When I think about the recording of what would become the first Long Winters LP, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of Chris Walla climbing physically inside the back of an Optigan keyboard. After a series of abortive approaches to recording a version of “Mimi,” it had been decided, however abstractly, that what the song needed most was to sound like drunken ghosts caterwauling in a Civil War graveyard. Needless to say, the Optigan—one of the eeriest and most counterintuitive instruments ever invented—was the ideal tool. Never mind the fact that it was out of tune with itself, covered in dust, and about as rhythmically accurate as a one-legged tapdancer in a roomful of mousetraps. We had a notion that an Optigan could solve our problems, so Chris found a way to make the Optigan work, eventually constructing a rhythm track so creepy and beautiful that the song itself needed only to hang across it like skin on a skeleton.
The process of making The Worst You Can Do is Harm lasted many months, spread across a couple of tours, at least three major interpersonal stalemates, and over 47,000 cigarettes. The original idea was to make a duo album, more or less live and acoustic, to reflect the shows John and I had been playing around town while I rode out the long, slow death of my band, and tried to coax John back into music after the sudden demise of his. Four things soon became clear:
- The Roderick and Nelsonfunkel treatment, while beautiful, was not capturing the songs’ true nature as rock compositions.
- These songs represented a body of work that more than warranted its own record.
- Until that record was made, John would never be able to bust through his by-then debilitating writer’s block and move on. And
- I wasn’t about to try and compete with songs like Medicine Cabinet Pirate, Unsalted Butter, Carparts, Copernicus, et al.
And so, we set about to making a John record, with me on hand as “Vice President in charge of Harmony and Approach,” and Chris Walla along to provide the wizard quotient. The music was soon pouring out of John, who was finally in a position to make definitive versions of the songs that he’d been tinkering with through many years and many rock bands. He was really self-conscious about the fact that he’d been hanging on to the songs for so long already. The memory of the Western State Hurricanes was still sharp and painful. My position was that making this solo record was a way to reclaim the songs for himself, not just to abandon them to the memory of the old band’s arrangements, but to use the studio to reinvent them as solo recordings. I made a joke about the first Lou Reed solo LP being a good analogy but a terrible record. No one got the joke (for a change), so I just settled in for a process of discovery and invention, with two of my favorite musicians and people.
A few months later, I could barely stand to look at either one of them, and I know the feeling was mutual. In between, we managed to put together a truly idiosyncratic LP that sounds exactly like the intersection at which our three radically different musical aesthetics collide. It was the only studio experience of my life in which I was able to speak in utter abstractions—(“It needs to sound more like a carnival!”)—and reasonably expect that my words might end up actually influencing the sound of the recordings. I remain proud of my contribution, both as a performer/ producer, but also—at the risk of getting all public school on your asses—as a facilitator. It was an invaluable source of education and insight into music and human nature. It was also an honor to be involved.