I don’t really remember this song being written. Some songs are like that, they just seem to be there one day. I do remember a lot about it being recorded though. Shortly after finishing Prepare To Be Wrong we went back into the studio with Mike Sapone to record demos of a couple of new songs. At that time we had been touring with our friend Isaac Burker. He played guitar and keys with us live and had added some really interesting guitar work to the Prepare To Be Wrong recordings. He came into the studio with us for these demos as well. I remember the sessions being fun. We were really comfortable with Mike Sapone and his studio. Most of us had been recording there on and off for years, and for me, being there always brought back the feeling of being a young band who’s really excited to be recording their new songs. I remember that was the mood as we demoed this one. Just genuine excitement about being in the studio and genuine excitement for the songs themselves. When we were recording The Needles The Space we tried re recording this one but we just weren’t as happy with it as we were with that original demo. We tried a whole bunch of different things to recreate what was there originally but nothing worked. A big factor that was missing in the new version was the absence of Isaac’s guitar sound on the ending of the song. I played the same thing he had, but there was an epic, gigantic quality to the sound of his guitar that I couldn’t recreate. I think there was also something about our excitement for the song when we demoed it that came through and gave it a feel that couldn’t be replicated. We decided in the end to just go ahead and use the demo recording on the finished album. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea at first, but I’m so glad we did it. I don’t think any other version would’ve been as good, and it would’ve been a shame for the original recording to have gone unheard.
In writing about all of these fond memories of Straylight Run’s songs I’ve realized that the circumstances under which a song is written effects my perception of it more than anything else. I think that my favorites are the ones where I was able to take negative feelings and thoughts and exorcise them through song writing. Ten Ton Shoes definitely falls into that category. It was written late in the winter of 2008. The Democratic and Republican primaries were in full swing, there were constant reports about our crumbling economy and I was watching an unhealthy amount of cable news. I remember sitting around till four or five in the morning most nights watching tv with a mixture of fear, excitement and disgust. It was insane to see the fierce competition in the primaries, hear the promises and grandstanding from all of the candidates and then see stories about our most trusted financial institutions falling apart, the housing market collapsing, and two wars with no end in sight. It was also a prety confusing and difficult time for me personally. Straylight Run had recently completed our horrendous experience with Universal Republic. I was burnt out and generally disgusted with the music industry at a time when we needed to be rallying the support of new labels and managers to help us pick up the pieces and move on. It was starting to feel impossible for me to separate my creative desires from my desire to write songs that would help improve the bands situation. It was all kind of paralyzing my creative process. It just felt like personally there was nothing I could do to solve the bands problems and that everywhere I looked there were bigger, more important and far reaching problems with no real solution as well. Somehow all of those feelings came out in a short, melancholy pop song. I don’t remember how it was written. It seemed to just happen pretty quickly and naturally one day. It was cathartic and extremely relieving. Obviously it didn’t solve any of my problems or our country’s problems. It did help me feel a bit better though and hopefully it made some other people feel better as well.
Like a lot of Straylight Run’s songs, How Do I Fix My Head started out stripped down and mostly acoustic. Michelle demoed it at home and I think I added a little bit of my ideas for the electric guitar. The Straylight Run songs that started this way were always interesting because there were so many different directions you could take them in. I think sometimes we were able to really improve on a song by trying out different tempos and arrangements and other times we got lost in the creative process and got too far away from what was best for the song. With this one though, I think we got it just right. Michelle’s original acoustic version stayed almost completely intact while the rhythms and arrangements around it made the song more moody and exciting. I particularly like what Shaun and Will did with this one. I don’t really know how to do describe it, but it’s such a unique and unexpected kind of rhythm for a song like this. On The Needles The Space we worked with a wide variety of additional musicians. I think out of any of the songs on that album this one made the best use of that additional instrumentation. Tim Brennan (guitarist for The Dropkick Murphy’s) played a great mandolin part during the first verse and Bill Jahn’s marching drums throughout the second verse and outro really brought the song to a whole other place. Speaking of the outro to this song, it is definitely one of my favorite musical pieces that Straylight Run ever recorded. I don’t know what we originally had intended for the ending but during one of the takes when were tracking the drums Will just kept playing long after we thought the song would end. We were all playing along in the control room and kind of didn’t know what to do after a certain point, but Shaun stuck with him and they both continued to play this whole improvised ending that built and built to a huge climax. That take ended up being the one on the album and everything that was layered over it was also improvised to keep in the spirit of how the drums and bass were recorded. I did a lot of the different keyboard and synth parts on that outro and it was so much fun to have this blank slate to work with. Just this crazy part that we could do anything with. At the time we didn’t even know if we would keep any of it in the song so we approached it with a total “let’s just have some fun with this” kind of attitude. If you’ve been reading these posts you know I’m a big fan of capturing spontaneous creativity in the studio. I think this was my favorite example of that from any of Straylight’s recordings.
