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Blue Collar #5: Duo Arranging/D.Y.I. in Product Creation
By Mick Polich - 08/08/2007 - 10:12 AM EDT

Son Of The Bride Of Believe In Yo’ Sef’/ The D.I.Y. Method to creating, branding, and promoting product!  OR…..

(I learned alot from punk rock-much more than punk rock ever learned from me!)

What the hey ? Lawdy, two columns this month ! Yeah, it wasn’t planned that way, believe me, but according to my in-laws, my last column was so friggin’ long that they couldn’t see that anybody in our ADHD World making it thru the thing ! And there’s STILL more. Oh well, sometimes you just gotta complete a thought (hey, look at “Ulysses”….)

We were just getting into some thoughts about utilizing your best talents for the musical task at hand. I explained the personality differences between my  wife and I, what our collective musical talents were to bring to the Table O’ Sound, and how we were working on making a duo sound like a quartet.

As you progress thru a music career, hopefully you gain some wisdom, as a performer, artist, musician, in arrangements for your songs, yourself, and your group projects. To wit, “Know thyself and be true” holds accountability here, folks. Many moons back, I explained in a half-hearted and short sentence my attempts to write bad funk/metal back in the ‘80’s. A poor carpenter always blames his tools, so this eliminates my excellent musician bruthas and sistas from that time period, thusly bringing the writer into focus. In my mind, anybody writing and arranging needs to develop and grow, and given today’s climate for the big-label recording industry, it seems you have less of a shot to do that. But, hey, the hell with the big recording labels, because the little kats and kittens have TECHNOLOGY on their side! By utilizing a multi-track recorder, ANYBODY can build and work on song arrangements. I use what multi-track equipment I’ve got whenever I can, even if it’s for cover tunes for our bands. Given that I draw and paint, a multi-track recorder is like using a ‘sound canvas’ – you can create, then come back to check out what you did earlier for another listen, which is one of the basic tenants in creating.

Well, in creating duo arrangements, my weakness in not being able to copy parts exactly off the CD or download becomes my strength as of  late in my career – to try to create the ‘unique’ arrangement. I’ve composed a rule of thumb regarding cover artists, bands, and material : either the ‘copy’ has to be  dead-on, or so unique that the cover song becomes the artist’s own. Granted, I have the upmost respect for anybody who can really nail it in a Hendrix, AC/DC, or Van Halen cover band – there’s a lot of out there (anybody ever check on the Pink Floyd - approved cover band from Australia? Pretty impressive!). But, sadly, a lot of  musicians fall into the ‘bad cover band ‘ realm because they reach too high and fall too hard. I was in few of those bands, tried many songs I had no business trying, and played in one very unique band back in Iowa that pretty much made the grade because of the strong musicianship, vocals, and chemistry (and ya can’t buy chemistry).

For the chemistry part, I feel my wife and I have it, still seeking out what works and what doesn’t work since this is a relatively new venture for both of us.

The music part in duo playing is always the hardest, but I have learned to think like at least another player in serving the song. This is nothing new, but it is extremely challenging: people like Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, and Johnny Smith made a vocation out of chord melody playing and took guitar to new heights during their collective era. For me to think like a bassist and guitarist at once is o.k., because I have played both instruments since the mid-1970’s. Now, inserting the RIGHT bass lines for the song is another kettle o’ funk, friends! I feel I need to drive the song as well as come up with a crafty arrangement, so that element adds stew to the pot. Vocal harmonies – my wife is excellent at them; me, I’m a bit weak, but it has become my new challenge area because not only do I want to improve my singing for the cover songs and any stuff I write, but I feel anyone who thinks and sings melodically will play their instrument the same. True stuff, amigo – I have seen the Light and it is MELODY!!!! I am a recent convert to the power of  the Church Of Good Harmony Vocals…..

With a duo, driving the rhythm is paramount. Such as there is no crying in baseball, there is no weak rhythm playing in duos – you’re there, or you ain’t. Given my interest and influence in funk and r and b, the Groove is King,and those who aren’t converted best see the pastor! This helps enormously to have this rhythm sense, and you can work on it just like honing a knife blade (drum machines and metronomes, youngsters, plus, hey, playing with other people – vat a concept!!).

Hopefully by now, ya’ll are starting to get the hang of what are the important pieces to the puzzle of arrangements and playing. Let me end this section with one more key: EXPERIENCE (thank ya, Jimi!). Nothing can replace experience, even if you are the most confident, cocky s.o.b. to hit the stage. And really, the Zen of the whole deal is that everything can be part of the experience. Yeah, there’s a difference between playing on the driveway on a cool Saturday night for the family reunion, uptown at the local dive, 9:00p.m. start time, five sets, OR playing in front of  3,000 folks at the municipal hall in Cherokee, but it’s ALL GOOD, my kidlets – it all adds up down the pike….

O.k., on to Part Deux : you’ve got some tunes, you think there’s some bitchin’ stuff there, but the ol’ pocketbook sez, “Go to a recording studio? Are you kidding me, butthead?? That $50 in your wallet will get you SET UP TIME!!!” Weeping, moaning, gnashing of teeth, yadah, etc…… but what’s a mother to do? Well, praise the Lord and pass the butter, because, really, you’ve got indie and punk rock to thank for your current door of opportunity!  Think about it: 1976,and corporate rock engulfs the Western World (come on, yeah, you had those Foreigner and Boston albums tucked away in your collection, too). Rock is big bid’ness, and it’s pretty stale. Oh yeah, the occasional outcry from a Senator Claghorn type that says our youth is going to hell in a handbasket, but no DRAMA, no OUTRAGE,…. thru… POP MUSIC!!!!

