BATTLETECH – BEHIND THE MUSIC
Here you’ll find stories behind each of the songs from the Radio Over Moscow album Battletech.
SELECT SONG: THE PURPOSE OF MAN / ANTI-HUMAN NOUS / IMAGES OF BLISS / PAKISTAN / POLICIES / FICTION/ NEW ELECTRA/ TRUE/ CAPTURE ONE/ CALL ME WRONG/ WHERE ARE YOU/ THIS NOW/ TWIST IT
I’ve always found it interesting to find out about other bands’ writing/recording processes, so thought I’d write about writing, composing, and recording my own.
I know it’s not exactly the Classic Albums series, but how often do you read about obscure, no-budget recording sessions, that don’t end with the phrase, ‘thank god for that NZ On Air funding’? If nothing else, writing this stuff down will at least be interesting to myself in decades to come!
Anyway, so we’ll start with the first track on the album, and the oldest song on the album by a long way, ‘The Purpose of Man’.
The song’s genesis dates way, way back to 1996. From memory, R William Murphy (not that he called himself that in those days – let’s call him Rob) and I were in town – Hamilton, of course. We were walking down the main street, on our way home I believe, when two Asian Christians accosted us for a chat. This wasn’t entirely normal in mid-90s Hamilton, but my bullshit detector must’ve been functioning well ’cause I got out of my conversation unscathed, whilst Rob’s guy wound up trying to get him to come back later that night for a street-side baptism – and no, that’s not a euphemism.
So after 20 minutes or so we managed to extricate ourselves, but the bible-bashers left us with a parting shot – a small booklet called ‘The Purpose Of Man’. Yes, that’s it in the pic – the exact one – complete with more-than-a-decade-years-old pencil scribblings in my handwriting.
Now, in my memory’s version of events, I can’t remember which came first – the words or the ‘music’. I put ‘music’ in inverted commas because what I had written down was most definitely not music. I was yet to learn how to play, and from memory had drawn a series of lines on a piece of paper with dots representing the next note in the riff I’d supposedly composed. I gave this ‘music’ to Rob, who understandably not having a clue what I’d done, came out with the choppy, key-ignoring riff the song’s verses are based around.
For the chorus, we literally just took the chords from the verses and played them from lowest to highest up the fretboard as power chords, then highest to lowest, repeat. Seriously, that’s how you write songs when you’ve just learned to play! Go the barre chord.
The lyrics were a collaborative effort, from memory, written pretty much at the height of our Beatles obsession. The idea was pretty simple – write the first great hippy anthem of the next millenium; hence the references to flowers, colours, hazes, the outside world, things being in your head, the plants being peculiar, colours surrounding you, being amazed, and so on. Pretty simple stuff, but when combined with the very British-sounding off-key riff, quite effective.
The structure of the song has a slightly more convoluted origin. There’s an old demo of the two of us in ‘96 or ‘97 recorded onto a tape recorder with a borrowed Yamaha PSS-460 keyboard providing the beat (that keyboard has an entire story of its own I won’t go into here!). One of us (probably me, as Rob was the only one who could play the guitar properly) tapped out the chord progression on the keys as a thin, tinkly rhythm played, soon followed with Rob’s dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun guitar riff and the first verse.
The demo followed this basic pattern until halfway through the second verse, when we started shouting, and Rob dropped the staccato playing for a straight strum.
And as for the outro, I can’t recall whether it was spontaneous or planned, apart from the slowing to half-time. The falsetto I’m sure was a shock, even if we were only 16 at the time. It’s seriously high, and unlike me Rob nailed it without the benefit of technology!
We played the song in our band Sequester in 1998, which is where the more menacing aspect to its arrangement arose – the military-style beat in the second half of the second verse. As I said, we’d always made that part louder, but our drummer Arie threw in these vicious, urgent snare rolls that flipped the song’s feel and attitude entirely. Live, it would start out as a plodding psychedelic pop song, then have its meaning put in doubt by a raucous, menacing twist.
Then we’d throw in five minutes of feedback and noise, and play it again. It was a great way of padding out a short set!
So when it came to recording it for ‘Battletech’, I was a little wary – I’ve always loved the song, and thought it was one of the best Rob and I wrote together, but wasn’t sure if I’d pull it off with all the twists and changes it had accrued in its life.
