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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Working on the Mix

Who would have guessed the rock dream involves lots of old-fashioned hard work? And why is it rarely a good idea to include a brass band on a rock album?

Because a few readers who are new to Gary’s letters have written in to say they’re confused as to what’s happening (apparently, reading through the archives was too demanding?) we thought we’d add a brief summary to this update, and Gary said, “Dude, whatever, you write it.”

So, our story so far: Young bro Gary Benchley has a band called Schizopolis in the city of New York. Its members, including drummer Katherine, bassist Jacob, and synth player Scott, are hard at work on their first album, tentatively titled “Dancing About Architecture,” to be released on the Original Syn label. Somehow recording has been going well, even if the advice they receive from their producer Will seems baffling at best. As we re-join Schizpolois in the recording studio, it’s becoming clear that living the rock dream involves compromise, especially when you have decided to pass on having a lead guitarist.—ed.

 

* * *


The next morning, Will focused on Katherine. He had a hard time with her; Oblique Strategies didn’t work too well. Jacob went out for a walk, and Scott and I sat in the mixing booth, watching from the couch.

“A little less madcap,” Will said. “Just tap the cymbals.”

Katherine tried, but it was like trying to train a cat. She knew one way of doing things, and that was to make the drums sound like a trash truck driving off a cliff. She’d be mouse-gentle for 30 seconds, then start smashing the toms, and all of a sudden off she’d go, all over the place.

“Turn up her click track,” Will told Martin. But that didn’t help. “Give her playback on those last two takes; let her hear the difference,” he suggested. But Katherine found it difficult to react, and she’d look up from the drums, squint at us, furrow her brow, then play her take in exactly the same way.

“I’m not getting through,” Will said.

“This hurts to watch,” I said.

“She’s just got her own way,” said Scott, looking up from Sonic Times magazine. “It’s an asset on stage.”

“We’ll work it out in the mix,” said Will. Whenever he said that—and in the weeks to come, he said it often—Martin would shake his head a tiny bit. “The mix” would take place later, probably in Chicago, where Original Syn had developed a partnership with a recording studio.

At the end of the day, Katherine said, “I never want to hear that song again. I hate that guy.”

“We have to finish it tomorrow morning,” said Scott.

“I can’t do it,” she said. “I’ll kill myself.”

“It’s almost over,” said Scott.

“Then we have to do it nine more times,” said Katherine. “My God. This is being a rock star?”

“Come on now,” I said. “Being a rock star happens on tour,” I said. “You have to do the hard work to reap the benefits. It’s better than building a giant persimmon, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” she said. I knew that was just the stress of the day talking. This was a dream come true, but that didn’t mean you didn’t have to work for it.

By day three, we had moved on to the second song, and sparked by Will, the ideas began to flow. Scott was in heaven; he clearly loved the studio synth, which looked like a compact upright piano with a computer screen attached so he could tweak every possible aspect of the sound. In the lounge, during a break, he and Will communed over the importance of the band Yes and discussed which string settings to use on the synth, whether the strings should be obviously synthed or sound real.

“Gary, what about you? Any ideas you want to get out? Nothing is off limits.”

“I definitely have some ideas,” I said. “I was thinking, what about some brass? Like a tuba. No one would expect that.”

“Excellent,” said Will. I felt triumphant, vindicated, and looked at my bandmates, each of whom had a horrified look on his or her face.

What, yo?” I said.

“Tuba?” asked Jacob.

We came in the following Monday to find a trombonist, a tuba player, and a trumpet. Scott would print out scores for them.

“Gary,” Scott said, as lunch was winding down, “can I talk to you for a minute?”

“I believe I have the time,” I said.

“Can you let me know before you suggest a brass combo?”

“It was just an idea,” I said. “You know. I thought it would sound good.”

“But we have a really limited budget, and we need to get these songs right. I don’t think we want to add too much at this point.”

This hurt my feelings. “Will seemed to like it.”

“Will likes a lot of things,” said Scott. “We need to just get this thing done.”

“And it’s not like the budget is that limited. We have $30,000.”

Scott shook his head. “Not really. Will is costing us $3,200 a week, and you have duplication costs, and it’s going to be about $500 for the brass. And lunch.”

“I’ll pack my own lunch,” I said.

“You don’t have to pack your own lunch. I’m just saying, go easy, and talk to me first, OK?”

“It’s a deal,” I said.

 

* * *


I spent the weekend with Para, walking around Brooklyn. We wanted to get dinner. I had no money. I had sort of thrown myself on fate, stretching my savings for three weeks without any income. That meant no beer, and that my lunch at the studio was my primary meal. After the studio time ended I could pick up some hours at BrandSolve, but my credit card already had started squeaking in my wallet. So I suggested we get some hummus and go back to her place. Para, on the other hand, was flush as always, and wanted to go somewhere nice and sit down. “I’ll pay,” she said. But that made me feel like a no-account boyfriend, and I told her as much.

