Self-Retrospect #3: ‘Flare’

Welcome to episode three of Self-Retrospect – this blog’s most overtly narcissistic series, which recounts the stories behind some of my earlier forays into songwriting.

As we saw in their respective entries, the first two tracks on the Projects compilation [download here] were mostly significant for their lyrical content. Musically? Well, they each had their moments. Sonically? Not particularly interesting at all. Of course, at this stage, everything was being recorded through an old computer microphone made in the mid- to late-90s. I had just about figured out how multitrack recording worked. I was still, however, compressing the hell out of stuff when converting to MP3. This was mostly down to ignorance, but it was partly due to the severely limited space we had on our PC hard drive at the time. The latter also meant that very soon after I’d exported a mixdown of a song, I would have to delete the recorded tracks so that I’d have space to record new stuff. This would persist right up until I got my own computer when I was living in Japan in 2006. Which means that no multitracks of Projects-era songs have survived, unfortunately.

I did come around to not compressing the hell out of songs in the MP3 conversion process a lot sooner than that, but not before recording ‘Flare’ on 19 January, 2002. ‘Flare’ – track 3 on Projects – is a harsh and ugly song. Definitely the most overtly brutal thing I’d done up until that point – and possibly still one of the most severe I’ve ever done.  It almost physically hurts to listen to it. The quality of the final mixdown certainly didn’t tone things down. At a time when most MP3s had a bit rate of 128kbps, ‘Flare’ was 32kbps. Ouch.

Flare - I'd say hello

But yes, the harshness was already there. First thing was percussion. This was the first song I’d done that had any kind of live percussion. It actually formed the basis of the whole song – and I have my little sister to thank for it. Jennifer, aged 12 at the time, was attending a sort of speech and drama/performance class thing on Friday evenings. At one, the class did a drumming workshop, where they did this polyrhythmic exercise in which one half of the class did one thing (keeping the 8th beat? – my knowledge of drum terminology remains terrible) while the other half did this “bom–bom-bom–bom-bom” thing. The next day, she demonstrated, and I suggested recording it.

For the 8th beat part, I went with hitting saucepans (or saucepan lids?) with plastic chopsticks. This is the first thing you hear on the song. The sound is all treble and gets right in your ear. On the 6th and 8th beat, I hit a different lid and – on another track – hit two saucepan lids together like cymbals. For the “bom” bit, I wanted something deeper. I don’t know if there are multiple “bom” tracks, but the one I remember was Jennifer (or may be me) whacking an empty box of Celebrations, left over from Christmas.

I had come up with the repetitive, obnoxious, upstroke guitar riff a few days prior to this and hadn’t planned on doing much with it. But then I realized it totally fit the 8th beat section. Before I recorded that though, I got Jen to lay down a distorted bass part – just hit the open E string to the “bom–bom-bom–bom-bom” beat and let the last one ring out. She then doubled that with the same thing an octave above. After that, I recorded the guitar, ensuring that the tone knob was set as high as it went. And then the vocals.

Flare - your averting eyes

I had already written the words. Most of my songs – at least most of them back then – came about this way. I would write loads of words/pseudo-poems in a notebook (usually at night; sometimes drunk). Then, separately, I would mess about on guitar or bass and sometimes come up with something decent-sounding. After that I’d find words from the notebook that fit the song.

It was very very easy to match these words to this music. There were about 12 lines on one page – all rather seething. I took just six of them and then used that old friend (well, a new-ish friend at the time) repetition to lock them to the brutal repeating groove. Rhythmically, they worked brilliantly together. And as for the sentiment of those words? Have a listen and tell me if it fits:

At the time, there was some speculation among one or two friends about who the target of the lyrics was. No one guessed correctly, though. This was probably because the subject of ‘Flare’ wasn’t really in my life in the time and – in actual fact – wasn’t really one particular person. It was more about feelings I had towards a group of people, although I might have had one of the group in my head when I was actually putting pen to paper.

For me, the “beauty” of this song was its distinct lack of beauty. It was a lot of fun to play live too. It was definitely the highlight of the first “david ding” gig I ever did (which didn’t happen until November 2004 – nearly three years after the song was first recorded). That show was at Eamonn Doran’s (sadly no more) in Dublin, where my good friend Mr Peter Stringer backed me on drums. I was considerably nervous during the set, but when ‘Flare’ came, halfway through, I was able to let go. We played it faster – actually, Peter started off playing it quite fast and then I told him to speed up even more. And instead of doing my monotone deadpan thing, I found it in myself to do a monotone shouty thing. Heck, I’ve got a recording of that very performance [taken from the Selection compilation – a more expansive/less picky compilation of 2001-2006 stuff – which you can download here]:

I ended up playing it at most gigs after that – it was a handy sort of confidence-booster to have in my pocket, and/or something to confront an unfriendly/uninterested audience with. But around late 2007, I just stopped playing it.

Flare - the flavour of your face

I think, of all the songs on Projects, it’s the one I’ve probably “outgrown” the most. While it seems somewhat acceptable to hear an 18-year-old sing/say/shout things like “the flavour of your face is making me sick”, I don’t think someone in their mid-/late-twenties can pull it off quite as well. That’s not to say I wouldn’t still write harsh songs, or that I don’t enjoy performing them. But I’d like to think I – as a part of, you know, growing up – have become a little bit more sophisticated with the mean stuff. But maybe I’m just being pretentious there (as if I haven’t been for the duration of this post – ha!). Who knows, perhaps I’ll resurrect it.

Actually, in late 2008, I did come back to ‘Flare’ when I was figuring out how to use a piece of homebrew Nintendo DS software called bliptracker. I took six samples from the original MP3 and did this one-take live video with which I shall leave you. Tune in next time for Episode 4: David gets sexy.