The band had found a comfortable rhythm alternating between gigs and the studio, taking the inspiration from one place to the other evolving their stuff reinforcing their small parcel of music that they had established deep inside the undiscovered wilderness of sound. Where they had a clearing at first they had now established their little outpost. No matter how wild they got there was always a point of reference keeping it tight and harmonious.
It had taken their de facto manager Ogden an enormous amount of time filled with sweet words of encouragement to finally get a live album out of them. Sam who was still the most reserved about recordings in general was the one who was the most comfortable with going ahead with the recording. For her their sound on stage was mature. She was confident that every time they played on a stage the result would be good. She still did not like the idea that someone would take the magic of a gig, put it through a process of mummification so that others might listen to the strange desiccated result but in the end it was up to the individual how they liked to consume their music.
Bryce had also gone many extra miles working on the recordings to make them as true to the real thing as possible. Even Sam had to admit that the preserves Bryce had produced were so close to the original that one could almost feel the real magic still hanging in the air. Sam had listened to so many of his recordings always intensely involved to make sure that it lost as little of its original character as possible that in the end it was her the was the most engrossed with the end results. She did admit that she had developed a morbid fascination with them.
The studio album though. That one did refuse to come alive. It was not for a lack of pieces to play. With and without lyrics they now had a large repertoire of standards. Enough to fill several CDs with tracks. All of them good at the very least. Everything that less than that was either put out of its misery or came onto the ‘List of the Damned’ where they put all the things that did not quite work. Once a week they convened in a room that they only ever used for this reason, they called it ‘The Theatre of Salvation’ where they would do their best to save their patients.
So far though they refused to go full studio on any of them. Their style, their constant improvisation, the evolution of their music that seemingly never ended even for their most complete compositions had so far killed every attempt to fill a disk with songs.
* * *
“Right now,” Cray said before stuffing fried noodles in his mouth “I can’t feel it. You know what I mean? I hear the music, but I can feel the album.” he was sitting with Darius and Bryce in the Chinese place where the band went to eat in between sessions. The others called them the Wires as they usually talked about tech when they got together. Today Ogden was joining them who despite a lack of deeper knowledge seemed to enjoy their conversations very once in a while. He may ask some typical rookie questions every once in a while but when he tagged along he always paid for food and drinks.#
“I can understand that.” Ogden said to the great surprise of three pairs of eyebrows which jumped up from their resting place high up their brows to have a better look at sudden disturbance of normality. “No really. I’ve been working for a lot of bands over the years and I am proud to say that I may have saved a few of them from clueless producers.”
They eyebrows remained aloft.
“No, really. There was a band I recruited about six, seven months ago right out of the clutches of one these idiot ‘agents’ you see around here so often. They were still finding their sound, working on the right conditions to get their sound just right, while the suit was putting on the pressure. Told them that he could not tell the difference in sound and that the record company wanted their shit right then and there and not in some nebulous future.
Well I walked right in there, told them that I knew that they would deliver and would give them what they needed.”
“How did that turn out?” asked Darius.
“Pretty good. They needed to get back into a more comfortable groove so I put them in a studio inside an old mansion up in the hills. There they could establish a home base, somewhere when they could eat, sleep and make their music. Which was exactly what those guys needed.”
“And the record?”
“Done two months later. Started OK but so far it keeps on selling.”
“That still does not help us with our problem though…” said Cray.
“You just have to relax, this is part of my ob too. The reason why I spend so much time with you, with the band is so that I can understand them and their music, so when something like this happens I’m here, tuned into the general situation so that I can help you to overcome the obstacles that you are facing.”
“It certainly isn’t the technical side.” Darius said. “The studio is great and Bryce here is one crazy kid, always working his ass off to tweak every note into perfection.”
Bryce blushed slightly trying to wave away the compliment. “I just give you guys a clean, dynamic sound. Every competent sound guy would do the same.”
“Yeah but competent sound technicians are a dying breed.” said Cray.
“Well,” said Bryce, “that is a different problem all together.” now grinning broadly.
“Still though.” Darius said poking his beer can with his index finger. “We’ve been doing a lot of great work but with no results so far. This is a problem.”
“What is stopping you guys?” asked Ogden.
“Not sure.” replied Darius. “No one can really put a finger on it. The music is good, the sound is great. But somehow there is noting yet that screams Album. The band started with improv and live gigs. Hard to rebuild that kind of spirit inside a studio… I guess.”
“It is hard to explain, isn’t it?” agreed Cray. “As I said. The feeling of the songs. It’s just not right. The short ones just die or they live and turn into long ones.”
“You know what.” said Darius now looking determined. “You can back-up your words about giving your bands what they need by doing some investigating and then come back with some hints or some advice to see what we are missing.”
“This is a slightly different situation.” Ogden protested.
“How so?” asked Cray “We are working perfectly fine, but we don’t get any work done. So there’s our problem. Go and solve it!”
