So… I decided to make a real solo album after several aborted and redirected attempts, mostly as a result of seeing my brother, Joe, go through the process a couple times and realizing I could and should do it too. Joe's second solo album started out as demos for the second Blue Coupe album, Million Miles More, and some of those songs that didn't make the MMM album evolved into some of the tracks on that solo effort.
I also had perfectly viable songs that didn't make the MMM album. No wonder really because we had over 40 songs with finished demos before we chose the final 13. So my original goal was to finish these songs, add a couple more BOC covers and write a half dozen others and I'd have an album's worth of solo material that I could go to an open mic and play with just me and my acoustic guitar.
My first idea was that my solo album would be like an early Bob Dylan album, acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica but then I started listening to Mumford and Sons albums and fell in love with that sound. I also realized that my solo album could be me singing and playing any instrument I wanted and I really didn't have to limit myself to the "open mic night" concept. Creating arrangements for songs is one of my biggest strengths and I should probably play to some of those. That being said, I still wanted all the songs to be acoustic guitar oriented. I don't need to make a rock monster machine album. I have Blue Coupe for that.
Here is a track by track account:
In my quest to write the rest of the songs for the album I enlisted the aid of my friend, Kathy Vargas, who is an internationally known photographer and college professor in San Antonio, Texas. Kathy had never written a song before but from years of correspondence I knew her to be a really great writer who had a nice way of phrasing things. I wanted to do a Mariachi song about a Mexican immigrant and the horror of making the journey through the desert to come to the USA. Kathy actually knew some people with that experience so she helped me write the song. Along with that song she sent me some lyrics for songs that people might actually expect me to write. Ghosts was one of them. At first I thought it was too sing-songy, the rhymes too perfect, the concept too obvious but I decided to try and see what could happen.
For the music I had been teaching some of my students how to play the piano solo, "Bella's Theme" from the Twilight movie. I liked how the song seemed to mash together notes that weren't supposed to fit. It broke all sorts of rules to amazing effect. I started putting notes together in similar way and created the chorus. In "Bella's Theme" the songs starts out in a mysterious dissonance and then gives way to some very harmonious voicing. I decided on the same strategy with the verses of Ghosts. It was just around the end of my Christmas vacation and I wanted to get this demo done before going off with Blue Coupe to play some end of the year gigs. I had a very bad sore throat and could barely talk but I finished the demo and listened to it on my way up to Buffalo the next day. I have to say that I had a very hard time containing my excitement about the demo. I thought we really might have something here and I knew I would be writing a lot more songs with Kathy.
For the version on the album I have replaced almost all the parts except for parts of the lead vocal. There's something I like about that nasal nose cold sound that sounds compelling to me. Once I realized that I would try to keep some of the demo vocal I had to make sure all vocal overdubs had the same vocal chain. It was pretty simple really, a Blue Snowball directly into the computer with a usb cable. The guitar was a Martin PA3 electric/acoustic, guitar chain - Neumann TLM103 to UA 610 solo to EL8 Distressor to Avent A/D box, bass - a Fender Jaguar bass, electric guitar - Fender Jazzmaster, piano - Garritan Symphonic Steinway, drums - toontrack Vintage rock kit, synths - SONiVOX Dubstep Destruction tools
One that Kathy wrote for me, it's supposed to be like my story. I think it kind of sums up what I think before I go onstage, what I hope I can bring to the audience. I used my Tacoma acoustic/electric for the rhythm parts and a Gibson SG for the electric guitar. I was showing the Cadillac Records movie to my students and bemoaning the fact that Bo Diddley was left out of the movie (other than the inclusion of I'm A Man at the beginning credits). Anyway, in honor of Bo Diddley I stand in the line of a million other musicians who have ripped him off. God bless you Bo. RIP.
