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 Weirding, one half of US duo Bornwithhair whose debut album Radical Moon was described by Alternative Control blog as Throbbing Gristle meets metal.
A preliminary note on our recording and songwriting process might be in order, and may help much of the following make more sense.
We don’t start by writing a song. We don’t even start by writing a riff or a chord progression. We start on a drum machine where we knock out fifty or so beats and then randomly sort the beats out into six or seven song tracks on the DAW.
We stitch these randomly ordered drum tracks together and start making some semblance of a structure. We might double things up to create a verse-chorus structure or we might blow things out altogether. Either way, we then grab the guitar cables and mics, set up a Marshall through the Mackie board, pull out a semi-hollowbody, and start improvising over the drum tracks. It’s only after that’s done that we start organizing sounds into more formal song structures.
So what you are hearing in those guitars is almost always the first or second pass of an improvisation over a random drum pattern.
All the rest of the recording — synths, percussion (sometimes replacing the drum machine and sometimes complementing it), horns, acoustic instruments, vocals — gets done next and then we put the microphones back in their boxes. Recording is usually complete in three or four days tops. Then it’s on to mixing.
Mixing takes forever. Because what we’re doing is carving out the song from all of the parts that we’ve improvised. While the terminology might not be entirely accurate, as a band we call this a “reductive” mixing process and we take sculpture as a starting point. At a high level, in sculpture you have two choices: add to the assemblage or carve away from the raw material. We’re stone carvers. And to paraphrase Michaelangelo, we think that if we just spend time on the mix, we can let the song escape.
All of the recording and mixing on Radical Moon was done in an old 19th century farmhouse along the Patapsco River just upstream from Baltimore Harbor.
I like to think of the songs on an album as neighborhoods in a city. With this song, we just wanted to drop the listener into a situation with no warning or explanation. We’d considered putting this song later in the order, perhaps making it easier on the listener to figure out where they were (i.e. get a feel for the city they were visiting). But in the end we decided that was unfair because we wouldn’t be treating the audience with enough respect. Rather, by just airdropping the listener blindfolded into this song, we could honor their own intuition in a way and let them have the opportunity to figure things out on their own. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a few seconds of a metronome in the recording. We left it there as a symbol — a sort of guidepost for the listeners to let them know that there was a way through all of this.
The song presents a back-of-the-napkin early history of the rocket fuel industry before, during, and after WWII. The cast of characters includes amateurs, occultists, academics, communists, and out-of-compartment thinkers who contributed considerably to the technological demands of the war effort and then who were rejected, scorned, and alienated in the McCarthy era that followed.
We wanted this to sound like wind, in the sense of the sort of battering wind that comes in along the coast. That’s where those loud clanging electric guitars and the double bass drum come from. Meanwhile, getting that sound on the simple solitary guitar in the first quiet section was tricky in that it was the first acoustic guitar track we tried to record. Kept getting too much room sound. But, we liked it enough that we added the chromatic acoustic part to the choruses and that really opened up new ways of thinking about the song.
Another thing I should mention: we made a decision early on to work within a rather highly defined sonic space — in practice, we refrained from recording any electric bass guitar and we refrained from using cymbals (with the exception of some hi-hat). The thesis was that by eliminating the traditional low and high pitches for this type of set-up we could actually create a different kind of audio field where parts of the midrange actually took positions at the poles. This wasn’t intended to highlight the midrange so much as it was to experiment — in a heavy music setting — in creating an audio field based on sort of the inverse function as related to dropped tunings and slashing cymbals. I think it has a lot to do with the sound of the album in general. Most of what covers the bass range is the left hand of an organ. And at the high end we exploited static and different types of auto-generated noise.
In the same way that the prior song bursts in, we wanted this one to really rip through the silence of the preceding three seconds and we wanted to get to that driving sound with the super simple cheap drum machine snare-kick and the frantic chords. For some reason, Motörhead and Judas Priest kept buzzing in my ears. Additionally, you can really hear an unvarnished example of our reductive mixing process in the mid-section of this song. I personally like the differing tones of the electric guitars — especially in the sort of poor man’s twin lead bits.
