28 February 2015
Last night at around 11 pm we finished our fourth RPM Challenge album. We kept our name this year–The Original Cosmonauts–making it the first year we have not changed our band name. And we are still made up of Joe Kosowicz, Ben Brewer and me. You can hear the whole album (as well as last year’s album) here: https://soundcloud.com/theoriginalcosmonauts/
Here’s Joe, playing violin on “Desperate”:
This year Erin, Joe’s wife, and David Hicks, my colleague at Regis joined us for a couple of tunes. Erin’s song, “Harmony,” is beautiful. I think it’s my favorite song on the album. And David played sax on a few of the tunes–he hadn’t played for years, so it was great to have him in the studio with us, blowing his horn. He also wrote and sang on “Avenue A.” He did that tune in two takes and we love it’s energy.
Here’s Erin, laying down some keys:
The Challenge (http://rpmchallenge.com/) is to write and record 10 songs or 35 minutes of music during the month of February, and it comes from a radio station in Vermont. Anywhere from 500 to 1000 bands from across the country complete the challenge each year. Joe told me last night that each year, the people who run the challenge gather up all the albums (they are in cd format, but I still use analog language) and shelve them in a bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I’ve never been to that bookstore, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever get there. In my mind’s eye, though, there is a wall of shelves hosting thousands of cds that musicians have submitted over the years. It’s a quiet, dimly lit room, and patrons are slowly running their fingers across the face of the cds, picking one or two out indiscriminately, admiring the artwork, wondering what the songs on any given cd sound like and where the people who made the music are from, what their lives are like. Something about all those cds–all that gathered up creativity, hard work, musicianship, camaraderie sitting on a shelve, most of it which will never be played again or heard by more than a few people, moves me.
Music has become something that most of us consume like we consume bananas or shampoo. We just buy it and use it as a means to an end (to divert our attention during a workout, a drive or walk across town). We don’t have to work hard to hear music anymore and because the production of music has become so technical and professionalized, most of us feel like we can make our own music. Kids are taught to play music because “it’s good for them” or it will make the smarter or do better in school, not because music is a part of who we are as humans, it brings joy to our lives and our homes and because it’s just fun to do. Either you are really good at music and you dedicate your life to it or you passively consume it. There’s no middle ground anymore.
The RPM Challenge works against all these things because there’s absolutely nothing at stake for the bands who submit their work. There’s no prize, there’s no possibility of signing a record contract, there’s no accolades. Nothing except the pride you feel in making something, whether it’s good or bad.
Anyway, this year’s album, we are calling it Marquette Wind, is our best to date and it’s also been the most fun to put together. Given the time constraints of the challenge and the fact that all of us in the band have lives outside of the music, it’s sometimes a stressful process to put it all together. This year, though, the whole process felt very fluid, focused and fun.
For my part, I started writing the lyrics during the summer. Generally, by the time February rolls around, I have three or so completed sets of lyrics and then a notebook full of just random stuff, 99 percent of which never makes it out of that notebook. This year, I came to February with three pretty complete songs: “Faith,” “Start Out Standing,” “Desperate.”
“Desperate” came from a late-night conversation with our friends Rudy and Liza sometime in the early part of the summer of 2014. We were sitting on their deck in Boulder, drinking wine and talking. Somehow the conversation drifted to how all of us met and, Sujata, in her inimitable way, announced that when the two of us met, “she was desperate, and I was lucky.” I made note of that, went home and wrote the song the next day. It pretty much came out in its final form. Sujata actually tells this story differently, claiming that she wrote the chorus and that I wrote the verses around that. I’m willing to accept that and give her 100% of the revenue we get from this song.
“Faith” and “Start Out Standing” are both based on literary texts. “Faith” is really just a re-telling of Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown”—David picked that up right away—and “Start Out Standing” is more loosely based on Tolstoy’s novella/short story, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”
Each year, though, I write at least one song in the car on my way to band practice. Some of my favorite songs come up this way. Two years ago, it was “Green Light to Blue,” and this year it was “Velocity of Love,” one of my favorite songs on the album. I got the idea for “Velocity of Love” from my friend, Tim Trenary. Tim and I were talking one day last week about differential equations and he explained them to me in light of a game that he made up for his students where they can chart the trajectory of Romeo’s love for Juliet based on differential equation functions. I think I understood about 10% of what Tim was saying, but when he said, “Well, we can predict the velocity of Romeo’s love for Juliet,” I knew there was a song in that. So that evening on my way to band practice I made up the lyrics, sang them into the voice recorder of my phone as I was driving down I-25 and then came up with the chords when I got to Joe’s house.
Some of my favorite moments of February happen after we finish the album and we are sitting around listening to what what we’ve made and talking about it. Last night, Ben couldn’t join us, but Joe and Eric and I sat up in their living room, playing our new tunes and talking about all the music we’ve made over the past five years. You may have heard some of our stuff. Or maybe you haven’t. It doesn’t really matter to me.