Welcome to Self-Retrospect, where David waffles about himself and his own music. Thankfully, he restricts referring to himself in the third person to these little intro bits.
In this episode, he finally goes electronic…
The last edition of this series dealt with a song that directly derived from my listening habits of the time. Exposure to Beat Happening had lead to a fairly minimal, simple song. And like ‘Snug’, track 8 on Projects was a blatant reflection of what I was getting constantly played in my CD player (yes, we still used those back then – then being April/May 2003).
Actually, there were two CDs I had on heavy rotation at this time. The first was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. My immersion into the world of that album and its heavily-layered sound (although Kevin Shields would go on to repeatedly state that there weren’t many layers on those songs at all) generated its own tribute of sorts in a very guitar-effects-heavy, “more-is-more” song I did called ‘Paper Heart’:
The second album was Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR. I don’t need to delve into my relationship with that album here, as, handily enough, I’ve already written a whole post on it, which you can read here. At the end of that post I mentioned how, inspired by the album, “I dusted off the old Yamaha keyboard I had as a child and recorded my first proper electronic-based song”. The song in question was ‘Sentimental Baby’.
It didn’t get the title – or lyrics at all – until quite late in the day. The same with the “traditional” instruments that ended up accompanying the electronic stuff. The initial intention was just to try out using the keyboard to write music.
I started by recording a “beat”. There was no programming capabilities on the keyboard and, though I had done a little bit of cut-a-paste stuff in my musical endeavours, I hadn’t really copped on to looping (using very primitive software didn’t help). So the percussion part was me playing the keyboard’s drum pads live, recorded in one take. The only bit of post-performance manipulation came much later, when I decided to split the stereo tracks and put them slightly out of phase with each other, in an attempt to beef them up slightly/give them some “width”. It kind of worked.
The actual keyboard playing was very much a one-finger-at-a-time affair. I had never progressed very far when I’d taken those lessons as a child. To compensate for this, I ran the keyboard through a bunch of guitar effects pedals, including Steven Carton’s multi-effects pedal I’d borrowed for ‘Paper Heart’. The dominating effect was the flanger – its (over)use undoubtedly influenced by its presence on the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie track ‘Love’.
It was all quite basic, really. Just a simple note (I couldn’t do chords!) progression. But I liked the structure of it. And after getting it to this state, I thought there was potential for a song in there:
Indeed, I ended up working on it for all of the following day. This was during that post-lectures/pre-exams period, where I should have been studying, but was very easily distracted. You know, those times where I was much much more productive, musically, that during the rest of the year.
I understood that XTRMNTR worked well because it wasn’t just synths. There were other instruments in there too. Most importantly of all, the bass – as evident on tracks like ‘Kill All Hippies’ and ‘Exterminator’. Hence, I knew I had to get some four-string stuff in there.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the bass part was the key to the whole song. Like with ‘Apple Tree’, it underpinned everything and drove the song forward. Though, while ‘Apple Tree’ had quite an intricate bass part, this track just had a simple, uncomplicated groove. It just worked.
It worked so well, in fact, I thought the song was good and done. It was only after a bit of inner deliberation did I decided to go on and record some guitar tracks for it.
In that ‘Apple Tree’ post, I wrote about how Sonic Youth shaped my use of guitar tunings (…that bit following on from the ‘Breaking’ post). Well, another thing Sonic Youth inspired me to do was to try and build up an arsenal of guitars. SY have many many guitars, each one dedicated to one or two tunings. Often, the tunings were developed to maximize the potential of particular guitars.
Obviously, being a student with limited income didn’t really allow me to go nuts. But in the space of two years, I managed to acquire three electric guitars. An important development came with the third. This was a Squier (Fender’s budget brand) Stratocaster which I got with some birthday money in September 2002. It was my first guitar that had a tremolo arm/whammy bar.
I remember the exact moment I knew I needed a guitar with a whammy bar. It was after I got a VHS copy of Sonic Youth’s 1996 performance at Rockpalast. In the introduction to the third song of the set, ‘Starfield Road’, Thurston Moore went fucking apeshit on his guitar, incorporating the aforementioned arm in ways I’d never seen.
Anyway, getting slightly off point here. Basically, though, that Strat became my dedicated guitar for paired-string tunings like the one on ‘Apple Tree’. The tuning for the guitar on ‘Sentimental Baby’ was actually one I’d used for the first time on that ‘Paper Heart’ song – F#F#C#C#BB.
For the bulk of the song, the guitars (there were three tracks) just mirrored what the keyboard was doing – adding some weight and texture, but not setting anything alight. However, they came into their own though with the intro and also during the breakdown, when I got to do some whammy bar stuff. (I really can’t overstate how fun it is to do whammy bar stuff – as unintentionally euphemistic as that sounds…)
So at this point I was up to here:
The last part of the puzzle was putting some vocals over it.
The lyrics were sparked by an online conversation I’d had with a musical friend (Enda Coyle, if I recall correctly…) about stupid sentimental songs. I don’t really remember exactly how it related, but I know I was trying to be clever: trying to comment on such silly songs, while also being one, to some degree. Or something like that.
I don’t think anything grandiose was achieved, but I think I managed to come up with some lines that were quite phonetically pleasing. They mightn’t mean much, but I believe they sound quite good.
The bass was doing all the work anyway, so it probably didn’t really matter:
So, yeah. This track was certainly a turning point. I’d overcome my electronic allergy and was now “free” to incorporate synths and beats into everything. I still didn’t really do a whole lot of it – at least not then. But the door had certainly been opened…