Song Sources: The [very, very late] FAWM 2021 Wrap-Up (Part 1)

This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on Pirate A.M. Waves. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Better late than never this time around: I forgot even to update my home page with the new album, I was so focused on announcing the release on YouTube and Bandcamp.

Covert art by my dad:

Pirate A.M. Waves

Lyrics

F Bb C
Sleep on the gravel like you planned
F Bb C
And in the backseat when you can’t
F Bb F C
Watching as the stars like birds in a vee
Bb F
Set and finely disappear

Chorus
F Bb C
If you wander then you’ll see
F Bb C
Those who disappear are free
F Bb F C
But I’ll be damned if they couldn’t be saved
Bb F
Hearing pirate AM waves

In a little church on 35
They sit and they pray for afterlife
And what you called the endless day by day
Called a different word for pain

Somewhere near nowhere and free will
Fighting through static and the still
Hidden in the sea of amber waves of grain
Sings pirate AM waves

This was the 10th song I wrote for the month, but I moved it first as I thought it was a good signal for the album’s themes.

This is a someone (in my head, a trucker, but it doesn’t actually matter) out on the road somewhere along I35 in the endless expanse of tremendously little known as the great plains trying absolutely desperately to find hope in anything. They try to find it in nature, by sleeping out under the stars one night, and in a little roadside church, but finally for some perhaps completely inexplicable reason find it in a broadcast from a pirate radio station, the only thing that they can get on the dial of their radio.

There were a bunch of things that led to this one, but I started reading about Pirate Radio a little after it was mentioned in a Tom Scott video. My site leader at work also mentioned that he was getting his ham radio operator’s license, which is kinda interesting (and apparently it’s much easier now because they don’t need to know Morse code anymore).

The song’s not about radio, exactly, and I’m not totally sure I even really explain why this makes me feel what it does (I guess this is why we write stories … to express things we can’t express otherwise, right?). I’ve never listened to a pirate radio station, but I was thinking: Terrestrial radio was declared dead not too long ago, and yet it’s almost certainly going to outlive television. And even if it does disappear, there’s this little group of people who would commandeer the now-empty space for their own purposes, and sometimes just to talk with other people who have a two-way radio. 

Arrangement and Recording

The arrangement is something of a word painting: It starts out sparse to reflect the loneliness of the narrator, and opens up at the end as they finally feel a connection with the rest of the world. When I initially recorded the song, it had no full-band outro, and it bothered me for a few days until I finally decided to get off my duff and craft the full arrangement. One of the main challenges for me was figuring out how much I could telegraph that other instruments were coming; in the end I decided that a couple bass notes, a really low organ, and a handful of nudges on the cymbals could hint that there was more to come. The track opens wide up on the last bars of the final song.

The chords are fairly simple, built around a I–IV-I-V cadence in F, played in D with the capo on the third fret. It’s a similar structure in the chorus, with a slight vocal change.

For the electric lead guitar, it took a while to work out some of the weaving between the acoustic that was already there, and the run at 3:04 proved to be challenging for me with a pick (which I don’t use very often for lead) in this key. The drum part was fresh in my mind from having practiced some train beats, and it happened to fit very well, but it still took several takes to really get the dynamics right: The song has to build in a only a minute to something even bigger once the whole band is in.

Gear

I purposely limited my recording techniques to focus on the arrangements and lyrics this time around, so I set up a template for myself and stuck to it for the entire month.

The voice and acoustic were recorded at the same time, which is true for almost all the acoustic tracks on the album. I used my ELA251 build for the vocal, which I’ve decided is probably the best choice for my voice when I don’t want to sound super vintage-y. It’s set up to be about 19″ away from the guitar. The acoustic is a small Japanese-made guitar my dad gave me in January 2020 with flatwounds on it, miced about 19″ from the 12th fret with a FET “C12” style mic I built (there’s a video journal of that build on my YouTube channel). Since the two mics are equidistant from the guitar, I don’t have a lot of phase issues to deal with, and it makes the sound a little richer. The vocal went through the ART Pro MPAII into one of the channels of the stereo 1176 on a low ratio, while the acoustic went through a FET preamp I built.

