The Story Behind
Life's An Intelligence Test
and the Musicians Who Made it Happen
There is a list of musicians and their e-mail addresses at the end of the story.
When web sites were available, these are included in the text.
Work on the CD began during the summer of 2004. I had twice as many songs as I needed and I was having a difficult time knowing which songs to include. It's hard to be objective about your own children. So I put out a hail to the fan list. Would anyone be willing to listen to a couple dozen songs and give each song a rating from 1 to 100? I got sixty volunteers and sent out the CDs. When the ratings came back I put them in a spreadsheet. (Don't laugh. How would you have handled it?) I learned a lot.
The biggest surprise was a song called Angels. I almost didn't include it. It's about my mother dying, and I never thought people would like it. I hadn't been playing it out. It has no hook, no chorus. It is the least commercial song I'd ever written. But I'd worked hard on it, and I wanted someone to have heard it. It was almost a moment of spite. They're getting a free CD, they can put up with it. To my utter amazement it came in second. I discovered that the intensely personal songs did better than the songs I imagined as being commercial. (Commercial to me is not a dirty word. It means songs that are easy to understand and enjoy.) A number of songs I really love didn't do well in the ratings. Some I decided would have to be reexamined. Maybe I could solve the mystery of why they weren't working for people, but for now they were set aside. A few songs I decided should be put to rest. One song I resurrected. Plague Ship, a song I love performing, had come in second to last. Yet I didn't want to give up on it. After a lot of thought, I decided the flaw was in the chorus. I tweaked the chorus, played it out, and got a very positive reaction. So it joined the list of the 18 songs that would be worked on in the next phase of the project. Sometimes an arrangement or setting of a song just doesn't work as well as hoped, so the final 14 songs to make the album would be chosen once the recording was finished.
Then I needed to pick a producer. I talked to a couple of people who expressed an interest in producing the album, but who adamantly balked when they heard I wanted to feel free to work on the project at home. If their name was going to be on the CD they wanted to be able to control the quality. And that meant being there when anything was being recorded. I couldn't imagine limiting my working hours to the times when they were available. I think a first timer being his own producer is walking out on a shaky limb, but I knew what I wanted for the songs and didn't feel I needed a lot of hand holding. In the end I decided (with some trepidation) to produce the CD myself.
For those gearheads reading this, I'd been using ProTools for the preliminary recording and had a decent signal chain for two of the channels. But it just seemed like something was not quite as good as it could be in the sonics. So before the final round of recording, I spent several thousand dollars to get a Neumann mic and Universal Audio 6176 (that's a combination tube preamplifier and compressor). And yes, the high end stuff does sound better. Wish it weren't true.
Then began the tedious process of recording an album. For most of the songs I tried to come up with a full band sound on my own so I'd know if I liked the feel of what was happening. I also thought, wouldn't it be cool to do a Paul McCartney and have played all the instruments. (Todd Rundgren used to do the same thing.) I recommend it. It feeds the ego; teaches you that you can do more than you realize if you just give it a try; and provides a backup position if you don't like what happens when others start adding their ideas. I was working on a total of about 18 songs at this point. Eight months later I had an album. But I had a sneaking suspicion that a real drummer would sound better than the drum machine I had used and that a real cellist could do better than what I'd done with a midi processor. So it was time to find some pros to work with.
Recording vocals and a guitar at home works fine. It's just not that hard to do it well. But if I wanted a grand piano and drums and bass in a recording session, I'd be a fool to try and do that on my own. Anyway, do you own a grand piano? I don't. So I went looking for a recording studio. I ended up at the Tone Zone in Chicago. It's a bit pricey, but I liked Roger Heiss (the fellow who runs it), liked the piano, and I've never regretted the decision. And the real bonus was that Roger knew all the best musicians in town. (Roger's email)
Roger recommended trying to get the first-call fellows. He said you pay top dollar for them, but they're so efficient in the way they operate in the studio that you get things done a lot faster. And more to the point, they create amazing music that you'll be thrilled with. Roger suggested I might be able to get Brian Wilson's bass (Bob Lizik) and drummer (Jim Hines). (At such moments your ears perk up. For those from other generations, Brian's the fellow behind the Beach Boys. Anyone who can handle Brian's music, probably would do just fine with mine.) Roger also recommended a fellow named Chris Cameron who supposed to be was some kind of Mozart on the keyboards.
