About the Songs on "U"
When the album went on sale, I announced I'd post something about a song from U every time five new albums were sold. But I wasn't able to keep up after the first two songs. So here's one big blog for all the songs - including something about the genesis of the music, the lyrics and the recording process. So I'm incorporating and expanding my thoughts on all the tracks and deleting those older blog posts.
What took you so long?
XUK stopped playing live in April 2008.
Robin was becoming increasingly busy, balancing his recording engineering, composing and family life after the birth of his daughter (my granddaughter) Sophie. Around this time he quit his other band, The King Cheetah as well and soon joined South Music to compose commercial music. Since then he moved to Nashville to work for South and now he's back to LA again.
Eric Summer went back to playing orchestral viola, probably realizing that playing in rock bands (including XUK, Get Set Go and Mike Viola) was more work than it was worth. Eric's become a bit of a hermit since then and I often get asked what he's up to these days. I honestly don't know because I seldom hear from him and he deleted his Facebook page. Robin's seen him fairly recently, using his viola on some commercial for something or other.
Ron is always busy playing drums in several other bands and working at S.I.R. (Studio Instrument Rentals) in Hollywood, so he was probably glad to get a break from XUK since our gigs were increasingly few and far between and not necessarily worth the rehearsals we (well, mainly I) needed to prepare.
Keeping bass players engaged in the band was a recurring issue. Matt was with us for the longest but since our shows never paid any money there was little incentive for any of my bass-playing friends to remain involved.
Ultimately, even I got tired of the demands of rehearsing for shows, loading in, loading out, searching for gigs, spending money so people could listen to XUK for the cost of a drink and a five dollar cover charge.
The album hadn't even sold enough over the first three years to cover its costs. Sales had more or less screeched to a halt by 2008. It was definitely time to take a break from playing live, fully concentrate on my visual effects career, and make some money. I'm not complaining. Putting out my songs is very satisfying from a creative point-of-view, but playing live became an expensive chore that wasn't getting us anywhere. So I shut it down. Three people missed XUK playing live - you know who you are. Sorry guys!
So, there ensued eleven years of occasionally picking up my guitar and tinkering, without writing any new fully realized songs. I continued to record and document some of the more interesting snippets on a mini-disc recorder, a digital multi-track and then, of course, my iPhone. As I always do, I was jotting down lots of lyrics during that time and I'd built up quite a collection of fragments I thought I could work with.
U - The album
The writing process for U began in late September of 2016, eleven years after the release of the debut double album "Love Hits ...like a cricket bat-out-of-hell". I first wrote the song No More Mister Night Sky and started recording it using GarageBand. I was pleased enough with the first demo that I decided it was time to try and put together enough songs for a new album.
In retrospect, I felt like I'd over-committed on Love Hits. Robin and I spent hundreds of hours recording the songs I had, and I was still writing new ones that added to the workload. When we were done I had 1,000 CDs duplicated. This was overly optimistic in hindsight. Downloading and streaming rapidly overtook CDs as the primary mode for music distribution in the next few years following the first album. It's amazing how short-lived the Compact Disc format was really. I still have boxes and boxes of our double CD in storage that will never sell. I was determined not to make the same mistake for the "hardly-awaited" follow-up.
The artwork for the debut double album was overly complicated too. It included a lyric booklet and required a lot design work that took me many months to complete. The album cover was fun to design but I didn't want the next album to be so complicated - especially since most people would be downloading it. In some ways I think I approached the design for Love Hits as if it was going to be a vinyl album. I kind of wish I had done that, but it was a few years before vinyl saw a renaissance. It probably would have worked the scale of an LP but for the small format of a CD cover it looked unnecessarily "busy" and the artwork - the cricket bat engulfed in flames - lost most of its impact.
I had a few ideas for the title of a new album. My initial ideas were along the same lines as the first album, so for a long time I was writing under the working title of Love Blows ...like the wind across Uranus - a title that made me chuckle. Later, as the album was coming together, I decided that the title of the new XUK album should also signal a departure from the past. I wanted a more stripped down feel this time around. The debut was a twenty-two song release that included two cover songs and lots of guest musicians. I chose to truncate the working title to U - the middle initial of X U K (and the initial of Uranus by the way!).
