Surrounded by Monarchs – “In a Consumer Haze” from “Paradise!”

Welcome to Episode X of the Detholz! Mp3 Blog!

In another two weeks, you’ll have enough tracks to build your own “Detholz! ‘n Friends” album! For now, the mp3’s all read “Detholz! Mp3 Blog,” but that’s so blase. What do YOU think this record should be called? “Abraham Lincoln and his Lincoln’s Logs?” “Tiny Loopholes for Huge Americans?” “The Adventures of Subway Sandwich on her Submarine, the U.S.S. Fat Jared?” Hmm… Hit us back with a comment, suggest a title and we’ll take a vote!

Today’s cut, “In a Consumer Haze” is near and dear to me, the product of a collaboration with one of the most colorful characters I know, Mr. James “Jamesie” Mitchell (aka Mister M from the DH! days of yore). He named the project “Surrounded by Monarchs.”

James, along with Karl, is one of the founding members of Detholz!. Back in the early days, James designed all of our posters– collages of anarcho-fascist rallies and images from “Today’s Christian Woman,” etc.– and took a very active role in making each Detholz! show unique. (We were in college at the time, and could afford to make every show “high concept.”)

In 2001 (right, James?), James experienced a minor meltdown and disappeared. After a few weeks of scratching our heads, James called me from somewhere in the Yukon Territory and announced that he was driving to the North Pole– or as close as he could get in his Buick LeSabre. While we feared for his safety, after a few more weeks, James returned home and wrote a collection of… poems? Lyrics? Vignettes? I don’t know what to call them. They’re a series of texts about his journey to the North Pole and back again entitled, “Paradise!.”

Eventually, James and I decided to collaborate on this project. I would set his text to music, and it would culminate in a solo performance by Jamesie @ Hungry Brain in Chicago. As I recall, I badgered him to be involved until he agreed. The resulting piece is 45 minutes long– the longest piece of music I’ve written to date– and James and I worked closely together on the project for about 3 months before it was finished. Surrounded by Monarchs remains one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever participated in.

In the moments after James finished his performance, Dan, the doughty Hungry Brain bartender, said: “OK, we are now officially the weirdest bar in Chicago!”

Though “Paradise!” is far from perfect musically, I think James is a brilliant writer and an unusually resourceful artist. (Incidentally, James writes his own music– painstakingly– using a shareware sequencing program. Perhaps with his permission, he’ll allow us to post some in the future.) He manages to save the piece from drowning in its own pretension with his quirky stories.

Being able to work with James on this piece, I got a rare glimpse inside of his head during a confusing time in his life. Examining those demons together was a rare privilege. I have often returned to this piece during dark spells in my own life.

Because the process of constructing this was so long and difficult, I never fully mixed and mastered the original recordings. I’ve started to do so this year and will post more of “Paradise!” as I complete the remixes. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to post the piece in its entirety, as it was intended to be heard.

I. SONG CONCEPT

I will have to defer to James on the back story. He’ll post something shortly.

II. MUSICAL CONCEPT

This is the second piece of programmatic electronic music I’ve written. Almost all of the sound sources are “found sounds,” heisted from the web, movie soundtracks, other songs, etc. The sampling is “dirty,” meaning I didn’t do a whole lot to clean up imperfections, looped them in awkward places, etc. The samples are noisy, raw, and mostly went direct to tape. The technique comes, again, from my fascination with the music of the Residents, who were among the first to use sampling technology on their album entitled “The Tunes of Two Cities,” which is part of a trilogy about the migration of moles.

Specifically, many sounds were lifted from the soundtrack of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” as I saw a lot of parallels between James and Charlie– an innocent soul plunges into a bizarre dimension and climbs out again. (The candy-coated surrealism doesn’t hurt, either, if you know James.) I lifted and manipulated a lot of bell and glockenspiel passages from the score– which is excellent, btw. Bells make “magical” sounds– they’re the first and last instrument you hear in “Paradise!,” a reminder that you are entering/exiting an alternate universe. A alternate universe of JAMES.

The music in “Paradise!” is all motivic, just like “Death to the Traitor.” There is a “wanderer motive” that occurs in the B or “bridge” section of this movement, and though it doesn’t show up in every section of “Paradise!,” a lot of the melodic material (as melodic as one can be when working with found sounds) springs from it. I’ll post it once it’s remixed.