Rather than rely on the same basic fake ‘live drummer’ set up most of the other tracks largely use, I beefed up the main rhythm with a loud, compressed dirty hip-hop kick drum and some choppy, gated snares – this gave the track a more synthesized feel than the rest of the album, but as it was already musically quite different, I figured it was a go. For the intro, I mimicked the sound of the old Yamaha using a bunch of drum machine samples, and threw in this great loping synth preset from FL Studio I’d found (and used) on ‘Images of Bliss’, which was recorded earlier.
I programmed in a pad playing the basic chord progression, so that if further down the line I had pull out instruments that just wouldn’t fit, there would still be at least something droning away in key. It worked too, as I later pulled the electric guitars from the verses in order to make the choruses have more punch.
At the end of each chorus, it seemed a little dull just to have the descending chord progression pay itself out, so I added in a synth-string sweep and some cheesy techno synths, which worked better than I had expected. If someone had told me in 1996 that ‘The Purpose Of Man’ would have strings and a cheesy techno synth, I probably would have punched them for being blasphemous, but hey. Not really.
Something did go wrong in those chorus outros, though. As you can hear, they skip a chord – a gap I’d completely forgotten about in the initial recording. It was only when I sent Rob an in-progress mix of the backing track that he pointed out it had a couple of skipped beats I’d forgotten about completely. I had to painstakingly remove them, adding in fades to cover up the edit.
Throws a little doubt on how accurate my recollection of the ’90s might be though!
So, coming to the outro of the song, I initially planned to get Rob to do it, hoping for a repeat of his ball-busting effort on the mid-90s demo. Instead, I relied on computers to get me through, and when Rob first heard the mix, he said he wans’t needed. Or words to that effect. He did have some slightly more intricate vocal runs I couldn’t do, but in their place I put some melodic bass runs, doubled up on a last-minute synthesiser – in fact, the last thing recorded on the entire album, I think.
I planned early on to close the album with ‘The Purpose Of Man’, figuring if I pulled it off successfully, nothing could really follow it. Somewhere along the line I decided it was far too good to shove at the back of an album probably no one will hear, so promoted it to the front. It was just so different to everything else, it kind of had to be had out of the way, so the album proper could start. It’s the only song on the album I didn’t write alone, and has its genesis in a completely different part of my life to most of the material.
Still, I’m very proud of it, and think yeah – perhaps back in 1996, we did just write the first great hippy anthem of the new millenium. Even if it took cheesy techno synths and a dollop of AutoTune to get there. Putting it at the front of the album certainly weeds out those who don’t have an open mind, and serves as an excellent red herring for the next track, ‘Anti-Human Nous’ – which was composed 12 years later!
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘THE PURPOSE OF MAN’
This song is one of a few written immediately before I began recording ‘Battletech’. Many of the songs were penned long before the album itself came together, and never recorded through a lack of the right technology – ie. real-enough-sounding drums without getting a guy, paying a different guy, and feeding them both beer – and being stuck with the results.
But this one was originally written for a band I was in at the time, KittyHawk. Early 2008, or late 2007, I can’t recall. In one of my ‘get out the gear, muck around, and see what comes out’ periods, I went in with the intention of writing music for the band; which at the time played mostly material written by the singer, Kent, with input on arrangements from the drummer, John, and I.
Kent wasn’t so keen on it (other stuff I had he liked, so it wasn’t time wasted, not at all), so it went in my big pile of ‘unused songs that rock’. Soon after, when the concept of Radio Over Moscow came to me (then as ‘Raid Over Moscow’) Anti-Human Nous was top of the list of songs to try out.
I took the original demo, and literally just transferred the demo drums onto the newer samples, tweaked them a bit of course, threw in some synthetic samples in the choruses, and pretty much had the drum take ready. It was one of those songs were the structure was already in place from the get-go, like magic or something.
It was one of the first songs recorded for the album, and I had my distorted bass sound going, in an approximate replication of what I used live in KittyHawk. It’s a lot simpler to play than it sounds – a few people have commented it sounds like a synthesizer – or thought it was one. Nope, it’s just a quickly-picked bass string, mostly on the A-string.
The actual synths though are played mostly on the Yamaha PSS-460. It’s an old keyboard I used a hell of a lot in the past, but have kind of ignored recently in favour of softsynths. Anyway, nothing does a good ‘beerougnh’ sound like the PSS-460, so I pulled it out of retirement for Anti-Human Nous.
