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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Behind the Scenes

Andrea Desmond and the White Lights: Milk and Rain EP — A Look Inside

Us being us (minus Tall Steve), as pictured on the back sleeve of Milk and Rain. (Photo by Erica Russell.)

It is here. On this blog. Finally. Right now. Period. Milk and Rain, the debut EP for Seattle-based group Andrea Desmond and the White Lights — of which I am a proud member — was recorded in several sessions in September and October 2012, with the mixing and mastering process wrapping up just before Christmas. Andrea released it to the world Dec. 25, and yet, for some reason, it’s taken me this long to write about it. I blame the specter that is the memory of Newsfeed Anxiety — and maybe my steadily declining attention span (which reminds me: you have got to check out these 40 hilarious dog gifs!! Lolz, indeed!) — for the oversight. Named for a line in Andrea’s song “Painting” — “My dear friend, the writing remains / Like milk and rain / Here to sustain” — the EP offers listeners a glimpse into the band’s early days, when all we had was one gig together under our collective band belt. Not even a week after our debut at RAW Artists Showcase, in fact, we were in talks with former Vendetta Red guitarist Justin Cronk to pencil in some recording time before we went on tour with The Outlaw, his Waylon Jennings tribute band. We were slated for Sept. 18-19, wherein we would attempt to record five songs in their entireties — drums, guitars, vocals, bass, harmonies, keys, and extra instrumentation — in two all-day sessions.

Initially, I experienced a mixture of excitement and nervousness: excitement for the opportunity to record a quality product and live the “rockstar” life, as it were, but nervousness at the prospect of being pressed for time, pressured to play and sing perfectly, and having to take two days off work at somewhat short notice. I was also at first resistant to the idea of going into the studio so soon into the rehearsing process, mainly because my only other studio album, The Magic Square EP, was recorded after months of practicing and gigging (well, three gigs, at least) and even then, it was a bit of a trudge. But everything seems to turn out all right when you’re working with great musicians who are also great people.

Andrea, then-bassist Matthew Vance and I bussed out to Justin’s Fremont-based studio, the Toy Box, where we met our drummer William Mapp for gear load in. On this day, and the day after it, the sun shown bright in the uncommonly cloudless sky, just as it normally would in regions not as precipitous and oftentimes murky-gray as the Pacific Northwest. Bikers, runners, and walkers in shorts had easy, dry passage on either side of the Burke-Gilman Trail, and the Fremont Canal bustled with boats, canoes and other sea vessels making mini voyages between Lake Union and the Ballard Locks. While Justin miked William’s drum set, the rest of us watched the pilot for The League — FX’s case study on the effects fantasy football has on grown men (I personally thought the ensemble cast was solid, but couldn’t get over how mean the friends were to each other) — and read aloud a harrowing tale of Jodi Jill, a successful entertainment columnist who grew up in a storage unit. The story is worth the read. Recording proceeded a little differently than my previous studio experience, but I think I preferred this approach. We played the songs as the entire band and only kept the drum and bass tracks, while the keys, vocals and guitars were mere scratch tracks; if one of us hit a bad note or missed a cue, we wouldn’t have to perform the entire song again, which was a pretty big relief for me. And if there was a screw up on any track, never fear: we did several takes for each instrument (each recorded to a click-track, a method whose importance I cannot emphasize enough) so if there was a slight misstep on one take, with the the wonders of technology, Justin could punch in the same section from another track, thus smoothing over and of those small-but-pesky errors. This approach is supposedly common practice among professional record producers, but still, its effective simplicity confounded me. (If only I had employed similar tactics on certain flawed previous projects. Oh well.) In short, the drum takes turned out quite well, as you can tell in the final cuts. The order of events is a bit hazy five months removed from those sessions, but I’m pretty sure Andrea recorded vocals and keys, which took the remainder of the first day. We also may’ve attempted to re-record some of the bass tracks, if I’m not mistaken. This mainly entailed me either sitting on a plush leather couch in the control booth, grabbing a plate from the excellent Mexican food truck parked outside the Toy Box entrance, or pondering the great mysteries of existence (like this) whilst sitting on the benches near the Fremont Canal.