It’s For The Best has so many great memories attached to it. As I said when writing about Existentialism, the basis for this song was a reversed loop of that piano intro. I had a Boss Dr. Sample sampler that I used for that and I had the idea to try and find a beat that i could sample to go with it. I listened through a bunch of different songs that I liked and tried to find a beat that had the kind of feel I was looking for. After a few dead ends I checked out a Modest Mouse song called Dramamine. At the end of the song the drums play by themselves for a couple of measures and I immediately knew that it was what I was looking for. I sampled one measure and I think I just had to speed it up or slow it down a bit to match the Existentialism loop and it was perfect. I felt out some chords that went well with it and recorded it all back into my four track. I remember being so excited to be working with samples and drum loops and seeing it coming together to form a song. It was a totally new way for me to explore song writing and I remember just being so inspired by it. Writing the words was also such a great experience. I think it was the most therapeutic that writing has ever felt for me. Years of confusion, anger and frustration about my Born Again Christian upbringing and my subsequent rejection of that upbringing seemed to be released as soon as the song was written. I thought though that I had written something extremely unique to me and my life experience and that very few people would be able to relate to or understand what I was talking about. When the song was eventually released I was amazed by how many people could relate to it and how many people told me it described their own feelings perfectly. It was really an incredible experience to make such a personal connection with so many people through a song. One last little recollection: When we went into the studio with this song, Nate Ruess (singer for The Format and now Fun) came in to do some vocals on it. We were recording in upstate NY, it was pretty early in the day and I think it was kind of a rough trip for him to make. I remember he was smoking a cigarette and kind of coughing and clearing his throat before he went into the vocal booth and I was concerned that he might have some trouble. When he started singing though he was just amazing. He did a few takes of his main part that all sounded great and then did these high harmonies with himself that sounded unbelievable. I sat in the control room listening to him and remember just being blown away. It was pretty awesome of him to make the trip to the studio and sing on our album and it really added something great to the song.
I wrote the piano part for this song before Straylight Run formed and had it around as an instrumental piece for months. I really liked it but just couldn’t put any melody or lyrics to it that felt right. I felt like there wasn’t any part of the instrumental that seemed like a chorus. I kept trying to add chorus like parts to it but nothing seemed to work. Eventually I decided to just repeat the only two parts that were working and then bring up their intensity and dynamic level for a big finish. This seemed to work and I decided to write the lyrics and melody to it without any regard for giving it a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure. Once I did that the lyrics and melodies came together fairly quickly. When it was done I was very happy with it but figured that it’s lack of a repetitive chorus and it’s quasi classical piano feel would make it more of an obscure album track that the band and a few piano nerds might appreciate. I was pleasantly surprised when the first few people I played it for said that it was their favorite of Straylight’s first batch of songs. I was even more surprised when it was released and the fans seemed to almost unanimously agree. There’s a bittersweet feeling I will always associate with this song because peoples reaction to it was amazing but it was so strange and kind of scary to know that it had happened almost completely by accident. A somewhat interesting side note about this song: When I originally recorded the piano intro on my four track I turned the tape over so it would play backwards and it sounded pretty cool. I sampled that and looped it and that became the intro and basis for the song It’s For The Best.
I’m Through With The Past(But The Past Isn’t Through With Me)
I thought I’d start my Straylight Run playlist with a recent song. This was definitely a creative break through for the band. When the music came together it got us more excited than we’d been in a while. This one was also particularly memorable for me because it was the first time I’d gone into the studio to record a song without having any lyrics ready. I spent the few hours before I had to go into the vocal booth furiously writing ideas and digging through notebooks for anything I might be able to use. I was still editing the words while doing the vocal takes and I have to say that i was very happy with the way it turned out. The “aaaah” parts in the bridge were a last minute decision and our producer/engineer Bryan Russell kept coming up with new ideas for parts and how to layer them. It’s really exciting when fresh ideas are immediately becoming a part of a recording, and this song will always be one of my favorites because of that.
With Straylight Run officially going on hiatus I wanted to do something to pay tribute to the band. I decided that for every day over the next week and a half I would post some of my favorite Straylight Run songs and reminisce about them a bit. This first thing I’m posting isn’t really a song though. This is a long lost intro that I made for our shows at the Knitting Factory in 2004. I look at this as an intro to the Straylight Run playlist that I’ll be making.