Wednesday, July 01, 2015

LA History: Ian Berky and Beta

Ian

Ian Berky was the boyfriend of my girlfriend's best friend. Lean, compact, and handsome, he looked like a lead singer and dressed and partied like the proverbial rock star. He was also a super-nice guy, and a real friend to me at a time when it didn't feel like I had too many.

When I met him he was fronting a hard alternative rock band originally called something I can't recall, before changing their name to "Purj". Purj was a loud, aggressive band in the then-fashionable mold of Rage Against The Machine, but with stronger melodic sense and less political outrage. Ian and his co-writer (and guitar player) were both from French-speaking Canada. I didn't love their band, but they had a few good songs, always played like it was their last show ever, and would often frequently close their show with a non-ironic, blazing version of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again", which instantly endeared them to me.

Beta

In 1998 I was hired to do some music (source cues) for movies by Roger Corman's studio Concorde/New Horizons.

Often, the low-budget movie industry will ask for people to do something that "sounds like" another track they wanted but could not afford, or didn't want to even try to negotiate for.

In this case, it was "Breathe" by The Prodigy. Because this was one of my, if not the, first film music gigs I had, I really wanted to do a great job.

I listened to the track, identified what I thought were the key elements or signifiers, and started building my own version. At the time, I was really into the first two Underworld records, as well as other electronic acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Crystal Method, Orbital...all those bands that broke big at the end of the millennium. The track sounded solid.

But I needed a singer, and I wanted someone who could be convincingly aggressive like the guy from The Prodigy. Ian was the obvious and first choice -- he was friendly, around, and I knew he could deliver convincingly and distinctively.

He came over to the studio one afternoon and wrote the lyrics and melody more or less on the spot.



It turned out I was TOO good at copying the song, and the studio decided not to use it because they felt it was too close to the original.

We did a second track, too. ("Wings"). Listening back to these tracks now, it's clear we should have finished a full album. While the songs are definitely rough, and the melodies and chord structures a little flatter or monotonous that I would normally go for, there's something about the aggression plus late-90s electronics that still sounds fresh to me.

Can't Run

This is perhaps the pinnacle of my L.A. production work, in terms of complexity, elements, effort I put in, and happiness with the final result.

In 1998, Ian came in and played a short acoustic guitar song, not much more than a couple of chords, and put down a basic vocal. It was pretty simple, and took him just a few minutes.

A few days later, I presented him with a nearly-completed version of this piece. I added synths and drum loops. I went back to my classical roots and wrote some fancy string section bits and tried to orchestrate them decently. I added some electric guitar, including a solo that was typical of my lead playing at the time, all Edge-meets-Robert-Smith with other new wave influences in there. Chris Fudurich provided some invaluable mixing help and suggestions (as always).

I had him add some more vocals and we made a few other changes. Is it a bit overblown or grandiose? Too long? Maybe, but I also think it's epic and magnificent. I love the drama. This was one of the first times I really threw everything into a piece, and felt like the ideas all worked.


Ian and I did one more track together, but between our various personal lives and band machinations, anything beyond that was out of the question.

Recording Details

At this time, my studio work process would involve using the computer just for MIDI sequencing. The sequencer would generate SMPTE timecode, which I would use to synchronize the DA-88 digital multitrack tape machine. I would record all the vocals to DA-88 digital tape, along with any guitars or bass. All the synthesizers would be run "live" into the mixing board, along with the tracks coming off of the DA-88.

When it was time for mixdown, I would then run the mix "live" -- the synthesizers running live off the computer, the vocals and guitars coming off of digital tape, all going through the mixing board with effects. The 2 track output of that would go down on a DAT. And sometimes I would use the DA-88 to do a back-up 2-channel mix if available.

Perhaps a little complicated, but the computer wasn't powerful enough to handle a lot of audio, and I felt that running the synths "live" made them sound better.

Epilogue

Ian left L.A. around the same time I did. For the last several years, he's been running a successful business customizing vintage cars.

Monday, June 29, 2015

LA History: Black Scorpion

Blecch Scorpion

In 1998, I nearly got to score a television show: Roger Corman's TV adaptation of "Black Scorpion". Imagine Batman. But female, scantily clad, low budget...and terrible. Designed primarily to appeal to people who have an abnormal appreciation for girls in revealing outfits fighting.

Getting the gig would have almost certainly changed the direction of my life permanently. I would have had to buy a ton of gear, learn a lot about scoring for TV, and then crank out a large amount of music in a very short period of time. It would have been thrilling, and possibly led to other work.

The show wanted to capitalize on the "electronica wave" that was happening at the time, and rather than the usual canned music, they wanted something contemporary and of the moment.

I created several minutes of all-electronic demos and submitted it. I didn't get the gig. That was OK then (even though I heard the other stuff including the "winner", and thought my bits were way better), and it's even more OK now.

As a kind of consolation prize for not getting the gig scoring the entire show, I got hired to write some "bad rock songs" for the Black Scorpion episode where the evil band "The Bleeding Eardrum" terrorizes the city. Here's a sample of the "action":

I read the script, which included some titles and lyric excerpts. I had a very short period of time to write and record 4 songs, including having the evil villainess actress (played by Shannon Whirry) come over to my, uh, garage to learn the songs and sing them.

