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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Adjusting the Levels

When you’re recording a few songs with friends, it’s OK to slack around. When you’re recording a few songs with very expensive engineers, you better not flub that G sharp.

Two weeks after our first meeting, the band went to another one, this time to the offices of Original Syn, in a tiny office on 33rd Street. “The producer I have in mind,” Chris said, “is a big deal. I think you guys are worth it. I don’t want you to prove me wrong.” Donald sat quietly, listening, and Lou was nowhere to be seen. The mention of the producer, of the album actually being made, of Schizopolis getting a deal, was entirely out of the blue. We all kept quiet, pretending we understood.


“Who are you thinking about?” asked Scott.

“Will Parrish,” Chris said. “You know him?”

“I don’t know,” said Scott.

“He sounds familiar,” Jacob said.

“He did some work on the last U2 album,” said Chris. “He’s about huge drum sounds, and I think that is perfect.”

“U2?” I asked. “We’re working with U2’s producer?”

“You’re not working with anyone just yet,” said Chris. “But I think it’s possible.”

“Remember,” Donald said, “there are a lot of people working on a U2 album.”

“Sure,” I said. “But damn.”

There was a stack of six contracts in front of him. “The thing is, there’s a pretty small window in which he can guarantee his time. Which is three weeks. So you’re going to have to move fast in the studio.”

“Three weeks, full-time?” Scott asked.

“Yes.”

“No problem,” I said. “That’s perfect. For 10 songs, that’s plenty.”

“Great,” said Chris, looking around to each of us. “So Lou’s been over things with you regarding the contracts?”

“We’ve talked,” I said, not wanting to stop the flow of conversation by revealing the truth, which is that we had never seen contracts or been told we were going to be signed.

So we were signed. I didn’t read my contract very closely; I know I probably should have, but everyone had been pretty decent to us so far, and I trusted them. And it looked pretty standard. We were going to share publishing, and/or royalties—I get them mixed up—equally, which was very fair, as Scott, Jacob, and I had each contributed a lot of music, and we couldn’t point to a song and say who wrote it. Even though Katherine didn’t write much music, she’d given us a lot of feedback, so it made sense to give her 25 percent of the profits, too. We had to give the label part of our tour proceeds, which made sense, because it meant that they were invested in our success as a touring band.

 

* * *


The studio in which we were to spend the first three weeks of December was on 18th Street, on the ninth floor of a blank office building. It was filled with magazines about sound: MixMaster, Mixing Times, Mix Machine, Sound and Engineering. There was orange juice and beer in the fridge. I didn’t really know how to process all of it. This was where the miracles happened. I felt like a Christian visiting Jerusalem.

A woman named Laura was in charge of the day-to-day stuff at the studio, and she directed us to Studio Two. The door to the studio had a small, white, plastic light above it that said “RECORDING IN PROGRESS.” It wasn’t lit. We went into a small, warm room filled with instruments. At the center of the room I saw a microphone, with one of those rubber spider things stabilizing it and a windscreen in front.

I went over and stood in front of the mike, staring through the glass into the mixing booth, where a man with a gray beard was adjusting things. The stand was a little too high for me, so I began to lower it; it was surprisingly heavy and substantive compared to what I was used to.

The room filled with a huge amplified voice. “Jesus Christ! Leave that alone.” I looked up to see the engineer yelling at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just setting it up.”

“It is set up,” he said. He came in and adjusted the stand back to where it was, then looked at me and lowered it fractionally. “Just stand right here,” he said.

“I’m Gary,” I said.

“I’m Martin,” he said. We shook hands. He looked very tired.

“Isn’t the producer supposed to be here?” Jacob asked Martin.

“Don’t know,” said Martin. He moved quickly out of the studio and back into his glass booth. Under his gaze, I felt like a fish in an aquarium. From the other side, his voice came through again, “Put your cans on,” he said. I thought this referred to breasts, and maybe it was some sort of studio lingo, like, “Get your ass in gear,” but then I watched as Scott reached over and put on his headphones, and I aped him. Martin’s voice came again, this time through the headphones. “Everyone hear me? I want to check levels.”

Each of us played in turn, at his direction; I picked up an acoustic, which someone else had tuned and prepared, and strummed, and then I sang a few notes.

“OK,” he said. “We’re set. Gary, stay a little bit back from the mike. You want to do anything, or should we wait?”

“You got the DVD?” asked Scott. A few days earlier, Scott had dropped off a disk with all of the files from the demo.

“Yeah, we’re ready to go.”

“I think we should wait,” said Jacob. “We don’t want to waste your time.”

“Your call,” said Martin.

We went back to the lounge and idled for a few moments, feeling guilty. The studio cost $100 an hour, and it felt strange to sit around, waiting, as the clock ticked. Finally, Katherine picked up a Ping-Pong paddle.

