My road trip with Paul Collins in the fall of 1990 led us from town to town, surviving on the kindness of strangers and whatever else we were willing to spend along the way. He was moving out from San Francisco, I was traveling light and tagging along. We worked up a set of our songs, and we’d trot out our act for anyone willing to listen. Paul is a bit of hustler, a mover and shaker, and he’d get us in front of people. We opened a show for Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in Austin, we sang at Thanksgiving in Houston, and nearly wore out our welcome in New Orleans. We drove around like this for a month.
Miracle Legion was playing the Georgia Theater in Athens for their Christmas show, we hung around outside during soundcheck. Paul overheard someone saying the opening band cancelled, and he had us on the bill within minutes. School was out of session, it was a pretty quiet and cold night. The theater is a legendary venue, we marveled at it and took our place on the stage for a short set.
I met a young lady at the show, we chatted and flirted away the evening. However, at the end of the night, like it usually is with traveling musicians, it’s time to “get back in the van” and disappear forever. We had one of those hugs that lasted long enough to shift your weight around in order to keep balance, so that it turns into a little dance. I retreated to Paul’s VW Jetta and we were off. I suppose anything that might have followed wouldn’t have been as good as the hug.
The snow was starting to fall as it was getting into December, so Paul was itching to get up to New York, his ultimate destination. Our crawl across the states turned into a Cannonball Run in reverse. We arrived at night, crashed at his mom’s classic West Village “bricks on the wall” apartment and thus began our very own Odd Couple episode that lasted through May.
I visited family over the holidays in Syracuse and watched a lot of late night TV. There was a show about a tall ship festival and the voiceover said, “...as these old ships gather up twilight for one last waltz.” I stole that line and wrote the rest.
Anytime I write a song, there is a building of momentum, a time to make my case as I look at the page. I gather up what I know, and start threading together the surrounding ideas from what I believe. Same goes for this blog. I don’t want to bore you, but it might get long. Today, not so much!
I used to write everything down in those cheap spiral notebooks. I prefer wide-ruled, because if I get excited, there’s room for big words. I have a filing cabinet full of Mead “1 subject” notebooks. Of course there was never one subject covered in a notebook, although each one would be given a name, like “Black 1997,” or “Green 2000.” If I was feeling particularly wild, I made up fanciful names like “Nougat 1998,” “Champ 1999,” and “Hog 2001.”
These days I use recycled printer paper cut in half sheets for writing stuff down. The smaller page size suits my non-committal creative moments and late-night household inspirations. I might otherwise fill a legal pad with a wish list I could never check off.
I carried “Red 1995” with me to Mick’s Lounge in SF alone one night to watch a band called The Green Things. I have found myself at times writing songs while other music is happening in the background, with a guitar or not. It doesn’t pull me in or distract me; it’s a bias noise that actually helps me concentrate. I had my face in the notebook for most of their set. I remember watching a little bit, and I recall writing the line, “have some fun with absurdity, man!”
This song sat around awhile, until I chose songs to record in New York for Wood + Wire. I naively suggested a “Dylan” feel for the band, and Dennis the drummer played the beat to “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine” — imagine it — before settling on what we have. Good thing I didn’t play a harmonica. What I hear now that reminds me of a Bob Dylan record is the band getting tripped up by my unpredictable chord changes. The vocal and the acoustic guitar were recorded at the same time, which doesn’t happen as often as you’d assume. I like the piano.
“The End” gets requested often enough to keep it an active song. Have I made my case? This is the end.
This song has stayed in my set, on and off, for a long time. It only has one stop, it’s not too fast, the chords are easy enough, and it’s not too long. It features the tried-and-true IV-III-vi chord movement I’ve been trotting out since I wrote “Somedays.”
The original recording, featured on Sight & Sound, is a lo-fi recording despite trying to make it Hi-Fi. My studio at the time consisted of a TEAC reel-to-reel 4-track, some stage mics, a 6-channel mixer, and a portable DAT machine. I’d fill up the tracks on the tape, bounce it to the DAT and make another set of overdubs on fresh tape along to that DAT mix. It was such a chore to record yourself at home, and there was no punching in; you had to know your part and play it correctly all the way through. This was a band track, so all three of us needed to play it right at the same time to get a good take. All before the tape ran out or before the police came responding to a noise complaint.
For “Walking Endlessly,” the liner notes from Sight & Sound read: “Nearly axed from the album by an overzealous A&R staff, this recording was an attempt to bring to life the sound of a Chris Isaak type band fronted by an angst-ridden Glen Campbell, thinking too much about Tanya Tucker.”
Fast forward to 2020: For my live cast, who better to capture the “Chris Isaak type band” than Prairie Prince, the drummer from Isaak’s biggest hit, “Wicked Game.” The story is that they recorded that song well over a hundred times to find the groove. I was on a deadline, so I had him play my song just one and a half times.