“I will see what I can do.” Ogden agreed “I’ll talk t the others. Listen to the recordings you made so far and maybe I can find something that might help you out. But no promises OK?”
* * *
Later that night Ogden returned to the Studio, wandering through the dimly lit corridors following the pulses of a deep resonant drum that seemed to move the building. He still was impressed by the strange effect that Sam’s drumming had on everything around her. Once she started beating the skins the world around her began to move in her rhythm. Once Kim followed that up with her bass in creeped into the soul of everyone in earshot. This was part of the magic that made the bad so special. For him this was the reason why it was so important to make a real album. This was music that had to be carried around the world. It did make him wonder about Carlton though, who remained mysteriously untouched by it.
He found Kim in a medium sized rehearsing room that she had turned into her personal beat laboratory. It was packed almost completely with all manner of percussive instruments which dominated the room so much that people and other lesser objects were well hidden from casual glances.
Ogden saw Kim immediately she was thoughtfully pounding on several smaller drums in a strange broken rhythm that followed a basic rule which was broken as soon as Ogden thought he had found the pattern. It was hard to concentrate listening to it, as soon as it began to sink into a subconscious level it changed, kicking it back into his conscious thoughts. He had no idea how long he was standing there watching Kim working on her drums, glistening as the rooms light broke on the tiny droplets of sweat covering her forehead and bare arms. It took him even longer to spot Sam who was sitting in a corner slowly swaying to the beat while she was gently stroking the strings of her bass. Turner was sitting almost next to her, his hands folded under his chin his face wrinkled by the force of his concentration.
The spell was broken when D.C. came in, he tried to cross the room to get to Kim and Turner when he was caught of guard by an off beat which made him stumble. He fell crashing through a curtain of bells, their dissonant ringing breaking the spell of the rhythm.
“Sorry!” D.C. Croaked from the heap he had just created, only one foot sticking out up into the open.
“It’s OK, I needed a break anyway.” said Kim. “But you have to clean up the mess you created. Oh and if you broke anything, you will have to pay.”
“Hey Ogden.” said Kim who had not noticed his presence. “What brings you here at this ungodly hour? Have you been kicked out of your house?”
“No. Everything is fine I just thought I check in on you and maybe bring a couple of six packs of beer.” he said pulling up the bag he was holding in his right hand so that every one could see that he came with tribute.
“I’d love a beer right now.” said Kim brushing the sweat away from her brow with her arm.
“So… about the Album.” Ogden started after he had given out his bountiful gift of beer. “I’m hearing you have trouble bringing it together in the right way?”
“In a strange way.” Adrian said. “We’ve got the ideas. We’ve got the music composed. We even have lyrics. Thanks to Tiger loads of it. But nailing it down in a way that makes it suitable to be cut into a disk is… hard.”
“Because” Kim said, “whenever we try to put one piece together it keeps shifting. It is never quite the same. The fuckers refuse to be finished.”
“Can’t you find a point when the song is good enough?” Ogden realised that he had said something bad when suddenly everyone was drilling holes into him with their stares.
“Good enough?” D.C. asked “Good enough does not come into play here. You can put together some sounds until they sound nice. You can take shortcuts. But you can not simply stop in the middle of something and call it quits because you don’t want to do it anymore. That’s like a chef deciding that he can’t be bothered anymore and simply stops preparing a meal, serving that half cooked mess to the people in the restaurant. That is not good enough that is a disaster.”
“I think I understand.” Ogden did understand the kitchen example but he did not see how that was connected to the music troubles they were having. “But, your songs, they work. They flow. They go from start to finish, they have completed lyrics. How is… the cooking? not done in this case?”
“Because when you start recording,” D.C. had one of his very rare chatty moments and he was even sober, “the song is not supposed to change. To grow. To twist in your hands.”
“But you had not problems with your live recording…” Ogden tried.
“That, is a completely different beast.” Sam said. “That is a snapshot in time. You are right those are not ready, but they are like a photo. You know? Like a frozen moment in time. You get a picture of how it was at that point. You can here it still growing. You even hear the context. But that does not work with studio tracks.”
“Right.” he still did not get it, but this strategy was getting him nowhere. “Maybe it’s because you have to many freedoms?” Ogden regretted his choice of words the moment they had passed his lips. The icy stares that were now drilling deeper into his soul trying to kill him intensified.
“Fuck you.” said Kim, “You were the one who wanted to drag us into a studio. We fucking told you that we were hapy where we were. We were moving forward without a hassle. Then you appear out of thin air all of a sudden and tell us how many ‘fans in high places’ we have and drag us in this fancy studio. Did we ask for this? We, are doing you, a fucking favour here. If you want to go and turn into a nuisance, fine but I will not be a part of this bullshit…”
“Kim’s right Ogden.” Turner said, “We were doing well and it was your idea to work in the studio to start with. We should be touring the country first, make a name for us. You were the one who talked us into doing things backwards.”
Ogden made pacifying gestures with his hands. “No. No no no no no… you misunderstand. I… my choice of words was unfortunate.”
