the evolution of a cuppa joe song.

cuppa joe at the nurture release party, 1994

One of the things I always loved about Cuppa Joe was their songwriting process.

In the 90s, Doug would write his songs alone, and record them to four-track cassette.  He’d spend a lot of time with them, getting them exactly the way he wanted them, and then he’d present them to the band.  By some calculus unknown to me, the band would figure out which of Doug’s songs would become “band” songs, and then they’d change the arrangements, ever so slightly, to create space for Steve and Rick inbetween the guitar and lyrics.

Once in a while I’d receive a tape in the mail, and it was always like a treasure chest – some of the songs would be songs I’d never heard before, while others morphed into Cuppa Joe songs, and still others would turn into songs by Passenger – Doug’s slightly higher than low-fi four-track project.  I remember dissecting the original four-track version of the great Cuppa Joe song “Bottlerocket” a year or so after I’d released it, learning which parts of the song were written by Doug and which were added later by Steve and Diz – or, conversely, listening to the band’s self-released Casualties of Exploration and Growth cassette and hearing songs I’d had four-track cassette versions of for years.

Steve described it to me once as “Doug nails it his way on four track, then he brings it to the band and we nail it our way as a band.”  It seemed like a great way to bring a democratic process into something that was very un-democratic.  It went from being a potentially dictatorial, “this is how my song goes” sort of thing that invariably pisses off band members, to being a very fair “this is how we’re interpreting your song” sort of thing that injected new creativity in the process.  It was like Cuppa Joe were playing covers of Doug’s music.

Unlike most of the other Dromedary bands of the 90s, Cuppa Joe played a lot more shows than the ones I went to.  Trenton was a long haul, and they had regular gigs down there.  I saw them play a few times down the Jersey shore, and invited them to play a few Dromedary shows in New York and Hoboken.  There was one show in particular – I don’t recall where it was – where they played an instrumental that I fell in love with before the second verse.  I tried desperately to keep it in my head for years after, and some approximation of the chord progression found its way into my own guitar noodling at the time – I still play the progression today, as it’s one of the few things on the guitar that I actually know how to play.

Imagine my surprise when I opened up the rough mixes for what would become Tunnel Trees, Cuppa Joe’s new album, and heard the opening strains of that same chord progression.  And imagine my surprise when I finally read the lyrics, months after Steve sent me the MP3 of the rough mix:

Too many years since I’ve been downstairs

With headphones on til 2 a.m.

Now it’s all coming back on the mult-track

Laying down each line one at a time

Doug is describing his return to songwriting after so many years – the passage of time and the developments in the lives of the band and the people around it (including me) are a common theme throughout Tunnel Trees.  He’s describing what a labor of love it is to make music, and how great it is to be a part of it.

But what’s cool is that he’s doing it in the context of a song that has also passed through time with the band.  The chorus:

This used to be “Follow What You Do.”

Then it became “Konichi-Wa”

Now it’s “Something New.”

What’s even cooler is that Steve has pulled from the archives not one, but two recordings of the song, and merged them together into one, so you can hear the evolution.  First, you hear Doug’s original four-track recording of “Follow What You Do,” recorded in 1994.  Then, you hear a Cuppa Joe band demo from 1998, where they’re playing what was then called “Konichi-Wa.”  Finally, you hear the Cuppa Joe of today, with the studio version of what is now “Something New.”

I have been unable to resist the play on words of “Something New by Cuppa Joe.”  But a big part of the reason it’s been so irresistible to me has been because it’s not something new at all.  It’s something old, but as the lyrics explain, it used to be one song, then it became another song, and now it’s something new.

Check it.

~ by Al on February 12, 2012.

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