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. Today: Track 9, “Life As a Movie II”
This song has a weird life, and almost never made it on to the album. I’m pretty sure we did this song towards the end of the day on the last day of our studio time. We had two other songs “The Breakup Song” and “The Outer Limits” and while mixing them, we had more or less agreed that the takes we had weren’t that great, at least they weren’t as good as the other songs we’d tracked. These two songs ended up on my first solo record a few years later, but it was a drag realizing the takes weren’t good enough, because they were really fun to play. The Outer Limits, especially, would have sounded pretty great on the album in my opinion.
We already had a little instrumental jam that we’d recorded and were planning on using to round out the album (more on that in two weeks) but we felt the album still needed another full length song to beef up the tracklist. So while the rest of the band went and got sandwiches, Josh set me up with a mic and an acoustic guitar and hit record, and we ended up with a pretty good version of a song that the band loved, but we’d never worked on.
I wasn’t too keen on putting a solo acoustic song on the album for a few reasons. For one, I didn’t really play guitar. I’d fucked around on the instrument for sure, but I didn’t even own one at this point. Also, as much as I was the primary songwriter of the band, I was extremely proud of the collaborative nature of the group, and didn’t want to highlight anything on the record that might take away from that. So it was optics to a point. I didn’t want people to think I insisted on including it. It wasn’t even my idea. I’m pretty sure Joey is the one who suggested it, and we only ended up doing it because we needed another song and didn’t have time to set up the whole band again to try another take of one of the two songs we’d decided weren’t working.
The song is actually the third version of the song that exists. The first version, “Life as a Movie” was from the first batch of songs I’d ever written. I recorded it in the basement of my apartment in Canarsie in 2002, when my girlfriend had just left me and I had a whole summer where I had nothing to do but write songs and smoke weed. I’d recently gotten a 4-track Tascam Portastudio, and spent most of the summer learning how to record songs. For Life as a Movie, I’d recorded a version with long instrumental verses which lead into the chorus, and wanted to do a spoken word part for the verses. I chose selections from a long, rambling piece I’d written in my journal about my feelings about my girlfriend leaving me. I would read from the journal, stop when the chorus started, then start reading again. The result was pure lo-fi magic.
But that chorus! Still to this day one of the best things I’ve ever written. This needed to be a song I could play live, but I figured there was no way I was going to be able to memorize all those words, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the song to be as long as it was anyway. So I reworked the poem into actual lyrics, sped up the tempo, and chopped the run time in half, and “Life as a Movie II” was born.
I wasn’t playing shows in those days, but every time I brought the bass out to a park or subway platform, people always loved this song. It was one of the ones I brought to the band, but we never really figured out an arrangement that worked. I would have loved to do a full band version with Becca on backing vocals. But we have to settle for the version that we got done. We never played this one live, but I might have a rehearsal space version of it somewhere.
The actual recording was done in one take, which shocked the hell out of me, because as I said I didn’t even own a guitar and probably hadn’t played one in weeks if not months. But the bottom four string are the same, so I just pretended like the top two strings didn’t exist and just tried to be real careful. My voice was working ok that day so we added some backing vocals which worked nicely. I insisted on leaving in the “All right, take one” part because I always loved the Violent Femmes song “American Music” which starts with Gordon Gano sheepishly saying “Can – Can I put in something like, ‘This is American Music, take one.'”
I guess this is technically a cover of “Life as a Movie 2” and not part three. Not sure what a Life as a Movie III would look like. Eighteen years and a million beers and cigarettes later, my voice is in a much lower register. Maybe a piano version in a different key? It’s been a long time since I’ve revisited this song, and I’m happy with it. It’s the kind of song that makes me wish I’d had more success as a songwriter, not for me, but I would have loved it if more people had heard this song. I think as an artist that’s all one can really hope for – that you write material you believe in. That is its own kind of success.