It also makes a really cool sound when you’re recording it live, and you suddenly kill the power – but when you do that, you lose your slider settings, which sucks. So don’t do it unless it’s your final take, and the overpaid producer is giving you massive thumbs up through the studio window.
As for the lyrics, well… they’re gibberish. Completely. If you don’t believe me, listen to them. People often take meaning from um, words. In this case, don’t. At all.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘ANTI HUMAN NOUS’
It’s no secret that ‘Battletech’ was frontloaded, which led to a few internal debates over whether to put the best ’songs’ at the beginning of the album, or go with what felt natural, soundwise; I aimed for a balance, which resulted in the first four songs sounding pretty much nothing like each other.
So after the electro-psychedelic ‘The Purpose Of Man’ and new wave/industrial ‘Anti-Human Nous’, there’s ‘Images Of Bliss’ – which has survived its eight-year genesis surprisingly intact.
I wrote the song in 2001, in true John Lennon spirit – my sister had delivered me her latest artistic masterpiece, and being seven years old at the time (her – not I, obviously), it was of some people, a house, the sky, etc etc. Not to discount her effort, but you know what kids paint/draw at that age.
It got me thinking – kids, when they’re not brought up in wartorn societies or being sung about by U2, almost always draw happy scenes. Yet, if you’re old enough to vote, drawing a guy with a near-perfect sphere for a head with an ear-to-ear grin is near enough to land you in the loony bin. Why?
And that’s pretty much the story behind the opening line – “Have you noticed how little children draw images of bliss, and talented artists don’t? Says a lot about growing up these days.”
In late 2001, I was a part-time dole bludger living in the ground-floor room of three-storey apartment owned by a rich American guy who used to be in a hardcore punk band, and then worked in 3D TV screens which had some connection to the US military, and his girlfriend who was a fellow Kiwi I met whilst doing the night-shift at a semi-student radio station.
The best part of this odd-sounding arrangement was that my room was separated from their room by an entire empty floor, and I had pretty much all the time in the world to just crank my 25W amp and learn how to rip off Weezer and the Dandy Warhols. It was a fertile period, split down the middle by 9/11, which had a marked effect on my writing – as in I went from writing songs about crayon drawings by children and pretending to be attacked by vampires (I’m not sure that song will ever see release…) to tackling, you know, issues. As clumsily as any half-a-world-removed 21-year-old does.
The initial demo contained perhaps 80% of the final recording’s DNA, obviously minus eight years of learned production experience. Over the next few years, it was demoed again and again, and played live in bands I had going, yet barely changed. I have to mention the repeated drum fill added by – I can’t remember if it was Simon or Nat – but it was sub-Ringo in its simplicity, yet just fit so well I kept it for the recorded version. I owe whichever of you it was a beer, or something.
And being one of the songs that had been repeatedly played live beforehand, I have to thank the other guys in the band – it’s probably too far removed to remember exactly what contributions to its arrangement they made, but Tonamu and Gareth – and Nathan, as late as you came on the scene – if you can hear any of your influences/suggestions in the arrangement, thanks. The song hasn’t made any of us millionaires – or even ten-a-naires – but it was all good fun. (EDIT: Since I first wrote this, the song made an appearance on the weather section on TV show Nightline, earning me about $13. Totally paid off!)
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘IMAGES OF BLISS”
I say in the blurbs (and one day, hopefully, the interviews) I’m heavily influenced by Nirvana, yet no one seems to get it. People hear drum machines and think it’s synthpop, and/or hear distorted guitars and assume because they’re accompanied by drum machines, it’s Nine Inch Nails I’m ripping off.
Whilst both assumptions aren’t entirely false, I think it’s a little lazy to write off just how much an effect Kurt Cobain’s songwriting has had on me.
The first album I ever bought was Nirvana, Unplugged in New York. I’m not sure there’s a cooler album for someone my age to have begun with; I suppose I was a late starter, being 14 at the time, but I was doing alright for a fan of Australian rugby league who switched his allegiance from balls to guitars almost overnight.
I remember sitting in my mate’s garage when we were 15 (he’d been kicked out of home, and moved to the garage – it sounds lame, I know, but when you’re 15, in 1995, the fact he was allowed topless (not full-frontal) pics on his wall, simply because he was no longer in the house, was pretty awesome), listening to Nirvana pretty much non-stop.
