Detholz! demo – “Catherine Zeta-Jones”

Welcome to the Detholz! mp3 blog’s second installment! All of these blog postings are in two parts:

1. Song Concept for “lyrics” people, and
2. Song Composition for “music” people.

Feel free to skip around!

1. SONG CONCEPT

This week, a Detholz! demo presented in earnest for the next record: “Catherine Zeta-Jones” (I seem to be mired in Hollywood these days… well, who isn’t?)

In this case, ol’ Cath is incidental to the subject matter. As I mentioned last week, all of the songs on the new record deal with different aspects of betrayal. This song is about the sad case of American traitor, Robert Hanssen, an FBI employee who sold secrets to the Soviets for over 15 years. He holds the distinction of being the worst (the best?) spy in American history.

My interest in his story was piqued initially by Billy Ray’s recent film “Breach,” which I watched in the back of the Baby Teeth tour van a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I don’t think the film does justice to the real Hanssen, as it presents him as a frustrated “super-spy” (though Chris Cooper’s performance in the role is exceptional). The truth is, Hanssen was a mediocre FBI agent that rose in the ranks primarily because the Bureau didn’t really know what to do with him. He was a textbook headcase, which is unusual for an FBI employee given their rigorous screening process.

Hanssen had undeniable technical skill and a superior memory. Unfortunately, these talents were overshadowed by a seeming inability to deal with people. He wore black suits daily, never smiled, and was referred to by his subordinates at the FBI as “Dr. Death.” At one point, he physically manhandled a female FBI support employee who refused to stay in a meeting and he was simply “brushed under the rug.” The Bureau didn’t fire him, they simply took him out of a supervisory role and transferred him to a solitary technical job. (Heh, sounds like a naughty priest. Ironic since Hanssen was a fanatic Catholic and a member of Opus Dei…)

[Sorry for the history lesson. I mean, hey, this is a music blog, right? To read the full account of Hanssen’s fascinating 20+ -year career in the FBI– incl. his espionage activities– the Dept. of Justice has posted an unclassified synopsis here. The USA Today article published at the time of his arrest is also available online here.]

History lessons aside, what struck me after reading this stuff was how Hanssen’s fantasy life consumed — and ultimately destroyed — him. THAT’S what this song is about: betrayal of self by fantasy. In Hanssen’s case, LAYERS upon LAYERS of fantasy.

Lyrically, this plays out a couple of ways:

1. Hanssen was obsessed with porn, and had an unhealthy fixation on Catherine Zeta-Jones. Evidently he’d carry around copies of Zeta-Jones movies in his briefcase (“Entrapment,” ironically). He would also regularly post sexual fantasies in graphic detail on the web– even using his wife’s real name. Additionally, he would secretly videotape he and his wife having sex, and then watch the tapes with a childhood friend. *shudder*

2. He was a fanatic Catholic, would attend Mass at least once a day, and was a supernumerary member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei sect– mostly at his wife’s prompting. She caught him writing a letter to one of his Soviet contacts in the early 80’s, and insisted that he confess immediately to a priest. (!!)

These points are borne out in the second verse:

“I ate a bitter scroll
[a reference to Revelation 10:10, where the apostle John ingests the prophetic word of God, which is “bitter in his stomach”]
Inside my spider’s hole
I had my wife, the Blessed Virgin,
[an image that combines his wife with his Catholicism]

And whispered lies to her in Russian

And she’s on the screen
For the world to see
And now she’s Catherine Zeta-Jones
and I’m Catherine Zeta-Jones
[The idea that once his wife is on a TV screen, she transforms into his fantasy woman, and he likewise transforms into a fantasy of himself.]

And I bait the Bear
With locks of her hair”
[His fantasy of himself as “moral beyond morality” enables him to “bait the Bear,” the Bear doubling as a symbol for the Soviet regime and his imminent capture.]

The lyrical linchpin of the song, of course, is the repetition of “Touch me like that / Don’t touch me like that,” which refers to the dichotomy between fantasy and reality: “I WANT this thing / I cannot HAVE this thing.” Or, more rightly, “I WANT this thing / This thing does not EXIST.”

A quote from one of Hanssen’s last letters to his Soviet handlers sums this up well. When asked why he was betraying his country, he answers:

“Conclusion: One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say, insanely loyal. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers.”

