Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 11: Mountain, Mountain Glowing

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 11, “Mountain, Mountain Glowing”.

We had the hardest time choosing a band name. One of the first we threw around was Simple Machines, which is the name for things like levers and wedges, the simplest possible “building blocks” of applying force. We liked the idea, but by this time (2002-2003) it was super easy to search the internet for other bands, and we soon discovered Simple Machines was the name of an established band in the Midwest; we wanted something completely ours. The next name we had was Sketch, and we actually stuck with this one for a while. I still have plenty of old rehearsal tapes that have Sketch on them. But this too ended up being the name of another band, this time, one out of Philly. It took a very long time to settle on a name. We eventually settled on Trousers during one of our weekly “go around in a circle and say the first thing that pops into your head” sessions at practice, but not before exchanging probably hundreds of ideas at these sessions and over email. There was one that Joey came up with while riffing that I loved, but George refused to consider. But it became something of an inside joke for the band, and when we had a nameless instrumental that we were going to use to wrap the album, George relented and let us use the name: Mountain, Mountain Glowing.

The instrumental itself was the “outro” of a new tune called “The Weed Song” we’d been playing that wasn’t quite ready for the album. I don’t really remember the song, and I’m not about to dig through band tapes to take a listen (though given the nature of these pieces I’m writing, I probably should), but I remember it as a dreamy, kind of Tom Petty-ish driving song, about pulling over on the side of the road to smoke a joint, or maybe being pulled over by cops after smoking? Like I said, not really sure. But this was the instrumental tag at the end of the song. As I mentioned before, two of the songs we recorded for the record weren’t working, so we had to record a few replacement tunes pretty quick. One was “Life as a Movie II” and the other was the outro for this song that worked well as its own piece.
There’s not much to say about this musically. It’s a quiet little two part ditty. Everyone plays their parts well, and the recording sounds fine. It’s the perfect way to end the album; a nice exhale after the emotional drama of Becca’s Song.
And that’s it. That’s the story of recording our album. There are thousands of stories just like this. Small rock bands who had a decent run, recorded an album, then had to break up for any number of reasons, but leave behind a document of the time spent in the band. When I was in Trousers, music was my whole life. Playing music, writing songs, was all I wanted to do. It wasn’t the best band I’ve ever been in (though definitely top 3), and it wasn’t the worst (not even close). But it’s one of the only ones where I actually have a finished album as a statement of our time together. For that I’m grateful.

When I started writing this series, I didn’t really have any goals except to kill eleven weeks of “Audio Saturdays!” on my website, and get some weekly writing in outside of my comfort zone of poetry and fiction. I felt a lot of emotions while revisiting this material, but was surprised at how sad a lot of it made me feel. The thought process went a lot like this: God damn, this is so good. How did we not keep this going? Well, people moved away. But how did I not keep something going? I kept writing, but it would be another 3 years before I fronted a band with my own songs again. I guess on some level I felt rejected and jaded by the whole thing, like, it ended, what was the point? I didn’t understand yet. I didn’t want to go through the whole thing just to end up right back at square one again.

After Trousers, the next couple of years were kind of lost. I bounced from band to band, drinking heavily, sleeping around, doing lots of cocaine and generally being self destructive. First I joined a jam band with one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with. But they were weekend warriors, and despite me pushing and pushing, didn’t have any real interest in playing live, which in hindsight is pretty odd for a jammy band. So after maybe ten months of trying, I quit. After that I found a garage rock band with another amazing drummer, and we had a pretty good run. We played live a lot, but when it came time to record, they decided they wanted a bassist with a different sound. Rejected again! That pissed me off and kind of woke me up a bit. It wasn’t until 2007 that I found a guitarist who believed in me and my songs, and we had a great band for a while. We eventually ended up at each other’s throats, but that experience gave me the confidence to get my songs going again. I started playing solo acoustic at open mics, and the whole Joe Yoga project was born.

Regret is an awful feeling on a lot of levels. First off, the feeling itself feels terrible, and, if you’re like me and beat yourself up a lot, it can be twisted into seeing it as an indictment of one’s current situation: if you regret something in the past, something ending, some action you could have done differently, then your life would be different, and the only reason you would feel regret is if you weren’t happy with your current life. If your life was great, you wouldn’t want anything in the past to be different because it would change where you are now. So it becomes difficult to identify just what it is you regret.

