The straight man
Microphobes – Launch pad part 2
The recordings for Launch Pad were spread over about a year, mid-2007 up to mid-2008. But it took a while and some twists and turns to determine its nature. We jumpstarted the creative process by feeding on some older rejects. 'I am an actor now' was originally a 1'20” snippet of a demo written during an automatic writing frenzy back in 2005, for the second and last Incredible Shrinking Man record Sings Esperanto. For the first Microphobes album we puffed air into it till it lasted for about 5 minutes – in line with our epic ambitions of the time: piano intro, a wild percussion track driven through a chain of guitar effects and played over the drum track (one of my few percussion credits on any recording), a sideways bass and piano riff for a long coda disappearing into the sunset. But at the heart of it, it was still 3 chords and 4 lines of lyrics. Anyway, it didn't make the album. But the fact there was no guitar on it, briefly seemed like the future. Not just ours, but music in general. Maybe we're a synthpop band after all!
So we took another keyboard snippet from the 2005 batch, even less substantial, called 'Why don't you run away'. We recorded the simplest of synth beats and started layering cheesy synth sounds over it. It was hideous. Tucked away in the fade out of 'I feel light' you can still hear some of those sounds. We'd never completely discard anything that hideous sounding. We knew it was terrible. But – it had a great bassline. So we stripped off everything but the bassline and the beat, and we started writing it from scratch. Doesn't sound so revolutionary now, I know, but we felt like we'd lucked on some crazy Oblique Strategy. Eno wasn't even there and he'd guided us. No wonder all these iconic bands want to work with him. Slowly all traces of 'Why don't you run away' were erased. We found some new chords to fit the bassline. We added new cheesy synth sounds. We inserted a chorus. And finally I came up with new words. I suspect that 'I feel love' may have been on my mind. Fuck, I was a synthpop adventurer now. We chickened out at the end and tried to record some live drums for it. Bert, who liked the song, obliged. Fortunately the results sounded atrocious (no fault of the drummer). It didn't work, and we were forced to reinstate the synth beat. It's nearly wholly synthetic, there's a smidgeon of electric guitar buried in the mix. We were proud.
Onwards on that path – sometime during the 'I feel light' sessions, we improvised a six minute synthesizer duet. Me on my old Yamaha keyboard which I'd acquired back in my teens, secondhand and which over the course of several bands and recording projects lost the use of ever more keys. Some you had to press down hard to generate a sound, some dropped out altogether, but I stayed loyal. It sounded good when you played it through a bunch of guitar effects and my amp. I thought so. Many bandmembers over the years disagreed. But it's the featured keyboard on nearly all Microphobes tracks. There's strength in working within limitations. At least that's what I said. PJ was on a superfancy new Korg, on loan from Erik. I could never get a sound out of it. But it looked great, retro-futurism. PJ's actually a trained pianist, he could probably do amazing things. But on this track he agreed to stay within a single chord, so he never got the chance.
Sure, now everyone listens to Krautrock, but back then... it was pretty much the same. I tried some of it. Kraftwerk was too precise for me. I could really get into mellow Can, and I'd heard one or two Annexis Quam tracks, which stuck to my mind. Moody, shapeless improvisations with trombone solos. I didn't think they were amazing, but I really liked the idea behind them. So that's what we tried to achieve. This improvisation was split into two parts: 'Boating accident' and a short snippet from later on in the performance 'Turtle lake'. If you've ever wondered why artists split up instrumental jams into segments or crosfaded episodes, in our case it was always cause one of us (more than likely me) hit a really unpleasant note, then tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. But inaptitude never held me back. The magic of editing came to the rescue. The percussive pitter patter you hear is actually a faulty cable which we ran through a delay and triggered manually. Technical problems never held us back either. I figured it sounded a little like Fennesz. Most technical hiccups do.
Now here's where it gets complicated. We originally put up 'Boating accident' and 'Turtle lake' on our MySpace page. But something kept gnawing at me. The ghost of Annexis Quam and those melancholy trombone solos. I could never see what PJ and I had laid down as finished. Months later, during the horn overdub session with Tijs, I asked him to give it a try. 'Sound the horn like a musical lighthouse. It's dark on the water. You're sending out warning tones to passing ships, low and ominous throught the mist.' Again and again he obliged. And we ended up putting four tracks of horn bursts over our keyboard improvisation, which receded into the background, nearly inaudible. That version of 'Boating accident' in the end made it onto the original version of Launch Pad, back in 2008. But years later, on review of all the material, I've reconsidered. Back to the original 'Krautrock boating accident', 'Turtle lake' and just a segment of the longer horn-version. A lot of work went into that single chord.
Remember MySpace? Before it was bought wholesale by Justin Timberlake in an ill judged technology takeover, it was the Microphobes' single point of contact with the outside world. The fact that MySpace crashed at about the time the Microphobes quietly went on hiatus, may just be a coincidence though. We were very excited about out synthpop adventures. It was a real departure from the heavy '70s mindset of Let's Go Away For A While. We couldn't wait to spring it on our unsuspecting audience. We imagined it like Bowie's 'Starman' on Top of the Pops.
We gathered these tracks -'I am an actor now', 'I feel light', 'Boating accident' and 'Turtle lake'-, and we launched a MySpace EP called ThE mIcRoPhObEs MeEt ThE sYnThEsIzErS, with release notes all about our new manifesto, and how some or all of these tracks may end up on our next album in these or altered versions. (Release notes now lost in the digital ether.) Every time I opened up my computer I felt suave, cosmopolitan, almost debauched, like a star. There wasn't any feedback that I recall, but no negative feedback either. We must've totally bewildered everyone, we figured. Good! This was just the first step to world domination, which is what all synthpop artists strife for. We were all set to follow in that direction.
Of course we never did. One day the voice of Stephen Malkmus hit me like a ton of bricks and I went back to the gold sounds. I was running out of suave shirts anyway.
Next: Gimme indie rock