SONG #3: STORMCHASER



STORMCHASER

This song is my first real successful (?) attempt at writing and composing a very specific type of song… and a real "song" at that, with more or less traditional form (verse/chorus/bridge, etc.). In this case it was a reggae song. For a long time, I have been very into reggae music. I am into all of it's variations in style, and while sometimes the songs can get a little too political for my tastes (same with folk and many other genres... To be clear I don't downplay the importance of social and political movements in music, I just lean towards music without opinions, in general,), what I am particularly in love with in reggae music is the rhythm, the really wild and brilliant dance of elliptical syncopation, the trance-inducing patterns. I incorporate a lot of the reggae approach into a lot of music I play and write. My guitar and keyboard playing style borrows heavily from the reggae language. But I would never consider myself a "reggae" musician. Although I did play in a reggae cover band for a couple of years (playing keyboards), which is kind of how this song came to be...

For a few years now, I have been involved with a reggae cover band that would play gigs at some of the New Jersey beach-side resorts. The band is called Jack Light Move, originally an original groove-based rock band when I first linked up with them many years ago, but things changed when we were offered a gig playing reggae one summer, two Sundays a month through the season, and seemed to make sense to keep up that approach. We did that gig for the next few years... twice a month through the Summer. It was a lot of fun (good money too!), and a really great experience playing reggae. Like I said, I was playing keyboards. This is especially an interesting part to play in the genre, since it really accentuates the percussive aspect of the instrument. And playing keys was interesting also because you had to force yourself to be creative, because at times, in my opinion, playing reggae can be repetitive, unless you do something about it... mess with the rhythms, percussive patterns, add delays and effects, chord phrasing challenges, etc. Of course it's always nice to just kick back and play simple, let the groove carry...

So... one year, as the season was approaching, I was rehearsing our set list, and I began to get a bit frustrated. In that moment, maybe because of my own lack of imagination at the time, I was getting bored with the songs. Although they were songs I love, we'd been playing them now for several years, with a few new ones being added here and there, of course. But nonetheless, they were covers and I was looking for something new to add. So, for whatever reason, at the moment, my head wasn't there, so I decided that maybe I would pen something for the band, maybe just even as an exercise in writing a song. I'm not sure if I had ever really tried to write a song with the specific intent for it to be reggae, beyond the subtle incorporation of it's sound and rhythms... but I'm sure if I had, it had probably gone off the rails into the unorthodox, weird, or complex, and rendered itself incompatible with the genre, as a whole. This always happens with me. It's a problem… An ongoing difficulty of mine of being utterly incapable of keeping things simple. But now I sort of commissioned myself to write something that could actually be used in a real world situation and I decided to be as strict as possible with my direction. So I said to myself one day, "OK, man, that's it! Let's sit down and write a reggae song, plain and simple." Of course this is not exactly how it turned out, this song not being a typical reggae song, but I think I found something close enough to get it through the red, yellow and green door.

At the time, Walter Becker (of Steely Dan infamy) had just released his second solo record, Circus Money. A good portion of the songs he had written and produced for this album were mixed with a heavy reggae influence, a really unique mixture of reggae, fused with the jazz and rock textures he/they normally incorporate into their music. In particular, in case you were interested in listening to what I'm talking about, check out the songs "Downtown Canon" and "Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore"… . It's worth the time, take a quick listen! There are some really great songs here, and it's a great album overall. Anyway, I was inspired by this album to mix these jazz flavors, chords, song structure, with the reggae song I intended to write.