For me, with Trousers, I do think a lot about what it would have been like if we got a break, got to put out an album on a label, tour, all that jazz. I think we would have been good and successful. And it would have been the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I first found Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death in 7th grade: playing in a famous, powerful rock and roll band. There’s a lot of that result that’s out of my control, but there was also probably a lot I could have done that I did not, and a lot I did that I should not have done. But at the same time, my life since Trousers has been awesome. I’ve met some of the most incredible people I will ever meet, including the love of my life, had experiences and created art I would have not have created otherwise. All of those things would be different if the Dream came true: different people met, different songs written, different experiences experienced. So where is the regret coming from? Or, what is the regret over?

I think it’s two things (maybe three). The first part is my perception of the experience of Trousers as one I did not fully appreciate at the time. I hope I did. Those nights hanging out, drinking liters of warm beer at Greenpoint Tavern, three hour jam sessions, getting better, growing confident as a performer, singer, and songwriter, were so important to me. I suspect did not ever stop and say “this is amazing”; I was too busy with my foot on the gas. Or if I did, it wasn’t integrated the way I know now that that feeling needs to be. I know I loved those guys. I know we had a great band. Part of me is aware that the dream of doing everything right and experiencing every experience the right was is more of a fantasy than a dream. Now I can say: I know that now. But then I was just a match, burning. I thought the end was the end. But it never is.


The second is that being older, you know how much can change, and just how many different roads your life can take. I’m bummed I never got to live the road where I did everything right with Trousers. I’m also bummed I never got to live the road where I did everything right as a novelist, or with any other of the bands I was in. It’s not necessarily that I wish things were different, but that those would have been amazing to experience. I know in a different timeline, I could have been hit by a bus at 33 and never gotten to experience growing old. But it’s part of the gift and curse of having abstract thought. There’s no way to avoid thinking “What If?”. You can only hope it doesn’t lead to obsessively thinking “Why Not?”

The third thing is that I regret these songs never found a wider audience. I feel regret for the people who never got to hear them, because I know they would have loved them. We were a perfect little fireball of a band, with grace and humor and power. We would have been perfect. But music lovers, though they may never have experienced our band, I know one thing they did do: they followed their hearts to all the music they could find, and they found incredible, passionate music to love – because if there’s one thing this world is not lacking, it’s brilliant artists expressing their truths via amazing music. They say the snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche, but I wish it would, because it works the other way too – the drop of water can never comprehend that it’s part of the beautiful ocean, but if they all felt that way and went away, what a loss it would be for the eyes that seek beauty.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 10: Becca’s Song

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 10, “Becca’s Song”.

I don’t think we ever tried out more than three or four guitar players, but Joey was our clear favorite. According to him, though, he wasn’t sold on us right away. The first rehearsal was fun; Joey took off his shoes before playing, which is the first time I’d ever seen anyone do that before. He had a real distinctive vibe that was referencing a lot of the music we all liked (Modest Mouse, Neil Young, among others) but also had a voice that was very much his own. He vibed real well with all of us. But he wasn’t hyped to join until the second time we got together, when I asked him to play something for us to jam on. He played a simple G major chord progression that became the verse riff for our “closer”.

That rehearsal I remember pretty well. Becca was hungover, as was I, probably. There was a real mellow vibe to the room and I was anxious to get Joey on board. It can be intimidating going into a rehearsal where the band is pretty much all set, has songs, and is just looking for YOU. I wanted to be clear to him that we were looking for a final member, not just a guitar player, so I thought it would be worthwhile to see right away what kind of music he would be bringing to the table. We jammed on his chord progression (I’m a sucker for G major) for a while, it felt real nice. He didn’t appear to have any lyrics (he’d told us from the start he didn’t sing much) so I started improving vocals, starting with describing the room and moving on to describing Becca’s hungover morning. I don’t know all of what we ended up keeping but definitely “woke up with the lights on” “wine stained cups” and “heads or tails of it” were all from that first session. It’s pretty cool to think that vocals I just improved on the spot made it on to a record and then I’m still thinking about it almost twenty years later.