The electric is the Don Quixotecaster through the Sakura 5W amp, miced close with an RE20 right up on the grill and about 24″ away with tube microphone build (it’s got a U47 style Heisserman capsule, but the circuitry a modified C12). This is the same arrangement for every song on the album, except in a couple cases where I played the red telecaster as the second electric guitar. The tube mic went through the other channel of the 1176, also on a low ratio; since I also use a compressor pedal, in general this arrangement keeps me from needing to use any compression in post unless I’m doing transient shaping to seat the guitar in the mix.

The drumkit is also the same throughout the month: It’s a Natal Ash 18/12/14 kit with modern Aquarian vintage heads, a 17″ Istanbul sultan crash, an Istanbul traditional 15″ crash on the left, and a Meinl 20″ medium pure alloy. I used a spaced pair overheads technique described in this post, along with kick and snare close mics.

The bass is my Epiphone viola bass (pickups wound by John Benson), through a germanium preamp I built a while back. I didn’t use an amp sim most of the time, but I did use an amp-like EQ setting.

The keys are just the organ patch on the FP-5, using Logic’s built-in rotary simulator. Works every time! I did actually get a midi cable for the keyboard intending to use it, but most of the time I just stick to what I know here.

I’m Sorry, Jay

Lyrics

| F/Bb F | Csus4 F
There’s things I forget
| F/Bb F | Csus4 F
Like how we had met
| Bb Dm7 | Csus4 C |
I’m slow to remember the way on my own
| F/Bb F | Csus4 F
I flew an inch while
| F/Bb F | Csus4 F
You flew for miles
| F/Bb F | Csus4 F
And not for the last time
| Bb Dm7 | Csus4 C |
You spent a year in the desert while I stayed home

Chorus
| Bb | F
I’m sorry, Jay
| Bb | F
Let’s go out to play
| Bb | F Csus4
Forget what I said and forget the
| C | Bb [ | F ]
Why I can’t promise I would but I’d try

You were a few steps faster,
your hands always smarter
One trip round this circle can’t be to blame
I grew an inch while
you grew a year
And drew me winter in Phoenix and
sandstone in summer while I stayed the same

A few years after
I took the alleyway home
Behind your old rental and leaned on the fence
Your mom asked me what’s wrong
I couldn’t look up for long
I guess I didn’t think to ask why
you hadn’t told me you’d even moved there again

This was the first song I wrote for the month.

In 5th grade, my best friend moved to Phoenix for a year. He wrote me more letters than I wrote him, and when he came back to Baltimore he was much more grown up than I was, and I don’t think our friendship ever quite recovered, maybe because I wasn’t a great friend at 11 years old.

My main reason for writing this is because there are friends who I’m sure I didn’t talk to often enough the pandemic, and maybe I should work on being a better friend.

Tooting my own horn of course, but I’m quite proud of “I grew and inch while you grew a year.”

Arrangement and Recording

This was the first drum part I’d written from scratch on the kit (rather than programming or describing a part to a drummer). It’s pretty simple, but I was pretty chuffed that I got it in only a few takes. I didn’t get anything else so quickly for the rest of the month.

The guitar part was mainly built around a descending pattern in the bass. I’m sure I’ve used similar patterns in the past, and there’s nothing special going on with the guitar pattern — when it’s the first song of the month, usually you just need something to get the gears going.

I did go back later in the month and re-record part of the vocals, because I was pretty shaky on the exact melody until fairly late on in the session. Since I spent most of the month recording the acoustic and vocals together, this also meant redoing the acoustic. It felt a little surreal to think that the drum part ended up being the part of the recording that was smooth sailing.

The acoustic is my Larrivee Koa D-5; everything else was the same as on the title track.

