The Making of Cake + Flames
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Last May 5th, I fell in a friend’s garage and broke my shoulder. It was an awkward fracture: a 10 cm piece of bone chip lodged itself into the socket, requiring major surgery to fix. How does this fit into making a record? Weirdly, it was the impetus. Or rather, it was the cortisol shot I received at a post op visit that kept me up all night scheming. The idea of making a record just came into my head as if it were sent there, clear as day: how to finance it (sell a valuable piece of gear I had not played since 2009), what needed to be done (I made various lists) and how to execute it (another list). The night was August 17 (and wee hours of 18th,) 2016.
By 5 a.m., Cake + Flames was solidly in the works.
But it needed ratification. This project, after all, is a group effort.
Because I live with John Morris, it was easy to enlist him at dawn, asking if he wanted to go to breakfast at the Landmark before work so I could lay it all out. I brought my lists and explained the plan. We had been working on music all year and it just seemed to make perfect sense. He caught my energy and said “let’s do it!”
So far, the band was me, John Morris, Donnie Merritt, and Adam Roth. We had been rehearsing with Donnie in the electronics graveyard room at his work earlier in the year. A lot of the music was already put together, and we were used to playing with each other. John and Donnie had a history of playing in bands together, including John’s band Tyre Fyre.
In the meantime, I had spent quite a bit of time over the year running equipment up to Tom Henry in Winston-Salem to set up, so the guitars were in good shape for practice. I did more runs as we got closer to studio time. I wanted to take all my guitars out for the recording session, so they all got makeovers, including John’s excellent Les Paul that had been sitting around for years. My Fender Precision also got the Tom Henry overhaul and sounded better after the guitar whiz worked on it for just 15 minutes while I waited. Nothing worse on a session than some mysterious buzz.
Also earlier in the year, we had heard legendary producer/mixer Mark Williams was retiring soon (he’s actually not, but that’s another story), and wanted to grab the opportunity to work with him. He directed us to Chris Garges’ Old House studio, which I had visited but never worked in. Chris and I used to play together in a couple bands (three if you count a Records tribute band) about a decade ago, and had attended the same Tape Op conferences, so I knew it was going to be a high-quality situation. I emailed Chris and got some dates. I emailed around and found a dealer to buy my amp. I checked with Mark and the other guys, and booked studio time. We got back to rehearsal with Donnie and Adam. Onward.
THE SESSION: BASIC TRACKS AND VOCALS AT OLD HOUSE
As anyone knows who has spent any time recording, it’s not exactly fun. Well, it is, in a weird way but it is really intensive work, sort of like playing under a magnifying glass. We had a lot to do in four days, but I knew that in a good studio and with a good drummer (often the bugaboo in sessions, along with other threats like angry girlfriends, uptight band members etc. I have never had to deal with but witnessed), we’d be fine.
Oct. 2: Load in. It was hot! Why was it so hot in October? Donnie had his daughter Gracie along to hang out and watch. She wanted something to do, so she got to help me unload guitars (thanks Gracie!). There was a lot of standing around while Chris, who had been up late playing a gig, hooked us up. This was a good time for me to stay out of the way and tune my guitars. I have a stripped-down arsenal these days, but pretty much could cover all the bases I wanted to. Donnie kindly ran off to the gas station for cold beer. After all, it was hot! We wound up getting basic tracks for the four songs with Adam on bass: Theme Song, Lilac Dust, Exit Sideways and Girl Behold. We took the next day off because the studio was booked, but fortunately got to keep everything set up.
A piece of trivia: out of all the songs I wrote in my almost three years of living in Chicago, Exit Sideways is the only one I played and kept. I just wrote a bunch of bad songs. I don’t know why. I got out of my rut by writing songs for someone else (John) to sing. He sings seven songs on this record and I’m just on four. That’s why. You might wonder who sings the 12th song – no one. Baby Girl Vampire is instrumental.
Oct. 4: So much fun to walk in and have everything set up. John wanted to switch booths and play through my Matchless. Made sense, since I was switching to bass. I remember it took a while to get “Never Be.” I don’t know why, I just felt sort of rusty and like a butterfingers.
