I just stopped into a 7-11 on Magnolia to service my growing taquito dependency. A handlebar-mustached vagrant stopped me on my way out to inform me of the precise date and location of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. When I smiled in gratitude, he continued by reciting the entire Gettysburg address.
And it wasn’t the monologue itself that was most chilling. It was that he seemed unable not to give it.
Melissa later declared that he must have Gettysburg Tourettes. "The worst kind."
For the last six months, I’ve literally been carrying this project on my back everywhere I go. Today, I finish it.
The issue that haunted me through the whole trip: music.
Without going into detail, the reuse of the "Sweet Lullaby Dancing Remix" was ruled out early on. The remaining options were either to find another song that fit, or create something new.
Finding another song turned out to be really really difficult. I listened to hundreds, and there was very little that worked. Turns out the vocal chant in "Sweet Lullaby," by the young Beagu girl in the Solomon Islands, had some magical quality that made sense out of the whole thing.
The only replacement that really seemed effective was "Beautiful New Day" by U2. The lyrics are maybe a little too on the nose, but the tone and energy are perfect. Unfortunately, licensing a U2 song would be a little impractical. Nevertheless, I was able to use it while editing over the course of the trip to work out a sort of narrative for how the clips would fit together.
But by the time I returned home a couple weeks ago, I still had no idea what to do for the final version.
Then a miracle happened. Again, without getting into detail (forgive me), the possibility re-emerged of using the original vocals from the girl in the Solomon Islands and creating new music to go over it. This was by far my most hoped-for outcome.
I was left to my own devices on finding someone to actually create the new song. I contacted Garry Schyman; the only composer I know, who happens to be very very good.
Garry created the Bernard Hermann-esque 50s sci-fi score for the Destroy All Humans game that I worked on briefly, and he just finished the 60s sci-fi score for Destroy All Humans 2. He had an opening of a couple weeks before starting on his next project, and it happened to fit with my deadline.
The idea of going with a composer instead of a DJ seemed right to me. For one thing, the music is accompanying visuals and there are certain beats I want to hit. For another, it offered the chance to take the song in a very different direction and make it into something new. Also, I just really liked the idea of using live musicians and instruments.
By the time the composer was lined up and the vocal tracks acquired, we only had eight days panic-stricken days left until the release of the video.
The schedule was pushed forward and everyone moved into crisis mode to make the release pipeline more efficient. In two days, Garry wrote a score for the video. He played it for me in rough form using synthesizers, explaining that I would have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps. This is not something I’m good at, and I was extremely nervous about how the results would turn out. But timing left us with little alternative.
I gave Garry the go-ahead. He booked a guitarist, a drummer, a keyboardist, and a recording studio in the outskirts of Los Angeles. Yesterday I flew down for the session.
I had breakfast with Margie, an old friend and my former boss. She’s the one I ditched last year to go on this trip.
"Hey, Margie, someone’s offering to pay for me to travel the world for six months on my own. I can go anywhere I want and all I have to do is dance badly, which is the only way I know how."
"…but…you should…oh, fine."
The job I abandoned was as a writer for the Pirates of the Caribbean game coming out this summer, timed alongside the movie sequel. Margie told me the script I half-finished before leaving ended up getting used, and Johnny Depp agreed to do the voice for Captain Jack Sparrow. Someone flew out to his house in France to record his performance.
So that was a nice surprise.
She also gave me a piece of advice I really needed to hear. "Don’t approve the music unless it’s right. No matter how much pressure you’re under, don’t say yes until you’re happy.
I showed up at the recording session with renewed will to voice a major concern: "You can’t dance to the music." With several professional LA studio musicians waiting, Garry and I found a quiet corner to talk.
"Garry, I’m watching the video and I’m listening to the music and it doesn’t look like I’m dancing to it. And if it doesn’t look like I’m dancing to the music, the whole video doesn’t work."
"Why aren’t you dancing to it?"
"It’s too slow. It needs to be sped up."
"Matt, we’re in the recording studio. These guys are ready to play."
"Listen to the music. I’m not tapping my foot. I don’t want to dance, Garry. It’s a problem."
Garry acknowledged the essential issue. We played around on my computer with speeding it up 10%.
"That’s it. That’s perfect. Now I’m dancing, Garry. I’m dancing!"
"It’s going to make the song about 15 seconds shorter and I can’t stretch it out at this point. You’ll have to edit the video down.
"No problem! It was too long anyway."
Garry went and spoke to the engineer. They agreed it could be done. In about half an hour, the preparations were made. They started playing, and for the first time I got to hear the song as Garry intended. I got to hear it without needing my imagination, live, right in front of me, played by professional musicians on top-of-the-line equipment with my stupid video playing on monitors all around.
It was about as much fun as I’ve ever had doing anything. Ever.
Once they were going, there was nothing for me to contribute. I was just there to watch.
The guitarist, Kevin, used a custom Harmonix guitar.
It appears normal enough from the front, but on the underside it looks like a laptop Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and it pretty much is. It uses internal computer components to replicate the sounds of 36 different guitars. For the video, he played a Les Paul, a Les Paul Junior, and a Fender Stratocaster.
"I have an attic full of guitars I used to lug around to sessions. Now all I need is this."
Of course, I had to ask if he could tell the difference.
"If you listen close with a good amp, yeah. I can tell. But when it’s mixed in with other parts in a song, no way. No one could distinguish from the real thing."
Kevin followed Garry’s verbal description of what he was going for and proceeded to improvise about half a dozen separate guitar tracks. He just listened to the melody, put the pieces together in his head, and performed them on the spot. I don’t think he ever actually watched the video. He just did his job and went home.
I was told on three separate occasions, in hushed tones, that the drummer, Chad, is one of the ten best in the world and we were extremely lucky he was available. Once again, he came in, did his thing perfectly, and got out of there. This is what these guys do every day. And you hear their work all over the place.
Next came Scott on the keyboard, which actually ended up as synthesized strings. They do something fancy these days with those sounds. It’s just a guy pushing buttons, but you can actually hear the fingering changes and the bow sliding across the bridge of the cello. It’s eerie.
After the musicians left, Garry and Dan, the engineer, began the mixing process. It was getting late, so we agreed to break for dinner and meet back at Dan’s house.
A few hours later I was on a couch in a Pasadena garage with Garry, watching Dan put the whole thing together. By a little after 1am, he was burning the finished track onto a CD for me. The whole process took 11 hours from start to finish.
And here I am the next day, hunkered down at a Sizzler in Burbank, making the final edit.
I have clips. I have music. I have surf. I have turf.
Everything I need.