Kathy was good friends with Denny Cordell. Originally the producer of the Moody Blues he wore many hats in the music business including a stint as the singer with Blue Image. Denny passed away a few years ago and Kathy was deeply affected. When Allen Lanier died in August of 2013 both Kathy and I were shocked and saddened. Later in the fall Kathy confessed to me that Allen's death made her think that she had always wanted to try writing a song with me. We decided that Ravens would be the song to dedicate to our friends who had passed. After Allen's death Blue Coupe started playing his song, Dance the Night Away, at our shows. I decided that this song would have some of that feeling. I like to think that Allen guided my hands in the piano solo but I know it would have been better if he actually did it himself.
4. Do You Believe In Me
This great song was written by my dear friend David Roter. RIP. It was the first song I thought of recording for my solo album. I recorded it at my friend, Mark Barkan's apartment using his daughter, Bridget Barkan's lovely Taylor acoustic/electric. I used a 40 button concertina and my Ibanez mandolin for the extra color. If I have any say about it, you will not disappear David Roter.
5. Prayer (Light the Dark)
Here's the protest song on the album. I have a whole bunch more but I figured that I'll take my time redefining myself to everybody who thinks they know what I'm about so this is all you get for now. I am trying to write songs that are simpler but sometimes I just can't help myself.This song works with a simple progression that changes key in the chorus. Then I have to add another strange chord to get back to the verse. It turned into a cool thing at the ending but it wasn't planned. The message is really the thing. Most people just want be able to have some dignity in their lives. None of us asked to be born but now that we're here we want to be useful somehow. That's pretty much it.
When my children or students tell me that they are bored I always reply that that's great because every great idea was born from boredom. Of course, most of the terrible ones were too but hey, that's how it goes. I got the idea for this song when I was proctoring a Regents exam. Regents exams are tests that high school students need to pass to graduate from high school in New York State. It's high stakes testing and there's lots of scrutiny concerning the proctoring. So proctors can't do anything except watch the students for the 3 hours they are taking the test. No reading, eating, texting, writing, talking, nothing. I deal with it by writing songs in my head. When I get a bathroom break I quickly write down everything I've thought of. I was looking at my tattoo and thinking the different things it means to me and seemed like a good idea for a song. It's a personal song about the child of immigrants and life here in the United States of America. I used the Martin and Tacoma guitars, the concertina and a lap steel in the chorus.
7. Cry 3X
Way back in 1984 I wrote a whole bunch of songs with Robert Gordon, the rockabilly singer, and Mark Barkan. Most of the songs still sound pretty viable but they were far outside the rockabilly style that Robert's fans expected. Only a handful have been recorded. This is the very first song we wrote. Robert and I keep talking about making a real record together. God willing it will happen soon.
8. Voyeur (Pt. I)
I wrote this song twice. This is the second attempt. The mandolin part evolved out of that first version. I realized that it had that sweet but cutting sound that fit all the convoluted feelings we have about voyeurism. Kathy had the idea for the lyric from a former colleague with some serious behavior issues. Now that the song is done I can hear a truly amazing version of the chorus using a hundred voices. Next album might include the original version with all the crazy ideas I have about it - now called (Pt. II)
9. Face In Your Mirror
This song is based on the book, "Face", by Cecile Pineda. Kathy befriended her when she created the cover photograph for the book. A few years ago Kathy sent me a copy and I enjoyed it tremendously. I literally could not put it down and suffered a few tired days at work because I'd stayed up half the night reading. I won't give up any spoilers about the story but it takes place in an exotic location and takes unbelievable twists and turns. I used the Tacoma guitar plugged in for this track. The chorus is what inspired the title of the album. I liked the phrase "Metaphysical Incantation" so much that I have the chorus repeat it over and over at the end.
10. All Dreaming
Not only is this song inspired by Cecile's book "Frieze" but the chorus is comprised of actual words from the book, page 52 in my copy, at the end of chapter 43. Much of the book is poetical and elegant. The music is meant to match that grace and flow. I hope that Ms Pineda is pleased.
11. Career of Evil
The song Patti Smith wrote for Blue Oyster Cult, I do an Americana arrangement that is no less evil than the original. This would be a killer open mic song.
