Monday, September 23, 2013


"Let me tell you a story!"
Surprisingly the most simple and straight forward of the albums I've worked on, LET ME TELL YOU A STORY was a leisurely and relaxing journey of self-exploration. It was just released on Saturday, and I've spent much of the last few months working on it so it seems the appropriate topic for this week's post.

Baba Yaga
Art by Francesco Francavilla
How did the album get it's name? It actually started off as sort of a joke phrase that Moose and Kit gave to a reporter for the Examiner every time she asked a question about our new album, Unavenged. She heard them use the phrase so much she erroneously credited it as our album title in the subsequent article about our Unavenged album release show. We noticed the mistake months after the show, thought it was pretty hilarious, and wound up going with the idea that perhaps the reporter was on to something, and it might be fun to make it look like the article was written using 4th dimensional thinking. We started thinking about album art around the time we started recording the first track (Heart of Fire) in the summer of 2012. We were thinking of featuring the band looking over a fence at Baba Yaga's hut, kind of like the little rascals, but one of us had the idea that it might be more awesome to have a photo of Kit holding a bootleg-looking NES cartridge with the album title scrawled on it sort of like Steal this Album by System of a Down. We (except for Rook) sort of stopped talking about album art altogether until the week the art was due in 2013 when our initial ideas were refined by Rook's genius into the final format we used.

Original Album Mockup
I'd argue that the real beginning to LMTYAS started back in the Self-Titled days, as Adam was recording drum tracks for me to write original songs on top of. He recorded drums for a song we dubbed "Red", which was very experimental, almost a-rhythmic (but following a bpm), that felt more like an old Japanese samurai showdown background-noise track than a song. I spent about two years on and off trying to take a stab at it until finally I had a vague outline. The original idea was for a God of War war-song (which fit the vibe of the drums) but it wasn't until Lobos (Lords of Thunder) introduced me to a game called Another World that I finally was able to get a clear vision. You see, Another World is a really cool game that's extremely dear to Rook. She used to tell me these stories about a mysterious game from childhood that she could not remember the name of, or find, where she was chased by a shadow-beast, attacked by ooze monsters, and hunted, even through her dreams for months after borrowing it from a cousin. Thanks to Lobos reintroducing her to the game (introducing it to the rest of us as well), I played through it countless times and watched playthroughs (I'm admittedly pretty bad at Another World) for hours until I was sure that I understood what the game was really about, because I really liked it too. I made attempts at writing a new song on top of Adam's "Red" drum track (from scratch) and presented my work to Konami. It wasn't until a few afternoons of Konami of I jamming that we made huge revisions (he re-wrote large chunks of the song) and ultimately finished writing the song together. Sure we had no idea what sort of solo we'd put at the end (which I'd later make up and play for the first time while recording the final version on the album), or the exact vocal melody but I could really feel the haunting desolation of the game, the excitement of the action-filled ending, and the giant pterodactyl flying off into the horizon at the end of the song.

Swamp Witch was written in a single night with the same Johnny that wrote Unavenged with me, this time after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner in '11 as family played board games around us. We met up the following spring to write Not You... though he only recorded a few sampled parts that were later Frankenstein'ed to create a song demo in Mixcraft, which Konami also had a hand in putting together.

I had little to do with the writing one of my favorite songs on the album, Death of a Friend, save for the lyrics, which thanks to the half-dozen lyrical interpretations I've heard thus far (each swearing that it's about a different video game or movie villain) I feel was vague enough to allow people to insert their own personal demons, while I still feel that it's very personal to me. Working with Dr. Wily of the NESkimos on this track was also a big honor. He's been an inspiration over the years and is someone I've always looked up to... In both senses of looking up to someone.

Ocean Kiiiing
(photo by Jeff Douglas?)
Ocean King
Fueled by a strong desire to take over the world, I wrote Ocean King between classes when I was 11. I appreciate it as being the oddity it is... Essentially a torn piece of paper with lyrics on it put into a time capsule, discovered over a decade later by the same goofy nerd next to a scrap of paper that read "Dear Me, you never write... Please make this song and send me some of your favorite video games and something to play them on. I'm sure i'd like them if you do, and i'm bored." 

