Monday, 7 November 2016

#77. Monsters – Jackson, Doc, Dave, Brooke & Amanda

Brooke Altmann: backing vocals, percussion
Amanda Barley: backing vocals, percussion
Jackson McLaren: vocals, guitar
Matt Neal: bass, backing vocals, percussion
Dave Yates: backing vocals, percussion

Music and lyrics by Daniel Kirk, Jackson McLaren, Matt Neal and Dave Yates.
Written September or October 2007.
Recorded at The Shed, October 20 and November 30, 2007.
Additional recording at Princess Street, 2008.
Produced and mixed by Matt Neal.

I’ve been looking forward to this one.

While preparing this overly ambitious and unnecessarily thorough blog, I dug back through hundreds of computer files and discs, searching for every song that was good enough to show to the public. There were a lot that weren’t (and they will never see the light of day) but among the pile was some decent stuff (about 150 tracks and counting).

There were songs buried in the lost corners of hard drives and rewriteable CDs that no one outside of the creators had heard before. Some of them were gems that made me really excited about undertaking this project.

You’ve heard some of these already. I was stoked that people would finally get to hear Magicians, the song that was left off the first 80 Aces EP, as well as all the old electro stuff I did in the late ‘90s-early ‘00s (there’s more of that to come). The idea that people would finally get to hear the kooky and largely unreleased wonders of 21st Century Ox for the first time was pretty cool. And then there were solo home-recorded tracks like Chinese Whispers and Dancing In The Station that I was quietly proud of and had never shown anyone (aside from one or two special people).

But one of the tunes that got me the most jazzed about this project was this one. Monsters was compiled over three wonderfully drunken sessions that were as much about having fun with fantastically creative people as they were about making a song. Recollections are hazy and largely non-existent, but the facts (as largely gleaned from file time stamps) are these:

The fact that this shot of Daniel Kirk and I was taken at dawn
should give some indication as to why recollections are hazy.

Sometime in September or October 2007, Daniel Kirk, Jackson McLaren, Dave Yates and I gathered at The Shed, which was the rehearsal space The Extreme Sprinklers shared with The Chosen Few behind what is now Reunion. We were armed with a few guitars and a large quantity of very cheap-and-nasty bottles of red wine and over the course of a couple of hours, we nutted out the words and music to this song. The chords and melodies were largely Jackson’s creation - even back then, when he was still but a young lad, he could just shit out the most incredible musical ideas like it was nothing. Looking at the chord structure in hindsight, it feels kind of Bowie-esque, and for some bizarre reason it’s a nine-bar progression. I remember having trouble figuring out the bass line because of the extra bar.

Me trying to figure out how Jackson is playing upside-down guitar.

Here’s Jackson “Left-handed” McLaren:

“I remember playing a right-handed acoustic guitar upside down that my art teacher Mrs Morgan gave me from the art store room at Warrnambool College. It was a prop for still life drawing and it was a terrible guitar to play! I think that's partly why the guitar sounds a bit clunky but it kind of works for the song.”

It always blew my mind that Jackson could play a right-handed guitar upside-down just as well as he could play a left-handed guitar right-way-up. It only occurred to me recently that the guitar sound on this track is a bit different - I suspect Jackson playing upside-down might be part of the reason for that, as well as the quality of the guitar itself and the natural reverb of the big room he was playing in.

Jackson and I.

The lyrics are a true collaboration, with the idea being of writing a song from the point of view of Frankenstein’s monster (or some such terrifying creature), who would perceive the people chasing him as the real monsters. Kirky, Jackson and Dave all have a fantastic way with words and we pieced this together from lines we’d all come up with. I was of the belief the lyrical idea was Dave’s, but Dave reckons it was Jackson’s.

“It was a strange sensation seeing people 'whittle down' this idea that McLaren brought in - refining this vague sense of monsters and townspeople and chords and harmony parts until we'd laid the idea bare,” Dave said.

“Then to watch a group of creative personalities plug into the idea and start shaving pieces off, or glueing pieces on, or re-arranging the parts ... these weird disagreements about the feel that the song needed to have to convey the idea, where people were presenting an opinion on a half-formed, intuitively felt sense of how to move forward. (We were) like a bunch of excited kids with a Meccano set, no instructions and this deeply pleasing sense of watching this thing emerge between the tension of people's ideas and agreements and additions and contradictions and corrections.

