Musings on The Worst You Can Do is Harm

The year 2000 was a very full year. The first thing that happened in January of that year was that I was asked to join Harvey Danger as the touring keyboardist. They knew me from around town and Sean and I had recently struck up a friendship based on eating steak and talking about how smart we were compared to other people.

I didn’t know how to play the piano but when they asked me if I could I said, “Sure!” I immediately began trying to learn rudimentary piano skills. The Harveys were gearing up for the release of their second album, King James Version, which they had recorded the year before.

By the end of that year we had toured all around the country, played on late night television, and watched disappointedly as the album, which was a great leap forward musically for the band, became a “cult favorite” rather than a commercial success. At one point along the way Sean had asked me to accompany him on guitar at an acoustic show and during our rehearsals I played him some of my songs which had been lying dormant since the dissolution of my last band The Western State Hurricanes. He liked the songs and immediately suggested that we play them in our acoustic set, doing half Harvey Danger, half old Western State numbers. The band was also gracious enough to let me open a few shows in places like Montreal and Ann Arbor.

By December, as the Harvey tours were winding down, (and at this time HD had no way of knowing that they would be our last tours,) Sean proposed going into the studio and making some recordings as a duo. He had some material that he was working on, (that he wouldn’t let me hear), and he wanted to make sure that my songs were recorded for posterity. He enlisted Chris Walla, who had just taken possession of the old Reciprocal/John and Stu’s recording studio and was confronting a 24 track environment for the first time. We all agreed that this would be a good project to experiment with.

As the date drew near I called Joe Bass and Brian Young and asked them to learn a few songs. We demo’d the songs in the Walkabout’s practice space, (which actually has a creek running in the basement of the building. Not on purpose.), and they quickly took on a warm rock feel. Sean, meanwhile, had decided that the record we were making should feature only my songs and that he would save his own songs for a record of his own. After practicing together a few times we convened in the studio with Chris and banged out the basic tracks for half the record in a couple of days.

Joe and Brian are a great rhythm section and they got most of the stuff in just a few takes. At the time I wasn’t really sure what songs I was going to try and record and so Joe and Brian and I only worked on a few songs together, three of which made the record. I hadn’t written a good song in a while at this point and I was a little embarrassed that we were recording all these “old” songs so I was fussing about hoping that somehow some new songs would just write themselves and drop into my shirt pocket.

Brian and Joe packed up their stuff after two days and then it was just me and Chris and Sean sitting in the studio staring at each other. Chris said, “What do you feel like doing?” and that set the tone for how we worked, off and on, for the next three months. The recording unfolded over the weeks as I would plink around on some instrument until Chris mic’d the damn thing and then we’d put it on tape. Then Chris would futz with a drum machine into a series of distortion boxes and compressors and I would fit a song to it and we’d record that. Etcetera. Some days we would have tons of inspiration and some days we would just sit and glare.

Chris was learning his new studio and I was learning how to make a record and Sean was reading a lot of magazines and stepping in as a producer when Chris and I would get caught on a nail. It was the dead of winter and our mood was very hibernatory. As the record evolved it was clear that it was going to be very chill, with lots of tiny things happening in small corners. It perfectly conveyed our world then. Outside the studio there were romantic entanglements going wrong and problems with money and friendships on the rocks, while inside the studio it was all reverb and broken pianos and tambourine.

At a certain point the record just decided for itself that it was finished. By then we were all a little crazy and we’d forgotten how to talk to each other. I almost immediately moved to New York. Josh Rosenfeld of Barsuk raced down to the Amtrak station and came aboard the train to hand me the final, mastered version of the record as the conductor called, “All aboard!”

We’re very cinematic people.

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