Although I spent a lot of time on the lyrics, the musical arrangement came surprisingly quickly and easy, once I sat myself down to do it. Maybe like 2 days, which is absolutley light speed. in my dimension. Actually, to be fair, the bridge took a little more work, but not that much longer. (Considering I have songs on this record I've been dicking around with since 2005, this might actually be the quickest song I've ever wrote!) And maybe the best... In terms of songwriting. It has a very traditional arrangement (intro > verse > chorus > verse > chorus > bridge > chorus > outro), which many my other songs do, but in most cases, they're just not as evident and more than likely have a few quirky things going on. But this song is as straightforward as it gets for me. I still came up short in the running-time department. In other words, it runs a little long. Lack of brevity is another problematic element of my complexity addiction. I managed to whip up (or whittle down) a radio edit to get radio airplay consideration, but I still couldn't get it down to any less than 5:20, (7:20 is the actual running time), without starting to compromise things. But this lengthy duration time has a real purpose here, actually and for once, which I will expand on further in a little while.

I recorded most of this track up in Philadelphia with Jake Morelli during the sessions I mention in my previous posts. The drum beats and bass-synth line were both originally created on my BOSS drum machine at home which I later copied and adapted/filled in with Ultrabeat. We dropped the beat and bass line into the project and began layering. Then I recorded all the rhythm guitar parts (and later the keys and vocals). The guitar part is a mixture of reggae skank with a mid-western drawl. There is also another "guitar" part or sound you hear, in the intro and throughout the verses.  What almost sounds kind of like a cross between a jaw harp and a digeradoo is actually a guitar. I got the sound by rhythmically brushing a pick up and down, a perpendicular bowing action, against the grain (coil) of the low E string at the bridge, played through a phaser pedal or effect plug in.

Jake provided all of the solo guitar parts. I need to say here just how spectacular a job Jake did with his guitar work. It was really amazing to watch. The end result is actually a combination of many different takes put together. But you would never know it. My editing may have helped, but what was amazing to observe was the almost immediate internalization and understanding of the songs structure...  and the lyrical, linear quality of what he was coming up with. He knew exactly what he wanted to say with his solo, from start to finish. Even though we would stop and start recording, doing over dubs and re-dos through the night, to the point where I had so many takes and general information to pick and choose from, it was almost too much, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle… but that's because in the end, when I eventually cut through and discarded the bad takes and throw-aways, it became evident that there was a method to the madness, he knew exactly where he was going. With the benefit of time, distance and heavy analysis, I could clearly see what he was going for. But the most amazing thing, to me, was that he seemed to reed my mind when it came to the theme, and feel. Listen to his playing on the track… Those little country licks he throws in there? Those were his ideas, but I never really explained to him how this was exactly what I was looking for… in fact I'm not even sure I knew what I was looking for at the time, but it fit so perfectly in retrospect.

To expand a bit on this, when I was writing the song, I began with the reggae skank and rhythm, which I played through a chord structure that incorporated a lot of jazz chords and changes (this is most evident in the chorus)… But as I was putting it together, particularly with the darker and moody intro and verses, I also was noticing a slight country/western feel. Not specifically or traditionally Country & Western. More like the Ennio Morricone scores for the the Eastwood films , the "spaghetti-western" genre. When I had come up with the idea of calling it "Stormchaser" (I'll expand on that idea in a bit), I pictured a tornado or hurricane I immediately thought of Midwestern America. and Tornado Alley ... Wizard of Oz country. The song, thematically speaking, was shaping up to be this dangerous adventure, riding off into the wilderness with a purpose, a "chasing the man in black" -type of ominous tone. It occurred to me that to mix reggae, jazz, and this cinematic "country" sound is something that not many have ever thought to do, or if they have, they may not have succeeded in pulling it off. I modified the guitar pattern in the verses to have this little sweep and bend in it that echoed this Western-Cinema sound (and I threw a little tremolo effect to really seal the deal). So, it could have been that Jake noticed this, or maybe I mentioned the "spaghetti-western" thing to him in passing at some point, but he really nailed some really cool stuff throughout the song, adding that pedal-steel twang, especially on the choruses and bridge. It also kind of reminded me of some of the pedal steel work on Steely Dan's Can't Buy A Thrill record… one of the few times they ever incorporated the pedal-instrument in their music.

