At the moment Arcati Crisis is on a somewhat insane twice-weekly rehearsal schedule – mostly insane because those rehearsal days are Tuesday and Thursday, and we co-host the LP open mic at Intermezzo on the intervening evening, which means we spend about 72 hours each week doing nonstop work, sleep, and AC.
Here’s what transpired in our last installment.
(Oh, but, wait. First maybe you want to know why I’m writing this? Entirely up to you…)
I’m blogging about AC rehearsal not because I think it’s so incredibly compelling (it’s not), or even because I want a record of our early living-room-rehearsal days when we’re famous (which, actually, I do), but because I think it will function for us much in the same way my blog has functioned for me: exemplifying our progress over time, and reminding us of the difficulties that in retrospect were overcome so easily.
We have a whole song about that sensation (“Standing”), so I figured it couldn’t hurt to experience it a little more regularly via my blog. Also, I feel like this is something that I never get to read – the behind the scenes of a band being a band. Since I’m utterly addicted to Bear McCreary’s behind-the-scenes composing posts for Battlestar Galactica I figured it couldn’t hurt to offer my own variation on the theme.
Finally, the hope is that if I can actually commit to writing regularly about things that happen to me regularly, I might also be able to commit to writing regularly about things that take some time and preparation to write about.
What to rehearse? / Going electric
When we last left our heroes on Tuesday we had run some old stuff to prep for our next few open mics.
This is essentially what we still don’t understand about band rehearsals, two whole years into this experiment. How often should we realistically need to rehash old tunes? Yes, there is a certain danger that Gina will forget her mini-solo on “Bucket Seat,” or I might get the pattern reversed on “Apocalyptic Love Song.” But, are we seriously going to forget how to play “Fisher Price” or “Under My Skin”?
We try to take the edge off by practicing things in related chunks. On Tuesday we did songs with tricky changes or unique passages, as I brought a hunk of fail to those in our first open mic after the honeymoon. This time we investigated which songs might work electric with just the two of us.
Every leap we’ve made as a band involves us overcoming a fear of electricity. First it was about singing harmony into microphones, and we’ve certainly mastered that. Then it became making coherent, representative recordings, and we’re definitely progressing there. If we’re ever going to make it to the next stage of being a band we have to master our electric guitar skills.
We both find electric guitars to be a tricky proposition. I’m obsessed with finding some particular tone that doesn’t exist with the equipment I currently own, and Gina’s playing style translates as a vastly different beast on a slimmer neck.
Our formula would appear to be “whoever wrote the song should play acoustic.” This is because the non-writer tends to play the more “lead” guitar part, even if they also shoulder significant vocal duties. This is true on both “Wait” (mine) and “Apocalyptic Love Song” (Gina’s), even though we think of them both as duets rather than solo vocals.
Over the course of our mini-electric set the only song that broke that rule was “Martyr,” which has been restructured so massively from my original version that – oddly – I am now playing the lead guitar part and singing. (The previous rule-breaker was “Hyperbole,” but Gina’s newer U2-inspired part means she’s now the one who needs the electric sustain, whereas I sacrificed my old sustained chords for harmonics, which I prefer on an acoustic.)
The only other song that passed muster for the moment was “Love Me Not,” though we weren’t entirely convinced that Gina’s bass run on the choruses translated well. Both “Moscow, Idaho” and “Apocalyptic Love Song” had their good moments with me on the electric, but we lost too much of the ringing interplay of our guitars on each. Probably an indication that they both require an acoustic with effects rather than an electric?
In sum: we’re happy to have a reason to play the oft-forgotten “Martyr,” we’re surprised that “Hyperbole” works so well in its reversed state, and we’re generally pleased to hear the possibilities in converting a few of our songs into bigger hunks of rock.
More bettering of “Better”
With our refresher out of the way in fairly short order, we turned our attention to a second evening of “Better.”
