Terrible Secrets of Nerd Rock

Warren (you know, our guitarist) emailed me from the UK (you know, where he is living) asking how things were going with the band (you know, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets). I haven’t got around to emailing him back (it’s one of those emails with 30 questions and you only have time to answer one so you file it for later) so I thought I’d post it as an update and point of interest for the teeming masses.

Writing is going pretty well. It can be frustrating sometimes as a singer because often there is nothing for me to do when the guitarists are working out riffs and whatnot but usually I am plotting and scheming regardless. I find I work better when I don’t have to try to talk over people and amplified instruments (wouldn’t it be novel to write acoustically) and when I have the luxury of time. For example I have created two audio tapes of little melodies and song ideas that I have come up with over a period of months (or years), which I have given to each band member. Now I don’t expect every idea I come up with to be Thicket Hit #1 but I get the impression that the band isn’t interested in homework, whereas that dynamic works well for me. I bring my tape recorder to practice and when the band breaks out with a spontaneous creation I will record it, bring it home, listen to it over and over and try to come up with a melody/structure for lyrics and provide other feedback (and hope it hasn’t completely changed by the next practice). The band has been doing that for themselves as well, but the one tape that Mario was asked to ‘study’ (it had some jam material that Warren was really stoked on which he made a point of getting from me to give to Mario) has sat dormant on the couch since Warren left.

It is also frustrating to spend hours in transit to have to spend a half hour of the writing sessions going over old material so that the other guys can “warm up.” I guess if they need it, they need it, and it’s too much to hope that they could take the time to warm up before I arrive. It just seems like we could be spending that time working on our #1 priority which is writing a new album.

That leads me to another point. Bob wants to have a part in the band. Bob has been a problem for years because although he is a great musician, an enthusiastic band member, and a fun guy all around, his commitment levels stink. When Bob says “I’ll be there” that pretty much means there’s about a 50% chance he’ll back out. We’ve cancelled more shows at the last minute than I’d care to remember because of Bob. Now when Bob asked me if he could play a part in writing and performing I said “sure Bob, but only if you can commit.” From a performance perspective that’s particularly important. After Troy (you know, our bass player for the years 2000-2004) left for Calgary we were really in a pickle until we finally pushed through Merrick’s (you know, my brother) resistance to commit as bassist. After we got that commitment, suddenly Mario was picking up the bass at practice leaving Merrick to sit around like me, and I made a point of bringing that up. Jordan and Warren were of the view that the writing dynamic was better with Mario on bass and Merrick didn’t object because a) that was probably true even though a few new songs were based (bassed?) on Merrick’s riffs (also done at home by himself) and b) he probably didn’t want to play bass anyway. Merrick’s attitude has always been “why bother if it’s not going to be perfect” which is why he keeps pointing out our mistakes while we’re live on stage. Which is a crap attitude. I digress. With Warren gone, Mario is playing guitar and Merrick is back on bass and that’s working out fine.

When Bob said “can I come to practice” I said “sure” because we had kind of hit a plateau with the songs we’d been working on and I knew Bob would have something to bring to the work, if he showed at all. I had neglected to tell Merrick, however, so when Bob did show up Merrick overreacted. I guess his first thought was that we were kicking him off of bass again. So I had to smooth things over. It would be extremely useful to have Bob play bass live when he’s available. At that point we had just played with NoMeansNo with Bob so we were still jazzed about that. However, since then Jordan said “no more live shows – let’s concentrate on writing” which isn’t a bad idea (unless you’re a fan who wants to see us live, or a band member who wants more money in the band account). We agreed with that (for now) which basically means we won’t need to practice old material, which in turn means Bob’s value to the band at this time is not as great (again, given his intermittent availability – I’d love to have him help write but it’s problematic).

So when we practice we generally practice from 5pm-8pm on Sundays (the rest of the band also practices on Wednesday nights but I am not available then). That is when my bus is on time and when Jordan doesn’t leave early. For me to make this time in Chilliwack I leave my house at 1:30pm (to catch the 2:30 Greyhound), and I get home some time after 11pm. So that’s ten hours out of my day for a three hour practice. Granted I often spend my time on the bus working on songs with my dictaphone and notebook when the drone of the bus isn’t putting me to sleep. It costs $32 for a round trip to Chilliwack, and since we started writing in earnest I am usually out every weekend. After we sold the van, but before I had a full time job, I worked out with the band that in order for me to make practice with any regularity I would have to dip into band money to mitigate the ~$100 monthly cost. Since I got my full time job I have just been using my own money. Last practice however, I was informed that Mario would be dipping into band funds to the tune of $200 for 2 months retroactive jam space rental, and from here on in we’d be paying $100/month. That was the first I heard of it. I don’t think it’s unfair. I also don’t think it’s unfair for me to go back into some tithing for my travel expenses once in a while if need be. Of course I’m tracking everything in the big book of Thickets lucre. Sorry, is this getting dull?

Finally, the last struggle with the band is trying new things. In my dreams we would have violins and other fruity things on the new album but getting the band to break out of our guitar-drum-bass mold is difficult theoretically and practically. We simply don’t have violins or piano or moogs during the writing process which to some extent precludes their appearing during recording because we don’t plan to accommodate them. I guess if we were all really good musicians with an unlimited studio budget we could go for it. But even with the tools at hand it’s difficult to get out of our respective comfort zones. Getting Jordan to do something quirky on the drums requires constant badgering. There seems to be this small window in the songwriting process–after we’ve sorted out what the main riffs will be but before we’ve repeated the structure more than 5 times–where the band members are receptive to dramatically altering, adding to, or deleting what has been worked out. I really want to make sure our songs stand out from eachother–not quite to the extent of Ween but I definitely don’t want all of our songs to sound the same. The good news is that we were jamming out a very Eastern sounding ditty last practice.

