Friday, October 21, 2016

Recording Diary: Riley Pinkerton and Signs

 And life was black and white; the Technicolor was just around the corner, but it wasn't there yet in 1959.  People really do want to touch each other, to the heart.  That's why you have music.  if you can't say it, sing it. - Keith Richards, Life, p.56 

Every time I tried the lock on the glass door at night, the key wouldn't turn the deadbolt over.  It was like trying to pull Excalibur out of the stone, it wouldn't budge.  There were other doors and other locks guarding the studio so it wasn't a problem until I got back late Saturday night from a dinner in the City and realized the glass door would likely be locked Sunday morning when we were planning to work.  Passing by the studio that night, the door was locked so I thought to try it to see ... and it worked, the sword was pulled from the stone.  It even continued to open the door the next morning allowing us to use the studio.  That's a good sign.

The experiment is to find the most musical (magical) person or group available and allow an assemblage between musicians and recording studio to form over a period of time with the intention of drawing down a musical current, a living presence of higher, non-human intelligence; i.e.  a cool song or 11!  The artist, in this case, Riley Pinkerton, armed with her songs and their performance expression, plays the role of the chief invocant, the magnetic center to which the assemblage assembles.  It's an intuitive leap of faith to travel across the country into an unknown laboratory situation.  You hope Fate isn't rehearsing for a Marx Brothers film at your expense and that the experiment is worth the while, worth the travel.  How do you tell if something that's basically invisible, i.e. the spiritual implications and explications of the event called "recording an album" is bonafide or bogus? Or perhaps a mixture of both?  Maybe by reading the signs?

 Riley Pinkerton
 photo by Bryan Thunderheart Spitzer

When you hear all the details, it appears obvious that something extraordinary was going on, something in the realm that William Burroughs called The Magical Universe.  Last spring, Riley sent me her EP, Do You Have A Car, hoping I'd write a few paragraphs about it. I did a review and told her she should get me to help her with the production on her next recording.  I was a fan of her previous band, The DeCamp Sisters, and told her I'd help out however I could, not really expecting she would take me up on the offer.  There is a lot to organize with recording a record, not to mention all the expenses involved.  Circumstances and human generosity worked out such that I was able to bring the project into Bill Laswell's Orange Music sound studio (OM) for virtually nothing.  Riley organized everything else and made it happen.

I had never known anyone named Riley before.  Within a month of signing on to the project a college student named Riley took an internship at Ancient Wave, the local studio where I mix and master.  I was reading Henry Miller's, Time of the Assassins and came across the expression: "living the life of Reilly" so I asked intern Riley if she was really living the life of Reilly?  She said that her parents seem to think so.  There were a couple of other  strange synchronicities with Riley's name.  I got into the habit of randomly putting on acoustic Dylan from my laptop while getting ready in the morning and got a little startled when choosing Bootleg #2 to hear Dylan bellowing the opening words, "O'Reilly, stole a stallion ..."  Began telling this coincidence in the studio, but only got as far as saying, "first song on Bootleg #2" when Henry, the guitar player broke out into: "O'Reilly stole a stallion...;" it seemed amazing that someone would have instant recall of Dylan lyrics just by hearing the song position or perhaps the energy of the synchronicity with Riley's name invoked the lyrics out of his mouth.  Riley Pinkerton is someone who quite possibly might have stolen a stallion in a former life as you can see from the above photo and the fact that she loves horses in this life.  She is also an artist not unlike a very young Bob Dylan, but different, with her own singular style.

Everything looked fine getting on the flight at the start of the journey to the East until the plane remained motionless on the tarmac waiting for some mechanical indicator to be reset.  The connecting flight in Denver became questionable; the flight arrived at one end of the B gates (B4) with the connecting gate on the opposite side of the airport (B666 or something like that). Traversing that long corridor of B gates felt akin to a subatomic particle crossing the central horizontal path on the Tree of Life from Chesed (Glory) to Geburah (Power).  I made it to the gate just as they called for my boarding group (5); another good sign. 