“I felt like a third wheel for most of the process, but at the same time priviliged to be part of the musical birthing process. Or maybe this was the flirting and first date make-out. (It) was the first time I'd ever been part of a musical collaboration where someone brought in a brand new idea. Just for context, I had no musical knowledge, didn't play an instrument and was basically just along for the Stones Green Ginger Wine and good times.”

Good times with Dave.

A few weeks later, we all returned to the shed (Kirky may or may not have been there, I can’t recall) to try and record the song. Jackson laid down his guitar and vocals, I added some bass and a few of us had a go at laying down the drum track (which was played on a deeply de-tuned floor tom). The session began around 10pm and we were all too smashed to do anything further by 1am.

Was Kirky there? Who knows?

We then returned about a month later (at the far more civil time of 7.45pm) and put down the group singalong. I don’t think Kirky was there but Amanda Barley and Brooke Altmann were.

Jackson and Brooke.

Here’s Amanda:

“I remember drinking Stones, and Doc doing his impression of Michael J. Fox ... aaaaand that's about it. Oh and Jackson passing out on the couch.”

“It was way past my bedtime,” Jackson said.

Amanda and I.

Here’s Dave again:

“When we recorded, I was part of singing back up and I remember feeling my way nervously and quietly through the song until the very end when I saw a place to make a noise, and it seemed like a good place for a noise, and I had an idea for a noise that would fit there just right, and I made a noise and it came out just like I'd felt it and it felt deeply right to make that noise.”

Dave is, of course, referring to his “wooooo” at the end of the song, which I had to leave in the mix because it kind of summed up the vibe of the whole process and it would have made Dave sad if I’d cut it out.

A few months after that “wooooo”, I added the missing guitar solo (not a very good one mind you) and had the first of many cracks at mixing it. Every few years I would go back and have another go at mixing, trying to utilise the production tricks I’d learnt in between attempts. The first mix was very clean, but later I went and put back in the chatter at the start to better capture the feeling of the recording. I also ramped up the harmonies throughout and dug out a cool percussion loop made by everyone banging on bottles and tables and junk lying around.

It was a drunken time.

This track was something of a high point in a very creative (and very drunken) time. It was around this point I was playing drums with Kirky in SS Radio, Dave and I wrote a couple of songs together, and so did Jackson and I. This was the only collaboration involving Dave and I to be recorded, but maybe another will be recorded in the near future. Meanwhile Jackson and I went on to write Anniversary together, plus a few others lost to the mists of time. He also played a major part in writing and demoing an 80 Aces song which you’ll hear a lot further down the blog line.

Overall, the recording of Monsters is pretty scrappy (check out the shitty playback in the background of the end singalong) yet surprisingly good for the shoddy drunken conditions (one mic, no pre-amps, dodgy laptop, an excess of wine and Stones). I’m kinda surprised this even got recorded to be honest - I suspect Jackson’s level-headedness and top notch skills anchored the whole thing pretty well.

Jackson and I, older and soberer.

Here’s Jackson again:

“Just had a listen to the song and it transported me back to the old shed - Stones Green Ginger wine, lots of cigarettes, the Doctor’s songwriting notebook, the keenness I felt for 'hunting' down a song, and most importantly the wonderful company and friendship of those wild musical adventures.”

And with the last word, here’s Dave:

“(Monsters was) the first time I saw how this weird musical intuition that you feel in your waters translates through the math of music into all this amazing sound that we have in the world. I think that was probably when I got hooked.”


Wrap the field around me like a blanket in my bed
Where I am warm
And I feel safe

From the people with pitchforks and their torches burning
Angry glow
But they can't see me

Maybe I'm the monster but they seem like monsters to me
Maybe they're
Not looking for me

They wrap their arms around me in a not-so-friendly way
Then they say
"We've got you now!"

They won't say what I've done so how can I make amends
They take me to the square and this is where it ends

There's no such thing as monsters
No such thing