The making of O.B.L.I.V.I.O.N.

One Boy's Life In Vertical Illusion (Or Not)

 

Like many a good story, it started  with a late night phone call. An old friend and WNEW DJ, Dia Stein had a few months earlier, tracked me down on the internet, established that I was indeed not dead yet and established a rapport as quickly as it had dissolved many years before. "You gotta get in here right now!" she burst. These guys need a creative guitar player. I was nonplussed. First, jams, especially ones formed from a random encounter, are usually exercises in self indulgence and volume. Not really my thing. Second, I was dry. Spent. Hadn't written anything worthwhile in years and my involvement in music consisted of cleaning up the cobwebs in the studio and emptying the dehumidifier every few weeks. It was seriously time to pack it in. But I acquiesced. Not right away, but about a week later I carted a stripped down rig and a guitar into Manhattan and entered one of the hallowed halls of rehearsal space, once a sweatshop, no A.C or heat, with all the acoustics of a very wet toilet, on Eighth Avenue. We jammed a couple of times, established that the bass player's memory was suspect, and left it at that. But there was a little bit of magic in that racket, and the drummer, Nick DiFrisco, and I hit it off. We had a lot in common. Musically and otherwise. We started working ideas out at my place in New Jersey where we recorded and experimented. I started writing again.

The Third International was formed as a vehicle to allow my songs to escape the self imposed incarceration I had submitted them to for the preceding decade or so. I thought I had given up, dried up, forgotten how to……..but it was there all the time, percolating , waiting to see the light of day. 

The band was initially a studio only affair populated by travelling peripatetic musicians. Some great players came through the ranks. Ian McDonald from King Crimson played sax and flute on the first album, Beautiful Accident and was joined by Nick on drums who  had played with Dave Sanborn & Hiram Bullock in the past . Bill Foster on bass played on the first two albums and the Ides DVD. Bill played with the legendary Billy Cobham and also jazz great Larry Coryell. Adrian Harpham, the well known NYC session drummer/producer played drums on the second album, Entre Las Americas, and was joined by Dave Eggar on cello. Known for his arrangement work with Coldplay and Beyonce, Dave added a smoothness to the recording. Several excellent drummers contributed to later projects. Derek McKenzie recorded the IDES DVD and was the consummate pocket player, real pleasure to work with. Jun Nishijima played on the Formaldehyde single but ended up stuck in Tokyo on a visa infraction.

I was working a full time job as a pilot which offered me lots of free time but still placed demands that prevented a touring band existing. It gave me money to pay the high end personnel I was working with, buy equipment, fund production and promotion costs, but did not allow for the rigorous rehearsal schedule needed to do live dates.

The studio was a dark, cramped room in my basement cryptically named Calicut after the Black Hole of Calcutta. It had thirteen walls, a low ceiling and interior surfaces of sound board with a live floor. It was wonderful, acoustically, and served us for the first two albums, two singles and a four song video compilation. It was finally abandoned this year in favor of a larger space down the road that serves as a soundstage /video lab/recording studio all in one. I was thinking of calling it “Crash ’n Burn” given the state of the music industry right now, but I figure it’s a little on the dark side, and my passengers might worry. So it’s called “The Gilting Room” given all the work that’s gone into developing these tracks.

 

                                                     The Trilogy

 

The idea is the story of my life, in abstract, with an underpinning of socio-political events that have framed it. Sort of a musical “Man of La Mancia" or Lindsay Anderson’s  “Oh Lucky Man”.  The first album, Beautiful Accident, sets the historical context. Its songs parallel the history of the 20th Century. Each song has a story which is a stand alone idea depicting an event or observation in my life but also containing a subtext of a larger historical zeitgeist.

The second record, Entre Las Americas (sp. Between the Americas) is about my emigration from Europe to America and the changes I encountered. But its historic corollary is a comparison of North and South America, and why they developed so differently given their comparable natural resources, climate and topography. It is a damning criticism of Catholicism, Socialism and the nepotism that has hamstrung our southern neighbors for centuries. Simon Bolivar’s fruitless pursuit of one South American nation ended up being a circus of “Caudillos”, unstable socialist dictatorships and feudal kingdoms. North America, with its meritocracy, religion placed firmly in a box and self determination a fact of life, fared much better.

