Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First Light - Track By Track

1990's promo pic
UPDATED, Feb. 2017:
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first CD, First Light, I'm going to go track by track with my recollections about the songs, the gear and the people that made this project a reality.

Track 1: You Ain't Right - This song features the album's core rhythm section of Angelo Cammarata on bass and Carl Hupp on drums. The three of us had a group together in the mid 1990's called XYZ, and had the rare good fortune to get a regular gig in which we were given carte blanche to play all our favorite instrumental rock and jazz fusion covers.

Ben, Carl and Angelo in the studio, 1996.
 And so we did, cranking out everything from Joe Satriani to Weather Report, with plenty of Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson and much more like that. (A video tape of us from 1994 has recently surfaced, hope to share some clips with you soon.) "You Ain't Right" was written based on a riff from Angelo that I developed into a completed song, did a demo version at home, and brought it back to the guys to learn and expand on. I was excited about the collaborative process, but we only got a couple songs done this way before Angelo and Carl got sidetracked by other personal and professional commitments. I had to continue developing the rest of the music on my own and with other musicians. But happily, the guys were able to still be part of the project, playing on this and several other songs on the CD.

"You Ain't Right," CD clip:

Later on, I played on a track from Carl's solo CD, Hyper Statue. To check it out click here.

Track 2: Three Wishes - Three Wishes is a completely different story. This track is a fairly faithful re-creation of one of my earliest recordings from the 1980's, back in the day when I had first got my home studio equipment and started making demos in the tiny living room of my first apartment.

Excerpt from home demo, 1987:

For the version on First Light, I called Barre Lankford, the bass player in my first band Spectrum and a good friend since high school, to play bass. Frank Young was recommended to me to do some drum tracks. Both guys were wonderful because they were able to remain true to the content of the original demo while adding tons of personal style and flair. The guitar parts are great examples of the crisp clear tones of my 1974 Fender Stratocaster.

Here's a clip from the final CD version with Frank and Barre:

Track 3: Chickenfish - This song goes back to the line-up of the first track. Written with XYZ in mind, it started with another Angelo bass riff. I joined that up with a melody from another very old demo of mine, and it evolved from there.

Excerpt from "Streets of the City," home demo 1985:

I was feeling a lot of creative freedom, which included being willing to deconstruct my old songs and integrate some of the ideas with new ones. It was exciting, and the finished track has a feeling I really like, a mingling of relaxed sophistication and playfulness.

Clip from "Chickenfish," final version from the CD, with Carl and Angelo:

I played my 1996 PRS Custom (practically brand new at the time) on this one, for that super thick lead tone, and whammy bar goofiness.

Hectic Red 1990's promo pic
Track 4: The Shadow - this was another song I had fully developed in home demo form in the 1980's. For the album, this one seemed perfectly suited to Hectic Red, the group I had already been with for ten years at that point (and is still going strong today!). Our keyboard player, John Suchy, also did all the recording and mixing for the entire album at his studio, Such Sound. The huge influence of Steve Morse on me is easily detectible by anyone who knows his style.

"The Shadow," CD clip with Such, Rich and Danny from Hectic Red:

Track 5: Horizons - the only cover tune in the project, came from an old album by Genesis. It was a lovely Steve Hackett solo piece that had been in my repertoire for years already. I had developed an idea for a multi-track arrangement, but the final result went far beyond my expectations. Besides layering multiple electrics, 12-string, steel string and nylon string guitars, I also asked Barre to add a bass part to it. He came up with some ideas on a fretless bass that were just stunningly beautiful; we were blown away.

"Horizons," CD clip with Barre:

Track 6: Hour Of The Wolf - This song was in an unfinished state until near the start of recording. I wanted to take this one in a slightly jazzier direction, and adding piano and percussion to the mix really helped to give it the right vibe. Brian Comotto played the keys and Hoppy Hopkins added the percussion. Another fine drummer, Brett Hayes, played on this track, and Angelo was on bass.

"Hour Of The Wolf," CD clip with Angelo, Brett, Hoppy and Brian:

Brian, Brett, Angelo, me
Track 7: Countdown - A very similar situation to Hour of the Wolf. I had an incomplete demo I had never been able to finish. But I got a ton of inspiration and motivation from how well the recording sessions were going, and I came up with what I needed to flesh out the song. Brett and Angelo again provided a superb rhythm section. The whole song was very much inspired by Joe Satriani, but I worked hard at investing the middle solo with my personal style and passion.

Early demo from 1987 with basic parts worked out:

Final CD version, new parts added:

Track 8: Nightmare on Church Street - This track was another one I had fully developed at home in the late 1980's, long before this album was conceived. I basically did it as an experiment in multi-track guitar overdubbing, which was a challenge back in the day when recordings were made onto physical pieces of tape. I had my Tascam Porta Two cassette recorder, a drum machine, a bass and a few other items like reverb and EQ. I went to work piling on the guitar tracks. I also was working with the timed echo concept to create the very mechanical sounding guitar parts that percolate through the song. I used super distorted tones, super clean tones. It was everything I could think of. Underlying it all, I had a very simple bass line and a repetitive drum machine part, just trying to keep out of the way of the mushrooming population of guitars going crazy.

When it came time to record it for the album, I did the bass myself because it was so simple. But Frank Young came in to do the drums for the song, and this was another case in which the part the musician came up with dramatically improved the song. And as I recall, he did it all in one take on the second try.

1987 demo excerpt:

clip from final CD version with Frank on drums:

Track 9: Last Best Hope - Now back again to collaborating with Carl and Angelo. Both guys took solos on this song, and really put all their skills and their hearts into it. You can really hear the intensity and emotion we all were expressing.

