Friday, 14 February 2014

#34. Erstwhile – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker – bass.
Harry Fahey – drums, keyboards.
Matt Hewson – saxophone.
Brendan Hoffmann – guitar, backing vocals.
Matt Neal – vocals, guitar.
Richard Tankard – keyboards.

Lyrics by Matt Neal.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2000/2001?
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, 2002.
Produced and mixed by Tony Peel and Harry Fahey.

Happy Valentine's Day! Here's a break-up song!

While 21st Century Ox was in its enthusiastic heyday, bassist Dion Barker, guitarist Brendan Hoffmann and myself would catch up on an almost-daily basis to jam, write songs, and just generally hang out.

On one of those days, Hoffa showed me a chord progression he’d come up with. I immediately loved it and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I driving home, so I raced inside and wrote a song using the chords. At the time it seemed reminiscent of the verse of the Ben Folds Five song Evaporated although I didn’t think about that too much then (I’m pretty sure now that it’s actually the exactly same progression from the start of Evaporated, just with a slightly different feel).

I didn’t give any consideration to whether Hoffa was going to do something with the progression (and I’ve since apologised about borrowing his chords without asking). But in hindsight it seemed a bit wussy for him – I usually wrote the wussy, emo ballads in the band, and he wrote the cool, weird, dark stuff.

The end result was Erstwhile – a song so wussy that I considered not including it in Doc’s Anthology (but that felt too much like cheating). Listening back to it, it is what it is - it’s an angsty piece of self-loathing, woe-is-me balladry of the “why have I been dumped?” variety.

Here's 21st Century Ox looking angsty and "why have I been dumped?".

Looking at the timeline of my life, I’m not even sure if I had been dumped prior to the time of writing (it’s possible, but I can’t be sure). What I do remember about writing the song was that it came together in a matter of minutes and that the lyrics were all based around a word I’d just learnt the meaning of: “erstwhile” (which means "former"). I think I picked it up from a crossword.

So, rather carelessly, I threw together a bunch of lines that overused the word “erstwhile” so much it had almost lost all meaning by the end of the song. I was kinda surprised when Hoffa told me recently that he really liked the lyrics, particularly the line “all the songbirds that sang and flew have left and flown”. I guess it has a nice ring to it syllabically and image-wise, but the whole thing sounds like a bit of rush-job, in hindsight.

The song was a regular in the 21st Century Ox setlist, usually as a down-tempo breather between the harder, more abrasive songs (it was also in dropped D tuning so it usually fit into the ‘dropped D’ part of our set). It made it into the recording session for our unreleased second album, where we turned the epic up to 11 and called in Richard Tankard to add some keyboards.

There is at the end of set two on this setlist from The Cellar (dated May 24, 2002).

Here’s Dion:

“I barely remember ever hearing that recording, but to be honest I think we were trying a little too hard with that one,” he said.

“I always hated the fact that we couldn't find or afford a real string section for those recordings. Yeah, we did well to come up with the piano and string lines, but they do sound very synthetic.

“The song itself, on the other hand, was one I always enjoyed playing. The fact that it goes from such a slow and ‘pretty’ start to build into a full-on, all-in outro again shows how we were able to show diversity in our songs. I wish it was a longer song!

“But if I had my time again, I'd love to re-record that song. I always wanted to sing a third harmony in it, too. We should have gone for a five-part harmony instead of the fake strings! Nothing wrong with epic, I think it just tries too hard to be epic without a real need to.”

Here's Dion, trying hard not to be too epic.

Personally, I like the epic outro. The mix is a bit messy, which doesn't help, but there are some great ideas and vibe in there.

Here’s drummer Harry Fahey:

“That’s me on the piano at the start and Richard Tankard doing string pads (on the keyboard) in the outro,” he said in response to my enquiries as to who was playing what.

“Also, I didn't remember ‘til now that the entire track has the snare bed (that’s the ‘wires’ (under the snare) to the lay-drummer) turned off. Gives it a big cavernous sound at the end.

“Not a bad mix I thought. It would be the working mix that was being updated every listen, but it hasn't had the final touches put on yet. Overall a good track, bit loose on the tempo reins but suits the vibe.”

Here's Harry at the desk in Motherlode Studios, not putting the final touches on the mix.

And finally, here's guest keyboardist Richard Tankard:

"Similarly vague memory to the last track I was (apparently) on - but it must've happened," he said.

"Sounds like the quite-wonderful-for-its-time Ensoniq TS10, before they went out business.  I still own the keyboard though, it lives on.  I think I'm noodling around with single electric piano notes at the start.  I'm a sucker for repetitive outro lines, in this case, string ones. You want repetitive? Just give me a call.

"It's Harry doing chords, but there's a 2nd electric piano doing single notes (plus a slight jazz chordal moment) on top of those chords. Sounds like me to me."

Here's Tank, sounding like Tank. PIC: South West TAFE

So there you have it – another of Ox’s soft and wussy songs, written by me. Harry and Dion used to love miming along to me singing the opening verse, which put me off no end. There’s a reasonably amusing rehearsal recording of us doing the song where I have to stop part-way through the start ‘cos I’m slowly losing my shit while Harry and Dion copy me, but I’m not going to post it because it sounds so inebriated as to be almost unlistenable. But we were that kind of band.


I'm an erstwhile lover again
It's becoming a regular occurrence
Time continues to tick away
The erstwhile seconds of an erstwhile day

And I try to understand
Why I fail and what you demand
What I need to retain comman
And why I'm an erstwhile lover again

An erstwhile garden sits lost and overgrown
All the songbirds that sang and flew have left and flown
All that's left in the trees is dead wood

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