The “insanely loyal” Hanssen is now serving a life sentence in a supermax federal penitentiary in Colorado and spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

2. SONG COMPOSITION

Musically, the arrangement started with the opening bass line. [Well, I say “bass line,” but I’ve purposely NOT used a bass in recording recent demos as a personal challenge. Bass is the instrument on which I’m most comfortable, so it’s easy for me to fall in a creative rut if I overuse it. I think it’s important in songwriting to be uncomfortable sometimes, at least for me! What you’re hearing here is a guitar with fuzz and an octave effect using Native Instruments excellent “Guitar Rig” plugin.]

Second, the drum part! I wanted to keep the groove interesting– it would have perhaps been easier just to do a “4 on the floor” kind of part, but I wanted this song to have a jerky, fractured feel since it’s about a man splitting in half. The bass line bounces up and down off of an open G, and the drum part emphasizes the beats where said bass line hits those G’s, all on off-beats:

one-AND-two- AND-three-four-AND / one-two-AND-three-four

Though the bass line changes in the verse, this rhythmic pattern does not.

Thirdly, that ridiculous descending saxophone/guitar line which, as Jonny astutely pointed out in rehearsal, is in Dorian mode. Lately, just to keep things interesting for myself, I’ve been including at least one element that makes me laugh. The sax part is that element. You may notice that the pitch is horribly flat– when I tuned it up, it didn’t sound as good. Sometimes, for color, it works to leave instruments out of tune. Listen to some of those old Velvet Underground recordings and you’ll see what I mean.

The verse is antiphonal– call and response, i.e. bit of melody, answered by “Ze-Ze…Zeta-Jones!” This is a verse form I use ALL of the time (cf. verse of “IMA Believer,” “Club Oslo,” and others from “Cast Out Devils” – songs available for $0.89 download at www.detholz.com or on our MySpace page). I was reminded of the effectiveness of this songwriting device while listening to the The Angels’ song, “My Boyfriend’s Back” on oldies radio. What a great, catchy song! I directly attempted to copy that technique here.

The chorus continues my experimentation with “4-notes-or-less” chorus, and just as in “Tammy” (from last week), the chorus melody consist of just two notes, a perfect fifth apart.

The final element I’ll call attention to occurs during the break before the “out chorus.” There is a 4-note melody (in theoretical terms, a musical “motive”) in the synth that comes from “Death to the Traitor”– a song that is the centerpiece of the new record– and that “Traitor” motive occurs in almost every new song we’re doing. It is a sort of “cantus firmus” that holds this entire album together (though for you music nerds, it doesn’t technically function as a cantus firmus). I love albums that tell stories, and this spooky little “Traitor motive” is included as a reminder that someone, somewhere in the song, is being betrayed.

Listen for it again at the tail end of the song!

So-called “motivic composition”– esp. in larger pieces– is near and dear to my heart. I’ve done it before, most notably in a 45-minute electronic work I did in collaboration with big James (aka “Mister M”) in our side project, “Surrounded by Monarchs.” Look for movements from that piece on this blog in the near future.

As always, your comments and criticisms are welcome! We’ve started rehearsing this, but the jury’s still out. Should Catherine stay…or GO?

Tune in next Wednesday for the 3rd installment of the Detholz! Mp3 Blog… collect them all!

Thanks for tuning in!

Your pals,
Jim C. & Detholz!

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27 Responses to “Detholz! demo – “Catherine Zeta-Jones””

  1. Jim Says:

    I bet this one sounds LOUD and HARD with the band. Perfectly abrasive. The kind of tone that makes Steinmeier grit his teeth and pick up his feet. I’d at least love to hear (and see) this one live.
    Damn. I need to soak it in some more.

  2. detholz Says:

    Yes, there’s no doubt that this has been loud in rehearsal…

    \m/

    As for Jonny’s dance moves, they have yet to be tested here. During rehearsals, he’s always seated.

  3. Eriq Says:

    I love the progression of this song. It’s got a ticking time bomb thing going on and then eventually it explodes. Once you hit “And I bait the Bear, With locks of her hair” it calms down a ton and then BOOM! In my mind, you really captured the ultimate result of the fractured man splitting in half at that point of the composition. You also got a super secret spy thing going on with the intro that reminded me of playing the Peter Gun theme in a piano lesson early in my youth. While this song doesn’t sound like Peter Gun, the spy concept was there and it amused me. I agree that this would be a great one to hear live.