Once I'd decided on that title, a theme emerged. Working on the lyrics of title song U, the idea of U began to make sense. U, the truncation of "you" that people often use in text messages. But also to explore the individual's place in the world, our individual responsibility in society and the "u" in hUmanity. This was not going to be just another album of love songs.
Lost began as an instrumental experiment using only keyboards and audio loops. I started it more than half-way through the songwriting and recording process for the album. Most of the songs on U started off with the idea for a guitar chord progression - the guide track for the song - working out all the other aspects - the lyrics and vocal melodies "in the studio" (actually GarageBand on my laptop).
All the songs on Love Hits were songs that could be performed as purely a solo vocal and acoustic guitar from beginning to end. Lost was different in that I didn't begin with an acoustic guitar idea to start with - and no real intention of turning it into a song.
With music software programs you usually set the tempo and use a "click track". That's what you usually stick with throughout the song. My experiment was to use a keyboard loop sound to dictate the rhythm and tempo for the intro and outro and merge into a different rhythm and tempo for the middle part - instead of setting the rhythm and sticking with it for the whole song. This meant that I needed to figure out a transition, merge into the middle part and then transition to the end part. So the song slows in the middle which sounds eerie and dark. By the time I'd finished most of the songs I listened to this bizarre instrumental track again and I tried singing along with some lyrics I'd already written - "The snake charms the charmer" etc. The "lost" idea is about the confusion that can set in because of the pace of modern life and I was inspired to insert some fragments of lyrics from the title track U to preview the full song that comes later in the album. I added the acoustic and electric guitars to the outro once the vocals were recorded, which I think gives the track some suspense at the end - hopefully leaving the listener anxious to hear what comes next. Recording this track gave a form to the album overall and tied it together. Not bad for something I was going to leave as an unused track.
Meaning: This song is about being lost amid "information overload" and, I suppose, the phenomenon of "fake news". A few of the songs on U were a response to the disturbing events of the 2016 US presidential election and the rise of "Trumpism" and a rising tide of racism, violence and intolerance around the world.
TOMORROW / TODAY
Unlike the songs on Love Hits, the songs on U were only fully developed during the recording process, writing and expanding the lyrics and coming up with the vocal melody once the music was largely finished. This was the case with this song. I think the tomorrow/today/yesterday lyric was initially inspired by Bowie's song "Outside" where he sings "Now. Not tomorrow. Yesterday".
The distorted electric guitar chords that leads into into the guitar solo is the thing that really elevates this song. I do tend to repeat lyrics in my songs - usually with minor variations as they reappear. I also write quite a few "list songs" - the songs New Way and Back of You from Love Hits are examples of that approach to writing lyrics. There are a few songs on the album where a guitar solo repeats in a similar way, with some slight variation. I'm not really a guitar soloist, so it takes me many hours to get something that sounds halfway decent. Maybe that's why guitar solos are repeated in a few of the songs on the album.
Meaning: Not all the songs on the album have a political or social message. This song is more about the feeling of being stagnant, and the tendency of people to avoid making uncomfortable changes that could get them out of their stagnant situation. It's easy to find ourselves stuck in all kinds of ruts but we're often afraid to seriously look at alternatives, mainly out of the fear of losing what we already have. This is true of relationships, career and many other aspects of life. The idea of being on a treadmill, doing the same things day-in and day-out, rather than actually fulfilling your potential was in the forefront of my mind with this song.
I'm particularly happy with the way this song came together. It seemed to happen quite quickly, with every layer of instrumentation adding to its epic quality. I wanted the chorus to have a fairground feeling, so an "umpah-pah" brass section with a prominent tuba sound gave me that. A lot of British music uses this type of vaudevillian sensibility. The Beatles and The Kinks certainly used it a lot in their songs: "For the Benefit of Mister Kite" on "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a good Beatles example. I'm not sure it's always a conscious decision to incorporate it into music - or if it's just an integral part of the British psyche - but it felt right to me to use it to impart a sarcastic, mocking atmosphere to the choruses. I used choral voices and organ sounds to presage the "Church of Immaculate Deception" at the end, where the people who have avoided "the purge" come together to enjoy the bland company of others who are just like them.