12. Death Valley Nights
I feel this song is another of my under-rated BOC songs. I give it the M.Ford&Sons treatment here. That's me on an Epiphone banjo, flat-picking it because I can never get the hang of those finger pick things. This was the second song I recorded for this record and even though it's another cover I thought it wouldn't hurt to make a few nods to my past. For those of you who say, "Oh there he goes again trading on some ancient stuff he wrote when he was 20." I ask your patience. I have a ton of new material and if all goes well I'll put another one of these before you know it.
God, this mixing thing is taking me FOREVER! My mixing chops have really gotten rusty. The last time I mixed was for the Beach Party record back in 2004. Gee, that was a decade ago. It's not just the rust though. It's really my first solo record since… I guess it's really the first. I don't seem to know when to stop changing and fixing things. I wish I could just bang out a records like Jack White but his chops are hot and it's not his 1st either. Anyway it's not for lack of decisiveness. No, it's more like, hey I just got a better idea for a part or, what if I add a concertina that sounds like a synth, that harmony is too high or that guitar is too dull.
That all being said, I do feel like I'm getting there. And when I listen to the current versions of the songs they really do sound better than previous versions. I also think I've got the order of the songs optimized, not that people listen to records in order anymore. I usually put my iTunes on randomize when I listen to my music. What the hell! I like to be surprised. But some people will, especially the first time they hear it, so I want it to be as good as it can be for that experience.
The title at the moment is Metaphysical Incantation. I've got a good idea of what my artwork should look like too and I'm getting there with my messing around with photoshop and illustrator. I don't know if I have the most perfect pictures but some of what I'm looking for is a magical and mysterious quality that may only be generated by happy accidents.
So far the writing stage has been the most exciting part of this process. I haven't had a writing streak like that since I left BOC. I wrote 27 new songs, with completed demos, between November and March. I must credit my newest co-writer, Kathy Vargas, for co-writing 19 of them. We've known each other for almost 40 years but this is the first time she has written songs. She is better know for her magical-realist photographs. Her words and works have appeared in 5 books and she has several book covers to her credit. It was more collaborative than many of my past writing partnerships because we would generate ideas for the songs through our conversations before writing any words or music.
When the record is finally finished I will post the complete lyrics on this website. I would do it now except there is always a chance I will change a word here or there if I decide to re-sing any more vocals.
I just got home from the annual Thanksgiving celebration at my sister, Mary's house. She has it every year on Black Friday because my Bouchard's are not into the shopping thing so much and we all have in-laws that like to have Thanksgiving celebrations on Thursday. Anyway before the feast we reflected on all the things we were thankful for and I realized I have way too many to list before we started on the food. Most of us were pretty hungry. I figure I can list them here on my blog because even though some people who read it will not care about some things they might be interested in other things.
So let's start off with the beginning of the year. New Year's Day started with our set at This Ain't Hollywood in Hamilton Ontario. At ten minutes after midnight we played our set which was as riotous as usual or maybe more so because the spirit of celebration was in the air (everybody was high). It was then that we recorded Blue Coupe's latest single, More Cowbell (Gotta Fever)" and we partied well into the morning after we played. Special thanks to Lou Molinaro and Ian Nielsen for making the recording possible.
The next highlight was at the last day of February when we went into Carriage House studios to record the first set of basic tracks for our second album. We recorded 7 tracks that day and left with a great feeling of accomplishment.
In the meantime I had registered for a pottery class at Stony Brooke University and started getting into making cool stuff out of mud. I still am not that great 10 months later but I've learned how to center the clay and some of my stuff looks almost professional. I may be giving pottery for presents this Christmas.;-)
At the end of March we returned to the Carriage House to record 7 more tracks for the new record (one was a redo of a track we did in the first session) and the results of that session were even more pleasing than the first.
Then in April Blue Coupe went to Corsica and Southern France for a short tour. The shows were awesome with the great venues, accommodations, food, fans and performances. Blue Coupe LOVES France. Special thanks to Dominique Berard for making it happen for us.
