RMP 2015

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”:

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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:

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Here’s David:

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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.

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On Songwriting

One day this past summer, the kids and I were driving around town, listening to Lou Reed. It was a few weeks after he had passed away and I was feeling, well, sad. As we were listening, I was telling the kids that one of the things that made Lou Reed wonderful and important was that he wrote songs about people who are invisible to many of us—drug addicts, the homeless, transsexuals—and was able to give them dignity and honor by telling their stories.  After I was finished with my lecture, we all just listened to the music and then my daughter, from the back seat, asked a question that was actually more of a statement, “Dad, we aren’t going to be together forever, are we?”

This was a Lou Reed sort of question in that it forced me to stop and consider something that I don’t really like to think about, namely, being separated from my children.

Over the course of that summer, as I was writing songs for The Original Cosmonauts’ February cd, I would often think about my daughter’s comment and wonder how people write songs that make people stop and think about their lives and the things that really matter to them.

There’s a song on our new cd, “Stars at Night” that comes from that place of searching and wondering.

“The Stars at Night”
The stars at night Give me a fright
I wake up and see the light
All my life It appears
That whisperin in my ear
I get up go and see
What this world means to me
Shut the door fall to the floor
Can you take it anymore?
(Chorus)
Well I’m gettin older
And your getting older too
But we’ve got each other
And lots of things to do.

You keep tellin me baby,
To handle you with care
And I keep crossin the river
But I never find you there
Each day I dove
In the sea of love
Secrets in your eyes
Imagine my surprise

Here is a link to the actual song: https://soundcloud.com/theoriginalcosmonauts/stars-at-night

One of the things I like about writing songs is that they give me opportunities to think and write about my internal world without actually saying, “I did this and I did that.” That is, the songs I write are rarely about my own exterior life but they are very much about things I think about. That said, this song actually begins with a fairly typical experience for me. I often wake up in the middle of the night and look out the window at the night sky. These are melancholy moments. I’m not particularly frightened, as the narrator in the song is, or says he is, but there is a pull there—a pull and a reminder of mortality, of being alone even though I am surrounded by my family and an uncertainty of the future, even though I know I’m probably going to make it to see the morning. I like the line about whispering in the narrator’s ears. We all have that—the stories that we tell ourselves over and over–and they generally turn up at night either before we go to bed or, like the narrator, when we wake up at night. When I was thinking about the chorus, I started thinking about Neil Young’s song, “Long May You Run,” so I played on a second hand emotion to get a much inferior sentiment compared to that joyful melancholy of Young’s great tune.  I don’t really like that chorus, but I couldn’t really come up with anything else and in retrospect, I like how that emotion of contentment plays against the anxiety and uncertainty of the rest of the song. The first part of the second verse is really just a passing sentiment to get to the last four lines—my favorite of the song. I like the soft rhyme of “love” and “dove” and then the way the song turns sort of terrifying at the end as the narrator realizes through a glance—not words—that the thing he had been counting on and believing in is not true.

The Original Cosmonauts 2014 CD

The Original Cosmonauts 2014 CD

I play in a band. We call ourselves The Original Cosmonauts. Last year we changed our name from Animal-Mineral-Vegetable to The Original Cosmonauts. Neither of our respective spouses approve of either of those names. Besides myself, the band is made up of Joe Kosowitz and Ben Brewer. Here we are in our studio, well, it’s the studio that Joe has in his basesment.

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Joe plays guitar and keys and  he is a wizard sound producer. Ben plays drums. I play bass, keyboards and guitar. Joe and I share lyric writing duties. We have been playing together since 2012.

Our families occasionally join us. Last year, Joe’s son helped us on a track called, “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I wrote the song with his son one day while we were practicing. The lyrics came from his son’s journal and he helped us sing the song, too. This past February, my kids helped us on the track, “Fly On.” Here, they are, working hard.

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Every February, we get together and write 10 original songs or 35 minutes of original music for a thing called the RPM Challenge (rpmchallenge.com). This link will take your to our 2014 CD, “Fly On.”

Meeting Jeff Tweedy

On 18 February 2006, Sujata and I walked through the backstage door of the Gothic Theatre in Denver, found our way to the auditorium and sat ourselves in two chairs, center stage left.  Besides Jeff Tweedy, who was running through a sound check on stage, we were the only folks in the building.

Standing in the red spotlight, Tweedy seemed intense and forlorn at the same time, and I noticed that he was wearing the same rumpled and worn khaki Levi cords he’d worn the last three times I’d seen him. He was surrounded by 6 acoustic guitars, and he ripped through truncated versions of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Bob Dylan’s Beard,” “Shot in the Arm,” and “A Unified Theory of Everything.”  As Sujata snapped photos on here 35mm, I listened to his gravelly voice and the clangy guitar chords echoing off the concrete floor.

