doug of cuppa joe had an interesting songwriting process.  Essentially, he’d write the songs himself and commit them to a four-track.  He’d flesh out the songs with guitar, piano, home-made percussion instruments, whatever.  He was a big fan of four-track recording and some of his favorite bands were part of the “low-fi” indie rock movement of the early 90s.

Once he got the songs the way he wanted them, he considered them “finished.”  He would then give the tapes to steve and bob (or, at this point, rick – who had taken over for bob on bass), and they would work on new arrangements for the songs, with the goal of transforming them from doug larkin songs to cuppa joe songs.

doug would occasionally mail us a tape of his four-track stuff.  There was no question that he was an outstanding songwriter, who wrote engaging pop songs with intelligent, witty lyrics.  Unlike most indie people at the time, though, I was not a fan of the low-fi, home-produced recordings.  I liked the music but what the other indie guys called “warm and friendly,” I called “home-made crap.”  I had (and still do) a hard time listening to music when there was too much treble and hiss and I had to strain to hear the song. It was distracting to me. I wanted a clear recording.

doug’s songs were engaging, no question. He wrote them very carefully, and worked hard at getting them right in his bedroom on the four-track. But the songs frustrated me, because I would listen and the hiss would give me a headache. While the rest of the indie rock world was loving Guided By Voices, and old Sebadoh, I was dying for GBV to get into a proper studio and loving that Sebadoh finally had a recording budget with Sub Pop – because now I could listen to their songs more than once. I wanted so badly for someone to cover GBV’s “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” because I thought it was an outstanding song but I just couldn’t bear to listen to it. It hurt my brain.

So when doug mailed me a copy of the latest cuppa joe studio recordings, I was happy to receive them and looked forward to listening.  I had listened to his four-track stuff, but did it mostly out of respect and friendship, and less because I liked the four-track recordings.  I didn’t. The songs were strong, but I couldn’t stomach the medium.

These songs, however, were the cuppa joe versions of doug’s studio stuff – recorded in an actual studio. And even though the band had a tendency to bring the drums too high in the mix, and to leave in some sloppy mistakes that could easily have been fixed in a new take, that was part of their appeal to me as a band – and it was great to hear their music with a bottom end, no hiss at the top, and clear vocals.

So I listened.

When I got to the song “bottlerocket,” I had to stop it, rewind it, and listen to it again.  Then, I had to drag out the original four-track demo of the song and listen to that.  Then I went back and listened to the new studio recording once more.

Here’s the original four-track demo. You can, if you listen hard enough, actually hear the song – it moves fast, it’s got two tracks of layered harmony vocals, a guitar and a bass. I would imagine the tambourine is happening on one of the vocal tracks. It’s very muddy, and tough to make out the lyrics.

Here’s the studio version recorded by the entire band, that I received on this cassette from doug.

I didn’t even listen past “bottlerocket” on the tape.  Didn’t need to.  The song, to me, was absolutely amazing.  There was no question in my mind: I had to release this.  All the skittishness and indecision of the previous months had immediately washed away.

I called doug on the phone.  After a little small talk, I said “Hey, I got the tape of your new stuff today, and I’m in love with ‘bottlerocket.’  Would you be interested in putting it out on a 7″ with dromedary?”

“Sure,” he said. Simple as that. We had our next record.

After months of waffling, listening to demos and seeing live bands, unable to make a decision, about fifteen minutes with one cassette tape did the trick. It was like having four months of writers’ block completely wash away in an instant.

“I’m in love with ‘bottlerocket,’ I reiterated.  I need to put that song out.”

“Okay.  Any way we can make it a 7″ EP?  Maybe put out three or four songs?”

“Sure,” I told him.  “Whatever you want.  As long as ‘bottlerocket’ is a part of it.”

We worked out the details of how we’d handle costs and dollars, and doug said he’d talk to the rest of the guys in the band to confirm everything.  Within a couple of days, doug had called me back and told me that they were all in agreement as a band, and looking forward to getting the record done.  He gave me a title: it would be called botany.

I asked doug which other cuppa joe songs he’d like to include on the 7″, and he told me I could take my pick, he didn’t care.  I didn’t care, either, as long as “bottlerocket” was the A-side, by itself.  doug did a little research and found out how much recorded music could fit on one side of a 7″ at 45RPM and at 33 1/3 RPM, and somebody decided (I don’t recall if it was me or doug) that we’d use “french toast,” which was, at the time, cuppa joe’s most popular song when they played the local clubs in Trenton.  We also chose the song “surface area,” which we thought was another example of doug’s songwriting prowess.

The only thing I struggled with – slightly – was that the band wasn’t particularly popular outside of Trenton.  They didn’t play many shows, particularly with an underage bass player.  We wouldn’t have a built-in base of fans to buy the record like we would have with Godspeed.  The likelihood that the band would ever tour was minimal – doug was a teacher, and rick was actually still in high school (the old bass player, bob, was attending the Police Academy, and rick had been filling in while bob was unavailable).  Selling this record was basically up to us – there was very little that the band was going to be able to do that would help.  I didn’t think they cared much about sales – they really were a true indie band; they preferred just trading music and letters with other indie bands they liked, and writing music that they could put “out there.” We would just have to look at this record as a labor of love that we were doing because we loved the songs.

Which was, in my opinion, the perfect reason to put out a record.

~ by Al on February 10, 2009.

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