“I don’t care,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me. I don’t want to be taken care of.”

“You never minded when I paid in the past.”

“Yeah, but—I’m trying to make things work, and I’m trying to keep on my budget.”

“Which is why I’m going to pay.”

She didn’t understand where I was coming from. I didn’t want my girlfriend to have to cover me. I would have rather just not eaten, in fact. In the past, it hadn’t been such a big deal, but for some reason now it really bothered me. It was frustrating, in fact, to be working so hard and not have anything real to show for it. The only artifact of our studio time, after the first week, was a lot of files on a hard drive, and my diminishing bank account. Once again, I wondered if after things were over at the studio, I shouldn’t take a full-time job at BrandSolve.

We ended up apologizing for our mutual bad moods, and Para took me to a French place on Smith Street, but it stung when the waiter delivered the check to me and she put her hand on it and pulled it across the table. I know feminism should make these things irrelevant, but I felt inadequate.

“I owe you dinner,” I said.

“You don’t owe me anything,” she said. “I wanted to come here.”

“I’ll cook you dinner, then,” I said.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m not letting you in my kitchen.” Para was serious about cooking, and watching me arbitrarily throw pepper on something, without consulting a cookbook, was, for her, like watching someone staple-gun a baby in the eye. I’d only cooked for her once, and the misery of the result was only matched by the misery of watching her wrinkle her nose as she took a bite. “You’re right. I’ll stay out of the kitchen,” I said.

“When your album sells a million copies, you can take me to Balthazar,” she said.

“That’s a good plan,” I said, thinking of the last discussion, where she’d accused me of abandoning her for the studio. She and I discussed what to do next, because the night was still fairly new, but Para said she was exhausted. I was, too, so we parted ways and went home to our respective neighborhoods.

 

* * *


The next morning, there was a trombonist waiting for us, warming up. “How you doing?” I asked him.

He shook my hand. “Everyone else is in the lounge,” he said. Eventually, the other brass players filed in, carrying their black instrument cases. Directed by Will and reading Scott’s sheet music, they played through “August” a few times. As I sang, I looked at the sheet music, amazed to see our musical ideas converted to paper, to something as traditional as bass and treble clefs. If we ever got really big, I reasoned, we could have one of those symphonic albums, like Pink Floyd’s or Radiohead’s. Symphopolis, it would be called.

Will’s voice came through all of the headphones. “I want the brass to play as if they’re in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, trying to get the sound up to the top,” he said.

“OK,” said Otto, the tuba player. “I can do that.” And when he played, you could hear that he did know what it was like to be on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The room soon filled with the sound of horns. And “August” sounded ridiculous. Later, I found out he graduated from Eastman and was doing a doctorate at Juilliard, and I felt a hot shame that he would be playing anything we had created. He didn’t seem to mind, though.

Later, with Scott beside me, I said to Will, “I know I asked for it, but I’m not sure how much the brass adds.”

“Oh, we’ll work it out in the mix,” said Will. “Let’s just get everything we can out of them while we’ve got them.”

Donald showed up as the brass band tootled. I watched him enter the studio, sit for a few minutes, and then talk to Will. I wanted to say hello, but by the time I was released from going over the songs, he had left.

 

* * *


During the second week in the studio, I realized why rock documentaries have so many jump cuts. To show more than 10 seconds of anything that happens there would ruin rock for everyone. It’s probably different if you’re a solo artist, because then you’re doing the work yourself. You end up being a sort of co-producer. But with the band, you just take your turn, wait, and take your turn again. It was as boring as a game of Parcheesi.

Many bands, I knew, went to places like Biscuit Road studios in Fredonia, N.Y., or One Squid in Kansas City, sequestering themselves as they recorded. They’d leave their lives behind. I was glad we hadn’t done that, because I definitely needed New York City right then. Just walking out on 18th Street, and walking over to the L, helped me keep my sense of perspective. It also made me feel kind of cool. On the train, I’d think, I’m probably the only person on this train who has a record deal.

As Will focused on specific band members, we each found ways to occupy ourselves. Jacob fired up his laptop to work on articles, although I spotted many a game of Tetris on his monitor. Katherine knitted. Scott called into the office to manage his department.

To occupy myself, I read magazines. Sometimes I would imagine the documentary about our experiences, 20 years from now. Behind the Music: Schizopolis. We had all the requisite ingredients, although we didn’t really fight that much. If one of us had a drug addiction, that might make the story more compelling. Katherine seemed like a good bet. Maybe if we hooked her up with some heroin?

Voice-over: …and then, dark days came to Schizopolis.
42-year-old Gary: We tried to keep Katherine from using heroin. We really did.
Old Katherine, in heavy make-up: I was out of control.
Old Scott: She was out of control.
Old Jacob: There was nothing we could do.
Narrator: Yes, there was nothing they could do.