The rest of the arrangement, however, was a group effort. We decided that the chorus should change speeds, not chords, and worked out spots for us all to have solos. The song came together pretty quickly, because it was on our first demo, recorded in the Spring or Summer of 2003. It’s a little looser, a little clumsier, with a couple of ham fisted drum fills and flubbed bass notes, but it does have some redeeming qualities: the chimes before the verses, and a pretty sick bass line (6:09 – 6:15) coming out of the last solo.

BECCA’S SONG ORIGINAL DEMO

Returning to the album version, it’s much tighter. Joey’s sustain is perfect, Becca’s plucked notes really stand out, George is in the zone. My vocals, while stronger than the demo version, are really dragged down by the throat problems I was having that weekend. Josh and co, in the booth, had to really lay on the reverb; the falsettos are thin, the low notes don’t really land the way they need to, and the half-spoken parts kind of disappear in the mix. However I did get one great scream in at 4:00 (“make the best of it”)

This leads into a great bridge solo – first Becca comes in with these huge bowed notes, then Joey crunching these great chords as I lay into some sixteenth notes before the last half-verse. I like my vocals here, including one good last scream at 5:39. Then comes the great finale: a triple solo where Joey, Becca, and I are weaving in and out so perfectly. Its one of my favorite band related things ever caught on tape. During the mixing process, we were all hounding Josh to bring up our parts down to the individual note, which caused him to look over at us exasperated and claim “but you’re ALL soloing!”. He did a damn fine job though.

This was the “hold up a lighter” song for us, the big crashing finale. It had everything that made Trousers Trousers: dramatic lyrics, a mood change, big power chords and crashing drums, solos. It was a seven minute song that never felt like it dragged. It was a story that moved smoothly from one part to the next. The kind of song that would have been in our setlist forever. It’s also fun to think about having so many great songs that you drop a song like this and then bring it back years later and the crowd goes wild.

Some kids grow up thinking about hitting the big home run in the world series or winning a big race, I dreamed of having a band that played to a sea of people, all singing along with the lyrics and having an incredible time. As you grow older you realize that dreams are just that, dreams, and even if they come true, it’s not always the way you imagined it or wanted it. The “coming true” part isn’t the point of having a dream. Dreams and goals are, however, without a doubt important for one thing: they are the things that get you out of bed in the morning, turn you in one direction and pat you on the back – the rest is up to you. And luck.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 9: Life as a Movie II

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.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 8: Dinosaur

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 8, “Dinosaur”

Trousers was a pretty happy family for most of its existence. We got along great, were all committed, and mostly had fun. Things didn’t start to get bad until Spring 2004, when money was tight and personalities started to clash as people got restless; Joey talked a lot about leaving NYC; Becca was finishing school; George was super into his work. I was laser focused on music and the band, to a fault; it became my personality, and everything I felt was tied to how the band was doing. If we had a bad practice, I sulked all week. If Joey talked about wanting to move, I took it personally, imagined it as a slight. I didn’t realize this at the time, but that kind of behavior pushes people away, doesn’t bring them closer to you.

But in truth, the thought of wanting to leave or do something else was, to me, stupid. Towards the end of 2003, and into 2004, things were looking pretty good for the band. Our demo was good, and had gotten us booked at Sine and CBGB’s Gallery. We were writing really strong material, and were actually growing a following. Things weren’t happening fast but they were happening. There was no one point where it fell apart, maybe a series of bad practices solidified some people’s decisions. And of course, if people aren’t happy in their life, the band won’t change that, no matter how good it is. But I’d say that period of maybe October 03 – Feb 04 was the peak of the band. And that was when I wrote one of our best songs.

In December 2003, Becca, who was studying at Hunter, was going back to Oregon for Winter break with her friend Ange. Ange was our #1 fan and roadie. She was more or less the fifth Trouser. Joey was going back to Washington for the holidays. Maybe George too, back to California. Memory is fuzzy here. But basically the band was on hiatus for three weeks or so. This was fine – it was the holidays, not much would be happening live music wise. We would regroup and come back strong in spring, think about loft parties for spring, roof shows in the summer. I told the band I would hunker down for the month and write some new material. Becca had also started singing, so I said I would write a song for her to sing. She had only one request, that it be called Dinosaur. She and Ange were obsessed with Dinosaurs. They had Dinosaur t shirts, read those Dinosaur comics on the internet, even dressed up like Dinosaurs for Halloween (a picture of which ended up as the back cover for our album).

