Liner Notes: The Moscow Rules, ‘2. never go against your gut’


So, here’s our second EP, coming 6 (!!) years after the first. It includes one brand new song and collects most of the singles we’ve released in the intervening years. Commence liner notes:

‘2. never go against your gut’

All songs ©The Moscow Rules. Engineered by Mike B except for track 5 by Josh and Mike B. Mastered by Mike B at An Undisclosed Location

Track 1. “Crushing Coal (Pressure)”:    

Music: Bergstrom; Lyrics: Crane.

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass guitar, keys/synths

Josh: Guitar solo, drone guitars

Average Joe: Vocals

Michael P: Drums

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location by Mike B (except drums recorded by Mike P at Casa Perez and vocals recorded by Josh at The Situation Room). Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This one was a lot of fun. Mike B sent the demo, which was basically the completed song – we kept all of his original guitar parts and just subbed live drums and bass for what he had done via synths – to Average Joe and I and we both got really excited. The previous songs Mike had brought to the table (see track 4 below) were great but this was a departure from the more straight-ahead, driving stuff we’ve been doing. This had some funk, a little darkness. Mike asked me to cook up a solo, but other than that I knew I wasn’t going to contribute any traditional rhythm guitar since he had that locked down. As I worked on the solo I found myself drawn to a sort of Eastern Mediterranean modality (maybe Phrygian? I’m bad at theory). Before I even laid down demo’s for the solo Joe rolled into town and was ready to go with the vocals. He and I have played in bands together off and on since we were teenagers – I was there the first time he ever sang into a mic – so I guess I wasn’t really surprised when his vocal melody was strongly reminiscent of the solo idea I had come up with completely independently.  His initial run at the lyrics sounded great and he declared that the song was called either ‘Crushing Coal’ or ‘Pressure.’

Usually when we do Joe’s vocals we take a great deal of care with them – ribbon mics, pop filters, baffling, tube preamps, etc, etc. But this one just felt different, and with the lyrical focus on pressure I just grabbed my $39 Blue Snowball USB mic, plugged it straight into Logic, and let Joe’s thunderous voice redline the absolute fuck out of it.  The result is as you hear – obviously we did some ‘stuff’ to the vocal tracks during mix down, but that blown out, desperate, distorted sound is what we started with.

The drone guitars referenced above are 3 single-string tracks played with an eBow and run through Electro-Harmonix C9 and Hazarai pedals. Mike did a great job bringing them in and out of the mix so that they sound almost like a mournful New Orleans horn section off in the distance. For the solo I used the Burnt Offering guitar and I think it’s the first complete take I got.  You can hear the lead guitar shift from the right to the left of the mix in the middle, right where I flubbed a note and loved the effect, which to me was like a machine breaking down under too…much…pressure.

Track 2. “California Warning”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals, rhythm guitars

Mike B: Rhythm guitars (?), bass guitar

Josh: Guitar solo, other guitars

Bass Ghost: bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at El Rancho del Crane-O, overdubs at An Undisclosed Location, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

I want to say that the first note and last note recorded for this track were laid down at least a year and a half apart.  The core of the song – Joe’s vocals and guitar, the bass line (actually two bass lines, one of root notes and one melodic track) and I think some rhythm guitars – at El Rancho del Crane-O, Joe’s compound outside of Austin when Mike and I flew out there and spent a weekend tracking parts of maybe 5 or 6 songs, including this one and Saving Grace (more on which below), and some others that remain unfinished today. The rest of the tracks including the solo, and some more Joe guitars and vocals were recorded quite a while later at An Undisclosed Location.

Lyrically this tells the story of Joe’s musical history between the time we played together in a cover band in high school and reconvened in Austin a few years later in The Ultimate Something. During that time Joe had a band with a mix of high school and newer friends and they decided to make the trek from Texas to Los Angeles to make it big. He’ll have to tell you the whole story but let’s just say that the phrase “running from earthquakes” is not a metaphor.

Musically this is about as Pure Rock Majesty as you can get.  Michael P just beats the everlovin’ bejeezus out of his kit, and you can’t get much more Big Rock than a G-C-D chord progression played through a properly distorted tube amp.