It was the same at home – mum once came into my room, and asked: ‘Do you like any other bands, apart from Nirvana?’ I thought about it for a few seconds, and replied, ‘No.’ Obviously.
A few months later I’d jump on the whole mid-90s Britpop/Beatles wave, but anyway, years later…
I’d learned a bit about using semitone discordance from Placebo, using single-string riffs from Muse, yet still loved the basic, ‘happy’ C-F-G power-chord progressions of your everyday Weezer song… and one day in early 2004 hit upon the main riff. I used the fact the riff – based in E – landed on C, giving it that minor kind of sound, to switch to F-C-G in the choruses, but keeping an angry melody, and somehow it resulted in something that was simultaneously catchy as hell, without being a total cheese-fest.
That sounds totally nerdy, but I insist – I have absolutely no musical training or knowledge, honest. It just sounded right.
The first time it was played live in my band at the time, Vetox, was the drummer’s… something. Engagement party? It was an odd audience anyway, and he hadn’t been in the band long, but it was draining, which yeah, made me think there was something to the song.
And as for the parts everyone says sound like the Killers, a) I’m actually quite proud I managed to pull off a song that equally ripped off Nirvana and the Killers, and b) one review said instead it was White Zombie I was channeling. Which you cannot argue with, or Rob Zombie will kill you.
The recording obviously uses a lo-fi approximation of Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme’s distorted basswork, and if you listen carefully – it’s more apparent on the dynamic, alternate mix – drum machines in the intro and from the second verse onwards.
If you’ve read this far, you might even be interested in what the song is about – well, it’s a clumsily-written simplified view of what Pakistan, the country, seemingly wants from the United States. Crossed with wanting a girl. Heavy shit. This is where I insert the ‘in a post-9/11 world’ quote to get people’s ears on fire, I think.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘PAKISTAN’
Policies came together over Nov/Dec 1999.
I suppose it’s odd that it starts with an apparent grammatical error – but no, it’s just a possessive. ‘Policies are all’ would have been acceptable, but the word ‘policy’ fits, okay? Not that I’ve been asked about it very often.
New Zealand had a general election in November 1999, a year throughout which I’d developed my songwriting and political idealogy to a degree, I guess. We’d had a right-wing govt for nine years, and the election result was a foregone conclusion. Helen Clark’s Labour won, but as us young’uns are wont to do, we soon imagined cracks.
To be honest, I’m not sure what cracks I could have seen that quickly, despite the lyrics. I was yet to endeavor on proper student protest (that would come in 2000) and Labour’s victory was something I’d been waiting for since 1990.
The ‘no party vote’ lyric I suppose is the most interesting part. The reasoning was at the time, we’re so young, we don’t have a party we’re loyal to (we get two votes in NZ – one for an electorate, which is nigh on useless, and one for the party, which decides the government). It was a very fresh idea at the time, the separate party vote, and it has fallen in recent years to the same kind of political manipulation as the old meaningless electorate vote used to be prey to.
The electorate vote is still almost entirely useless, but seems to hold a spell over much of the electorate who want a return to the bad old days.
I can’t say much more about the original lyric, but its message seems as timely as ever – listen to the distinct messages each party sends, as opposed to their stated policies. And judge them on those.
Sound and structure-wise, the song has remained remarkably intact since it was first written. A few synths were added, replacing what were originally guitars, but apart from that, what’s on the album is pretty much what was on the demo I recorded in 1999.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘POLICIES’
I sometimes go through phases where I try to write songs I could imagine a famous band or artist playing. Normally each artist gets one phase, then I move on – Weezer are an exception. I’ve tried to write a thousand Weezer songs in my life, with varying results.
This was one of the success stories, I feel – even if it ended up sounding nothing like Weezer (much like Weezer themselves, these days).
It began in 2008, I think, making it one of the most recently-penned tracks from ‘Battletech’. It was initially just the power chord verses, with a fairly monotone, wordless melody. The bridge/chorus chords came soon after, but it wasn’t until I recorded it that it really took shape – there was no demo version, what you hear on the album was the first and only attempt at putting it together.
For example, the synth lead that underpins the entire bridge (bit after the verse but before the chorus) was only added as a way of making the bassline melody stand out, and ended up being perhaps the catchiest phrase in the whole song. It also leads nicely into the guitar solo, contributed by R William Murphy – he who helped write ‘The Purpose Of Man’. I told him ‘like van Halen’, which is probably the first and last time I’ll ever ask for that.