In May we started a string of gigs that took Blue Coupe from one high to another with supporting slots with Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter to many headlining gigs throughout the summer and early fall.
In October I played a gig with Robert Gordon for the CMJ Music Marathon that had me on guitar and Robert on vocals, a duo. We played songs we had written decades ago and were enthusiastically received which give me the encouragement to suggest to Robert we should record these tunes properly, which we intend to do in early 2013.
This fall Joe and I had the pleasure of participating in the Blue Oyster Cult 40th Anniversary Reunion show where the 5 original members of Blue Oyster Cult played to together for the first time in 27 years, something no one (especially the 5 of us) though would ever happen. It was not surprising to me that everything wen t smoothly onstage but backstage there was a genuine sense of warmth and appreciation that only time can create. It was a magical moment for me.
Last week Blue Coupe participated in the Hamilton Music Awards, a show that was taped for broadcast on Canadian nation television on December 15th. We performed and we presented awards, something that was outside my personal comfort zone but was ultimately rewarding and energizing and something I hope to do again.
I'm always saying I want to make a new blog post because I like to talk and am rarely at a loss for words but then something comes along and I don't get around to it. Lately it's been mostly working on various aspects of the Blue Coupe band business, whether it's designing and brainstorming new merch with my girlfriend Lesa and Dennis Dunaway or advancing and promoting all the gigs we've managed to book for ourselves this summer. But even when I think I've got everything under control there's car issues and yard work and shopping to pull me away from the computer.
So I feel behind in my reaching out to you all. It's been months since I've made a blog post or sent a newsletter. I am resolving that that will change starting today. By the end of the week I want to have at least 2 blog posts and a newsletter to go out.
In these postings I want to include the details on the past dates in 2012, upcoming Blue Coupe dates, the status of the new Blue Coupe recording, and progress towards funding the next Blue Coupe record.
So far this year I have put a lot of thought and energy into my teaching job. I decided that all my high school students were going learn the basics of music theory, starting at the very beginning, the mechanics of reading music and playing at least one instrument. The results were better than I expected and some of the students formed bands on their own and played out. One of my singers won first prize in a talent contest at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens and several others are pursuing music seriously by augmenting what I have taught them with private lessons. There is a lot more that I am doing but I don't want to bore anyone unless they want to know. Feel free to contact me as I'm always happy to share my knowledge and techniques.
I've gotten to travel quite a bits far this year, playing gigs in Pennsylvania and Nebraska with Mike Pinera's Classic Rock Allstars and visiting Corsica for the first time to play some awesome gigs with Blue Coupe in April.
Anyway I have a busy week coming up between pottery a workshop at StonyBrook University, a party for a friend, practice with Joe Hurley's band for the gig on Sunday, a dentist appointment, more car repairs, picking up a load of new Blue Coupe T shirts, more promo for the next round of Blue Coupe gigs and putting the pitch together for Blue Coupe's indiegogo funding campaign. See you later down the road.
Why don't more drummers sing? Is it because it's too difficult to play while grunting more than backup? Is it because most drummers are not primary writers? Or because the type of person who becomes a drummer is more of an athlete or someone who prefers to stay in the background rather than someone with much to say or need to be in primary spotlight? As someone who began writing songs early on, and singing I have wondered why many other drummers don't. Yet some of my favorite drummers do. Levon Helm, for instance, is one of my favorite singers, and certainly my favorite voice in the Band. Other drummers, like Neil Peart, write lyrics, but don't sing. Lars Ulrich drives much of Metallica's creative process, but lead singing and until recently, lyric writing chores were always James Hetfield's domain. Is it only recently that the territory has become so carved up? Ringo always had his vocal moment (though he was in band with two of the greatest singers in rock, and George was no slouch, either) and Carmine Appice was the original heavy drummer (and inspiration for Bonham) as well as lead vocalist. When Dave Grohl decided to become a lead singer, he ceded the drum throne in his own band. So I set out to finally explore this phenomena starting with my own experience.
