Paul Withers Blog
When John mentioned he might need a drummer for Pro Audio, we were working in the edit bays of some of America’s top reality shows, making content that would be in America’s (and in some cases the world’s) living rooms the next days or so. I thought, Well, we’ll see–in LA plans are always flying around. He said they needed to figure out some details on personnel soon, and he would let me know. Well, I never heard anything. Until about a year later. I got that call to come down to the studio the upcoming weekend, to see how it goes.
That first jam was a blast, and I could see the material really had some potential to allow me to let loose. I remember thinking how eclectic the material was–a drummer’s dream, allowing the experience of a diversity of styles. Some songs immediately brought me back to my long dormant progressive days, while others kept me in straight alternative groove, of course allowing just enough of a departure from that. And what was with this guy Jason? He was pretty much keeping to himself. But then his songs were just hee-larious–if not weird. This was my kind of band, with just the right kind of catch to spice up with some chops. Was this They Might Be Giants, or Radiohead? Weezer or Genesis? While pounding out my best take on their tunes, I thought to myself, if nothing else, this would at least just be a fun band to goof around and write with every other Saturday. And then I got the all too familiar, “Okay, man, we’ll let you know.” In LA that’s a rejection. So I walked out of there happy for the brief experience. And I heard nothing–for months.
Then, true to LA, just when you’re feeling like it’s over and things have long dissipated from your mind, things are actually heading your way out of the deep blue. In one of the fastest-paced towns on the planet, sometimes you have to be patient, like months and months patient–well, at least with this band. I once again got the call to come on down to the practice space, this time to start learning the songs–we’re recording in less then two months! Guess I’m in the band. Well, the songs were now a bit more refined and finished, but they needed of course that rhythm polish. So after we worked out a few details and rewrote some parts, I took on the task of learning thirteen or fourteen (which was to become twenty-four?!) songs in less than two months. Let’s just say, I never really had the passion to work at session drummer speeds. And not only that, but they did not have a decent rough recording of the tunes for me to learn with. So I just hoped I could pick up what I could in the eight or so practice sessions before the big date.
So, early on a Saturday morning, we pulled up to our studio of gold–a garage in Inglewood–and collectively and silently wondered what this was going to be like. First of all, I was on almost zero sleep, having stayed up all night trying to cram the songs (okay, amongst doing other things–Friday night). But somehow at this first session we managed to lay down the drum tracks on six of the songs. We didn’t have much choice, as time in this studio, as most indie bands know (our “label” at the time was very adept at telling us our budget limits) was limited to say the least. In addition, I definitely could have had at least a week (or two) longer to learn the songs. I was basically reviewing the changes before every take (even trying to remember the damn song name). Some of these songs have a lot of changes, which is partially why I was into this band, but it’s also a curse when it came to doing speed sessions. And so, with clock ticking, we decided to roll tape—er—hard drive.
The first few takes felt more like a rundown or basically a cram session. And whenever we felt that all the changes were hit, then that was basically a take, and we had to move on. But of course those takes were also the ones where I was finally into the moment and feeling one with the song. (Funny how that works out.) However, I never felt so much like a studio musician as during this session.
So the first session we laid down about seven songs in six hours. And a week later, I was back in the saddle again, ready to lay down the next seven, once again making mental notes to self, seconds before we rolled: “This one has a break, eight after the second chorus. Then ramp down, quarter-note accent fills, toms on all four, then the snare march—.” Each take was practically a review of the song and then—let’s roll. At one point the engineer asked us if we wanted a click track, and we just shrugged, and said not unless he knew some way to make it ramp speeds up and down–constantly. I’m sure it’s possible, but it wasn’t going to happen in the time we were once again allotted. So with lightning speed, we belted out another six or seven songs (averaging between four and six takes each).
Then Jason packed up and left for dinner plans, but not before I heard he and John utter something about “interstitials.” Seems they had decided during the week, between the two of them, that the album would not have thirteen tracks, but almost double that, with these little interstitial pieces woven throughout. So just as I was about to keel over from sleep deprivation, John presses me to stay a “bit” longer, and do these few simple jams (which ended up being about eleven or so). And the engineer, having nothing to do, agreed to hang out pro bono. (What can I say, he was diggin’ what he was hearing.) I asked John what kind of vibe they were, and he described them as these quiet little interludes intertwined between the songs. I guess because I was half asleep at that point, I only clued into the word “quiet” and for some reason played each one at half intensity, which I realized later when listening back. I demanded a redo, on my dime, but John assured me that it was perfect for the vibe. There are always things you wish you could redo.
Surprisingly, the editing process required very little, if any, clean up–I was relieved and amazed that we pulled this off. However, after the rest of the band got to tidy up their tracks during months of overdubs, it was finally my turn to sweeten up my parts with some percussion. Having months to listen to rough tracks, and therefore already formulating a solid vision for what I wanted, I asked the band to also make a list of any particular ideas they envisioned for any songs.
After really getting to know them, the tunes began to take much more of a defined shape in my head. Parts of this song reminded me of this, and parts of that song reminded me of something else. I really started to hear the percussion start to come alive. So with list in hand, I rummaged through my closets and gig bags, and filled the rest at a local guitar shop.
With this album I pretty much was able to have a field day when it came to percussion. I bought or found things that I never in the past had the appropriate forum in which to play, but always wanted to. The percussion offered the perfect accompaniment to the beat, adding the personality of the particular song to the foundation of the drums. For example, the quirkiness of some of the songs was perfect for the flexatone and vibraslap accents–I mean, who plays these things anymore?–while others were just crying for a triangle to accent the pocket, or a cowbell here and there. Hell, I finally got to play that Simmons that was collecting dust in my closet for years!
The percussion pretty much flowed and played itself on these songs, so it was kind of a no-brainer–most of it having formed in my head the first time I played the song. Some of the percussion parts are instruments I’ve wanted to play for years, but just needed the right outlet. (Most of the status quo alt-rock lineups I’ve played with in the past just didn’t call for these instruments, and frankly they would have been out of place.) But some of the progressive and almost orchestral fine touches of Pro Audio really allowed a place for the mind to let lose, to paint a scene. In fact a lot of this album has so fired the progressive-music synapses deep in my head, I had to play in this band to allow some of the ideas I’ve had tightly packed away for years to flow out, finally finding an outlet. (Frankly I was getting too many frequent headaches before John and Jason and Bri came along). Thanks, guys, for the experience. There’s a lot more up there, with all of us, so expect to hear more soon.
For more on Paul and Pro Audio, go to www.proaudioband.com or www.myspace.com/proaudio.