Posts Tagged ‘the explosives’

Ancient History 2.0

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

So, picking up where I left off: It’s the beginning of 1996, and the two other members of my band have just quit, leaving me a solo artist for the first time.

With the prize money from Norman’s participation in the TicketMaster Music Showcase, I purchased my first 4-track recorder, an Yamaha MT44D machine with a tape deck and mixing board (separate machines, mounted in a rack-style unit).

It was a monster, weighing about 20 or 25 pounds, and some kind of internal electronic glitch caused popping noises in about 80 percent of my recordings. But those recordings were instantly better than the ones I’d made on my old boombox. This also allowed me to exercise my one-man-band chops, as I was now able to overdub drums, guitars, keyboards, and vocals. I experimented with bouncing tracks back and forth to see how many guitars I could put on one song. The degradation in sound quality was noticeable, to say the least.

The solitude didn’t last long, though. I played a handful of open-mic nights and solo-acoustic gigs at local coffeehouses like Caffe Dolce, Norman’s old stomping ground. But within a few months I was itching to make rock music with a band again. On a lark, I got in touch with the guys from the band Nickel Social, who had appeared on the Bump Into Fate compilation with my old band. We had met a few months prior at one of the Paint Chip Records showcases; I recall being impressed by their drummer, Anthony, and thinking how I’d like to be in a band with him. As luck would have it, the guys were looking to make a fresh start with a new singer-songwriter. And so, after barely a season out of the game, I started a new band with Anthony, his brother Mike on bass, and John, the guitarist. We started playing shows within weeks, at first under the name Sucker. When I expressed my distaste with Sucker–a name which I had selected–Anthony demanded I at least write a song with that title. From there forward, the band was called Kid Dynamo, and “Sucker” was my mom’s favorite song.

Kid Dynamo’s time together was brief but productive. In June 1996, we cut a four-song demo tape at DMS Studio in Albany, in the basement of Arthur Scott Verner‘s Clinton Avenue home. (Scott was the bassist for soon-to-be Paint Chip darlings Queer For Astro Boy.)

We sold that tape at shows and handed it to whatever semi-famous rock bands came through town. But for all our efforts, things never really took off. I thought we had something going for us, but then it was only my second real band.

The whole time Kid Dynamo was active, I continued to regularly play the Thursday open-mic night at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs (which I’d been doing since high school) as a solo artist–and still using the name Neon, which I’d adopted during my first year of college. It was there that I met some of the best songwriters I’d ever know, including a very young Brett Rosenberg (who was just as prolific and talented then as he is now), and Rich Baldes, whose voice and songwriting reminded me of March-era Michael Penn. (It didn’t hurt that he played a spotless cover of “No Myth” from time to time.)

At the start of 1997, I heard that Dominick from Paint Chip Records was planning another compilation, this time focusing on solo artists. Never lacking for ambition, I worked up a cassette of some non-Kid Dynamo songs I’d been working on and mailed it off to him–just some simple vocal-and-acoustic things played into a hand-held tape recorder. He chose the two songs we ended up recording (“Remains of a Heart” and “Struck Out”), and the following month we returned to Hyland Recording in Albany to put them down on glorious 2-inch tape. The rush to the studio was because I had to have my tonsils removed soon after, and I was paranoid about what might happen to my voice. (Never once did I consider that it might improve!) The recording of those songs was one of my favorite studio experiences–Dominick and I worked extremely quickly and creatively, and the results still stand up to anything I’ve done since. (Though I’d probably re-track a few vocals if I could.)

Because of my impending surgery, Kid Dynamo went dormant for a little while. For good, actually. I had been wanting to replace our guitarist for a little while, and the break seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Meantime, I’d become interested in starting a band with another songwriter. I phoned Rich Baldes, who I’d met at Caffe Lena the previous summer, and suggested he join the three of us in the band. What I didn’t know until later is that, while I was at home drinking milkshakes, he had cut a few songs for the Paint Chip compilation with my drummer, Anthony. Small world.

And so, the Explosives were born. As a collaborative effort, the band got off to a strong start–Rich and I wrote a few songs together right away, the first co-writing I’d done since one or two songs in high school. We got some decent gigs opening for touring acts at the Albany clubs, and a bunch of solid local press followed.

Late that summer, Sink Into Solo was released, and Rich’s and my songs, respectively, opened the disc. (Those were followed by a pair of tracks by Brett Rosenberg, one of which I co-produced.)