I stayed in the beautiful, lush,verdant suburbs of West Orange, New Jersey off of Eagle Rock Road at an Air bnb, the first time for me.  Took a nightime jet lagged walk to the Whole Foods to stock up; the air smells sweet and it's quiet, no traffic, human or auto until the mall.  Later I record the silence of of this soundscape on my portable recorder framing it against the balance of crickets and distant traffic to mark its depths.

A morning train into the City to meet Riley for the first time at a small cafe/bar in the East Village.  I get to Penn Station with enough time to make the nostalgic walk there through my old neighborhood, Chelsea, and follow the route I took many times to Platinum Island, the studio where it all began.  Even had time to indulge in a visit to the Strand, one of the best bookstores on Earth.  I found a book I had been looking for, Friedrich Nietzsche's, Twilight of the Idols for $6.

 Riley texted me her location. I arrived right on time; the Virgo in me couldn't help it.  Riley was reserved at first, I was reserved, the table wasn't reserved, but they let us sit there anyway.  We talked some procedural details, options for mixing and I inflicted upon her some of my theories regarding music changing the world. Forget about politics.  Of course, the real communication occurred nonverbally in the spaces and silences in between the conversation, in between the words and phrases of the conversation, just as in music; music occurs in the spaces or the intervals between the notes; it's the relationship of the notes.  I told Riley I was glad we had the time to meet before recording to establish and get to know better the musical connection, the musical relationship.

The East Village remains a music hotspot on this planet.  We ate within a few blocks of where Bill Graham ran his legendary Fillmore East concert venue.  After our days diverged following the meal, I followed my ear up the street to the live music coming from the center of Tompkins Square Park; another trip down bardo memory lane - at the age of 12 in 1972 listening to this new (for me) thing called Underground FM radio; the show was Tom Tompkins from Tompkins Square Park and he would do things like play the entire cut of Inna Gadda Da Vida.  I first heard Stairway to Heaven on that show and remember feeling that it sounded like the music of angels.  Another time, listening live to some great funk band in Tompkins Square Park when living in New York, I saw a middle aged gentleman who strongly resembled G.I. Gurdjieff with the bald cranium and bushy mustache.  It shocked me into a waking state.  The music now, along with the atmosphere of the park, was as good as ever.  I didn't want to leave.

Rimbaud called.  I decided to try to get The Time of the Assassins for Riley.  The subtitle is: a study of Rimbaud by Henry Miller; a concise, easy-to-read book that nicely summarises  much of the artist's misson, a subject I brought up in conversation with Riley.  Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet whose most famous works are A Season In Hell and Illuminations, of course, became a major influence on Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and others. I had forgotten my copy or I would have given it to her.  I did notice a well-used edition on the shelf at the Air bnb room where I was staying.  Some highlights:

We must go through a collective death in order to emerge as genuine individuals.  If it is true, as Lautreamont said, that "poetry must be made by all" then we must find a new language in which one heart speaks to another without intermediation.  Our appeal to one another must be as direct and instantaneous as is the WoMan of God's to God.

Miller rants about his current (1940's and '50's yet still relevant) state of Art:

The cult of art reaches its end when it exists only for a precious handful of men and women.  Then it is no longer art but the cipher language of a secret society for the propagation of meaningless individuality.  Art is something which stirs WoMan's passions, which gives vision, lucidity, courage and faith.  Has any artist of recent years stirred the world as did Hitler? Has any poem shocked the world as did the atomic bomb recently?  Not since the coming of Christ have we seen such vistas unfolding, multiplying dailey.  What weapons has the poet compared to these?  Or what dreams? ... Is there a poet of  even the fifth magnitude visible?  I see none.  I do not call poets those who make verses, rhymed or unrhymed.  I call that woman poet who is capable of profoundly altering the world.  If there be such a poet living in our midst, let hir declare hirself. Let hir raise hir voice.  But it will have to be a voice which can drown the roar of the bomb.  SHe will have to use a language which melt's men's hearts, which makes the blood bubble.

If the mission of poetry is to awaken, we ought to have been awakened long ago.  Some have been awakened, there is no denying that.  But now all WoMan have to be awakened - and immediately - or we perish.

'Ol Henry probably would have been delighted to see Bob Dylan win a Nobel prize for Literature.

