Well, it’s been a while. I’ve never taken such a long time to put together a record and, now that it’s
finished, I’ve been looking back at the past few years and trying (with limited success) to find a
thread that connects the whole thing. Some of my albums have been unified by a theme in the
lyrics, some of them by a consistent sound, and some of them have just felt held together by the
time and place in which they were recorded. This one, on the other hand, almost seems more
defined by the space around the songs. Hang it on a wall and the placard next to it could read
“mixed media: equal parts music and distraction.”
Let me explain.
The earliest ideas for Mainland Static started rattling around right as I was finishing Somewhere
Close to Near in late 2008. At some point during that time, I was reminded of the story of my
great-grandfather – a man who crossed the Atlantic to serve in the First World War, came back
home carrying the burden of those experiences, and then with his own hands built the house he
lived in for the rest of his life.
This seemed like an interesting starting point for a song. In fact, I began to think it could be a
pretty good starting point for a whole record’s worth of songs about the range of stuff that goes on
in a house during its lifetime...an idea that quickly started to look like more of a stretch than I
wanted to make. In the end, I scaled it back to the tunes that make up “Three Story Century." The
finished version of the short cycle deviates from my family’s history - and maybe says more about
relationships between generations than it does a house - but it all started with that mental image of
a relative that I never really got to know, standing on a dock and wondering what to do next.
Back in the twenty-first century, I was asking similar questions on a smaller scale. I was freshly
unemployed - a casualty of Microsoft shutting down Ensemble Studios, the game company where
I'd worked as a composer for my whole career up to that point. So, unexpectedly idle and in a
somewhat wounded frame of mind, I manned the passenger seat of a moving van to help fellow
orphan Kevin McMullan with his relocation to the West Coast. For three days we travelled across
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, taking in sights both classic (Cadillac Ranch, bits of
Route 66) and bizarre (the real Victorian-era London Bridge, inconveniently relocated to the
middle of nowhere.) It was something like an authentically American journey, and it didn’t take
much effort to turn its imagery into the song “Last Long Goodbye.”
But really, it was kind of an uneasy experience rolling around the country right at that point. I’m
sure you remember: in quick succession, we’d been through an economic disaster, a legitimately
historic election, a brief window of optimism, and finally a descent into the mistrust and ill-will in
which we still seem to find ourselves. The general feeling I got from it all was an urge to turn it off.
This thinking led me to write “Relay Station,” in which the protagonist happily strips away his only
communication with the outside world in exchange for simply shutting out the noise.
On the other hand, back home in DFW, a different impulse entirely led my brother Chris and me to
start talking about something we’d never managed together before: putting together a band. I'd
avoided this idea for years, but somehow the uncertain climate made the thought of us
ham-fisting our way through a few rock and roll covers seem pretty great - and so it was that the
mighty Presumptions took the stage. Our only original goal (“learn songs / play them for people”)
was simple and quickly met, and after a handful of shows we were sounding good enough to want
to get a few tracks down in the studio. To that end, I put my own work-in-progress on the back
burner and knocked out a six-song EP with the band in a couple of short sessions spread out over
a couple of long months.
Diplomacy of Distance was eventually released in April of 2012 and featured two songs written by
me, two by Brother Chris, and two by our bassist Bill Jackson. It was great fun to do, and I very
much enjoyed the chance to just be the singer and rhythm guitarist on someone else’s tunes.
Their different perspectives and the unfussy feel of the arrangements was something of a shot in
the arm for me, and I think it had an effect the material I was writing for Mainland Static. In any
case, “Done and Dusted” turned out to be my pun-heavy take on the Presumptions’ sound.
(A decent forgery, if you ask me.)
Not long after the band’s release, I decided to keep up the momentum and put out something of my
own. Points, the short EP of instrumental music that resulted, was intended from the start to be a
quiet, under-explored side-street – the kind of thing that I always like to run across as a fan of
musicians with deep catalogs. The tracks themselves had been recorded over the previous couple
of years, beginning with “Bridge Walk” back in August of 2009 and ending three summers later.
To me, Points feels very much like a companion to Mainland Static. Which makes sense: they
were recorded at generally the same time, have some common sounds between them (notably the
electronic interference and static that run through both,) and indeed share a piece of music.