And so to O.B.L.I.V.I.O.N.  This is personal. The figure at the center is the damaged human product of a lifetime of dreaming, still confused as to why he is here, still awed yet frightened by mankind and its antics. It aims  to illuminate the the weaknesses and strengths we all have. To give some solace to those of you out there trying and failing, trying again, succeeding. continuing the quest.

“Accident” and “Americas” were crude attempts at bringing an unformed writer to the fore. Much of the material had been gleaned from a stockpile of years’ worth of efforts, revamped and shoehorned into a single type of sound. We were neophytes at digital recording. Songwriting was still, and always will be, developing. Musicians did not have the luxury of getting to know each other, feeling each other out, playing out, collaborating. There simply wasn’t time. I realized that if a quantum leap was to be made artistically this had to change. I couldn’t afford to keep session guys on salary for years. I had to find fresh, new talent with which to work on a regular continuing basis.

Fortunately the internet provides many forums to facilitate this, but still it was years of looking before I found a young Honduran music student who was studying at the New School in Manhattan who impressed me with his versatility and sense of harmony and rhythm. 

Enrique Mancia was to become a good friend and valued collaborator. We have worked together for several years now. Originally with Japanese drummer Jun Nishijima we rehearsed a set, recorded a single (Formaldehyde) and eventually went back to the drawing boards when Jun was deported for a visa expiration which has landed him in Tokyo for the foreseeable future. More trawling of the internet produced the most remarkable find. Twenty years of searching finally landed me my lifetime rhythmic companion. 

Szabolcs Szenasi had come over from Hungary some fifteen years earlier and as printer saw his industry and career dissolve. He had some solo videos on line and I couldn’t decide if I was looking at Dave Weckel or Stew Copeland or what, but I knew this guy had a very interesting take on rhythm, and had the chops to play whatever he could think of. The trick would be marrying his and my ideas. As our friends and coworkers will tell you, it has been a rocky road filled with disagreements, arguments and compromise. It has required me to write within a certain style to maximize his abilities, and this was not always easy. There are restrictions. But Szab is a generous musician who believes in my song ideas and will do whatever he can to accommodate my many demands. This is true of all of us. There is a humility that defers to the musical truth and allows for change and growth.  There has never been a musical idea of ours that was too big to change.

Like other things that have  limited me, such as the Oberheim loop unit defining song structure or the guitar synthesizer limiting playability of the instrument, Szab’s rhythmic predilections help define our unique sound. They force changes in syntax, melodies and the overall vibe of some songs. They catapult us into a rare atmosphere of creative firmament and allow us to look back on the work and smile a contented smile.

For a bit.

We didn’t know what we wanted to do. We wanted to play out, that was a given. We wanted to record an album too. We wanted to write together. Jam. We all had other demands; holding down jobs or going to school, and so time was limited. We rehearsed once a week most weeks, upping it when a gig was near. But planning was haphazard and our course uncertain. We just knew that when we played we sounded really, really good. And that made it worth it. All the numerous hassles of getting and keeping this thing together were inconsequential when we turned on and let loose. This uncharted, winding road to wherever was a trip into the magic woods. It was a fresh breath. A new start.

 

 

 

Gigs and Preparation

 

Summer 2014. A beautiful August evening in Glen Ridge, New Jersey and we brought the band out to play in our rambling back garden for a few friends, squirrels and neighbours. It was a trial run of our sound system  and monitor feed that was to prove an invaluable asset in the future. We played two sets to our people. The wine flowed and the tiki torches burned way into the night while the cicadas accompanied our riffs and the beepers harmonized. We found out we liked performing under these conditions. A lot. Gigs needed to be special. An event. Each one unique.