The vocals were one of the first I tried using software to do pitch correction, and found by doubling it up with octave higher and lower backing vocals, it gave the song an other-worldy, robotic kind of feel. I utilised the technique to fill in vocals on the other songs, liking what I heard here. Because the verse melody on ‘Fiction’ is quite plain – all the catchiness there being in the chords, really – it helped make the vocals stand out, sound more interesting.
The lyrics are one of my signature mish-mashes of two different ideas; one which came with the chords, and one when I actually sat down to flesh everything out so I could record it. The first idea is that gossip – lies in particular – doesn’t spread by itself. Pretty obvious, really. It takes people to pass it on, and people get a kick out of it – else they wouldn’t do it. In other words, fiction is a lazy bitch, or as the song puts it, Yoda-style, ‘such a lazy bitch, fiction is’.
The second angle is basically an attack on the current National Party. They’re always good for a kicking, and last time they were in power I could barely even play the guitar. Still can’t, but hey.
And no, I don’t know why the tom roll going into the second chorus is so quiet. I must have accidentally muted the close mics when I was putting it all together, and by the time I realised something was wrong I couldn’t be arsed remixing it. One mixing error that made the master is still about 5000 less than the Beatles had, per song…
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘FICTION’
Sometimes you read that a song had a really long gestation, and then you read Wikipedia only to find out what differentiates a ‘long’ gestation from a short one is the number of hotel rooms and hookers, multiplied exponentially, the guitarist had to pass through in order to come up with the band’s next hit.
In contrast, the main riff to ‘New Electra’ was one of the very first I ever came up with on picking up a guitar. Which was in the mid 1990s. As a reminder, ‘Battletech’ came out in July 2009.
The base of the song was laid down in the late ’90s, early 2000s, and pretty much left to rot. I never brought it up for consideration in any of the bands I was in, and never considered it for recording in my my previous solo iteration, luna spark, which wasn’t as ‘rock’ oriented as ‘Battletech’.
But new technology and such let me try it out, and though it evolved greatly in the mix, I don’t think it could have come out any better. It’s a far cry from what I imagined in 1996 or whatever, but if you knew what lyrics used to hang off the riff, you’d be worshiping the ground Charles Darwin used to listen to music on.
‘Cause really, the whole song is pretty much that riff. And to have some whargarbll over the top of it, with some crappy AutoTune, would just be lame.
The verses aren’t so hot, so AutoTune there is required, for sure.
If you’ve got the album, and it’s a free download, so if you’ve read this far I’m guessing you do, you’d notice the snare sound is different to most of the other songs. It is, yeah. I used a different sample, and to this day, I’m not entirely sure why. It has a more generic session-bad pop sound to it.
The synth sound in the second verse you’d recognise as one I’ve scattered throughout ‘Battletech’, and it’s cropping up a bit in the new recordings I’m working one – perhaps a little too much (EDIT: Those recordings would go on to form the album ‘Hide the Decline’.) I’ve had some troubles with one of my wrists this past year, and combined with the fact I’m now a freakin’ dad (”freakin’ dad” ’cause it’s still a freakout that I’m a freakin’ dad) I’ve not been on the guitar/bass so much.
In its place is that pulsing, so-very-1990s sound. Or ’80s. I’m not sure. Needs more guitar to sound like Rob Zombie, less to sound like Ultravox – the dilemma of my life.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘NEW ELECTRA’
Another song, like the last one, which was originally written a long, long time ago. In the original demo, the lead part – the catchy Moog synth bit, on the album – was played by a lead guitar which sounded like it was tuned by Helen Keller. Okay, something that badly out of tune wouldn’t even be funny, even if it was Helen Keller who twisted the knobs. It was vaguely in key – VAGUELY – so you could tell what notes they were meant to be, but out just enough to make even the worst American Idol contestant double-take.
I’m working on some new material, and in one of the songs, I somehow accidentally programmed the lead Moog part a whole semi-tone low, which if you’re not expecting it, can be a source of much bewilderment, and then, hilarity.
Anyway… I recorded the song initially as a “hmm, maybe”, but it came out well enough for me to chuck it on the album. I mean, it’s barely two minutes long, and with the added little bassline licks and chorus guitar riffs, I thought yeah, it stands up.
