literally all day. I recall having plans for that day and just gradually watching all of them slip away, into the spiral of this insane mix by Joel Hamburger. We all sat there so long that it felt like we passed through a mirror into another dimension – and to this day the song still hails from that dimension.
DN: Not sure if the lyrics influenced the music, or vice versa, but Leah’s reference to a ferris wheel here is a fitting description of the off kilter stomach turning rotation of the musical parts on this one.
DN: Who let Eddie Van Halen in the studio while Tom was on the can?
TD: Now that I think of it, Stop-n-Start was the most challenging song for us, at least for me. It was delicate and heavily coordinated. One slip up and the whole thing would lock up. I think I subconsciously stole one of the guitar parts from the vocal in Rod Stewart’s “You’re In My Heart.” We were trying to mimic a record skipping on the off-beat sections. Not sure if it came off that way. I think this is a very charming song.
GW: Leah gets all the credit for this song – Dave, Tom, and I initially could not not hear the main riff in 3:4 time. It took a month of arguing, but Leah rightly prevailed, and the song sounds so much cooler as 4:4. Later on, we played a show at my college coffee house and the college’s newspaper made fun of me for screwing up the cello part.
GW: This song straight up plagiarises Bach’s cello suite #6. No one ever noticed, proving that no one actually cares about classical music.
TD: Needlessness was a sort of a boozy Hawaiian slide piece with romantic vocals and a free-form middle. A great vocal by Leah to anchor it. The middle part reminds me of the song “Pinch” by Can, especially Dave’s drums. This was a very fun song to play live and we would definitely go off to other places with this one.
GW: Hearing this song after 20 years was a total trip. I kind of remember it? But not really? I think we always played it last, and by that point in the set I was usually pretty gone. Ok but seriously, this song is proof that if you have a cello in your band, the guitarist needs to tune to a C-based tuning with drop-C to match the lowest cello string. You can’t get these sounds any other way. Oh, also you need to smoke a lot of weed.
TD: Back of a Hand was probably our most complex and demanding song. It also was our longest. Again, I feel there is a Can “Future Days” vibe on this track. When we were tracking the song, there is a certain point where we sort of go off into uncharted waters for a bit. It was exciting to be able to confidently wing-it in the studio. Never had done that before. Again, wonderful vocal by Leah.
DN: A dark & dreamy sea shanty, or “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
GW: This is a classic “riff you jam on while someone else in the band is tuning”. I love that it made it onto the album.
TD: My girlfriend at the time was convinced that the guitar part was ripped off from some classic rock song. I told her it might be the synthesizer part in Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle.
GW: I know I plagiarized yet another classical music composition on this one, but I can’t remember which.
TD: Merkin was a beautiful song that Leah wrote, and in its early stages was just a vocal and cello piece. But live I started adding lap steel guitar. On the record the song includes a theremin and Dave on clarinet.
DN: One night Leah and I were leaving a bar on Beacon St. behind Kenmore Square and we found a cat that had been hit by a car. It was blood soaked and limping in small circles. Leah picked it up and wrapped it in her coat. I’m not sure if that’s what she was writing about here, but for me this song is inexorably tied to that memory. There is something about the ending, where we no longer seem to be different instruments, but the group sound rises from a dissonance to an uplifting finish.
TD: My favorite Betwixt song is Dead Animals. And if I’m not mistaken, it was not performed live before the session. I could be wrong. But at any rate, it was the newest song we recorded. It’s abstract. It slowly grinds along. Leah’s detached vocals snaking through. Builds up tension. And then there’s the last 45 seconds or so. I feel is our best moment as a band. It is always thrilling for me to listen to. I love how all the different sounds merge in that passage. It’s difficult to tell what instruments are making the sounds. And then Leah’s beautiful vocal comes in and it ends. It was just luck in a lot of ways that it came together.
GW: This is my favorite Betwixt song. It still gives me goosebumps. I recall there were two mixes, and the weirder mix with a better ending was for some reason only on a cassette – the mastering engineer spliced in the ending from the cassette mix and transformed the entire character of the song – also providing the feeling of eeriness that sticks with you when the album ends.