Track 3. “Jupiter Hotel”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Mike B: Synth strings

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

My wife and I love Portland, and usually when we go we stay at the Jupiter Hotel, a hipsterized motor court inn across the Burnside Bridge from downtown. One of the ‘features’ of the place is that the door to every room is painted with chalkboard paint, and on one of our trips I wrote Joe’s lyrics to “I-10 Handbook” on our door, took a photo and sent it to Joe. I love how inspiration takes us, and that was all it took for him to come up with this song.  Some of the details are borrowed from other places, like the Hotel San Jose in Austin, but it definitely captures the feel of the actual place. The rhythm track for this, played by me on Mike B’s custom-rebuilt Telecaster, was one of the hardest guitar parts I’ve ever recorded – I am not a particularly fast player, and all those downstrokes and the slightly off-kilter rhythm were a bitch to get right, but eventually I got it all in one take. Other than that there’s just the solo and Mike’s synth string section. A bit of a change-up for us, and I remember having to sell Joe on the idea of doing it this way, but Mike had a clear vision of Joe sitting on a hotel bed playing this, with the door open, and we ran with that.

Track 4. “Saving Grace”

Music: Mike B

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass, keys, synths, etc.

Josh: Jazzmaster

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at An Undisclosed Location; Joe and Josh recorded at El Rancho del Crane-O, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This was a track that Mike brought complete to the recording session in Austin. He had sent it ahead to Joe to give him time to come up with lyrics. When we arrived at El Rancho, Joe had rented some gear for us to use, including a Fender P-bass and a Mexican-made reissue Jazzmaster.

I was never really much of a Fender guy and I never “got” the Jazzmaster.  It just seemed unnecessarily complicated with it’s switches and the funky-ass tremolo system and big brick-like single coil pickups. But I don’t think I had ever actually picked one up until that session and man… what a burner. There’s obviously a reason why it was favored by all the surf rock players in the 60’s because when Mike cued this track up I was suddenly possessed by the angry ghost of Dick Dale. My actual track was kind of a mess but Mike chopped it up and built a great complementary part to what he had already laid down.  Add in another phenomenal performance on drums by Michael P and you’ve got a real face-melter.

Track 5. “Flames of Rome”

Music: Crane/Chisom

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Bass Ghost: Bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Guitars and vocals recorded at The Situation Room, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Josh with Mike B

This song started with a minute-long demo Joe recorded using GarageBand on his phone. Immediately upon hearing it I was seized with delusions of grandeur and straight-up hijacked the song. This is maybe the only song we’ve finished without doing any recording at Mike’s Undisclosed Location. I played all of the bass and guitars, and we recorded Joe’s vocals, at the Situation Room.  At various points other band members would make suggestions or comments, and I would either just straight out say ‘no’ or nod my head and just keep on doing what I was doing. In other words I will happily take the blame if this is anyone’s least favorite TMR song.  I will take that happily because I know that person has no taste whatsoever.

Why did I hijack the song?  For one thing, I heard an epic in that one minute blast of reverb and tribal drums that Joe played us. I heard something in the tradition of “When the Levee Breaks,” The Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic,” The Verve’s “Weeping Willow,” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” Something with a big backbeat, huge guitars, and for another thing, I really really wanted to do a big, long, self-indulgent guitar solo.

I’ll let Joe be the keeper of the ‘real story’ behind the lyrics, but to me the song is apocalyptic, like several of the guidepost songs I referenced above.  It’s a look back at a burning city from the open door of a boxcar or a truck bed, it’s as close to a blues as we’ve done. It seemed an ideal song to stretch out on, get that backbeat kickin’, drop about 10 rhythm guitar tracks on there and then just go to town.

Jesus, these liner notes are going to be as long as the song.  So I built the song up, bass and rhythm guitars, then Joe’s vocals, then Michael P’s drums, until all that was left was this solo that I had decided was going to be some sort of Big Artistic Statement.  And… I froze up.  I couldn’t get it. I beat my head against that fucker for what seemed like forever and wasn’t getting anywhere. The problem was, in part at least, that my method has always been to ‘write’ solos to fit the song, and now I was trying to do the exact opposite, to get back to improvisation and get my consciousness out of the way. It also didn’t help that I was committed to doing the whole five-plus-minute thing in one take.