“Come on Benchley,” she said. For the next 20 minutes, she roundly kicked my ass, then Scott’s. Jacob put up a fight, but ultimately it was on Katherine.

“Church camp champion,” she said. “Three years running.”

“You went to church camp?” I asked. “Me, too.”

“What were you?” she asked.

Gary: Presybyterian.
Katherine: Lutheran.
Gary: Infidel.
Katherine: God, I got laid, though.

We eventually grew bored with our game and found our way into the studio, where Martin was seated before two huge computer screens, clicking on audio waves.

“Is everything OK with the files?” asked Scott.

“It’s fine,” said Martin. “Maybe you’d want to de-ess the vocals if you did it again, but we’ve got that in hand.”

For the first time I saw Scott mystified.

“What’s de-essing?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Scott.

“What’d you record it on?” asked Martin.

“A Shure,” said Scott, sheepishly.

“There you go,” said Martin. “We’ll fix that.”

“What kind of mike is that in there?” I asked.

“Neumann M149,” said Martin.

“That’s a good mike?” I asked.

“Four thousand dollars,” said Martin. “It should do the trick.”

“So I shouldn’t drool on it,” I said. Martin looked at me and showed no expression, making it perfectly clear that humor was not welcome in his life.

Katherine disappeared back to the lounge, and Scott, Jacob, and I sat on the couch in the mixing booth, watching Martin point and click in mysterious ways. “Not very interesting to watch,” he said. “But it should save us time later.”

Will finally showed up at noon, average height, all in new, black clothes, apologizing, shaking our hands. “I literally just got in from Minneapolis,” he said. “Fucking United right?”

“Yes, we’re finally all united,” I said.

“He means the airline,” said Katherine.

“Anyway, let’s hit it,” he said. “I want to start with ‘Overpass.’”

We all nodded and smiled, then someone realized that this meant we were supposed to go into the other room and start. I stood in front of the microphone, waiting for further instruction. Will’s mouth was moving, but nothing was getting through. “Gary, put on your cans,” said Jacob. I did so.

“—so just run it through. Let’s hear what it sounds like.”

This was the defining moment. This was when we made it real. Rock journalists would eventually write about these first, essential recording sessions, the way that we struggled to make real art, the way we worked hard to build Schizopolis into one of the world’s largest bands without ever compromising our principles. This was the state of Anti-Train, a totally uncred moment. I opened my mouth, and flubbed the G sharp.

“Shit,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” came Will’s voice. “The mistakes are the most interesting part.”

I looked around at my bandmates, to see if they agreed. They all were staring forward, into the bright box with all the equipment, trying to figure out what was expected of them, and I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what was going on. Schizopolis, which had previously been four people and a dream, was now a machine with many moving parts, a pseudo-manager, a label, and now a studio and producer. Somewhere along the line I had lost all ability to understand what came next. I decided to follow orders and hope that Will would be a force for good.

We ran through the song again, then another time. Then once more. Of course, we’d done this with the demo, but the sessions had been interrupted by chatter on a wide range of topics: how jobs suck, whether gaydar can be taught, different kinds of snakes owned by Katherine’s friends. There was no interval for chitchat here; it was work.

“Now, Gary,” Will said, “I’m going to have Martin play this back pitch-shifted at half-speed, and I want you to sing along with it.”

“OK,” I said, hoping that whatever happened next would help me understand what that sentence meant. My own voice, sounding slightly robotic and extremely slow, came through the cans. I began to sing “Overpass”: “I went under the overpass/thought about the past/The people walking here/The end of the war.”

“Gary,” said Will’s voice in my ear, “I want you to sing it slower, not down an octave.”

“All right, bro,” I said.

“Dude, you sound like a monster movie,” said Jacob.

I tried it again, and after a few more takes, Will said, “I want to work the bass.” He had Jacob play the same three measures over and over. “Syncopate it,” he said, “duh-duuh-duh-duh-duuh-duh-duh.” Jacob struggled to play Will’s rhythm.

“Do you want a click track?” Martin asked Jacob. A click track is a steady clicking noise that helps you keep the beat.

“I guess I do,” said Jacob.

It was well past time for lunch. I ordered a pulled-pork sandwich from Bait & Tackle.

“I love this free lunch,” I said.

“It’s not free,” said Scott. “We’re paying for it.”

“It feels free,” I said.

Scott had been back over our contract several times, and raised some concerns about the budget; he seemed to think that it would be hard to record an album in three weeks. And I was like three weeks and nothing else to do! Dude!

Will made some phone calls, then came in to sit down and eat lunch with us. We were all finished, but stuck around to watch him chew. “I want to take a moment to get to know each of you,” he said. “But I wanted to get something down as quickly as I could, get a sense of what we’re working with.”

