Dead Weight

These notes are taken from my LiveJournal as they were originally posted in 2006.

Part One:
For a while now we've been playing with the idea of adding voices to some of the Larvae songs. It's a concept we've avoided (more to the point, that I've avoided) because of past experiences with bands, singers, and the difficulty of pulling music together in a group setting. When a band is on, when the members are working together and on the same page, there's probably nothing more rewarding than that. Knowing that you are a part of something bigger, better than what you could do on your own, and knowing that what you're doing is helping to inspire someone else, and to simultaneously BE inspired by your friends is really a pretty amazing experience, and it beats playing music by yourself with a computer 99% of the time.

On the other hand, when a band is at odds; when things aren't level; when interpersonal politics come in to play; when someone has a crisis that the others in the band don't share, or when someone wants more, needs less, takes more, gives less; when people in a band fall in love, or out of it--all of that can be maddening. Larvae was started waaaaaay back in 1997 as my way of working without a band. It was supposed to be music without voices, without a collective of ideas and influences, and something that could just be whatever I wanted for it to be. Over time, of course, that's changed.

This weekend, it changed a lot more.

After many months of trying to set something up, talking through emails and trying to connect, we were finally able to get a vocal session recorded for the new album. Truth be told, we've gotten some terrific vocal contributions in the mail from people who've been kind enough to work with us, and that stuff is wonderful. But being in the studio with people, recording voices over a track that already has a guest guitarist on it, it all started feeling much more like a band than a single-producer with lots of help type project. That's not to say that Larvae IS a band now, beyond Chris and I, but it sure is interesting to think about the possibilities.

I spent Saturday evening recording the amazingly talented Campbell sisters from hope for agoldensummer over a track I had written with them in mind called "Airplanes". Most people familiar with this journal through Larvae will probably never have heard of hope... since they are a band from Athens, Georgia that's about as far away in sound from something like our last 12" as anyone could possibly be. But that should change, and I don't mean it should change because it will change when people hear the next Larvae record--I mean it SHOULD change because theirs is a band and a sound that has, without wandering into too much hyperbole, really changed my life.

I know a lot of folks who make music. Most of my friends are musicians, in fact, and most people who might read this either are musicians themselves or are involved with music in some way. As people trying to make art/music, I think we can all agree that it can sometimes be easy to get stuck in an easy path that's guided by a million things, but not your heart. It can be easy to make cooler beats, or heavier basses, or funnier videos, or if not easy, those can at least be the motivations that drive our work at times. With success (even the very modest kind that we've been priviliged to achieve,) comes an even bigger temptation to play into expectations--to give people what they want, with a modicum of invention and re-engineered ideas to keep it interesting to ourselves. Of course we'd never do anything we didn't believe in, and I hope that most folks I know are the same, but there are things that you believe in, and then things that you are absolutely compelled to do.

When I say that hope for agoldensummer changed my life, I mean it sincerely in the sense that seeing them play in December 2004 and subsequently listening to their album about a thousand times gave me a new sense of purpose with this whole music thing. I also mean it in the sense that I learned so much about what I was doing wrong and about how I was approaching music just from watching and listening to them, that I wonder sometimes what I've been doing for the last few years.

I know that not everyone reading this will 'get it' or be moved the way I was by this band (see my review of their record here: Brainwashed), and I've already talked to several people who are close friends who have said "yeah, they're pretty good" or "yeah, they're okay," who obvoiusly haven't been hit in the chest with the emotional bowling ball of hope like I have. And that's okay. But what I hope that people will see and hear in our collaboration with them is a new side to our music that was unlocked through a simple friendship and a single song. We've had so many great contributors to this record, all of them absolutely essential to the record even being made at all, but recording and mixing the voices for this song "Airplanes" has so far been the high water mark for my career with Larvae, which is something that's likely to surprise a lot of folks. With that said, I just hope that when this song and this record comes out, that people can hear in it what I hear in it, and that maybe what the Campbell sisters were able to do to me with their record, we will together be able to do for other people with ours.

Part Two:
I should probably try to explain just how crazy it is for me that Jessica Bailiff sang on our new record.

I got into Kranky by way of Bowery Electric back in 1996. BE's record Beat (which is definitely on my top 5 favorite albums of all time list) was in rotation at WVFS in Tallahassee and I was delivering pizzas so I had the radio on a lot. Beat is one of those landmark moments in my musical history--one of the times where I heard something that was so perfectly fused from different sounds that I loved but had never thought of putting together that it changed the way I thought about what I wanted to do musically. It was the kind of record that made me want to quit making music altogether because the sound I didn't even know that I wanted to create was already laid down perfectly, and there was no need to expand on it. It was also the kind of record that inspired me to figure out what kind of a label would put out a record like that, and to seek out anything else that label had to offer.

Labradford is great too, of course, and Pan American and Stars of the Lid, so before I knew it I had a small empire of Kranky discs that I would buy just based on the logo on the sleeve, but it wasn't until I got the first Jessica Bailiff record, Even in Silence that I really found something to obsess over. Even in Silence was a record I would listen to over and over. It was the kind of thing that just felt right at almost any time. There are records you have to be in the mood for, and then there are records that just always seem to hit the spot, and this was one. I had no idea that it had some connection to Low, I just knew that this was a new favorite record and one that I must have fallen asleep or daydreamed to dozens of times.

At the same time that I had Jessica Bailiff on heavy rotation, I was starting to work on Larvae material which was about as far aesthetically away from JB as could be. Larvae was loud, hard, beaty, and altoegther unsubtle where Even in Silence and later Hour of the Trace were sublime in their quiet simplicity. Part of the impetus for Larvae's initial direction might have even been a reaction to these records in the sense that I didn't want to approach that type of slow, introspective music because I just felt like I'd never be happy with it. With Underwater, we did more of that, so Larvae was again playing the contrarian role.