My brother and I used Hole as an inspiration and took it in an intentionally worse direction. This is my favorite of the 4 songs that made it onto the show (but not the soundtrack album), though "City Under Seige" [sic] was a close second.



We had a fun time writing lyrics and coming up with riffs. As usual, Ryan demonstrated his effortless creativity with wordplay and was a riff factory. We borrowed the drum sounds from a record we both liked, and orchestrated the music to match the fictional band's line-up of singer/guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player. We had the tracks done in almost no time.

Of course, the guy who wrote the script demanded co-writing credit since he had done the hard work of coming up with the titles and providing small lyric excerpts.

Ms. Whirry was a total pro, and only a little visibly creeped out walking into a slightly sketchy garage studio deep in the San Fernando Valley to yell and scream into a microphone for a few hours. I suppose as an actress she'd done (and would have to do) worse. I was impressed, nonetheless. Aside from being game, she was charming and fun.

I was not properly paid or credited for this work, and it was never properly registered with the copyright office or rights agencies, which is a shame, because I might have actually earned some money!

That's Hollywood, though.



The complete Black Scorpion TV series is available on DVD. You'll be sorry.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

LA History: Dan Meyer

From DKO to Dashboard to DMP

Dan Meyer was the original guitar player for Don Knotts Overdrive, and had also played in local space-rock masters Farflung...both gigs that my brother would replace him in.

Dan left DKO in the late 90s to join Dashboard Prophets, a harder group fronted by Chris Dye. Dashboard Prophets quickly gained a following and got signed. They recorded a strong debut album ("Burning Out The Inside") which had the misfortune of being confused with a Soundgarden album with a similar name, and the good fortune of placing one of their better songs on the TV show "Buffy The Vampire Slayer". The band then settled into the weird limbo of not quite making it yet and waiting to figure out if they got a second album or not.


I had seen Dashboard Prophets several times, including one of the big gigs where all the A&R guys were deciding to sign them. They were great live, very aggressive, with some strong songs.

Dan had a unique guitar style in that he didn't play with a pick - he strummed by flicking his fingers, or picking at the strings directly.

Slow Down

In 1996, Dan called me out of the blue and asked me if I was interested in joining his new project as the bass player.

I can't remember if I had already heard the demos or not, but I can remember that when I did hear them, I was blown away.

Dan wrote great, beautiful, heartfelt songs with strong melodies and hooks. He'd been listening to a lot of Palace Brothers and "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen, and the stripped-down, honest quality of his songs reflected that. These were songs about his life, about being alone, about missing his brother, about his self-destructing friends. I instantly loved them.

I also remember what Dan said to me. I asked him why he wanted me in his band, because I wasn't a great bass player. I didn't even own a bass -- I had to borrow one from my girlfriend. In fact, I think this was actually the first band I officially played bass in. He told me "You're not a rock goon. I don't want to play with rock goons. I need real musicians." It was incredibly flattering.

So The Dan Meyer Project was born. Dan on guitar and vocals, me on bass, and Dashboard Prophet's Leo Bocce on drums. We rehearsed several places, including the lockout I had near the 405 and Santa Monica Boulevard.

I played bass with a pick and sang backup. And I loved it. This was the first band I was really and regularly playing in since my own project had died, and it felt great.

We played a bunch of shows, perhaps the most notable being a gig at the Alligator Lounge where Chris Farley showed up...and then passed out, head down on a table while we were playing (he died not long after that). I thought Dan's songs were great, and we had a good vibe.

But after a while, Dan had enough. He was a somewhat shy guy, and I think being a frontman was terrifying and tiring for him, and the constant rejection the L.A. scene forces on you is tough. The live band ended.

Recording

Dan and my brother set about recording Dan's songs in slightly improved form over the demos. I can no longer remember when the original recordings were done, but they were done to just 8 tracks on the DA-88. The original idea was to have everyone from the Silverlake scene and all of Dan's friends contribute to the various tracks.

When I heard the final product, I was a little disappointed. Some of the magic of Dan's demos had been lost, though in general the songs were much tighter (Dan had a penchant for way-out-of-left-field bridges my brother was able to eradicate) and there were some nice touches.

When I finally quit my day job, I made a personal project out of remixing the tracks in my home studio. Part of it was a way to educate and challenge myself about working on acoustic tracks that I neither recorded nor engineered, but part of it was just wanting better mixes of the songs.

Needless to say, I didn't really do that great of a job. I rushed it, for one thing, trying to bang them all out quickly instead of being methodical and patient. I also didn't quite have the skills or gear to match what I wanted to achieve. I haven't heard the original mixes in at least 15 years, but I think my mixes are kind of anemic, washed out, and not all that good.

Still, Dan's terrific songwriting shines through. This track, "Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice", is a little less open-hearted and a little more snarky than some of Dan's work, but it's a good example of what's good about him (and bad about my mixes!)


Epilogue

After not hearing anything from or about Dan for a decade, I reconnected with him in New York City in 2012. He works in IT now, and is married with 2 children.

I was thrilled to hear that Dan had returned to making music, first with the kid-indie-rock Danimal "Volume 1", and just a few weeks ago with a soon-to-be released full-on Dan Meyer album. I've heard the advance tracks, and it's great!