The Doubtful Guest. By Edward Gorey. Eventually I’ll get around to explaining what this has to do with the song.
Pre-order autographed copy of this CD from Newbury Comics. click here.
Deep Oblivion is a track from my first solo album The Palace Guards (Feb 1st 2011). I originally started this solo project in a deep depression about the viability of making albums. By this I mean the rampant illegal downloading of songs had not just reduced CD and Album sales but had eliminated much of the infrastructure that made it possible someone like me to spend time recording music: The record label.
We artists bitch about our record labels all the time. but ultimately the record label is very useful. If you have a record label, you don’t worry about all kinds of things. Manufacturing CDs, getting them distributed, shipping them out, floating the 100k you need to record distribute and promote a CD, setting up press, setting up radio visits, bugging program directors to spin your record more and trying to get on late night TV. With a record label you spend most of your time on the creative aspects of your career. Writing songs, recording music, making videos, writing your blog or updating your cat’s twitter feed.
(btw the band Best Coast -who I’m about to interview- really does have a twitter feed for their cat “Snacks”. It’s often pretty funny. They also have an ongoing contest to caption pictures of their cat. You get free tickets if you win. Here is my entry. I hope i Win!)
“Death to America”
Without a record label you end up doing that stuff yourself. Even if you have the cash to hire independent specialists to manage this work for you it is a mental distraction managing and directing this process. Ultimately not having a label directly affects the amount of time you spend on creative endeavors.
Indeed in 1985 when Camper Van Beethoven first started pitch-a-tent records it was because no one else was interested in releasing Camper Van Beethoven records. It was not because we had some sort of DIY ideology that dictated we do this. We knew it was gonna be a lot of work to have our own label. And as predicted Jennifer and I spent long evenings stuffing the vinyl into album sleeves or carefully packaging and mailing albums to radio stations and fanzines.
But we were young and it was enjoyable in a certain way. We could buy a cheap bottle of Chilean wine at Shopper’s Corner and watch Star Trek re-runs and turn the work into a sort of party. If it was warm enough we would open the big Victorian bay windows at 1025 Broadway. You could sometimes hear the break of the surf or the Giant Dipper roller coaster on the boardwalk and imagine you were at some seaside resort in southern England. Brighton? Margate? (This is purposeful “Victorian seaside” foreshadowing for the second half of this blog)
In 2007 after more than 20 years of recording and touring with the help of a record label or two, I was dreading the fact that we didn’t have a record label anymore. Our various one-off deals had run out and it didn’t seem like anyone was much interested in giving us the kind of deal to which we’d grown accustomed. Sure we could have got deals with various labels that would have offered us 50/50 profit splits or small advances. But check this out. Any contractor reading this will immediately grasp how expensive it is to record an album:
Like it or not the minimum amount of time to mix and record and album of 12 songs is about 18 days. I know no professional highly regarded bands that will make albums at a quicker pace (unless you go the live in studio route**). So say there are 4 people in the band. Then you need and audio engineer and an engineers assistant. aside from the engineer’s assistant everyone is a highly skilled specialist. So you are looking at 5 people who should be compensated in the range of 250 – 500 a day. Then there are the studio costs. The cheapest home studios charge 300 a day. What if you had your own studio? well did you get the mixing console and microphones for free? The computer software or tape machine for free? NO. Minimal cost for setting up the crudest pro level studio is 25k. Protools HD hardware and computer is 20k by itself. What about lodging or travel? So trust me when i say an 18 day record ultimately costs a minimum of 36k. You may defer payments to your side musicians or engineer or even the studio. But when the CD comes out they will need to get their money.
Further I would bet nearly every modern (post 1980) album you own was recorded in more than 18 days. There are exceptions, but no one has made a career of recoding “live in studio”.
Then you must consider the costs of marketing and distributing a CD or even download only. Again you can’t even get noticed by the bloggers unless you hire a specialist an independent publicist or two. They use their personal contacts to bring (even a cracker ) an album to their attention. The popular and influential bloggers, like the magazine reviewers are overwhelmed with submissions. It wouldn’t even matter that we are a “brand name. “
Commercial even large non-comm radio? Forget it. You need to hire one of these independent radio promoters that essentially bribes stations with “promotional buys” or events.
