East of NORMAL

It’s Just a Damn Record

Recording studios are like spas: soothing, ambient lighting, couches, warm porous walls that soak up sound, and lounges stocked with magazines, bottled water and HDTV. They’re designed to make you feel good just being there. It makes sense. Musicians have to feel good in order to make feel-good music.
     I just got finished doing a record with my old band Government Cheese. It’s our first fulllength record in 23 years. Brad Jones produced us at his home base, Alex The Great Studios, in Berry Hill, which — along with Sylvan Park — is about as close as you’re going to find to an East Nashville vibe on the west side of the river. Berry Hill is almost nothing but dwelling houses tricked out to be businesses, except for a few streets that are mainly warehouses, and that’s where Alex is. You’d never know it’s a studio from outside on the street. All you see is a cinderblock wall and a big wooden gate; when the interior houses many thousands of dollars worth of priceless instruments and audio gear, that’s the kind of non-message you want to send to the outside world. Nothing to see here. Move along.
     I can say unreservedly that I enjoyed doing this record more than I’ve ever enjoyed making one before, and the way I enjoyed it would have disgusted my younger self 25 years ago. If I were looking at my 51-year-old self a quarter-century into the future, and seeing that I never bothered to make a copy of rough mixes to take home, never bothered to listen to the rough mixes obsessively, never bothered to get all worked up over whether my guitar part is the baddest-assed guitar part in the history of badass guitar parts, never bothered to sing my part over and over again until it was “right,” and never bothered to be there for all the mixing, well, my 20-something self would be mortified. Don’t you care, man? What happened to your passion, dude? You got old and complacent, man! You sold out! I’m so ... disgusted!
     Well, Tommy’s 25-year-old former self, where did it ever get you to take rough mixes home and listen to them until you were convinced that they sucked? Where did it get you to believe that until the record was released, your life is on hold and you’re not allowed to breathe? Where did it get you to worry pathologically over whether the record is “cool” or not? I mean, really, why get out of bed if you’ve made an uncool record, right?
     You know what, young Tommy? The record I just made is miles better than the ones you made back then, because I care enough now to allow myself to not care so much. I care enough to know that the first couple of vocal takes are pretty much going to be the best it’s going to get. I care enough to know that it’s just a damn guitar solo — it’s not brain surgery, and it’s not Mozart. I care enough to let the guy mixing it do his damn job without me hanging over his shoulder saying, “Boost my solo, dude! Hey can you make the snare louder? And now can you make my guitar sound crunchier? And now can you make everything just a little bit louder than everything else?” I care enough to guard my sanity nowadays, and here’s how that’s done. Repeat after me: “It’s just a damn record. ... just a damn record. …