It’s roots rock, boys. Three or four chords. Boilerplate stuff. How hard could it be? The answer is it’s always harder than you think, cheese dip.
If you’ve heard any of my songs, you know I’m not breaking any new ground musically. I’m working that broad vein of country/blues/rockabilly to produce musical structures that sound (hopefully) fresh yet familiar. For me, the focus has always been heaviest on the lyrics. If you listen to classic rock or country you could be singing or playing along to most of my songs by the end of the first chorus. Chip Whitson has a very similar skill set. That’s probably why working with him is so effortless.
But as I began the official recording sessions in late September of 2011, without Chip, I discovered that my songwriting is not as straightforward as I’d thought. This became evident when Rick Waldorf and “Cousin” Bob Sularz showed up one Tuesday night at the Hilltop Basement Recording Complex to start laying down the bass and drum tracks. I’d given the guys a CD of the demos Chip and I recorded in Spokane the weekend before, and asked them to get familiar with the songs. We had four nights to record the rhythm tracks to eight songs. Piece of cake, right?
Rick and Cousin Bob are pros, been playing in bands since before Amy Winehouse drank her first Zima. So I figured they’d have no problem following the nonexistent roadmap for all our blues-based rock and pop flavored Christmas tunes. But every time we hit a speed bump in the studio it was because Chip or I had put in a little twist, a little curve ball from left field, to make the song a hair more interesting. So as predictable as I thought all this music was, it wasn’t.
My egocentric approach to recording (assuming the other players knew the songs as well as the guys who wrote them) put us behind schedule, to the point where we were barely able to get eight of the songs fleshed out with bass and drums before Chip arrived for a marathon recording weekend. And this was only because Rick and Bob frequently worked into the night later than either of them had planned. This meant utter exhaustion for Rick, who typically gets up at 5:00 AM or some shit. I should probably take this opportunity to apologize to their wives for making them difficult to live with for a few weeks this fall. My fault.
So two weeks after we’d arranged and demo’d the songs at his house, Chip comes wheeling into my driveway at 5:30 on Friday afternoon. He climbs out of his car, still wearing his work attire of corporate Izod shirt and chinos. By 6:00, he’s in the studio, headphones clamped to his melon, playing his Telecaster. I hit the “record” button.
We worked into the night, finally agreeing to hang it up at about 1:30 AM. We were up early Saturday morning, had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and Craisins, and adjourned to the studio for a marathon session. We laid down one guitar track after another, sometimes playing simultaneously, sometimes solo. We got most tracks in one or two takes, three at the most. We’d been practicing the songs, and it showed.
Acoustics and electrics were flying around the studio as we constantly switched up instruments, trying to figure out what would sound the best on each song. We used my Fender Bassman, plugged in a little Roland MicroCube, and mic’d up a dynamite little vintage Fender amp we’d borrowed from George Weisel, my guitar guru. We played Chip’s blonde Tele, my black Tele, a Stratocaster, a Gretsch, a Les Paul, and three different acoustics. Some songs, like “Credit Card Christmas,” have half a dozen different guitars on them. It was a Keith Richards wet dream.
Chip took a break that night, almost apologizing that he had to let his Missoula family treat him to a birthday dinner (“Jesus, it’s your birthday?”). But he was strapped back into the Gretsch by 9:00, working on the solo to “My Ex Miss Carol.” I think we lasted till about 2:00 AM before admitting that the law of diminishing returns was beginning to make us suck. We collapsed into our respective beds. I’d short-sheeted him on Friday, but gave him a break on his birthday.
The following morning Barb treated us to a fabulous Sunday morning fry-up, with eggs, hash browns, bacon, grits and butter, and all the other delicious shit guys our age aren’t supposed to eat anymore. But this is why we choke down oatmeal all week, so we scarfed it down without a shred of guilt.
Chip’s beloved Broncos and my arranged-marriage Dolphins were playing in the living room on our new NFL Sunday Ticket, but even that spectacle wouldn’t keep us from maximizing our time together. But his birthday would. He had promised his wife and son he’d be home to Spokane in the afternoon in time to celebrate, which meant he’d have to hit the road by noon.
Sunday was for vocals. I’d constructed a ridiculous “vocal isolation booth” out of PVC pipe, some shower curtain rings and an old sleeping bag. We took our turns in this four-foot-square monstrosity, laying down the lead vocal tracks and what harmonies Chip could pull off in the few hours we had left. I could tell he’d been waiting all summer to take a crack at singing his songs for the CD, because Chip’s vocals were killer right out of the gate. His first takes were full of emotion, dripping with vibrato and attitude. It was like it had been bottled up for months and he took the cork out inside that smelly sleeping bag vocal cocoon.
We got the vocal tracks we needed, and Chip packed up and headed for the highway. My self-imposed deadline of Halloween left me with four weeks to do all the mixing and additional tracking. That sounds like a lot of time, but tracking is the easy part. It’s the mixing that takes forever.
Luckily, we’d paid close attention to microphone placement, recording levels, and other details that would provide a sound that didn’t require a lot of surgery. “That’s good enough” and “we’ll fix it in post” were two unwelcome phrases in the studio. By the time Chip rolled out of Missoula Sunday afternoon, we had the basic tracks for ten songs.
As September wound down and October rolled on and their first victory continued to elude the Dolphins, I spent time adding the supplementary tracks we needed: rhythm guitar parts, percussion (lots of jingle bells), harmonies and background vocals, and perhaps most importantly, the swinging piano work of my friend Russ Parsons. I’d heard Russ play a little barrelhouse boogie woogie on the middle school piano when he helped us run the talent show last year, and I’d been waiting for an opportunity to play with him. I actually recorded Russ on four songs, but Chip and I listened to the tracks and decided that, on two of the songs, the piano was unneeded.
“It has to serve the song” was not just a welcome phrase in the studio, it became the mantra for every musical experiment we tried on this album. Recording digitally in a home studio means you have the freedom to try all kinds of ideas out, the only limitation being time. There were a lot of ideas that got tossed over the side because, although they were fun and cool and clever, they didn’t serve the song.
At last, with the final addition of my reluctant bride’s vocal contribution on “I Can’t Believe It’s Christmastime Again,” the album was ready for mastering. That’s the step that adds polish and sonic snap to a recording, making it ready for airplay. Josh Quick delivered the final artwork for the cover, and I was all set to order our first thousand CDs.
Chip had listened to each song dozens of times. For each time he listened, I probably heard it fifty times. I knew each drum beat, every cymbal crash, every sibilant “S” word, and every single bass note. The record is far from flawless. The singing (especially my harmony efforts) is sometimes off-key, but we didn’t want to overdo the autotune. My guitar solos are less than flashy, and on some songs I wish I’d mixed the bass louder. I listen to it now, and I can hear a hundred things I’d do differently. But at some point you have to declare it finished, and move forward. Chip and I were both satisfied that these recordings were above the “cringe floor.” I sent the mastered songs to the CD replicators, and circled Black Friday on my calendar.
I figured the hard work was over. I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong.
[Next up: the third part of my two-part series, “The Making of Off White Christmas.” Chip has his own account of this unforgettable ordeal. You can read it at www.offwhitechristmas.com]