casualties of exploration and growth.

Footstone wasn’t the killer, though.  The killer was cuppa joe.

I’ve mentioned before that doug was (is) a pretty principled guy, with a keen interest in education and also in issues of race.  These things led him to become a teacher in inner Trenton, but that, evidently, wasn’t enough “giving back” for him, so he decided to join the Peace Corps.

In the time he was thinking about this, he started his own record label (Inkling Records) and released his own four-track music on seven-inch, as well as a seven-inch from a band called the Semi-Beings (man, that’s a lot of hyphens in one sentence, and even two parentheticals).  He also began publishing his own zine, called Science Geek.  Science Geek was, I believe, laid out by steve and written by doug; most of the content (obviously) had a strong science theme but also included record reviews and band interviews.  It was really, really well-received within the indie community, and it wasn’t long before my friends at other labels were mentioning Science Geek to me without realizing that it was created by one of our bands.

So doug joined the Peace Corps and went off to Kenya at some point in 1995.  And towards the end of the summer, after the baby and before the move, we received a nice package from him that contained a letter and a cassette tape of brand-new cuppa joe music that the band self-released.

It was fantastic.  Every single song.  They called it casualties of exploration and growth, and it still retained that witty, intellectual lyrical approach that doug took to his music, still showcased that innate pop songwriting skill that he had, but it added a level of complexity to the music that cuppa joe never had before.  Instead of smashing you over the head with super-loud drums, steve’s playing was now further back in the mix and much more composition-oriented; snare hits and hi-hats and other percussive sounds became integral, tastefully-played components of the song, as opposed to merely a backbeat.  And rather than relying on the band’s signature acoustic-verse-to-distorted-chorus formula, doug began adding new instrumentation to their songs.

The result was a dense recording, filled with complex indie pop that was easily their best work.

The song “trade,” to which I’ve already quoted lyrics in this blog somewhere, is a perfect example.  It’s pure bubblegum, straight out of 1970s AM radio.  Rather than play it straight, doug’s guitar plays a much more rhythmic role, and steve’s hi-hat becomes a key instrument in the song, punctuating each measure with an open splash.  An organ solo augments the hooks in the place of a middle eight, and, underneath it all, steve plays percussion by shaking a bottle of iced tea.  That’s the squishy sort of sound you hear throughout the song.

Check it out:

The song was so good that it took me a while to listen to anything else on the tape, but eventually there was just too many other goodies on it for me to linger on “trade” for too long.  I quickly became infatuated with “flicker,” a song I’d heard the band play live a few times.  On the studio version, doug recruited some friends to come in and add violin to the song – and while the violins are hopelessly off key in the song’s beginning, they add a richness later on, a dynamic that you’d never expect from cuppa joe.  

The interplay between the guitar and bass in the song reminded me of The Feelies, particularly with the simple drum beat holding everything down – but then once the strings explode in the chorus, the entire song changes.  That’s when you notice the richness of doug’s vocal (the band had taken to doubling doug’s vocals by playing them back on two tracks to give them a fatter quality).  By the end of the song, the strings take over completely.  Just tremendous.

doug tried his hand at the mandolin as well, again with music that recalled The Feelies – but with vocals much further up in the mix than that band, and heavier guitar in the chorus on the opening track “simple enough.”  The mandolin even becomes a percussive instrument in the verse before devolving into a typical, meandering cuppa joe guitar solo (on the mandolin).  And the line “it’s some complicated calculus/to evaluate what it means to us/we manipulate the symbols/it still seems simple enough.” is pure cuppa joe, as is the line “sometimes I think you’re talking inside of parentheses.”

The tape wasn’t completely devoid of heavier indie pop, though.  The song “roof sitting,” which I had heard both on a four-track recording from doug and from the band’s Fastlane show, reminded me a lot of Husker Du – although the studio recording layered vocal harmonies throughout the entire song, which added a sing-song quality to what was probably the band’s fastest song, tempo-wise.  And “taniqua” achieved what I had hoped “poster” and “rollercoaster” would achieve on the nurture CD – adding some punch, volume, and distortion to a more quiet, pop record.  “taniqua” was a short burst, two and a half minutes long, part garage rock, part indie pop, part mid-80s college rock, enough hooks to leave you breathless at the song’s conclusion.

cuppa joe had improved so much as a band; their musicianship had grown by leaps and bounds, doug’s understanding of what components made sense in a song (both instrumentally and in terms of the hooks themselves, matching them up properly with the verses so that the transitions were not too jarring) had evolved to an entirely new level, and the fact that they had put together such an ambitious cassette without becoming too self-indulgent was a testament to how much they’d improved as a band.

