One thing our remodeling project has done (some might be thankful for this) is interrupt my usual summer efforts to desecrate the art of recorded sound. Typically, I’d try to record a song or two during the summer when I have more free time; this summer, my keyboard and equipment have been unplugged in the basement…and when I have time off, either there’s been a bangin’ and a hammerin’ from on high, or it’s later at night and Rose is trying to sleep. I suppose if I were into it enough I could do an all-laptop number – but before I could do that, I’d need to familiarize myself with some new MIDI software and the like (also got a new outboard USB doohickey to connect to the keyboard and such – all I’ve used it for so far is to digitize a 45).
Anyway, all this is by intro to the fact that the last recording project I did was last spring, when I covered an obscure Robyn Hitchcock song for the third in a series of fan-based Hitchcock tribute collections. The deadline for submissions was several months ago…but I’ve heard nothing about the project since then (not about my own work, nor about the project generally), so I think I’ll sneak out my cover of “Creatures of Light” in my own little blog.
The original version was released on a 7″ single for Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine in 1995 and so far as I know had no other release. It sounds to me nearly improvised: Robyn’s lyrics (insofar as I can make them out: I guessed in several places) are less polished than usual, and the song’s structure is a bit freeflowing as well.
For my cover, I decided to run with those aspects of the song. My initial conception involved two overlapping guitar improvisations, along with two keyboard improvs on top of those, and some percussion. I used a tuning I hadn’t used before (and I’m not Mr. Alternate Tuning Guy either), which I call Heather Has Two Daddies (it’s D-A-D-D-A-D: the D’s in the middle are the same pitch). Of course I exploited the drone possibilities of this tuning (also useful when you’re a crap guitar player), and the two D’s that are nominally the same pitch drifted slightly out of tune as I thrashed madly at the guitar, so you get a bit of resonance from that fact as well. I ended up using only one guitar track, which was highly edited down from a longer version (much of which was me fucking up the simplest parts…).
I’d mentioned that I had a sort of first-take ethos originally. That involved my letting my mad rhythmic impulses somewhat free reign (you’ll notice the original doesn’t stick strictly to 4/4 either), but in order to play over that initially recorded guitar part without totally screwing up, I had to map out what I had done. Thus it is that I’m aware of the odd bar of 11/8, 5/4, and the like that sprung mysteriously from my fingers…
Anyway, the percussion didn’t work: I’d envisioned a sort of tabla-sounding thing – didn’t have a tabla, didn’t have a tabla setting on my keyboard (that’s an oversight, Yamaha…), so I looked around for something that might deliver a similar sound. I tried tapping out some rhythm on, of all things, Rose’s giant inflatable exercise ball…but not exactly being Steve Albini, I couldn’t record it right, so instead of a rich, ringing tone I imagined, it sounded more like drops of water randomly hitting a metal sink basin. Percussion scrapped.
Onto the keyboard: I recorded the first go-round, then went back and did another one (muting the first track while listening to the guitar part). When playing them back, I’d accidentally left on both keyboard tracks (which had been improvised independently), and decided I rather liked the way they accidentally worked together. In some places, obviously, I’d worked out a part; in others, I just played, and in those later parts we have passing odd discords and fortuitous ghostly harmonies, depending – so I decided to keep them both on.
I mentioned that Hitchcock’s lyric is even more cryptic than usual: I decided, for some reason, that “Captain Morrison” was essential to the story, and so that bit received some emphasis. I also added the vocal harmonies at the end (loosely inspired by “I Can See for Miles”) and a few filigrees of backwards guitar and the like to add some flavor.
(Note: all rights in this composition remain with Mr. Hitchcock)