So, to get into the subject metter at hand here in this tune, when I was trying to come up with the title and theme of the song's lyrics, I guess I was going through some personal things (which I won't go into great detail about), involving a woman and these trying events were what inspired the idea to call it "Stormchaser". I had stumbled across a You Tube video, and subsequently the show, about Storm Chasers, these scientists and thrill-seekers who chase tornadoes and hurricanes to study their behavior and witness there awesome raw power. I was simply amazed at their bravery, tenacity, and maybe even madness. I was also mesmerized by the images and experiences they would capture. Even just one perfectly timed photograph of a brewing storm or tornado is simply amazing to me. I would even go so far as to say that there is some dark or crazy part of me that actually wants to, hopes to, see something like this one day. Like wanting to witness a ghost or a UFO... it is something that I feel like I want to see, but would be terrified to actually see it, some sort of masochistic curiosity. And the intrigue is not based upon the magnificence and the awesomeness of the sight itself, but  of all the questions and answers it might pose and reveal. Things like "Life after death"… "Intelligent life out there in the cosmos"… and in this case, "the brutal force of the earthly storm"… the hopeless lack of control and insignificance of man when faced with the monolithic unforgiving reality of nature's wrath and power. These things I sometimes feel myself morbidly drawn to, even though I know that to invite this into the mind-conversation is to welcome a dance on the edge of sanity, or at the very least, many nights of compromised sleep. And still I dance...

The brooding approach of the intro and verses, they seemed to describe a determined push into a conflict or some unknown territory, a quest freighted with oh so many unknown reasons, goals, and things left behind… this was the image I witnessed when I listened to the playback: A defiant march into the storm. It could have been a knight, a cowboy, a prisoner of fate, a conqueror of visions… this stubborn traveler who plows forth despite the odds. And then, after seeing the videos, I saw a chance to put a modern twist to it, so I introduce up the "storm-chaser": These people who, in the name of science, dangerous fun, or just morbid curiosity, swing hard and lean into the chaos... those who voluntarily bear witness to raw power, God or Nature, and willingly head, full steam, toward what could very easily kill them, in order to see, to feel, to understand the power of something much bigger than them or the human race themselves.

So we have the character, but what is the motivation, what are they a metaphor for? What does it signify to the individual listener?

Well, it's not too far a stretch to infer the most common significance. It's essentially speaking to the idea or problem, that we all sometimes have, that we become attracted to things that might not be the best things for us. Addictions, bad habits, too much fun, too much productivity, toxic friends and relationships... This is where we most often see it in songs and stories about "bad" relationship situations. And I suppose, to be honest, that kind of thing is where the majority of the emotion is going into here, although I really don't write songs to reflect my life or current emotional status. But it was there, so I used it. But it can also refer to other things… basically the things which we run towards and chase even if they are unhealthy or even destructive. I've even listened back to this song and thought it could be about music itself… more specifically, my relationship with it, my professional and artistic pursuit of it, the small successes and wrong turns, and some of the negative things this grail-quest has bestowed upon me… missed opportunities, let-downs, rejection, job insecurity, misunderstandings, and sometimes crippling existential despair. But still I push on, because I love it... into the wind, collar up…

But I want to be very clear that this song is not about dysfunction, despair or self-destruction. There's enough of that  shit out there, and we don't need any more of it. Complaining never got anyone anywhere, regardless of the weather. This song is meant to be about the hope that things can be turned around, that whatever problems arise with these situations , they can be overcome with the right amount of sincerity, maybe even naivete. Sincerity, the pledge to remain true... the madness, bravery, and tenacity, of our cyclone-bound meteorological warriors.