Often when I lay down a left side guitar and a right side guitar, I actually physically approach the playing differently in an effort to trick the mind into seeing two different guitar players standing there in front of it. I tend to think of myself primarily as a producer, and this idea of creating almost a cast of characters — like an imaginary cast of musicians — that not only create sound, but who also contribute psychologically to the end result… that’s something I like to play with. I’ve even written backstories on occasion for some of the characters I’d create. It would be like: “Oh, got a guitar solo to lay down… let me imagine who the guitar player would be and what they were doing last night that might influence how they approach the solo today.”
Regarding the lyrics, the words are the weapon here — in that the words are the hex. The tone and level of distortion on the vocal (SM-58 through a Rat pedal into a Marshall 50 watt and on into the Mackie with the EQ tweaked) is meant to evoke this razor-like hex. The actual party this song is based on took place in a cabin in the woods of Western Maryland in 1941. A photographer from Life magazine attended and took absolutely amazing shots of the event — including the decapitation of an effigy of Hitler.
What you hear in this recording is an attempt to recreate a song I heard performed live in a dream. In the dream, this strange black metal Woody Guthrie wizard man sung from a stage covered in flames.
One of the things I love best about performing lyrics is the performance itself — meaning the acting involved in inhabiting the character delivering the lyrics. I’ve always thought about singing that way — like it is a form of acting — and as an introvert, I think this approach provides me with a way to deliver beyond the limits of my natural anxieties. Here, on this song, I feel like we’ve been able to create these characters from the dream who more fully flesh out the idea of the song. Weirdly maybe, I also personally feel that I’m able to say something more directly and be more honest if I’m able to do it through acting. So, often when I’m recording vocals, I’ll take time prior to try to occupy the character that I’ll be giving voice to.
In this song, I definitely needed to play through the voice of a character in order to say something that I felt was so naked and prosaic. JF on the other hand needed to nail the perfect laugh. Laughing on purpose is hard and nearly impossible for me. And it’s not a ha-ha laugh. Her’s is a dangerous laugh. A laugh that suggests a kind of knowledge.
We wanted this one to have something of a cinematic quality. The song itself is a sort of psychological profile and we wanted the music to really have these distinct parts that helped tell parts of the story, like a score in a movie — though we obviously did not want it to sound like a movie score. I spent the better part of three weeks working out all of the edits on this one from the original improvised source material.
Strangely, I later made a video for this song following much the same process as when we made the original drum patterns. I found four historical films and I cut them up at random and threw them into an editing program. (Yes, I read far too much William S. Burroughs as a teenager). Anyway, I knew the length of the song, so I made the length of the combined splices about the same length. Then I played it from the beginning — sound and video. And on the first pass, with no intervention, nearly everything synched up to the changes in the song. Strangest thing.
We knew that we wanted to have at least one really doom-oriented track. For some reason — probably just the lyrics of War Pigs and Hand of Doom — I’ve always equated doom and political songs. Well, either that or intoxication songs — enter songs about intoxicants and drugs, but also songs about religious ecstasy and environmental euphoria. Alluring perhaps is that both sides of the idiom fit somewhat within the narrative of this song. I thought this would fit well with what I always have considered a pretty challenging story about the nature of both the razor’s edge of zealotus intoxication on the one hand and the threat posed by the wiseacre authoritarian on the other. The first three quatrains of the lyric are my translation of a bit of poetry from Euripdes’ tragedy, The Bacchae; the next three are my own in reflecting upon the meaning of the killing that takes place in the play.
In this take, we’re really trying to use the slow and throbbing elements of the guitars to help describe the pathos and horror, but also the deliverance and righteous power of the story. The concept behind the percussion line was to have something that sort of sat between the snare drum rim hits on the Stones’ Shake Your Hips and free jazz — something constant, but not even entertaining the concept of keeping a beat.
This entire song is a lie. Which is why I found it so attractive. It’s myth-making and war-time boasting and pure egregious fallacy and yet there is also something (at least to me as the actor trying to navigate the emotions and impulses of the speaker) that is genuine and precious.
The sound of the guitars is meant to be simplistic and ratty, but yet sort of rigid. Like the treads of a tank that’s been through several battles and covered much ground. Definitely owe something to Melvins here with regards to the sound and approach on the guitars. As the song turns at the end into the block chords and atonal runs on the piano, it intends to reflect what was maybe there all along — just the drunk telling war-time tales — and yet there is a modicum of reflection and maybe a bit of recognition within the teller that the lie, and the way in which it is told, may actually be the most interesting thing about the story. The soprano saxophone dances over top like dust settling.