borders.

Nearly seven months had passed since Sandy had been to a show, and several months had passed since we had done anything social.  It was sort of insane, given the immediacy of the change in lifestyle.

Our friend Brad had met a woman and decided to get married.  Since the wedding was in Jamaica, Brad’s mom realized that most of his friends would be unable to attend.  So she decided to have a little pre-wedding party at her home in northern New Jersey.  

Sandy and I decided to attend, since Brad was one of my oldest friends.  And there were a few people there who we hadn’t seen in a long, long time – Frank, who had drifted apart from us to the point where we never spoke; Kenny, who remained close friends with Frank; and Stevie, my best friend from high school who sort of drifted as well.

When we arrived at the party, Frank took one look at Sandy and said “Oh, my God.”  He had no idea we were pregnant.  We spent a good portion of the rest of the afternoon catching up with him – he wasn’t aware that we were releasing CDs, that we had moved to Boonton, or even that the label was still running.  We were unaware of what he was doing with his life, either.  It was nice to sit down for a few hours and catch up, although neither of us suggested that we get together again sometime.

What the afternoon did do was convince us both that we needed to revive our social life a bit, if only to get over the cabin fever that we were experiencing from having a life that consisted of nothing but watching baseball on television and looking at houses.

So when Nick from Dots Will Echo told us that the band would be playing a shot at Borders Books in Wayne, New Jersey, we jumped at the chance to go.  First, we hadn’t seen Nick in months.  Second, Sandy hadn’t been to a show since before she was pregnant.  Third, we’d be in a bookstore – no smoke, no alcohol, no drunken bar patrons, and the music couldn’t possibly be too loud. 

It was the perfect place to take a pregnant person.

When we arrived at the store, the band’s equipment was set up in the coffee shop area, but the band was nowhere to be found.  Sandy spent some time in the Pregnancy section of the bookstore, while I perused the zine selection and some of the history books.  We didn’t even notice that the guys in the band had come in until they started playing.

It was a pretty cozy place to do a show, and the sound was great.  Bookstores are, by nature, quiet places, and a Borders is a big, spacious bookstore with high ceilings and an open floor plan.  The acoustics were perfect for a live band.  And since Dots Will Echo were a three-piece (guitar/vocals, drums, and bass keyboard), there was a lot of space in the music.  Everything sounded crisp and wonderful.

I went up to the counter and bought a cup of coffee for me, a water for Sandy, and a couple of pastries.  The two of us sat at a table and watched the band – Nick was playing mostly on an acoustic guitar, and they were staying with some of their lighter songs.  They were absolutely excellent.  Sandy and I sat there quietly, listening to the music, enjoying the environment, poking through our respective books, eating our pastries.  We were both totally relaxed.

It was an outstanding date.

After the show, Nick came over and sat with us for a while and we talked.  He handed me a cassette.

“This is what I’m thinking, in terms of songs and song order,” he said.  “I’m just about ready to go.”  

I glanced at the cassette, which was labeled “Nick’s idea of a finished.”  I still have it.

I was thrilled, and I couldn’t wait to get in the car to listen to it.

It was raining when we left, kind of a soft, summer rain.  I got the car and pulled around so that Sandy wouldn’t get wet walking through the parking lot.  Once she got in the car and we briefly talked about the show, we popped the cassette into the deck.

And were totally disappointed.

In addition to their amazing power pop songs, the band had recorded some tracks that were more avant-garde, with lots of synths and studio trickery.  It seemed as if, in some of the songs, the entire band wasn’t even playing – just Nick, playing synth and singing.  Lots of weird samples and tape loops.

Two of the band’s very best songs, “Tear These Buildings Down” and “Normal Life,” were not included on the cassette at all.  

It wasn’t that the songs were bad.  It’s that some of the best ones were left off.  Instead of the beautiful pop of “Tear These Buildings Down,” they included the repetitive, synth-based song “Wonderland At Last.”  Instead of the raucous and rootsy “Normal Life,” they included the dirgy and low-fi “Good Little Children.”  

When Nick called me to ask what I thought, I told him I didn’t like the song selection in some of the cases.

