Tranzor Z

Tranzor Z was a cartoon I used to watch after school when I was in grade school. The premise was that a teenage pilot would land a hovercraft inside the head of a giant robot and then control the robot from inside the hovercraft. The robot’s name was Tranzor Z, and he defended the world from invading monsters.

I originally started writing this song when I was working on a project with my friend Brandon Heffley. The original lyrics were a bout a pizza deliveryman who likens his job to fighting off monsters from the outer reaches of the galaxy. It was kind of funny, but I thought something was missing.

So I started thinking about the kind of kid who might like a show like Tranzor Z, and I figured it would be someone who, like me, got picked on a bit in school. For a while, I only had the first and last verses and the “I want to be Tranzor Z” chorus. So there was a kid getting picked on in a schoolyard, then he got tired of it and turned on his tormenters. But, again, something was missing.

I knew I wanted a song with three verses and guitar solo in the middle, so I recorded all of the music and then set it aside. (The backing track for “Tranzor Z” was actually the first piece of music I recorded for the EP.) It was only after recording pretty much the whole rest of the EP that I realized what was missing: a moment of transformation. So I wrote a verse about the kid and his friend watching TV and getting inspired by the show.

One of my favorite lines in the song is the one where “Television bathes us in a cathode ray of hope.” In my mind, I picture a kid sitting in front of the TV, getting bathed in cathode rays (kind of like the Hulk and his gamma rays), and transforming into the hero he wants to be before returning to the playground to vanquish his enemies.

Since this was the first track I recorded, it was also the first one where I started experimenting with horn sounds. In part, it was because the original series had a synthetic horn sound in the theme song, though I was also inspired by the sound of Belle and Sebastian. Once I found a sound that I liked, I wanted to use it on everything, which is how three of the four tracks on the EP ended up with so much brass.

The song is also loosely connected to “Yuck My Yum” on a few levels. For one thing, it’s the kind of show I would have been watching while the kids in my neighborhood played roller hockey. For another, it was one of Damian Smith’s favorite shows for a short while. He used to walk around his driveway and backyard with his legs sticking out from the bottom of a large box, pretending it was his hovercraft.

That is, of course, when he wasn’t busy breaking all of my toys.

Track-by-Track: “Spooky Spongecake”

Like other tracks on Thank You for Holding, “Spooky Spongecake” has a longer history than one might expect. I originally released a different version of this track as simply “Spongecake” about a year ago (and have since made it unavailable for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.) Here’s what I had to say about the track at the time:

I was sitting on the beach, and every iPod was playing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” but they were all out of sync with each other. The song would be fading on one speaker and just starting on another. Or two would be playing almost simultaneously but not quite in sync with each other. The line that kept jumping out at me was “living on spongecake,” which I later learned was actually “nibblin’ on spongecake.” But when I thought it was “living,” the line really stuck with me because I thought, yeah, isn’t that pretty much what we’re all doing? Living on a media diet of spongecake and margaritas? Pretentious, I know, but a few days later, I went back to work, and the Xerox machine (which is actually a Canon) was grinding away, and that line was still in my head. This track is an attempt at capturing what it sounded like.

The original version of the track actually included a brief snippet of the Jimmy Buffett song that I looped and ran through various effects and filters so as to make it unrecognizable. All the same, I didn’t love the idea of having someone else’s voice from a hugely popular pop song on the track. My concerns weren’t just artistic. I also didn’t want to violate copyright law, so I took the track down from BandCamp and recorded a new version in which I’ve replaced Buffett’s voice (as well as his melody) with my own. I also changed the words a bit: “Groovin’ on spongecake.” That version was twice as long as this one and included synthesizers, guitar, and drums. It had a distinctly Depeche Mode feel.

I’ll also admit that this is one of the strangest tracks on the album. In a way, it’s in line with one of my larger projects as far as being a recording artist is concerned. While appreciate the form of the traditional three-minute pop song (as exemplified by “Margaritaville” and countless other songs that have graced the pop charts over the decades), I also like to explore other forms that recorded music can take.

Perhaps the best known version of this view of recording artistry is John Lennon’s “Revolution 9” from The Beatles (aka The White Album). In this track, Lennon spliced together sound effects and recordings to create a sound collage that left many fans scratching their heads in wonder. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t.

With “Spooky Spongecake,” I was trying to paint a creepy picture of an deserted workplace where only the copy machine and a malfunctioning music player are getting anything done. It’s essentially in line with some of the other songs in the “mini album” that begins with “Mellow Pleasant Spongecake” and ends with this track.

The “Mellow Pleasant” version of this song represents the robot from “Thank You for Holding” drifting into a reverie about the world outside. “Best Worst of Times” is a meditation on what the world was like before it ended. “Sweet Chocolate Jesus” gives us another answering machine repeating a meaningless message to no one. “66th and City” depicts an abandoned home in a world populated only by ghosts. And “Spooky Spongecake” returns us to the dreaming robot, only now the dream has turned sour.

Track-by-Track: “Sweet Chocolate Jesus”

I was a little worried that some listeners might find this track offensive, much as fans found John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment offensive in 1966.

Burning-01

Fortunately for me, my fan base isn’t quite as large as that of the Beatles, so the backlash against this song, should there be any, won’t be that bad.

In truth, though, the song is more about the commodification of religion in general — and Christianity in particular — than anything else. Isn’t it odd that when it comes to Christmas and Easter, gifts and candy eclipse the more sacred aspects of those holidays? Hence the repeated “The more you spend, the more you’re saved!” line that repeats throughout the track.*

About that line: My sister-in-law sent the recording to me when someone at a local department store left the message on her phone. And since this is an album about machines and messages and miscommunication, how could I not include it?

The “Sweet Chocolate Jesus” lines are actually slowed-down samples of my own voice. I rigged up an electronic drum kit so that instead of the usual snare and tom sounds, striking the drum heads would produce the sound of my slowed-down voice shouting “Sweet,” “Chocolate,” and “Jesus” respectively. Kind of an odd way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but what can I say? I’m easily amused.

Sweet Chocolate Jesus

The more you spend, the more you’re saved.

Sweet. Sweet. Sweet chocolate.
Sweet sweet chocolate.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.

Sweet chocolate.
Sweet, sweet chocolate.
Sweet Jesus.
Sweet, sweet Jesus.

Give me some of that
Sweet chocolate.
Give me some of that
Sweet Jesus.
Give me some of that
Sweet chocolate Jesus.

Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.

Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Sweet chocolate Jesus.
The more you spend, the more you’re saved.
Bye-bye. Have a great day.

*Technically, the line is actually “The more you spend, the more you save,” but if you squint your ears, you can hear what I’m hearing.