Some bands turn on a tape recorder to capture every moment, every spontaneous outburst of creativity, every stray sound. One hopes that such bands have the discipline to edit their product to their very best moments. In Walls Of Genius’ heyday, we sometimes did, but not always. Other bands have such a hard time getting a recording made that it strains the imagination trying to figure out why. I’ve been in several of those over the years. My reading of music biographies and analysis leads me to believe that my experiences as a “non-professional” are not unique to the amateur element. Even the professionals deal with the same crap that we do.
I’ve only been in two bands that recorded every moment: Walls Of Genius and Strange New Worlds. This was the primary driver behind the incredible three-year run of over 30 WoG cassette albums in the mid-1980s. Strange New Worlds, in less than 2 years and with tightly disciplined editing, produced over 20 album-length compact discs, very few of which were ever reproduced in any significant number. This is what can happen when you record everything. But what is happening when you can’t?
From the very beginning, it was a challenge to get recordings of the bands in which I played. At the outset of this journey, in 1973, we barely had our own tape recorders. The holy grail was to get a record contract. Fat chance! People like myself were lucky to own an old-fashioned cassette player with a built-in mic. You could put that in front of Grandpa and get him to tell stories of the immigrant experience (which we did). One of the gigging bands I played with never got a recording made, another managed a track or two out of pure luck. The challenge of recording reflects the capabilities and limitations of equipment and people both. But the primary obstacle is people, because you can make recordings on the humblest of equipment, but you very rarely make them with the humblest of people. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, “hell is other musicians”.
In high school, I sang the role of “Mr. Bumble” in a stage production of “Oliver!” (Senior Class Play). That was the last time I ever remember being able to sing beyond two octaves. Ah, Youth!! I weighed 145 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than I do today, a walking popsicle stick. Somebody, somehow, recorded this theatrical performance and I was offered, a few years later, a cassette. About fifteen years on, my home was burgled by a musician I had once replaced in a band. A pound of Thai-stick disappeared along with a box of cassette tapes, some of both of which I managed to recover. But not that tape of me singing Mr. Bumble’s songs. I let it go. It doesn’t seem worth the trouble now to track it down, even though the internet is at my command in 2018 and somebody, somewhere, probably has a copy.
I also played the bass and sang some lead vocals for a garage band that started in high school and ended first year of college, Long Lost Friend. I learned how to play the bass and sing at the same time: “Johnny B. Goode”, “Sweet Jane” and “Riot In Cell Block #9”, amongst others. Again, somebody, somehow recorded a bunch of our songs in my parents’ basement, as we wanted a demo tape to get gigs. We got some, including a memorable party at Balz Dorm in Charlottesville, where shortly thereafter I very appropriately sacrificed my virginity. If I had ever owned a copy of that recording, it was long gone long ago. When my friend Tom and I got to UVa, we practiced in the basement of the now-defunct Charlottesville TKE fraternity house, where our lead guitarist lived, and we were occasionally reminded that we sucked. We had some moments, but as the internet caught up to me years later and Tom sent me a cassette, I had to acknowledge that maybe we did suck. The recording is embarrassing in more places than I’d like to admit.
When Long Lost Friend imploded, I spent a semester playing in another dance-party band, Wishing Well. I don’t remember us playing any gigs, much less recording any of our cover tunes. At the end of that semester, Wishing Well morphed into the lead guitarist’s dream, a prog-rock outfit, Dreamer Easy, and I dropped out of school. This was a band with ambition. We practiced 8-hour days in the drummer’s family’s Waynesboro basement, as if it was our job. The band leader (and my musical mentor, he taught me the bass lines) schmoozed up local musicians and industry people he could locate. Happy The Man was a nearby ‘local’ prog-rock band enjoying a modicum of success at the time. We had hoped to ride their coat-tails and we hung out with their stage manager.
Our “recording engineer” was a hippie with a 4-track reel-to-reel machine, but nobody seemed to know what they were doing with this equipment, much less the guy with the machine. We would crowd into a tiny little room in a dilapidated house out in the countryside, all elbows and guitar necks and attempt to make recordings. There was hillbilly junk liberally spread all around the property and I recall one day when we all took turns with a sledge hammer on a junked automobile out back. None of this work produced a thing, nor did setting up the 4-track in the basement, not to mention taking LSD at practice sessions.