Instead of it being a song about: "I have to end this because…" or "I have to do what's best for me…" or the "hopelessness of hope", etc, etc... I wanted it to be the diametrically opposed, logic-defying opposite. I wanted to capture the decision to actually turn towards the storm and the inevitable pain… and to actually lean into it, to face the darkness, to engage the twister, to wrestle the ghost, to enter the storm full bore and through sheer willpower and love, actually absorb it… absorb the toxicity, absorb the demon, absorb the titan, absorb the problems at hand… and then, become larger than them, and ultimately, vanquish them. This song wants to say "Give me everything you got. I can overcome it. I won't give up…" It was this kind of stubborn naivete and blind determination that I wanted to capture here. But also, I wanted to include the conflict of being aware of the dangers ahead. I wanted to give a snapshot of the back and forth debate that may cross the mind before making the ultimate decision to take that potentially damaging plunge. "This is the last time…" our Narrator says before doing a complete 180 and promising his life for the quest. This song is basically about the moment of that decision. And magnifying it to seven minutes, twenty seconds.

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Speaking of time and duration, I've been told that this song goes on a little too long. This is common for me. I've really never been able to write a short song. Let's face it, as these posts might reveal, I'm really pretty long-winded by nature. As I mentioned before, in order to make the song more digestible for the common radio formats, I had to make a radio edit of "Stormchaser", to dial it back from 7:20 to 5:20, and that's the best I could do while still maintaining the integrity of the song's structure. Even five minutes is an eternity with the perpetually attention-challenged standards of today's culture, a socio-cultural problem which I think is only getting worse (but that is an entirely different discussion and a position that you and I most likely agree on, considering the fact that if you are still reading this far into my post, or even this sentence, you have no issue with patience and attention)

… anyhow, where was I? Oh, here it is… The part which goes on the longest is the outro. I mention this because I want to explain myself, perhaps defend my insistence that it go on like it does, so that you may go back and give another chance if it went on too long the first time for you. I shouldn't have to, and I know I should listen to people about the rules of the radio and attention-span game… but I have my reasons here that I think are valid, and may persuade people to forgive my long-haul excursion. So…  to give some coordinates, after the last chorus the chord progression repeats, with the  phrase "And we'll ride this thing out together" repeating as well. With some vocal flourishes being gradually added, this culminates to a sort of turnaround, where the progression stops and holds for about half a measure then drops back into the cycle, in a way that gives it weight and heightened attention. This part here was actually a result of a timing. syncing, and programming problem, which forced me to add an extra half measure or so, to match up the drums and bass line for the repeating end… which I intended to just cut out and match up so the progression just kept repeating. but, it's inclusion actually provides some literary and linear tension and resolution. It indicates a turn for the better… or at least stabilization. The hard part is over… now we wait. Now we ride out the storm, together. I flavored it with some particularly dramatic washes of thunder to highlight the moment.

After this turn, the vocals continue to repeat, gaining emotional momentum, the vocals getting more and more emotive. The words keep repeating: "And we'll ride this thing out together" as the thunder grows stronger and the rain starts coming down… and this goes on for a little while. it is meant to go on for a little while. It is meant to say "hold on tightly" and to keep holding on until it's over, no matter how long it lasts. I had originally intended to cut it a little shorter, especially after a few critiques which had mention the duration (more as a potential problem of attention and radio acceptance, not as a qualitative judgement)... but the more I listened, the more I liked it. I didn't want it to end. The extended length served a purpose, to highlight the hypnotic quality it had, likening it to a mantra or prayer, a guiding rhythm to keep the wheel steady, until the weather passes, for as long as it's needed to make it through and land safely in the warmth and sunshine of a new life, a new adventure, with all of the darkness sinking behind us into the horizon…

So I decided not to edit it down on the record. I do not think, for the purposes of true artistic expression, that the full experience should be abbreviated or whittled down and pre-chewed for easier consumption. I did what I had to do on the "edit" to gain it easier access to the airwaves, but on the record, I needed it to be there in all it's glory, to tell the full tale, and just hope that at least some people will ride it with me to the end, if I should be so lucky... because, as we will see, the storms will pass. And they will bestow us gifts for our perseverance. Just keep your head down and listen. The rain is already starting to ease. And what comes next is bound to be glorious. You've come this far, you should see it through... Are you ready?

NEXT>

 

 

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