We also recorded a bunch of 4-track demos in my parents’ basement, which we used as a means to secure out-of-town gigs in New York and Boston. One memorable NYC gig had us at the world-famous CBGB on New Year’s Day, coincidentally on the same bill as our Albany colleagues, the Vodkasonics.

The following spring, we returned to DMS to track a four-song EP. (The two songs on which I sing lead are available on Young Man Volume One.) It took several sessions to get the songs sounding right, but we were proud of the end product and excited to finish and release it that fall. And the gigs were getting better: In September, we scored an opening gig for indie-rockers Lotion at legendary NYC club Brownie’s, followed by a hometown bill with the great power-pop bands Sloan and You Am I. Unfortunately, the latter would be our final performance. Some petty personal nonsense got between me and Rich, and just as quickly as it had gotten off the ground, the Explosives crash-landed. Rich went on to form another great pop band, the Day Jobs (with Mike, the Explosives/Kid Dynamo bassist). Eventually we made nice, and I even spent some time playing guitar in his new band. Life is full of surprises.

After the Explosives split, I swore off rock bands for a while, played some solo gigs here and there, and then started working on Tiger Pop in July 1999.

And that’s basically the ’90s in a nutshell. (A suitcase-sized nutshell, anyway.) The Internet will tell you the rest.

For more about Young Man Volume One, check it out on Bandcamp.

Ancient History 1.0

Friday, July 8th, 2011

I released a new album this weekend.

Young Man, Volume One is a collection of studio recordings I made with my early rock bands between 1994 and 1998. It’s a bunch of tracks pulled from different compilations, demos, and unfinished projects. There’s a long blurb on the album’s Bandcamp page that explains the motives and production details behind the album. What follows should explain these years in more detail.

I played drums in a few bands during high school. For one of them, Love Buckets, I wrote and sang a few of the original songs that we played in between AC/DC and Alice in Chains covers. We even recorded an “album” on a borrowed 4-track machine.

But Norman was my first real band.

The summer after my first year away at college, I got a phone call from a high-school friend. She asked if I knew anyone who might want to try singing with her friends’ band. I joked that I’d be into it–the joke being that I’d never fronted a band before. There was much laughter on both ends of the line.  But I kept it in mind, and at the end of the conversation I circled back around to the idea. Within the week I was standing in a garage in Burnt Hills, New York, with three total strangers, attempting to be a lead singer and guitarist in a rock band when I had no real experience doing either. I remember we played “Molly’s Lips,” the Vaselines song as covered by Nirvana on the Incesticide LP, about 30 times because it had two chords and lasted about 95 seconds. We jammed on a few ideas of theirs, and a few of mine. It went well. We decided we would play again.

The name, Norman, was branded soon after. I once said in a radio interview that it came to me in the shower. Allow me to de-romanticize the story: It’s not the name of my schlong. Rather, I had the thought of giving the band a proper name, to be just a little quirky, and this came from sounding out different ideas. Maybe I was trying to discover a name that had just enough of the same letters as Nirvana to look and sound familiar. And hey, quirky was in at the time: Weezer’s Blue Album was Norman’s bible.

I wrote a bunch of songs and brought in a few more from my past (“I Believe” was originally a Love Buckets song), and we started playing out soon after. Dan, the original second guitarist, left the band after just a few gigs–I don’t think he actually quit, more like he took some time off and never came back. Meanwhile, Randy (bass) and Dave (drums) learned songs almost as fast as I was writing them, and we quickly had a full set of original material. In December 1994 we went to Hyland Recording in the big city of Albany for our first studio session, a four-hour block of live recording that yielded our first four-song demo tape.

People responded. Putting it all in perspective, a shitload of cool things happened to us that year. The very first review of our demo was a glowing piece by Steve Ferguson (now known as Stephen Clair) in perhaps the best independent music publication Albany ever had, Buzzz. We got airplay and played live on several area radio stations, and cut a TV segment for a public-access show in Vermont. We even got noticed by Dominick Campana, whose Paint Chip Records was the preeminent local alternative-rock label. We were invited to be on his forthcoming compilation CD, the third in a well-publicized series.

We cut our two songs for the compilation (“Tourniquet” and “Over My Grave”) that July, back again at Hyland Recording, but this time on the 24-track, 2-inch tape machine. Norman was just a duo for this session, as Randy had to leave town suddenly. I played all the bass and guitar parts while wearing a wrist brace–because I’d fractured my hand being a jackass a few weeks prior–yet somehow I avoided having any major performance problems. Dave nailed his parts like a total pro, right down to the wood block (it was used to simulate the rim shots in “Tourniquet”). I loved being able to multi-track and harmonize my vocals–I had attempted stacking vocal tracks in my home-recording experiments, but never with such fidelity and possibility. It felt great.