I stopped in at the Barnes and Noble off of Union Square.  The music department grabbed my attention first.  Prominently displayed on a magazine rack at the entrance to the music section was a cover photo of an old friend, Tom Waits, tipping his hat in greeting.  The photo appeared to have been taken in the era when I worked with him; the byline read: The bizarre secrets of his greatest albums.  Well, that was something I could fact check so I picked up a copy along with cds of The Ramones first album and David Bowie's Station to Station.  It proved an interesting article but the "secrets" on the albums I recorded with him appear exaggerated, inaccurate, and sometimes completely wrong.  The magazine came with a compilation cd called Ones From The Heart.  One of the artists on it is Ryley Walker.  The store had a good Henry Miller selection that didn't include The Time of the Assassins.  I've never read anything else by Miller, have never been interested in his popular titles, but I did pick up a slim volume by him that looked intriguing called The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder.

The first day of recording was with Riley and drummer Dylan Sevey.  We met in the parking lot outside the Orange studio.  On the way up to the third floor I told Dylan that a famous jazz drummer, Joe Morelleo, used to give lessons on the second floor.  Morello played on Dave Brubek's jazz hit, Take 5 that appeared on the 1959 album Time Out,written to showcase Morello's mastery of the 5/4 time signature; drummer's resonance, connect with the morphogenetic field of great drumming.  It can't hurt to invoke the masters.  Dylan told me a dream he's had a couple of times relating to a song I recorded for Tom Waits called Filipino Box Spring Hog.  In the dream he gets a call from his 5 year old son's kindergarten teacher telling him that his son is disturbing the other children by singing Filipino Box Spring Hog.  This sounded a little farfetched to me, but Dylan swore it was true and recounted the dream again.  The drum sound on that track is one of the secrets from recording Mule Variations, another coincidence.

We met staff engineer and old friend James Dellatacoma in the studio and started setting up mics and the foam baffling I would use to shape the acoustic space to isolate Riley's vocal and acoustic guitar mics from the drums. Riley:  "My guitar is a 1962 Gibson LG-1 that I grabbed for a steal from a weird pawn shop in Michigan."  They would be tracking live together in the same room.  Before starting, James gave us a brief history of the studio prior to Bill Laswell moving in.  Built for Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons, recordings for Jethro Tull, Carole King, The Kinks and Aerosmith had been done there.

Dylan Sevey at Orange Music
photo by Riley Pinkerton

Everything sounded good almost right away as soon as I brought up the mics.  There were a few mic placement adjustments to make, but technically everything was quick and easy.  Dylan played on a drum kit belonging to Steve Jordan.  The drums sounded great, the room sounded great, I was incredibly happy to be back in the driver's seat in the Orange Music studio, a totally professional studio with great gear that all works.  I had forgotten how good that room sounded.  I last recorded there in 2009 with John Hammond Jr. the son of the legendary Columbia A & R man who had first signed Bob Dylan to a record contract.  Hammond Sr. had been alerted to Bob Dylan through his son who was friends with Dylan.  Now I was recording a drummer named Dylan, who was well aware, and took inspiration from his namesake.  

Riley and Dylan had great chemistry in the studio.  I don't think they had much of a history playing together, yet Dylan perfectly complemented Riley's musical sensibility like they were siblings.  She brings a strong Beatles influence to her songwriting  while Dylan rates Ringo Starr as one of his favorite drummers.  I remember us working on one of his drum fills to get it sounding more Ringoesque.  We got four master takes that first day, a good count as we had also spent a few hours setting up.  James and I catching up had probably taken at least a half hour before we even started.  Riley seemed relaxed, collected and focused throughout despite having stayed up late to bake lemon cookies which made for incredible studio snacks.  She dressed elegantly as if performing on stage.  A total professional, so it came as a complete surprise to me that this occasioned her first time in a real recording studio.

