In anticipation of my tenth album next year, I thought I would compile a sonic retrospective from all my previous albums.
The collection begins with the song Light Forest from my very first cassette release called Up On The Rock. At that time, the name of my record label was “Blue Room Studios” after the color of the paint in my bedroom in Deerfield where I did much of my recording. While a few of the tracks were recorded there, the majority of the songs were tracked in my dormroom (Hillcrest N120) at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
The keyboards and bass from Light Forest were from my Ensoniq SQ-80, which was also my introduction to the world of midi and sequencing back in 1988. (When I bought the keyboard, I had no idea that it included a sequencer- or even what a sequencer was). The drum machine was an HR-16 by Alesis. The guitar parts were played on my Washburn A23V which was a limited release axe gifted to me by Rick Johnstone, who at the time was one of Washburn’s owners. My amp during this time was a Crate something or other “C” which indicated that it came with a stereo chorus. All of the above were treated to copious effects courtesy the original Alesis Quadraverb, a unit that sounded a little noisy but which I wish I still had around. Up On The Rock was released on a few hundred cassettes and sold around the North Shore area of Chicago (@ Rose Records in Deerfield), and at a few places in Iowa City. The cover featured a photo of me standing up on a , well, rock, at Ravine Beach in Highland Park taken by Anna Meiser Doehring.
If I had any classics, Deep Dark Secret would definitely be one of them. This, and many other songs on the Letters Never Sent cassette featured my rather rudimentary (but driven) drumming, which I haven’t been able to do for a long time because I’m hard pressed to record drums in the apartments where I’ve done my recording since. I’m very happy with the straightforward (sometimes Morrissey-esque) lyrics in the song. Especially “the cues you choose to take defense where no defense is needed“. In addition to miking the drum kit, the snare is triggering a sample through the Alesis D4 module. Letters Never Sent was also released on the Blue Room label.
The album Silver Nitrate was shelved in 1997 because I lost funding to release it properly, but was later made available in its entirety on my website for free. The song Waterside is built on a brushed snare loop that in the bridge gets dropped to half speed. There’s a Yamaha TX81z percolating along in the vamp. The way the bass groove comes in and the way the drums build was consciously imitating “To Turn You On” by Roxy Music. The ending features seemingly wayward keyboard lines separated by growing Fibonacci sequences. Silver Nitrate was going to be a CDplus (as they were called at the time), including a 3D video for the song Breakdown At Creation. I purchased 1000 pairs of red/green 3D glasses from Uncle Fun on Belmont (before understanding the concept of wholesale) which were going to ship inside the cd case.
Roadstar was the first solo compact disc I released, and due to a change in physical location (I moved to the city) and general spiritual direction, I felt it appropriate to rename my label to “Aquariphone”, celebrating ‘the sound of the sea’ (as I’ve always equated water as a symbol for the subconscious). City Of Heroes was actually recorded entirely in Sonic Foundry’s Acid 3.0. The lyric content approaches the converging worlds of evolution, shamanism, schizophrenia, and Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity.
I played my new “storm-cloud grey” Fender Telecaster through a SansAmp (I think). Vocals from here on out recorded with a nicer AKG C3000B condenser wherease before I’d use whatever was lying around my parents’ house (my dad was a factory rep for AKG, JBL, Maxell, Shure Bros., and Tascam- which is how I ended up with a 4-track recorder at the tender age of 12). Roadstar was a mish-mash of songs, some of which brought over from a Tascam 488 8-track cassette, and others recorded natively in the digital domain. Roadstar also represented my first foray into radio promotion. I sent the album out to about 1000 stations and it was added to more than 300 playlists planetwide. The album was #3 most added on the college charts the week it came out in 2001.
Love Song For Kyrie Snow starts off with the line “You were an elephant in your last life…” to describe a girl who I had recently broken up with. I’m sure there’s some great symbolic meaning behind this, but that’s apparently between my subconscious and the song because I’ve personally got no clue. But I do know that it totally fits. This song was recorded in Cakewalk’s SONAR which is what I’ve been using as a DAW ever since. Add to the mix electric and acoustic guitars, along with my EMU Proteus 2000, bolstered with a bunch of extra module chips, and you’ve got a real sonic spread going on.
