An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
25 August, 2020

Well, happy fucking new year you guys.  (It’s the Jewish New Year for you goyimreading this (or, it was at the time of writing, anyway)).  L’Shanah To-fucking-vah.  I want to say this coming year can’t be any worse than the last, but let’s reserve judgment until after the election shall we?  So, on to happier things.

My music project with Bibi and Ralf has taken a turn for the serious.  Like, I think we’re officially a band now.  Bibi was over a last week (or the week before last, depending on when I hit ‘publish’) to record Malaika.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  But while she was over, we got to talking about the, well, band. 

Basically, things are getting more serious, slowly but surely.  Her husband bought us (read, her) a PA system.  I’ve now bout not only an electric guitar for this project – my beautiful Leyka – but now also a bass (name pending).1  And just recently Ralf had a custom electric nylon-string guitar made up, just for this project.  Our last two outings, we’ve played sets of twenty songs.  Which means we’ve got a repertoire of something like thirty songs, and it continues to grow.  

So the question was, are we ready to take the next step.  Which, at this point, simply means making a greater commitment in terms of time and effort.  Remember how all this started.  Bibi was always at the center of it.  After she was my student we jammed a few times on a couple of songs.  Meanwhile, she was taking guitar lessons from Ralf.

One day, she invited me to join her at one of her lessons.  It went well enough that it became a regular thing.  After work on Fridays, I’d head up to Ralf’s and join in for the last hour or so.  Well, here we are, over a year later (I think), and Bibi and I realized one hour a week wasn’t gonna cut it.  Especially if that hour was ostensibly her guitar lesson.  The only other practice we had was, we’d meet the day before a gig and run the whole set.  That was it.

So when she was over, we agreed that we’d need to get more serious about rehearsing.  She said she’d talk to Ralf, and he was on board.  So as of last week, we’re now gonna practice once a week, Thursday evenings, 7-10.  We had our first such practice this past Thursday.  And you guys, it was like a proper band practice!  Really exciting.  Like, there was a new energy in the room, you know?

We worked up a version of Norwegian Wood, and I gotta say, this shit slaps.2  It starts with a two part a cappella verse with me and Ralf and we end it with a three-part a cappella verse as well.  And in the middle, I get a bass solo (!).   

I mean, we’re starting to grow now too in terms of harmony.  I don’t remember if I talked about this in a previous post, so if this is old news, I apologize.  But to this point, when B&R sing together, they basically just do octaves with each other.  And it’s kinda been on me to do any kind of harmony that’s not just octaves.  Which is a challenge I embrace.  I can often, though not always, find something nice. It still doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s getting better.

What’s great though is how supportive and encouraging they are in this.  Like, now they just look at me and it’s like, “Hey, Dave, can you throw a nice harmony on this part?”  Uh, I can try.  But they trust me in that regard.  And it’s cool to see how excited they get when I hit on something good.

Meanwhile, as I’ve also mentioned, Bibi has brought her singing teacher down to our last two pre-gig practices.  He’s worked with us on technique, but he’s also helped out with the harmonies.  For me personally, it’s been a big help.  And another confidence booster.  Because he’ll just let me go, you know?  “Dave, just try shit.”  If it works, he’ll encourage me to keep it.  If it doesn’t quite hit, he’ll work on it with me.  So that’s been cool.

But he’s also starting to get those two out of their octave comfort zone as well.  Which is fantastic.  Because it’s opening the door to more interesting three-part harmonies. Like with this Norwegian Wood business. I guess B&R worked on it before hand with Felix, the singing teacher.  So when I showed up, they already had this badass harmony on the chorus. And it’s just like, shiiiit.  I wanna say, with this song, we sound more like a proper band than we have at any time up til now.  So yeah, things are heating up and it’s pretty fucking exciting.

I mentioned that I had Bibi over to record Malaika.  Malaika is a Swahili song that we’ve got in the set.  It’s super simple, but also really beautiful.  And I knew as soon as I built this damned studio that one of the first things I wanted to do was get her over here and make a proper recording of it.