When I set to work, I tried to think of Lou Reed writing songs for Nico, or “I’m Sticking With You” for Mo. The song had to be really tender, but had to have a monster melody. I wrote it in the key of B, which was pretty high for me, but that was OK since I wouldn’t be singing it (my backgrounds are pretty weak on the record). The lyrics were written from the point of view of a younger woman in love with (or crushing on) an older man and each one had some reference to Dinosaurs. I remember George was particularly fond of the line “You’re so underground now aren’t you”.

When it came time to record it, we couldn’t quite get it right timing wise, so I had to sing the lyrics live while we were tracking. As a result you can hear me faintly in the background as Becca sings “keep me up” and “never miss a chance to dig you”. Becca’s vocal performance here is tremendous. Real vulnerability and emotion. And I always liked George’s snare work on the track. Joey’s guitar work is perfect as usual, real power on the power chords. I always loved the bass part at the end where I hit the chorus pedal. As a whole it’s great. I would have loved the chance to write a song for Becca to sing on every album.

The song’s Youtube video is also the recipient of probably the best internet comment I’ve ever had in relation to any of my work:

I mean, this is the kind of comment I dream about. Some rando from god knows where found our CD in a thrift store and loved it so much they searched it out on the internet. It really makes you think about what else is going on out there, what other people you may have inspired. It really speaks to the magic of art and of human connection. You don’t need to be the best, or the most ambitious, you just need to believe in yourself and put yourself out there. 95% of the rest of it is luck.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 7: September 10th

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 7, September 10th

One of my favorite things about being in a band and starting out was those hour long jam sessions. No agenda, no “working on” anything, just the band, some beers, some weed, and saying GO. It’s an exercise in improvisation, in creativity, and in endurance, both mentally and physically. We had to physically be able to play for that long – wasn’t the goal headlining shows? We would have to be able to play without taking breaks. We wouldn’t be able to walk off stage in the middle of a set and take a smoke break. Long jamming sessions also tested my mental creativity, and listening skills. If we could keep things interesting for long stretches, just jamming, not working on material, that meant we were listening well and exploring, flexing those creative muscles. These sessions were also great for writing as a band. I loved writing a song and bringing it to the band, but I also loved coming up with something brand new as a foursome. September 10th was one of those songs.

There’s no big meaning behind us calling it September 10th. The jam session where we came up with the skeleton of what became the song was literally on September 10th. We probably passed the tape around and at subsequent rehearsals would label it “September 10th jam”. Also we thought the jam sounded foreboding and sinister, and naming it after the day before an awful day seemed to fit. I don’t remember specifically how it came about, but I remember collecting those basslines from a D minor jam and putting them together – the arrangement just kind of came together. I tried to write words for it once, but the vibe was really off putting. I think in the Tape Box somewhere there is a really early version of me singing over it, but we ditched the idea pretty quick. It didn’t need a vocal part.

I definitely sound like a broken record at this point, but Joey’s guitar parts on this are perfect as usual. He had such a great feel for the dynamics of a song and how to push it forward. And having a classically trained musician like Becca in the band was such a great asset. She was always careful to never overwork any part, and knew exactly how to find her place in a song, even loud of busy parts. I could probably count on one hand the number of times we got too loud/busy/crazy for her and she just threw up her hands and was lost. There’s such a great achy quality to her parts here, especially in the first movement.

There’s a little studio magic happening in the way the two sections were bridged, but listening to it all these years later, it sounds fine. George is really hustling and pushing on the second movement, and though there’s a bit of a hesitation as we come out of the first, you can hear the moment we click, and it really takes off. The overall performance is solid, and, like Nothing Is Wasted, a good representation of what we were doing when we were at our best, and indicative of the kind of collaborative, urgent vibe we would have pursued, given a little more time.