Our first real gig was out at the old Darress Theatre in Boonton New Jersey. An old vaudeville house that commands a view of Boonton’s  main street, the Darress was to prove a worthwhile challenge. Its capacity as a movie theatre allowed us to run our projected videos as part of the live performance. Along with JB lighting’s carefully orchestrated intelligent lights and our suspended surround sound system rig, it made for a great show. There are several YouTube videos of this performance (www.youtube.com/paracelsusmusic ) that we think show the sophistication of the live show very well.

A few years earlier I had been at the Beacon Theatre in NYC to see a St. Vincent/David Byrne gig. Never a super big Talking Heads fan I was really there to see the fair lady after her great offering that summer. “Surgeon” had captivated me and I wanted to see her up close.

The Beacon is notorious for bad sound. Especially in the balconies where the bass can reverberate like the sonar signature of a battleship. So I was flabbergasted at how clean everything was. There was plenty of vocal headroom. Separation was studio quality.

Adrian Harpham, the drummer on our second album was with me that night. “The drummer’s using triggers” he opined. I saw there was no back line. No monitors. Limited acoustic energy on stage to blur the mix. “This is it” I thought. This is how we do it. 

It took years to put to together the specialized instrumentation/amplification that allows us to take the studio straight on to the stage. Amplifiers were retired. In ear monitor systems acquired, drums modified with triggers and wired  to multi output drum brains to give us instant, variable, controllable drums sounds on stage without the fear of acoustic bleed into the mics. giving us an ability to mix the vocals out front and clear at any gig;  all this was elemental. Indispensible. Everything went through a full range, high end Mackie sound system that gives us the “sounds like the record” quality. The purchasing of an Allen & Heath ZED R-16 board was the icing on the cake that allows us to have individual monitor mixes and multi track record digitally, every gig. Every rehearsal. Every jam. The thunderbolt outputs go into a variety of MAC computers loaded with Pro Tools software.

Now while this has created the best performing environment possible, it limits the venues we will find acceptable. The standard club/bar inferior sound systems don’t cut it, and as for using house back lines, well that’s a non starter. So this means that playing on a bill with other bands really isn’t for us, and so a full night’s (2 hours worth) of live material was needed. Rehearsing all this has proved a challenge  but we are there. A trial gig at a bar in Bergenfield proved this, where we rolled out our own lighting/projection system and recorded the night’s show.

We learned that bars are not really the best environment for a band such as ours that demands audience attention, and in future we only plan on playing serious performance spaces. But as a test case it sufficed to demonstrate the logistical factors we were dealing with.

While all this was going on we were capturing the odd track from our ongoing rehearsals that we thought fit for consideration for the album.

 

 

 

The Studio Move

 

 

Leaving Calicut was a scary proposition. This had been my “go-to” room for twenty years. I could roll out of bed and not even get dressed if I wanted to immediately lay an idea down.

Now it’s down the road about 200 yards or so. So when I “go to work”, that’s it, I go. Out.

The refurbishing of the new building proved problematic thanks to local ordinances that precluded rock bands from populating the landscape to any serious degree. What should have taken six weeks took eight months, saw us fight a court judgment and spend a whole lot more money than we planned, but eventually in the spring of 2015 we moved house and took up residence in our new spot. This is where the bulk of OBLIVION has been recorded. It is proving a pleasant, spacious environment where we can rehearse with our backdrop videos and our own little intelligent light system. We have been shooting videos there using a multi camera setup, but  nothing is mixed from these sessions.

 

 

 

                Personnel and gear

 

The desire to play live meant we needed a crew to take care of stage management and sound. 

Brian Battersby joined the band this summer (2016) and has really become a fourth member, giving us the ability to have more sophisticated live mixes and also delegate the running of the electronic percussion section to someone other than me.