Dreamer Easy had, at one time, a “5-day” tape of which we were very proud, probably made on a little cassette recorder, subsequently among the ranks of the disappeared. We attempted to record our one full concert, at Old Cabell Hall on campus at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the same auditorium where I had taken a musical history course, but the recording failed. Not only had our “engineer” loaded a used tape into the reel-to-reel machine, it was a tape that had been spliced backwards. We got one song recorded. After that, the band split up, too many different directions to be pursued under one banner. One track was all we had to show for 6 months of intense work.
Back in college again, I joined the fraternity where I had formerly practiced (TKE) and played in a series of pick-up groups in the house basement. These weren’t bands, per se, just jam sessions featuring at least one hot guitarist and a drummer who went on to do professional work. We were “The TKE-house Blues All-Stars”. Nothing was ever recorded or expected to be. This is where I met the someday-to-be Little Fyodor.
After graduating, I fell in with a pair of acoustic guitarists who had migrated to C’ville from Madison, Wisconsin. We formed The Folk Grass Blues Band, an acoustic-oriented group playing all the styles in the name. This was a time when you posted 3”x5” index cards on the bulletin board at the local music store, musicians looking for musicians, a hard-copy version of today’s Craigslist. The Folk Grass band endured for nearly a year, with a full-on band-house and paying gigs, but not a single recording exists of this group. Why, I have no idea nor recollection. One of our room-mates was a purported witch and astral traveler. This woman complained about stereo noise from the living-room. I suppose it disturbed her meditations. I came home from work one fine day to hear that she was in Tibet. At a conference of astral-projecting spirits. My first thought was: “If she’s in Tibet, she won’t mind if we play the stereo, will she?” Whether or not she was actually attending such a conference, she never came out of her room to complain. This same ‘witch’ claimed to have put the shine on us in the first place and then took credit for our dissolution as well. Perhaps this kind of aggressive metaphysical madness prevented us making any recordings. It was after the band dissolved that I moved into my folks’ basement for a year (1980-81) and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The first one was only 2-track, but I could record on those 2 tracks separately if I so desired, hence my first experiences with over-dubbing. I used this machine to record The Mystic Knights Of The Sea, a jazz duo led by a horn-playing friend, and The Blitz Bunnies, a punk-rock band that lasted maybe three months’ time. I was playing the electric guitar now, not the bass. The 2-track worked well for recording 2 instruments without vocals, so the Mystic Knights got a pretty good recording, albeit with cheapie-cheap microphones. Not so much with the Blitz Bunnies. I’ve got recordings, but they’re very rough—the band didn’t last long enough for us to really master anything we attempted and I’ve never been much of a lead guitarist. Perhaps if I had had better effects devices I could have simply roared along in full punk grandeur, but I was still learning. That can present a problem with recording—the microphone hears everything and listens impartially, whether the sounds are great or crappy. Good equipment can’t make bad music good, but good, even great, music can be made on bad equipment. That’s not to say, however, that the Blitz Bunnies made great music.
Prior to my move to Colorado in August 1981 (accompanied by the soon-to-be Little Fyodor), I obtained a 4-track Dokorder reel-to-reel machine and a 6-track TEAC mixer. I was frustrated by the the litany of experiences with recording engineers who didn’t know their heads from holes in the ground, who screwed everything up, wasting time and leaving us with no recorded legacies, if only for our own nostalgic purposes. I decided that instead of playing in a band, I would be the recording engineer myself.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to some people in the neighboring suburb, a band called Stand In The Yard. They had a song I liked, “Amerika Futura”, which I appropriated for WoG many times in the years to come. I set up the recorder and started to see what I could do in terms of recording a live group in the living room. One day, the bassist and rhythm guitarist didn’t make the session and I piped up, “I can play the bass”. In that moment, I replaced two musicians that day (one would later burgle my home and steal my cassette of Mr. Bumble). I was even recruited by the two deposed musicians to form another group with them, but I could see where the talent lay. At that point, I recruited the soon-to-be Little Fyodor to man the recorder, but he was having so much fun that he wasn’t paying attention to the board. So it became a challenge to get decent recordings of what was now called Rumours Of Marriage. Fyodor improved and we eventually managed to get a listenable collection of our songs, but these recordings lacked on-air quality. We never tried our hand at over-dubbing, so the vocals were always muddy and unintelligible. There was so much bleed from track to track that you couldn’t isolate anything. Nothing was miked separately, no direct outs went into the board. It was just 4 cheapie microphones in front of the band and with me playing in the band, there was nobody truly running the board. We only had 4-tracks and the band was a five-piece with two vocalists. In retrospect, I probably would have done better to have had a few very high quality microphones to place in front of the band, get the mix adjusted at the amplifier level, and simply turn on the machine, recording the band the way it is done with orchestras. But who had the money for microphones like that? And that process would have forced the musicians to discipline themselves. How do you make young and inexperienced musicians discipline themselves? For that matter, how do you make any musician discipline him or herself? It’s always a challenge. Who could afford a collection of cool instruments or high-quality microphones? In those days, we had to sell a guitar in order to buy another. So the band sounded good and showed promise, but the recordings were of poor quality.