I sent out CDs of what I'd been doing. The three of them seemed amenable. Bob and Jim were going to be on tour with Brian a lot in the coming months, but there was a Monday after the band got back from Puerto Rico when all three could make it and the studio was available. The die was cast.
I spent a couple of weeks getting the lead sheets ready for the session. Worked out the kinks involved in being able to run the recording sessions I'd been doing at home off the computer at the Tone Zone. Finally I felt ready for the big day. So it's the Sunday night before the recording session around 11 o'clock when the phone rings. Jim Hines is calling. As he was leaving Puerto Rico, walking across the hotel lobby, he slipped on some water, fell, and landed on his arm. Then on the flight back it slowly but surely locked up on him. He would call the next morning with the verdict on how he was feeling. I don't remember sleeping terribly well that night. In the morning Jim offers one good arm and foot peddles, but the hurt arm wasn't working. As we were talking a fellow was down at the Tone Zone tuning the grand for the day's session. I'm scheduled, this was my window of opportunity and I didn't have a drummer.
I called up Bob Lizik and asked if he could recommend another drummer he'd want to work with. Bob and Jim are tight, and I could hear how much this was hurting Bob, but he gave me the name of Larry Beers. Larry had commitments for the day but changed them around. We started two hours late, but we managed to go ahead with the session.
The day in the studio was a little bit of heaven. (It helped not to think about how much it was costing every minute.) I've been around a lot of musicians in my life and I don't recall being quite so stunned by what was being played. And if what I was hearing didn't feel right to me, they could instantly switch their approach to something more in line with what I wanted. I remember feeling guilty at one moment. This stuff is going on my album? I am unworthy. And what was even more amazing was that they could do it in just a few takes. Play it once to see how it sounds. By the second take they were often perfect. If we decided on a third take for insurance sake, it was flat-out perfect. There would be no edits or corrections needed. They almost seemed genetically incapable of playing a wrong note. As someone who has to practice endlessly to get a part really right, I can assure you it was a humbling experience. We did about 13 songs in nine hours. (The rest of the songs didn't seem to me to need the full band approach.)
As I went through what they'd done back at my place, I quickly started eliminating my preliminary drumming tracks and bass parts. Actually there are a couple of songs where I kept my bass part and simply used two bass lines. But Bob's bass playing is one of the highlights of the album, and I can't hold a candle to the man. Listen to what he did on Long Vegas Night. Chris had alternated between piano and organ. The man's a genius, and his parts left me enthralled. Instead of doing my work, I found myself listening to certain passages of his over and over again.
Larry had also done an amazing job. I still get goose-bumps when I hear what he did on El Viento Del Diablo. And on You Just Might Lose I asked him to channel Keith Moon (an almost impossible feat). Well, have a listen; I would swear that's Keith Moon drumming.
Then there was a string of solo people to add back at my place. Dave Onderdonk came in to add some tones on electric guitar. Listen to Stand. It would be half the song without that etheric guitar piece.
I've always been a huge fan of John Williams. He was the button accordionist for Solas. He's on Plague Ship, When the Ship Comes In and a couple of others. He'd do several takes so I could pick and choose what I wanted to use. And each of the takes would be it's own little miracle of musicianship. Later as I was editing the songs, it was painful having to choose amongst them.
Several of the songs were recorded more than once, at a new tempo or a new key. It's interesting how much that will change the effectiveness of a song.