Meaning: It's hopefully clear what this song is about. This is definitely about despotism. Joey is the passive Everyman who's too anesthetized by alcohol and entertainment to notice the "cleansing" going on around him. He just happens to be the right color, in the right place and the right time to avoid becoming a victim of the tyranny. It's about the conformity, insidiously imposed on society through the use of propaganda and the tactics of division. The elites pretend to offer the chance to join their exclusive club, share in their privilege, as long as you keep your head down and stay silent. You'll either be a VIP on the guest list, or on the list of undesirables heading for the cattle train. Pull your pants up and get on the train, boy!
This song was an instrumental guitar piece I wrote around 2014, so it's the oldest piece of music on the album. I found it on one of those Sony mini-disks that are now pretty much obsolete. To say I'm not a great guitar player would be an understatement. I don't finger-pick guitar but I do like the sound and rhythms that finger-picking make. My guitar playing hadn't improved since I'd written the piece. If anything, it was worse, so performing this again for the album was a rather tedious chore.
When I originally recorded the mini-disk demo I'd been working on a screenplay based on Peter West's self-published sci-fi novel "Information Cloud". One of the chapters is titled Café Lyon , a location in the story. When I built a song around the guitar composition the title didn't really make sense any longer, but I decided to keep it because it was obscure and mysterious - like the relationship the song describes.
This is another track that's lifted by the electric guitar solo. For a long time the track sounded slightly off and it took me a while to figure out why. Eventually I realized that the electric guitar wasn't totally in tune when I recorded the solo the first time, so I had to do it over again. My fingers hurt after that, even though it's a simple solo, which shows you how simple my guitar skills really are!
Meaning: The song isn't really autobiographical. I had the image of a long war as a metaphor for a relationship that's broken down. Even though the two people involved are on the same side in the battle, their bond gradually weakens to the point where they have little love left for one another. Their ship drifts and they question if there is anything left worth salvaging.
The inspiration for this song was the piano on the soundtrack of HBO's Westworld, believe it or not. I started off with a nice moody little guitar chord progression I had, but adding the piano theme really set the tone. I also like the very laid back drum sound in this too. When Robin heard the song he pointed out that I use the word "normal" a lot in my songs. He's right. On Love Hits there was a whole song called Normal. That song ends with me repeating the word "normal" seven times in rapid succession - and I repeat it quite a few times in Weird People as well. Here's another example of lyrical repetition with slight variations in this song. This is the only track where someone else contributed. Melody Brown makes an appearance singing backing vocals. I don't know exactly why I don't pronounce the "s" of Homo Sapiens, but it's too late to go back now. I mention it just so you'll be as intensely aware of it when you hear the song as I am.
Meaning: The idea is that the human beings tend to see differences more than similarities in each other. We're all weird people and all people are normal people. Why hurt us?
NO MORE MISTER NIGHT SKY
This was the first song to be completed for the album. I'd been playing around with GarageBand for a while, but always thought I'd need something more professional, like ProTools that Robin uses every day in his working life and that we recorded Love Hits with. As usual I had a guitar part that I laid down first, but pretty soon I felt possessed.
I admit that when I started this song the title came to me before the lyrics. For me, the lyrics usually dictates the title. I researched the song title and found that another band had used it for one of their songs - but it was crap. So I went ahead and used it anyway.
I remember doing a lot of editing on this track to kind of keep it feeling a little off-balance. The little demon laugh was always at the end of the track but I also decided to put another couple of instances of it at other places in the song. Like in a lot of the other songs, the high female vocal is actually my vocal pitch-shifted.
Meaning: It was leading up to Halloween as I was writing the lyrics, so I imagined a scenario where a girlfriend turned into a zombie and tried to capture the soul of the singer of the song using demons and threats of damnation. I thought it was a fun idea.