A core principle of The Third International’s music making is “If you can do it with one instrument, two is probably better”. To this end each one of us has an alter ego with whom we play. My guitar synthesizer rig (One guitar, two synths paying in unison) is looped, producing underlying patterns over which to play. Live overdubbing is elemental in the band's big live sound. The songs are constructed, mathematically, to allow for this. There has never been a three piece that sounds like us. The loop unit, to stay synchronized, needs a digital MIDI clock running at all times. So a drum machine was initially used to provide the signal, but this proved too inflexible and restrictive. The solution was found by using a Native Instruments Maschine studio to run rhythmic sequences, against which Szab plays. This duet is the rhythmic heart of the band. Brian is responsible for cueing the  Maschine along with mixing duties. On the bass guitar front we augment Enrique’s five string with a MOOG “Little Phatty” synthesizer. For live performances the MOOG is sampled and triggered by Szab on a Roland SPD-SX sampler. Szab plays an Oak Yamaha kit with mesh heads, DDrum triggers driving a Roland TD-30 brain. We had to go the whole hog with the TD-30 if we were to have the ability to edit and remix the drums after the recording, and if we were to be recording as master, this was a must. Some drums didn’t take to being electrified. The snare triggers didn’t work well and we reverted to using the stock Roland shells, and the kick proved to have problematic flamming, which caused us to develop our own dampener system for the front and back heads.

Enrique’s basses are mostly five string specials that run through a series of Aguirre boxes and then directly into our Allen & Heath ZED R-16 board. We chose this unit as it sufficed for live also, giving us the ability to send individual mixes to each of the players, while also having a thunderbolt out port for multi track recording.

This then, is our arsenal. We also occasionally use a second Echoplex loop unit to loop spoken word vocal background parts on such songs as Master Strange and Word.

There were four guitar synths used on the album, but only three made the final cut. Stratocaster, Telecaster and 335 types were the mainstay, and a Rickenbacker 12 string was used on Cellmate Confession which was cut at the last minute. Due to extensive rewriting and the somewhat ungainly marriage of a 9/8 verse with a 4/4 chorus I felt the song deserved a chance to develop to its full potential, and a Christmas release plan did not allow for this. Much to the chagrin of Enrique, who’s harmonic laden bass parts were some of his best playing on the record this song will definitely be out there some time next year.. An irreverent spike at L. Ron Hubbard’s gang of loons and the myth of Scientology in general, it cannot stay dark for too long.

 

                                                                     The Artwork

I have always done the artwork myself for all the Third International releases. Somehow it feels an integral part of the work, and something I am attached to. This album was no different in that regard. The front cover photo is a reworked shot of the BBA building in Panama City, Panama. Architecture has always been a big theme, a representation for The Third International. The band was after all named after Tatlin's Tower, the never to be built Politburo HQ for the Russian Bolsheviks. The idea so important that even though its creator knew it would never be accepted, that he would be consigned to a lonely existence outside of the mainstream he had occupied until that time, he designed it anyway. The building used for the front cover of O.B.L.I.V.I.O.N. is associated with the first track, Helix. Its structure is unique set of layers constructed in a helix shape that defies belief. How it stands is a mystery.

 

            The Songs

 

We wanted to make a pop album. The germinating ideas were proving catchy and infectious, and simple enough to stand in their own acceptable space. While the current writing had been heavily influenced by Radiohead and Thom Yorke, nobody would probably detect it. There are bits and pieces of melody, strains of ideas from sources as diverse as Nirvana, Simon & Garfunkel, Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Beck, none of which are readily apparent to the listener. Never having been any good at copying, their influences go through a serious grinder and come out as something different entirely.

 

HELIX:  The album’s opener is a tribute to Kurt Cobain and the rest and their wonderful  work that was “Nevermind”. It’s anthemic thrash pop like the Pretenders on acid. It’s theme is the ultimate bond that exists in all humanity. The common tendencies that bind us all together. The perversions, needs, qualities and faults that define us all. We cannot deny these things. The lines “There’s a window in the wall/Through which we see it all/Take it or leave it” in the last chorus sum it up. No matter how we try to mask our desires, our selfish needs, they play a part in our actions, and to deny that is folly. But sometimes we just cannot communicate that. The opening lines "I got a million different things to say/If the words I made/Are what you'd hear" is a lift from David Foster Wallace's book "Infinite Jest". There are several references to the work in the album and I consider it a seminal piece of modern literature. The track blazes through 3 minutes and 55 seconds like thief with a grab bag, only to crash into the wall of guitars and crash cymbals, sub bass and screams, that rain on the chorus’. The vocals are mixed back in the chorus’ intentionally to define them as an instrument in the raucous electronic orchestra that’s on the loose.