The first kind of music I liked was classical music. I loved Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. I still do. After that I was into any kind of instrumental music, the Ventures, Johnny and the Hurricanes, String-Alongs, Benny Goodman, Cozy Cole, Les Paul etc. I thought that vocal music was kind of a cop-out. You had to put on something to be a singer. Musicians had to really do it. It’s funny now with the proliferation of computer music that now it’s the singers who have to really do it (more or less). Anyway once I got into my little band with my cousins and my brother in high school it became all about the singing perhaps because the Beach Boys and then the Beatles were what everyone wanted to hear. We did a lot of harmony vocals but I didn’t have a mic on the drums in the beginning so I only sang when my cousin Teddy took over on drums and I played guitar and sang.
In college I still mostly stuck to playing the drums until I saw another drummer in a band that sang all the leads. It was quite amazing to me because he really sang pretty well even though our band was much better. I started getting into the blues and I would jam with other students for hours on end late at night singing and playing harmonica. My college band became a Blues Project clone band and I would sing all the Al Kooper harmony vocals on a mic hung from an Atlas boom stand off to my left side.
My first full-time professional band, the Soft White Underbelly, had no lead singer so I sang most of the songs while playing drums. Eventually we got a lead singer/frontman type and I went back to just playing the drums and keeping my mouth shut. The lead singer quit and we got another guy who wasn’t as gifted. Management decreed that we needed harmony vocals (especially on the choruses) to make the vocals sound good so I started to sing again. By the time this band evolved into Blue Oyster Cult I was still singing both lead and harmony vocals.
But I still had a hard time singing and playing. Overdubing the vocals in the studio for the albums I felt so much freer without having to worry about keeping the beat. Live there would be some songs I could pull off and some I couldn’t. Those songs I couldn’t sing and play well enough would then go to the “lead singer” to perform. This was not really a subjective evaluation. We recorded every show and analyzed each recording compulsively. The world of arena rock is highly competitive and any band that wants to survive in this milieu has to bring their A game every show.
Now many years later through much practice and thoughtful dedication I am able to sing and play better than I ever could before. How this came to be is something I would like to share with drummers who have good voices and want to sing.
The problems with singing while playing drums can be categorized as either visual, audible or physiological. In visual terms, most drummers sit down when they play which isn’t necessarily bad except that most drum kits have a lot of things directly in front of the drummer (toms, percussion, cymbals and kick) that make it hard for the audience to see the drummer. Secondly the traditional band set up usually has the drummer in the back making it hard for the drummer to be seen. Finally the act of playing the drums requires the drummer to utilize all his or her limbs making it hard to move around on the stage or exhort the crowd to sing along. My solutions are to try to make sure the drums are well lit (I carry some par 64s just in case) and try to setup as far downstage as possible. I only use one rack tom and keep the cymbals in front of me low. I also keep my drum stool high. I try to find a way to play with only one hand during a dramatic part of the song. Spinning a stick, singing and keeping the beat at the same time is guaranteed to get some attention.
Sound engineers have a host of problems unique to and associated with drummers. One of the biggest is leakage from the drums into the vocal mic. What is an optimum sound for vocals is usually too mid-range for the drum kit. Another less serious issue is leakage from the voice into the drum mics. This is more a problem in the studio when you may want to overdub a line or two in the vocal but the original vocal is embedded in the drum tracks. Live, the problem is more the leakage of the vocal in the drum monitor to the drum mics which besides messing up the drum sound increases the overall stage volume and blare. Positioning of mics around a drum kit in a way that they won’t get hit is always a challenge but a vocal mic and stand just adds more. These days I carry my own vocal mic that has a super-carotid pattern. It does not pick up so much sound from the drums but still gives me a full sound on my voice and has more gain before feedback.