We spent such a long time relearning the fairly hefty repertoire we supposedly knew how to play in our prior years that we haven’t really learned a truly “new” song since before our more formal inception in late 2006.
At the moment the newest song we perform is my “Love Me Not.” I wrote it over the course of several months in early 2007, but we didn’t start performing as a duo it until the summer of 2008. At that point it was anything but new – Gina had heard it dozens of times before we agreed to do it together, and I had established a pretty set way of of playing it by the time we started rehearsing it (though we managed to significantly alter the bridge and final chorus).
“Better” is a different story entirely. The song came to me over the course of a single week in December – the inkling of the chorus in my head on a Friday at Connie’s Ric Rac, followed by plunking the chords out on the piano that weekend. On a Wednesday I played the chorus for Lindsay, asking for her help with the rest (the topic was already conceived), but on Friday the entire thing deposited itself in one lump sum in my brain on a long elevator ride at work – the fault of dual, dueling conversations I had with Lindsay and Gina over lunch.
That night I played a prototype for Gina, already with an Arcati Crisis arrangement in my head. She (and Lindsay, for that matter) automatically earmarked it as an AC tune, and a scant fifty-odd days later we were in my living room, learning “Better.”
We started by confirming that Gina had hung on to her verse part from last Thursday’s rehearsal; she had. Then we attempted the bridge, and quickly realized that we had given ourselves competing parts – I had downbeats that switched to upbeats, and Gina the opposite. Not impossible to play, but clumsy arranging. We swapped, and it immediately resolved to perfection.
That left us with the final verse and harmony vocals to arrange. The final verse was originally written in December as a call-and-response refrain resolving into homophony (the opposite of “What’ll I Say”). However, I started performing it solo since then, and it acquired it’s own singular melody. Now we were now faced with dissolving it back into two parts.
We tried the call-and-response at our last rehearsal and it fell particularly flat – too trite. In the intervening week I began to hear a steady counterpoint melody for Gina that wove in and out of my melody line. I sang a sample of it for Gina, and she immediately turned it into an awesome vocal hook (as she is wont to do). Yet, it didn’t work as counterpoint against the melody – it was too striking to play against my also-distinct line.
We were stumped for a moment, and then I had an idea. “Just sing it,” I told Gina, “without me.”
She did, and into the natural spaces of her counterpoint I inserted pieces of my melody – the opposite of my intent in writing the counter melody. Over the course of a few run-throughs we crafted a call-and-response completely different than our original effort that would easily resolve into the homophony I envisioned.
It worked perfectly.
From there Gina crafted the homophonic harmony in a single shot, and we finally made it to the closing chorus. It didn’t take much negotiation – seemingly as one Gina and I locked in on ringing fourth harmonies to match the open strings in my half-barred guitar part. That resolved, we passed through the prior choruses to make sure a variation would work.
That was it. In two rehearsals – not even two and half hours of work – we completely arranged a new Arcati Crisis tune. By comparison, it took us a month of rehearsals each to arrange the already performable “Hyperbole” and “Moscow, Idaho” satisfactorily in 2007!
Covers that shock and awe
Satisfied with ourselves, we turned our attention to our motley collection of covers.
Our three covers of note are Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” The directive we gave ourselves is that every subsequent cover had to be equally unexpected, memorable, and requestable … a tall order.
(We recently decided to put our fourth – “Galileo” – out to temporary pasture. In 2006 it had been a great way to jumpstart us as Arcati Crisis, but now it’s just a pain to maintain its more intricate parts, and it’s not even as interesting as our own stuff.)
At the top of our list of new cover tunes was a daunting one – Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.” We had tried it twice last summer as a lark, and the few people we played it for loved it. This, despite the fact that our guitar arrangement hadn’t gelled (which evens leaves aside the level of difficulty inherent in Gina channeling Chris Cornell).
The problem is that the actual song is almost entirely riff, bass, and drums. Lacking a bass and drums, all we had was the riff – and the two of us playing those same four notes for four minutes isn’t all that compelling. That meant we needed to craft our own arrangement from scratch.