The big challenge here was to service the words. In retrospect, “Paradise!” is far too complicated musically. I think it distracts from Jamesie’s words at times, though in “Consumer Haze,” the balance is better. If I were to do this piece over again, I would impose more severe musical limits, focusing on creating atmosphere rather than through-composing movements with discernible sections and phrases. In plain English, it would be more “free form” and improvisatory.

There are later movements where I took that approach, and they’re MUCH more effective. When James performed this back in 2004, it was easy to see when the audience was responding… and when they got lost. It’s demanding to ask someone to sit through a 45-minute long electronic epic which, for the most part, isn’t easy to listen to. James performed this in front of 2 different audiences, and in both cases, they gravitated towards the “freer” sections.

“Consumer Haze” is intentionally dense, claustrophobic, and over-arranged with layers of crowd noise, pitches going in and out of phase, Ian MacKaye’s looped shout, etc. All of us have been trapped in a Best Buy at one point or other…

So. Your comments are welcome. I realize this will never play on commercial radio, but I hope you enjoy it. “Paradise!” remains a piece I’m very proud to have been a part of.

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16 Responses to “Surrounded by Monarchs – “In a Consumer Haze” from “Paradise!””

  1. jon steinmeier Says:

    jim and jamsie,

    this is a really terrific piece! i remember loving that show at the hungry for so many reasons, and it’s really great to hear some of this material again.

    jim, brilliant music/found-sound work. that ian mackaye scream is super-satisfying.

    i hear what you mean about being overly-complicated…but i also sounds appropriate to the text in that it’s stressy…frantic…that “quick, shallow breaths” feeling. i wonder if it could be a mix thing?

    regardless, really nice work. you and jamsie are a force to be reckoned with. 🙂

    j

  2. detholz Says:

    Jonny:

    Thanks!

    Whew, yeah, brother– this thing was a bear to mix! It’s why I left it alone for so many years. I was afraid of it! This cut is about as close as I can get to a “clean” mix given the slop in the source materials.

    Since so many of the sounds were left untouched and James did as many as 5 vocal takes for each movement, it requires hours of cleanup and sorting just to get STARTED on one of these. On average, we’re talking at least 30 tracks apiece, without the vocals. *shudder*

    Compound that with the fact that I wasn’t as proficient at home recording back then. A lot of the trash is intentional– but a lot of it isn’t.

    Anyway, I’m glad you appreciate it, warts and all. Means a lot!

  3. jon steinmeier Says:

    sho nuff.

    but i actually think simple level stuff could work. i think the trashy sounds are great! i wouldn’t change that stuff at all. but if you feel like the jamsie vocals are getting overpowered maybe just compress him and slide the track back a little.

    i dunno.

    word.

  4. detholz Says:

    Hm. I thought the balance was OK here. It’s a tricky business to find the perfect level of narration to track on these Monarchs cuts.

    I was trying to avoid having it sound like James was in my closet speaking to a mixed, realized track– which, in fact, he was! The vocals should ideally sound integrated with the music– a unified whole.

    The other problem was that James was a tough cookie to record! At times he would get animated and move closer to the mic. At other times, he would mumble and move farther away. I was running him through a compressor, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. If I had had more than one mic, it might have been easier. But I didn’t.

    Given the wide dynamic range of his delivery, I’m not sure any compressor would’ve been sufficient, anyway. That’s not a slight against James– his delivery is great. He was just really hard to record.

    As a result, I’m left to match various scraps from various vocal takes and somehow integrate them into the music without the vox sounding “pasted on.” I originally had them higher in the mix towards the beginning, but it didn’t work. The “cut/paste” effect was too obvious, in my opinion.

    Vocal integration in the mix is easier on some of these, harder on others. “Consumer Haze” was definitely a bear.

  5. kebabdylan Says:

    i won’t be able to listen to it till morn’, but i just wanted to state that “Surrounded by Monarchs” is a great great title for anything.

  6. kebabdylan Says:

    wow! i was expecting something unlistenable but this is fantastic. And Jamsie, sadly, I can also relate to that horrible feeling that i need be buy things. I think I have even walked around best buy like that before 😦

  7. detholz Says:

    ‘Bab: Unlistenable? Hm. Perhaps I should’ve painted this in a more favorable light!

