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- Posted on Oct 18th 2007 5:00PM by Steve Baltin
When did you start working on the record?
Some of the songs have been there for years as demos, just piano and rough vocal or acoustic guitar and rough vocal. But a good part of them were written last year and most of it was recorded I would say October, November last year. We were actually done recording by December 1st and we just mixed it this year.
You say "we" -- who produced it?
I did. I say "we" because my friend Dan [Monti]'s my engineer. [But] I pretty much recorded it here, I've written all the songs, I played 85, 90 percent of the actual instruments, minus drums, produced it myself, and engineered half of it myself, so it's very much my own thing. Plus it's on Serjical Strike, through Reprise, so it's also my own label. So it's way too many hats [laughs], but it's fun. It's what I wanted to do, and it's been a really fun process, a huge learning process for me to do a lot of it myself.
Do you feel more invested in this record because it is under your name and you were so hands on with it?
It is my first solo record, and there's more of me in this than anything I've ever done as far as I've released. So that would be a factual reality, yeah. And I'm wearing a lot of hats, but it's been fun because you have the vision and you go in and do it. You don't think about it, you don't have to explain it for someone else to play or you don't have to play someone else's idea. It's just all there and you just do it. The other way is fun too, because when you have interaction with a good crowd it's like playing basketball; it's good having a team and the team can accomplish a lot, work on the strengths of everyone, and that's fun too.
A lot of musicians have looked at solo records as a chance to work with other musicians, but you really went the other way and did it almost all alone. Will you be bringing other musicians into the tour aspect, or is it something that after System you just wanted to go it truly solo?
I didn't really think about it. I play a lot of different instruments, so it's kind of like when you write a song as a songwriter you know how a certain instrument should be. So if you know how to play the instrument you might as well play it because it's closer to the image of the songwriter. So it's kind of like that. "I know how the bass should be, I might as well play it." I'm not necessarily the best bassist, pianist, singer, guitarist, whatever, but I know how to do things my own way, and it works for me. So it was very simple; it wasn't a long thought process. For touring purposes I am going to have a full band with great players that are good friends and we're going to have a great time in presenting this live because there's no way I can play the piano, guitar, bass and electric guitar and sing at the same time [laughs].
If you were Prince you could do it.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Or those guys, the one-man-band guys.
After all the years of being in System, are you excited about being to able to play with other musicians just for a change of pace? To take your basketball analogy further, while there's something to be said for playing with guys you know, it can be exciting to play with other people because you find other parts of your game.
Yeah, that's a good analogy, too. Just now, actually, I'm putting the band together and we're gonna start rehearsals when I get back from Europe, and I'm looking forward to see how that works out. I'm getting a full-time pianist, because even though I play piano I don't want to play it on all the songs, and I want to play different instruments, hop around, and just sing sometimes. So that's going to be interesting because I've never had a full pianist in a band and playing these parts. And it won't be like a System thing in the sense that with System we were a band and equal within the band. This will be more like people backing me up, but it will still be friends that are great musicians that we're going to enjoy being out with.
I think one thing with this record is it shows off your songwriting a lot more. For instance, 'Elect the Dead' is a song I could hear Johnny Cash doing as part of the 'American Recordings' series. It's a very sparse, heartfelt song.
I'm going more in that direction. This ended up being a rock record by accident, if you will. When I was writing everything and thinking of what I wanted as my solo record, primarily I just wanted to write songs that were really strong as far as songwriting and that would fit my voice in what I want to do. I never thought it would actually be a record until I started arranging a couple of songs and I'm like, "OK." The going joke is, "I guess that's what happens when you add distorted guitars and drums." But it was a surprise to me. I think I'm going more in that direction, of very stripped-down, from the heart, gut-wrenching kind of songs, maybe orchestral vibe and flavor for the next record.
Who are some of the songwriters you admire?
All I know is every time I hear a Tom Waits song the thing I think about is, "God, I want to write a song like that." Not a lot of people make me feel that way. John Lennon has done it with 'Imagine' or something like that. But every time I hear one of his songs, that's what I keep on doing, because the emotional value of his songs, instrumentation, and the rough voice -- just phenomenal.
One interesting thing about the songs, particularly 'Elect the Dead,' is they're political in a very personal way.
I think normally when I write lyrics they go from the micro to the macro somehow, so a personal pain becomes a global pain, a personal relief becomes a global relief. And I just tend to think in those terms just because I'm one of those people in this world that tends to believe everything's connected. So politics will affect the person, the person will affect the politics, same with ecological stuff, same with anything. I think in some ways this record is definitely more personal, and the lyrics are a bit more vulnerable, more personal because there's no one else that you're representing in some ways as a band. So there's definitely that closer connection I think to a listener lyrically.
Is there anything that came out in the writing that surprised you?
I think there is. I honestly didn't envision, like I said earlier, writing this record. All I knew is that I wanted to do a solo record. And I write all the time; I have probably five or six hundred recorded pieces of material and not all of them are things that I would sing, some of them are for film, some are classical pieces, some are full electronic pieces, hip-hop pieces, gothy pieces, crazy noise pieces, sound beds, all sorts of stuff. I just write all the time for no purpose, 'cause that's what I do. I enjoy it; that's like my getaway. But from those writing pieces these were things that I wanted to sing on, that I felt had a certain color, a certain flavor that I liked about them that I started grouping together.
It'll be interesting to see how doing this record affects System if and when you go back to the group.
We decided to take an indefinite leave, do our own things, and see how it goes. It's not a corporation. It's a bunch of friends playing music together, that's how it should be. It's there for us when we want it. We'll go back to it and do stuff, and if we feel like that's what we want to do, that's what we need to do. It's as simple as that.