Intent + Chaos + Breath = Life (and other mistakes)

Intent + Chaos + Breath = Life (and other mistakes)

Sun Studio, Memphis, TN (photo by me)

My mother sent me the video below earlier today and – as she knew I would – I found it fascinating. If one is aware enough, you start to notice that things happen in clusters. Lately I’ve been talking a lot about – for lack of a better general term – mistakes (I choose not to use Jad Abumrad’s term ‘failing’). Some high-profile examples would be the broken hi-hat stand in The Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors” to Johnny Greenwood’s attempted sabotage of “Creep” to Sam Phillips‘s astute recognition of Elvis’s screwing around on “That’s All Right, Mama.”

A couple years ago, I got my hands on some of the 4-track recordings from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. I don’t think anybody doubts the Fab Four’s ambition and attention to detail. But by the nature of how they were working in those days, stuff that could slip through the cracks often did. Listen to the lead guitar track on the title song and as the guitar (Paul, I think) enters there’s blaring amp noise and plenty of pickup interference plugging in a lead cable. One of the solos is even cut off due to the necessity of bouncing the horns to the same track (listen, too, for a discarded french horn practice run). It’s all inaudible on the final mix but it is there. That noise is part of what makes the track alive. Compare that to the audio Mr. Abumrad plays of the neurons in a monkey’s brain and you will see that in fact the noise IS alive!*

So lately, as I’ve been making records, I’ve been more aware getting back to the process that I grew up with, that of people in a room making messy, spontaneous music, all driven by similar motives but each with their own special set of skills and limitations that make for a unique whole. Digital recording has allowed us infinite editing possibilities and they can be very useful. But they can also be abused. So of late I’ve been finding it more useful and rewarding to think more like my younger, sloppier self. And by whatever forces are at work, I have been in sessions and on stage with more and more like-minded people. In recording Matt Nathanson‘s upcoming 8th studio album, for most of the time, it was four of us in a small room, recording to magnetic tape, playing the songs live together until they were “right.” Much of what remains in the final mix is what happened in that room. There was very little second-guessing. If the guitar parts on the verses didn’t match, we didn’t fly it in. We accepted that that’s how the song was played when we knew it was right and left well enough alone. The results will speak for themselves.

I don’t feel so much like I’m getting back to basics. It’s more like, I (and we, the world, the music community) lived through a phase that had to happen. There was technological growth and as the machines mastered us we had to learn how best to master the machines. Now we’re re-asserting our humanity. Just as we always have, and maybe just because we have to, driven by the unceasing noise of neurons firing in our brains.

We will continue to evolve, driven by the inevitable and weird mixture of chaos and control. Things happen in cycles. And this is one cycle that I’m happy to be behind, as well as in front of.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

– Gustave Flaubert

* I must add that I do not condone and am a bit offended by testing on animals but, for better or worse, I can’t not be amazed by what has been learned at their expense.