In the studio and in the zone, playing a guitar that is far too nice for me. (Photo by Andrea Desmond.)

Day two came the moment of truth: laying down the guitar tracks. Over the years, I’d grown accustomed to recording guitar at my leisure, laying layer upon layer of multi-effects, each part varying slightly from the other, giving many projects post-Justice Lakes On Lemons a wall-of-guitar sound — some subtle, some intricate, and others, chaotic and disorienting. I usually recorded I three guitar parts at minimum: one for the basic chords, and two for complementary chordage and/or atmosphere. That’s not even including solos, which occur fairly often in my own songs. And even (semi) recently, I had spent some months intermittently adding guitar parts to the always-upcoming Newsfeed Anxiety album, recutting, overdubbing and multi-effecting to my heart’s content, and taking my sweet time about it. But such was not the case at the Toy Box. Because were pressed for time and, let’s face it, recording a studio album is not cheap (though Justin gave us a great rate), we focused on capturing a few quality takes per each song so we were to finish the album by the day’s end. This is pretty standard pace for a legitimate, professionally made album, but because I was so use to the drawn-out, casual approach of recording, it was a bit of an adjustment, like going from Graham Greene’s pace of 500 words a day to Stephen King’s 2,000 — or, perhaps more appropriately, like going from the deadline of a feature magazine writer to that of a daily newspaper reporter. Writing-to-recording comparisons aside, it was a much quicker pace than I’m accustomed, so rather than my usual explorations in six-string excess, it was an exercise in restraint — a virtue I try (and perhaps fail) to apply in writing, and instilled in me by former professor/two-time National Magazine Award winner Chris Jones. Longtime friend, collaborator and blog contributor Charlie Ray summed it up in a text he sent to me that day: “Good luck today brosef, and remember it’s all about the tasty shit.” With that in mind, I tried to keep it simple and “tasty,” whatever would best compliment Andrea’s songs. I felt a bit stiff for first few takes of the EP opener, “Block the Heart,” but once I loosened up and relaxed a bit, my muscle memory did the rest. It also helped that Justin lent me his gear for the session — a rack of Gretsches, Les Pauls, a high-shelf Fender or two, and a London 65 blues breaker amp — and we recorded several takes for due diligence. By the dynamic climax of “Run,” I felt satisfied enough with my contributions that the rest of the album could proceed. But I was not yet done.

The rest of the day was a blur for me, though I remember eating a burrito of sorts near the Fremont Canal as the sun set. While away, flutist/violist and auxiliary band member Jasen Denten added parts to “Painting” and “Block the Heart.” But as the second session was nearing its close, and Andrea was re-adding some vocals, Jasen Denten had yet to record the viola for the bridge and final chorus of “Run.” Jasen, being the classically trained type, was mostly unfamiliar with improvising accompaniment, and instead preferred to play a written part. So, in the spare moments before recording, I played the bridge and final chorus while he arranged his part. I was also in the booth while Jayson recorded his part for “Run,” offering my familiarity with the song to count him in for his cue. It was true studio magic, with thumbs up all around. Then came the late cab ride home with Matthew, and the day after, it was back to reality. Andrea, Matthew and I had to return to the studio on separate days to either re-record or add parts missed the first time. I biked to Fremont after work on a sunny September day to record harmonies for the five tracks. Thanks to my then-recent vocal layerings for the upcoming Newsfeed album, I was already somewhat primed for adding harmonies, though, like with adding guitar, I wanted to be expedient about the process, which meant no multi-part, Beach Boys inspired cloud of voices — just what I do (or did) live. My previous experience recording harmonies in a studio was somewhat grueling — in fact, all my takes were scrapped in the final versions — but within three or four hours, Justin and I ran through the five songs, without any sort of hangups. It was surprisingly easy, much more so than previous harmony endeavors. After that, my services we no longer needed at the Toy Box.