 

LAY DOWN: The song is based around Enrique’s bass progression and is about a trip several of us took when I was a teenager, one weekend when we went to the Welsh coastal town of Aberystwyth. We left Stafford, England and drove through part of the night, stopping at a farmer’s hay barn in the mountains where we rested and made love until the morning. It was a time of first loves, new found freedom, mind expanding drugs, juvenile happiness. But with a realization that this was all transient. A fleeting moment that would be gone forever and we would be cast adrift from this precious haven, to forge our lives in the forbidding unknown that was the future. It’s perspective is one of a certain fatalism, which I confess I do not wholly believe in, and I am only able to contemplate it with the benefit of hindsight. “The future watching closely over you and me” conjures the pervasive, controlling hand of fate somewhere above.

DO IT OVER: Its subject matter is the music business of today. Its venal, superficial quality, and how that actually offers artists an opportunity. By rejecting it outright, we free ourselves from its constraints. It’s about madness, or what passes for madness when nothing normal seems to make sense. 

“I think I’m losing touch now/With the reasons I am here/Maybe it’s bad luck now/To claim the big idea”. But even so, the protagonist is imprisoned by the need to just “Do It Over/Do It Over again”. Musically it is sustained by a multi track MOOG bass loop akin to a Radiohead/King of Limbs idea which flows interestingly into the 3/4 chorus line. It was a challenging song to record and unlike the rest, was pieced together initially. When we went to recreate it live, this produced obvious difficulties, but nevertheless it has proved a very strong live piece.

 

BAROGRAPH:  Is an instrument that records pressure changes. I use it as a euphemism for realizing the stress of modern life. Sometimes uncontrollable anxiety rips through me for no apparent reason and I wish I could somehow measure it as a first step in understanding and maybe controlling it. It is based on Szab’s rhythmic line that he created in the Maschine, which serves as the intro but actually plays through the song. The guitar playing is heavily Jeff Beck influenced and melodically it takes a nice key change from the sweetness of an F#maj7 verse opener to the Dmin of the chorus. The anthemic guitars at the end were all recorded in one session as their life attests. Again looping assists in recreating this live.

 

ANCESTOR DANCE: Was inspired by a scene from the movie of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff”. As the aborigine is standing by his fire in the Tasmanian desert gazing at the night sky, he sees John Glenn’s space capsule in the darkness. A new star moving in a different direction. Intuitively he knows that something has changed forever. The questions of man’s progress and how challenging it is,  is asked here. Flying a lot and looking out at vistas stretching hundreds of miles, I relate heavily to this song, its perspective, its awe. The end coda is a tongue in cheek nod to the club band of aliens in the original “Star Wars” movie, and was originally planned as a simple percussion departure but gained steam when I started fooled around on the MOOG.

 

MASTER STRANGE: It’s a rambling old Victorian house in which I live. It has ghosts, animals, secrets. Usually, around three or four am I will wake up with musical ideas parading themselves and depriving me of sleep. I get up and wander around, occasionally confronted by one of our cats but mostly alone with the shadows. The song is about this strange character who doesn’t bear much resemblance to the daytime me. This soul is unsure about most things except truths that show themselves in the lines of lyric that flow. He is in conflict with voices from the netherworld, who are trying to lure him back into unconsciousness. He fights to shine a light on the ideas that manifest themselves. Some things it seems, are only apparent in the dead of night.

 

I NEVER WOULD HAVE BROUGHT YOU FLOWERS: The love that can never be. To dream of a relationship doomed at the outset. Our protagonist rekindles an old flame, having some exotic escape in mind, only to find that the person on the other side of the conversation finds him as alien as he does her. Time has run on for us both. It is a true, simple pop song. Sweet and luscious it sits apart from the rest of the album as a counterweight to the darker melodies and techno grooves of the other songs. A theme that runs through the record is the inability to ever capture the past. It is always gone. There are some things that fortunately we recognize as once in a lifetime special events, almost too good to remember because they cast into shadow all that follows. 