The breakthrough finally came at about 3 AM on a Saturday morning. I was by myself in the Situation Room.  After a bunch of blown takes and increasing frustration I decided to take a break, have another adult beverage and try and reset my headspace.  I went out into my yard with a good bourbon and my headphones and I listened to “Cortez the Killer” twice – once the studio version off ‘Zuma,’ once the live version off ‘Weld.’ Apparently that combination of chemicals and time of night and inspirado was the right one, because I came back in, tuned up, hit record, and got exactly what you hear on the EP in the next take. As the musicians among you can imagine I got reeeeeal fuckin’ nervous in the last 30 seconds or so.  And yeah, there are a few, er, dissonant parts in there, but I’m proud of it.  It’s honest. It’s a summation of whatever style and sound I’ve developed over the last 30 years.

For the gearheads, I used my Burnt Offering guitar plugged into my Vox ToneLab tube-driven effects unit and that directly into the computer via my Focusrite I/O unit.

And that’s our second EP done. I’m really proud of it.  Proud to work with these musicians and help bring their songs to life. Enjoy.


September 2016

Live From New York, it’s Your Not-Quite-Adolescent Introduction to S&M

Note about my previous post in this series: I wasn’t aware until around the time I started writing this that literally NO ONE knows who Judee Sill is anymore. To me her record was right there with Jackson and Sweet Baby James and the rest and who had a record with their picture on it that wasn’t famous? In any case if you like the Laurel Canyon/Americana thing and can handle lyrics about Jesus having a gunfight with the Devil or spaceships from heaven or magic spells based on the Musica Universalis designed to make God give the world a break, you should check her out. 

John Cougar on Saturday Night Live, April 10, 1982.

Not too long after this my Mom and I moved. We drove up I-45 about 30 miles, hung a left and ended up out in the pines of East Texas; outside of suburbia but still close enough to Houston to not truly be ‘in the country.’ My Mom married a great guy, an English teacher who had a comic book collection and books everywhere and “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl (on which more later). Mom and Stepdad were progressive and/or laissez-faire about the media to which I was exposed. I can remember them taking me to Woody Allen double features down at the River Oaks and seeing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get 99% of the humor, but with the rhythm and phrasing, the timing, and the slapstick Woody trafficked in at the time, it was still funny to me. At some point around then I was allowed to stay up late to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and that was what sparked my love for rock n roll.

John Cougar (post Little Johnny, pre Mellencamp) was the musical guest on SNL around the time his hit album “American Fool” came out in 1982. I don’t remember anything else about the episode (apparently Daniel J. Travanti was the host), but Cougar wore a green t-shirt and fringed leather motorcycle pants, and he did “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” “We sound just like Martha and the Vandellas, don’t we?” he asked an apparently indifferent crowd as they started it up. He was obviously having a good time even if they weren’t. (Also: if you can, click on the link above to the “AEDWTN” video and at least watch the saxophone solo that starts around 2:40. Music videos used to be amazing).

More to the point, he also did “Hurts So Good.” As with the Woody Allen movies, I didn’t really ‘get it,’ I didn’t understand, but it hit me hard. It was scary and compelling. Why would somebody sing about pain in such an enthusiastic and positive way?   It was a little scary…and I liked it. His performance made an indelible memory, so much so that for a long time I wondered if I really remembered it as vividly as it seemed. Then one day in my thirties I happened across the episode on TV and, yep, it was all just as I remembered.

When I saw and heard “Hurts So Good,” on SNL, it was some sort of next step on that road. In the year or two leading up to that Saturday night I had gotten more into music in general. A friend of Mom’s upon request made me a 90-minute cassette of two Hall and Oates albums, ‘Private Eyes’ on one side, ‘H2O’ on the other, that I would listen to on a Radio Shack mono tape recorder nestled in the crook of my arm as I strolled around the middle school playground.