“You fucking bet it was.” said Kim
“I did not mean to restrict your privileges in any way,” Ogden continued to work himself out of the hole he had dug for himself. “I meant setting up artificial limits for the songs. To stake out a claim and work that part. It focuses the ind and it is harder to get sidetracked.”
“Yeah? Like what?” asked Kim eyes still slowly skewering Ogden.
“For example… a time limit. Try to get a song done in three minutes.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” Kim asked, “When was the last time you heard us play a song that lasted only 3 minutes.”
“Never! And that is the point. That’d be a challenge. You would have a very definite and hard to reach goal. Pack all your signature stuff into one three minute morsel.”
“Hard to reach?”
“You just said yourself that you have never done anything as short as that.”
“Hmph…” said Kim.
Ogden knew that he had found a way in. He convinced them to work on the three minute song and into working. Even better they agreed of calling in a band meeting the next day and work on some challenges that they’d try to tackle to put it into the album.
The next evening they had a list with the ten great labours that they wanted to accomplish. The band was filled with fresh dose of enthusiasm, while Ogden had something that he could show Carlton that would hopefully prevent him from descending further into hysteria.
* * *
The challenge gave the band direction. Providing little seeds of discomfort around which their songs crystallised. Radio Hit quickly became their Great Adversary. Ogden had insisted to be the first of the great labours but as they tried to overcome this task it moved further down the list. When ever they tried to give it form and fix it onto a disk it eluded them. Instead the usually found a solution for one of their other challenges.
So after it had become their fifth labour they decided that they would have to try cunning instead of brute force. Charing headlong into it would not work so they decided to tackle The Specter first. This was supposed to become a song that would weave together as many different stylistic threads as possible. What made this a challenge was to put together the threads in a way that sounded perfectly natural. Who ever listened to it should be tapping his or her foot first and ask questions later.
It took them a week. Spent almost exclusively in the studio. They did not leave for the hotel anymore. They stopped going to the Chinese place. Instead Darius was the one doing the feeding runs. At first they asked him to do it but as the week grew old the roadie had to start to take their orders by force.
Day after day their humanity broke off of them piece by piece leaving behind the higher force driving them towards their music. Around the half way point they seemed the most savage, nerves getting exposed and fraying. Tempers flaring, personalities clashing. This did not last though. Complications in the way of their true basic driving force. It was in the way so they let go of it.
On the sixth day as Darius was entering the studio packed like a dim-sum Santa Clause he found the band huddled around a table the had improvised in a corner of the room. Before them were various sheets of paper filled with maps of the their new song. Some where in normal musical notation, there were sheets with tabs and even a few maps showing the ‘terrain’ on their piece scribbled in blue ballpoint pen on blotched paper. They were talking in low determined voices about how to overcome their last few obstacles. Sam was beating a part of the map with a chopstick, in part explaining why it was still a problem in part demonstrating the beat she knew would solve everything.
Darius silently arranged the food on top of a pair of low stacks carefully preventing making more noise than necessary. When he had arrived he was about to do his usual drill sergeant routine to get his musicians to eat and drink, but this was not the time. Nature had to wait.
When he returned the net morning to see how thing were going. Apart from one soup the food and drink remained untouched. His little musicians were all soundly if uncomfortably sleeping where they had lost their fight with biology. Turner being the one who apparently had held out the longest for he was sleeping sitting on an office chair. Legs stretched out, arms and head hanging over the edges. He had an empty soup container carefully placed over his eyes to shield them from the shining lights overhead.
The war was over.
What had looked like a bouquet of dead ends and failure turned out to be the foundations of other songs that had not found their real form yet. With what they had just achieved the other labours were easy. There was still a good amount of hair pulling, screaming and drama involved. This time though it was far less complicated. Complications resolved themselves into complexity.
With what felt almost like an anti-climax the Album was done.
“That was almost too easy.” Turner said. Everyone else laughed. The laughter carried an edge of desperation with it, but it was not hiding it, it was flushing it out.
“Finally.” D.C. sighed letting a smile grow gently from the corners of his mouth until it reached from ear to ear.
“So what’s next then?” asked Sam. She was not quite ready to let her guard down.
“I’ll tell you what’s next.” Darius said his voice gently shaking the walls of the room, “we all go out and get drunk for a week or two. Celebrating our success.”
Sam thought about that. She found that idea most pleasing.
“Actually…” Ogden said. He waited for a moment. To let the implication sink in. Ten seconds later all the eyes in the room were on him. “… that is not quite what is going to happen.”
“You are kidding.” Kim said, “You are kidding, right?”
“No, not at all.”
“Tell me that you are kidding so that I don’t have to kill you.” Kim insisted.
“I am not joking and please don’t kill me. At least not until you’ve heard what I had in mind.”
Kim shrugged while pulling out a spare bass string. “Go ahead. Everyone is entitled to some last words.” she said as she started to wind one end of the string around one hand.
“Now, it’s time for your world tour.”