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After he finished the final sound check, he unstrapped his guitar, hopped off the stage and started walking toward us. “Hi, I’m Jeff Tweedy.”

As we were talking, I told Tweedy that since I became a father 5 months ago, I’ve heard sentiments about childhood, parenting and growing up in the Wilco lyrics that I hadn’t notice previously.  This was no surprise to him. He stroked his chin and noted that when Wilco got together in 1995, he was becoming a father for the first time and was struggling with raising a child when he felt that he had yet to grow up.  He noted, too, that the cd, “Being There,” was originally slated with the title, “Baby.”  From there, we talked about the challenges and joys of parenting.  As we were talking about some of the challenges he wryly commented that his way of dealing with those things was to go on the road for extended periods of time.  He also went on to say that despite the fact that he was on the road so much, he felt that his kids had a better sense of his life and his career than he had of his own father’s life outside of the home, mostly because the kids traveled with him when they could, they made good use of their I-camera,  and his boy, a 10-year old aspiring drummer, would often play a few songs with the band when he accompanied them on the road.

As we were getting ready to leave the auditorium, I pulled out my copy of the Wilco book and asked Tweedy if he would sign the front cover for my son.  Before we left the house that evening, I slid a photo of Atticus into the front of the book, so when I opened to the frontispiece for Tweedy, I showed him Atticus’ picture.  He asked if Atticus was a fan and then he took the book and moved off to write. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with the tour manager, who had come from backstage.  Tweedy seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to write in the book, and when he handed it back to me nearly two minutes later, he said, “It’s hard not to sound apocalyptic when I write notes to kids these days.” We laughed about that, Sujata snapped a few photos of Tweedy and me on her 35mm and then we shook hands and said our goodbyes.  As we were walking back to our car, I opened the book to see what Tweedy wrote.  Since he was at it for two or three minutes, I was expecting to read a few paragraphs of witty prose, but what I found instead was, “Dear Atticus, Never stop listening.  Jeff Tweedy.” When I expressed surprise at this, Sujata said that she watched him after he took the book from me and that he opened the front and just stared at it for a minute or so—he was thinking about what he wanted to write.

From this brief exchange, I learned a few things. First, it’s a wonderful thing to meet famous people who you admire and to realize that they are as gracious, sane, engaging and thoughtful as you’ve hoped them to be.  And, second, I realized that the real joy of this encounter with Tweedy was swapping stories about things that mattered a great deal to both of us:  being parents.

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Later that evening, Sujata and I returned to the Gothic to watch the show. Tweedy took the stage and played acoustic versions of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo songs, and he threw in a few covers as well.  What struck me the most was a few exchanges he had with the audience:  after the first song, he said that he didn’t want to sound like a prick, but could people please be quiet while he was playing?  He went on to say that one thing he appreciated was silence and that people missed on a fundamental element of the human experience when they gathered together as we were tonight and could not just “shut the f#ck up!”  This was all delivered in his wry, half-serious/half-comic manner, but three chords into the next song, “Kidsmoke,” when he heard a few guys chatting up on the balcony, he stopped playing, held his hands out as if pleading and yelled, “Gentlemen, how can I serve you better?”  What happened then, was rather amazing: Tweedy stood his ground and he simply cajoled the audience to silence.  He said it was okay to sing along, but the background chatter was unacceptable.  In an ironic twist, Tweedy actually began heckling the crowd, and, in many ways shaming them to shush.  By the fourth tune, things had quieted down a bit, but not enough to Tweedy’s satisfaction, so he said, “Alright, if you won’t be quiet, I’ll just play without the PA.” And then he walked over to the PA system, flipped a switch and, voila, went into a stunning version of “New Madrid” without any amplification. At that, the place went dead quiet.  No one moved and it almost felt like the entire audience was hesitant to even breathe.  It’s ballsy enough to walk out on a stage with just an acoustic guitar and try to entertain 1000 people for two hours, but to actually unplug your instruments and turn off the microphone (rather than, turning it all up to drown out the audience)?  The rest of the show was quite simply one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The Tweedy songbook is full of heartfelt, passionate, emotionally difficult lyrics that create a nice tension between his ironic, borderline caustic stage presence.  Throughout the show, he continued to interact with the crowd, and there was even one point, in the middle of “War on War,” where he playfully stuck his tongue out at someone in the balcony who was making a ruckus.  There’s nothing sentimental about Jeff Tweedy, and he also has an inimitable way of saying things without actually saying them, so when he began his second encore with, “I’m the Man who Loves You,” I took that as a way of saying, “Thanks for coming,” and then when he came out for his sixth encore, unplugged the PA and the mic again and went into a rousing, heartfelt version of “Acuff/Rose,” a song that’s about a kind of invisible common culture.