Upon its discovery, I played a brief live demo of the song for the band back in '10 and it wound up being the straw that broke up the old Random Encounter, so when the new band got together I avoided mentioning it for a year. One night I recorded a demo and shared it with them. It wasn't all that well received (at least by Moose) but when I explained that there would be puppets involved, and played a demo of the song, in person, with the Ocean King himself, that I got them to get it.

A younger Ocean King
Crown yet incomplete
I recorded a demo version of Ocean King for the -72 single-, which people liked, and started recording the final version over 15 years after it's initial inception. With the exception of the backing vocals at the end (recorded at the Geek Easy), the clapping (Geek Easy), the cannon-shot (recorded at the Pirate Festival), the bass, and the piano (recorded by Helios, the other founding member of Random Encounter), I'm extremely proud to say that I recorded everything else on my own, including the different voices. I didn't pitch correct my way to reach notes and I didn't get a guest artist to sing... Instead I recorded the song in small doses from December through July and lost my voice more times than I can remember trying to get some of those high notes (or the pirate laugh) just right. Ocean King has been surprisingly well received, and I dread the very thought of ever trying to write any kind of spiritual successor.

I should also mention at this point that Hiro (formerly of Random Encounter until a car accident chipped his teeth back in 2008) also lent us his chops and did a fantastic job recording trumpet parts for Cave Story! If you listen carefully you can hear them carefully blended in, or maybe the subtle the violin parts in the opening track: The Day After.

Katamari on The Rocks
This specific version of the song, the one that we recorded and now exists, has been stuck in my head since late 2007, just waiting to become a reality. Back in the Self Titled days Adam did a personal favor for me and recorded drums for one of my favorite tracks of all time, Katamari on the Rocks, the intent being that I'd eventually record a rock version of it with Juja (who I was working on the Sonic Suite with at the time) or perhaps find new friends to record it with. Because Juja didn't know the song, and the "new" Random Encounter really had its hands full recording Unavenged, I sought out Stemage (aka Metroid Metal, aka one of my favorite people/musicians of all time) who happened to share in my passion for Katamari. Due to issues with the way Adam and I recorded the drums, they needed to be rerecorded, so I sought out one of my favorite drummers of all time, Phil Robertson, to record the drums at studio quality. I also messaged an old acquaintance, Syesha Mercado, (who's sister is a good friend of mine) to sing the lead vocals but that fell through (she's kind of famous/busy, so I understand). I was still able to arrange the song to be a little closer to its original form than I'd originally intended, and as such, we'd need high quality male-lead vocals and some really strong accompanying vocals. My friends brentalfloss and Amanda Lepre rose to the call in a heartbeat and recorded their respective parts in different parts of the country without having the other person's tracks for reference and did a fantastic job! My "soulful 70's" vocals accompanied them as sort of an after-thought to make it feel more full. 

In retrospect, I'm not sure that most of the people who worked on the song were able to envision the finished product because I'm sometimes bad at communicating things, and in instances like when an uncredited vocalist (for legal reasons) sang a random riff off the star spangled banner, or when I asked my friend if I could record their dogs barking, or car honking, I'm not entirely sure they envisioned the parts ending up in the middle of the chip-solo breakdown.

Another big addition to Katamari on the Rocks was the chiptune solo (an excellent arrangement of Lonely Rolling Star by Under Polaris). My vision for this part was the end of the first game, where you have only a few seconds left on the timer, when everything you run over makes lots of noise, when the music starts to fade, when everyone & everything (dogs/phones/people/etc) is stuck together to form a single glowing star, and you get a feeling that perhaps finally your Katamari is finally big enough to please your strangely well-endowed space father-King. In many ways the creation of this song mirrored the creation of a good Katamari, containing a diverse array of artists who would otherwise not have normally worked together but wound up combining to create something fantastic. The only other last minute addition was the audience singing from a fateful recording session at the Geek Easy in A Comic Shop, Orlando.