It got singled out as a track to skip past in a recent review, but to be honest, I like it. I thought it was catchy enough to stick on the album, and whilst recognising it’s pretty lightweight, it’s over so quickly it doesn’t detract from the record.
And when I decided to try and duplicate the record live myself, armed with a MIDI keyboard and a laptop, its simplicity meant was the first track I went to.
Lyrically, it was/is about a girl I knew very well a long time ago. You could tell that from the opening line, I guess – which I wrote five years after we met, and recorded 15 years after we met… Thing is, we met in the early/mid 1990s as young teens. People change a lot in their teens – which explains the second line. And that’s pretty much it.
Yeah, the lyrics really are as simple as the music, but that’s what you get from a song written by a then 18-year-old who could barely play the guitar. “I had a crush on you, then we changed, and WTF, you’re different! Woah. I should’ve done something then, huh? Even so, it wouldn’t have worked out.” That’s pretty much the end of the song, which is good, ’cause no one would want it turning into Twilight: New Moon, would they?”
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘TRUE’
I’m often doubted, or at the least, looked at only in sideways glances, when I say Nirvana is one of, if not the, major influence on my songwriting. This album was kind of in response to that, and though somewhat entirely unsuccessful in that regard, the spirit definitely ‘lives on’ in ‘Capture One’.
Well, I’d hope it did anyway, considering it was written with the 100 percent intention of writing a Nirvana song. I know it’s not fashionable to say so, but no one who ever attempts to duplicate another’s style is ever going to do it, and might even succeed in some other way – so why not? I never understood Oasis and Blur detractors who said both bands were ripping off the Beatles. I mean, it’s not as if the Beatles were still around making that kind of music, and if it’s good, who the fuck cares? If Paul McCartney won’t step up, why not let Noel or Damon? And the Beatles didn’t write ‘Girls And Boys’ or ‘Coffee & TV’.
And Nirvana never threw in a time signature change, followed by a Moog solo. So pfffffft.
The song was written in drop-D, on electric guitar. Probably obvious. I remember the afternoon I was recording the vocals, there was some kind of happening in the flats facing ours, at the time. Loads of little kids were running around, and ’cause I couldn’t get a decent vocal sound in the room where most of the album was tracked, I had the mic set up in the lounge, with its wall-sized window, where I also had the blinds open ’cause it was sunny, or something.
Thinking back now, I can’t recall why I didn’t just close the blinds, but the kids kept running up to the window whenever I did a take. That, or the parent(s) would halt sipping on their cigarettes for a few seconds while I mumbled through the verses or sheepishly belted out the choruses.
Being the kind of songwriter now who barely learns his own songs before recording them, a fact that will provide many laughs should I ever try to play live, I had great trouble in the recording/mixing phase when I couldn’t get the lead synthesizer to mesh with the guitars and bass. It wasn’t until I analysed everything closely that I realised I’d confused the order of chords in the riff, and gotten it all completely backwards. If I was in the Beatles, I’d just have recorded it anyway, and gotten George Martin to fix it up.
Unfortunately, as my own producer, recorder, shit-filter and coffee-maker, I was far more bamboozled than science can calculate.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘CAPTURE ONE’
In the same way the last song I wrote about, ‘Capture One’, showed off my Nirvana influence, this one guns for Weezer, with a bit of ‘Lithium’, I guess.
I’d had the chorus lying around for ages, probably since 2003 or ‘04, and something resembling the verses for almost as long. The song didn’t change a whole lot in the recording process, to be honest.
The chorus melody was initially sung in a drawn-out manner, the same notes but harder to sing, basically. I changed it to the shorter, snappier arrangement you hear on the recording largely due to the fact it just didn’t sound good when I sung it the old way, haha. I experimented a bit with a Bowie-esque lower register, but it didn’t really suit the style of the song. You never heard Rivers Cuomo doing that, and probably for good reasons.
The quick harmony bits were added as I was recording – quite basic, but added some extra interest to the melody, since it had been kind of neutered by having its syllables shortened.
The verses were a nightmare to do. The basic melody was always there, but really hard to pull off with my limited vocal skills. I recorded what I thought would be the final take, only to realise it was woefully inadequate. But, there was a silver lining – I did so much post-production and rearranging of the melody, that when it came time to redo it, all I had to do was sing along with the heavily-edited original vocal, and bang, it was almost right on in one take. Layered on some octave above/below vocals, and it sounded good enough.