You may notice that the snare sounds strange. The snare throughout the month was running through a germanium preamp, and one quirk of germanium is that its behavior fluctuates with temperature changes. In this case, it was causing some pretty noticeable distortion. There’s a small control inside the preamp for me to get it back to normal, which is why subsequent tracks don’t sound like this, but I decided to roll with it for this track because I thought it sounded cool and different. (Not everyone agrees with me on that! Tim from Midway Fair described it merely as “different,” with no “cool” elaboration.)

Spirit Bear

Lyrics

“You must go alone,
for no one would follow you yet.
You must understand you might not return.
That’s why your mother was crying
when you told her what you planned”
The frozen branches bent low
kissed the surface of the snow
Green beneath the white
hidden like the fish beneath the ice
Hunting knife stowed, frost on his hair
determined to take the spirit from the lair

Moving slow from the wind
along the mountainside
Where broken branches like bones were laid
Not a call from the crows, no startled deer
was it safe or had he scared them away?
From empty den to empty den
for three days and then
At last he found a trace
a trail in the brief-melted ice
But the bear woke even in the dead
and the spirit stood waiting ahead

Three miles down the slope
he found a hole in the snow
The setting sun shining on his hunting knife
Made from broken scorched stone
but never intended to defend a life
And he steeled himself with pride
but the spirit was starved
And when blood stained the snow,
if it was his he didn’t know
But in a miracle unharmed,
he picked himself up, and returned home a man

Someone got us a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine this Christmas (it turned out to be my parents in law), and there’s an article in the January issue about archeaology in Yellowstone, which was tribal land and inhabited for millenia until the U.S. took it as a National Park and spent the next several decades insisting that it was a wilderness where no people lived. There’s a very evocative paragraph about finding weapons (made from obsidian mined in the area) in what were bear dens, and how this is a practice that occurs wherever bears are found: Young men (“It’s always young men”) who are, and I am quoting, “really stupid”, go off to hunt a bear while it’s sleeping. An aspect of it that crosses cultures is that the purpose of the hunt is to take the bear’s spirit for strength. The practice has actually continued to the current day in some parts of the world, though I imagine the spiritual nature of it has disappeared. (Apparently there are even videos on YouTube but I am not sure I’m interested in seeing that …)

I made the song at least somewhat culturally ambiguous, but in my head it takes place in a place at least like Yellowstone.

Arrangement and Recording

The chords are interesting enough that I’m going to put them here:

(Instrumental parts)
D F#m/C# | Bmb6 A
G#maj7sus4 C#maj7 | C#dim7 | F# A7

(Verses)
| D Dmaj7 | D Dmaj7
| D F#m/C# | Bmb6 A
| D F#m/C# | Bmb6 A
| D F#m/C# | Bmb6 A
| D F#m | Bmb6 A
| D Em | F# Bm
| C#dim7 F# | A7 A7sus2

This chord progression took a while for me to finish to find the right level of tension, because the song has to communicate from the start the peaceful snow-covered winter and the hidden danger coming at the end of the song. As strange as some of the chord names are, they aren’t weird for the sake of weird. The intro walks down a full D scale, with a little chromatic addition from the G# (the C#maj7 is actually played with the G# in the bass). The same pattern is used for the two instrumental interludes played further up the neck. For the verses, I stick with the descending parts until the end, when it briefly rises to lend an air of dread by incorporating the relative harmonic minor scale.

This was the only song that I rerecorded from scratch after the end of the month; I had originally recorded the guitar and vocal at the same time, without a click, and messed up the second instrumental part. The delay turned out to be enough like a metronome that I was actually able to use the original take as a scratch vocal, though, because the timing was almost perfect on the verses! The primary impetus behind rerecording the song, though, was that it was longer and I wanted to be able to make cleaner cuts on the grid and improve the vocal. The final version had a much better flow and fewer “dead spots” in the arrangement where the listener’s mind can wander and lose track of the story.