Friday, I finished mixing a, well, let’s call it a first draft.  I sent it to Bibi, but I haven’t heard back from her yetand she was happy with the overall product, although she may want to redo the vocals; which I think would be a good idea.  But overall I think it sounds really good, tbh.  I also sent it to Justin for some feedback, and that was a huge help.  Just to get another set of ears on it.

I mean, I’ve sent everything I’ve done so far to Justin and he’s always been very helpful.  Sometimes it’s technical tips about the recording or mixing process.  But sometimes it’s just about the sound of things.  Which is mostly what it was with Malaika.  And the difference between the way it sounded before and after we talked was night and day.

Also, it’s just a really nice way to connect.  Like, I don’t get to see him but once or twice a year under normal circumstances. I last saw him in November, and who knows when we’ll be able to travel again.  So to just be able to get on the phone and talk is great.  But when it’s about music, that’s even better.  And when it’s about mymusic, that’s just fantastic.  

Also, he noticed my bass line.  I should back up.  I said Malaika is a super simple song, and it is.  But I wrote a bass line for it, which in its way, is really like a vocal harmony.  In fact, someone who saw us live commented to me that it was almost like a duet between Bibi and the bass.  Which made me really happy, because I worked pretty hard on that.  So to see it appreciated was really nice.  

But I didn’t mention the bass at all to Justin, I simply sent him the track.  And he’s like, “By the way, did you write that bass line or is it an original part of the song?”  And I’m like, “No, I wrote that shit.”  And he was like, “Dude, that’s really good.”  High praise.  

No, really, high praise. Because, you see, Justin is a Starr. And what that means is, we’re super analytical and unemotional in our assessments.  So we’ll point out the good or the bad like doctors.  Thus, when a Starr says, “Dude, that’s really good,” you know you did something right.  I was, to use a Britishism, chuffed.

So that’s where all that’s at.  In other news, the Islanders finally bowed out of the playoffs, making it all the way to Game 6 of the Conference Finals.  It was a hell of a ride.  Also exhausting, as the games routinely started at 2am here.  Some games went to OT, so they ended at like 5am.  One even went to double OT; that one ended at 6am.  #fml  It was exhausting, and in a way, I’m relieved it’s over.  But man, that was a hell of a ride.  For the first time in a long time, it felt good to be an Islander fan.

In other other news, last weekend Joschka and I drove down to Bavaria for one of our friends’ birthday. The usual shtick.  Drink a lot, eat a lot, laugh a lot.  And as I’ve written so many times before, there’s just so much love in the room with those people.  I mean, we see each other just a couple times a year, and there’s not a whole lot of communication when we’re not together.  Yet somehow, there’s a real bond there.  It’s like a big extended family.

A highlight was, as so often, a late night guitar session.  They have their songs they like me to play, which I’m happy to do if I can remember them.  But almost every gathering, I’ll also make up a song on the spot.  People seem to love them – they still talk about ‘The Squirrel Song’ from like five years ago – but also, we’re all drunk and nobody’s ever recorded them, so who knows really?  And as with most unrecorded improvisations, they’re irrevocably lost to time.

But this time, Joschka had the (good?) sense to record it.  It was essentially a birthday song for Marina, our friend.  But I made up a verse about everybody at the table, which makes it a little more fun.  Anyway, I saw the video and it was pretty funny.  But more than that, it was great to see people clapping and laughing and singing along to the chorus.  Because if you do it right, you can wing a good, simple, catchy chorus that people can actually sing along to.  It wasn’t high art, but it wasn’t bad either.

Although I did spot some obvious mistakes in my German.  Oh, did I mention I do these songs are in German?  That’s right friends, Dave drunkenly makes up songs in German. Bonus points for improving in not your own language, amirite?

Here’s a funny thing. I’ve got a cousin in Seattle.  Or she’s from Seattle, anyway.  No idea where she is now or what she’s up to. Years and years ago, one of my dad’s sisters moved out there and I really didn’t see much of them after that. So I have this cousin, whose name escapes me, who I’ve met like twice.  The point is, she’s a super talented musician.  And the one time I actually remember meeting her as a grown person, she comes with her guitar and just starts making up songs on the spot. Properly good songs, too.  And funny as all get out.  And all I remember thinking was – and this was years before I ever started singing myself – I just remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could do that!”