When we walked in to the studio for the first time, we saw they had a gong set up behind the drum kit. “I don’t know what song it’s going to be,” George said. “But I’m hitting that gong on something.” We were all in agreement. When we were listening to the first mix in the booth, we all kind of looked at each other at the same time at the part. George made a hitting-the-gong motion. We did the overdubs right there. It sounds righteous. We were all so thrilled to have a gong on the record, we specifically called it out in the album credits.

None of us were sure where that little curly tail of a note at the beginning came from. It’s definitely Joey, We assume it was a trailing note left on the tape from whatever song we did before, but we did not notice it until it came time to master the recording. We’d gathered at a little basement in Chinatown on a Sunday with a “budget” master guy we found off of Craigslist. The little note is another one of those happy accidents that you find during the process. But by this time we were already aware that the end was near for the band, and the mastering sessions had an air of melancholy to them, even though we were all finishing something we were really proud of.

The one thing I remember from the mastering sessions is that it ended up being more expensive than we thought. I came in to it thinking it was going to be $60 each, but I must have read the email wrong because it ended up being almost twice that, and I went out to one of those bodega ATMs to get more money. It charged me a fee and left me with less that $20 for the week, and that depressed me even more than any of the other stuff going on. I remember thinking, at the ATM, I’m flat broke and I’m losing my band. If this isn’t a sign I need to get my shit together, I don’t know what is.

It would take me a little longer, in fits and starts, two steps forward one step back, but more than anything that was the moment. By that time next year I would have a new job, and more money, but I was in a new band I wasn’t happy in. But that’s a story for another series.

Trousers live at the Acme Underground in NYC, 2003, (probably)

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 6: Nothing is Wasted

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’s so nice when it happens good…”

Nothing Is Wasted was one of the last songs Trousers came up with. I had the riff – just a basic 1-4-5 plucked with the pick, but really nothing else. We jammed on it for a while before lyrics came, and the bridge is just a minor 6th – pretty standard Songwriting 101 stuff. I don’t even have any drama associated with this song. The lyrics aren’t about anything or anyone in particular, the recording sounds really good, and aside from one vocal miss (there’s supposed to be a big scream on the last “see the worrrrrrrrrrld!”) I’m happy with how I sound personally.

The song starts off with George on the drums, and it’s probably his best performance on the record. The beat is strong and fun and driving. I think had Trousers continued, we probably would have done a lot more stuff in this vein, upbeat dance-y melodic songs. There was a lot of that going on in Brooklyn in 2003-2004, and it probably would have gone over really well. The cowbell is classic – we’d been waiting for a song to use it on, and this was perfect. Joey’s sliding notes really push the song forward, and are where most of the dynamics come from. He always had a great knack for that stuff.

As you can tell, there’s not a lot going on in this song, so we added another track with Becca on the Wurlitzer, split off to the right. There’s a really great off-note at around 1:16-1:18, it comes in flat, but it sounds so good. One of those happy accidents you hope and pray will arrive at recording time. Her call and response vocals are great too. That is another element I think would have wanted to move to the front had Trousers continued. Her voice was really perfect for a lot of our material. I think we had a real streak of optimism, playfulness, and humor in our music and her voice was really expressive in that lane.

I think there’s a relatively celebratory tone to the lyrics. “Nothing is wasted” stands as kind of the faster, complimentary song to “When I go” – there’s a lot of the same tone to the lyrics. Which is interesting to me because when I initially wrote When I Go it had a similar vibe to Nothing is Wasted (though a lot slower). They both had that root-5, root-5, root-5 picking on the bass and a minor 6th chorus.

I think there’s a little distortion on my voice in the low end (?) – probably the engineer trying to cover up the fact that my voice was a bit thin that day. The only thing I’m not happy with in this song is the second “nothing is shorter than June” – where I draw “June” out and it sounds flat (emotionally not musically, though maybe there too). But overall this song stands as a good representation of where we were as a band and where we potentially could move: tighter band, better dynamics, more involvement up front from the other members. Something I learned pretty early on (and shocked me when I did) was that not every emotional song needs to have high drama around every element of its execution. I knew this for fiction writing, but it took me quite a long time to put that particular two and two together. It was quite a relief when I did.

n.b. the song’s title (and main theme) is apparently stolen from Charles Bukowski, whose “Dark Night Poem” reads: “they say that / nothing is wasted / either that / or / it all is” … Now, I don’t remember specifically lifting this, but I was quite the Buk fan at the time, so I without a doubt had come across it. Sorry Chuck. But thanks!