Meanwhile I had submitted our demo to as many of the various showcases and festivals as I could find, and we made the cut for the first round of the TicketMaster Music Showcase, at Bogie’s in Albany that September. There were A&R reps from a few major labels at the show–labels still had A&R back then–and they apparently liked us because we were advanced to the semifinal round. In Tampa, Florida. All expenses paid. Holy. Shit. Dude.

We played a bunch of shows on our home turf that fall, from Paint Chip showcases at Valentine’s to acoustic shows at Caffe Dolce in Schenectady, our regular hang and the site of the first Norman shows. Then in November, we boarded a jet plane and headed to Tampa–Ybor City, specifically–for the Ticketmaster semifinals. We shared the stage with a bunch of great bands, including Goud’s Thumb from Portland, Maine, and a Florida band called Bloom, which we found funny because Albany’s chief alt-rock act at the time was also called Bloom. And we got to “rub elbows” with some “industry people.” It was a lot to take in for three kids from the suburbs.

We didn’t win the showcase–I recall being down during and after the show, probably because of a muffed note that nobody outside our band would have noticed–but I think the exposure to the industry and the thrill of playing such a prestigious event got to me. Something big could happen for the band if we just worked our tails off. I was certain of this. On the flipside, and in retrospect, I was hugely ambitious and difficult and not terribly self-aware. I figured we could be signed within a year if I just wrote more songs and pushed the guys extra hard. (In those first few post-Cobain years, that really wasn’t so far-fetched. After all, Candlebox had a hit record.)

So that’s what I did. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I booked more gigs, wrote more songs, expected more and more out of my bandmates, and never stopped to see where their heads were at.


We returned home from Tampa and immediately played the release party for Bump Into Fate, the Paint Chip comp, at the old QE2. This show sticks out because, as I recall, we played one of our best sets. I’m also fairly certain that was the night I first met John Delehanty, with whom I’d later record Tiger Pop and part of Mix Tape. (He’s the only QE2 soundguy I can remember.) After that, there were just a few more gigs on the calendar before the new year.

But the tension between me and my bandmates was growing. Eventually it was bound to break. I had developed a nasty habit of pointing out mistakes onstage, and at what would be the final Norman show, at Valentine’s in late December 2005, I said some stupid shit on the microphone about some missed bass notes. As we were about to exit the stage, Randy threw his instrument into the air, watching as it fell and smashed on the tiled concrete floor below. It was the end of the band, and the last time all three of us were in the same room. (Coincidentally this was the same gig where I met the band Nickel Social, from which I’d poach three members to form Kid Dynamo some months later.)

Dave and Randy and I were just a bunch of kids, and kids tend to treat each other like crap. There is no doubt I was a jerk to my bandmates on numerous occasions, in the supposed name of music. Randy’s unease was visible for some time, but I never bothered to ask him about it. I was too busy worrying about my own universe, while Randy bottled up emotion until it was unbearable. I remember saying to him, immediately after the bass-smashing incident, something along the lines of “I hope you plan to have that fixed by next week.” Which is a shitty thing to say in that situation. But all I could think about was the next show. Because that show could be the one where something big happens to our band. Because the band was the only thing in the world that mattered to me–even if it destroyed a friendship.

I’m reflecting especially deeply on this right now, not only because I’ve been listening to Norman’s music ad infinitum for the last few weeks, but because I’ve just this week had to leave a band for basically the same reasons Randy left mine. Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about connecting with one or more people, and finding common ground through sound and rhythm. But when one band member is a total control freak, the whole thing gets too mechanical. It stops being about a connection and becomes more about routine. And when those control issues extend beyond sonic and aesthetic decisions and begin to manifest themselves in abusive language or behavior, it’s damaging to the project and everyone around it. It doesn’t matter how good that person is, or how good they think they are; that person is unhealthy to be around, and the high road is to get the hell away from the toxic situation as quickly as possible. In this case, it was a stubborn-headed guitarist who refused to accept responsibility for his actions, and who lashed out at whoever tried to call him on his bullshit. That’s probably what Randy thought about me at the end of Norman. Life’s got a funny way of making its point.

Anyway, it’s never fun to quit a band, but this time the decision was easy because the majority of us were in agreement: Stand back and let the guy burn bridges. Time has proven that those of use who want to move on to better things, will, and hopefully the bridge-burner will learn from this experience.

I know I did.

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I’ll jump back into the 1990s for volume 2.0 very soon. In the meantime, does anyone want to hire a drummer?