“The flute song that I thought I heard the piper play/I never would have dreamed the dream if I had known that I would wake today” is a reference to Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book “The Wind In the Willows”, in which the animal characters see the dawn break, and a mystical piper plays a melody so beautiful that the memory of it must be erased from their minds, or they will never know satisfaction again in their lives. 

Sometimes we must forget.

 

CHEMICAL EYES: A previous version, released as a single solo project in 2012 now resurfaces as a bolder, fuller musical statement. Its message, that of questioning the benefits of socially engineering the planet’s energy supply (as a proxy for wealth redistribution,) is more relevant now than ever, given that predictions of doom continue to go unfulfilled. The reason the author is so opposed to the current zeitgeist is not that in and of itself green energy is a bad thing, only that as yet it is totally inadequate and assumes that man has a far greater effect on the planet then he actually does. It satisfies our ego. Minimizes our impotence. I feel the manic pursuit of green energy will create poverty which in turn will create overpopulation and pollution; two things which are destroying the planet faster than burning fossil fuels. In other words, we take our eyes off the ball for political expediency supported by bad science. No politician will currently embrace the idea of population control as a solution to planetary destruction. It is untenable. But to ignore the statistical hypocrisy that masquerades as science, promoted by the researchers sucking at the government tit and calling it “fact” is akin to Nazi book burning of the 1930s. The damage of disinformation is another philosophical thread that courses through these verses.

 

LIAR: She was the most beautiful woman in the room. In the world. And she knew it. She was the ultimate bitch. A masochistic excursion voyaged after years of living alone, damaged by the loss of a true love, the protagonist undertakes this doomed relationship, knowing that it will end in catastrophe but valuing it all the same, just to see if he can still feel. It explores how and why people lie. We all do it. Some are just better qualified than others. It is a song about the living contradictions within us all. We wish to be one thing but become another. "I show it all just to keep from prying eyes",  hiding our shortcomings in plain sight. It is a nod of recognition to one of the great writers of our time, Jeanette Winterson, and her book "Art and Lies", which I pick up every few years and immerse myself in.                                                                                                                                                                                     Chemical Eyes and Liar take the album to a different place, sonically, with the introduction of acoustic rhythm guitars on heavier grooves.

 

WORD: A thumb at the nose of hip hop, where specious materialism goes unchallenged and masquerades as real. The lies of religion. Politicians. Wall Street. Lawyers: 

“First there was the Book

And then there was the truth

And then there was the word”, 

Information sources. Scientists with preconceived agendas:

“It must be so

‘Cos Google says it is so”, 

disinformation in general. The truth is, we only have ourselves to blame, and it is our collective mental laziness, our refusal to question everything because we “don’t have the time/don’t feel like it/everybody else seems to be OK with it/why bother? etc etc” that allows these manipulative airs to breathe. "It's so hard to do due diligence/Try and make it all make sense" We are inundated with rumors and opinions masquerading as facts. A collective dissociation from reality ensues. The growth of conspiracy theories runs amok. This is the information age. Just not filled with true or accurate information. 

FORMALDEHYDE: Sometimes you just get lucky. You hit on something unique. You have no idea where it came from but out it pops. If nobody seems to get it that’s OK because you know that financial success has never been a valid determination of artistic worth. So maybe you internalize things. But all the same, there is this desire to have a legacy, to

“Leave something behind”

forever preserved like an embryo in a jar, for some future generation to gawk at. Maybe even be inspired by. It’s a personal song where the author riles against the conformities society demands, disdains its lack of imagination but accepts its inexorable route to the sea

“It just keeps on goin’

Like a river it is flowin’

To the sea and never knowin'

Atrophy or is it growin’

Does it show you where to hide?

Formaldehyde”, though there may be no answers provided by this effort at trying to communicate.

So even though there may be some ostensible plan to this all, it really is the random escape of artistic impulses.

 

 

The album ebbs and flows, rises and falls with each section. Some songs sequed, others standing alone in the collection, creating depth to this sonic painting. We hope you like it and get to appreciate it in its totality, as a story in and of itself and as the final act of the trilogy.

 

AP

December 2015