The Geek Easy Chorus!
Speaking of which, the audience recording session at a Geek Easy (Summer 2013) was a heck of a lot of fun. The basic idea was given to me in a conversation with my friend (the awesome photographer) Jeff Douglas and it wound up being one of the best parts of my album creation experience. We basically invited 70 or 140 of our best fans/friends (open invitation) to a free concert with free beer/pizza, where we had them join us in song at certain sections. They recorded the "heave ho"s to Wind Waker, the "La la la"s in Not You, the chorus of Ocean King, Katamari, and parts for another new song that won't be released for awhile, and did so in the time it normally takes me to do something unimpressive like cook dinner!

Rewinding to the recording process, which I already explained started prematurely in the summer of 2012. That summer we were invited by a local college to record tracks for a song for free in their studio space and have our recording be the student project for that semester (editing/mixing/mastering). I'm not sure why, but we never wound up using those tracks, despite getting a cool music video from the experience, and as a band we got distracted by countless awesome show opportunities, so we didn't start recording again until April 2013.

My accordion parts were recorded a lot more professionally, from Unavenged to LMTYaS, largely due to the sheer volume of recording and experimentation I'd been doing with Juja. Practice does make perfect it seems. As far as overall process, Kit programmed song demos of every song in MIDI at a specific BPM, and gave them to Moose, who recorded drums in a studio over the course of a few months. After each track was synced (the guy exporting the drums was fairly new to his DAW and I had to personally sync each part of each take of the drums together for the first few sessions), Rook would record some of the most solid tracks I've ever worked with (No, i'm not just saying that!), Kit laid down his guitar tracks (I'm told he recorded countless versions of each part using different tone/FX settings and only shared his top 2 or 3 with us), and Konami and I would essentially improvise parts to make each song sound full and complete. I'd admit, I had no idea what I was going to record for Tal Tal heights when Konami "accidentally" recorded the parts I played live, making them sound worlds better than they would on accordion, or what I could possibly contribute on the accordion to the layer-heavy Swamp Witch. The band encouraged me to be as creative as I wanted to be (which I was hesitant to do for some reason), to add glockenspiel, piano, and whatever else I wanted. With those freedoms (which I obviously can't replicate live) I'd more or less spend days asking myself if a song could benefit from adding something or if it sounded best "as is."

Field Recording
Best done with food
The best example of this is Wind Waker. Originally intended to be just a brief transition song, Konami sent me a brief arrangement of the song, played on two guitars. I can't remember if he extended it on his own, or if I asked him to add one or two parts in, but slowly it grew and I started adding layers to what he gave me. First I added the bare accordion parts, then I started layering. 
Everything on this album was Dual-Tracked (the exact same parts recorded twice on different accordions and panned, creating a more full sound) or triple tracked, which I'd discovered entirely on accident while working on a song for the Spectrum of Mana project. As I added accordion layers some worked and some (like a brief attempt at the Steve Zissou "boat" theme towards the beginning of Wind Waker) didn't. Once the song started to feel full I took it a step further, inspired by... cheezily enough my childhood, and the silly wind intro Juja or myself put in Shadow's Theme on Pixel Glass... I recorded going out on the Sarasota Bay on a sailboat, walking the beaches nearby, and brought the recording device on a short walk to my favorite (childhood) ice cream shop to record the ambient nautical sounds that made up a big part of my life childhood. Towards the end I added nautical bells, a very quiet kick drum track (actually just me kneeing a wooden desk), and a star trek inspired whistle at the beginning. Used to the old whaling songs, and recently invigorated by seeing a lovely band called "Skinny Lester" I felt the track needed a solid "heave ho" call, and someone to yell "coming about" to have the feel of a true sea shanty, which the Geek Easy Chorus was happy to oblige for me. I should also mention that a lot of the inspiration for my experimentation came from the encouraging words of Akash Thakkar, who I'd recently met at MAGfest XI and have been in correspondence with. At the very end I wanted to add a solid shoe-tapping rhythm throughout and settled for tapping my hands on a computer desk with various Equalization passes run through it, with an extra layer of tapping on a hard cover book for good measure.

The time is 6:10:50
It feels like the arrangements for most of the songs went sort of like that, where we would add entirely unexpected elements to the songs while recording what we'd never considered before, like Konami's groovy solo in Zozo, the guitar solos in Wind Scene, Kit's thrash-metal section in Purple Angel, or the key changes in Death of a Friend, which I discovered only when I started recording my parts.