Well, now I guess I can. And in German too!  I mean, if you put enough booze in me and surround me with the right people.  But hey, achievement unlocked.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time and/or energy for tonight.  A couple weeks ago I started a post which I never finished.  Some of it is still relevant, some of it has been superseded by this post.  But I’ll append it to the end here anyway.

That said, I wish you all a happy new year.  May you all be written into the good side of The Big Guy’s book and have a blessed year.

לשנה טובה תכתבו און א גוט געבענטשט יאר

Here follows the aforementioned two-week old unfinished post…

How about those Islanders, eh?  I mean, they’re killing me.  But in a good way.  They’ve just advanced to the second round of the playoffs.  Which is great and exciting news.  And also…I get at least another four games starting at 2am.  Yay?  Nothing like going to work completely exhausted because you were up all night watching a hockey game from the other side of the world.  My boss has been pretty understanding thus far though.  So there’s that at least.

Also, there’s music. I forget where things were at last post. I was working on an electric guitar arrangement of a Renaissance choral work.  Well, that’s finished.  All in all, I was pretty pleased with it.  As a first attempt / learning experience anyway.  But now things are heating up.

I dug out an old song I’d written back in the Chinatown days as the first track I was gonna work on as an actual song.  By which I mean, with vocals.  Well, the first part was easy.  Just laying down the acoustic guitar track and the main vocal line on top of it.  So far, that was nothing new.  I mean, that’s no different than what I normally do. Except that rather than playing and singing at the same time, now I split them up for recording purposes. But that was easy.  Just getting the tracks down, I mean.

But then came the real challenge.  To wit, the vocal harmonies.  In the last post, I wrote about how I’ve been pushing myself to provide backing harmonies with Bibi and Ralf.  Which is hard enough for me.  What I mean is, harmonizing is still relatively new ground for me.  And it’s enough to worry about when I’m just adding one harmony for myself over what they’re singing.  

Here though, I’m writing multi-part (well, two-part thus far) harmonies for my own music.  And lemme tell you, it’s a whole new world, friends.  Before going any further, I should clarify just what kind of music we’re talking about here.  

Most of what I’ve written in the past derives from basically two main streams of influence.  The first is what I’ll call ‘classic rock and roll.’ Buddy Holly being the biggest influence there.  The other main influence is Irish folk, mostly filtered through The Pogues.  

So my first question in all of this was, what kind of backing vocals are right for this kind of music?  I decided I wanted to go in a 50’s doo-wop kind of direction.  About which I know absolutely nothing.  So I turned to the internets for help.  Whereupon did I tweet the following: “Is there like a book on doo-wop vocal harmony theory or do I just have to figure this shit out all on my lonesome?”

To which Jared replied: “Use your ears like the rest of us!”  Ugh.  Thanks, guy. Of course he was right.  But rather than turn to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, whose backing vocals I always found a bit corny, I decided to look elsewhere. Where, you ask?  Why, The Crystals!  Two songs, in particular.  The Do Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me.  Because those girls are on fucking point with their harmonies.3  So I used that as a starting point.

“Use your ears,” he had said.  Well, there’s two ways to do this.  One is to listen to others’ recordings.  But the other is just to experiment, to just try out different lines and listen to the results.  Trial and error in other words.  Between these two approaches, I started to have some success; started to have some stuff I was fairly happy with.

So I reached out again to Jared and Justin, at which point they started to hit me with some useful feedback and and tips.  And Friday I picked up a music notebook.  You know, one of those where instead of lines for writing, it’s pre-printed with music staves.  With this I was able to work out the finer details of what I was trying to do.

At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve got the harmonies where I want them for this song.  Of course, writing the harmonies and singing them are two different things.  I mean, it took me a long time just to teach myself to be able to sing and play at the same time.  And when you’re singing alone, you have a larger margin for error, pitch-wise.  Not that you can afford to be “off,” but you don’t necessarily have to be perfect.  

