...AND YOU will know us by the trail of dead
I was raised by a pair of New Age hippies. Not actual hippies, but the later generation of truth seekers who were too young to have actually attended Woodstock or partied during the Summer of Love. More like early incarnations of the free-spirited travel-loving folks who would eventually be referred to as “backpackers”.
There was always a copy of Ram Dass’s Be Here Now on the coffee table in the living room. Not just our living room table, but that of every pseudo-hippy friends’ house we’d visit. It was ubiquitous. As a child, the brown-colored portion of the book with hand-drawn illustrations of naked yogis looked like something promising I might be entertained by, but upon closer inspection revealed itself to be way too “far out” even for an artistically-inclined kid like me.
It wasn’t until recently I learned the chair in the center of the mandala on the cover was meant to represent Vincent van Gogh’s chair from his
famous painting “The Bedroom”, of his actual starving-artist cliché bedroom in Arles. It was meant to symbolize the Seat of Consciousness. Our true consciousness––that which abideth within this crude machination of clay and feldspar.
January 2020 started as typically as any other album release date. We had a spring and summertime’s worth of touring and festivals booked, we were modestly happy with what we’d recorded (as self-critical as we tend to be); and better yet, we’d put together a new five-piece live lineup that rivaled anything from our past and was only getting better with each show. By the time we got back from our February/March 2020 European/UK tour we were confident, we were cocky––we were kicking ass!
It was only once the initial shock and horror of a year’s worth of pandemic-necessitated cancellations had sunken in––and we’d processed the fact that the band had absolutely nothing to do––did I wake up one day with a sudden, overwhelming sense of peace, serenity, and centeredness. Like Ron Livingston in Office Space––waking up from his euneirophrenic hypnosis session and suddenly seeing the world anew. We literally had nothing to do! Just like what Ram Dass had described in Be Here Now. This was amazing! Put simply, it was a dream come true.
It took several bliss-filled, perambulating months of hiking the hills surrounding Austin, walking dogs, cooking at home and reading books (actually reading books again!) that I started to think, hmmmm... maybe we should start a new album. I mean, why not, right? There were some really great music documentaries coming out at the time, which had inspired in me a sense of reconnecting with that oft-nostalgized (that’s not actually a word btw) Golden Age of rock music. You know the one: back before Autotune (pronounced with a German accent, for some reason), before Pro Tools, before these stultifying, mind-numbing levels of compression had made sound files look like perfect Lego blocks instead of rising and falling tides of atmospheric evolution.
It was that bygone analog era that we wanted to reconnect with. But it was this newfound digital era that we wanted to describe. What sort of times were we actually living in? Weird and unfamiliar seemed almost understatements. It was as if nothing short of an alien invasion could actually surprise anyone, anymore. One could almost imagine the bemused and ironic joke-meme responses that first contact might elicit on TikTok, rather than the blood-curdling screams that men landing from outer space would have garnered in the 1950s.
Because of all this time on our hands, and absolutely no pressure from absolutely nobody, we had the untrammeled luxury of starting off very, very slowly. Instead of getting together for rehearsals in some musty, sound-proofed garage, starting in February of 2021 we met at my house. And we just talked. No tours to look forward to, no shows lined up. Just plenty of time and latitude to sit and talk.
We talked about music documentaries, pulled up YouTube videos of performances we loved and cherished, traded hearsay stories of our musical influences, biography recommendations, discursive ramblings on music theory, popular culture, recreational drug use, and the ontological absurdity of genre classifications. Why is the ridiculously self-indulgent story of Mötley Crüe (The Dirt) every bit as poignant and entertaining as the ridiculously morbid story of Mayhem and the Norwegian Black Metal movement (Lords of Chaos)? We compared what we loved most about rock and roll, down to its essence––the very noumena. After all these lean years (where we’d grown fat) and less-than-glorious album sales (had that last album even sold any copies after we stopped touring?), what was it that made us still want to make albums and not go into real estate, cryptocurrency, or professional gambling?
And yes, we even felt obliged to pull up more recent albums, and kept asking ourselves the same question: why do all these new albums sound so... dare we say it, bad? What happened to music production? I mean, many of these records had huge budgets, and yet they opted for etiolated mixes that seemed to say more about digital technology than they did anything else. Such as the things we’d
been raised to cherish about our favorite albums: authenticity, humanity, revolution. We had probably less than one-tenth of a major label budget to make an album. How could we record something that would live up to our expectations? How do we Moneyball this album––in other words, how do we make it sound like it was made for a million dollars, when in actuality all we really had was an independent record budget that was almost guaranteed to have nothing left over at the end?
We came up with a basic plan, based on VH1’s Behind The Music and Classic Albums documentaries of the albums we loved––Led Zeppelin, Rush, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd. We would do it like a lot of them had done before. Instead of paying hourly rates at some hip, high-tech professional studio, we would find a spot we could afford to lease for a couple months so that we never felt stressed for time, and in a relaxing location that would put us at complete ease and make us look forward to showing up every day.
We had just the spot. Some friends of ours had their rehearsal space in a large, old-style Texas barn on their property, adjacent to a huge field. Texas hippy bands used to rehearse there back in the seventies. Horse thieves had probably tried to steal horses from it back in the 1800s; the Indian Wars had been waged in the field outside; the Clovis people had flint-knapped and skinned mastodons down by the creek; and Santa Anna quite likely marched his troops across the property on his way to the Alamo (not really on that last one since they’d marched northwards from San Luis Potosi, but one could always
The tracking room was large enough to keep two drum kits permanently set up and mic’d. Two kits, like we used to do. Three guitar stations also set up (we didn’t know who’d be playing what on each song, it was musical chairs). A.J. had the only permanent station––his Wall of Synth, next to his Leslie cabinet. That was going to be a big feature on the album; the classic rock sound of a dirty organ, the Leslie vibrating its harmonious distortions through the wooden floors of the barn.
Our producer Charles Godfrey, was he happy about it? Hell no, he wasn’t. There was a low frequency hum emanating from below the floorboards (that only he could hear, I insisted jokingly), it would fuck with the monitoring system. That’s fine, I shot back. There’s a soccer pitch, an archery target, and a grill area outside. When things get frustrating, we’ll just go outside, light a cooking fire, kick the soccer ball, throw the frisbee around, then go back in and record some more.
We invented a sport. It’s called “Frizball”. It involves players throwing a frisbee and kicking a soccer ball at the same time.