Track-by-Track: “Waiting for a Signal”

Before Thank You for Holding started to coalesce around a single theme, I tried a few different angles for approaching the album. At one point, I was thinking of recording a series of short punk-rock songs about life in contemporary America, so I recorded a song called “Front of the Line,” which eventually evolved into “Waiting for a Signal.”

The main thing I was trying to do with “Front of the Line” was keep it short. My goal was to keep it under a minute in length but still maintain a traditional pop-song structure — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental break, verse chorus. Here’s what it sounded like:

Not exactly the kind of music you might hear while you’re on hold, so I recorded a new version with slightly different lyrics once the larger project started to take shape in my head.  The main reason I decided to keep it (and change the title) is that the idea of waiting for a signal fit in with the overall theme of being on hold.

Essentially the song is about suffering an existential crisis — or a whole string of existential crises — while sitting in traffic and realizing that everyone is trying to inch forward on the highway of life (as it were) without making much progress. In situations like that, it’s hard not to wonder what it all means.

 

Waiting for a Signal

Wake up in a panic at the wheel of a car,
Suddenly it hits you that you don’t know who you are.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.

Inch up on the red and lose a mile on the green,
Still you don’t believe that you’re a part of the machine.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.

Somewhere on the road, you find a moment of Zen,
But then you come up short of breath and do it all again.
Waiting for a signal, hoping for a sign,
Everybody’s pushing to the front of the line.

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.

 

 

Track-by-Track: “My Head”

I have my friend the very funny and very talented Joe Lavelle to thank for reminding about this song about a year ago.  I wrote the song back when Joe and I were in high school, and it was originally just a refrain: “You stepped on my head, she said.” I added verses a little bit later and played the song in a band I formed with some friends of mine. In any case, when I started recording music again, it was Joe who suggested that I should record this one. The only problem was that I’d forgotten the last verse and had no record (or recordings!) of it, so I had to write a new one.

I recorded and released a slightly different version of this song last year at Joe’s request, and I was going to include it on my EP Garden Variety, but I thought it sounded somewhat thin so I dropped it from the lineup. Even so, I still liked the song, so I added a jazzy electric piano part to beef it up and included it on Thank You for Holding.

In addition to the electric piano, I also like the sound of the rhythm guitar. It’s an Epiphone Dot Studio semi-hollow guitar that I borrowed from my friend Tim Simmons. Tim and I have been borrowing instruments from each other for a few years now. In fact, he’s largely responsible for my return to music after many years of not playing much at all. But the guitar has a nice, warm sound to it, and if you listen carefully, you can also hear the faint crackle of static, which I think gives the track a live feel.

One last thing I’ll point out about the track is that I love the instrumental break in the middle. Belle and Sebastian is one of my favorite bands, and their songs make great use of brass instruments, and that’s the kind of sound I was going for with the French horn and trumpet in the middle of “My Head.” Unlike Belle and Sebastian, though, my brass section is entirely synthetic. Turns out that Tim Simmons didn’t have a trumpet to loan me.

My Head

Keep on, keep on, keep on coming.
Soon we’ll all be gone.
Live your life while it’s worth living
‘Cause it won’t last long.

“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.

Housework, housework keeps on coming.
Where does free time go?
Stop an hour, watch the opera,
The only life you know.

“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.

Keep on, keep on, keep on dreaming.
Leave the world behind.
Somewhere you know your life waits
Beyond the daily grind.

“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.
“You stepped on my head,” she said.