I wound up being the “runner” for the session and got stuck in wretched traffic going to the grocery store. Noted to go before 5:00 traffic next time; it had just gotten late. The studio can be a time warp and the day goes by fast. Eventually, John got his frozen burrito and I got some Chianti, plus Guinness for Donnie, so it was worth it. The important things.
I believe this was the day I took out my 12-string bass a.k.a. the Pink Beastie, generously given to me by Bob Singer, founder of Waterstone Guitars, back in Jan. 2006 (and presented to me in a restaurant parking lot by designer Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick).
People think the 12ers are hard to play, but they’re not. They can sound percussive, like a piano if you play them lightly. I played my Pink Beastie on Baby Girl Vampire and As Loud as I Can (chorus only).
Oct. 5: We needed better lunch food than grocery store cold cuts and wraps. It turned out that Old House has a great menu folder. Chris recommended the Asian Bowl – perfect. Off I went, happy for the break. I don’t know why some guys just stick to the studio like glue. It’s good to take breaks! Maybe it’s my subpar hearing, and tendency toward ear ringing.
More bass playing and overdubs. We didn’t have drums for Staying the Same, or anything beyond a crappy phone demo. Donnie came up with the exact right drum part on the spot. I thought I was going to play acoustic guitar on this song, but I could tell John wanted to do it. We politely went back and forth like the Chipmunks until I told him he should do it. We determined there would be no bass. I think I only played a basic electric guitar part on this track. It’s mostly Donnie and John. It was one of the magic moments, the song just falling into place effortlessly. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
This was also the day of the 12-string Ric overdubs. I nearly sold this guitar in the past, and was so glad I didn’t. I played it on Girl Behold. John played it on other things. I made a track listing of which guitars are on which songs, which I need to find.
Oct. 6: Finishing basic tracks (12!) and overdubs. My slide part for Lilac Dust was not coming out the way I wanted to. I was playing my Danelectro Hodad, the least fancy of the bunch (purchased new for $89 in 2000), but which can sound good for a lot of things. I usually practice a lot before sessions, but this part was just elusive. It was so simple, but I couldn’t get it for a several times and the takes were sounding awful. No one’s fault but my own, and it eventually came together. I vowed to be more diligent before my next session, however far off in the future that might be. John recorded almost all his vocals that same day.
After our final Old House day, including another excellent Asian Bowl lunch (the important things!), we were a little sad to load up. There is something about the end of a session, even a short one like ours, that feels like the end of summer camp, and saying goodbye to your friends.
VOCALS, OVERDUBS AND FINISHING UP
I take longer to sing than John. He’s the kind of guy who can “belt it out” — and in tune. I like to take three takes and comp it, which was fortunately okay with Mixer Mark. So, I hopped over to a booth in East Oak Media for my vocals, using Mark’s awesome Gefell mic. We did a few overdubs there, but not a lot. Just a guitar overdub with my Les Paul Studio on As Loud as I Can, and maybe another thing or two.
Mixing with Mixer Mark and his Minty Nauga continued throughout November, ending with mastering at Studio B with Dave Harris in early December. The session was over, but as every working musician knows, this is the point where the real work begins.
2017: CD RELEASE
Cake + Flames will be self-released March 10 of 2017.
We plan to start playing live shows around February.
My friend Betsy Lescosky has been doing my album art for 21 years. I would use no one else. John is an accomplished painter and is creating an interpretation for each song for the back cover art. We came up with the imagery and concepts for our respective songs. We’ll eventually post them when they’re done so everyone can have a better view.
We decided on the album title Cake + Flames from a header in a recurring email message Robert Keeley (of Sneakers fame) has sent me every year on my birthday since 2009 or so. We all liked it as an album title for this bunch of songs: fun/dangerous/original/broad description for a specific thing. Good enough. The thinking stops there.
We’re ready to get out and make a racket.
Sequenced by Don Dixon
Theme Song (S. Morris)
Never Be (S. Morris)
Almost Overton (J. Morris)
The Fifth Season (J. Morris)
Lilac Dust (S. Morris)
Baby Girl Vampire (S. Morris)
Staying the Same (S. Morris)
Turn the Car Around (S. Morris/J. Morris)
Raymond James Dio (J. Morris)
Girl, Behold (S. Morris)
As Loud as I Can (S. Morris)
Exit Sideways (S. Morris)