 Riley checking out a take
photo by Bryan Thunderheart Spitzer 

On Day 2 of the recording we were joined by a bass player, Bryan Spitzer, and cut 5 more master takes.  Bryan is a music professional who mostly works on a computer these days so he mildly lamented about being out of practice with the physicality of playing a bass guitar.  I'd heard this refrain once before when recording Stewart Copeland for Oysterhead.  Stewart hadn't played drums for 10 years prior to making that record, but still sounded amazing to me, I certainly never would have known.  I once caught him over-editing his drums to change the timing of some snare notes and had to remind him, "Don't you know that you're Stewart Copeland?!" Spitzer was the same; a very solid bass player who came up with great bass lines; melodic, fluid, foundational.  You would never know, although he did, that he didn't play the instrument every day. You can tell by a musician's tone, how they touch their strings to make the notes, whether they're legit or not.  Bryan had a great tone, warm and well-defined.  He had a Fender Musicmaster bass which we ran direct and paralleled into the studio's Ampeg B15 bass amp combo reissue.  These are the old flip-top amps, if anybody remembers.  Recording through Neve 1073 mic preamps directly into Pro Tools, no compression, no muss, no fuss.  Bryan was another total pro - had practiced the songs, made chord charts for himself and played with a critical ear, not letting any mistakes get by.  He knew what he was doing.  In the world of D.I.Y. indie music, a musician like Bryan Thunderheart Spitzer is a godsend.  I didn't know his middle name when we worked, but it certainly fits. This project was becoming more fun every day to record due to the excellent songs, great performances, and the collective high level of expertise from everyone including the recording studio itself.  It felt like a canvass was being painted, a collage of songs, though I didn't know who or what was holding the brush.

Bryan gave us a strong warning on the neighborhood, concerned for our safety after dark.  I wasn't that concerned about the area in the immediate vicinity of the studio figuring that James would have mentioned something.  It being Jersey, we took ubers everywhere, no wandering around questionable neighborhoods.  As we were clearing out on the last night, we ended up on the street at about 2am waiting for our cars.  Within seconds a police cruiser drove into the gas station across the street and parked directly facing us, then turned off its lights.  The anarchist in me had an instinctive paranoid reflex, but, remembering Spitzer's warning, I decided to take the opposing view that the cops were positioned there to protect us until the uber cars arrived and we departed safely; and that's what happened.  I regarded this as a particularly good sign.  The quasi-cause of the giver of signs in the Thelemic system goes by the name, Holy Guardian Angel, the knowledge and conversation of which communicates with signs.  The bardo guards (the cops) protecting our transition to going mobile seems the kind of business a guardian angel would be up to if such a thing exists.

On break, the conversation drifted around to the American and Tibetan Books of the Dead.  That's where the word "bardo" originates, it's the space between lives.  I gave my standard rap to Riley about singing as if she was delivering bardo instructions to the dead.  The point being that there is a certain kind of intensity of emotive force needed to make being to being contact through the veil of death.  Bryan expressed interest in this area which he hadn't heard of before and knew nothing about. I promised to send more information at a later point - I promise I still have to keep!  Even with time dilation, the subject was too vast for our short break.

Day 3 saw the arrival at different times of musicians Riley called her posse - musicians she had met at "open mics" and other performances since moving to New York a year ago.  Her posse all lived in Harlem.  First to arrive was Henry Black who added some very tasty electric guitar rhythms and  atmospheric slide guitar embellishments.  He played a G&L ASAT Classic guitar and we alternated between a Fender Princeton and an old Beatles era Vox amp and cabinet.  We also took full advantage of the studio's beautiful tremolo pedal called a "Tremvelope." Henry played in the control with a tie line feeding his signal to the amp in the studio - the better for us to distract him with direction!  All his parts were made up/improvised/invoked on the spot with encouragement/interference from the production team (aka "the peanut gallery").  He did a great job!