Okay. ”But aren’t you gonna make a lot more money if you sell the CDs yourselves?” Yes. But most people don’t realize that an album that sales less than 25k its first week can chart as a top 5 album now. A few years ago that would have been impossible. Maybe 100k minimum to get you in the top 5. I just looked at the Sound Scan report for one of our much more successful americana peers. Their last album. touted as their “highest charting”, sold less than 50k copies in the US! I’m not even gonna embarrass them by mentioning their name. Suffice it to say that Cracker’s last album sold considerably less.
You see how this “start your own label” thing is ultimately a sketchy proposition? You put considerable capital at risk and it’s a distraction from the necessary creative “work” an artist must do. It is generally profitable for someone like us to put out our own record, but not guaranteed.
Not saying I wouldn’t put out our own albums on our own label again, if I had to… Just saying I don’t want to.
So this solo album began as an experiment. I decided I would dispense with the most expensive parts of making a record.
First? The Band. Living in 4 separate cities it’s virtually impossible to get either band together without dropping a grand. But there was more to it. Going bandless suited my artistic purposes. I was recording the solo songs that ostensibly were solo songs cause they didn’t seem like they fit with either band. Even my two extremely talented and versatile ensembles. There is also a certain charm to those homemade one-or-two-people-playing-most-of-the-instruments recordings. “Lawrence of Euphoria” anyone? Or pretty much any of the Sparklehorse albums.
Second I wasn’t gonna bother releasing this as an album, CD, vinyl LP or download. There was no distribution or marketing in my plan.I wasn’t gonna do any promotion. I was gonna go right to the source. YouTube.
Let me explain. Robots have recently colonized our planet and made us slaves.
As a result we humans have been reduced to sitting in little cubicles emailing YouTube videos back and forth to each other.
Most people call this “their job”.
Well I know where to find everybody. Right? YouTube.
So why not record my songs in my basement? Occasionally take the files to Sound of Music and have Alan Weatherhead or Miguel Urbiztondo play some stuff on the songs, or let John Morand mix the thing? They could use a break from their YouTube-video-emailing jobs.
And why not make a video and put the song on YouTube? At last complete disintermediation. The internet has been promising this for a while. Let’s see if it works.
I put the songs Deep Oblivion and All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me on YouTube. And some of my friends started emailing the links around. Even Adam Duritz!
But while it was a fun experiment it was ultimately unsuccessful.
I mean it was succesful in the sense that I got a lot of people to watch these songs on YouTube. And WEQX even picked up and spun the song All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me. But it wasn’t really like releasing an album.
See everyone kept asking me “When is it coming out?”
I’d say “It’s Out. It’s on YouTube”
They’d look at me funny.
“You know the place with all the cute cat videos and rednecks water skiing on trash can lids?”
“Oh I know what YouTube is. I was just wondering when the record comes out”.
The ”forward thinking” music journalists and bloggers were even worse. They wouldn’t even look at it on YouTube. They were not ready to take seriously a completely “virtual” song or set of songs. Besides the video did not have any cute cats in it or fat people falling down.
I found this quite unfair since we musicians take their “virtual” magazines ( ie Magnet and Pitchfork) quite seriously.
(Due diligence: I don’t believe that www.pitchfork.com actually exists. I think it’s a some sort of unexplained atmospheric oddity like the Marfa Lights or it’s actually a parody site created by “The Onion” with the aid of semi-sentient machines).
(Due diligence two: As far as magnet magazine goes, I’m glad they stopped making a print issue because it was starting to freak me out. Each cover was exactly the same: Nick Cave! But they would just have him wear a different shirt. It was like groundhogs day. Nobody else was noticing and it was really really starting to FUCKING FREAK ME OUT. I swear I’m not making this up).
However eventually the effort I put into these songs paid off. I was at my part-time job at a hedge fund emailing YouTube videos of funny cats to my friends at the SEC when I was interrupted by an email from Jared Levine saying that Savoy/429 Records was interested in putting out my solo album. How rude! however I bit my tongue and accepted the offer.
What does any of this have to do with Edward Gorey?
One of my favorite stories as a kid was the Doubtful Guest. As follows:
When they answered the bell on that wild winter night,
There was no one expected — and no one in sight
Then they saw something standing on top of an urn, Whose peculiar appearance gave them quite a turn.
All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall,
Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall.
It was seemingly deaf to whatever they said,
So at last they stopped screaming, and went off to bed.
It joined them at breakfast and presently ate
All the syrup and toast and a part of a plate.
It wrenched off the horn from the new gramophone, And could not be persuaded to leave it alone.
It betrayed a great liking for peering up flues,
And for peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes.
At times it would tear out whole chapters from books, Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.