Much has changed five months later — with these songs, and with the band. Not long after our sessions, Andrea, William, and I met with fashion photographer and “I Can Wait No Longer” music video director Erica Russell (with her young son in tow) for a photo shoot on Seattle’s Helix Bridge, the result of which is the album’s cover art. Once again, she made us look glamorous — a tall order, but she succeeded. It was around mid-October when the songs and the band began to progress far beyond the days of the Cupboard Sessions, and even from who we were when we recorded the EP. Bassist/vocalist/Rush fanatic Steve Nicholson joined the band in Matt’s place (William and Matt still play together in the newly formed, self-described “avante-garde grunge jazz” band P:e-o/p;l,e) just days before a Portland show with RAW Natural Artist (where we recorded this goofy, cramped-couch interview) and the first round of the Seattle Jammin’ Challenge the next day. Not only is Steve — referred to internally as “Tall Steve,” “Steve-0,” “Steve 2” or “Steve N.” to avoid confusion — an incredible musician and a overall cool dude, he also turned me onto Rush, whose sheer genius I’ve been somehow oblivious to for 25-plus years. He’s made a huge contribution to our sound, not only with his bass skills — an instrument he’s only been playing for three years — but with his dynamite harmonies as well. With this addition, and with the help of playing a good number of shows — including two at the fabled Crocodile, and one at the Hard Rock Cafe — the songs featured on Milk and Rain have evolved in all aspects, especially in a live setting. As for the new songs, let’s just say we’ve got some high-quality rockage in store.

Although the EP was officially released in December, I hadn’t listened to Milk and Rain until a few weeks ago while at a friend’s house for dinner. He insisted we play the downloaded mp3s through his house speakers while we ate. Admittedly so, I was a little nervous, as I am when listening to any of my finished projects; I always worry about noticing some glaring error on my end, like a miffed guitar riff or a poorly timed/sung harmony, forever preserved in digital form. This can be a common concern, given how so much of my earlier recordings are far less than perfect, and mistakes often occur just bars apart, but with projects like Wanna?, Smiley, Soulman & Sunmaster, and, to a certain extent, Metal Face, errors are acceptable and endearing. With the more serious, long-term projects, however, even the slightest error can cause me to cringe and stop listening, and because (we hope) this EP will be disseminated far and wide, a guitar/harmony flub would be heard by legions. For those reasons, I put off listening to the EP, but as we ate our sweet potato vegetarian chili on that January night, it was time to face the music. What I heard were simplistic, early interpretations of the songs that have greatly developed and matured since those days in September. But even in this beta form, it represents us when we were just starting out, before the songs were fully realized. The songs in this stage show who we were during those two days in September, and although the parts may be more intricate, and the harmonies more pronounced, and the bass more Steve Nicholson-ized (we actually don’t know who recorded the final bass parts for the album; according to Andrea, it was one of Justin’s friends) Milk and Rain is a solid effort, a snapshot of the past, and a sign of things to come.

As for the production values, Justin is a true pro. Having worked with legendary producer Jerry Finn — whose credits include albums from Green Day, Morrissey, Bad Religion, AFI, and, one of my person favorites from back in the day, Blink 182’s Enema of the State — in the Vendetta Red days, Justin’s laid-back and knowledgeable approach helped set the tone for a productive and enjoyable time in the studio, and he wasn’t afraid to provide his honest feedback. During those two sessions — as well as the supplemental recordings — Justin’s guidance and input shaped and improved us, and he helped the young band shape its sound. Also, I would like to thank Njal Frode Lie for his masterful mixing/mastering, as well as his patience during the back-and-forth editing process. A telling test how an album is mastered is how it sounds on a legitimate sound system, and judging by that night at my friends’ place, Njal did a really, really fine job. It’s also pretty slick in my headphones. And now you, the blog reader, can relive those two momentous September days with Milk and Rain. Here it is again: And finally, the behind-the-scenes mini-documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoLBFeMlTRw P.S. One of the songs we recorded, “Olden Days,” isn’t featured on this collection, which is a shame because it’s one of my favorites to play live. Its salsa-styled rumba and Springsteen-esque music break makes it a great show closer, but may’ve been out of place on this EP. If we ever release it, you’ll know where to look.