Made In Heaven... Not Dead Yet is being be released as a CD with a 28-page booklet, a Fan Pack autographed CD, and as a digital download. Purchases can be made on the FnA Records website here, on Amazon, and on Ebay.
While listening again to these songs, I sometimes receive flashbacks of random, peripheral happenings to the recording process. There was the day during my work on Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love, when my wife Carla came to pick me up at the studio because my car was at the mechanic's. I told her to please take a seat because I needed about 20 more minutes to nail down a guitar track. After sitting quietly and listening to me play the same guitar passage over and over and over, Carla looked at me bewildered and asked, "What are you doing?" She had a vague idea of what I did but she'd never seen me in the studio doing it. To her it looked a bit mad. Looking at myself through her eyes made me think "Yes, this is a bit mad, isn't it?
Besides being the best songwriter I'll ever have the privilege to work with, Bob is also the funniest person I've known. I always enjoyed his visits when he made the trip up from Dayton to record his vocals or lay down guitar tracks. He was always full of enthusiasm for the project of the moment, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I'm not much of a talker so I enjoyed listening to him tell stories, or talk about what he'd been up to, or deliver reports from the world of GBV.
Much of the time it was understood what a song needed, but Bob made sure to remind me to "make it kick ass" or "add strings to make it pretty." A couple of times Bob referenced the work of other artists (The Who and John Lennon are two that I recall). But for the most part it was a matter of living with Bob's demos for a few days and letting the songs sink in before knuckling down and getting on with building the finished music tracks.
My job was to come up with the accompaniment to Bob's main guitar - a process involving a number of stages. For the albums From A Compound Eye and Normal Happiness, things were made simpler by the fact that Bob and I performed the initial basic tracks together (Bob on guitar and me on drums). But for the other thirteen or so Robert Pollard solo albums and Eps I worked on, we did not perform together as a tracking unit. I would begin, either with Bob's cassette demo, or with his main guitar track as my primary reference. Using a 4-track cassette recorder, I began by making my own demos, adding in secondary guitar parts and bass guitar. Next, I'd sit down at the drum kit and work through drum patterns while monitoring my 4-track demos through headphones.
Once the song's basic building blocks were in place, I could add in the extras (keyboards, homemade samples and percussion). The next stage was creating a stereo instrumental mix, which I would send off to Bob. This was the part I think Bob enjoyed best - getting the music mixes and hearing for the first time how the finished songs would sound behind his vocals. It was then time for Bob to come up to the studio and lay down his final vocals. Gradually, step by step, I witnessed each song come alive, and shared in Bob's excitement at the vocal recording sessions. Saying it was magical will seem cliché, but that's how it felt much of the time. Next came the vocal mixing, and finally, the songs were sent off for mastering.
Was I right to be fearful? Looking back, I regret that I had this fear - a fear that I might fail to do right by the songs, or even to ruin them. The fear made me hold back and doubt myself. Sometimes it made me act conservatively when I should have said "to hell with it" and pushed things into a different space. There was always the temptation to make things more my own. You can hear this on Fiction Man. From the very first song, 'Run Son Run,' I seem to be taking charge of the music in a presumptuous way. When I look back I feel that I had to do it that way in order to establish a line in the sand - not with Bob but with myself. If I stepped too far I had to see exactly where that step landed. I had to calibrate myself to stay on the safe side of that line. After Fiction Man I remained on the safe side for the most part, at least where Bob's solo albums were concerned. With Circus Devils and Psycho and the Birds there was little holding back. I tend to think it was a good thing to be cautious with Bob's albums, but on the other hand, there were times when my fear of making things too "weird" kept me inside the box when I might have been more adventurous. Charges of "lackluster production" are probably deserved.
When I mention song treatments being "too much," it's mostly on account of the noisy elements - those weird homemade samples of the sort used on the Circus Devils records. I think the song on which the controlled chaos is most effective is the one I already mentioned - the opening track 'Run Son Run.' This was also the very first song I tackled. The result gave me confidence as I moved on to the other tracks.