Now, though, Iam singing with both meand myself, as it were.  The margin for error is considerably smaller.  I can do it.  I mean, I’ve done it.  The tracks are down.  And they’re pretty solid, though I wouldn’t say perfect.  But it did require many takes, many attempts.  

But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got so far.  And I’m pretty proud of what I’ve come up with.  Again, in the context of a first attempt.  Still though.  Writing and recording is only the beginning.  Because even when that’s all done, I’ve still got to mix everything. I’ve got to take it from a raw recording and turn it into a “song,” something that’s actually pleasant to listen to.  

And the goal here is to arrive at an end product that is actually “good,” whatever that means.  I think I know what it means.  It means, it can’t be enough to just be interesting to the people who already know me and care about me and are by default interested in what I’m doing.  It has to be good enough to play for somebody who doesn’t know me that well, somebody who doesn’t give a shit about Dave per se. It has to be good enough for thatperson to sit up and say, “Hey, you know, this is pretty good!”  

I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself.  I hope I’m not delusional.  But I really think I can do that.  I think I write music that is catchy, pleasant.  Music that swings.  With lyrics that are worth the time to hear.  Which is not to say I think I’m writing stuff that deserves a record contract or radio play.  Far from it. But stuff that I can play out in front of strangers and have them enjoy it?  Stuff that my friends could play for their own friends and have them like it enough to maybe want a copy?  Yeah, I think I can swing that.  Or maybe I’m delusional.  Fuck do I know?

Anyway, that’s been this past week.  Every day after work, I take a nap.  And then when I wake up, I hit the studio.  Oh, the studio, I’ll come back to that in a sec.  But I’d say I’ve been putting in 3-4 hours every day, working on this one tune.  And I think it’s paying off.  More than that though, it’s fun as hell.  I mean, I love making music.  I can’t get enough.  And I’ve got a backlog of songs built up over the years.  So when this tune is finished, I’ll move straight onto the text one. I can’t wait.

So yeah, the studio. I’ve rearranged my kitchen so that I’ve got a permanent studio setup there now.  I’ve got my recording booth in the corner, with a music stand beside it. On the other side, I’ve got a table where I set up my computer.  Very neat and tidy.  Small, but efficient.  I even hooked the fridge up to a switch, so I can shut if off when I’m recording; because the last thing you want is that electrical hum creeping in.  There’s a picture of all this on my Insta.  

And there’s a new element that I’ll soon be incorporating.  Namely, bass guitar.  As things are progressing with Bibi and Ralf, I decided to spring for a bass.  As things stand, there are already a number of songs in our set where I just play a bass line on the guitar anyway.  So I figured it was time for the real deal.

I wrote last time how I started out (and to some extent still am) seeing myself as a bit of a hired gun in that project.  I’m trying to get away from that mindset, though, and one way I’m doing that is take a sort of jack-of-all-trades approach.  A bit of depth and color with the guitar?  Sure.  A lyrical guitar solo?   I can do that.  We need a harmony here?  On it. This song would be better served by bass than guitar.  Let’s do it.

Until the last show, all of the songs we play had been chosen by Bibi and Ralf.  Only recently did I step out of my comfort zone in that regard in suggesting that we play a Yiddish song.  So we debuted Toom Balalaika at our last show.  It fit right in.

So the next – and maybe final – step for me, is to see how they feel about doing one of my songs. All we’ve done to this point has been covers.  Which, to be honest, is what they want, I think.  I mean, as much as anything, I think this is a way for them to play and share the music that they already love.

And don’t get me wrong, covers are fun.  In every band I’ve ever been in, we’ve always done some covers.  But for me, the point of being in bands was always to play original music.  Writing has always been very important to me.  And that’s even informed my approach to this project.  Because even though we’re playing covers, they’re almost always songs I’ve never heard before.  And I’m very careful to avoid ever hearing the original.  As much as possible, I want what I play to be my own, not a copy of somebody else’s guitar parts.  Sure, sometimes it’s unavoidable.  The song is the song, after all.  And sometimes they specifically ask me to play exactly what’s on the record.  If they ask, sure.  But my goal is always to bring something new, something personal to the music.  To have that avenue for creation and self-expression.

