Everything You Never Wanted to Know About a Harvey Girls Recording, Pt. 3: Recording the Album, Take Two

These are some random notes that never were published. The album’s almost out, so we’re probably not going to write much more about it for awhile. We’re excited about it–really excited. We feel it’s a really good album, both in sound and execution, so we hope you like it. Hiram’ll be playing shows in June and July in the NW, so see him if you can.

Recording Techniques and other stuff:
1. Recording Guitars–
Many of the early-recorded tracks that will be on the album like “Puss” and “Monster” were recorded with an acoustic guitar with a pick up run through at least a distortion pedal and sometimes the Memory Man (to give it a little or a lot of reverb or, in the case of “Puss,” to add a backwards delay) straight into the Mackie.  This is also something most people will tell you not to do.  They’re also right on this, but with EQ and effects, I can get a sound that I want.  Plus, I don’t have to drag the amp into the dining room and drive the cats and Melissa insane or wake them up if I’m up early working and they’re still asleep on a weekend morning.  In the recordings done AMa, it was easier to use the amplifier because I was in a room cut off from the house, but I’ll get into that in a bit.
2. Effects–
To illustrate my points above about effects, here’s a couple of versions of the first recording of “Monster”.  This version is available as part of the download in the first part of the series and as a completely mastered track on the Pop Tomorrow 2 compilation, which you can pick up over here.

There are two versions of the song below, a clean version without effects that is exactly what was recorded and the finished version with effects.  The song was recorded with Adobe Audition in the spring of ’09.  The windy electric part (the first thing you hear) was recorded with the H2 using the Kansas Guitar.  Because of some timing problems between the H2 and Adobe, I cut up the part in the middle, creating loops that were mostly on time for the song.  The drums are from the Boss 660 drum machine.  The organs are from the Korg as well as the bass part.  There’s 4 acoustic guitar tracks, one recorded using the H2 as a direct mic into the Mackie.  Vocals were recorded using the AT mic.  It’s definitely a bit rough, but this’ll give you an idea of the initial version.

“Monster” no effects

And here’s the snippet with the effects.  For this song, most of the effects were added to the guitars.  There’s some delay and reverb, but most definitely distortion on the acoustic guitars.  I really wanted that messed-up sound and found that this was the easiest way to get it.

“Monster” with effects

This is an overly simplified illustration of the use of effects, but using effects either during recording with foot pedals or after recording using plug ins is a major part of how we got a lot of really weird sounds.  If there’s something that you’ve heard on a record of ours, just comment or write and I’ll try to remember how we did it.

2. Samplers as instruments–
Using the sampler to sample your own instruments is something I think I actually first tried after reading about the technique in the 33 1/3 book on Loveless by My Bloody Valentine.  I’ve been using loops of our own recorded material, drum machines, and other digital instruments since I first started doing digital recording with The Harvey Girls, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I mean actually using a sampler with sounds you’ve recorded as an instrument.

“I’ll Be Your Words” drums

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‘Puss’ live

Here’s a video of the song ‘Puss’ from our upcoming album, ‘I’ve Been Watching a Lot of Horror Movies Lately,’ shot by our pal Josh Millard.

You want to see something scary? Realllllly?

To quote Dan Aykroyd, we have something scary to show you. It’s a commercial! What could be more terrifying?

So for the first time in THG history, we have label support to do something resembling traditional press. Our DIY method has always been to send a download to music blogs we liked and a physical copy to radio stations with a note attempting charm but usually exuding slightly zany desperation. Seriously, that was the extent of it. Back in the early 2000s, when blogging and social networking was still somewhat new as a promotional tool, this actually sort of worked. We can never thank those early (and late) supporters enough.

They spread the word, but just as important, gave us encouragement to go on. A post about us would appear in Delusions of Adequacy (now adequacy.net) and suddenly, we’d see our songs pop up unexpectedly in other places. One of the most charming examples I remember is seeing “Green Light” as part of a mix devoted to Tim and Dawn in a livejournal fan community for “The Office.” (God, how I love fan communities! Something about looking down a row of clever icons makes my heart glow.) It sounds suspiciously dewy-eyed but that was what it was about for us — every small mention on a personal blog about us or one of our songs made us so damn happy.