“What do you think of the demo?”

“I love it,” he said, “There’s a lot there to work with.” For a moment I had a suspicion that he hadn’t heard it. “Overpass” is the first track on the demo. Then again, he’d worked with U2. I decided to be more trusting.

“Originally I was thinking I could produce it myself,” said Scott. “Now that I’m here, I’m really glad someone else is involved.”

“Absolutely,” said Will, drawing back a little from Scott. “Focus on the music, on the performance.”

Will went on to tell us about his approach, which was based on something called Oblique Strategies. “I’m basing it on Eno,” he said, “but a lot of it is mine.”

“Brian Eno?” I said.

“Yes, Brian,” said Will.

“What’s an oblique strategy?” I asked.

“Like this, Gary: Sing with your mouth shut.”

“You mean, hum.”

“Yes, but sing with your mouth shut.”

“That is humming,” said Katherine.

“Maybe not that one,” said Will. “Another one of my favorites is, faced with a choice, do both. That’s from Arto Lindsay.”

Scott nodded, looking thoughtful. Will reminded me of Charles, talking about Yogic Drumming™. Martin came in and sat down, saying nothing.

“What was it like working with U2?” I asked Will.

“Very intense,” he said. “They take it seriously.”

“You work on the last album?” asked Martin.

“A little bit,” said Will, very casual.

“Which part?”

“A lot of the drumming. The interesting drumming.”

“Oh,” said Martin, drawing it out. There was a hint of sneering in his voice. I didn’t know if I liked Martin. But he was apparently a really good engineer, and he had worked on a lot of albums I’d heard, stuff by the Prison Fires and the Mine Disasters.

Lunch ended, and we headed back to duty. I remembered to put on my cans.

“Scott, we’re going to focus on you,” said Will. “I want you to play the melody like you’re jumping off a tall building.”

“Would I have a parachute?” asked Scott.

“No parachute. The ground is coming up to meet you.”

“Can he land in a swimming pool?” I asked.

“Asphalt,” said Will. “I want it to be manic.”

“You know, there’s a couch in here,” said Martin through the cans. “The rest of you don’t have to stay in the booth.”

So the three of us left Scott, and went into amongst the mixing boards, to watch Martin’s back as he worked with his glowing computer screens and mixing board.

Will would say something like, “Give me more tension. Like your fingers are frozen.” Martin would tap his console, Scott would play, trying to make his fingers freeze. Repeat. Repeat.

“Like your fingers are snakes.”

“Like Vladimir Horowitz.”

“Like you’re singing opera.”

“I feel like I’m in some sort of terrible time-travel movie,” said Katherine, quietly.

“I know,” I said. “Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the demo.”

The day came to an end, finally. The only one not to receive much attention that day was Katherine, who would be the focus of attention starting on Tuesday. I took the train home, going over my new vocabulary: cans, mixing booth, studio, M149, Oblique Strategy. After I got in the door, I called Para.

“Did you miss me?”

“It’s weird not to see you at your desk,” she said. “I was like, who’s going to come to lunch with me?”

I’d asked Tom for three weeks off, explaining the studio time, and Scott had taken three weeks of vacation. Tom had been very understanding, and told me that he’d welcome me back when the recording session was over. Scott had faced a little more pressure, but as he had saved up a great deal of vacation, not much could be said.

“Did people notice I was missing?”

“Oh, yeah. Scott, too. Like, who knew we had rock stars in our midst?”

“Soon,” I said. “How are you?”

“Well…” she said.

Things had been stressed since the election. Para had gone down into her own deeps, watching too much television, moping. She was back on her meds, but not sure if she wanted to stay in therapy. “I don’t know if it’s helping,” she’d said.

And last week we’d had a fight, not a huge one. She’d suggested that we go away again, now that my ankle was healed. I told her that I couldn’t plan. I had no money, and we were recording the album.

Then we talked about what it would be like if I went on tour, and I joked about “road rules,” and she made a frustrated face and began to berate me for being immature and disloyal.

“I don’t know if I can trust you,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re going to be there.”

I wanted to say, “You’re the one who gets depressed and pulls away for months on end, and hides in her shell like a turtle.” And for some reason, I did.

Months,” said Para. “Like a turtle?”

“Well, it seems like months.”

“Because I get depressed,” she said. “That has nothing to do with you.”

“You knew you were dating an artist.”

“Did I know that? I was dating Gary Benchley,” she said. “Not Gary Benchley, Rock Star. I tried to call you today, and there was no answer, for hours. And I was like, where is Gary?”

“I was in the studio. I have to turn my cell off.”

“Well, I wanted to talk to you.”

“You’re talking to me now.”

“I know,” she said. “And personally, it’s a little disappointing.”