So I don’t know how they’re going to feel when I ask them if they’d be interested in playing something I’ve written.  But I’m hoping they’ll be into it.  And if not this song, then maybe the next one.

But I hasten to add, this isn’t about taking over the spotlight or anything like that.  In that regard, Monty Python, of all people, have been very instructive to my way of thinking in this matter.  The Pythons have always said that they never cared who performed what roles.  That they had no egos as actors.  The only thing they cared about was the material, the comedy.  I kinda love that.  And it’s kinda how I feel about this.

I don’t care who takes the lead vocal, who’s the star of the song, so to speak.  If it happens to fit Ralf’s voice or range better than my own, so be it.  If it sounds better with a woman’s voice, then Bibi should take the lead.  I’m more than happy to just do backup harmonies on my own songs.  

The point is, I think it’s good music.  And more to the point, I think it could sound really good with the three of us doing it together.  So like I said, I’m hoping their open to the concept.  And I hope I’ve got at least one song they like enough to actually want to perform.  So we’ll see. First things first though.  And that means I have to produce a recoding that’s good enough to present to them.  And we’ll take it from there.  

I said that there’s a new element I’ll be incorporating, and that that was the bass guitar.  That’s true even in my own recordings.  So now I’ve got the guitar down.  I’ve got the main vocal line down.  I’ve got the harmonies pretty much where I want them. The next step is to add a bass guitar part.  And I’m not a bass player.  So this is a new challenge.

I don’t mean playing the instrument itself.  If you can play the guitar, you can play the bass.  But what makes a good bass line?  It’s a whole new way of approaching a song.  It’s a skill I’ve got to learn, an ear I’ve got to develop, if you will.  I’m confident I can do it.  But it will take time and a lot of experimentation.  It will also take a lot of listening.  A lot of “using my ears,” as Jared said.  

Which leaves only one final missing piece, and that is the most daunting of all.  I’m talking about drums.  It’s daunting on two levels.  First, I know absolutely nothing about drums.  And unlike going from guitar to bass, which is a transferable skill, drums is a beast all its own. 

But add to that, we’re not even talking about real drums.  In terms of recording in my home studio here, we’re talking about synth drums. Now, there are all kinds of programs and plugins made just for people like me.  So, when I’m feeling confident, I do feel like I can master at least the very basics.  Enough, at least, to end up with the most basic of drum tracks which will hopefully compliment my songs.  But that’s a whole new world for me, one I have not so much as even dipped a toe into yet.4

The good news is that, in the context of bringing a track to Bibi and Ralf, drums don’t matter.  We don’t have a drummer anyway.  So at least there’s no pressure in that regard.  But at the end of the day, if I’m talking about recording my own music, and if my own music is rock and roll, well, sooner or later, it’s gonna need drums.  

Anyway, that’s more or less where things are at musically at the moment.  And that’s probably where I’m gonna end this post.  I mean, I’ve got a million other things going on, as the regular reader of this blogue is no doubt aware.  The weekly Torah readings, the weekly Yiddish schmooze/readings, Latin, French, Shakespeare, work, something like a social life, the angst/guilt of not finding any time for Greek, translation projects, the Islanders. It’s a wonder I’ve found time enough even to write this much.

But I wanted to write this. The music is so much fun right now and I wanted to share that.  Hopefully, in a very short time, I’ll be able to share the music itself.  So, you know, stay tuned.  Don’t touch that dial, even.  In the meantime,

זײַ געזונט

  1. I’m leaning heavily towards Sally, as in Long Tall Sally.  Because she’s slim, hourglass shaped and has a long neck.  Plus, you know, Little Richard. []
  2. I think “it slaps” is current slang, or so I gather from Twitter.  It’s really hard to stay on top of slang when you’re living in a foreign country. Which is fun when you then go to teach a bit of slang.  “A cool way to say this would be…”  And then, “Well, that was the cool way to say it four years ago.  Who knows what people are saying now.” []
  3. Also, crazy good production values from Phil “I’m definitely crazy and also probably killed a person” Spector. []
  4. #AnalogyFail – one does not dip one’s toe into a world… []