Trousers live in NYC at the ACME Underground. it was a good year for dudes to wear hats on stage I guess

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 5: Complicado

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.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 4: It Hurts Me More Than You

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.

The first time I ever played music in front of a crowd, it went about as badly as it could have possibly gone. I was playing with my first band, a jam band called IT, at legendary NYC venue CBGBs at one of their Sunday night showcases. As a huge fan of the CBGBs scene in the 70s and bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, I had hyped up the gig in my own head past the point of any realistic expectations. However, literally four measures into the first song, I popped a bass string for the first time in my life. I didn’t even realize what was happening at first; I’d never broken a bass string in almost ten years of playing. The string just kind of disappeared under my fingers. Once I put it together, I panicked, as I didn’t even know if I had extra strings and my gig bag wasn’t even onstage. I ran off the stage and frantically tried to find my gig bag in a sea of identical black gig bags. The band meanwhile, just started improving on the main riff of the song (an E blues). Eventually I did find it, and it had my extra strings. I put it on as fast as I could and got back onstage. The rest of the show (for me) was a mess, finding myself out of tune more than not. At one point while I was tuning, I couldn’t get it, and Nolan, the guitar player, had to come over and tune it for me. It was a pretty embarrassing spectacle, even more so given the stakes I’d given it, along with the fact I felt I’d let the band down. We didn’t get asked back, and were broken up less than two months later anyway. So by any standards, it was a disappointment.

Despite all the craziness however, it was unbelievably fun. We had a bunch of friends show up, smoked blunts in the basement, partied at the bar, and brought the whole circus back to Nolan’s Brooklyn apartment where we smoked and drank and played music all night. I had my acoustic bass there (I would end up moving in pretty soon, but am unsure if I was already in by that point) and we just spent the night jamming, reading poetry, smoking weed, and getting drunk. Any bad feelings from fucking up the gig were a million miles away. Everyone was having a blast. At one point, I started playing this bassline, based around an Am scale, just up and down. Kinda funky, kinda dirty. I looked over at our keyboard player, Daryl, and he was deep into a vibe, singing something. When I listened closer, I could make it out. “It hurts me… it hurts me more… it hurts me… it hurts me more…”

A few years later, when George and I jammed for the first time at his loft on North 6th street, we were mostly just improvising, feeling each other out. I was never the kind of guy that knew a lot of covers, so we were kind of wanting for material. At some point I busted this riff out and we worked on it. I had the lyrics – we’d never really turned it into a formal song, mostly because the band broke up, but I loved the riff/lyric combo, and it was easy to play & sing at the same time, so it was one piece that was always in my repertoire. So it was kind of natural that it would be a song. I always wanted to keep it fast and short, and real simple, some kind of cross between Violent Femmes and the Ramones. Two verses, a cello solo, a guitar solo, and a third verse and that was it. It clocks in at 2:22, but it always seemed long even at that.

I never liked the third verse. I couldn’t decide between the lyrics we eventually ended up with and my alternate version:

It hurts us, it hurts us more than them
It hurts us, oh, and it will ever end
It hurts us, oh it hurts us more than them
It hurts us, oh hurts us more than them

lost third verse

That would perhaps be more natural after “It hurts me more than you” and “It hurts you more than me”, the two lyrics that start the first two, but I think I was going for more of an edge at that point, and chose what you hear on the album. Reflecting back on it, it seems pretty clear that I chose poorly.

There’s not a lot to say about the recorded version. There’s a nice reverb on the cello, and I have some nice bass figures under the guitar solo. But it is what it is. And to my knowledge it’s maybe the only song from the IT era that survive in some official recorded form. I did solo acoustic versions of our songs “The Ballad of Bubbe and Zayde” and “Breath of Life” a handful of times, and I still know the basslines to most of the songs, including Nolan’s ” Pimpin’ “, the song on which my A string flew out from under my fingers at CBGBs all those years ago. But as a recorded song, it stands alone. I don’t think it was ever going to capture the manic raw energy of those Brooklyn years, but how could it? I mean, check out this completely spaced out version from a 1999 rehearsal:

Or the insane “Where the fuck am I?” energy from this version from the one time we played in Maine, at a place called The Wharf (4/24/2000 according to the tape):

Perhaps some things are best viewed from a distance.