(We’re All a Loser) At the End of the Game

Lyrics

A D A
Hey, what’s your poison? Well what’s the point,
A B7 E
Just another loser in this run-down joint
A D A
Some folks get high but I’m going low
E A
They outta make a movie cause it’s a hell of a show

I played my cards and I lost it all
Shoulda known to fold and known when to call
They tossed me out and they called me a bum
So I’ll drink me a river full of bourbon and rum

Chorus
D A
We’ve all got problems, well, ain’t it a shame
D E
Even the lucky get tired of of fortune and fame
D F#m
Well here’s the secret, man, we’re all the same
E /F# /G# A
We’re all a loser at the end of the game

Verse 3
Well that fella over there with the thinning grey hair
He’s been fighting to divorce the old concessionaire
And the waitress is working for her 15 percent,
But she’ll let you kiss her if you’ll help her rent

Chorus

Verse 4
Now finding hope might take a kick in the ass
Some folk’s’ll say you can’t find it at the bottom of a glass
But you keep looking ’til a quarter to two
Until we all get there we’ll just muddle on through

My only liner notes for this when I released it were “When in doubt, go back to your roots.” I have a thing, let’s say, for goofy over-the-top depressing country songs, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I like the take on that trope that Tom Waits and some others did early in their careers. I had a few things in the back of my head while I was writing this, one of which was Waits’s “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” with its evocative description of aging barflies in the 70s:

The other was Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” to some extend.

There’s always a danger with a song like this that the listener just misses the sarcasm, which is to say that I’m not doing my job well enough when singing it. But the song’s maybe not completely hopeless. I personally find a little comfort in the idea that we’re all worm food eventually. Why bother thinking you’re a loser if everyone around you isn’t going to care once they’re in the grave, too?

Not exactly the most original though on the album, but it’s still worth saying I s’pose.

The first two verses are the fellow who walks into the bar and lays his problems at the foot of the barkeep, who takes over from the first chorus onward.

Arrangement and Recording

here aren’t really any surprises in the arrangement, or even the tune, but that made this a fairly easy song to record.

I worked a bit on the vocal to start with; it’s a fairly low part for me but getting the completely relaxed — even lazy — energy level made it pretty easy to pull off. I think this had the fewest vocal takes of any full-band song on the album, come to think of it. The line that gave me the most trouble was the spoken “You’ll keep looking …” in the last verse. You know when someone starts talking in a song that it’s serious time, but I remember having trouble getting the line to come off with just the right attitude. You have to imagine that the bartender’s heard complaints like this before, so it needs a little apathy, but not too much because the patron has to think you care.

I had hardly practiced with brushes at all, so when someone actually complimented me on the drunken feel of the drums, all I could think of is that sometimes it pays to be a rank amateur.

A Million Tons of Steel

Lyrics

E
They said if you can hear it
Then you’re already dead
A
They said if you can hear it
Then you’re already dead
B5 D5 C5
Keep an eye out at dawn
B5 A E
For white trails in the red

A million of steel
And a million tons of lead
They’ll have mined the whole earth
Just to drop it on my head

They’ll pack it in rockets
And pack it in planes
We’ll have gunpowder for dirt
And iron for rain

Despite being such a simple song lyrically, there’s a lot of heavy baggage behind the words: This was inspired by an Atlas Obscura article (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/kinmen-knives), from which I learned about the Taiwan Strait Crisis (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Taiwan_Strait_Crisis). A half million bombs were dropped on a relatively small area of Taiwan in a months-long shelling.

Arrangement and Recording

With so few lyrics to work with to get the point across and a simple blues riff for the structure, any interest musically needed to come from atmosphere. Really I just wanted to avoid repeating myself — I did the minor blues riff-driven thing twice already with the Baltimericana song “Can’t Swim in the Harbor” and the 2015 FAWM song “Dry Town.” I had U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” in mind when I added the multiple delay-drenched slide guitars, and to some extent REM’s “Orange Crush” when I added the intro, but the noises at the beginning are shamelessly ripped off from the way Joe Scala created an airplane crash for our 2015 collabs with Mosno.