Once again, I was frustrated by the recording process, not to mention the egoistic perturbations of charismatic musicians (read: egomanic shit-fits) causing yet another promising ensemble to implode within 6 months’ time. As my house-mates in 1983 Boulder were devotees of soft-rock icons, turning their noses up at anything resembling Punk or New Wave, I started visiting the Rumours Of Marriage lead-guitarist’s place on the weekends, sleeping on his couch. I finally found someone who could drink me under the table. After partying and jamming on a Saturday night, we would recover by watching Broncos games on Sunday afternoons, unintentionally sparking a future traditional subject for Walls Of Genius material. Ed Fowler and I would jam with a boombox recording our efforts. Some of these tracks are the earliest bonafide Walls Of Genius items, the era of the Dirt Clods. Crappy equipment, yes, but some really cool material emerged from those sessions, not that we knew what to do with it.
In the Walls Of Genius era, I managed to cobble together a few actual ‘professional’ microphones (Shure 57s and 58s mostly). We could overdub on 4 tracks or record all-4 tracks simultaneously. For large spaces and groups, like Architects Office and Miracle, I would place microphones, hooked up with monumentally long cables, at 4 corners of the room, whether it was the empty Woolco store space or The Pirate Gallery. But we weren’t always finicky. There was no electricity available at the soon-to-be-demolished Pleasant View school, so in order to record the initial Miracle sessions, we had little choice but to go the boom-box route. We still used a little cassette recorder for screwing around. You could always take that 2-track tape and transfer it to a track on the Dokorder, thus having 3 more workable tracks for overdubbing. This was how I was able to make Walls Of Genius sound like a full band, with bass, rhythm guitars, drums and keyboards. The miracle of overdub tech solved many of the problems resulting from too many sounds bleeding together.
A constant concern was the loss of fidelity when moving from tape-to-tape. If you bounced tracks on the same tape, you’d lose something too. When you finally wanted to mix the Dokorder tracks, that had to be mixed down onto a “master” cassette. Then the master was used to make dubs, the so-called ‘commercial’ product that others in the world would hear. I had the capability, using three cassette decks, to dub two at a time, in real time. At that point, the recording was already third generation. So there were practical limits to this practice.
And then Walls Of Genius disbanded. I still had the 4-track for some time and used it for future projects, but it took some years before those projects took shape as I was focused on grad school and then visual art. When Polyester Prophecy first got going, we used the Dokorder and 6-track mixer and got pretty good recordings. But still, I had to suffer the drummer’s displeasure at having only two or three microphones to record the drums. At 6-foot-something, David the drummer was a vision of the seven-arms-of-Shiva and he wanted a mic for every arm, which, by the time of Motosapien, he had acquired.
When Ed Fowler (formerly of WoG) refused to play live, Polyester Prophecy ditched him and morphed into Motosapien. We played Denver and Boulder nightclubs and were getting better all the time, so the time came for “the discussion”. Here we are, we’ve got a band, we’ve been practicing, we think we sound pretty good, we’ve got gigs, we need an album, right? That was where we could all agree. After all my experiences with recording, I recommended that we pool our resources, go into a professional studio, and bang out a good 2 hours of songs and pick the best ones. David insisted we could record the album ourselves. I reminded him that it wasn’t always easy to be both the performing musician and recording engineer. And that I didn’t want that responsibility myself. I made it clear that I was not going to take this on. I said there was a lot of pressure on the recording engineer to produce a good recording. You can’t monitor the recording equipment at the same time you’re playing, so that’s a problem. There was also preparation, mixing, examining the results and all the subsequent criticism to come from the participants. This became a rather heated exchange and I backed down. This was in the era of the first digital recorders that could take up to 8 inputs at a time. David bought one, a Yamaha 24-track, and we started recording ourselves.