Arriving with Henry in the morning.was the infamous "Reggie" aka Ryan Servis a friend and musical collaborator of Rileys from Michigan.  He had been dispatched by Riley to stay with her people in Harlem after getting into LaGuardia on a late flight from Denver. I had spent time with Reggie a few years back in the recording trenches of Prairie Sun working on a Jack and the Bear production which came out exceptionally well.  Reggie had composed string arrangements for at least five of the songs and would also contribute keyboards - Orange's Hammond C3 organ with Leslie cabinet, and a Rhodes electric piano.  He has a great ear, I was happy to have him as a co-conspirator on the production team.  Of course, Reggie's name figured into the synchronicities.  I had thought Reggie was Ryan's given name, but it turned out to be a nom de guerre he had acquired when the band played at a club called Reggies in Chicago.  There were two Ryans in the band so he became Reggie, a persona born at that club so to speak.   Riley always knew him as Reggie too.  Coincidentally, there was a small show poster from that same club by the door at Bill's studio.  Without knowing any of this or meeting Reggie, Bill Laswell told a story about John Zorn playing that same venue, Reggies, at dinner a few nights later.

The rest of Riley's posse that would record on this album, Jesse Flammond and Jeremy Rompala, got there in the late afternoon to add a variety of background vocal harmony parts both individually and with a group that included Henry and Reggie.  Henry added a harmony on his own for one song in a very distinctive, americana sounding voice.  These kids all had great ears for pitch and timing and just had to be coached a little on how near or far from the mic to stand for an optimal blend.  I recorded the group vocals with two ADK mics (U87 clones) facing each other about ten feet apart set to a cardiod proximity pattern.  The parts were arranged and practiced a bit beforehand so it all flowed smoothly with no mystery about what to do - a very good use of studio time.  Their warmth and presence with obvious love and respect for Riley's songs translated into the music.  They were indeed her crew, her assemblage, her family.

Florence Wallis arrived a couple of days later on a train from Providence, Road Island. Armed with a violin and bow, through the magic of multitrack recording she became our string section, overdubbing all the parts of the 3 -  5 voice string arrangements Reggie had composed, layering one on top of another.   Florence is in the group, The Low Anthem who just began an English and European tour to support their theatrical concept album Eyeland.  Riley had met her through a mutual friend somewhere on the road.  Some of the violin parts seemed like they would be hard to play, but Florence mastered everything skillfully.  She was of the same professional caliber, and had as strong a connection with Riley's music as everyone else.  Rimbaud was mentioned again.  Florence confessed to having run through the English woods when she lived there reciting Arthur's words in French to the trees. No word on the reaction from the trees.

 Control room view of Florence Wallis recording underneath a Neumann U47
photo by Riley Pinkerton

Riley set Florence up to stay the night at a Jersey Air bnb, there were more parts to record the following day.  She asked Riley for a book to read, hers was almost done.  Riley loaned her The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder which lead down a rabbit hole of synchronicity to some small degree.  I had picked up Miller's book because it reminded me of Timothy Leary's S.M.I.2L.E. formula: Space Migration + Intelligence Increase + Life Extension.  On the surface, this formula usually gets interpreted as outer space exploration as for example Obama's recent call for a manned mission to Mars + getting smarter, unlocking latent potentials, concsciousness studying itself + prolonging the human life span.  We see alternate interpretations that dive into the depths of this formula, such as this one.  But, also, in my opinion: Music = Space Migration (changing moods, going into different interior spaces) + Intelligence Increase (gnostic experiences, etc) + Life Extension (time dilation; temporal effects).  Music = S.M.I.2L.E.

The book begins with:

Nothing could diminish the lustre of that extraordinary smile which was engraved on Auguste's sad countenance. In the ring this smile took on a quality of it's own, detached, magnified, expressing the ineffable.

The synchronicity of The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, first published in 1959, beginning with a smile on a character named Auguste with the event of my birth in August of 1959 was another reason for the purchase.  Florence and I took the bus into the city after the next day's session swapping music industry stories for the 50 minute ride.  I was going to meet Bill Laswell, Yoko Yamabe and Mike Sopko for dinner.  Florence was on her way back to Rhode Island.  She told me she was a literary writer as well.  Later, when I saw an example on her wordpress blog, the phrase: smiling, smiling, smiling, near the top stood out to me.  The last synchronicity came about a week after the session when Florence told me the engineer at the pre-tour rehearsal studio her band was using in England had pasted a copy of my sound engineering manifesto on the wall.

