As a kid, I would dream about playing on the same stage with some of my idols or favorite bands, thus turning me into a rock star overnight. Even in college, I would think about how awesome it would be to open for a big time band (something I did get to do) and how it would change my life. As time went on, my dreams were overtaken by reality. Whether it was finally letting go of the fact that I was never going to be a professional musician, or the fact that knowing or working with a famous musician was not going to make me famous by proxy, I finally came to grips that my life was not really going to change. Still, the opportunity to work with musicians I admire and love is something that I typically jump at, even if it costs a bit of money. When I found out that my favorite drummer, Billy Martin, gave lessons 30 minutes from my hometown, I took a few, even if it was slightly out of my price range. So when the chance to record with Bleu, one of my favorite musicians, was available, I took it, even if the price seemed a bit high at the time. Though in the end, it was money well spent.
But let’s start at the beginning.
On November 14, 2012, Bleu (who I have previously written about) had decided to start a PledgeMusic campaign to fund his new album, To Hell With You. Like Kickstarter, PledgeMusic allows musicians to set up pledge amounts and have corresponding gifts or prizes for those amounts. As I was going through the different levels, one “gift” got my attention. For $350 I could play on one of the songs for his next project called Redhead Record Club (this is a reimagining of his most well known album, Redhead, which came out in 2003). After looking at the other options again, I realized that this was the best one that I could afford (I did not have $6,500 lying around to get an EP recorded), so I went for it. I wasn’t sure exactly how it was going to work or in what capacity I would play, but I figured it would be a great experience regardless.
Soon after I pledged, I saw Bleu perform at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. After the show, I told him that I just pledged, and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just going to be “playing the triangle” on a track. He assured me that I would, in fact, be actually playing on the song and not just “playing the triangle.” About a month later I received an email from his manager asking what instrument I play, for how long, what songs I would want to play on, if I had any experience recording at home, and what I wanted to get out of the experience. I wrote back on Christmas Day.
As I waited for a response, two tracks, each with a pledger (both drummers), came out. I was getting a little worried, but I had to remind myself that both of these people recorded themselves at home, something I was not able to do very easily, or very well.
Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email from Bleu saying that he would be coming out to Boston to do some recording and wanted to know if I’d be able to come up and work on one of the songs. I was given a choice of “Sayonara” or “Ursala Major, Ursala Minor,” and I chose the former. (Both of these songs were only found on the original release of the album, through Aware Records, and not the version that Columbia Records released.) We sent a few emails back and forth hammering out logistics, with him also telling me how the song was going to be different than the original version. On July 17th, I drove up to the studio in Medford, MA, arriving around 2:30pm (and with a newly cracked windshield). Based on the emails, I was anticipating being done by 5 or 5:30. I assumed wrong.
When I got to the house, I was greeted by Bleu and the house’s owner, Grammy winning engineer Ducky Carlisle. I walked inside and immediately to my right was where the drums were set up. (The dining room, which was on my left, was filled with stacks of snare drums.) The setup was a ‘60s Ludwig set, with an old (not sure the year) 6.5 or 7” x 14” Ludwig snare drum, called “The Henley” (because it sounded like Don Henley’s snare), and decked out with a mix of Zildjian and Sabian cymbals. We talked about the gear I brought with me and they said that I could use a few of my cymbals (my 18” Zildjian A Custom crash and my 14” Zildjain A hi-hats – New Beat top, Mastersound bottom). However, they liked the sound of the snare they had set up and wanted me to use it. I told them that whatever they wanted was fine and I was willing to play on anything. After a quick sound check, Bleu changed his mind, and we ended up using my snare, a 5.5” x 14” Ludwig SupraPhonic (which, as Ducky told Bleu, is the most recorded snare drum in music history).
Before we started recording, they brought me downstairs to the control center of Ice Station Zebra (the official name of the studio). I was greeted by a huge rack of amplifiers, two opened-up electric pianos, a massive amount of vinyl records, and a computer with Ducky’s Grammy award sitting on one of the computer’s speakers. The hallway outside of the room was lined with guitar amplifiers. There was gear everywhere, even in the vocal booth, where “the” bass amp was located, as well as a guitar amplifier that was built into a case of an old television. It was pretty awesome.
We eventually got down to business. I heard the track and Bleu told me what he wanted in each section, and that we would be recording it section by section. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, wanting to make sure that I wasn’t going to play horribly, and didn’t want Bleu to get frustrated with me (I’m sure I was making all of this up, but it’s what went through my mind). This made me a bit tight and it took me a few minutes to warm up and get looser (plus a few beers didn’t hurt). Over the course of the next hour and a half I laid down the drum tracks, getting pointers and notes from Bleu as we recorded. As expected, there were times I rushed, especially during drum fills, and learned that my bass drum was consistently just a little ahead of the downbeat. Thankfully, I gave him enough to work with as he went about editing and quantizing the tracks.
I came back downstairs into the air-conditioned control room (I failed to mention that it was hot as balls upstairs) and relaxed as Bleu continued to work. Over the course of the next few hours, I hung out talking about random things with he and Ducky. At one point the two of them started talking about how good the sound quality of vinyl today really is, with Bleu pointing out that unless you are specifically recording for it to go on vinyl, the sound quality is going to be the same, or possibly even worse than a CD. Ducky then went on to say that a lot of people like vinyl because there is a routine to listening to it making it an activity. There were, of course, times I slipped into fanboy mode and asked questions regarding Bleu’s past work and whether he would work with some people he has in the past. Yet, overall I think I held my own with both of them.
Things took a little longer than expected when ProTools decided it didn’t want to work with the new trackpad that had come in the mail that day, and then failed a few times. Things almost came to a halt for the day when the computer wouldn’t restart properly. Eventually things worked out and I got to hear a rough cut of what was done, and it sounded pretty great. I mean, I’m playing on top of loops, so it’s not like I’m playing anything amazing, but it still sounded awesome.
I was then surprised when I was invited to grab dinner with the two of them before I headed to my friends’ place. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant where we shared food and stories for about an hour or so. This was easily the best part of the whole day for two reasons. First, and most obviously, I had a meal with a musician I have been following pretty dedicatedly for the last 10 years and a Grammy winning engineer. Second, and more importantly, it just felt like three guys hanging out, and I started to view Bleu less as a musician I love to listen to and more like a guy I’d like to hang out with. The best moment of the meal was when we started to talk about the book Ender’s Game (via a discussion of how drones are being flown by young kids who see it as a video game). Turns out, Bleu is a huge fan of the book and was super excited about the upcoming movie. Moments like this allowed me to remove the fanboy glasses and overall made me more comfortable.
After we shared our fortune cookie messages (I got “When in doubt, mumble.”), I got a few pictures with both of them, since I failed to get any documentation of me actually playing (oops!), before I headed south to Quincy to see my friends.
I left feeling more than satisfied. Not only did I get to record a track for one of my favorite musicians, but I got a first-hand look at how he approaches his music and the production of his songs. I also gained a new appreciation for the work that studio engineers and producers do, learning how just a slight change in sound can make a huge difference to a track. I got more out of my experience than I ever expected, even without hearing the final product (which I hope to post on here when I get it in a few weeks, with permission of course).
In other words, it was $350 well spent.
Here are some photos from the day.