Every sunday it brooded and lay on the floor, Inconveniently close to the drawing-room door.
Now and then it would vanish for hours from the scene,
But alas, be discovered inside a tureen.
It was subject to fits of bewildering wrath,
During which it would hide all the towels from the bath.
In the night through the house it would aimlessly creep,
In spite of the fact of its being asleep.
It would carry off objects of which it grew fond,
And protect them by dropping them into the pond.
It came seventeen years ago — and to this day
It has shown no intention of going away.
So my song Deep Oblivion starts the same way. sort of.
“winter’s night a creature strange and bright appeared upon the porch in a dark storm”.
This is the image I had in my head. Drawn in that strange pseudo Victorian style. The setting was one of those Victorian beachfront mansions in southern England. But the important thing is the creature.
It’s a simple metaphor for depression and madness. My own.
Before all depression was turned into a medical disease and chemical imbalances that required little blue pills and psychotherapy, people would get depressed for a while and then shake it off. Or just learn to live with it by drinking a lot and/or smoking weed. Eventually th doctor would say “Hank, you got to cut down on your drinking you are destroying your liver” and after a few tries Hank would quit. The second wife would run off with the owner of The Shamrock Lounge. But the upside was Hanks adult children would now stop by for a visit from time to time.
That is the way it has worked for generations of men of the great pan-celtic diaspora. Why fuck with the formula?
Then again there are people who really are chemically depressed. Really do have the bad brain chemistry. I don’t really think I’ve ever had it. I’ve just had the kind where life get’s you down you drink too much and end up in a fight with the dude dressed in the Sheriff Woody from Toy Story costume at 6 flags Magic Mountain. In front of your kids no less.
“Dad remember when you got in a fight with Sheriff Woody and got arrested?” the oldest reminds you.
“Funny daddy” your toddler chimes in.
Not that I’ve ever done this.
When I wrote this song I was in one of those kind of funks. I’d not done The Man Dance (def 1 please!) with any dream works characters yet, but I had recently woke up under the desk of the publisher of spin magazine and wasn’t sure how I’d got there.
I was a middle-aged. At best a minor rock star. With few other prospects. A small brood of kids. Way over my head in real estate and alimony payments And now virtually the entire CD side of the music business was collapsing in front of me. Ugh. Only touring? we’re supposed to make a fucking living only touring? I took long walks with the dog. I drank a lot.
I taught the dog to drink.
Eventually the dog died and alone I had a lot of time to reflect.
I saw myself doomed to playing chili cook-offs until my youngest son (finally after 8 years of college) graduated from Bard with a degree in Feminist Snowboarding.
I could see it perfectly in my minds eye. At the very moment he reached for his diploma I would be wrapping up the last few bars of the saxophone infused jazz-fusion version (think Sting) of Low at the Blue Lake Casino and I would fall down dead. Like some poor exhausted salmon in the upper reaches of the Mad river. ” I… Made …….it.”
And at last I’d get some rest on tour.
But our manager Velena wasn’t having any of it. As romantic as this notion sounded it didn’t appeal to her. I wonder why?
In the song I say:
We were crossing English channels
In Victorian times
In midget submarines
with parasols entwined
I was going under
In some deep oblivion
you bravely took my hand
and sweetly came along.
First of all if relentless badgering can be described as “sweet” then this song is an accurate description of what happened next.
Second. Velena’s house is full of antiques (that would make a southern drag queen proud) so it was the natural “Victorian” setting for the song and video. The fact that Velena was in an 1980′s all-girl goth band further bolstered her Victorian credentials.
Many of the original comments on this video came from women who really seemed to enjoy “The Kiss” in the video. Perhaps the real spontaneity of the kiss is what appealed to many. Velena hadn’t eaten anything all day and she was beginning to complain about how long this video was taking. Every man knows or should know that one of the best ways to end this kind of behavior is to kiss the broad and then take her to dinner. This is exactly what I did.
Now to those women out there that find this kind of talk sexist and employing outdated gender biased stereotypes I say to you:
well then stop responding so perfectly to our gender biased solutions and we will eventually stop.
There is also something mischievous about the kiss. At the time I was making this video, our relationship was not widely known. We were rightly or wrongly concerned about a number of things. Foremost was the notion that if Velena was seen as “just” my girlfriend people in the business wouldn’t take her as seriously. At the moment of the kiss I am daring her to come clean. This is what makes the video in my opinion.
Pre-order autographed copy of this CD from Newbury Comics. click here.