A Longish Preamble to My New Song

Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I went to a Catholic school just beyond the city limits of Philadelphia. You knew you were leaving Philadelphia because you had to cross a bridge that spanned a set of railroad tracks and ended at the top of a steep hill that descended into the wilds of suburbia. The school sat at the top of the hill, right next to the railroad tracks.

The school didn’t have a schoolyard per se. But it did have a church, and the church had a parking lot, and that’s where we were sent to play at lunchtime regardless of weather or time of year.

Worth noting is the fact that the church was a long block away from the school, and that the long block ran parallel to the train tracks. What this means in practical terms is that the church parking lot where we played every day at lunchtime was right next to a set of train tracks. Other than a low dirt hill and some shrubbery, nothing stood between us and the tracks — not to mention the trains that roared by every twenty minutes or so.

Also worth noting is that the church parking lot was built on the same hill that the school and the church were built on. Again, if we’re thinking about this in practical terms — or at least geographical terms — it means that if the parking lot was level (which it was), then there would be a steep drop at one end.

So at one end of the parking lot there was a set of heavily trafficked railroad tracks, and at the other end was a twenty-foot drop. Between these boundaries ran a horde of ten-to-thirteen-year-olds who liked to set things on fire and believed that everything they saw on pro-wrestling was not only real but should be emulated. Amidst all of this, there was one person (me) who just wanted to be left alone to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the latest issue of Doctor Who Monthly.

There was also a lamp.

SchoolyardDiagram-01

It turns out that I didn’t get much reading done, largely because I was trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of the church parking lot while also trying to avoid the hordes of preteen boys who wanted to use me as a prop in their efforts at staging the latest wrestling moves they’d seen on television. Also, my interest in reading and a tendency to make references to things like “Scylla and Charybdis” did not endear me to anyone in my age bracket. Or anyone outside of my age bracket, come to think of it.

The upshot of all of this is that I ended up getting pounded quite a bit, and once went home with a concussion when my skull slammed against the blacktop. At the time, I thought everyone hated me. I felt like an outsider, and that made me miserable. The books I read and the TV shows I liked to watch gave me a bit of an escape, but what I really needed was someone to tell me to forget about all of the kids who made me feel like I didn’t belong — to tell me they could all go to hell. To tell me, in essence, to fuck ’em.

And that’s where this song comes in…

Track-by-Track: “Thank You for Holding”

Given that it’s the title track of the album, you might think that I recorded “Thank You for Holding” fairly early in the game, but I was actually working on a few other songs before this one came into the picture.

Somewhere along the line, though, I looped a few bars of “My Head” and layered in the “ooh-ooh” voices and thought it sounded like Muzak or elevator music or the music you might hear when you’re on hold with a customer-service help line. That’s when I started ad-libbing the lines about waiting for a customer service representative to come on the line.

As each new line came out, I started thinking of the voice as a robot’s voice and decided to make him a little bit lonely and depressed a la Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The flute solo was on the track from an earlier version of “My Head,” and when it interrupted the flow of my robot soliloquy, my first instinct was to take it out, but then I thought that playing the flute would make a great hobby for a lonely robot.

Ideally, when you listen to this track, it will come on right after “My Head” with no pause between tracks; I want it all to sound like a single song since the backing tracks are essentially the same. Of course, that makes the song seem incredibly long.

On its own, “Thank You for Holding” is a little over six minutes long. With “My Head” tacked on, it’s about eight minutes long. Whenever I listen to them together, there’s always a point where I begin to wonder whether the joke is going on for too long, but it always happens at the same point in the song: the part where the robot says, “A customer service representative will be with you shortly… shortly… shortly…” as if to underscore the fact that “shortly” is a relative term when it comes to being on hold.

Actually, I’ve been on hold a few times since recording this song, and whenever it happens, I can’t help feeling like the universe is getting me back for recording such a long track about being on hold. I also think there’s something eerily and maybe madly comical about stretching things far beyond their optimal lengths. “Kristin Schaal Is a Horse” is one example that comes to mind. “Too Many Cooks” is another one.

In terms of production, I got the eerie vocal effect by using a combination of effects in Reason, my preferred program for recording. One of the effects is a virtual delay unit called The Echo, which allowed me to give the voice a kind of wobbly feel like a tape that’s slowing down and speeding up. I also used an effect called Neptune Pitch Adjuster to lower the timber of my voice (though, oddly enough, not the pitch). The overall effect I was going for was that of a tape on tape deck with dying batteries. Or like the sound of DC’s voice in Twin Peaks: The Return.

Oh, and one last thing: In case you haven’t guessed it, I love the idea of robots that run on spinning reels of magnetic tape. It makes me think of Philip K. Dick‘s depictions of a future that’s now gradually fading into our collective rear-view mirror.