My Year in Art

Every year, I look back and think, “I didn’t get shit done this year!” Sometimes that’s accurate. Other times, that’s more a result of failure to step out of the day-to-day frustrations and look at the broader picture. And also a result of having unrealistic goals, I suppose.

In any case, this year, I started thinking, “I didn’t get shit done this year!” and then caught myself. When I go through it item by item, I got a ton of stuff done this year. Everything I wanted? Hell no. But a lot. So here it is, in an attempt to keep my perspective:

Art-Related Stuff Completed in 2013

1.) I signed a three-book contract with ROC for PREMONITIONS and its sequels. I turned in a revision of the first book and wrote and submitted the first draft of the second book. Woohoo! This item alone ought to be enough to call the year a success!

2.) Finished writing an album with my buddy D. It’s taken a couple of years, but we got it done. Eleven songs, and I’m really proud of them. They’re interesting musically and thematically, and D, who is not prone to blowing smoke up my ass, says I’m writing my best lyrics ever these days. Maybe more importantly, we’ve hit a good musical groove together, and we’re writing better music together than ever.

3.) Built a small recording studio. This was a hell of an undertaking, but it’s done, and now I have a good acoustic space in which to record and mix. I’ve done a lot more recording than mixing so far, and I’ve learned a TON about recording this year. Some of it is remedial, stupid stuff, like: Get great sounds on the way in, instead of relying on your mad mixing skills to fix it later. That never works. Some of it is more complex, and there has been a lot of trial and error. Biggest error: Building a guitar cab iso box in my garage. It’s basically a tiny room constructed of 2×4 stud walls with 3/4″ MDF inside and out. I can fit a 4×12 cab and a shitload of bass trapping in it with no difficulty whatsoever. I can crank a 50-watt amp, and the box works so well that the strings of my electric guitar can be heard acoustically over the amp sound on the outside. The miked sound is great. However, the box is fucking gigantic, about a 4.5′ x 5.5′ footprint, and 5′ high, and I can’t really do anything else in there–like put a drum kit or a vocalist. So I walled off a corner of my garage for an iso booth instead, which is what I should have done in the first place. Now I’ve got this huge fucking box I don’t know what to do with…

4.) Related to #3, I learned a lot about recording electric guitar. Sadly, one of the things I’ve learned is that I can’t get “record-worthy” sounds direct out of my Axe-FX II. I can get very good sounds out of it, but they are lacking some of the life I hear in pro recordings. I get a lot closer with a real amp and cabinet. I suspect almost all the problem lies in the Axe-FX’s cab IR’s, which, after all, are not made with my amp and settings in mind, but just sort of generic cabinet miking setups. I’m gonna try to run the thing through my favorite cab and see if I can get good results that way. Meanwhile, I’ve found that, for miking electric guitar cabinets, I dislike the SM57, I LOATHE the MD-421, and I get good to great results with an EV RE20, a Neumann U87, and a Wunder CM67. Since my default practice in the past was to just stick an SM57 or an MD-421 in front of a cab and fly, I can see where some of my historical difficulties came from…

5.) Played a music festival in Wisconsin with my old man. This was a good time, and even though we were in the dinner tent playing to uninterested people, we still had some old hippie dude stalk us back to the car afterward and ask if we had any CDs for sale. We do not.

6.) Learned a lot about playing piano. Having an instrument in my living room has been revolutionary in this respect–even if it’s just five minutes before work, I play nearly every day. This year I finally learned to play and sing “Let It Be,” which was a goal when I first sat down in front of a piano fifteen years ago! I also learned the key of G minor inside and out, since every other damn thing I play is in G minor. I don’t even know why. But, anyway, after a fourteen-year hiatus on playing the piano, I’m really making progress now.

7.) Learned a lot about playing drums. I’m still terrible, but I’ve learned some of the basics of playing heel-up, and I’ve sort of gotten the hang of playing open-handed, which I am now convinced is the best way to play. I can’t lay down even a single song in any way that sounds decent, but I can throw it down in a way that makes it very clear to my session drummer what I’m going for, and then he can do it in a way that actually sounds good and is true to my vision of the song. I also learned a lot about recording drums (one mic on every individual drum is not necessarily the way to go–I’ve had great results with two front-of-kit mikes, kick, and snare, which is progress) and a little about tuning them.

8.) Learned a lot about analog synthesis. Also learned my Elektron Analog Four inside and out. It’s a great little box for throwing down and arranging ideas, and I can just throw it in a backpack or whatever and take it with me. For the longest time, I couldn’t navigate the thing or make good sounds, but I’m past that now. Now the bigger obstacle is inspiration and arrangement creativity–but isn’t it always?

Things I didn’t get done this year:

1.) I wanted to get all three of my contracted books drafted this year, which in retrospect was overly ambitious. This year I want to get the third written and then finish a book I’ve been kicking around for a while about a girl and her grandfather.

2.) I had hoped to finish mixing the “Watching the World End” album. I mixed two of the songs, and they sound better than anything I’ve ever mixed before, but I got discouraged, largely due to the somewhat lifeless guitar sounds, as discussed above. I like the songs, and there are some really strong ones, but I’m not sure now if I’m going to re-record them, mix everything and move on, or abandon the project. Sigh.

3.) Get the album with D recorded. Again, a little too much ambition there. We got it written, for God’s sake. We’ll get it recorded in 2014.

4.) Get an album of either spoken word poetry with a music backing or some regular old tunes recorded with my old man. Didn’t happen this year, but I’d like to get that done in 2014. I did get him hooked up with a decent recording setup in 2013, and I taught him how to use it, so we can at least work on things and trade files online.

5.) Get a live performance ensemble put together. I tried out two drummers–both were good and auditioned well, both were excited to play, and both were gruesomely unreliable when it came down to actually rehearsing. So…tired… For 2014, I’m gonna put together a solo show. For real this time.