Next came the internet file back and forth boogie, getting friends to play on the track from their homes- no more or less work than coordinating a Zoom call for your whole family. The band from last week’s live cast is back together- Pete, Tom, Dave, and Prairie.
The lyrics, written when I was 23, describe what sounds like a jumping off point rather than a long journey. “I don’t think I can brave another mile,” and “I can’t get out.” Oh, I think you can.
Live from Tape Vault Studio 10-02-2020
Drums - Prairie Prince; Organ - Dave Amels; Bass - Peter Straus; Guitars - Tom Ayres;
Vocals/Guitar - Chris von Sneidern
And check out the original:
It’s hard to enjoy one’s own recordings. I check in periodically, listening to one of my albums, ostensibly to understand “what the hell happened.” I get about five songs in and then stop. I feel as if the music is sitting in front of me rather than it taking me on a journey. Hopefully you have better luck with them!
The fact I don’t “get off” on the experience of listening to my own albums is probably common among musicians. Lately I’ve had to relearn songs I hadn’t played in public for a long time, if ever. I’ve rediscovered a few new favorites. I am proud of my records more or less. However, the point is that I would rather listen to something else.
What is it about other people’s music that feels so much better to me? Why do people get more excited about the cover songs at a show? My first assumption would be that my songs aren’t as good as other people’s. And that might be true, but that can’t be the whole reason. It’s the emotional connection to the song that matters, and I imagine that when you launch into a song people really know, they’re hearing the original record in their mind playing along with you. In that space, a magic trick happens. By the same token, if someone is butchering the song they’ve triggered you to recall, you can feel offended.
Every month I have an hour-long show to play for a hospital audience, and I choose a good dose of known covers to add to my CvS repertoire. Last month I dug up "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, a band whose name I never understood. Their version cuts off abruptly, even though it’s plenty long! It’s been a hit, used in films, and recorded by many. The lyrics were “mysterious,” (they lost me at fandango) but I knew the tune. And that organ part has always captivated me. I looked it up and found two extra verses- one I added, but I left out the other lyrics about cardboard. I like this song.
Drummer Prairie Prince was working in my studio recently, and so we did a couple songs for the camera. We played “Whiter Shade” live, once, without any fuss. I’ve learned how to play with PP over time. I know to stay out of the way of his fills with my guitar and don’t fight him on the tempo, like some dog on a leash. I sent it to Dave Amels to put on the essential organ part, and Pete Straus did his bass guitar at home. It was not labored over and I actually put more time into editing the video.
Of my recordings, I like the ones I made with other people on them. I prefer hearing the ones that I didn’t fiddle with endlessly. And of course, the equipment — how fancy the mic or guitar is — has yet to make a big difference on the final result.
So I share this as a single release this week for your entertainment. I can listen to this! Am I enjoying hearing my friends playing? Or is it the magic of cover songs?
Looking back on the breakup songs I’ve written, the sad aspect now is to consider the passing of those youthful years. Granted, I don’t want to have to do it all again, but it sure looks sweet looking back. Performing these songs gives me a chance to revisit the lyrics and really see what I was feeling and what I was denying to myself with the word play.
The premise of the song in the chorus section is that I am moving on with my life’s focus and leaving behind someone overly sentimental- “you can keep your picture book,” - yet the whole time I am creating a sentimental paean to our entire relationship.
These days I like the chords to this song. It changes key with every verse couplet. Around the time of writing this song, I used a lot of chromatic movement in the melody that employed major to minor chord changes rather than a completely different chord. Those changes often imply key change or mode change and while I don’t completely know what I’m doing, I know how it sounds. It’s not that I’m good at finding my way around, I’m just not afraid of getting lost.
On the demo I played the main instrumental figure on guitar with a Leslie speaker. When it came to making the album in New York, we used a harpsichord. There’s one note on its keyboard that didn’t always work, so there’s a rest where there might have been a note. I remember we used a Coles ribbon mic on it instead of a condenser mic, and it’s much duller sounding. Those harpsichords, they’re so bright.
The mix, like most on Wood + Wire, is heavily compressed on the Pye limiters, so the bass, the harpsichord, my voice, are all squashed together like pressing your face against a screen door to talk to your cousin.
The last lines of the song make more sense now than before-
“Like any photograph, see back in time so easily
I wrote a paragraph on what I think, but never see”
“Animal” is the accident child. It comes along last, and stays in the house a long time.
All of my records have at least one oddball song, one that doesn’t appear to fit. I get requests to play some of these outlier songs and think to myself, “...really, that one?”
I can’t immediately know what to keep and not, especially when I’m producing my own album. Worse yet, I might take advice from someone else: “Walking Endlessly” was suggested to be cut from Sight & Sound, then I took “Circles” off the Go! album and put a remake version of it out later. I could talk myself out of the whole thing if I think too long.
“Animal” came out of a for-fun session with drummer Michael Israel. It was my birthday and for part of the day, I thought I should make some music. I was experimenting with new ideas, and this one was just a jam, really. I wrote the music after hitting record, so it’s very simple and repetitive.