What’s implied by the song? What do we want to imply?
We took a few passes. There is the question of when to start the riff – I wanted to do the first verse without it, but it threw Gina’s cadences for a loop. Then there’s the implied tonality – when is the third chord an E minor, and when is it instead a B minor? Finally, the bridge – less the bass and drums we had crafted something entire different, but does it hold enough space in the song?
I wouldn’t say that we’ve fixed everything, but it’s at least moving in the direction of being a coherent arrangement of the original for an acoustic-pop band. We’re both eager to have it in the repertoire, especially since the shock-grenade impact of “Don’t You Want Me” is wearing thin on our repeat audiences.
Hunting for “Holy Grail”
At this point we were headed into our third hour of rehearsal, and we were both fairly fried. What worthwhile thing could we achieve at this point?
I pestered Gina once again to send me the lyrics to her two new AC contributions, and she teasingly started playing the one I profess to be less interested in, “Holy Grail.”
How can I put this? “Holy Grail” is definitely an Arcati Crisis shock-grenade. It’s Gina, playing what is effectively a punk song comprised of all eighth notes on guitar and four massively destructive, earwormy riffs.
No hammers. No fingerpicking. Relatively few lyrics. It’s not even in a very Gina key. It’s totally shocking. And awesome. Immediately her tease turned into a first run-through, but I was fumbling for the structure. Gina played through twice so I could jot down the chords and a general roadmap – an intriguing AB CBAB DAB (C).
I commenced playing along and discovered that my usual tricks of accompaniment were useless – Gina had rendered them all obsolete with her dead-simple guitar part. On maybe the third pass I discovered a super-high Sleater-Kinney-inspired riff on the C-section, but it seemed to be too hard for me to play (par for the AC course; see also “Fisher Price”). It would be simpler to play an octave lower, but there it was too typical – the higher riff was clearly the way to go, if I could manage it.
We also dreamed up a few bits of harmony for a particularly catch refrain at the end of the C-section. Gina wanted me to repeat her line, which for me was all in falsetto, and I needed something to sing against her first repetition to help me ramp up to the higher vocals. Gina spit out an underneath harmony part with zero effort, being one of the three harmony jukeboxes in my life (the other two being Lindsay and my wife. Harmony addict much?).
Otherwise, we didn’t get very far. At least, not while Gina was here. After I saw her off for the night I settled back down with my guitar to bang on “Grail.”
This is typical for me – I don’t like to do figuring out as a part of a group. When I was in Progeny (our acappella group) I would pretty much sit out our first night learning a new song, and then head home to memorize my part in time for our next (on-book) rehearsal. Similarly, I don’t often work through a whole Arcati Crisis part live at rehearsal. Even if I tease out the idea live, as I did on “Apocalyptic Love Song,” I need time to myself to perfect it so that it will be dynamic and will fit in perfectly with Gina.
(Gina, by the way, is the opposite – she is all about strokes of genius in the middle of us playing something where I have to stop and tell her, “that, exactly that, that thing you just did is it,” which she usually knows already.)
In a matter of minutes of messing around I had the basic footprint of the song down – finding the riffs inside of her chords, instead of trying to add something new and incongruous. I was proud to realize that the result was truly a lead guitar part – at no point do I play a chord or a strum. In fact, it was so lead that I actually got out my electric to finish it up, and it was there that I locked in the right fingering for my my high C-section riff well enough to reproduce reliably.
I’m a little concerned that a few of my more discordant bits might clash with Gina’s vocals, but that’s the risk that I always take composing off on my own. I can barely wait until Tuesday to hear the result – I even threatened to stalk Gina with my guitar over the weekend so I could catch a listen (a threat so far unfulfilled). It’s hopelessly stuck in my head, and I cannot wait to finish up so we can stick into the heads of other people as soon as possible.
That, in a hefty, bloated nutshell, was this week’s Arcati Crisis rehearsal.