Coming back to the 8-track tape machine used to record Fiction Man, I'd been using it for other albums including Pinball Mars and Five. Looking back, I especially like the work I did on that machine. In later years I'd sometimes get nostalgic for the primitive set up I had with the ¼-inch tape reels, portable ART preamps and radio shack microphones. Later on, when I was able to collect some better gear, some of the charm was lost. Having 24 digital tracks was liberating, but having my hands in the mechanical-workings of the tape machine, for example, made me feel more involved and more a part of the songs somehow. Analog recording in general always feels more real to me, probably because it is. Playing a guitar track and then stopping the tape to rewind and play it back again had a psychological effect of some kind that helped me to feel that I was somehow inside the music. Something of that feeling was lost when I began using the 24-track hard drive digital recorder. I wasn't done with tape recording, however. Scott Bennett had a two-inch tape machine with 24 tracks that survived for two of Bob's upcoming solo projects. I also returned to the 8-track now and then, mostly for Circus Devils.
Unlike all the other albums I made with Bob, From A Compound Eye was the only one we made together side by side in the studio from beginning to end. We did this one in the summer of 2005. I may be wrong about this, but I believe it took us 11 days to track and mix all 26 songs.
We had a toy whirling drum that I decided to use as a rhythm keeper for 'The Right Thing.' The fact that I had an idea of this kind was the result of the free and open "anything goes" atmosphere. I recorded a few bars with the toy drum and made a loop with it, dropping the pitch of the drum in the process to make it sound less like a toy. Bob and I then played guitar and drums overtop of the loop. In the end, the toy drum became the rhythmic driver of the song. Then came the decision about what to put on the ending of the song. Should it be a guitar solo? A bit of keyboard noodling? "Wait, how about a Jew's harp solo?" Once again, Bob gave the thumbs up. A Jew's harp solo was something I would never again venture, and for good reason. Decisions like this were made with a clear head, without the aid of smokes or special baked goods.
Whenever I second-guessed what I was doing, Bob was there to give the green light. In general we practiced the "Fuck yea, let's try it" school of music production, which can be dangerous. I think what made it safe for us was the fact that we were working squarely in the service of the songs alone. Had we been working in the service of some abstract idea about how the record should sound by struggling to emulate the sound of other records we admired, or else followed the lead of ego by fancying ourselves pioneering recording artists in the throes of great art, then I would have gotten hopelessly lost and the recording would have stretched on for weeks.
I had no trademark production style to put on display, and no bounds to observe as a performer. As a one-man band I was Bob's hired hand. I was not playing for myself. The songs and the show were Bob's. I wasn't there to play Phil Spector and pretend to matter, at least insofar as Bob's fans were concerned. The challenge (or struggle), was to find out what each song was asking for. That's why an album like F.A.C.E. has such a wide range of treatments going on. Every song asks for different things, so the idea is to tune into that silent request. If we made a mistake on F.A.C.E., it was to give a song more than what it asked for. Some songs asked for very little and needed very little, but as I keep saying, I sometimes got carried away with accompaniment and added too much. Whether there were 24 tracks available, or only 8 tracks (as in the case of Fiction Man), it made little difference when it came to my appetite for stuffing the songs with more textures and flavors.
The Dobro you see Bob playing in the photo belonged to Scott Bennet's girlfriend at the time. While Bob sang the song, I messed with my Webcor portable tape machine - the ancient 1950's-made, temperamental, single-track (mono), tube-driven machine used for drums on Fiction Man. You can see the Webcor on the back cover of F.A.C.E. near the bottom. It was first used on Universal Truths and Cycles (2002), on the songs 'Father Sgt. Christmas Card' (on the outro) and on the intro to 'Skin Parade' ("For Christ Sakes Charlie ..."). On this album I also used it to record 'Cock Of The Rainbow' and 'Kensington Cradle.'
We began the session by laying down basic tracks for each song - Bob on guitar and me on drums. Bob also sang a scratch vocal to help with timing changes. On most of the later albums I made with Bob, the first thing we did in the studio was to lay down the main rhythm guitar track without drums (with Bob on guitar). On a few of the albums where I did the main guitar myself, I would replicate the part as heard on Bob's demo recordings. Once the guitar was laid down, I'd move on to the drums, extra guitars, keys and so on. 2b1af7f3a8