But by the mid-2000s, even the most reluctant nerdy-come-latelys had figured out how powerful a marketing tool the Internet could be. Social networking quickly devolved into SEO-type snake oil and a chilly hacking of people’s desire to truly connect to each other. Personally, the thought of using Myspace or the like to say happy birthday to people or leave a heartfelt 😦 when they announce their cat has died with the vague hope they’ll buy a shirt has always seemed a deeply cynical exchange. It’s profoundly exploitative of the sense of connection people have to art and those who make it. Think of poor old David Foster Wallace despairing at the “travel essay” that his hero Frank Conroy wrote for a free cruise in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Now imagine taking your own cruise, writing about it on your blog, and having Frank Conroy show up there to have a “personal” exchange about its value! Like you guys are just the biggest buds EVAR!

Then there’s Wallace’s take on the “Professional Smile” from the same essay:

The smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee…This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimilie or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. it causes despair.

And yet the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody who has ever bought a pack of gum at a Manhattan cigar store or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows well the soul-crushing effect of a service worker’s scowl, ie. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl: I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the counterman’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.

Genuine smiles, real art, and true goodwill wither when people pretend at intimacy for money, but what’s worse is the expectation that fake intimacy has created between fans and subjects of fandom. Well known musicians and writers and actors Twitter all damn day, and everyone else seems just th@ close to having an actual exchange with them. It looks like friendly chit-chat, but how can it possibly be? They are selling something, and those are Professional Smiles they are beaming in 140-character doses all day long. And even the most obscure nobody is expected to engage in this despair-inducing fakeass way because it is a lack of professionalism to deny anyone the Smile. So yes, we have a Twitter stream, which needless to say Hiram handles because I am too busy curling myself into the fetal position and despairing. Ha, ha.

We always had high hopes for the Internet as the great democratizing medium, the world’s most amazing playlist — and to some extent we still do. But the marketing has become so sophisticatedly insidious. It rewards a certain kind of savvy extrovert, people with the confidence and social skill to forge a lot of connections. At times, they may even be great musicians, but the sphere they operate in itself elevates people-pleasing above real feeling or skill. The whole “personal branding” thing other bands do, where they transform their personal style according to the most crowd-pleasing metric, is so not something we can do. We’re too old and funny-looking and weird. We’ve never had the wherewithal to make our band our job, and since Hiram lost his full-time job last year along with much of Portland’s population we’ve had serious financial problems. I’ve had some recent health problems and I can barely force myself out of the house, much less to play shows. In short, we’ve got issues, and they aren’t charming or quirky or photogenic. They are boring and they suck, just like yours do.

Now someone is going to be supporting our record in this alienated and alienating marketplace with actual $, sending it out to major press and in a few months, helping arrange a tour for Hiram. We’re very grateful and very scared shitless. We have had 7 years of mostly obscurity and failure and we don’t want to waste our generous label’s money and time, which could be going to more commercially viable bands instead. Argh. So…that’s our commercial. Terrifying, isn’t it?

–Melissa

Monster

Monster (original live demo)

Monster (cuddly version)

Monster was another first song created for the project. The version that ended up on the album is a combination of the ‘rock’ version that appears on the Pop Tomorrow 2 compilation and the above cuddly version that appeared somewhere for a time… I think our facebook page for a time. The finished version has real drums, a bass, rerecorded guitars and vox, warped natural sounds, and Melissa on vocals (!).

The story of the song is also a major component in how all of this started. As I was getting into actually watching a lot of horror movies again, one of the ones I watched a couple of times was Day of the Dead, thinking especially of Bub. Specifically, how the horrors of childhood look quaint sometimes in adulthood. Except maybe less in a ha ha mode and more in a ‘hey, I wonder how the boogie man is doing?’ sort of fashion. Well, maybe it’s more straight forward once you read the lyrics.

It should also be stated that ghosts are real in my family going way back. Without getting into the metaphysical realities or making myself look crazier than I do, I believe it to be true, even if they’re only real for you; specifically, metaphorically, or literally.

Monster:
There’s a monster that still lives in the house where you used to sleep and his eyes are glazed white and his teeth are as yellow as death, but he wants to know how you’re doing, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.

There’s a ghost that hovers ’round the kitchen where you used to eat and her hair sticks to the ceiling and her fingers look just like talons, but she wants to know how you’re doing, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.