1977: yep, I’m fresh outta Compton ( really, Saydel High School, central Iowa),watching the evening news with my folks when a piece comes on about this ‘degenerate’ rock band from England (aren’t they all from London at this point?), the Sex Pistols. Spitting, cursing, leather, flesh piercings..what the? So, naturally, I go and BUY the album! Pretty raw, how come they’re bitchin’ about EMI, they don’t like the Queen, go figure, ah, I’ll go back and listen to Rory Gallagher and Robin Trower…..

Fast forward to 1985: hmmmm, this ‘punk thing’ is still holding on…o.k…. what? The Minutemen? Who are these dudes? California? D Boon? O.k., I’ll bite….. play the cassette on mah system….. wait a second….there’s A LOT happening here!  Jazz, hard rock, ‘out’ stuff..oooooohh yeah, ME DIG, MAMA!!!! Fast rhythms, pumping, angry, slashes of distorted guitar, off-kilter vocals, “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing”……..why am I listening to Ratt??  And the whole D.I.Y. Movement: ‘do it yourself’? Well, why not? Yeah, oh, HELL YEAH!!!

Well, I continued to listen to the glam/hair metal thing, the roots rock thing, my jazz stuff, but something about this punk rock….hmmmm, yessah! Now, it sounds like I was a late bloomer to the whole concept, but no, I got hip to the Buzzcocks, Ian Dury, Wire, the Dead Boys, even Devo, early into it.  Besides the commercial product borrowing from New Wave and punk (the Cars, the Police, Blondie, etc.), which I also listened to, my all-time favorite band was, and is, the Minutemen. Do yourselves some favors and rent or buy the DVD “We Jam Econo”, which is the Minutemen bio. The whole D.I.Y. thing with those guys were the right ethics for rock music at the right time (Reaganomics – need we say mo’?).
Around the same time, 1985, I purchased my first four –track cassette recorder with gig money from tenure in Colt .45, a great local Des Moines area band. Well, the Libra-type idealist that I was, I thought that I could build a small enterprise by making my own cassettes and selling them rather than spending gig money for studio time (and beer) at the various local recording facilities that I was using (but what a great time while it lasted!). Placing an ad in the local rag, “The Daily Planet” (yep, t’was that name until DC Comics got wind and made the publishers change it to some stupid,  yuppified  moniker….), I offered on-site recording services for $10 per hour. Well, the emerging DSM punk scene got hold of this, and I made a couple of cassette-only releases that helped shape the local lore (pretty proud to help in a small way – no way was I a punk, but just a few years ago, I found a website dedicated to punk and garage band rockers from Iowa, and found mention of the said cassettes – cool!!). That coupled with my own releases, helped shape my D.I.Y. Vision Thang George Dubya The Senior-Hearted !

Really, what it still boils down to is this: can you make something creative musically within certain economic parameters? Even now, with more music ideas than money, I take stock of my gear ( two cassette four track recorders and a first generation Fostex digital eight track) to see if I can shape my next projects for my own music instruction/record label. Look at it as electrified ‘folk-art’ in context and scope – there is an audience that appreciates your effort –just like a million other folks using Pro Tools, domains, and You Tube, you gotta put your drop in the ocean to see what ripples!!

Part of this is back to experience, recording experience. The art of putting a microphone in front of a source and listening to how it records to the accepted medium.  I could wax on (and off ) regarding this for days. There are several great books on the market on recording – my advice is to read ‘em, then experiment on your own. I’ve been know to do some weird recording things -  putting a small amp in a bathtub ( no wata, please ) and miking it in there, hooking a boatload of effects pedals up just to see what happens to my guitar or voice -  still outside to some ears, but very much  in the mainstream now for the history of recording. And yes, go back and pull out “Sergeant Pepper’s “, “Are You Experienced?”,  “Axis: Bold As Love”, and countless other recordings from the Dawn Of The Age Of Multi-Track Recording. Think about it: These people had to INVENT all the sounds and equipment we take for granted today (stop rolling yer eyes, Junior, and listen to the Old Man!). Flanging, chorusing, harmony guitar lines (yes, thank you Eric Clapton, and Jimi, BUT thank you Brian May and Thin Lizzy, too…) – all that stuff was non –exsisto  before somebody said,” Hey – what if we do THIS???? ”

I’ll probably come back to this subject in a later column, especially since you can write and write and write and write about recording, packaging, and promo. But, questions to ponder : am I wasting time for the day when I can get the funds together for a really pro recording, or pro gear, or the Big Label (or small label) Signing Day? Can I work along at this aspect of the craft, knowing that it may not make any bread up front, if ever? Do I really KNOW my audience, beyond good friends and family? Can I tolerate that drunk cat in the front row at the songwriter’s round when I’m bringing out my first performance of the Ultimate Love Fest Song that I wrote in 8th grade ( and recently updated?)? Can I handle rejection of my ‘ product ‘ from the local crowd at Dino’s, when NOBODY has bought ANY copies of my new CD/EP ( thus thrusting me into the “Nobody-Gives-A-Shit-Club-Anyway-You Stupid-Hoser”)? O.k., well, that last one WAS a little severe, but funny, right? O.k., Dad, I’ll clean up the attitude….

I think the only competition you need first off, is yourself – work on your craft, then figure out what medium you can afford to put it out for public consumption. The sky’s the limit, but don’t let the sky be the judge of what you want to do musically –create it, then do your best at THAT TIME IN YOUR LIFE to put it out there! Take a tip from Minor Threat, Fugazi, or the infamous Minutemen – do it yourself and see what happens!

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