I had Jordi Kleiner handling strings for me. He's playing that screwball line that I just love on Life's An Intelligence Test. On the bridge of We Were A Family you'll hear Jordi playing enough tracks to constitute the string section of an orchestra. And part of what makes So Beautiful so sad is the dual violin parts he came up with. In addition, you can hear him playing cello on Plague Ship.
Larry Gray is this wonderkind jazz double bass virtuoso who's played a part in a wide variety of great recordings. He also plays cello, and I so love the sound of a cello. That's him on We Were A Family. I had already painstakingly created a midi cello part for So Beautiful and was immensely proud of it. I played Larry what I wanted him to play. He shrugged me off, almost played what I wanted for a second and then went off of his own tangent. For a few seconds I was quietly annoyed, and then I really listened to what he was doing. On the fly he was creating something far superior, full of depth and feeling. I had moments with these guys when I wondered at how I could possibly call myself a musician.
I know Jerry Thiel from the Lake County Folk Club. He's a wonderful songwriter with one of the ballsiest voices I've ever heard. I needed ballsy on some of the songs, and I've never thought that was my strong point. So I begged Jerry's help. You'll hear him on several of the songs.
Another songwriter from the Lake County club is Diccon Lee. He has a beautiful voice, can play either guitar or bass with equal finesse, and has been kind enough to back me up on occasion. Diccon came up with this marvelous guitar part for Shine. Sometime when you're playing Shine, turn up the left channel and really listen.
My primary harmony help came from Jeanne T. Arrigo, also a songwriter with her own excellent first album out. I just think of her as The Voice. She has an unerring sense, I think, of what a song needs, the right tone, the right harmony line. She's all over the album.
Chris McNamara and Rick Neeley are a duo singing folk music in the Chicago area. I've always admired their sound and thought they'd be perfect for Shine. They really were.
On We Were A Family I wanted a child's voice for the second chorus. I asked my daughter if she'd like to do it. She decided her friend Tara was a better singer and suggested I ask her. For those familiar with Mark Cleveland's work, Tara's his daughter.
I thought my most difficult challenge would be getting the harmonies for I Do right. Help came from an unexpected quarter. A few years back when I moved in with Joy, I acquired new neighbors, Bill and Jill Mueller, who have managed to make a living through the years singing in shows in the Chicago region. Several times they've been nice enough to get us some cheap seats for one of their plays, so I've had the pleasure of seeing them in all their glory. They're very talented people. In the summer, when both our houses have their windows open, they have to put up with the sound of me practicing and, of course, I can hear them singing as well. One day I heard the most amazing soprano voice coming from next door. Jill? Wow! I mean I knew she was good, but Wow! The next day when I ran into her over the back fence I mentioned how amazing she'd sounded. Jill looked perplexed. No, that must have been Abby. Seems Jill has two daughters who sing. Recently Joy and I saw Abby star in a production of Brigadoon. At the end of the show Joy was in tears, To think I used to diaper that child. Look what she's become! Well I needed 5 part harmony for I Do. The lead and bass I'd already done myself. But I needed three high harmonies that could blend well together. Who better than relatives? I asked Jill if they'd do it. Sure, and for free. That's what neighbors are for. I was a little nervous about the session. I hadn't heard Jessie, the younger daughter, yet. Plus I wasn't sure the sound I wanted was in their repertoire. They were show-tune people. Well, it turns out Jessie is every bit as talented as her sister. (Heck, a few years later Jessie got a Tony nomination for her starring role on Broadway. She's some kind of star these days.) The two sisters were like a well-oiled machine together. One of the girls asked, So what kind of approach do you want? I mentioned the Coors singing Breathless? They nodded to each other, piece of cake. They pulled on headphones and told me, "Roll it." I think I was in a state of shock the rest of the session. It was exactly what I'd dreamed of for the song. I'd come up with some harmonies in advance and quickly decided not to offer them. The girls were working something out together that was much more inspired than what I was going to suggest. At the end of the recording session I was ecstatic. Except by the next day I was dissatisfied. In that original recording session I had the word "everywhere" popping up all by its lonesome in the middle of the verses.