There’s a monster that still lives in the house where you used to sleep and his muscles can’t contract so you know he can’t hold a pen, but he wants to know how you’re doing, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.

Yeah, he wants to know how you’re doing, and where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.

–Hiram

FWIW or Allusive Titles Aren’t Allowed

FWIW
original demo (working title of ‘tickle,’ the song changed quite a bit when I changed my live setup to utilize live loops)

live at Backspace, 020610 (includes the spacey jam at the end for fun and sustenance)

I wanted to call this song ‘Communication Letdown’ as an allusion to the Zeppelin song, but it was vetoed (once by Melissa and once by my better judgement). Most allusory titles are shot down around here, and with good reason. I thought it stood well for a little while. The song’s about logophobia on one hand–the fear of words. Or at least the fear of communicating. And not in a Toastmasters sort of way–it’s not public speaking but speaking in general. Whether being fearful because you know what you say will alienate you or being fearful that your language or accent will mark you as a foreigner. Does your word choice mark you as other or let you into the club? Can you communicate without this happening (answer: not really, unless you’re good at it)?

It’s the sort of line I’ve been gently skipping near with all of this writing, for instance. That line is whether to tell you what some of the songs are about or to let you as a listener bring your own ideas to the art. I think this happens no matter what, the bringing of yourself to the art, but sometimes it’s easier without a rubric. It’s not Ulysses and you don’t need a concordance, but then again no one’s ever going to ask about the lyrics, so why not tell you about them? Why does this all make me feel like I’m 14? There’s also the problem of a song having subtexts. For instance, there’s at least one subtext that runs throughout the album–the idea of immigration–and sometimes that’s not a subtext, but the main course. Anyway, I’ll leave the subtexts up to you.

Anyway, ‘FWIW’ is a better title since the song mentions the shortening of ‘for what it’s worth’ within the lyrics. It’s the sort of acronym you see online all the time… that I swear I’ve heard in real life. Like LOL, but even more wince inducing. It’s only a slight reference to the Buffalo Springfield song… actually it’s not a reference to that song at all. Or maybe it’s all subconscious subtext. Sorry to be confusing.

FWIW:
Words lead you astray
down mottled alleyways
where numbers stand smoking
against dumpsters full and buzzing
with flies combing aimlessly
a sound-layered futility.

He wrote ‘for what it’s worth’
as acronym, listserve.
Signal/club/handshake
symbol/password/initiate;
outside reads its own way,
discussion cloaked and staid.

Words lead me astray
there must be a better way
maybe colors or clouds can
maybe indices or equations
but there must be a better way
because words lead me astray.

Puss

“Puss” The Harvey Girls (live at Backspace, Portland, 020610, recorded by Tim Kahn)

This is another tune that’ll be on I’ve Been Watching… and it’s an easy one to track down.  Like most other horror geeks (or just geeks in general), I fell in love with Let the Right One In after seeing it.  I’ve since read the book, which is a lot more graphic, but just as wonderful.  Melissa has said that the movie is like a poem that’s based on the novel and I think that’s probably the best explanation of their relationship.  Anyway, the story line fit in well with the story line of the album (as well as a few subtexts), so it stayed.

The title “Puss” comes from the scene at the end of the movie when Eli taps out morse code while on the train.  This FAQ on IMDB says that it spells out “p-u-s-s,” which in Swedish means “small kiss”.  Of course, in English, it’s a derogatory name for a boy or man so I couldn’t pass up that play on words even if Jesus Lizard has a song called that already. I have no idea if the translation is correct, but it’s a good excuse to call something puss.

Addendum (whoops, forgot the lyrics):
Meet me in the middle
Neither here or there
Meet me in between
Neither A or B

Meet me between
Our apartments on the playground
I know the beauty
Of blood in the snow
I only kill when I need
Neither A or B

Please be me for a little while
Please be me for awhile

A Letter to the Bees

Before we bore you to death with all the blah blah blahing about recording and our lives, we thought we should actually put up a song.  This was one of the first created for the album, although that’s not entirely true.  It was actually created for a project that was going to be an EP.  Each song on the EP was going to contain a deconstruction of our song “Good Morning, Bubblegum“.  Everybody loves “GM” so I thought I’d try and figure out why scientifically.  Plus, you know, it seemed like a good exercise in po mo bullshit.  The project lasted about two songs until I moved on to something else (the other one being “Caerse Muerto,” which also ended up on this album).  Anyway, the “GM” part won’t be apparent until you hear the finished version, so you’ll just have to believe me.  Basically, it’s a loop of the drums from the song with this guy who used to whistle ABBA off key in the cube next to me recorded on the sly.

