5/5/20 - To celebrate the first anniversary of the release of our debut EP, "Surrender," our singer/guitarist/producer Nik Farr has written a retrospective piece about the making of the record, kind of a track-by-track breakdown. Hope you enjoy!
The first song was intended to feel like a bold opening musical statement. I wanted it to feel a bit like a film that drops you right into the middle of the action from the first frame, which meant it had to be uptempo and bright-sounding. Also, I wanted to showcase the band over the electronics--at least initially--so it's one of the more performance-oriented songs on the EP.
Sean and I had been discussing the idea of writing a kind of ambient electronic piece for live shows that would play while we were setting up, and eventually segue into "Drive" (which was always our opening number, at the time). The synth that fades in preceding the actual song is a leftover of that piece, which I never managed to finish to my satisfaction. But it felt nice to give a spacy, anticipatory buildup before the band all comes in on that first note.
The lead guitar sound on the intro was created with an MXR-129 harmonizer, the same unit used by Stuart Adamson of Big Country--most notably on the song "In a Big Country." If you dial it in so that it's generating an artificial note an octave above the one you're actually playing, it gets that famous "bagpipe" sound. But only if you're playing a Celtic-sounding melody; otherwise it just sounds like the intro to "Drive."
I originally wanted to process the bridge section so that it would sound like some elements are "underwater," kind of the way the Rolling Stones did on the bridge section of "Rocks Off." Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to do this without burying Rod's drum part, which is a fantastic Stewart Copeland impression. So that idea lives to find another song... We still managed to capture a kind of dreamy/swimmy feel, though, which I really like. It contrasts with the rest of the song dynamically and gives a bit of breathing room before racing to the finish line.
Lyrically, it's me moaning about my awful commute to my awful job, looking back and wondering how my past and choices have brought me to this point. As this is possibly tedious subject matter, I tried to obfuscate it a bit with the actual words I chose to sing. I'm not sure it was completely successful; as it was the last song completed for the EP, I wrote the verses in a big hury and ended up rhyming the word "up" with the word "up," which is one of my biggest pet peeves. I didn't actually notice it until I was editing the vocal track, and by then, it was too late to fix it. Oh well!
"Do You Remember"
This is one of the oldest tracks on the EP. It actually goes back to a band Sean and I were in several years ago--I initially wrote it as a song called "On the Day Brian Eno Dies." It wasn't as lugubrious as it sounds, and it did have some funny verses that I still remember:
On the day Brian Eno dies
There won't be anything like
The big deal there'll be when
David Bowie's mis-matched eyes
Slowly close one final time
And on the day Brian Eno dies
There won't be anything like
The hooplah there'll be when
Alice Cooper meets his fate
In a jet-black coffin with a python snake
...and so on, with similar verses featuring Gene Simmons, Jimmy Page, et al. That version was written at least a decade before Bowie's unfortunate passing, and the central conceit was supposed to be the passing of all these screaming rockers would likely be accompanied by a big fuss, but this one guy who's been basically whispering won't receive the same kind of acclaim at the end of his life--even though he had arguably the biggest impact of all of them.
Anyway, ultimately that seemed too Morrissey-esque but it did inspire a particularly Smiths-y musical arrangement, to which Sean wrote what I still think is his finest bassline. In fact, this was my least-favorite song in our set and I wasn't sure it was going to be on the EP--but in the end, it had to be there, simply because of Sean's incredible creativity and performance.
The guitar solo, by the way, sounds like it was played on a 12-string guitar but in actuality, I played two tracks. One was my Telecaster in the standard second-fret position; the second was the same guitar but capo'ed at the 12th fret and blended into the mix. The aforementioned harmonizer effect didn't track as quickly as I needed it to, and when I would leave certain notes hanging, it would get confused and go all out of tune. So the second, capo'ed guitar track seemed like the next-easiest solution.
The lyric is a lament for commercial mainstream radio, which I remember actually being pretty inclusive and innovative when I was coming of age. It seemed in the very early 90s like I would hear a rock song next to a hip-hop song, next to an R&B song, next to a pop song, all on the same station! Over the years, it got more and more homogenous and soon you had all these genres quarantined to their own stations, which I think was a big cultural mistake. All of this had happened long ago by the time we were recording the EP, so between that and the more traditionally rock-oriented sound, I wasn't keen on the track. But after I added some of the synths and Rod contributed a nice idea for a backing vocal arranagement on the final chorus, I felt it at least had musical validity, so it stayed.
This one also goes back a few years to the previous band I was in with Sean. I really wanted to give it an overhaul, though, so I wound up programming the bass and drums to give it a more modern feel. We had Sean add the sliding bass notes at the end of the second verse, though, because once again he came up with such an inventive part that I couldn't bear to leave it off the recording. But in terms of the programming, I largely based it on what Sean and Rod would play live when we'd rehearse the song, with some slight liberties taken (mostly in terms of the actual sounds).