I can’t help but feel that my prophecies had come true. Not because I sabotaged the project. They were mostly my songs and arrangements, so I had a vested interest in having it sound as good as possible. But no matter how hard he tried, David could not get a decent mix out of that machine. I believe he came to hate that machine. Every now and then we’d revive Polyester Prophecy for a jam session and one track stayed buried in David’s machine for almost ten years before I ever heard it. The biggest problem in the Motosapien mix was the drums. David had obtained the requisite 7 microphones for his drums, but consider that David is as tall as Abe Lincoln, with simian-length arms. His drum-set was huge with double-kicks, so the microphones on one side were getting an out-of-phase signal with the mics on the other. Finally, we had little choice but to pay $1000 to take the recordings to a mastering engineer and have it mastered professionally, at which point none of us could complain about the mix. It was a long, drawn-out process that didn’t need to be. If we had paid a studio up front, the entire misadventure need not have happened.
As I mentioned earlier, Strange New Worlds recorded every second. Our drummer, Eric Hoaglund, had microphones placed in the room and made multi-track recordings of every session on his Apple computer. He had good mics and happily mixed these recordings, efficiently producing compact discs of the work. His mixes were good and the recordings were, too. No problem! We got gigs on their basis, including one at a famously premier jazz club in Denver, Dazzle Lounge.
With New Cosmic Americans, we got some decent recordings by going into a semi-professional studio. I say “semi” because that’s what looking for a bargain can get you and the bargain-seeking was the result of “the discussion”. We had to ‘settle’ for less than perfect circumstances, accepting bleed from one mic to another as we mostly performed our songs live all in the same room. The recordings were pretty good, but they were only ready for public consumption at the time of the band’s dissolution.
My latest bar-band incarnation, the CBDs, has been together now for five years. We have tried to get recordings, but have not yet managed to get something of ‘radio’ worthy quality. We have documents, but not an actual ‘album’. Nothing I’d give a ‘straight’ dee-jay. I long thought our best option would be to record live, but a friend with the requisite studio and equipment who tried found it too challenging. When the band sounded good, the recording wasn’t and vice-versa. When he did succeed, I realized that maybe we weren’t as ready for recording as I had thought. It’s amazing what the microphones hear that you, the musician, do not. So at a certain point, we had to have “the discussion”, which took me back. I made my recommendations and warnings, but despite the wisdom of those experiences, one of our guys insisted that he could do it. After all, he had the requisite equipment and space in his basement and he wanted to learn how all of that equipment worked. That should have been a warning to us all and I once again found myself in a basement with a recording engineer who didn’t know how to work his own board. Those recordings, some seven months later, have not surfaced. They’re still in the can with no promise of emergence. We’ve got a plan to try the live thing again—it ought to be easy to record straight out of the PA mixer. “Ought to be”, eh? At least we’ve got the documents.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this shouldn’t come off as one long rant about the inadequacies of recording engineers and musicians. It is a litany of experiences that cause me to pause: why was it so easy for Strange New Worlds to record over 20 album-length discs of worthy material, but not a single recording survives to document the Folk-Grass-Blues Band? How come I could record hours of Walls Of Genius, but Motosapien had to go through hell-and-high-water to get one album made? The simplest explanation is often the best. With Strange New Worlds and Walls Of Genius, there was no expectation of how the recordings ought to sound, since neither band was standard in any sense. With Dreamer Easy and The Folk-Grass-Blues-Band, we were all likely too stoned to do anything other than rock on. And with Motosapien, we expected to sound like a standard post-punk rock band. Expectations can be daunting and it’s sometimes hard to live up to them.
It wasn’t just us all being young-and-inexperienced, because these experiences span my musical career from beginning to end, from teenage years to senior living. And it’s not just me either, because I was in all those bands and some were successfully recorded, some not. Like so many things in life, there’s no one single answer. A trained psychiatric professional could probably provide a more in-depth analysis on the basis of my testimony, but that’s not a direction I feel qualified to take. I can, however, attest to “ego-driven delusions-of-grandeur and self-importance” syndrome amongst musicians, but that also cuts across the board. Ultimately I come back to the same place I started: what ought to be ain’t always is.
Walls Of Genius
Walls Of Genius formed in 1982, a musical performance-art comedy experimental noise ensemble, featuring everything from musique concrete, sound collage and extended rock improvisation to demented top-40 parodies, free jazz, industrial and audio experiments of all kinds, mostly fitting in no category whatsoever.