Self-Retrospect #6: ‘Apple Tree’

Episode six of the stubbornly self-centred Self-Retrospect series, in which I go on and on about old songs of mine, as if they are of great importance. In this installment: mysterious metaphors, twisted tunings and bouncing basslines.

Arriving at the tail end of that pre-Leaving Cert burst of activity I wrote about last time, ‘Apple Tree’ remains quite a proud achievement for me. I think it came together really well. Musically, that is. Lyrically…

Apple Tree - metaphor

Yes, I have mixed feelings about the lyrics. I don’t think any major new ground was broken. The overall thrust of it was, once again, pining after someone. I suppose a slight innovation was its focus on what might happen if I actually acted upon my desire – questioning whether it would actually work out, rather than assuming the fairy tale ending. The whole thing was then filtered through this quite ridiculous, deliberately vague metaphor. What does “eating your celery” specifically mean? Who knows? I often hear/read writers being coy and saying they like to leave things open to interpretation/up to the audience’s imagination. I reckon a reasonable percentage of such utterances are in cases where they have no idea themselves.

I did like how the words sounded though. Each line had the exact same phrasing and rhyme, which gave it a kind of playful, nursery rhyme kind of quality. Anyway, I’ll move on…

Writing about ‘Breaking’, I mentioned that my interest in Sonic Youth would have a massive influence on my approach to guitar tunings. This is true. Between 2001 and 2006 about two-thirds of all the songs/pieces I recorded had non-standard tunings. (Although, interestingly, of the 10 songs on the pseudo-best-of Projects, two-thirds are in standard tuning. Selection is about 50/50.) Some of these tunings were usual, common variations, or not far off. Some were lifted directly from SY’s playbook. Others were my own invention:

Apple Tree - guitar 1

As far as I know (and as far as Google tells me), I may be the first and only person to have utilized this GGEECC tuning. Clearly SY-inspired – with the paired strings and all (the pairs are tuned in unison, i.e. same note, same octave. Warning: tuning a guitar like this can really really confuse sound guys during soundchecks in live venues. One kept telling me to turn off the chorus effect I had on.) – it was also a bizarre open C, with the root notes actually the highest in pitch. This tuning initially arose when I wrote a song called ‘Undermind’ – a fractured, noisy number which used lots of harmonics.

(Actually, the original recording of ‘Undermind’ hasn’t been available online for years. I suppose now’s as good a time as any to unearth it:

[audio:http://www.davidding.com/audio/other/undermind.mp3|titles=undermind|artists=david ding][download ‘Undermind’ mp3])

So, the idea with ‘Apple Tree’ was to take this same tuning and repurpose it in a much more traditional, poppy and much less noisy context. That was the intention. I’m not sure how traditional the result was. The song was in 6/8 timing – not ubiquitous, but not too uncommon. The intro and verses were just four chords – fairly straightforward, though the chords themselves were a bit weird. After the first sung verse, there was a short break. Then two more verses, followed by the break again, which became a breakdown/noisy outro – y’know, traditional…

What I liked about this, though, was how the second guitar part came into play. If you look at that Sonic Youth tuning list again, you’ll notice how – although they tended to match up on the early albums – Thurston and Lee would differ in their guitar tunings (e.g. on ‘Schizophrenia’, Thurston’s guitar is tuned to F#F#GGAA and Lee’s DDDDAA). ‘Apple Tree’ was not the first song I’d used two different tunings on, but it was the first where I tuned one guitar to specifically complement what the other was playing. I broke down the individual notes that were played in those four chords on the first guitar and then came up with a tuning that enabled me to play similar note combinations in a different manner (without having to make insane shapes with my hand). The result was this:

Apple Tree - guitar 2

So, I had two guitars – panned hard left (GGCF#AC) and right (GGEECC) in the stereo mix – playing odd sounding chords in an odd sounding combination. And it worked!

It did need something to anchor it though. This is where the bass came in. And it’s really the bass part that I’m most proud of. I know I had already been able to move on from basic root-note stuff, with the improvised part in ‘Never Knew…’ and the funky line in ‘Tiburón’, but this took it to a new level. It had an overall structure: progressing from sustained underpinning notes in the first verse, through beat-keeping ones in the break, into a carefully constructed “proper” bass part for the second and third verses. I even tabbed the whole thing out:

Apple Tree - bass

In the end, it all gets noisy. Both guitars and the bass get distorted. The right guitar gets a wah pedal and the left one a chorus pedal with all the parameters set to the maximum. And then the clean guitars come in for a little reprise. The end.

Why not have a listen to the whole lot yourself:

I can’t remember if I was doing it consciously at the time, but in retrospect, it seems that I was ripping off/paying tribute to/being inspired by the R.E.M. track ‘New Test Leper’: the 6/8 timing and the bassline, anyway. I loved playing that particular Mike Mills bass part, so it’s not at all inconceivable. I definitely put enough of my own spin on it though, surely…(?)

I have only ever played ‘Apple Tree’ live once. The practicalities of the guitar tuning are to blame for that. At that particular gig I brought a separate guitar to play it on – otherwise retuning would be a nightmare. Ger Lynch backed me up on drums and it actually sounded quite good. Except the vocals. My vocals were crap. The best part, though, was how we segued it into that original GGEECC song, ‘Undermind’. I’ll embed the video of that segue and ‘Undermind’ below (video of all of ‘Apple Tree’ still exists somewhere …I’m just not sure where). Before that, here’s the audio of the ‘Apple Tree’ performance. (To get the full, continuous song-transition experience, download Selection and listen to it on a gapless player!)

‘Apple Tree (live)’:

‘Undermind (live)’ (w/ ‘Apple Tree’ outro):