The arrangement barely changed from the single demo I recorded three or four years ago. The biggest change was in the rhythm guitar, which initially played the intro/verse chords strummed and open, which I couldn’t get to sound any good in the recording. I tried a few things, and opted for the simple two-string motif when there weren’t any vocals, and a basic palm-muted powerchord thing when there were.
The extra drums that come in the second verse were inspired by the incredible tom-work you hear on the first couple of U2 albums. It’s like, there’s this tightly-recorded and crisp snare, kick and hihat combo, then seemingly from another planet these heavily-reverbed and compressed toms blast in, not dissimilar to the ‘Phil Collins sound’, but slightly less processed. I’ve always loved the contrast in sound, so threw it this song, which is otherwise rhythmically, pretty Neanderthal. The switch from guitars and bass in the first half of the second verse to drum machines and synths was an idea I’d used often in my previous musical incarnation as luna spark, but resisted on this album – except for this song. It needed something to justify a longer second verse, and the rising melody didn’t quite cut it, so a change in backing instrumentation I felt helped carry it along.
The middle eight was a nightmare to put together. I’d sung the wrong words on the proper vocal, which were vocally better than the demo, which had the right words. Sounds simple – rerecord the vocal, or just use the demo and fix it up – but the haphazard nature of my recording process means it’s hard to get the exact same vocal sound on a rerecord, and the demo wasn’t quite good enough. I eventually managed to cut between the two, using the original demo vocal for the middle eight, patching it up enough so it sounded the same. Wasn’t easy.
The lyrics, I’m not really sure what they’re about. The bones of the song were written so long ago and never really completed, making it hard to determine what frame of mind I was in when it came. I’m guessing defiant? My own interpretation is I must’ve been called out on something, and I was getting defensive. It happens.
This was one of the songs we practised in the initial ‘live band’ incarnation of Radio Over Moscow. I played the Moog parts on my guitar. Mostly wrongly.
I know this entry was kind of boring. But the song, as solid as it is, I know isn’t the most interesting or exciting on the album. I personally like it, ’cause it proves to myself I can write a simple, solid guitar-heavy pop song. But it’s kind of boring next to ‘Pakistan’ or ‘The Purpose Of Man’, I know.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘CALL ME WRONG’
I had a burst of songwriting in mid-2005 after we’d moved up to Auckland, and this song largely was a product of those ‘sessions’. The exact circumstances escape me, but from memory – some of these ‘facts’ will be more verifiable than others – I had most Mondays and Tuesdays pretty much to myself, and composed a few pieces that would/will surface in various forms over the years.
My favourite of those times, ‘Mondays Are The Best Days’, is still unfinished. Probably until I get another job where Monday justifies its awesomeness. The ball is in your court, Monday.
This one, I think had its origins pre-the move from Hamilton to Auckland earlier that year, but wracking my brain, I can’t work it out. Musically, it slots into that era… but by the time recording came around, sure, it was one of 30 songs laid down, and it almost didn’t make the cut. I thought, probably wrongly, I dunno, it should go on. Thing is, there were about three distinct production style/sounds put down in the making of this album – being a potential double, and all – and as much as I love this track as a song, there’s a reason it’s sequenced nearer the end than the start.
Its sound fit in, just. There.
Sometimes, it’s that simple. Thank fuck for Auto-Tune. I removed a lot of the ‘backing vocals’, because the melody I was hoping to invoke was already there, ethereally. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes in the noise and chaos, you can hear… good stuff. You know, that might not be there initially anyway. I read that’s how Morrissey used to compose melodies whilst in the Smiths – by listening to shit way too loud, then inferring tunes from the harmonics and chaos. Anyway…
There is a small autobiographical part to this song. But it’s an old song, lyrically. Which is kind of why I’m pleased the new album I’m working on, out soon, is not.
In other words, being track #11 on an obscure, nothing album from the middle of nowhere, there you go.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘WHERE ARE YOU’
That burst of songwriting I mentioned in the previous entry? Yeah, this song is from a similar time. Officially, it’s from the burst I had just before I left Hamilton – I think – and not the one just after we got up here in Auckland, but it all blurs. It’s one of them vaguely psychedelic, moody acoustic songs with ominous synths and tinkly keyboards reverbing all over the show. It’s like a mini-genre-within-a-genre in my songwriting.