FOREST OF DREAMS
The music and the lyrics for this song came to me almost at the same time. I actually had a dream one night of walking down a slippery, muddy path in a forest, looking for someone. Again, the Westworld soundtrack was the seed for the piano theme in this song as well - possibly even more so than for Weird People. The song was coming together quite well but it wasn't until I thought of the "always lost in your dreams" part that it developed into something I considered worth finishing.
This song was the hardest one on the album to finish. It started off as an instrumental called "Project Radiate" because it contains the "radiate" iPhone ringtone. Then I was going to call it "Aliens Will Save Us" with the intention of writing some lyrics about my experience in the amateur UFO research field in the 1990's. I never really got any inspiration for lyrics about extraterrestrials, and when I wrote the first version of the lyrics I called it "Self-Help Book". The music was fairly quick to write and record but I was unhappy with the verses that had an almost rap feel to them, but not really. It sounded corny and predictable to me. I was happy with the start of the song but it sounded too much like a mediocre dance tune once the song got going, with the sound sample being more prominent in the early versions. It felt forced and not really what I wanted. I must have edited this thing twenty different ways to try and get it to work. It wasn't until I came up with "there's a U in uranium" etc. lyrics, based on the title of the album, along a more relaxed vocal melody that it started to sound right. Once the song evolved into a more interesting structure I remixed the song over and over until I was happy with it. It was then that I changed the song's title to make it the title track.
Meaning: I've probably said enough about the idea that the hUman race needs to have a greater sense of Unity, but I also added the idea of gUns and pollUtion, the things with which we harm ourselves and our planet. These two ideas give the song some much-needed internal tension. There are also two viewpoints being expressed. One is very personal and one is more global. There's the voice of the optimistic individual; trying to encourage someone who is feeling bound by inertia to feel like that life is as full of possibilities as they do; and then there's the voice that sees the connection between all life on the planet from a broader perspective.
ALL THESE CIRCLES
Since I recorded this song I've always thought that I might have ripped off an Echo & The Bunnymen song with the guitar riff that appears about a third the way through the song. I'm a big fan but I couldn't for the life of me remember what it reminded me of - until now. A song off their "Flowers" album called "Buried Alive". Thankfully it's not an obvious copy and it only appears very low in the mix on their song on the intro and later in the song - phew! All These Circles does have a certain Ian McCulloch feel to it though. I like the song's simplicity, and its rather sad feeling. If anyone's reading this that can arrange it, I'd like to have it played at my funeral if I get one. I don't care about my funeral otherwise because I'll be dead. I just want to know that some people will be crying. As far as I'm concerned you can twang my dead body into a tree to make it more fun... but play the song so that somebody might cry. Obviously I won't be around to witness what happens, but meanwhile I can revel in someone's future tears.
If you bought the CD, then you'll notice that this isn't listed on the CD cover or printed on the disc. I intended this to be a bonus or hidden track on the CD only, just to discover when I signed up for distribution that I had to release all the tracks that were on the CD. So that screwed that idea. This was a rather throw away track and I almost didn't include it at all. I asked Robin what he thought and he said he liked it, so it was included.
The idea is based on the old trope that The Beatles had hidden messages in their recordings that confirm the rumor that Paul McCartney had died and had been replaced by a look-alike in 1972. It's also referring to the story that some metal bands may have included subliminal messages in their songs that, when played backwards, would tell kids to kill themselves. That's why one of the messages in the track is "be nice to your mum" as an antidote to that idea. The other phrases are "Paul's dead", "There's a U in Paul" and it ends with a typical Liverpudlian insult "you daft get". Elsewhere in the UK the word is pronounced "git" which is an insult said to be derived from the word for a pregnant camel. How the word came to be used anywhere in the UK is anyone's guess.
So, I hope you enjoyed reading about the process of recording the album. I'm already thinking of the next project for XUK now that I'm set up to record whenever I feel like doing so. I hope you like the album and thanks for reading.