I had expected it to feel like a stroke of genius, but when I heard it back it felt isolated and disconnected. I decided it wasn't enough and came up with the contrasting line to run concurrent with the verses. The girls returned for a second session and added the new lines.
That pretty much finished the album. I did what preliminary mixing I could and then went back to Roger at the Tone Zone to do the final mixing. (There's a lot of equalization magic that goes on to allow all the different parts to be heard in a mix. My understanding of such things is rudimentary at best and I wanted Roger guiding the ship into dock.)
As I was starting the mixing process, I sent a copy of what I had so far off to Steve Joyner, a songwriter friend, and asked him to give it a listen. I've had songwriters I admire do albums that I felt had missed the mark and wanted an objective opinion on the direction I was headed. He was mostly upbeat in his assessment but mentioned that he was disappointed that there wasn't a moment on the album of outrageous, monster guitar. That struck a chord. I had always wanted You Just Might Lose to really rock out. I loved the little lick I had at the end of the chorus. But it needed something else for the introduction to the verses. And goodness knows I'd tried to come up with something. Nothing I had done made me happy. I'd sort of resigned myself to leaving it as is until Steve's comment.
At the next mixing session I asked Roger if he knew of a truly monster shredder. He gave me the name of Ernie Denov. I had a few days before the final day of mixing so at the last second I got Ernie to come over to the house. You can hear what he did on You Just Might Lose. Listening to him play I had another one of those holy smokes this is going to be on my CD, how cool is that moments. With that part in place I finally felt at peace. It was the album I had dreamed of, and I couldn't think of anything I'd change.
There was one last marathon day of mixing, with Roger staying much later than he'd planned. And then the music was finished.
At such moments you feel like you've crossed the finish line. But you haven't. I still had mastering and the artwork. I had five days before I had to leave on vacation with Joy, and I desperately wanted the project off for duplication before leaving town for ten days, so I immediately started in on the booklet, cover design and Sampler art.
Joy's daughter Laura is a wonderful, award-winning photographer and had offered to help with the picture I'd need for the cover. (Do I tend to luck out with friends and neighbors, or what?) She began with a lengthy interview with a whole raft of fascinating questions, trying to clarify what I wanted for the cover. Then she roamed our neighborhood picking out cool backdrops. The red door we used is just down the alley from our house. We went on to do several photo shoots (let's face it folks, I'm not the most photogenic person in the world) and slowly learned what we liked and didn't like. By the time the music was finished, we'd taken hundreds of photographs (isn't digital wonderful?), and we had some good shots to choose from. I'd also been taking pictures of everyone who played on the album. So I had those for the booklet. I worked round the clock for several days. Then took a day off to take the final mixes up to Milwaukee for mastering with Trevor Sadler at Mastermind Productions. Finally it was Tuesday and Joy and I had a plane to catch the next day. I wasn't close to being done. I called Judi Riley, a talented designer who's also a great singer. She came by after work, and we struggled late into the night. The next morning while Joy packed her bags, I was still at the computer. We were supposed to leave the house by 1:00 pm. Didn't quite make it, but close enough. At 1:00 I finished the artwork. It took me a half hour to throw some stuff in a suitcase and change. As we rushed down to the airport I remember thinking what a blessing it was that Joy had remained so calm. I was hoping I'd find a FedEx store when we got down to Midway Airport. No such luck, but we made the plane. At the other end of the flight we found a FedEx shipping center with a couple of minutes to spare before the day's cutoff. When they told me the next day envelope would cost the exorbitant sum of $25, I was somehow elated. Considering all the effort and expense that had gone into the album, that seemed about right. One year after starting the project, I walked floating out of the FedEx office. I then spent a week in a pine forest in Massachusetts doing English Country Dancing without a care in the world.
If you're a struggling musician in the Chicago area needing an extraordinary musician or two and are sitting there wishing you had some way of getting in touch with one of the musicians mentioned above. The list that follows has been hotwired with email addresses. Here you go: