Today and for the next few weeks we’ll be handing the reins over to poet-in-residence J.E. O’Leary, so he can tell the story of his band Trousers as he goes track-by-track through the band’s only release, 2004’s We Pitched a Hut and Called it Providence.
It took a long time for me to get this right. The song started with the bass riff that kicks off the song, but I was hearing the whole symphony in my head from the beginning. The version that ultimately got laid down on tape was – the best word I can come up with for it is correct. All the parts are there, the notes are there, the verses are in the right sequence, but something is missing. Listening to it now, the thing that’s missing is me.
When my girlfriend finally moved out in May 2002 I had the whole house to myself. I was alone all summer in the east end of Brooklyn. The few friends I did have were either in Manhattan, Long Island, or the Bronx. So I had a lot of time to myself I smoked weed and cigarettes and drank beer and played around with my four track. I jammed on C-Am forever. I did little fills each time. I was channeling something larger, something I wasn’t ready for. So I waited and waited. There was the first part. The second part was C, B, then descending to something else. I could hear it in my head but didn’t know where it was on the bass. I tried every note in the C scale, but none of them worked. Eventually I found it – A flat with an E over it. I remember how amazing it was to hear it, finally. I didn’t know why it worked – but it did. From there, I was able to get the third part – F – Am. Then resolved it back to C, where verses would come in. From there is came together pretty quickly. I added the verses and then by the time it got back to the F part, there would be a quiet part into a loud jam. It would be a real showstopper – a multi part epic ripe for long jams at the beginning and a fierce rock out at the end. The kind of song you could stretch out and have wild live versions.
After George and I jammed that first time, we started making plans to put a band together. Our first guitarist was named Tom. We spent about half the time working on his songs, and half working on mine. When I brought this unnamed song to the band, none of us had the musical vocabulary we needed to be able to describe the parts, so we ended up diagramming it out on big sheets of paper and hanging them up on the wall. Verse part one > Verse part two, etc. Everyone was into it. George named the song; at one point I was clarifying something on the chart and he stood with his hands on his hips looking sideways at it. “Es complicado,” he said. This is complicated.
As far as the band was concerned, we had a name – Sketch – and plans to add another element to the mix. I was pretty set on getting a cello player for some reason, but we did bring in a couple of keyboard players. One day we brought in a guy named Kartik. He had a huge 88 key Yamaha and serious chops. He was blowing us away. When it came time to do this song, we broke out the charts and hung them on the wall. When I was telling him the chords for the different sections, I brought up the mystery A flat chord. “I don’t know what this chord is, but it works,” I said. Kartik ran some scales and we went through the part. He squinted while he played. Then he landed on a chord that rang out. “Oh,” he said “It’s E7”. I didn’t understand how E7 could fit into a C major key (still don’t) but I was grateful to finally have an answer. Kartik didn’t work out (I think we all thought he was too good), but I’ll always remember him giving me that chord.
The recording is pretty close to how I heard it in my head, bass-wise. Re-listening now I think there could have been fewer runs, especially during the first part, but there were so many notes in there that I’d come up with, and I wanted to put as many down on tape as I could. The real stand out here is Becca’s cello part, absolutely perfect, especially her haunting sustained notes at 5:00 – 5:15 or so. I hate my voice here. It’s thin and weak as a result of being out all night and not getting any sleep – tossing and turning over a girl that I was infatuated with. This was someone I had known as a friend for a long time, it briefly turned into something more before she pulled back. We basically got to have one perfect day – a day that became its own song.
In the moment, I was devastated. It’s just too bad that the worst day for me just happened to be the day before we were recording vocals. I couldn’t hit notes. I was totally unfocused. The whole band was pissed, and rightfully so. The next day of recording went better, but we didn’t have time to re-do Complicado, only auto-tune some of the worst parts. It’s hard to listen to now, only because I still hear what I heard that summer when I was writing it in my Canarsie basement. It’s not a track about which I’m really able to give a fair judgement. Except to know that I could have, should have done better. And that’s not really the way you want to feel about anything you’ve done that was supposed to be important to you. So listening to it now just makes me melancholy.
But the song itself? One of the things I’m most proud of having written. Despite the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, I love the melodies, I love the arrangement, I love the “stop love” breakdown. It really brings back 2002-2003 to me – hanging out in Williamsburg with George, then heading back to Canarsie on the L, crushing on hipster girls who wouldn’t get off their cellphones, reading missed connections, hoping. I love the honesty of the lyric “I know you want to see the west as bad as I do”. I still hadn’t been out west yet, despite my lifelong obsession. There’s a double meaning in the lyric, for when paired with the next line, I’m then talking about west Brooklyn. It’s funny that there’s a Trousers connection to when I finally did get out west, as it was to visit Joey and Becca, who’d moved away. There’s a self fulfilling prophecy within all of us, I guess, if we just listen for long enough.