The other song “A Letter to the Bees” mimics is one by the band Teriyakis.  I was in the Teriyakis and the song is interesting in that it was recorded on a boom box in my parent’s garage, probably around 1993 or so (I could be totally wrong on that). The other guys had come down to my parents house where I was living at the time, in Erie, KS. We woke up kinda hungover with coffee in hand and this song came out in spontaneous fashion. We were actually pretty good at spontaneous songs (and we all loved Can, so maybe that helped?). It was on our album Haunted Hungarian Sauna. If you feel the need for a copy, just let me know. I’m sure someone has boxes of them left somewhere.

“Happy in Erie”–Teriyakis

The reason the Teriyakis song is relevant is because the story of “A Letter to the Bees” deals with my thinking of my old bandmates while I was sitting at work watching the sunrise one day.  I worked on the 10th floor of an office building with a great view of Mt Hood on one side and I-84 on the other side.  Since I had to be there early (somewhere near the buttcrack of dawn), beautiful sunrises occurred pretty much every day, especially in the winter.  One day as I was getting prepared to go play some shows in Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle, and I kept thinking back to all the tours the Teriyakis would go on and how I felt kinda utterly ridiculous to be doing this again in my mid-30s (don’t tell pitchfork how old we are, they’ll never write about us then…).  Add in some patented moves of mine of circular and surreal lyrics, some borrowed lines from other songs to further the story along, and you’ve got the song “A Letter to the Bees”.

It’s not so much nostalgia as just remembering (I fucking hate nostalgia–as Melissa reminds me, “you don’t have a nostalgic bone in your body”).  Or maybe it is. I could and maybe should let you in on another hint: lately I’ve been writing personal lyrics without covering them in so much surrealism that you have no idea what they mean. A good example of this being our tune “All Yer Water’s Turned to Rope,” also from the album Blabber ‘n’ Smoke. It’s a skewed love song for Melissa and even contains our pal Billy (from the Teriyakis) reciting a poem. The lyrics for “All Yer…” also contain my side of the argument against writing from life (“don’t get caught in the art of the mirror”), an argument that Melissa and I have had in our approaches to poetry/song since the beginning. Well, not really an argument, just a matter of writing style. It’s what happens when you get two Lit majors in the same household/band.

Anyway, both of these songs lean toward more surrealism than confessional, so it’s not exactly Adrienne Rich or Robert Lowell. Probably the most personal lyrics I’ve let into the world were for our EP An Uncloudy Day. If you’d like to know more about those, you can write me. It’s a very sad story.

Below are two versions of the song, one played live on KUPS radio in Tacoma and one video live at the Red Room in Portland.  Here are the lyrics.

A Letter to the Bees [the title is a play on words, the original core of the Teriyakis all had names that started with the letter B]
Here I am back to the Velvet Underground
Back to the floors that I love [double homage!: These two lines are from Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy”. The Velvet Underground reference by Stevie isn’t to the band, but I thought it was fitting since it seemed my songwriting at this point was heading back into the direction of VU.]
In the land of idiot boys… [from “Phenomenal Cat” by The Kinks]
Oh just stop quoting and start saying.
Oh just stop quoting and start saying.
I’ll take the level and survey the land
You take the rod and go on up ahead
Step lightly ’round those mannequin hands [injoke about people at a show we played sitting like mannequins]
Holding plastic flowers above their heads
Heartbroken art was your first mistake
And how do they hold anything anyway?
Oh just stop thinking and start saying.
Oh just stop thinking and start saying.
The sun shines behind Mt. Hood at dawn
The cars move along like a toddler in pain
I think I’ll sit down and write a letter to the bees
And just tell ’em how much they meant to me.

“A Letter to the Bees”–The Harvey Girls live on KUPS, Tacoma (there’s some static in the recording, but it adds authenticity… we all need that, right?)

A Letter to the Bees, Live at the Red Room in Portland, OR
–Hiram