Chopped up and reduced to half-speed, “Southern Oscillation” is a slowly-exhaling remix of “Late
Summer Storm” – itself a kind of lullaby to my newborn son, who was just home from the hospital
and busily providing my wife and me with the biggest and best distraction of all.
Almost forgotten in the middle of all this activity was the fact that I had a new employer. In late
2010, Bonfire Studios, the start-up I’d been a part of since the closure of Ensemble, was acquired
by the social game giant Zynga. Suddenly I found myself writing for orchestras again…and almost
as suddenly, in a disconcertingly familiar twist, we were shut down as part of a series of cost-saving
measures. During my limited time with the company, I contributed music to one very successful
game, a couple of uncredited ones, and quite a few that never made it past the prototype stage. It
was a fine experience overall, but to me this was a case where the cliché about the best material
being left on the cutting room floor rang sadly true.
The upshot of the whole thing was that I got to indulge in a major bit of wish-fulfillment.
A few months prior to Zynga Dallas being shuttered, I had scheduled an orchestral date at Abbey
Road Studios for a project that, with the closure, had become decisively cancelled. Not wanting to
let the opportunity slip by, I hastily re-booked a scaled-down version of the session in my own
name and for my own project. In the two weeks or so between getting laid off and the “record” light
switching on, I found myself scrambling to write string arrangements for a handful of songs that I’d
previously considered finished and would never have dreamed of fleshing out in such an
extravagant way. It was one of the happiest times of the entire record, and I tried to make the most
Turns out there really is something special (and slightly unnerving) about stepping into Studio 2 of
Abbey Road. It goes without saying that a lot of superlative work has been done there and,
standing on a staircase overlooking the familiar room an hour before my own accidental session,
every bit of it was on my mind. In such situations I find that a squishy sort of willful bravado is
what's called for, and it was in this spirit that I mumbled something like “sounds great, let’s get a
take” into the talkback mic.
On the floor conducting the musicians was my friend and longtime collaborator Stan LePard. His
good humor and skills as an orchestrator had seen us through many projects in the past, and I was
extremely grateful to have him along for this latest adventure. Once again, we had some laughs
and he got some great performances. As is always the case, I couldn’t have done it without him.
The three hours with the string section flew by almost before I noticed they were happening, but
fortunately I was able to put the rest of the day to good use. Before flying over, I’d broken out
some of the already-recorded parts from a few existing songs. Having those at the ready gave me
the chance to process them in ways I ordinarily couldn’t: putting the drums of “Last Long
Goodbye” into the famous Studio 2 reverb chamber, for example, or running my vocals from “Relay
Station” through a thirty-year-old tape echo. Slightly more nerve-wracking was pounding out some
chords on the studio’s ancient Steinway Vertegrand, the “Mrs. Mills piano." It was a cantankerous
instrument, a little difficult to play and purposefully kept slightly out of tune…but, wow, it sure was
nice to get it onto one of my songs.
At the end of it all I found myself with a day to kill in London, a place I truly love. I’d spent a
reasonable amount of time in the city over the years, but this was somehow different. Maybe it was
just relief at having made it through the craziness of the previous few weeks, but the idea that I had
nothing to do but be there was exhilarating - a really excellent finish to an already perfect trip. I
tried to capture some of that feeling in “The Blue,” which is certainly among the most optimistic
songs that I’ve written.
“The Blue” was also a bit of a turning point for the project as a whole. Progress had pretty much
stopped while I reworked the older tracks to include stuff from the Abbey Road session, but now
everything felt like it was moving forward again. The only remaining song, “Safety Catch," was
written with the finish line in sight and was a pleasure to record in spite of the sadness of the
lyrics. And from that point, with all the material assembled, it was a just a matter of putting together
a cover, settling on a running order, and mastering the record into something approaching
coherence. That’s almost always easier said than done, so it was a little startling to find myself
holding a copy of the finished CD just a few weeks later. Still, there it was: physical evidence of all
that work and thought, all those ambitions and memories.
And I guess that’s the story. Over the course of this outsized and occasionally painful process,
there were births, deaths, career paths rerouted, and relationships changed in ways that would
have seemed pretty unlikely not so long ago. In other words, it was five years of life led in a
specific and tumultuous time…with a few tunes thrown in along the way. I hope some of the feeling
of those days manages to cut through the static, and I hope the next time we tune in together it
hasn’t been quite so long.
Thanks for listening.
June 5, 2014