Monday, September 21, 2009

Waxing Nostalgic

I never talk about my long-gone musical career on this blog, but I spent three years or so in what was more or less a band. We made three albums and an EP, and since I’ve come to grips with the fact that record labels are never going to beat down my door—and since I’ve chosen an alternate career—I’ve attached to this post a zip file with our entire recorded legacy on it. But first, a few words of warning, apology, and wistfulness.

I wanted to be in a band basically since I started seriously to music when I was twelve years old. And I knew even at that stage that I didn’t want to do live shows so much as I wanted to make records, lush records with hundreds of takes and dozens of instruments, records where I could layer sound upon sound until I came up with something transcendent.

That never happened. I had a band in high school that never did anything, and I mean anything, so when I got to college I was determined to make a career of it. Problem was, my personality was such that I couldn’t find anyone willing to spend an hour alone with me. So I made a “solo” record, a poorly written, poorly recorded little EP called Appalachia. It may be proof of its quality that my copy of it no longer plays, and so I am pleased to say that for all intents and purposes, it is lost to history.

That wasn’t what I wanted, though; I didn’t want to record into a computer microphone and play without percussion or bass. I wanted a band, a real band, one where all the members contributed ideas and maybe even songs and vocals. I had a friend who owned a studio, so I booked some time to make a real record; he also had a band, so I paid two members of it $50 or so to act as sidemen, both playing instruments other than their main ones. We knocked out a record called The Lame Shall Enter First in a few sessions. Thus The Shots of Perspective were born.

It’s a stupid name, yes, overly long and pretentious and any number of other things. (For those of you who are interested, the name comes from a line in a Vigilantes of Love song: “Take one shot of perspective, a couple more to kill the pain.” We would later hijack the second part of this line for a stopgap EP between our second and third albums.) The record’s title, too, is overly long and pretentious, a Flannery O’Connor reference put to entirely different use when we made the cover art a picture of Bible college students walking into chapel. Wordplay.

I had fun making the record, and it even gave me an excuse to spend some time with a girl I had my eye on. It’s hard for me to listen to it now, seven years later, though. I wrote most of the songs at the ripe old age of eighteen, and the lyrics are full of things an eighteen-year-old English major thought profound. I’m particularly embarrassed at the song “This One Is Not So Down,” an incredibly ill-conceived attempt at irony or hopefulness or God only knows what. You can tell I had taken English Lit. II that semester. (You should have heard the verse I left out. Or maybe not.)

My skills as a musician at this time were also rudimentary at best; you’ll notice there are no solos on the album (aside from a very poorly planned piano piece on “Iconoclast”), and there’s a reason for that: I had no idea how to play the guitar. I was so bad at it, in fact, that I had to remove the high E string from the guitar so I could play an F chord. (Actually, now that I think about it, there isn’t a true F chord on that record. I guess I removed that E string as a gimmick.)

And yet I’m at least a little proud of the record, especially given that it was my first real shot at this sort of thing. I think “The Pittsburgh Waltz” maintains its paranoia pretty well, especially with H1N1 potentially closing in on us just like the Spanish Flu did, and my Luxury tribute “Let It Be an End” still sounds pretty cool to my ears. (My producer, Jamey Bozeman, who was in Luxury, purposely mixed the blasted thing to sound as little like his erstwhile band as he could. My original plans were much more like the live version on A Couple More to Kill the Pain.) “Your Song” cops Elton John for its title, but the song itself was the best I could do at imitating Springsteen, and I am mostly pleased with the result.

I still didn’t really have a band, though—Jordan and Chris played in the studio, but if I wanted to do anything in front of people, I had to go it alone. So it was that I put up an ad on my college’s bulletin board. It got no responses. Finally, I somehow got in touch with a friend from high school who played bass, and Josh Altmanshofer, who worked with me at the college’s radio station, volunteered on drums after weeks of hearing me complain that I needed a drummer.

We played a few shows with this lineup and then decided it was time to make a second record. I was already more or less embarrassed by the first, and at that point in my life I was writing more songs than I knew what to do with. (I spent the summer as alone as I’ve ever been in my life, with no cable and no internet—so all there was to do was write songs.) We spent twice as much time on our follow-up, called Nothing Personal (after my friend John Hawbaker told me my initial title, Destined for Mediocrity, was far too self-effacing. Thanks, John. You were right.)

The time I spent in the studio making this record was likely the best time of my life. I have dozens of studio stories—many of them unrepeatable on a family blog such as this one—but I get the feeling that you mostly had to be there to get the jokes. At least, my wife never laughs at them.

(Okay, just one: We were mixing “Everything That Keeps You Down,” the first song we recorded for that record, when I referred to the band as S.O.P. Jamey, no doubt delirious with the hours spent in the studio, replied, “Yeah, but if you were the Shots of…BEAR PLANTATION…you’d be S.O.B.” Told you you wouldn’t get it. Incidentally, we always swore we’d make a disco record under that name, but as I’m in Tallahassee and Jamey’s well on his way to becoming a priest, that’s apparently not going to happen. And so it goes.)

I can still listen to Nothing Personal: the songs are way better, for one thing, but it’s the production that really stands out to me five years later. An example: Jamey and I self-consciously stole the background vocals from “The Only Living Boy in New York” and the percussion from “The Boxer” for “Sing It on TV” as a gift to Josh Altmanshofer, the biggest Simon and Garfunkel fan I know—and the results are beautiful, at least to my ears. The record is loaded down with synthesizers, maybe to a fault; I said at the time that we were aiming for a 1970s sound (you can hear us come close on “…Until You Do”) but hit the ‘80s instead. I think the synths sound pretty great, or at least as tasteful as synthesizers can in rock songs. (Their shining moment is the third verse of “Amy,” where we decided to pull out everything else. I love that part.)

I wasn’t much better as a musician. I play a few solos on the record; I like what I did on “…Until You Do” and I’m decently satisfied with the double solo on “Something with a Girl in Summer,” but I could not possibly be more embarrassed about the last two minutes of “The Diamonds in Her Hands.” It’s Jamey, Jordan, and Garth Rivers (who would join the band full-time not too much later) who shine on guitar here. And once again I took the opportunity to invite a girl I had a thing for to sing on the record; if anything can save “Diamonds,” it’s Lisa’s vocals.

A Couple More to Kill the Pain was hastily thrown together because we knew I was moving to Omaha and figured we wouldn’t get a chance to do another record. It has two live tracks, an outtake from Nothing Personal and a bunch of demos.

Our magnum opus, our best album if you ask me (and who else are you going to ask when we only sold 50 or so copies of any given record?) is our third, Anywhere but Here, which took a good three years to record and mix, not because it’s so intricate but because I moved to Omaha and got really lazy. After I recorded my many parts, Garth and Max flew out from Georgia to record additional guitar and to help me mix it. (Josh Altmanshofer moved to China, apparently permanently.) We nearly had a fist-fight a couple of times, but I ended up fairly happy with the results. None of us are the engineer Jamey is, and you’ll notice that several of the tracks are so “hot” that they “clip.” I’m particularly embarrassed by my hatchet job on Garth’s only song, “It’ll Be Over Soon.”

I’m proud of these songs, most of them anyway. I’d put "Ruthless" (the going vote for our best song), “Success Lives Here” or “I Don’t Know What to Think” up against any indie rock or alternative country song of the era—even if the latter never sounded right without the duet vocals. (The gal who was supposed to sing them and I agreed never to speak again, which makes it hard to organize the recording session.) And I finally have a guitar solo I love—the monstrosity at the end of “I Am Bound to Her”—even if the other members of the band, not to mention my wife, never agreed with me.

Anyway, here you have it, the entire recorded legacy (a mere 38 tracks) of The Shots of Perspective, a band no one ever really heard of. We were never going to make the big time—I realized this after the second record came out, and that made it all the better. Our practices and recording sessions turned from an attempt to be successful into an attempt to stay alive, personally and collectively. We took over the college chapel, turned our amps way up, and sang my pretentious—but maybe pretty good sometimes—songs. I hope you find something to like here; there’s a lot of me in them.

Shots of Perspective discography


Victoria said...

You know my hatred of that song has nothing to do with its sound. The guitar solo is cool; the song's concept just makes me feel icky all over.

I'm glad you're sharing this part of yourself with people, and I love you even though you're not a rock star and your jokes aren't funny :)

Tim Rhodes said...

Thanks for this post-- it's really interesting to read about the background of the band and these albums.

I look forward to listening through them again! I haven't heard much of your final album yet, but my favorite song over all of yours is still "Let It Be An End." So far. I think I ended one of my shows on WTXR with it for a while.