By the middle of the second week, we were working on “Jesus Was a Union Man,” about Union Square Park, the third song on the album. My throat felt like I’d swallowed an angry cat, and I was living on lozenges.

I’d become a machine for the generation of music, a sort of Benchley Device that sang and played acoustic when you yelled at it. I learned to love the words “We’ll work it out in mix,” because they meant I could stop performing whatever repetitive singing task I’d been charged with, safe in the knowledge that the recording would be handed over to some mysterious man in a mysterious studio, someone we might never see, and that person would take all of our effort and transmute it into audio gold.

I tried not to complain, reminding myself that this was a tremendous privilege. The only ugly moment came when Will insisted that we add electric guitar to two tracks—”August” and “Overpass.”

“We don’t have an electric guitar,” said Scott. “That’s one of the things about us.”

“See, you’re committed to that orthodoxy,” said Will. “Orthodoxy is our enemy! I want to break you out!”

“Before, you said that not having a guitar gave us a spiritual center,” said Katherine. Which was true. Will had said that a few days earlier, or maybe a few hours earlier. In the windowless world of recording, time slips. “Katherine, that’s completely true,” said Will. “But some guitar would make that center all the more apparent, you know?”

“We have seven songs left to record,” said Jacob.

“I know that. And I can tell you’re worried. But you have to include the relationship we’ve built, the startup time. I think it’s very strong. We’re really working now,” said Will. “So I think we have good flow. You know about the concept of flow? By Csikszentmihalyi?”

“You really want guitar?” asked Scott, in his tired voice.

“I have a guy who sits in at the Knitting Factory all the time. We can bring him in tomorrow.” Will looked each of us directly in the eye, in turn, to gauge our pliability. We were all pretty pliable. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

“It won’t work,” Martin said.

“Good, I’m glad to hear your opinion,” Will said. “I’m just asking you to give me some breathing room, to make this into a truly astounding album.”

“Astounding sounds good,” said Jacob. “If you think so.”

“Excellent,” said Will.

 

* * *


The next day a cool-looking man with a pack of cigarettes in his front-shirt pocket appeared in the studio. I never learned his name. He came in, heard the songs through playback, and, while smoking, improvised over the top of them under Will’s direction. He went through five or six takes, then left an hour later without saying anything to any of us.

“That was excellent,” said Will. Will then excused himself and left with the guitarist, saying he had to run some errands. After he left, Scott got incredibly angry.

“I don’t want to do this,” he said. “Why bother if we don’t control anything?”

Jacob looked at his hands. Katherine looked at me.

“It’s not shit,” I said. “I mean it sounds good. We need to have faith. Martin, it sounds good, right?”

“Best album I’ve ever recorded,” said Martin. “Without a doubt.”

“Really?” Jacob asked.

Martin shrugged.

“I’m just wondering when it ends,” said Scott. “I mean, next thing we’ll have to add a sitar and bugles.”

“I don’t think it’ll go that far,” Jacob said.

“Why? We already had a brass combo,” Scott said. “It’s like The Music Man.”

“Look, we already discussed the brass combo,” I said. “Have I suggested anything else?”

“No, thank God,” said Scott.

Katherine sighed. “Do we have any choice but to go with the flow?” she asked.

“With a week?” said Scott. “How the hell do we keep this up for another week? Like antelopes?” (This was a reference to the time Will asked Jacob to perform like an antelope being chased by flute-playing lions.) “We’re going to be totally humiliated when this album comes out.”

“If we get humiliated, who cares?” asked Katherine. “The worst thing that happens is that no one wants to hear the album.”

“Donald says not to worry,” I said.

“Does Donald do anything?” asked Jacob. “I mean, he’s like a ghost.”

“Where the hell is Lou in all this?” asked Scott. “He’s supposed to be our manager.”

“He works for the label,” said Jacob. “I knew that was a bad idea.”

“It’s a little too late to work that out,” I said.

I walked away from the discussion feeling tired and frustrated. Will returned and told us that he wanted to start moving on the other songs. “The guitar is great,” he said. “They’re going to devour that in Chicago.”

Later, at lunch, Martin and I sat together in the control room. Everyone else was in the lounge. “What does working it out in mix mean?” I asked him. “I mean, I know what it means. But it seems to bug you.”

“It means that Tuxedo Pants is flying blind.”

“Tuxedo Pants?”

“You didn’t notice Will’s tuxedo pants?”

“With the stripe down the side?”

Martin nodded.

“I thought those were cool.”

Martin huffed. He was 42, divorced, and shook his head constantly.

“So how do you think we’re doing?” I asked. “Honestly.”

He turned his right hand from side to side—so-so. “Everyone’s working hard. That’s good.”