But “American Fool” was the first ROCK AND ROLL record – and by that I do mean an actual vinyl album – that I bought with my own money. Listening to it right now, and trying to lay aside the obvious four-coat varnish of nostalgia it has acquired, I get this: it sounds great, although it does sound of its time. Luckily its time was 1982, not 1988 so it’s not burdened with cannon toms and fucking Eventides and Bob goddamn Rock. It sounds expensive, which really just means it sounds like it was recorded in a real studio with a real producer and a rock-solid band playing pro-grade instruments.[1]

It’s emphatically un-hyphenated Rock, and its time was also one in which that was no bar to also being pop. It’s such an obvious thing, right? ‘Pop’ is supposed to be shorthand for whatever’s popular. Those three little onomatopoeiac letters aren’t supposed to contain a sui generis genre, unless it’s that of Popular Song in the Cole Porter/Bing Crosby/Sinatra sense. It just means what’s popular. And what was popular in ’82 was a lot of Rock. I had to look it up, but ‘American Fool’ was a pretty monstrous hit[2]. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” [3] number one. Even “Hand to Hold On To” hit nineteen and I have no recollection of ever hearing that one on the radio.

All of that said, I can be honest with my 10-year-old self and admit that it’s not a great album. It has two all-time great songs, four or five very-good-to-good songs and two or three weak-to-shitty ones (happily it’s pretty much sequenced from best to worst. That was nice of them. Every other musician: do that from here on in, OK?) Does that matter when you’re ten years old? No one has taste at ten and I’m going to say that’s a good thing. Ten year old me didn’t react to things because they were cool or because they fit into an aesthetic framework constructed over years of paying too much attention to popular culture. He reacted to things because they CAUSED A REACTION.

“Hurts so Good” on SNL gave me a perfectly calibrated whiff of danger and hit that attraction/repulsion sweet spot that can be so compelling. And I have to say after rewatching the videos from this album, Johnny C. was putting out a pretty sleazy biker vibe back then, in line with the best rock n roll traditions; he was not yet the Americana/60’s revivalist of a few years later. Shortly after seeing SNL I bought the album on a trip to Greenspoint Mall and I listened the hell out of it and wondered what else was out there. So I listened to the radio because that was literally the only place to hear new music. Between 1982 and 1984 I fully embraced Rock, started playing guitar and caring about my hair and along the way I accumulated the following records:

The Rolling Stones, “Tattoo You” (1)

Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” (51)

Quiet Riot “Metal Health” (1)

Def Leppard “Pyromania” (2)

The Rolling Stones “Hot Rocks 64-71” (4)

David Bowie “Let’s Dance” (4)

Genesis “Genesis” (9)

Scorpions “Love at First Sting” (6)

Motley Crue “Shout at the Devil” (17)

Billy Joel “Glass Houses” (1)

The Police “Synchronicity” (1)

If you eliminate “Hot Rocks” as an outlier (only compilation and only non-contemporary release) you can see how I was a slave to the charts: all of them were big goddamn hit records.[4] Look at the numbers in parentheses up there; those are the highest Billboard Top 200 chart positions for each record. You can see that what I was buying was what was selling, which was what I had a chance to hear, which was what was on the radio. I was too young to really have a shared musical experience with my peers, no older siblings, no other options. Pop, but rock, yes? The reason I am pausing this tale in 1984 is that we didn’t get MTV until around then and that. Changed. Everything.

[1] While writing this section, the drum break in “Jack & Diane” happened and OK the toms are a little cannon-y. However I know that JC was inspired to insert that drum break after hearing “In the Air Tonight” so we have to give him a pass.

[2] It was also Cougar’s FIFTH album. How in God’s name is that possible? I knew he had a couple before that, but Christ. Did he start recording as a zygote or is he now 73 years old?

[3] I didn’t want to get all Klostermanny (Foster-Wallacey?) with the footnotes here, but I’m perusing the Wikipedia entry for the record and see that MICK GODDAMN RONSON did “guitar, vocals, and arrangements” on “Jack and Diane”. How did I never catch that before?! We’re going to get to Ziggy here in a bit and I am, just, DEEPLY disappointed in myself for never knowing that before.

[4] OK the Joan Jett record wasn’t a huge hit, but her next record was and I think I bought “Bad Reputation” at the same time as “Hot Rocks,” on cassette at the music store where I took my guitar lessons, probably under the influence of my friend Mike M. who often wore a Joan Jett t-shirt to school and talked about how she was awesome in concert. He was in fifth grade and he’d seen a ton of rock shows. The 70’s and early 80’s were kind of a great time to be a kid.