There was no single highlight on the cassette.  Each song had redeeming qualities, and most of them were solid from start to finish.  

In addition to mentioning that the cassette was “self-released,” doug mentioned that a label in the midwest would be releasing the song “archipellago” on a seven-inch later that year.  And with steve pissed at me, doug in Africa, and some other label releasing their music, I came to the realization that I had this brilliant piece of pop music in my hands, and there was no way I was ever going to get to put it out.  I couldn’t pick up the phone and call doug, I couldn’t email him, nothing.

It was almost as if the package was a “good bye” from doug, sort of an exclamation point to remind me that while I was chasing after Toast, Carrie Bradley, Little My, The Mommyheads, Gapeseed, and any number of other bands, cuppa joe had been hunkered down right under my nose, crafting new songs and improving in every conceivable way.  And all I would have had to do was send steve his fucking artwork back when he asked for it, and I would have had a relationship with someone else in the band besides the guy who was going to be spending the next two years in Africa, far, far away from indie rock.

I’m not sure if “mope” is the right word for what I did for the next few weeks.  I mean, I did have a new baby, and I was about to move into a new house, and so there were generally happy things going on in my life to mask what I felt was happening with Dromedary.  But I was definitely aware of the fact that I went from having too many plans to having none, to having a guy I really respected disappear to Africa and another one disappear to Maggadee Records, and to having no time for putting out records.

Here’s “archipellago,” the song cuppa joe recorded for the midwestern label.

~ by Al on September 15, 2009.

7 Responses to “casualties of exploration and growth.”

  1. And I thought we were out of the story by this time–I’m still reading to find out what happens.

    Dang. Definitely a head trip to read all this now. Actually I read it last night, and re-listened to the whole casualties album today driving back and forth to Milwaukee so I could have something semi-intelligent to add here.

    Well, first, just a few fun facts.
    1.) The violins on the three songs (flicker, archi, and promendade) were played by two high school chemistry students. Jamie and Hema. Another chem student, Mike, played trombone on well-worn clothes.

    2.) The opening line of simple enough contains the words sum, difference, product, and quotient. I was more proud of that than I was of rhyming “orange” with “doorhinge” in signature practice (I later set myself the greater challenge of finding a plausible rhyme for “month” and failed).

    3.) There are quiet, hissy, lo-fi versions of almost all those songs. If you’re ever interested 🙂

    4.) My kids accidentally stepped on the mandolin and crushed it. My wife gave me a banjo soon thereafter.

    5.) Self-released is something of a misnomer. We more released it “to” ourselves. Steve’s closet can testify.

    6.) Promenade was written for two of my students, Kim and Chris, who were these very cool indie teens, slightly counter-cultural. They went to the prom together but no teachers could go because of looming strike-talk and contract issues. It was sort of this funny thing because we had all kind of talked about it as this cultural thing they couldn’t avoid even if they wanted to, and I was going to be there for moral support as a chaperone but I couldn’t , so I gave them this song instead. (um, it was Rick’s prom too. He was elected prom king. I do not lie)

    7. Africa was fun. I highly recommend it.

    8. I think you’re a bit too kind. It’s tempting to blame imperfections on lack of money and studio time (man that $30 an hour added up fast–that’s how much it was right? felt like $300 an hour) but there’s something about listening to a recording session 15 years on that makes me try to be a little more perfectionist with minor mistakes (across my life, not just with music) because you never know how long a little glitch is going to bother you. The inexplicably dischordant organ on dark ride comes to mind–you can hear the third but not the major. what the hell?

    9. We drank the same recipe of homemade iced tea shaken in Trade as we did the day we made the Forty video. D. licious.

    10. On the song Tense Present, Steve plays my guitar throughout the whole song with his drum brushes just like Paul plays Neil’s in this CH concert at about the 4:50 mark (which, as an insomniacal teen in 1987, was the first time I ever heard of or saw Crowded House –I soon bought the same kramer guitar Neil plays here, and stil have it, btw).

    There is probably more to respond to here, but it’s awful nice to read this, except for the feeling bad for you part. Don’t worry 1995 Al, it’ll get better.

    Also, super props to Spatch for putting up with me every time I leave NJ. It’s happened often, and he still takes me back.


  2. I know about the hissy, low-fi versions, because I have most of them, too. I have scads of Doug Larkin four-track songs.

    2009 Al knows things get better, but bear in mind that up until a few months ago, the only goal of this blog was to tell the story of Dromedary, which ended with the label no longer putting out music. So a lot of the next year’s worth of entries or so are going to present anecdotes that are reasons WHY we stopped putting out music, so many of them sound kinda pathetic.

    cuppa joe pops up in the narrative now and again over the rest of the story.