We met for dinner at a sushi restaurant on 23rd Street and 8th Avenue.  Meeting up with Bill was one of the reasons I had taken this job out east.  Mike Sopko drove in from Cleveland and managed to get Bill to tell the story of how the classic electro funk song Rockit by Herbie Hancock came about.  Bill said of the restaurant ambience that it felt like being in a time machine.  The neon pastel lights and Japanese atmosphere had me flashing on Tokyo in the late 80's.

Mike Sopko, Bill Laswell and myself on 23rd Street.
photo by Yoko Yamabe

The last day of recording at Orange Music was spent mainly with Riley nailing four or five lead vocal overdubs.  She also played a part on an electric guitar going through a pedal that emulated a mellotron.  We finished in time to catch a train into the City to meet up with Riley's father, John McCurry at another sushi restaurant in Alphabet City.  Riley's nonstage name is Riley Pinkerton-McCurry.  John McCurry is a longtime New York resident and worked as a top session guitar player for many years including a 6 year tenure in Cyndy Lauper's band.  We had mutual close friends in the business including Jason Corsaro and Jeff Bova, both old time Laswell cohorts.  He had worked at Platinum Island studios where I had started out.  McCurry had that paradoxical Irish quality of genuine sincerity mixed in with a bit 'o the blarney to much good humor.  He treated Riley, Reggie and myself to dinner along with an uber ride back to Jersey.  It was a dinner of celebration.

Gilles Deleuze constructs  a taxonomy of signs in Proust & Signs, his study of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time.  Signs, nonverbal communications, can run from the mundane to the extraordinary.  Odors can be signs - it smells like rain becomes a sign that it could rain.  The cheese smells funky is a sign that it's not good to eat.  According to Deleuze, the intelligence of the heart communicates in signs.  He connects it with the path of Initiation:

The scent of a flower, when it constitutes a sign, transcends at once the laws of matter and the categories of mind.  We are not physicists or metaphysicians; we must be Egyptologists ... Everything exists in those obscure zones that we penetrate as into crypts, in order to decipher hieroglyphs and secret languages.  The Egyptologist, in all things, is the person who undergoes an initiation - the apprentice."

Interpreting the language of signs from the environment hardly seems new.  In The History of Magic, Eliphas Levi tells us that Oswald Crollius, an alchemist in the 14th Century wrote The Book of Signatures, or True and Vital Anatomy of the Greater and Lesser World.  Levi writes:

Crollius seeks to demonstrate that God and Nature have, so to speak, signed all their works, that every product of a given natural force bears the stamp of that force printed in indelible characters so that she who is initiated n the occult writings can read, as in an open book, the sympathies and antipathies of things, the properties of substance and all other secrets of creation. ... an attempt to discover the fundamental principles obtaining in the universal language of the creative Word.

Levi expresses skepticism with Crollius' conclusion and indeed one is advised to be armed with a healthy but balanced amount of skepticism when interpreting signs.  It's very easy and tempting to read too much into things, on the other hand, it's just as easy to reject any form of this type of communication.  The adepts at reading signs that I have studied, Aleister Crowley, Robert Anton Wilson and Gilles Deleuze all acquired strong influence from the 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume, one of the main proponents of stringent philospohical skepticism. Deleuze's first book was on David Hume.

I've said nothing about the actual music because it's still in process awaiting final overdubs and a mix.  Why saddle it with representation (i.e. a classification or even a description) before it has been born?

I  had very little idea of who Riley was before agreeing to the project and certainly wasn't doing it for a big payday; just going on intuition.  By the end of the recording I was having dinner with her father who was a good friend of Jason Corsaro, the engineer, more than any other, who showed me to how to mix and put me on track as a professional mixer.  There was almost like a family connection going on way before I knew about it.  Yet another good sign.  Watching this whole process unfold made me realize how much independent MUSICIANS TAKE CARE OF THEIR OWN!!

ps  On the train ride into New York for our last supper Reggie asked me to recommend some books to read.  The ones I can remember suggesting are:

1. Cosmic Trigger, The Final Secret of the Illuminati by Robert Anton Wilson
2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
3. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
4.  A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

Florence, Oz, Riley, Reggie