  4. Steamy Says:

    Michael Douglas called…
    He said he’s gonna kick your ass!

  5. detholz Says:

    Eriq: Glad you like this one. It’s definitely more “old school Detholz!,” with lots of tension and frantic part-writing.

    I never made the Peter Gunn connection, but now that you mention it, I suppose that’s an added bonus given the subject matter. Book ’em, Danno.

    Steve: Michael Douglas already called and I informed him that DH! are now sponsored by CRS (Consumer Recreation Services). He was quiet for awhile and then gently hung up.

  6. BP Says:

    This blog is quickly becoming a bright spot in the middle of my week. (Not that the rest of the week is particularly dark, but still…). That rhythmic motive is really jarring–it kind of keeps the listener off-kilter the entire song. I think it works well as a way to paint a picture of the song’s subject matter, but I still haven’t decided if it ultimately works in the “I am a Detholz fan, and I really enjoy listening to that song” sense, if you know what I mean.

    I’m really intrigued by the concept of the “betrayal” musical motive that appears on multiple songs. Just to make sure I’m hearing the right thing, is it that upper-register synth sound (kind of sounds like strings) that’s playing mostly whole notes in the last few seconds of the song?

  7. Jonathan Says:

    ok. so here it goes… Killer non-bass bass line. Definitely more old school. Nice combination of “touch me like that / don’t touch me like that” the “like i’m an american” lyric is great.

    I really really like the middle part and how the “now she’s cathrine zeta jones” line is such a sing-songy familiar melody as juxtaposed to the angular melody lines of the rest of the song.

    Here are the things I would change if i were you (or you were me?):

    take out the “zeta-jones” singing during the verses. Let the pounding melody do the pounding. I also think it would make for a great out of left field moment if the first mention of mrs jones is during that middle part “and shes on the screen”. The listener might just think wft? but it completely makes sense given the subject of the song.

    I also don’t care too much for the sax part. At least not at the beginning of the song. It sounds cool at the end as things build up. I could see expanding that element at the end of the song but leaving it out of most of the song.

    The music and lyrics really go well together. Very cohesive. I just saw that movie recently as well and I can totally feel the paranoia in the song.

  8. etts Says:

    love it. this remided me of why I love the detholz! I love this classic stlye much more than the sparseness of “Tammy”. I can’t help it.

  9. detholz Says:

    BP:

    Please visit the blog early and often! It’s intended to provide some “me-time” for you. “Me” meaning “you.” Get it?

    Yeah, I know what you mean. This one’s not exactly “easy listening.” Actually at times reminds me of an older song we did called “Mrs. Apocalypse,” which we ended up retiring mostly because it was a little *too* discordant. Perhaps even unpleasant.

    Not that I have a problem with dissonance or jarring changes, obviously, but the older I get, the less patience I have for rock songs that incorporate too many “stunts,” to borrow a phrase from the Baby Teeth guitar player, Mike Lyons. If I’m going to listen to a rock song– something I do rarely these days– I’m not sure I want my brains blown out by a song that’s overly stressful. Life is stressful enough, you know?

    Even Iron Maiden can be relaxing to listen to at times (not to keep harping on Maiden in the Comments). But that’s a testament to their masterful songcraft. I’m only half-joking.

    Re: the “Traitor” motive… yep, that’s it.

    Jonny suggested that I install a doorbell with those 4 notes on it.

  10. detholz Says:

    Jonathan:

    Thanks for listening, buddy.

    Hm, interesting suggestion.

    For me, the “Ze-Ze…Zeta-Jones” (or rather “Zeta-Jo'” as the “s” was left off) not only made me chuckle, but is the hook of the song. When I played it initially for a few people, THAT was the part everyone seemed to refer back to.

    I could see maybe leaving it out of the 1st verse, but… as I was just discussing with BP, I’m less excited about cramming too many “stunts” into one song. If you like a part, why not just leave it in from start to finish? Why all the dodges and fakes, you know?

    “If it feels good, do it!” One thing I’ve discovered in my years playing in a band, when it comes to rock songs, there are only so many notes people want to hear. Also, I’m not as excited about confusing my listeners as I used to be. I’d really like to write songs that people relate to. (I can’t believe I’m putting that in writing… but there it is. It’s true.)