So despite all my complaining, we have been making slow and steady progress and I am pretty pleased with the work so far. Warren wants to come back to help us record in May, but I think it’s optimistic to think we’ll be ready to record by then. We currently have about 8 or 9 proto-songs. I would like to write closer to 20 and if necessary pare down to 15 or so. I always feel cheated if I get less than 12 songs on a CD.

Despite the fact that we have a half dozen well-formed songs, I’ve really only written lyrics for one of them (although I have worked out melodies and structure for all of them). My original idea for the album was that the entire album would be one narrative, and on stage we could act out the narrative like a musical. That would mean we would have to have all of the songs written without lyrics and then I would decide what order they’d appear on the album and then write lyrics that tell the story from song 1 to song 14. I am having second thoughts about this strategy. First off, I’m having a hell of a time coming up with a story that is going to fit a format of a series of songs. Secondly, this may not be in the band’s best interests if, for example, we want to get one of our songs on, say, the radio. Unless the lyrics are very general, they would be meaningless standing alone. I am constantly weighing how important lyrics are – whether it’s the actual meaning or simply the structure of a series of catchphrases that sound good together. I have always taken some amount of pride in the fact that most of my lyrics are reasonably unique, but on the other hand, I really don’t think most people care. Certainly when it comes to most of my favourite songs I have absolutely no idea what they’re about, nor do I particularly care, but they are still awesome songs that I’d be ecstatic to have had a part in. So I’m wondering if I’m going to be hamstringing a song’s “commercial success” by being completely obscure with lyrics or if it just doesn’t matter. In the past I’ve never been too concerned about our music’s commercial success, but this time it would be nice. And I’d like to reassure you there’s no danger of us writing a “lovely lady lumps” song. So I don’t really know how committed I am to the cohesive album narrative concept. Perhaps it will just be a handful of songs telling some kind of Lovecraftian tale, and the rest will be about unrelated nerdy miscellany. One idea I am working on is about geologic time periods.

12 Replies to “Terrible Secrets of Nerd Rock”

  1. A song about geological time periods? Sweet idea. Hadean. Mesozoic. Quaternary. Triassic. Lots of rhyming couplets in them, especially the -zoics. 🙂

  2. I was thinking of just focusing on one epoch, for example the Ordovician. Mmmmmmmmm…ordovician.

  3. If you wanna do a “concept” album, get a time machine, pop back to the 70’s and do it! “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” is a brillant album, but where did it ever get Peter Gabriel, well huh?

    Lovecraft wrote soft fiction and poerty, not novels, so follow the path and write focused, polish gems, then assemble them into your crowning achievement.

    Or not, whatever.

  4. As a fan of your music I’d just like to point out that if you can follow up (even in a remote and tangential way) the vibe from Spaceship Zero you’ll be doing really, really well. I quite like the idea of a thematic narrative arcing across several songs but bear in mind that makes it harder to get stuff that is approachable one song at a time. Personally I could care less…I like concept albums and pretty much just care if the music is interesting. Difficult to market that I realize but you kinda-sorta have a market already…just make the music strong and the geekitude hardcore and we’ll be lining up in droves.

  5. I was thinking … what you need is a rock ballad … in the style of the Enterprise theme song … and the song has to be sad and semi-weepy like all good rock ballads, and it should be written from the perspective of the Great Old Ones. What would make them all sad and weepy?

  6. Whatever you do, keep the unique lyrics.

    On the way to work this morning I was listening to “20 Minutes of Oxygen” & “The Innsmouth Look”.

    The music is great but it wouldn’t be the same if you just had typical rock cheesebum lyrics.

    And before I forget, how can I get a non-itunes copy (a proper cd) of your three albums. (and the Spaceship Zero RPG? I told some of my fellow geeks about it and they fancy a game.)

  7. Your lyrics are one of the major reasons I dig your band. Who else is singing about this subject matter? NO ONE. “the Innsmouth Look” is one of my favorites, and “Shoggoths Away” is another. Both are well-written, though “Innsmouth” is far more “commercial friendly” as far as having a catchy chorus and mass appeal. I would not go anymore general than that lyrically. Your style of writing is totally unique, and I and many other fans appreciate that deeply. A concept album is a great idea, and would appeal to your core fans, though probably not win you new ones. Every album, no matter how conceptual, needs something “catchy” to get people’s attention; I don’t think that will be a problem for you. Oh, and please no rock ballads – the Enterprise theme is one reason I didn’t watch Enterprise very often – just my opinion.

  8. I think the Thickets have already had their “concept album” in Spaceship Zero. I do support the idea of trying different musical styles and flourishes even though I’m not a fan of the synth-soundtrack stuff on SSZ. Experimentation and risk are parts of real art.

  9. A rock ballad from the p.o.v. of a Great Old One would be hilarious. 🙂

    It’s been a long time since I gutted anyone
    It’s been a long time since I drank of their blood …

    Some lines about how folks aren’t venturing in basements by themselves any longer, how they’re not opening strange books without another thought, and how they’ve got psychotropic drugs to ward off insanity … how technology has made them a little less scary than they once were. Blah blah blah. Toren could do it more justice if the idea strikes his fancy.

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