“We’re a little new.”

“You’re kidding.”

“OK, I know,” I said. “I mean, how do we make this week work? We’ve got to get down two songs a day.”

“Just keep going,” said Will. “That’s the only choice you have. And you have to say no. If he wants a guitar, and you don’t want a guitar, fight him on it. You guys roll over too easy.”

“I was a little disappointed by the sudden appearance of the guitar. We’re really big on not having guitar.”

“You mean Will’s cousin?” asked Martin.

“That guy was Will’s cousin?” They did look alike, in retrospect.

“He didn’t tell you?”

“He might have mentioned it,” I said. “It just didn’t register.” I wanted to defend Will, because Will was the future of Schizopolis. “And he did work for U2,” I said. “That counts.”

“Do you know what he actually did?” asked Martin.

“He worked on their last album.”

“I was curious,” said Martin. “I got that out of him. What your boy did, he remixed the drums on a B-side disco version of a track for Chinese markets.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Before that, he was a guitar tech. I don’t think he ever met Bono, if that’s what you were thinking.”

That was what I’d been thinking.

“Chinese markets?”

“Chinese markets are huge.”

“But it’s not producing a whole album.”

Martin and I had a serious conversation then, and Martin shared what he’d learned from listening to Will’s cell-phone calls. Which was: Will had lined up a producer’s role for the next Slake album, he was a friend of Slake’s lead singer, and Slake had pushed hard to bring him in. Original Syn wasn’t sure, because Will was fresh off the boat, without any albums under his belt. So Chris gave Schizopolis to Will as a test, a way for him to confirm his skills before working with Slake. Slake was going to start recording in the same studio right after New Year’s.

It was all kind of hurtful and confusing. We’d gone to the label with good intentions and put our faith in them, and they’d given us an unproven producer who had never put down an album before. Part of me wanted to cry, but another part realized that we were playing a grownup game with grownup money. Schizopolis was both a player in the game and the pieces that people moved around on the board, at once.

Scott walked into the lounge, and I returned to something that had been bugging me. “‘Working it out in the mix,’ what does that entail?”

“Get every possible sound you can out of these songs, then ship it out to whoever you’ve got in the pipeline. And then whoever that person is will figure out what to do with it.”

“Is that in our budget?” I asked.

“Not my department,” said Martin.

“So we don’t control the final sound,” I said. “Do we have any control over the album at all?”

“You’re recording it now,” he said. “That’s control.”

Maybe this was why bands had managers that didn’t work with the studio. If Lou had been working for us, we could have complained, gotten more money or time. But that didn’t fit in with the three-part synergy model, and here we were, our future handed over to strangers with checkbooks, with five days to get through seven songs.

And then…what? We were supposed to go out on tour. That had been the plan, but if the album was crap, would they even bother?

I decided to call Donald, and hope he’d have some advice. Martin didn’t care if we lived or died, Will was strategizing obliquely, and Chris spent his days contemplating synergy. Of all the people involved besides the band itself, Donald at least seemed to care about whether the album got done.

“Will keeps saying we’ll work it out in the mix,” I said into the phone. “But we don’t want to lose control of the album.”

“I hear you.”

“I’m worried about that,” I said. “We definitely have a vision for this album, a way it should sound.”

“OK,” said Donald.

“Is there anything we can do? I thought three weeks would be enough.”

Donald laughed. “Work hard all week.”

“Is that even possible?”

“I definitely think so.”

“I can’t believe we burned through $30,000 like that.”

“It happens,” said Donald.

The next day, Donald came down the studio, making sure to spend some time telling me that Chris was happy, and that no one was worried about anything, and to put our faith in what would happen in Chicago. Besides that visit, it was 10 or 11 hours a day, jetting through songs, take after take.

Will became more strategic than oblique, and had less to say about instrumentation or arrangement; he barked commands at each of us: “Katherine! Syncopate your triplets.” “Jacob, slow then fast,” “Scott! Think King Crimson, not Rachmaninoff.” “Gary, for fuck’s sake, it’s a chord change, that means you sing different notes. Not the same notes.”

“Yes,” I said. “OK.”

The third week ended not with champagne and celebrations, but with the whir of a computer’s hard drive as it burned the files we’d created to a set of seven DVDs, to be handed off to Original Syn, and with a train ride home, to sleep.

One song remained unrecorded, an untitled track about FDR Drive, and an executive decision was made by Will, in conference with Chris and Donald, to cut it from the album and replace it with an extra, extended mix of “Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” which would be created in Chicago. “Don’t worry,” Donald said, when I called him to check in. “You guys are doing a fine job.”

Para wanted to see me on Friday night, when everything was over. I’d promised her that it was all over then, that we’d spend some time together. But I canceled; the idea of talking about anything, of trying to be a human after a week of being a music-producing machine, was simply too much to handle.