Friday, June 12, 2009

Athan: Sailor Boy & Tell Me You've Taken Another

In many bands, the singer is also the songwriter & lyricist. Where they go, the band goes. Black Tape For A Blue Girl is different in that over the years I have had a number of male vocalists help me bring my vision to life. Oscar Herrera was the band's original vocalist, singing on the first seven releases over the first 12 years. After his departure from Blacktape, I enlisted two male vocalists for 2002's The Scavenger Bride , Athan Maroulis & Bret Helm.

( Image of Athan by Sam Rosenthal )

Sailor Boy / Tell Me You've Taken Another
final mix.
In 2003, when I began work on Halo Star, I knew I was writing an album that would be more male vocalist oriented; I wanted one singer to help focus the material. Athan & I had a conversation one cold morning about who I should work with on Halo Star. At that point, he wasn't eager to tour, which presented a problem. I knew I was going on the road for the album. I decided to give Bret the expanded male vocal duties, and we created great work together.

However for reasons to be explained in a future blog, in late 2008 it was time to recruit a new band for 10 Neurotics. Athan & I had remained good friends; over a Thai meal, we discussed the possibility of him joining the band as my male vocalist. We decided to go for it.

Let me step back for a moment. Athan and I have known each other since the mid-90s; we both lived in Los Angeles and would occasionally bump into each other at a club called Helter Skelter. He was the vocalist for L.A.-based Spahn Ranch, singing on their 5 full-length albums as well as completing more than a dozen North American and European tours. Prior to SR he sang in Fahrenheit 451, Executive Slacks & Tubalcain (I'll admit that it was hearing some of Athan's Tubalcain tracks on mySpace that convinced me he might be the guy to bring my songs to life as I imagined). I moved to Chicago and then to New York, and when Athan returned to his native NYC from Los Angeles, we would occasionally get together and hang out.

When Athan came into the band (again) last year, a majority of the songs were written and Brian Viglione's drums were laid down for about half of them. The first song Athan & I worked on was "Sailor Boy." [As I said at the very top, in most bands the singer handles the lyrical/melodic songwriting side of the music. Athan did it for his other bands, Laurie did it for High Blue Star. It's different in my band. in Black Tape For A Blue GIrl, I'm the director. I'm the one who has the whole concept spinning 'round in my head. I write the songs, words & melodies, and provide my singers with a recorded guide of me performing the words the way I envision them. I'll admit this is non-traditional, but it has worked for me.]

That first day, it didn't take long in the studio for Athan to have "Sailor Boy" recorded. I knew he was a good choice! Athan brings his own personality and touch to the song, while respecting the intention with which I imagined it. In "Sailor Boy," Athan's high-spirited performance portrays a Russian-syntaxed sailor with a mistaken understanding of the nature of his relationship -- who is the master and who is the slave?

In creating an album like this (with characters telling their stories), the manner in which the lyrics are delivered is very important. There are millions of ways a line could be sung, a whole host of motivations for the character and their actions. We often discuss the words as if it's a film, with me explaining the characters and their motivations so the vocalists can fully get into the song.

"Love of the Father" is a good example. I knew that for the song to work, the 3rd verse needed to be powerful, though I wasn't totally clear on the exact manner in which to deliver it. We got the melody and placement of the words down relatively quickly, but the question was how to capture the right emotional performance. As I was explaining the back story (a boy who was abused and how this led to his distrust of god and his Dad), the word "vulnerable" came up. And that's exactly right! The singer is a boy at that point. He would possess a 7-year-old's set of defenses; he wouldn't be equipped with the matured, protective shell of an adult. Athan took out some of the certainty and assertiveness in his voice, put in a bit of a ragged falseto, and there we are: the boy comes to life, with his vulnerabilities open for all to see. I knew the line "Then he smacks me ‘cross the face; ears ringin’, angels singin’ 'he loves you' but I know he doesn’t mean it" had to be delivered JUST RIGHT to give the song its power and to finish out the album with the emotion a finale demands. That 3rd verse gives me chills; Athan captured it perfectly. My heart breaks a little bit, each time I hear it.

When we were recording "Tell Me You've Taken Another," Athan perceived the story as about a guy who is cheated on by his wife. I was surprised by that interpretation, "Oh no! Not at all! This guy WANTS his wife to be with other men. It's what gets him off." The character is not supposed to be pathetic, oppressed, destroyed. He's living it up. He's elegiastic. Yes, the line is "Do you know this joy of being betrayed, and left like a dog!" But that is excitement & savage passion in his voice. I totally get why one wouldn't expect this sort of motivation in a song; yet that's kind of the point on 10 Neurotics: to bring ideas to light that one wouldn't usually feel comfortable admitting.

Another song Athan sang was "The Pleasure and the Pain." It's the most rock-oriented song on the album. This was one of two early songs that I was blocked on, regarding lyrics (the other developed into "Curious, Yet Ashamed"). I decided to try a different approach for "Pleasure;" I asked Athan to create a melody for the song, we recorded that, and then I used the melody & words to help me write lyrics. Most of Athan's melody remains; his "Waiting for that train" became "Waiting for the pain." I was going for a delivery somewhere between T-Rex, Bauhaus & Alice Cooper. Once again, Athan's versatility nailed it; giving the song the balls needed to propel the lyrics. The story is about a guy who has broken up with a woman who humiliates and controls him. This is what he wanted, those are the things he desires. Even though she has left, he knows he'll be right back at her side when she returns and calls his name. "I’m waiting that way, excited like a schoolboy, humiliated by my convictions." The vocals turned out angsty, yet aggressive, perfect! We're going to shoot a video for this one. That should be fun.

Athan mentioned a few days ago, "You don't have much room to hide with these lyrics." They are right out there, totally exposed. Fetishes, desires & passion for all to see. There's a line from "In Dystopia" that I feel is the motto for this album: "I no longer can deny my desire."

Surround yourself with professionals and then let them shine! That's the way I feel about working with Athan and Laurie and Brian on this album. I am filled with anticipation for the release of 10 Neurotics, so you can hear what we've been up to, and hear how Athan has integrated himself into the songs and the band.


(What do you think? Your comments are appreciated)

No comments:

Post a Comment