The position of the drums upstage also makes it complicated because the monitor speakers for the drummer are usually not very adequate especially considering the amount of competing sound that is coming from the drums themselves. Most clubs and concerts have vocal monitors that are optimized for the usual lead singer who is upstage center. Many well-known clubs that feature national acts have no drum monitor whatsoever. Now I have my own set of wireless in-ear monitors and they have been a lifesaver and voice-saver on many a night. I have any house monitors turned low so the vocals don’t bleed into the drum mics and the stage volume stays relatively low.
As far as where the mic stand goes, the blues drummer Sam Lay (I Got My Mojo Working) placed the mic on a stand between his legs and the snare drum. This is an OK solution in a pinch but I find it inhibits the motion of my body and I have to stay more still than I like. I prefer the stand off to my left on a boom. It’s probably just habit because most drum monitors are placed on the left side and you want the mic to be facing away from the monitor to minimize feedback. The stand has to be fairly high and the boom has to be extended nearly the entire length to prevent the left stick from inadvertently striking it. Sometimes this makes the stand unstable and it falls over in the middle of a song. I’ve found two solutions to this problem. If the stand is a tripod simply place a drumstick in one of the legs to lengthen it and place that leg parallel to the boom. If it is a round base you must find some sort of weight to put on the base to act as a counterweight.
Sitting down means the diaphragm is being compressed. The movement of the legs also causes the diaphragm to move creating a kind of involuntary amplitude modulation. This can also affect pitch. Because the monitors are usually bad for drummers pitch can become an issue even for good singers. Expressive lead vocals are usually not rigid rhythmically so a singing drummer usually has to split the rhythm in his brain into strict and flowing rhythms simultaneously. Let also face the fact that if the drummer stops the party’s over. No other instrument has as much responsibility to keep the steady pattern. Psychologically it is a combination of the players with the most and least responsibility in one being.
As far as my vibrato syncing with my bass drum pattern I've decided it's not such a bad thing and learned to live with it. Sitting up higher takes a little pressure off the diaphragm making it easier to sing with a full lung of air but another thing that I discovered when I shared a kit with Mike Peterson (who’s a southpaw) from the band Jed when we toured with them is to put a cable hi hat on the right side. That way when you’re singing the verses you don’t cross your right hand over your chest to play the hat.
Finally I make sure I have the drum part, the words and the melody all down pat so I can do the drums mechanically and never think about it while I’m singing. Knowing all the words is crucial to pulling off a great vocal. I also practice doing both things at once so that I understand how the rhythm of the vocal and the drum part interact. With the in-ear monitors I really can get into my own little vocal world and put everything into being expressive when I’m doing a lead.
We’ve all seen those people who seem to be born to do all things well. I don’t seem to be one of them but the beauty of life is that if you want something bad enough and are willing to work and suffer it is possible to attain. Besides if you think singing lead and playing drums is hard you should try drumming and playing blues harp simultaneously.
So I was watching an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy and the mentioned that anger was not one of the 7 deadly sins, even though it gets a lot of people into an emergency room. That’s a deep idea. Anger is a satisfying emotion, at least temporarily. Anger has gotten me into a lot of trouble. It got me kicked out of Blue Oyster Cult. Anger has caused me a good bit of regret. BUT It’s also a good motivator for a song. There have been a lot of great angry songs. Bob Dylan, anybody? Anyway, don’t be surprised if you hear more angry songs on the next Blue Coupe CD. You’d think that a bunch of old geezers like us would be mellowing out in our advanced age but it seems like we still have plenty to be pissed about.
We’ve been working on songs for the next CD at a leisurely pace. It’s really a lot of fun making recordings but it’s also very personal, especially for guys like us who have nothing to prove anymore. Nothing to prove, but still a lot to say.
We’re proud of Dennis and the other Alice Cooper Group guys for getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were really one of the most influential groups in the early 70’s from David Bowie to the Rolling Stones to the Sweet to Queen to Kiss. None of those groups would have existed if it wasn’t for the Alice Cooper Group. Oh, I forgot Blue Oyster Cult. We might have existed without the ACG but we wouldn’t have been half as good. Thank you, Vince, Dennis, Mike, Glen and Neal.