    Speaking of which: the sax part… for my money, man, that’s non-negotiable! I like the “sad violins” at the beginning coupled with a sax part that sounds like it’s being played by a junior high band student.

    I know that violates certain indie codes and could be seen as a Total Goofball Maneuver, but I think it keeps the song from taking itself too seriously. For me, that little whimsical element humanizes the song– which is not about international espionage, after all, but a poor guy who is dominated and controlled by his fantasy life.

    Thanks, as always, for listening and weighing in! Heard I might see you at the party this wknd…!!

  11. detholz Says:

    Sarah Etts:

    Well, you know, you go back farther than just about anyone, so if you don’t like “Tammy,” I won’t hold it agin’ ya. How long has it been? I think I met you in Sept. of ’93….

    Dear Lord.

    Anyway, thanks for tuning in! Sorry I missed y’all in NH a few weeks back!

  12. Sam O'Rama Says:

    Wow! By the end of this project I’m gonna be able to assemble my own Detholz! box set. It’s totally gonna have some blinking LEDs like that Pink Floyd live album.

  13. Jonathan Says:

    party? this weekend? you did? nah, i got a busy weekend. two birthday parties and i am actually playing a set saturday. Would love to be there though.

    back to the song, maybe leaving it out in the first verse would work. I would see it not as cramming ideas in, but more holding back and letting things unfold or build.

    I don’t think my suggestion would be necessarily confusing people or messing with them. I like to phrase it as “surprising the listener in a delightful kinda way”. I just like how it breaks from the chaotic to the smooth. seems like a good time for the money shot, if you will.

    you should definitely get a junior high schooler with a year of training to play the sax part!

  14. Eriq Says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with harping on the “masterful songcraft” of Maiden. Maybe it’s time they become memorialized through Jukebox of The Dead. While I am joking, I suddenly have an amazing version of “Run To The Hills” ala the “Believe” remake playing out in my head. It rocks!

  15. detholz Says:

    SAMORAMA: Actually, a DH! box set is already being planned with onboard tasers. First review: “Stunning!” Thanks for stopping by… say “howdy” to Adam and all of the Laurie’s folks for us!

    Jonathan: Yeah, the “unfolding/building” what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m just getting jaded, but I feel like if one hasn’t grabbed a listener by the collar within the first 30 seconds of a song, then “game over, man, game over!”

    Esp. after the experience arranging/recording the last Baby Teeth & Bobby Conn records– both records I’m proud to have been a part of– I think there is a real danger in “over-arranging” a song. This goes contrary to all of my Conserv training– and definitely countermands Detholz! former approach to songwriting in the “Who Are The DH!?” days– but these days, I am much more content to let rock songs start, hang in the air for a few minutes, and then go away rather than wriggle around over 6 bazillion chordal and structural changes.

    Perhaps I have become overly paranoid about this. Perhaps this is a cop-out because I’m getting too old for this. Perhaps that is why this song sounds so nervous.

    Eriq: Funny you should mention that. Baby Teeth has done an excellent cover of “Run to the Hills” in the past– in the style of Carole King!

  16. Eriq Says:

    Hooray for eMusic! I got a copy of “Run to the Hills” from a Baby Teeth show at Schubas, and I’m simply amazed. I think I need to go watch Spinal Tap now…

  17. Andrew Says:

    I would love to hear this “Mrs. Apocalypse” song of which you speak, being a fan of DH and also of harsh music in general. So if you ever feel inspired to record a new version of that in a week where you’re running low on new ideas, I certainly wouldn’t complain.

    “Tammy” didn’t leap out at me, but I like “Catherine” immediately. I imagine if I listen to “Tammy” some more then it’ll grow on me in much the same way that your song “Heather” from the Baby Teeth EP did. But anyway, I’m enjoying the blog and it even seems to be matching the standard of quality that the Baby Teeth blog has set.

    Best,
    Andrew of Milwaukee (née Beloit)

  18. Abraham Says:

    hey, thanks eriq! yes…. another nickel in the baby teeth pocket… ha ha ha ha ha !!!

    so, I gotta stand up for NEW-school detholz (like “tammy”, for example), which I think incorporates more of an R&B sensibility than OLD-school detholz jams like this one. they’re both tangy flavors, for sure, but speaking as someone who’s had “psychotherapy” stuck in his head for most of the week, I just wanna say, don’t leave the fatback drums at home when you make that next record!