Now with a couple of records of our own under the belt, it felt like the right time to indulge in a more personal process--one that wasn't ruled by taking things far away from where I'd like them to be, or stuck in a routine of where other people expected them to be. In a way, the new direction for Dead Weight was announced way back in 2003 with the track "Philistine" on Fashion Victim, which was at the time a track that I wasn't sure would fit on a record that was primarily beat-focused. As we started working on this new record, one of the first things that came to mind was the idea of working with Jessica Bailiff. As we started writing songs, I knew there would be some that we would try to send to MCs, at least one that we would try to give to Hope for Agoldensummer, and I always wanted one or two that I could imagine Jessica singing on. It took until very late in the game and a little prodding from a friend of mine to go ahead and present the tracks to her and ask if she'd like to contribute to the record, but I'm overjoyed to say that she did, and that one of the dreams of how this record could come together has been realized.

As with everything on this record, I hope that people will embrace these songs, and that somehow these songs will have at least some of the impact on others that they have on me. It's difficult to imagine how to top a record where we've been lucky enough to work with people that we admire, and in Jessica's case, with someone whose music has been an inspiration for me personally for years. Hopefully everyone else will be able to hear the results of that collaboration soon.

Part Three:
A co-worker once asked me "do you love hip hop?"
I said, somewhat cautiously, "yeah,"
which he followed with, "no, do you really LOVE hip hop?"

That took some thinking. The way I understood him, love for hip hop needed to be unconditional. Love meant that it wasn't fair to call out shit like Nelly for being idiotic, or to bust on Puffy for making fortunes by stealing other people's (better) music wholesale. If loving hip hop means that I have to look embrace the chauvanism, bravado, gun waving, pimp glorifying, dub spinning, bling obsessed masses that make up the bulk of modern hip hop, then no, I have to say that I don't love it.

But when I think about hip hop, I imagine few of those things because the hip hop that I do love comes from something more pure than all of that. The soundtrack to Beat Street is one of the first records I ever remember buying. I must have been about 7 when I would stand in our living room popping and locking to Grand Master Melle Mel. My parents didn't know what to make of it. Hell, I wasn't sure what to make of it, but something about the music moved me.

Since I started making music, I've always wanted to work with an MC, but it's never really worked out. I produced a demo for a guy named Romaine in Tallahassee that was pretty cool, but my heart wasn't completely in it. Regardless, nothing ever came of that session anyway. With Larvae, especially recently, the thought of working with an MC popped up again and I was at first reluctant because I knew that finding the right person to work with would be a huge challenge.

In Atlanta, my experience with the underground hip hop scene here is that it's either trying to be like the big boys, and thus no better than the crap they shell out, or it's almost obscenely positive--something I admire but that doesn't tend to work with the kind of music we make. Finding someone here didn't seem like much of an option, and I didn't want our record to turn into one of those things where a couple of producers just hire MCs from all over to create something that's not very cohesive. Jon Whitney made that point to me once about a record we both like but that we both wish was just instrumental because the vocals seemed to get in the way of something that used to work without them.

So, knowing that we'd have some sort of vocals this time around, I decided to go ahead and give the MC route a shot. In fact, the two songs that have MCs were written specifically with the people on them in mind, and I still sometimes find it hard to believe that we've worked with these folks.

I met Scalper at a festival in France as he was performing with 2nd Gen. I've never seen someone so intense and at the same time so quiet on stage before. Even when he wasn't vocalizing, he seemed to be attacking the mic and the stage with this presence. It was pretty awesome to watch and I thought immediately that I could write a song around that. I asked him if he'd be up for it and shortly after, we were passing CDs back and forth through the mail. I was so sure that the track he finished Art of War was going to be HIS that I didn't even name it. The cubase file just had his name on it. What he did with the track was amazing and subtle. There's really only one verse, but it's repeated in the song over two different sections. At first I thought this was kind of cheating, but then I realized that there was a really intense dynamic when I heard the words with one cadence over one verse of the song, and then with another cadence and flow over another section. Scalper perfectly matched the bombed out depth of that track with a seering vocal about sending kids off to war. The album didn't have much of a social/political bent before this track, but I'm glad that he's given us a conscience of sorts with his contribution here.

Nation of Bling was a track that I had the idea for a long, long time ago. The track had written itself in a dream, it just needed to be laid down to tape. For vocals, I hoped beyond hope that we could get Non from Shadow Huntaz to be on the track, but I doubted that such a thing would ever come through. In the last couple of years, Shadow Huntaz have been one of the only new hip hop groups to make it into my car cd player's regular rotation. Corrupt Data and Valley of the Shadow are a couple of the best hip hop records released anywhere in the last few years, and while I'd wanted to work with Non for a while, I just didn't think we were there yet. To my great surprise, Non turned out a wicked, abstract vocal for the song that really gives it life. I mean, fucking Non from Shadow Huntaz is ON OUR RECORD. I have to capitalize it just to make sense of it! While I had written the song to be a kind of send up of mainstream hip hop culture, Non took it in other, stranger directions and now it sings. It's hard to describe the feeling of working with someone like that. I imagine it would be kind of similar to playing a game of pick up soccer with Cobi Jones or having Steven Soderbergh hold the camera for your student film, or cooking dinner with an Iron Chef or something.

So, Larvae's dipped a toe into the giant ocean of hip hop now, and I'm happy to say that what we've done still sounds like Larvae, but that it wears my love for hip hop on its sleeve. Loving hip hop, I think, means not stealing it for some other purpose. It means not bastardizing the form just for the sake of a reference that people who otherwise don't listen to hip hop will think is 'cool.' Now I'd just like to find that co-worker now and hand him a tape and see what he thinks.