The others all did more than just 'contribute' to LMTYAS and I genuinely feel that the album was co-arranged/produced/everything by the band in full, which I've never felt before. The freedom to focus on specific elements of creation and know that (for instance) Kit is going to be putting the track listing in a solid order, that Rook has all the visual stuff covered, that no mistake will get past Moose's critical ear, or Konami's ingenuity in arrangement was very unifying and freeing. I was able to focus my efforts on creating good music, less on Quality Assurance, minimally on how all the pieces need to fit together. While I discussed my own contributions to the album above, it shouldn't just go without saying that the others were just as instrumental in the creation of LMTYAS.

After the tracks were recorded, I handled the editing and syncing stuff that most bands are reluctant to admit happens but that is unavoidable when people record with their own start/stop times, when you try to sync up 4 accordion/guitar layers seamlessly, or when you have people record parts to a song but they don't have access to the same versions of the song. We had a band album pre-mix listening party, sent to the tracks to the fantastic Michael Moore (not the film maker) to mix them, had a series of pre-mastering album listening parties, sent them to Rob Kleiner, had a pre-print album listening party, sent the music to be printed on CD's, and prepared for the album release show...

The release show itself took a solid week of nonstop preparation (I was out of the country the week prior) and practice. We confirmed our set list the weekend before the show at our practice, and as the band selected a Wind Waker to be in the set my terror level rose from "I can do this" to "er.... 50% of the time I can do this and not screw up." For me, the entire week was spent learning and practicing the songs I improvised parts for on the album and was not used to playing (Tal Tal, Wind Scene, Wind Waker, Another World, Death of a Friend, etc). It was fairly stressful because I learn to play by using and need each song to be known by muscle memory, which is a time-consuming process that takes multiple days to accomplish. Basically you play a song a few dozen times each day and by the next day you'll be a little bit better at remembering the song without thinking about it. After awhile your muscles know the song and you can focus your mind on other things, like not staring at your hands. The key to muscle memory learning (for me) is always getting a good night's rest between practices and having multiple days to improve. In the end 7 days was JUST enough time to learn everything I needed.

The day before the show the band got together, practiced, and hung out, just like old times. We live far apart from each other, so we seldom get to enjoy social time together. I also got to really meet and interact with Professor Shyguy in person that day, and he's rapidly become one of my favorite people to be around. We did some talking and I hope one day to maybe collaborate with him on a song or two. Perhaps "Hear My Voice"...? We'll see. -After some last minute work by Rook, some last minute shopping at the local Halloween stores, and a last minute battery run (for our wireless stuff) by the band we were as ready as we were going to be.

The album release show itself was a blast. While we were all extremely nervous when we arrived at the empty venue, things gradually got less terrifying as we finished our sound check hours before the show, as we ordered 30 large pizzas for our friends/fans who would be showing up, as over 350 people came and showed their support, as the earlier acts (and subsequently DJ Roborob) smoothly rocked house, as video games were played, as dozens of 3DS Street passes were earned, and as we saw countless familiar faces ranging from people we'd met at our last show to a girl who's had a "#1 Random Encounter fan" shirt she hand made back in 2007! Glow sticks, foam swords, and various cardboard cutouts of aquatic animals were passed out, new material was played (pretty much the album from start to finish), Moose became a human sock puppet, Kit jumped more then ever, dueling guitar solos happened, Rook delivered some solid and energetic bass solos, an inflatable baby Mario was kept away from people in red shirts, Konami sang, I rocked out with a chainsaw and hockey mask for Zozo, Dr. Wily joined us on stage for Death of a Friend, and the audience showed more support than I thought was possible on a completely new set of songs, singing along and clapping throughout the night.

The difference from Self Titled (obscure/unacknowledged) to Unavenged (some people know about it/we sold a dozen copies at our album release show) are small when compared to the jump from Unavenged to LMTYAS. It's the difference of being knowledgeable on sound design, being 100% proud of what you've released, knowing that you could have done nothing better, and having a following that cares. I'm really happy that everything happened the way it did and am proud to present our newest album to the world.


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