I tried to make the music to LSFKS as haunting as the lyrics. The cover art for the digipak was taken from a photo my brother shot and manipulated while flying over the Pacific Ocean. The dual sunset in the finished piece completely conveyed the breakup which the album painstakingly outlined. This album didn’t fare as well on radio due to this cover art. The promotion team insisted that as soon as the music directors opened it up and listened, they added it to their playlist. The problem was, with a sunset graphic and the title “Love Song For Kyrie Snow” it came off looking more like a Carpenter’s record or something. I don’t care though. I love the cover art and wouldn’t change it if I could go back.
Sanctuary is about a few things, including the evacuation from Earth on the night of its demise. The main character is one of a select few who is allowed to escape into space, and at the start of the song he’s “dealing out secret goodbyes” to his friends and family to whom he can’t explain the whole story. This was the single from the Romance of the Spaceways cd in 2007. This tack is a fan favorite, and also ended up on the Stomp Out Cancer benefit compact disc. I cheated somewhat here because the version on the compilation is not the same mix as on the album. It’s a little clearer and I fixed some horrible cymbal problems that were happening on the original mix. Also, I added a meatier bass synth.
Sigmund and Pandora was recorded around 1992, but like 15-20 songs from that era was never released, so they all ended up on my Songs for the Sacred Age pseudo-compilation in 2008. I’ve already written a huge insider’s peek for this song and the entire album on williamsteffey.com so if you’re interested in reading more about that, please follow the link. I’ll give you a hint: it deals with an Austrian shrink and Greek mythology’s first swell dame.
Love and Armageddon was released in 2009 and featured 6 songs including a cover of Thomas Dolby’s “Weightless”. He and I exchanged several emails back in the 90’s, and on his request I even wrote a few analytic essays for his new Flat Earth Society website. I haven’t talked to him recently so I don’t know what he thought of my cover of his song… I’m kind of afraid that he’d think I ruined it! Suffice to say, he’s a huge influence with his introspective prose and downright incredible production style (see: Astronauts and Heretics). My song Lightbulbs represents Love and Armageddon here.
The album track lasts 6 minutes and 44 seconds, but the version here is a slightly longer mix which again, is a little cleaner than the album track. It’s my accordion debut, and it also features the middle-eastern chanting of TROY who lives in Tel Aviv. TROY discovered my music on E-Music, bought a few of my albums, and got in touch with me via MySpace. I played a guitar track on his album, and later on he sang on this song. This was achieved by sending mp3s of rough mixes through email, and him sending me a bare vocal track mp3 which I edited and fit into the song. Really, I can’t imagine what this song would sound like without the chant now. Another thing nice about this song is I allow myself a nice guitar solo. My attitudes about guitar solos are a subject for an entirely different blog entry. Suffice to say, it fit here and I’m glad because frankly, I like to get my guitar rocks off sometimes.
The studio version of Ashland appeared on Roadstar back in 2001, but it was the best track from the recording of my EP Live At Gabe’s, recorded in Highwood, Illinois in November of 2009. The EP was made available as a free download in 2010. Ashland is a song about “Kyrie Snow”. It’s framed as a love story between Goldilocks and Icarus. Goldilocks and her “just right” mentality instructs Icarus how to fly close to the sun without melting his wax wings (since he apparently wasn’t going to let his father Daedalus impart that knowledge unto him). Fun facts: I did have “a broken rib, swimmer’s ear, and a hell of a tan“- and Kyrie did bring to me “ice, isopropyl, and aloe“. The theme of synchronicity is also touched on a little bit. “if you hit the lights just right, Ashland will be green all night.” The line refers to a few things. Manifest content is about a N/S street in Chicago. But it also talks about acquiescing in a relationship sense- giving up the single life for the bounty of a union. “Ashland” also represents death and how if you hit the lights just right it can be outsmarted. Live At Gabe’s was mixed brilliantly by Mickey Barendt.