Living was a song we actually demo’d a few years back when recording with our sound mentor Tom Schick in San Francisco for the From the Mountain to the Sea / Blood Memory sessions. For whatever reason, it just didn’t sound right. This isn’t to knock what Tom did for it, just to say that some songs aren’t meant for the studio treatment. Particularly one that clocks in at a shade over two minutes and relies solely on C and G chords. This isn’t to knock that format either- take, for example, ninety percent of the Ramones catalog. Just that it became clear to us that Living needed to banged out, not artfully crafted. It was more about snarl and sentiment than playing in-time, or in-tune for that matter. Our attempts to make the song sound bigger, more substantial, had instead rendered it a deflating combination of flabby and dull.
We vowed that if we ever got around to recording it again, we had to do it ourselves, outside of the studio environment, with less effort and more remiss. And in a way, this was the genesis of the Singles Project.
We set up shop at a friend of a friend’s warehouse in Potrero Hill. DJ Kool Karlo (whose real name we’d later learn, albeit with some added confusion, was Carlo Monni, pronounced “money”), was decent enough to let us commandeer his rather large live/work space for our little project. With Ryan Sommer, an old buddy of Pete’s from his Wired Magazine days, on board to man his 70’s Tascam 8-track tape machine, we transformed Carlo’s place into our own makeshift recording oasis. We’d only later discover that Ryan’s machine was in fact a 7-track. One of the channels was blown out, reducing whatever instrument was played through it to murk and hiss. This is why the bass track on Living sounds like it was run over by dump truck then sunk in a pit of mud.
In any event, we ordered some 1/4” tape on eBay and were on our way. Truth be told, we ordered seven reels of 1/4” tape that didn’t work, then ordered three more from someone else (less this time in case it too was defunct), and were ready to go. On the first day of recording, we began our first reel with three takes of Living. We chose take one. It had the most mistakes.
Motel Pool was born from a rehearsal session Zach and Pete had to iron out drum parts on the new material. Pete broke into a rhythm guitar part (eventually pairing it with lyrics scribbled out on tour while staying at a Motel 10 outside of Phoenix in 100 degree heat), Zach grabbed his bundles, and the mood was set.
This is a somewhat typical scenario for how songs come about in Birdmonster: one guy shows another guy something, that other guy joins in, then if they both like it, they show the other two guys and go from the there. At our next practice, Dave and Justin went to work and the basic arrangement for Motel Pool fell into place with extraordinary swiftness. It’s recognized as a minor miracle when this occurs. It usually doesn’t. It usually takes a lot longer.
That being said, the tricky thing when a song comes together this fast, particularly one as delicate as Motel Pool, is recapturing that magic when it comes time to put it down on record two, four, six, or however many months later. Where’s the vibe? Is it somehow flat? Too rehearsed? Have we overcooked it?
In the case of Motel Pool, we were saved by time. Or rather, the lack thereof. Usually we go into our precious (ie, short and expensive) recording sessions pretty damn well rehearsed. We simply don’t have the luxury of not-really-knowing-our-shit. But there in Karlo’s living room, we had enough to go on, but still room to explore the song’s extremities. There were still places to take it.
We did one take of Motel Pool, looked at each other, and moved on to the next song. We weren’t gonna be able to hit it any better than that. Sometimes things are easy.
The composition of I am the Wind occurred in various greenrooms, motel parking lots, and the backseat of our Chevy van in the middle of an eight week tour. As these things go, if you’re gonna write a song on the road, you’re gonna have to make do with what’s at your disposal. A cramped backstage, an acoustic guitar, the window seat if you’re lucky enough to nab it, are sufficient to get started.
It’s no surprise then that the original arrangement for I am the Wind consisted of a guitar, a mandolin, and a vocal. But the song was always intended to be a rock-n-roll tune, so once we arrived back in San Francisco, we got to work.
A few months later we were recording at Karlo’s, burning through takes, just not getting it. Recording live (ie, all together in one room at the same time) has its benefits. You can capture the energy of the band, the feel of the room, those spontaneous moments that only occur when you’re feeding off each other. The flip side of live recording, however, is that one person’s fuck-up can ruin an otherwise perfect take. Take after take: too slow, too fast, uneven, botched chords, forgotten lyrics, jettisoned headphones, a microphone tipping over, a power surge. There were gremlins about that day.
Sometimes its easy, sometimes its a battle.
We needed a break. Some air. A beer run. A half hour later we were back at it. And on take 11, we’d finally gotten it. As smitten with ourselves as we were for this small victory, it occurred to us that there was something charming about that original acoustic version. Why couldn’t the two coexist? We sifted through reels of tape from an earlier session we'd done at our friend Ryan’s apartment in the Mission. Sure enough, there it was. We’d call it I am the Wind (inversion).