This song provides a good example, by the way, of a little rule Sean and I have which states that we avoid playing the same thing at the same time as much as possible. In most rock music, the guitar and bass follow each other fairly closely; while that can be effective, we felt like it was kind of a dinosaur thing to do. We're more into bands like the Police, where the bass is doing one thing while the guitar is doing something else, which makes the music feel huge without having to have a lot going on in the mix.
Fun fact: the synth pad in the chorus is a sample of the "vocal" pad synth New Order used in "Blue Monday." I nicked a short sample of it right off the recording and loaded it into my software. Add reverb to taste and voila! (I'm pretty sure the original synth was some kind of Oberheim, which Gary Numan also used extensively in his early work.)
As far as the lyrics go, I honestly couldn't tell you what this song is about. I wrote the verses and chorus on completely separate occasions but they seemed to fit together nicely, with the tension in the verse alleviated by the openness of the chorus. There were lyrics to the bridge at one point, but they were always so hard to fit in that a wordless "oh oh oh" approach felt and sounded better.
I put a guitar solo at the end because, while I enjoy the part I wrote, I don't enjoy guitar solos in general. So the idea was that if it ever got radio play, the DJ could fade out over that part and my ego wouldn't be offended.
The title track is the only one that wasn't recorded in Rod's basement and/or my bedroom. Since it was the single, we splashed out and went to Dave Minehan's Woolly Mammoth Sound in Waltham, MA. (Dave's amazing, for those who don't know.) We had the idea that we'd track everything and mix the whole track in one ten-hour session. We prepped HARD for it, and we actually achieved the goal! I think we might've given Dave a few gray hairs that day, but he plowed through it like the studio god that he is.
The track was mastered by Frank Arkwright at Abbey Road Studios in London. The man has an incredible resume--sorry to have blighted that, Frank!
Not much to say about the music here other than we wanted something that felt epic and sweeping to be our single. I actually wrote this song in a previous band--not one with Sean, funnily enough. And although it's framed in a way that sounds like it's about a relationship, it's actually about frustration I was experiencing with the whole "being a musician, trying to find an audience, largely being ignored" thing. I wanted to quit music; in the end, I couldn't give it up, but I did quit that band and took the song with me.
The final track, "Radioactivity," was written about a year prior to the recording sessions. It's based on a guitar riff I've had hanging around for the better part of 20 years that I could never find a home for. Better late than never!
One day at work, probably three years ago now, I had some downtime and was reading about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. After a few days down this rabbit hole, I wrote the lyric in 10 minutes--it just came pouring out. And it's odd that I wrote this song about Russian spies poisoning a defector on British soil, and then a couple of years down the line, it happened a couple more times!
I was listening to a lot of Wire at the time, particularly my favorite song, "Ally in Exile." I also reflected on Peter Gabriel's "Biko" and U2's "Mothers of the Disappeared," both of which were politically-themed closing tracks that were powerful but didn't beat you over the head with their messages.
This probably informed the way the words play with abstraction through specificity. By zooming in on certain details of the story but never actually naming the protagonist in the song, I felt like I'd come up with a new kind of political songwriting that maybe wouldn't date the way a lot of 60s protest music has. Sometimes that stuff feels stale and not particularly motivating because it's all spelled out right there in the lyrics. There's no ambiguity, and therefore no space for the listener to make up their own mind.
Anyway, once I had the lyric down, I went through my folder of homeless musical pieces and came across the chiming riff that ended up being the chorus. Boom! It came together quickly and kind of perfectly.
The sound at the very end is a recording taken from a Russian "numbers station." I used this sound because I wanted to end the song--and the EP--on a kind of ominous note. The goal was really to try to fit as many different colors and emotions into 5 tracks as possible, so it would feel like it takes the listener on a trip. I personally enjoy records like that, which make you feel like you end up someplace completely different than where you were when you started.
I'll also add that I wanted to end on a darker note because there is more music coming, and it picks up where the "Surrender" EP left off (hint, hint).
One Year of "Surrender"
"SURRENDER" EP Review From Vanyaland by Michael Marotta
The first review of "SURRENDER" is in, and it's overwhelmingly positive!
Michael Marotta of Vanyaland (and Indie617) writes, "Over the EP’s five tracks, Divvisions time-hop with ease, charting a sonic roadmap that zig-zags between retro and modern sounds with the type of ambition that would sink a lesser band. It’s a polished sound that flirts with the familiar, but set against the backdrop of modern times, modern struggles, and modern dreams."
Read the full review over at the Vanyaland website.
"Surrender" EP Set For Release on May 3, 2019
We're excited to announce the imminent release of our debut EP, titled "Surrender." All 5 songs will drop on May 3rd, 2019 but if you pre-order now through our Bandcamp page, you'll receive an instant MP3 download of the first track, "Drive."
The EP will be available for purchase at Amazon, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Play, and all the usual music vending sites and will be streaming on all major platforms, such as Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon Music, Deezer, etc.