  3. Thanks for all the info on the tape, BTW. Steve sent me MP3 versions of everything, so I’ll replace the crummy cassette versions with crisp, new, better-sounding versions as soon as I get a spare minute.

  4. Here are some of my memories of Casualties.

    The cassette had fourteen tracks, and unlike Nurture, which you (Al) pointed out in another post was recorded in multiple sessions, we banged these out all at once. Not really “banged”, though – with that many songs and the new instruments, plus others playing them, it took months.

    Doug originally played the iced tea container on the Trade demo, so we just replicated that idea. The fizzy popping sound at the end of the song was me opening the bottle and letting the bubbling air come out. Someday, somehow I will use Trade in a short film, animation, video – I’ve always thought that song would be a perfect accompaniment for some kind of visuals.

    I think Flicker was the only song we abandoned recording (in the same session that yielded the latter Nurture tunes) because it wasn’t sounding good. When we did do the final recording, I had to push hard for the studio guy to set up an extra mic just for hihat, because the slams I was doing were only with my foot, not with the stick, and it would have been too subtle to pick up on the overheads or snare mic, I thought. I’m glad we did it that way. It was only a 16-track studio at the time, so getting an extra mic was kind of a big deal. And yes, that guy made the best iced tea any of us had ever tasted – we eventually were trusted enough to watch him make it.

    The studio owner/engineer had some kind of gear that picked up cordless phone conversations. A high school girl lived across the way, and she was on the phone all the time. When our ears were too burnt out to critique the tracks anymore, we’d listen to her conversations. I have some of them on a cassette of rough mixes – I listened a couple years ago, and they are hiliarious.

    Taniqua may have been the only song Doug formally created two demos for – the original was super-slow (and great) but when we started speeding it up in rehearsals, he created a faster demo – I think to make sure it held up at that tempo – especially the lyrics. That was probably the most complex drum part I’ve ever played or recorded – we did a lot of takes.

    The word is never spoken in the song, but Doug pronounces the first syllable of Archipellago “arch” (as in villain), not “arc” – even though that’s the correct way to say the real word. I never knew way – some deep meaning, Doug? And not to quibble, but I don’t think we actually recorded the song for the obfuscated “Midwestern Label” – I believe that all happened after we sent them the tape. We all snuck in to Doug and Rick’s school on a weekend to do the photos for the back cover of the 7″, and I sucked on a fire extinguisher. We played with some beakers and skeletons, too.

    I bought a used Super 8 film camera around that time, and we shot a video for Simple Enough. I got the film developed (and still have it) but never edited, since I didn’t have editing capabilities or a way to convert it to video. Forgot to think that one through.

    Yeah, I think we only made 70 or so cassettes – definitely less than a hundred. Before I put that cuppa Flash Player song archive together in 2006, probably only a couple dozen people ever heard those songs. You were one of them, Al.

    I always thought “car hinge” would have been a truly perfect rhyme for “orange”, though “door hinge” kind of works, too.

    Doug laid out the first issue of Science Geek, and then I think I helped him, and eventually when he departed for Africa (and later Papua New Guinea) I did all the layout.

    I probably would have kept Doug in the country at that point if I had the power to do so. I remember calling his mom a couple weeks after he left, and she told me that he called and had settled into Kenya. I said something like, “That must be really hard for you to see him go off to another country like that. ” She told me, “Well, we always tried to give our kids roots and wings. Wings so they wouldn’t be afraid to leave us, and roots so they’d always have a place to come back to.” I’d never heard that before, and it always stuck with me – even though I’ve never had that geographically-exploratory nature myself, it helped me think about things in a different way.

  5. I have no excuse for the “arch” except for phonemic ignorance. The cordless phone thing still scares me, and I cringe every time I’m reading credit card numbers over the phone because I imagine someone out there picking up my conversation. Rick with the skeleton hand on his butt is my favorite picture from that session…

  6. I mispronounce the word due to ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.’ I admit it.

    Doug, your reluctance to give credit card numbers over the phone isn’t just a result of the cordless phone thing – I still have a note from you somewhere, begging me to destroy the paper you gave me with your SS #s on it (for BMI). The note ends with “It is a real fear,” or something like that.

  7. That’s funny – we should have incorporated back then, and we could have been giving an EIN instead of our personal SS#’s.

    Al, they said it correctly in that Rankin-Bass production. Doug – I thought you had a deeper reason.

    I really will have to find that cassette and create an MP3. It’s the most vapid “do you want to sit together in class tomorrow?” and “I can’t believe I’ve, like, got MacGregor for Spanish this year.” type of discussion, but because you’re hearing someone who had no idea they were being recorded, it’s fascinating – like a field recording of animals in the wild.

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