My Experience Recording with Bleu

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.

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Bleu – Besides

For every band or artist that is well known to the public there are hundreds of fantastic musicians and groups that most people have no clue exist. Just walk into a record store and peruse through the albums, and you’ll see what I mean (and these are people who have been signed!). If you’re lucky enough you’ll hear about some of these “unknowns” from friends, or see them at a show or festival, or just stumble upon them by accident. Back in 2003, I stumbled upon an artist that soon became one of my favorite musicians.

His name is Bleu (nee William J. McAuley III) and he recently self-released a collection of B-sides entitled Besides. (He is a big fan of puns, having two tattoos, one saying “Tattoo” and the other saying “Tatt2.”) And while these songs did not make it on to his last two albums, A Watched Pot and Four, the songs showcase the fact that Bleu knows how to write songs, and good ones at that.

Before I dive into the album itself, I just want to give a little backstory, because I could’ve easily written a full-blown entry on him (similar to my Ben Folds one).

So as I mentioned earlier, the year was 2003. Toad the Wet Sprocket had announced their reunion tour, and I scored a pair of tickets for their show at the 9:30 Club. The opening acts were Bleu and some other band I can’t recall. I went to each act’s website and listened to whatever they had. I clicked on the first track on Bleu’s site, “I Won’t Go Hollywood,” and was IMMEDIATELY hooked. I listened to the rest of the material and loved it. I somehow found a copy of his album, Redhead, at the local CD store in College Park, and was just blown away. I was even more blown away by his live performance, and how personable the guy was when I met him after his set. I ended up seeing him twice more that year, and since then, any time I’ve had a chance to see him, I have. Over the past 9 years, I’ve tried my hardest to promote his music to friends, even interviewing him in 2010 for my first foray into music journalism, when I contributed material for SlideshowRadio.com; you can view/listen to the 20-minute episode here. Basically, I’m a big supporter and believer in him as a musician and songwriter, and feel he deserves some recognition. Plus he’s a great guy.

So that’s the short version of the backstory. Now on to the record.

Like I stated earlier, Besides is a compilation of B-sides and alternate versions/demos of songs from his last two albums, so really this album is for his die-hard fans. It also means there is no fluidity to the record, instead feeling like a mixtape, bouncing around stylistically from pop/rock to electro-pop to quasi-country to acoustic demos. Still, it’s a very good collection of songs that shows off Bleu’s ability to write great songs.

The record is bookended by two of its strongest tracks, “Take Cover” and “Save It For a Rainy Day.” The first is a wonderfully written and arranged song that blends elements of pop, rock, and R&B, into a rocking waltz, which would be perfect for a slow dance. The second is a moderate rocker that could easily be the song played during the turning point of a romantic comedy, or at the very least be the perfect closer to a live show. Though they are different than each other in many ways, they also embody the elements of what makes Bleu a great songwriter. First, they both have great melodic and lyrical hooks (I actually woke up this morning with the intro of “Take Cover” in my head). Second, they both are layered with lots of instrumental and vocal tracks, but everything blends so perfectly that nothing is muddled or too overbearing. Third, both songs evoke emotion without being too sappy; the listener knows that the singer has a broken heart (or something similar) but they aren’t whining or complaining, just expressing their emotions. This may not make any sense to you as you read it, but if you listen to the songs, you’ll know what I mean.  “If…” and “Can’t Be That Bad (If It Feels This Good)” are two other examples that exemplify Bleu’s ability to craft fantastic pop songs in a more “traditional” mold, but that’s not the case for all of the tracks.

As noted previously, the record is kind of all over the place sonically, with totally different sounding songs juxtaposed next to each other, making each track stand out. However, two songs stick out more than any of the others on this album: “When the Other Shoe Falls” and “Blow Up the Radio.” These are the two electro-pop tracks on the compilation and really don’t seem to fit in with the rest, though it has nothing to do with the songwriting. Both songs are extremely well crafted (the latter being co-written by Roger Manning, Jr., of Jellyfish), having elements of synth-pop from the 1980s and tinge of 1970s disco. The first sounds like a mix of George Michael and Phil Collins, while the second sounds like a remix of an unknown disco classic. Honestly, I could see these tracks being played during an 80s dance party, and no one knowing that they were relatively new.

However, the two songs epitomize why this record should not be considered an album, and should not be approached as such. There is no overarching theme, musically or lyrically, and the tracks are so disjointed from each other at times that I sometimes have a hard time listening straight through. Still, when I approach the record as a mixtape or compilation, I appreciate it much, much more. That’s because it is a showcase of Bleu’s songwriting skills, and shows how wide his range of song styles can be. And that is what makes this a really good record.

Yet, I would not recommend this record as first foray into the music of Bleu. Instead, I strongly encourage you to go to his SoundCloud page, where he has uploaded over 100 of his songs from all of his releases and projects (including four songs from Besides), which are all free to listen to. I promise you will enjoy SOMETHING on there, and most likely, will find yourself enjoying the majority of the material.

If not, well then, I just pity you.