Somewhat ironically, after being ever so careful for years to avoid programming drums that require a third arm, I overdubbed the ride cymbal on the guitar solos, so you need a third arm to play these live drums! The snare sound on this one, again, sounds a little different: It’s a “big fat snare,” which is really just a vinyl ring that you lay on a drum head. I bought mine, but you can make them pretty easily by cutting up a used-up drumhead. It kills all the overtones, which makes the drum sound naturally gated, but the more interesting result is that under a microphone it makes the snare sound distorted. I had originally intended the part to stay super sparse like it is in the beginning, but the ending needed some added chaos, so the snare gets busier there.

For this track the distortion is just the fuzz face variant on my board. The Don Quixotecaster is doing the main guitar while the red tele is all the color and slide tracks. The bass is actually distorted in post production, using the Saturation Knob plugin.

Though there are several guitars and I multi-tracked the vocals (they’re LRC), this track ended up being very easy to mix. It’s one of the few tracks where I didn’t have to struggle mightily with the lower frequencies. Part of what helped is the ultimately sparse arrangement — there’s lots of space in the guitar and bass parts, and the quarter notes on the hi-hat leaves plenty of room for everything else.

The riff is played like this (over the E chord, the pattern over the A chord is the same but moved over one string):

E----------------------------
B----------------------------
G----------------------------
D---------2p0----------------
A-------------2p0---------2--
E-0---0h3---------0---0h3----

I Dreamed a Fire (Candle Magic)

Lyrics

Fmaj7 G | Am G | Fmaj7 G | Am G |

F9 Fmaj7 |
Hey, flame
C Am |
Come hold back the night
F | G
Hear a small prayer in the
Am7/G G | Am7/G Am
quiet and cold
F9 Fmaj7 |
I’ll hang all the same
C | Am
Joan of Arc burned alive
| F | G
The devil wed fire to any who didn’t
| Am7/G G | Am7/G G
do as they’re told

Chorus
| F | G | F | C
I dreamed a fire in the winter’s sky
| F | Fsus2 | G G/C G/B | Am
Her breath on the coals I dreamed a fire

Hey, flame
Come hold back the cold
Set a small light in the
heart of the shamed
If I knew the way
The rope would not hold
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
The world’ll awake

This was my “oracle” challenge — I was given the “Candle Magic” tarot card as the springboard for a song topic. The tarot deck it’s from was witch-themed and the card mentions healing through forgiveness if I recall correctly.

This is a young woman accused of being a witch on the day before her execution by hanging (the witches in Salem were hung, not burned). The lyrics waffle between anger and a desire to forgive her accusers because that’s what she’s supposed to do. (One of the weird things about the witch trials is that some of the people actually believed they were guilty of what the accusations.)

Arrangement and Recording

This was the most difficult arrangement on the album. I had the tune fairly early on, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted the song to feel. I initially tried a version in waltz time, which I hated listening back the next day: It really dragged and just sounded mournful, losing the sense of defiance from the lyrics. I had some issues with the 4/4 feel at first because I thought that with the chord progression it made the song sound a little too much like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” but I plowed ahead because it’s FAWM and you can’t fix everything.

There was a second challenge involved in this song — my voice teacher challenged me to write a song that starts in falsetto but is mixed voice most of the time. Since this involves the techniques we’ve been working on going on two years now, it’s probably no surprise that it was one of the more difficult vocals for me to record, taking a couple dozen takes and numerous single-line patches to finally get right.

The truth is while I like where the song itself ended up, the drum part is a mess and mars the recording. The crash cymbals are out of balance, and I was extremely amateurish about their placement and texture. I think a real drummer could have gotten the part to sound more cohesive. I think close mics on the drums would have let me hide the issues with the cymbals, but I didn’t have the extra inputs without rewiring everything.

Stay tuned for side 2! Part 2 here.

One response

  1. […] This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on Pirate A.M. Waves. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists. (Part 1 here.) […]

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