"Last Best Hope," CD clip:

Track 10: First Light - a solo acoustic instrumental in an alternate guitar tuning I had recently discovered: C G D G A D, or "C-Gad" as I like to call it. I have always pursued many aspects of guitar, because I simply love the diversity of sounds and expressive possibilities offered by different styles. Playing quiet finger-style on a steel string acoustic is a unique timbre, related yet very different from classical finger-style on a nylon string, as in Horizons. The unusual tuning further helped me drop into a very meditative, even spiritual zone. It took a while to get this track done, because I wanted the phrasing and articulation to be just right.

"First Light," CD clip:

In order to get going with this CD project, I had to get over the fact that several of the songs I planned to do were not finished. There is a saying: "leap and the net will appear." For a very long time, I just couldn't believe it, and so I remained stuck in a very frustrated state of wanting to do something, but not being able to get over a writer's block that was nothing more than useless insecurities and self-criticism. Thank goodness I finally found the courage to take the leap into the unknown. Once I committed to going forward, I found myself meeting and interacting with new musicians, all wonderfully talented, enthusiastic and creative people. They helped me find the inspiration to develop and finish those old unfinished songs, and their performances took the songs to new heights I never would have imagined possible. This was one of the greatest joys of making this CD.

Another stumbling block was the worry that my songs sounded too much like the artists I was influenced by. I was paralyzed by the fear that I was not original at all, but merely a good imitator. Again, I had to overcome what were really irrational fears and baseless self-doubt. Once I got the nerve to let go of worrying about it and allow my influences to show, I started to notice that actually, I did have a style and sound of my own after all. Well, what do you know...

Pick up a copy of First Light, or download MP3s on iTunes and from CD Baby.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Road to First Light

UPDATED, Feb. 2017:
Twenty years ago I created and released my first CD project, First Light. Following that, I formed a new three piece group which eventually created a followup CD, One Mind. Doing those albums was possibly the most challenging yet satisfying work I have ever done. I think after all these years, it's time for a retrospective. How did those CDs come about? Who were the players? What were my inspirations and influences? All this and more...

It all started in 1985 with a Tascam Porta-Two 4-track cassette recorder. Remember cassettes? Remember anything not digital? Hey, it was the 80's. We still had to do it the old fashioned way. It was good enough for the Beatles (we'd tell ourselves).

Once I had acquired the Tascam, plus a drum machine (a Yamaha RX-15, the best I could afford), and a cheap electric bass, I was in business. I was excited about making demos and creating my own music.

Just recently, I dug out and unpacked boxes and boxes of those old cassettes from the late 80's-early 90's and started listening. I can hear now that I was having a lot of fun, but lacked direction. On the one hand, I was writing instrumental rock pieces in the style of the guitar gods I worshiped, like Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Allan Holdsworth, and many others. The songs were not complete but I figured I would finish them at some point. Several songs that ended up on First Light were started during this time and still exist in demo form. Here's an early version of The Shadow:

On the other hand there were numerous tracks that were clearly intended to have vocals, but almost none of them did. Evidently I wanted very much to write sophisticated pop music. Listening back today, some of those tracks sound like I was trying to do Mr. Mister as if interpreted by Steve Morse. For example:

But the songs never got lyrics, and the instrumentals never got completed. I like to say that life got in the way, but I was simply experiencing a big fat creative block, and didn't know why. It took a lot of soul searching and self-analysis to finally shake loose from layers of self-doubt and self-criticism, insecurity and lots of other mental/emotional baggage. Almost ten years passed before I finally realized what should have been blindingly obvious - that what I really wanted to do was make an all-instrumental album. I simply woke up to the reality that I could do it and I should do it right away. OK!

At that point in the mid-1990's, I was lucky enough to be in a group, XYZ, that was providing me a chance to play my favorite instrumental rock and jazz-fusion covers. We had a regular Thursday night gig at the Ritz in Baltimore for a long time, and we were pretty tight. Angelo Cammarata on bass and Carl Hupp on drums were (and still are) first rate musicians, and we were having a ball. We had started writing, and I anticipated this group would become the vehicle to fulfill my ambition to do a CD. But it was not to be. Angelo and Carl got sidetracked by other personal and professional commitments, and things fell apart. The signs were all pointing to the fact that if I wanted to do a CD, I would simply have to take the leadership role and do it as a solo project. Once I saw that was how it must be, I pushed forward and things started to fall into place.

Enter John Suchy and Such Sound studio. Such and I had already been playing together in Hectic Red. That band was (and still is) very fun and musically satisfying, but I wanted to go in a different direction. Nevertheless, Such was definitely the guy to record my stuff. He had already been in business with his studio for several years and was doing great work recording, mixing and producing for many local artists. We got along really well, and he was incredibly generous about letting me into the studio whenever I had time.

I realized that as a leader, I could ask whoever I wanted to play on the songs. So Carl and Angelo from XYZ could play on some songs; the Hectic Red guys could play on some, and from there I let the door open to meet and work with some other incredible players. It turned into an all-star project, and on top of that, Such was willing and patient as I indulged myself with sometimes massive amounts of overdubbing, as I attempted to recreate the multiple layers and textures I had come up with through endless tinkering in my home studio. We put in many months of intensive work.

And in 1997, ten years after originally coming up with at least half the songs, I finally released First Light.

Continue to the next post: "First Light - Track by Track," which talks about the songwriting, the musicians, the guitars - and everything else that went into making an album at the dawn of the digital age.