“Why?” he asked.

“You guys write such great pop songs,” I explained.  “You’re a slam dunk as a pop band.  I just don’t think the off-kilter stuff works as well.”

“You sound like our last label,” he said.  “They wanted nothing but pop songs.  That’s not who we are.  We are a little weird, we do write off-kilter songs.  We’re not just a power pop band.”

I let that sink in.  It’s not my job to tell a band what kind of band they are, it’s my job to put out the records of bands I like.  I thought back to the very earliest days of Dromedary, when Wretched Soul were trying to tell me that they didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a metal band.  And I decided that Nick was right.  But I still wasn’t thrilled with the record.

“Why would you leave off ‘Tear These Buildings Down’?” I asked.  “That’s one of the best songs you have.  After four years, shouldn’t you want to have your best songs on the record?”

“But I don’t really like that song,” he said.  And that was just as fair a point.  Even if the song was great, if the artist didn’t like it, he shouldn’t have to use it.  So I relented on that point as well.

“Do you know anything about ‘end of selection’ tones?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “Why?”

“I had this idea for something I want to do with the CD,” he said.  “I want to put a bunch of ‘end of selection’ tones in a song.”

The ‘end of selection’ tone is a digital signal to your CD player that lets it know that the song is over.  It’s why your CD player knows to tell you you’re no longer listening to Track 1, and that Track 2 is started.  It’s also why your CD player doesn’t accidentally tell you that the song is over when it’s really just a quiet part.  Basically, it’s the little ‘beep’ on the filmstrip that tells your CD player it’s time to turn the page.

I had no idea what Nick was talking about, so I asked him to explain.

“I want the CD to have 99 songs on it.  I’ve got the hidden track at the end and another at the beginning, and I want to take ‘Within Or Without You’ and just load it up with, like, 85 ‘end of selection’ tones,” he explained.  “So when you’re listening to it, your CD player goes bananas – first you’re listening to, say, Track 10, and within three minutes you’re listening to Track 90.  I think that would be a trip.”

“I don’t like it,” I said.  “What if someone listens to your CD on shuffle?  They’ll get tons of little two-second snippets of your song.”

“That’s exactly what I want!” he exclaimed.  “It will freak people out, make them think there’s something wrong with the CD or the CD player.  They’ll have to pay attention to figure out that we did it on purpose.”

I really got to the point where I didn’t like the gimmicks.  We had no booklet or photos or insert card – the CD art was going to be silkscreened on a neon yellow jewel case.  The liner notes were going to be printed directly on the CD.  Track 1 was a hidden track, and so was the last track.  Another song was a cover of a U2 song and a Beatles song, mashed together.  Another song was, like, seventeen seconds long.  Two or three more were non-pop songs that didn’t fit with the record (in my opinion at the time).  And now we’re going to fill a CD with a hundred ‘end of selection’ tones.

I asked Nick what the album title was going to be.

Keep Your Hands Off My Modem, You Weasel,” he replied.

I thought back to the unbelievably uncomfortable discussion that I had with Ralph two years earlier, where I told him that I couldn’t put out Footstone’s 7″ because I just didn’t like it.  And I realized I was going to have to have that conversation again.  And once again, it was going to have to be with a guy I genuinely liked, whose feelings I did not want to hurt.

“Nick, I don’t think I can put this record out,” I said.  And then I explained that I didn’t like all the gimmicks, the song order, and in some cases the song selection.  

I didn’t expect that Nick would change anything on the CD, because he had his heart set on it and was enthusiastic about every piece of this release.  I’d never seen someone so meticulous about putting together their record before.  His thought process was a painstaking one, and it was obvious that he believed deeply in this record.  It was actually refreshing to see someone so passionate.

I offered to help him self-release it in any way I could.  I told him I’d give him my promo lists, my email addresses, my distributor contacts, whatever he wanted.  I told him I’d help him promote it.  We understood each other’s points of view, agreed to work together in any way we could, and hung up the phone as friends.

And I had nothing to release.

~ by Al on September 4, 2009.

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