    Anyway, glad you like it. Which of us hasn’t, at one point or other, succumbed to sensory overload in a department store?

  8. Jim Says:

    The music is abrasively awsome! It’s very fitting with the point of the song.
    The lyrical content (yes, I actually listened to the words of this one) and James’ delivery totally reminds me of David Byrne in the movie True Stories. “Shopping is a feeling”. I’m not sure if anyone’s familiar. Although Byrne’s and James’ attitude toward affluenza are probably on opposite ends of the spectrum.
    Very excellent track. I’d love to hear more from this project.

  9. kebabdylan Says:

    JC, i think it was the “found sound” aspect combined with “intentionally dense, claustrophobic, and over-arranged with layers of crowd noise, pitches going in and out of phase, Ian MacKaye’s looped shout, etc.”

    but it works together for a very compelling listen.

  10. WOTSAC Says:

    Jim – that’s a good catch that I wouldn’t have remembered right off. The delivery was absolutely influenced by True Stories – which I was watching regularly at the time. In a way this project was an inversion of True Stories — a vast landscape almost empty of people. The few people the narrator meets are unpleasant, perhaps even malevolent. I have to confess that the main reason that the story has almost no people in it is that I’m desperately afraid of writing dialog. Usually that would be a limitation, but since I set out to write a rambling paranoid nightmare it’s a positive boon.

  11. Zombie Gursha Says:

    Hey,

    I love this site thingy. You guys are really rocking, I think. I’m trying to think of some cool names for your next album, but I lack any clever comments. Here are my thoughts:

    “Jesus and the Chocolate Factory”
    “Stairway to Hell”
    “The Detholz! Manifesto”
    “Mohammed’s Favorites”
    “they can’t think of a name for this piece of crap”
    “the white album”
    “detholz come alive”
    “CHUNGKINGOSAURUS JIANGBEIENSIS”
    “Zombie Gursha can’t sing”

    Thank you and God Bless

    Z G

  12. Mac Says:

    I’m not very skilled musically (when it comes to composing, playing and producing), however… I really enjoyed this piece. It actually makes me want to listen to the entire rest of the piece.
    I understand what you’re talking about when you say that you think the music detracts from the words, however at least in this piece I think it completely fits that the vocals are – at times – harder to hear and not as prominent as a typical vocal track would be. It’s all about creating a claustrophobic and tense mood, which the music certainly accomplishes, and the vocal track’s production and mixing really fits in with the lyrical content, if you ask me.
    It’s all about being… well, “In a Consumer Haze” – and the vocal track is just that. It’s at times lost, but never too far gone from the forefront.
    I really enjoyed it.

  13. detholz Says:

    Jim: See Jamesie’s comment above on the “True Stories” connection. I hope to remix and post more of these later in the Fall. The second movement is almost ready for posting… stay tuned!

    WOTSAC: I’d imagine dialog might be difficult for someone with a penchant for entering a room and greeting everyone by simply stating “Buttocks.”

    Mac: Thanks for weighing in!

    Vocal mixing is a contentious issue and in my experience, engineers fall into 2 categories: vox in front of the music & vox buried IN the music. I listened to a lot of hardcore music growing up– most of which fell in the latter category, so it doesn’t bother me as much when vocals are embedded in the other tracks a bit.

    In this case, I just don’t want to do a disservice to Jamesie’s (aka WOTSAC’s) carefully crafted text.

    I felt the same way you did– that conceptually, it didn’t make as much sense to have the vox front and center in a piece about sensory overload.

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  14. detholz Says:

    Zombie: The winner of the lot is “CHUNGKINGOSAURUS JIANGBEIENSIS.”

    I was also thinking “Detholz! Mp3 Blog: Talk Purty to Me” might work.

    Thanks for your amusing suggestions!

  15. kebabdylan Says:

    ha ha ha. i love the chungk… title!

    this actually belongs in another post, but jim you will get a kick out of this. from the mouth of my 4 yr old son “knock knock (him)” “who’s there (that’s me)?” “eye ball” “eyeball who?” “here i come constantinople here i come constantinople…”

  16. detholz Says:

    ‘Bab: Splendid! You have created a monster!

    Just don’t teach him the words to “Sinister Exaggerator.”

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