Instead of using a click track, I had us playing along to our own slow repeat echo. That would keep us sprocketed in time, like a click. If we got a little ahead or behind, the echos would follow our error but keep the old tempo from that point forward. To hear the band adjust their playing to “get back on the click” is not a groovy thing.
Being so slow, there’s so much space for the sounds to spread out. The lyrics came later- bleak but hopeful. The longer I make music, the deeper I find myself going into whatever comes to me in the moment rather than trying to make it sensible or ideal. And that might be an answer to the question the film asks, “Why Isn’t Chris von Sneidern Famous?”
The first version was about 15 minutes long, and I got it down to a brief 11 minutes.
Many of the songs on Emerge are written on piano. Dale from our 80’s band Flying Color lent me one of the few pianos he would find at the Salvation Army. It lived in my home office long enough to write some songs, entertain friends, and ruin my relationship with the neighbors who would stomp on my ceiling. A piano is as loud as a drum set when I play it.
I found B-flat, E-flat, and C minor to be good-sounding key signatures for that piano matched with my fingers. So for the most part, that’s where I spent time endlessly learning how to write and play something I could get through to the end without messing up. The neighbor's stomping continued, notes in all caps were taped to my door.
I realized this past weekend was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and was reminded that this is more of a moon song than I’m ever going to have, so here we are-
If I think about walking on the moon, the first thing that comes to mind is the spacesuit. The layers of insulation, the helmet, and those boots! Clumsy, tentative steps of mankind, something I could relate to when I was putting together the ideas for Emerge.
This was written on a two-day solo camping trip in Santa Cruz, where I sat in a chair on the edge of a cliff playing guitar with a recording device taking down any old idea. I wrote hundreds of ideas and zero songs during this time, it seemed. I listened to a lot of music, however, and hiked a lot, and daydreamed for another good five years. This was one song that made it past the sketch stage, and tracked no fewer than three versions.
Far away and lost, writing onto a blank gray page. Feeling disconnected from myself and the world around me is nothing new. A friend and I were called into the high school principal’s office, then having answered a couple of questions about why I did some particular thing, the Principal stopped and yelled in my face, “you’re living in a FOG!” My punishment was several days of sitting in a detention room staring at dots on the acoustic ceiling tiles.
Like most things that I couldn’t understand or see, I just resigned myself to accepting it and continuing on into the fog. I may wander and get lost, but I end up in the right place eventually.
This song was meant to be on Emerge, but then I thought that maybe it didn’t fit. The “Grow up and start having fun” theme is incorporated into the intro.
Michael Israel - Drums; CVS- the other stuff
Before I had Converse sneakers, I wore the knock-off copies from W.T. Grant. Same with pants and underwear; Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom were something I’d only heard of. I had an off-brand bicycle that became my prosthetic legs for a few years. It had sparkly gold paint and a banana seat, with high handlebars and reflectors that immediately fell off. The ride to anywhere required climbing a hill that would give most of my friends a heart attack nowadays. I wanted to put a ski on the front wheel so I could ride in the wintertime. I cobbled a platform to attach a transistor radio on the handlebar stem. I could get AM stations WHEN and WFBL, and I couldn’t really pull in WOLF. Whoever was playing “Get Down” by Gilbert O’Sullivan or anything by Chicago had my ear. Nine-volt batteries were expensive even then, and they didn’t last long, especially if you accidentally left the radio on all night.
By the age of nine, I had destroyed a handful of record players. I wound up the spring on a Victrola until it snapped. I removed the tonearm on a player in order to place it on larger items like pie tins and serving platters, in case there was music in them to play. I remember standing upon the turntable of one, trying to spin around, just as my mom walked in the room. That was after I had spent my pre-phonograph years dancing to imaginary music coming out of dresser drawers and paper plates nailed to trees.
Many years ago, someone asked me, “What do you do?” and it was the first time I’d heard that. It’s a cliche that is apparently considered a bit rude to ask. I was dating into a (not quite) wealthy family, and someone’s wife started in with these questions.
“What do you do?” she asked, loud enough for anyone to hear. I thought about it, as I’d never heard such a question in my twenty years before having this poolside chat. Someone came to my aid, and said, “His father owns Mobile Oil.” I thought to myself, well, my Dad has a gas station franchise, that’s close enough. I don’t know what I said, if anything, but I did sing a song of my own for everyone out by the pool right after that.
There was a point within a year of that incident where I wondered if I should say “I’m a musician,” or, “I work at Bud’s Shell,” or, “I crash parties in Pacific Heights, steal Ray-Bans...and do not suffer fools gladly.” It seemed false to claim being a musician when I paid my bills working as a cashier, wearing a shirt printed with my name. Over time, I found if I could stay alive at the level of poverty on my musician income, only then had I earned the title of Musician, for what that was worth.