Discover more from Matthew E. White
Cool Out, Netflix and the story of a late blooming single
During the Summer of 2015 I was on tour with my band in Europe. We were supporting a record of mine called Fresh Blood. Fresh Blood had come out in the Spring, in March, and was the follow up to my first record, Big Inner. Big Inner had done well. Not the kind of “well” that most people think of when an artist says that, I still had my Corolla that I had driven since college, and Big Inner had actually increased my debt. But it was the kind of “well” where I had called my guitar students and told them I was going on tour and would not be teaching when I came back. I was making a small, but exciting, living. Mainly, Big Inner had situated me in a very advantageous position to release record #2. This kind of positioning is rare, it’s invaluable, and if handled deftly by artist, label and team, it can translate to the kind of success that would certainly have gotten me, at least, an updated Corolla. With that in mind, the folks back at HQ had made big plans for Fresh Blood, it was their chance to engage the energy we had received for Big Inner and use that to catapult past the drudgery of mid-level Indie-rockness, a chance to sling ourselves into a space a little more rarefied. But now, 3 months after release, as Spring faded into Summer, and the cities started blurring together, things weren’t coming up roses. Record sales, ticket sales, streaming metrics, online engagement - everything was maxing out at lower numbers than anyone would like.
A by-the-book starter in this situation is to release new material. An artist who’s still in a tour cycle might have retained enough centrifugal force to pull in press, radio or playlisting (remarkably still new in 2015) if they release the right thing. This is partially because their most recently released music is still floating around the edges of conversations and social media feeds of new and old advocates. It is also because the contractors a label hires to reel-in press, radio and playlists for the artist, a seasonal job, are still on the payroll. I had tried this move before with an EP that came out after Big Inner. It was commissioned to create energy specifically in the United States where Big Inner’s release had gone less gracefully than it had in TROTW (TROTW is common parlance in the music industry. In a baked-in example of American-exceptionalism this acronym is actually used in conversation, and in many legal documents to mean “the Rest of The World”.) In that case, not really understanding, or potentially willfully ignoring, the strategy behind the release, I had turned in Outer Face, a group of songs whose production was centered around the intentional and complete avoidance of drums, tweaked string arrangements, and closed with a 7 minute track that I thought should be the single. Outer Face did little to boost Big Inner’s profile in the United States.
Despite this, in the Summer of 2015, as I sputtered around Europe and Fresh Blood underachieved in all tangible measurables that record labels find of interest, HQ drew up a similar play. Presumably mitigating their financial risks that now, filtered through their Outer Face experience, must have seemed larger, they asked if I would record something new, not an EP this time, but one song.
“Yes, of course.”
Pinson played drums, Cameron played bass and Alan and I played electric guitars. It felt like we needed a name, so I called us Big Cat - and Big Cat had been playing well. This time when I say “well” I mean it would be unconscionably egotistical to tell you how good I thought we were. Sometimes the shows were half filled, but that made it all the more mesmerizing when we levitated the stage. It was blunt force, and it was violent, unpredictable, and always joyful. It was romantic and medieval and it was happening every night. And it was cathartic knowing that people may have been disappointed in the record, but they would rarely be disappointed in the show. With that in mind I was ready to put Big Cat in the studio. We had never recorded before, we were peaking, and HQ was calling our number.
As someone who has more ideas than money my recording sessions trend toward being meticulously planned. I find it helps maximize most of my resources, allowing me more hours, or people, or arrangements per dollar than I might have otherwise. Same orange, more juice. Of course over-planning can stiffen everything if it, in itself, is the destination and not a path to flexibility. But I think that often improvisation is most electric when framed by meaningful, intentional composition. Anyhow, in the case of this recording session, composing a plan was a moot point. Problems that need retro-fitted solutions often are lacking in flexible, moldable, parameters. That is their DNA.
It is not: “What can be the solution for this problem?”
It is: “This is the solution for this problem. Become that solution”
Time was not a parameter that was at play, nor were musicians, and definitely not arrangements. Big Cat, alone, was walking into the studio, on this tour, in Dublin, in a week. The solution to the problem was to materialize a hit-ish single, and we needed to manifest that result.
We had one day to rehearse the song, a cold day, in a nasty practice space in Hamburg. We had stuffed it in between a few show-days and it wasn't ideal, just cold. But we were glad to be there, thankful for the postseason minutes, and we hammered out a classic Big Cat-style arrangement in a few hours - clean, loose, and brimming with momentum. I’d had worse days of band practice in my life, and I was feeling hopeful
A week after our rehearsal we landed in Dublin, and we moved into a condo close to the studio whose architecture and interior design was memorably uninspiring. The studio was called Windmill Lane, it’s very big, like a Walmart but with a few studios inside. U2 recorded there, as did Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, the Spice Girls and Ed Sheeran. The engineers must have been disappointed when they saw who was on their book for late June. The studio within the Wal-mart that we used was, similar to the condo, memorably antiseptic. It was Plastic-Red and Plastic-Grey, and there was a lot of vinyl, speckled-paint countertop that reminded me of elementary school art-class tables. The engineer was kind but quiet and intentionally, and remarkably unobtrusive. Engineers, similar to waiters, can interface with a client in two ways - as an invisible sound ghost-wizard-ninja (these kinds often wear black), or the omniscient, warm and hospitable, almost-producing, old friend (these kinds mostly wear sweaters). Our waiter, dressed bleakly, said very little when she brought us our food.
On Day 1 we recorded the band. Big Cat yinned to the yang of our Reddish-Grey environment and flourished amongst the speckled countertops. I’ll take Pinson and Cameron on my team any day of the week and twice on Sundays. They are a formidable, indefatigable, two headed beast. And on this day they played beautifully. Big Cat’s recording debut was off to a smashing start.
On Day 2 we recorded guitars. Alan and I swam out to the deep end and found ourselves in a guitar-overdub bonanza the likes of which have rarely been seen before. It was our first day recording together, we were excited, and I think we had a lot to get off our chests. There’s nothing wrong with trafficking in both quality and quantity, maximalism is as valid as minimalism, nature tells us that. We were both pleased with our finished product.
On Day 3 I sang the lead vocal. The band spends these days anywhere else but the studio so the Ninja and I were alone together. She and I had existed harmoniously over the last few days, no complaints, but when one’s self-worth is being tossed around like a rag doll during a day of vocal takes… that’s the kind of situation where you’re jones-ing to see a sweater on the other side of the glass. I was content with the result though, and that's about the ceiling for how I will ever feel about a lead vocal.
When the dust cleared I was thrilled. Like Jesus before us, we had been given 3 days to manifest our result. And It was a wrap. We were well down the path of navigating a sticky, nuanced, retrofit-needing problem. We had become the solution that we all knew was needed, and I was proud of us. The song was good, I really believed in it. We had gotten to something special as a group. We had demarcated a line around this bunch of guys and I was looking forward to holding up what we had made for people to see. We had a song in hand that I was sure HQ would like, a song that had a legitimate chance to move the quavering, downward trending needle...
A song that to this day you cannot find on a streaming platform anywhere. It is called Maybe In The Night.
To be continued…