To emphasise the dark, foreboding feeling the chorus melody has, which might not be apparent at its full speed, I decided to open and close the song with a slowed down, drum-free overture of sorts, aping it at a funereal pace. It served as a welcome breather after the intense, cluttered ending to ‘Where Are You?’ in any circumstances.
Being a rather melodic song – I think it’s up there with my best, tune-wise – don’t be surprised if you can there’s a bit of Auto-Tune on it. Okay, more than a bit – but what you’re likely hearing there is a pitch-shifted, octave-up backing vocal. Even John Lennon tried every trick in the 1960s book to hide his true voice, so can you blame me?
On any other album of mine, the song’s sheer quality (relatively speaking) would have seen it placed higher up the tracklisting – but as Battletech was originally meant to be split into two records, one loud and aggressive, one pensive and moody, but stripped back to one – it couldn’t really fit in the first half, amongst tracks like ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Anti-Human Nous’. It would have killed the record’s momentum dead! Unfortunately, its placement at the end, along with ‘Twist It’ and ‘The Sum…’ which are largely in a similar vein, drew some criticism of its own from one critic. Ah well. I think the song stands up, but yeah, it is might strike some as an odd shift in tone, 12 tracks in…
Lyrically it’s a very positive song for the most part, with a dark twist in the chorus. It’s not exactly cryptic. But the coda? Fuck knows what that’s about.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘THIS NOW’
I know it has a silly title, like it’s a redux of some stupid dance craze. Believe you me, if I could write a dance craze song, for the money, I would.
Its genesis is far more mundane and familiar – though I guess it’s a little odd writing its behind the scenes entry at the stroke of midnight as Valentine’s Day begins!
My wife and I met a long time ago. Without her approval this perhaps isn’t the best place to expand on it too much, but simply put after an initial Ross and Rachel will they/won’t they, it never happened. Except we got through it in the same number of months the Friends cast took years to pull off.
I then wrote a shitload of songs about it. Twist It included. I guess Ross would have done the same, with results worse than mine.
Queue a Lost-style flashforward, it’s 2008 and we’ve been together for a few years. Twist It is one of the 30 songs I recorded for Battletech, and was always meant to go on the mythical ‘second disc’ of acoustic-style songs, but got bumped up to main-disc status, ’cause it’s a good song. With the epic treatment I gave it, it had to go at the end, but I always planned a quiet acoustic number to follow it a la Abbey Road, otherwise yes, it would have been the album’s end.
But why? Well, from the reviews I’ve read, no matter how kind, I have a suspicion none of them heard the song to its end – the big electro-bass, heavy dance thingamajig. At the time I felt the second Radio Over Moscow album would kick off where Twist It left off, heading further in that direction. In some ways, due to my wrist injury, it has – the new record is far more electronic and computer based, thought still throws in enough guitar – but in others, I’ve ditched the “live” sound it had and adopted something a bit more direct.
Alright, this entry is turning into custard. I’m avoiding the point. The point is, I was pissed off and young. What I was ranting about in the song, came right enough for the subject to marry me. Though at one point, I remember considering changing the lyric ‘August 11′ to ‘September 11′ – did I mention the song’s plot (and reality) is set in late 2001?
I’d recorded a few demos of Twist It over the years, and the outro sequence is based on one I estimate – from the shitty gear I’m guessing was being used, from the sound quality – was done in 2002. The coda synth melody was present on a delay-heavy guitar, probably before I was able to program a keyboard melody (to be honest, and to lamely brag, I actually played the Battletech version’s keyboard live).
The bassline melody was there from the beginning, being the first thing added after the basic track. On the recording there’s a an octave-higher clone to make it stand out when it does the run towards the end of each verse.
The heavy guitars and extra garnishing never really worked on the choruses, so I kept it out and just layered up the vocal for balance.
The bridge between the two halves of the song, I never really figured out what to put in there – different demos and mixes of early versions had a mix of spoken word, shit taken from movies, loud guitars, shitty piano, palm-muted metal riffs… I tried it all.
I gave up and went with what you hear on the record. I managed to get a synth to fill in the gaps.
‘Oh, didn’t you know?’ is, in context, either the most naive or facetious/sarcastic lyric on the whole album.
LINK: DOWNLOAD ‘TWIST IT’