  19. Jim C. Says:

    Abraham, as most of you know, is the frontron of my other band, Baby Teeth. Check out his excellent songwriting blog at 52teeth.wordpress.com )

    Well, as you know A., I’ve been leaning in more of a pop direction since long before “Cast Out Devils” was finished last year. Spending so much time in your proximity has also been a fantastic education for me.

    Dissonant, obtuse music has always spoken to me more than conventional pop– even back in my music school days, I was much more skilled at atonal sightsinging than I was at the tonal stuff. My former way of thinking was: if one has a catchy melody in a song, one can get away with ANYTHING harmonically. Hence the first DH! record, “Who Are The Detholz!?,” (most– but not all– of which is embarrassing to listen to now).

    As I’ve aged a bit and played in different bands, I’ve had to “unlearn what I learned” in music school to write decent pop songs. What gave me my jollies in the olden days– minor seconds, backbending changes, clashing harmonies, “wrong notes” aplenty– has become part of an old, tired saw.

    When it comes down to it, even I don’t really want to listen to someone’s musical experiments anymore. These days, I listen to oldies radio and easy listening music (like Ray Conniff, Percy Faith– the guys from the era of the “Beautiful Music” format). I guess I’m just getting old.

    I want to hear catchy songs that make me feel good/relaxed when I’m driving in traffic. Is that unoriginal? Well, maybe, but it’s the truth.

    Granted, “Zeta-Jones” covers ground well-traveled by DH! in the past. Fact is, we need some more up-tempo numbers for the upcoming record, and this was one attempt. I suppose I fell back into my former habits with this one. It’s not BAD– I’m pleased with the result. But’s it’s not a perfect “10,” either. I know I can do better.

    It already sounds different in rehearsal with the rest of the Holz, though, so we’ll give it a chance to expand and grow. I’ll let you all know how it turns out…

  20. detholz Says:

    Andrew:

    Thanks for listening and throwing your hat in the ring!

    As I recall, you might be able to find a live version of “Mrs. Apocalypse” on Emusic, as we have a number of old DH! shows available for download there. I don’t remember which songs are up there though, so you’ll have to look for yourself.

    I can see “Tammy” offending the sensibilities of longtime DH! listeners– it’s from out of left field, and more in the “Psychotherapy” vein. Like “Psychotherapy,” which we’ve never played live, it will probably only exist in recorded form. I don’t ever see us playing “Tammy” live.

    I take your comparison to Abraham’s blog as a true compliment. Having played with him– and having played his songs– for a number of years, he has earned my utmost respect as a performer and composer, and his blog is a rare opportunity to see into his large and active brain! IF you’re interested in songwriting (or Baby Teeth) at all, I would highly recommend reading it weekly.

    Again, the address of Abraham’s blog is 52teeth.wordpress.com

  21. kebabdylan Says:

    I’m pretty sure I have a version of miss apocalypse from some radio station you guys did (also spectacula, ima believer, artificial intelligence agency).

  22. Abraham Says:

    thanks for the shout-out(s), JC. needless to say, playing with you has been a great education for me as well. like I tell people, the detholz blog is the grad-school version of the baby teeth blog. this blog is more about ideas and process; the BT blog is about fast cars, cool chicks, and warm beer.

  23. kebabdylan Says:

    do you two need to get a room?
    ;->

  24. dj Says:

    Sixty-first post! Hey Jim, thanks for putting this blog together. A new ‘holz-ready song every week? It takes guts to welcome the rest of the world into the inner-workings of songs — I for one will enjoy it every week. For a while I’ve also followed Jonny’s and Ben’s music ongoing music projects. Karl? Andrew?

  25. dj Says:

    Oh, and Miss Apocalypse? Perhaps my favorite 2 minute and 8 second Detholz Demo.

  26. detholz Says:

    Hiya Deej, thanks for putting us on the dial! Glad to have you on board.

    Side note: You have the Mrs. Apocalypse demo? Can you email it to me??

    I lost a bunch of those old demos when my Mac crashed 100 years ago…

  27. dj Says:

    Yep, I have many demos from your past. Any other songs/files that are missing? I may have them as well. The WLUW show has Miss Apocalypse and a few other non-album goodies. Super Personality or A.I. Agency anyone? I’m sorry to say that Miss Apocalypse didn’t attend the Emusic live shows. She had a previous engagement.

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