Posts Tagged ‘lost weekend’

The Transformation of “Lost Weekend”

March 4, 2009

Welcome or welcome back to the Detholz! Mp3 Blog!

This week “Mp3 Blog” is something of a misnomer since, once again, I have no new track to offer. However, a comment from last week got me thinking that a discussion about the Detholz! process of creating a song, from demo to live performance to the recording studio, might be interesting to fans and fellow music nerds alike.

Our case study: Lost Weekend <–The demo is re-posted here for your convenience. For an exhaustive discussion of the lyrical and musical content of this song, click here.

It’s probably not the best case study since it’s such an atypical Detholz! song in just about every respect. I guess that’s why I found the process so interesting!

DETHOLZ! SONGWRITING

When we first started out 12 years ago as acne-addled college students, the songwriting was usually done as a group. I remember fondly evenings with Karl and Big Jamesie seated on the floor in our rank, musty college apartment, acoustic guitars in hand, cranking out one geeky, stupid song after another. [The only surviving example of a song written during that period is “Last Train to Mars,” which is on our first record Who Are The Detholz!?, available for download or song-by-song purchase at www.detholz.com/merch.html]

Over the next few years, Karl and I would occasionally regroup to write in tandem. I remember a number of nights when I was working full-time as a piano salesman in Downers Grove (really lives up to its name!) when we would meet in the back of the store after closing to sit amongst all of the dusty granny organs and write songs. ‘Twas a magical time! “Sunburned in the Sun” (also on WRTDH!?) was written at that time and remains the band’s favorite, even after all these years.

As we got older and life got busier, we’ve settled into a tried-and-true procedure:

1. I (or someone else in the band) record(s) demos at home arranged as completely as possible, incl. percussion, keyboard parts, guitar/bass parts, vocals, etc. (many of which have been posted on this here blog over the past few years — a box set’s worth of material, in fact. See previous posts)
2. I (or someone else) will email the demos to the band for a vote.
3. The band votes “yea” or “nay,” usually citing specific parts or reasons why.
4. If “nay,” then the song is scrapped on the spot. If “yea” then it proceeds to the next stage on the Detholz! Conveyor Belt, DETHOLZ! REHEARSAL.

In the case of “Lost Weekend,” I did something a little different: there were no guitar parts recorded on the demo. I anticipated that this might jog the band a little bit in rehearsal & transform the song into something different, something better. Turns out I was right!

DETHOLZ! REHEARSAL

Usually, we learn any given song in its original “demo’ed” form. This typically involves me charting out parts for Jonny & Rick (keyboards) and Ben (bass) using either standard notation or “lead sheets.”

One of three things happens next:

1. Nothing!
2. Extant sections of the song are excised or extended
3. New sections of the song are written collaboratively & added — this happened on songs that have been in our live rotation recently, like “Future Wife” and “Catherine Zeta-Jones” (which also went through a huge makeover in the studio, incidentally)

“Lost Weekend” was a chaotic mess in the rehearsal stage. First of all, we were rehearsing to record it, not play it live, which meant there was extra pressure to “get it right” in rehearsal. There were so many keyboard parts on the demo that Jonny and Rick couldn’t possibly cover them all, which meant Karl and I had to come up with guitar parts on the spot in rehearsal. These changed literally almost every time, clear up into the recording session.

The most difficult aspect of playing “Lost Weekend” was achieving the right “feel.” It’s so radically different from Detholz! usual anal-retentive Prussian herky-jerk; it has a much more relaxed, loose and creepy almost “dub” feel to it that we really had to wrestle with to get right.

This is where having an excellent producer like Bobby Conn really came in handy. Bobby attended all of our rehearsals leading up to the first tracking session at Bill Skibbe’s magical Key Club Recording studio in Benton Harbor, MI. He took copious notes and recorded every rehearsal on a small handheld cassette recorder. For “Lost Weekend,” he even sent Andrew (drummer) a bunch of different dub recordings, since Andrew was largely unfamiliar with the style. He also spent a lot of time working with Andrew on a “looser” style of playing.

We wrestled with this clear up until the last rehearsal, when the song started to get closer… but not quite all the way. I kept telling Andrew to play “behind the beat,” which he interpreted perhaps too literally at first. The more we practiced, the better it got. Still, it had an edge of tightness to it that sounded affected and wrong. By the time we were going into the studio, “Lost Weekend” was still nowhere near 100%. Of all of the songs on the record, I was extremely concerned… it was looking like “Lost Weekend” = FAIL.

RECORDING SESSION

When it came time to record “Lost Weekend,” we found that the song was really living up to its name. There we were: sitting in a recording studio on the weekend, completely lost!

I should mention: for this session, we set everyone up to record simultaneously. The drums and bass in the “big room,” guitars in a room whose walls are completely lined with cut logs (my favorite room at Key Club — it’s like playing on the set of Twin Peaks) and keyboards in an isolation booth at the rear of the building. There are windows in each rooms walls, so we have a line of sight to one another. (Pics will be posted shortly…)

After doing a couple of “okay” but stilted takes, Bobby told us to take a break (everyone except the drummer, that is) & that he was going to try something. So, we all meandered out into the kitchen area, feeling a little dejected. A few minutes later, he called us back in. Andrew was playing the part PERFECTLY, even with the little hi-hat flourishes and odd cymbal crashes that are characteristic of a “dub” sort of style. We were astounded.

Q: How did Bobby flip this magical switch in so short a time?

A: He ran ALL of the drums through an Echo-Plex, a vintage tape reverb unit!

Playing along to his bad delayed self, Andrew was inspired to loosen up and improvise, which he does very well in his jazz playing all of the time. We went back in & all it took was 2 more takes for us to perfectly nail “Lost Weekend,” with the elusive feel we had sought all along. A truly great moment in Detholz! history! There’s nothing more exciting in music than to have a take like that happen spontaneously in a studio. It’s the “happy accident” principle & involves an element of chaos that goes beyond rehearsal, planning & raw musicianship, even.

I like to think it’s white magic… in fact, I more than “like” to think it– I do. Never believe it’s not so!

LOST WEEKEND EPILOGUE

“Lost Weekend” isn’t completely finished yet, but it’s already one of my favorite cuts on the new record this far. It’s a very different kind of sound for us — in fact, Rick wondered in rehearsal if it was TOO different & would sound strange in the context of the other songs. After the transformation it went through from demo to studio, however, we all agreed that it fit in nicely & I know I’m not the only one in the band for whom it transmogrified from a “meh” song to a total standout.

Unfortunately, we’ve had to postpone our final tracking session due to scheduling problems, so it’ll be awhile before we’re able to put Death to the Traitor in the can.

On the flipside, Detholz! is planning to work on new material over the next few weeks, so check back for some brand new demos & cast your vote! We exist but to serve!