Audio Saturdays! Trousers pt. 3: Leftovers

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.

“LEFTOVERS”

In 1998 I moved from Albany, NY, where I attended college, to NYC. The days that followed were completely magical. I’d fallen in love, formed a band, played live, was doing some of the best art of my life and had a tight crew of some of the best friends I’d ever had. Two whirlwind years later I was out, on my way to Maine, having run out of money and goodwill. I came back about 13 months later, but much had changed. A lot of those friends had left the city. When those that remained would get together, it was different, stressful. I was learning the hard way that when people changed they changed all the way, and that while the past might not be past, one could live in such a way that it effectively was. By the time Trousers formed in late 2002, my life looked pretty different. My girlfriend had left me, and I was now living by myself. One by one the friends that remained left the city, or moved on in their own way. I guess I was pretty lonely a lot of the time.

This song was inspired by a chance encounter, sometime in 2003, with an old friend from that era. We decided to get together for a drink one night and she ended up coming home with me. Our fling itself was pretty brief, fraught with old anxieties, resentments, and brought up a lot of unpleasant stuff on both sides. What brought us together was this feeling of having been discarded, and that kind of hopeless, frustrating, desperation is not exactly the kind of thing that makes for long, happy love affairs. It is kind of perfect for a rock song however.

The song started with the bass figure that I end the song with. I’d written that two note ringing figure on the acoustic bass I had, itself leftover from the pre-Maine days. But when the song was complete enough to bring to the band, it was clear that that riff wouldn’t work for the bulk of the song, as it made everything too busy. So I reworked the verses to be this kind of plodding E-string riff. Joey kept things real simple on guitar to contrast with the power chords on the verses. The final version features some of Becca’s best cello work; in retrospect, all her parts on all the songs were so tasteful and perfect. She had such a great ear for where to put her notes – you can hear this clearly on the “bridge” of this song, where her and Joey do a double-solo, weaving in and out of each other seamlessly.

The thing that made this song perfect, however, was George’s insistence on doing this four-on-the-floor figure in the chorus. We couldn’t really seem to make it work for anything but I remember this so clearly: one time in the middle of rehearsing it, when George was getting ready to do his thump-thump part, Joey and I stopped playing at the same time and then crashed back into it. It was so perfect, we all looked at each other like YES!! and it was done. One of those magical moments in the studio I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It must have been towards the end of the session because when we were wrapping up the next band (they were either called X the Owl or they were the refugees from when X the Owl broke up) came in and seemed even more excited about it than we were. “We were listening outside, that was great!” one of them said. It was one of those artistic moments where you just know you have something great. We worked the song into our live sets pretty quickly.

I have a pretty decent vocal performance here, though I don’t really remember it being that way. This was one of the songs I was having a real problem with, as it was at the higher end of my register and I had all those high note screams to do. But listening back it seems ok. There are decent rasps where I wanted them and was able to summon my best Gordon Gano impression for the last bit of the third verse. Lyrically I was extremely satisfied. At the time I considered it one of my better lyrical efforts even though ended up I literally going through a thesaurus looking for words related to “Leftover” and worked a bunch of them into the song: “retrieve” “salvage” “scrounging” etc. I think the song has a lot of power. There’s a great reverb on the cello, and Joey’s guitar soars on the outro. I don’t recall any specific conversations about the recording, but knowing that we all had pretty similar ideas about album track placement, we must have been super high on it, slotting it in the coveted “track #3” slot – where generally the best song is supposed to go.

As for the subject of the song, I’ve said enough, though she eventually did hear the song. She said it made her “sad”, but not much else. I probably felt pretty satisfied about that at the time, though I no longer try to evoke that emotion in people. There’s more than enough around already.

joey, becca, george, joe o. @ acme underground 2003