It has been a year since we, Mist Giant, released the Human Tree EP, and I thought I'd do a little retrospective essay writing on the songs, the EP, the band, and our process, starting with each song and then going from there. These entries are written solely from my point of view and only represent my take on how the band works and how the songs were written. I'm sure each of us has our point of view and I hope that Dan and Mike G. will add to the discussion in the comments below.
Lots of people start bands and songs with a particular idea in mind. "I want to be in a hardcore band"; "I want to start a industrial band"; "I've always wanted to be in a shoe-gazer project". I'm no different. I bring to the table a lot of post-rock sensibilities and years being in instrumental projects. But, the coolest thing about Mist Giant, for me, is that our sound is made up of the compromises between what each of us brings to the table. There's metal, pop, post-rock, modern, minimalist, experimental, electronic, even hip-hop in there, but the project never suffers from a lack of focus, because our focus has always been crafting each song on its own. And our sound comes from these musical intersections. For me, and this project, music and creativity becomes and act of discovery. We never, as a group, sat down and said: "We want Mist Giant to be ____". We've had plenty of discussions of what we want to do, instrumentation, textures, philosophies of music and craft, but the sounds that come out of this process have always been the unpredictable resultant patterns of compromise and appreciation of the group dynamic. What the hell does that mean? Specifically, it means that often times one of us will bring in a song idea and it will morph and morph and morph into something so different and so far from where it started as to be a total bastardization of the original motif. In a sense, Mist Giant has, more or less, rejected the idea of ego-centric songwriting. Everything we write, we write as a group. Sometimes this can be frustrating: the original kernel of idea that you wanted, that magnum opus you've been working on, that song you've cherished and the idea of how it could turn out, get completely bashed against the wall. One probably shouldn't bring to practice a song/baby they are not willing to compromise with, because that song will get trashed or discarded. That being said, once we've learned to let go of our ideas, relax our egos, and let the band dynamic take over, we are, as a group, pretty pleased with results that tend to be greater than the sum of their parts, and the songs take on lives of their own.
Such was the case with "what with"
"What with" is a song from our early batches, which we wrote and jammed over at Secret Studios. We call those songs "the Hits", because we played them at nearly every show in the beginning and they really solidified our sound.
If I recall correctly, it started out in a whole other key, with me on bass, Dan on drums with this repetitive sample, and Mike on guitar. For a while there was a bit of a crossover between "what with" and another song which we never released called "Timely Tuesday". At least, I know I was playing fairly similar bass lines for both. (I'll see if I can dig up some old recordings and see if the other guys will let me post them here.) Dan had this sample of a keyboard part he really liked from an album he did when he was in Percival's Best. Basically, he just reversed the sample and that's how the keys of "what with" started to take shape. He and Mike started grooving on interlocking guitar and keyboard patterns, and Dan started laying down vocals. (This is one area that Dan has pretty much free reign. He's always encouraging us to contribute and discuss lyrics, but lyrics are an area that I don't have much feeling over. When I hear singing, I just hear notes, not words. Mike has taken more of an active roll, especially on later songs, like "Just thinking of John, Jackie", which will be coming out over the next few months.) I had a basic bass line, nothing I was too thrilled about, which I played on a beat up, plastic, old Casio consumer-grade keyboard, which Dan aptly named "Rickety McShitty Board". It is/was pretty shit, though I was able to coax out of it some pretty cool tones. I can't really tell you what the song is about, cause I don't really pay attention to the words, like I said, but, here are the lyrics:
"you don't seem the lonely type what with all those rubbed out club stamps on your wrists. you proved your age so say what you like. find yourself some body tonight. buy the ticket, take the ride, isn't that right?
"human tree, your branches seem in need. you, you're between the answers and the deed.
"promise i will mourn you when you pass. until the torpor takes me down at last. we had such nights that morning collapsed and bound us there with nothing to ask but why it went so fast. why such a flash? honesty to goodness i don't know where the heart is apart from this pirate's gold. promiscuity pushes us from home, and when again home it's there at arms length, this bare and tarnished hoax."
(Notice the name of the EP in there?)
At any rate, I remember deciding to try and "Jazz-up" the bass line, thus why it changes half-way through the song, which got me more into it. The end repetitive keyboard and rock out part at the end just came out of us jamming, trying to come up with a change. We stumble across it and were like "That's it!" Not uncommon for Mist Giant.
The recording took a while. We set up our own home studio and had to learn by trial and error how to record, mic, mix, and time everything. If you listen closely to the first droney section/intro, you can faintly hear a Muni bus, the 38 to be specific, in the background. The room wasn't soundproofed (it's my living room right on Geary Boulevard), but the bleed through of the bus really worked for us, all three of us interested in incorporating ambient sounds from the City, as this project and the band are both products of San Francisco and the Inner Richmond). The intro was challenging, because while there's no established beat, Mike and I come up with one live, which isn't far from the songs regular beat, just twice as long. Which means when tracking it, instrument by instrument, we didn't have each other to play off of (we ended up recording us both playing at the same time). Dan got some great studio samples of himself singing, which comes out as that train-like horn sound in the intro.
I've been very pleased by the response this song has garnered. I always loved it, but I just thought that at 7 minutes it was going to be too long for most people. To my surprise it's been singled out by a fair number of listeners and bloggers as their favorite track off the EP, which is great because "what with" showcases much of Mist Giant's sound: samples, patterned guitar, synths, drones, harmonic vocals, and changing song structures. All things that make me drool.
Next installment: "Empty Archipeg".