Saturday, January 25, 2014

These Donuts (Are Making Me Cry)

(Fourth of a ten-part series on The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship)

The most popular song in our band's repertoire so far, These Donuts represents another style shift in our debut album...this time to something approaching 1950s doo-wop. (Well, minus the backup vocalists). So why is this goofy composition about stale confectionaries so popular?

It's true: I was munching down on the last of a box of donuts one afternoon, dismayed by the sheer staleness of the day-old pastries. I said to myself quietly..."these donuts are making me cry."

And right then and there I was like..."That's a great song title."

Much of the rest of the song - and the slightly modified 1950s progression - emerged within the next half hour of creative activity, followed by workshopping with Joanne later that night to adjust a few of the original lyrics, add an introduction akin to vintage rock melodrama, and finally install a predictable modulation at the end. The reference to Canadian donut outlets in the second stanza? That was from my initial brainstorming!

This is one of two recordings on the album that were concocted in 2012 (as opposed to the series of 2013 sessions recorded with my Zoom H4N portable recorder that comprise the majority of The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship) - back when my primary device for capturing sessions at home was my ART USB audio interface, and a single condenser mic. In particular, this track was recorded about a week or two after I wrote the song that May (and about a day after it was first performed), a request from fellow musician Mike Ramos. So the emotions and concepts were still extremely fresh in my mind when I set out to finish the track.

I forget the exact order of whether the piano or drums came first...for the drumset, I was at the time using a micing style that my best friend Dan Belcher had showed me via Youtube: condenser mic placed between the bass drum and floor tom. Also, I was months away from getting my trademark see-through acrylic kit, which is tuned way more open than my original drums from back then were.

End result? A relatively muddy bass sound, hyped toms, and (more related to the microphone location) somewhat thin snare projection compared to later tracks, though probably acceptable for a low-budget vintage atmosphere. At the very least, the different production style for my 2012-era drum sound offers a contrast to the newer tracks' more overt percussion

Back in those days, I had to run a fifty-foot cable from the audio interface all the way to the piano, followed by carefully placing the microphone within the piano's soundboard case, between a wood panel and the soundboard itself. Not the easiest procedure but one I would use many times over the year for demos and such. (That technique, using a different set of microphones, was later replicated to a degree for The Darren Criss Halftime Extravaganza)

Unlike my usual bass guitar recording style - direct input to interface/recording device - I wanted something with a little more "air" and livelieness to it, and thus mic'd up my bass amp and played it that way. I was going for vibe a little more than clarity and I think it overall mixed in well with the other instruments.

The evening after those raw tracks and the vocals were completed, I also made sure to add a bit of Rhodes piano in the background, for some auditory thickness. It kinda serves as a substitute for the classic 1950s rock and roll guitar sound, since I can't play guitar at all, something to provide a little electric texture to the overall track.

Now that I have a nicer drumset and a better recording device, I've thought of re-doing These Donuts at some point to incorporate full band backup vocals, and maybe some organ (like we've used for at least two of the live renditions). That might have to wait until we're all in the same place at the same time again...and if that same place is a Winchells, I'll guffaw.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

McKayla Is Not Impressed

(Third of a ten-part series on The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship)

Three-chord riff rock! Six words total used in the song! Vocals recorded in an automobile! Basically, McKayla Is Not Impressed is Nino Blankenship at its most foundational, right?!

Sometime in fall 2012, when the album was still more of a plan than a reality, I was contemplating potential titles for the record. In the wake of that year's Olympics, the "unimpressed McKayla Maroney" memes were EVERYWHERE and I ended up really wanting to run with that concept.

Eventually, those memes would fade out and really remain an artifact of that era, and this ended up not being the title of the overall project. Not before we had a song to go with it though...

I want to say it was around October or so, attending a concert my friend Megan was performing with her then-band...amplifiers all the way up for every single act. It might've been one of the openers that was up at the moment it hit me, "Hey, take three chords and run with it and you've got your McKayla song."

Certainly the concept existed by the time Nino Blankenship had its sixth ever show - though it had yet to be rehearsed outside of demo form. It wasn't performed due to time constraints but I never forgot about the tune and its spartan lyricism.

Once 2013 came along...I felt a little urgency to make sure McKayla Is Not Impressed wasn't left by the wayside - the rest of the album was emerging with its definitive piano-driven groove, and I sought to guarantee at least one harder-edged piece on the record, another wrinkle in the genre diversity that drives this band. I had crafted an quiet/loud arrangement not unlike 1990s alternative, and with my Rhodes piano, demo'd that and left it there for several months.

By the fall months, I got back to working on McKayla (along with several other songs that were in the pipeline then). After several takes one Sunday, I managed an in-your-face drum groove with marching sticks, a little bit of Keith Moon freeform, a little bit of mid-70s sludginess. An awkward combination on paper for sure, knowing that The Who was way more about either swirling around faster tempos, or holding steady at a pace a bit slower than this song ended up. But hey, a drummer's gotta be who he is, and I'm never going to be mistaken for Phil Rudd.

When we finally got to recording the vocals - in my car in the parking lot of an IHOP! - Joanne had suggested a bit of a layering effect, with a solo vocal in the first chorus, and then a building of layers and layers of singing for choruses #2 and #3. We ended up taking this to an extreme, with a relatively casual first go-around (aided by that sort of "interviewer with a hand-held recorder" vibe) and then brassier sections afterward. In mixing, I made sure to take the multiple takes and combine them to the point that by the third stanza, we got it to sound like a choir of us two, brattily standing in the way of convention.

I had imagined this to be the guitar song of the record (and at least for now, we'd probably end up doing it live that way) and was going to ask my best friend Dan to provide it. Time constraints though led me to take the original Rhodes piano track and distort it, thus allowing me to actually fulfill a dream I had had for 12 years: electric piano-based hard rock, as inspired by the defunct Detroit band 500 Ft. of Pipe. And when I found myself dissatisfied with the original bass guitar line I came up with, I cued up my inner Ray Manzerek and provided a second Rhodes piano part for the low frequencies! Maybe someday this is how it'll be concocted on stage as well.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Don't You Realize How Cool I Am

(Second of a ten-part series on The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship)

For those who've known me since before this band existed, this song's been out there a while. I performed Don't You Realize How Cool I Am at my impromptu solo show at the backyard of co-writer Mario Balibrera's place in 2010 (amidst several other musicians performing that Sunday afternoon), and it's been a staple of our live performances since, as can be seen here:

and here:

In addition to documenting the origins of this venerable composition, I'll talk a bit about the evolution of the song's arrangement over time.


Back in 2007...I was starting to visit the Bay Area a tad more often, now that I had my own vehicle. Mario at the time lived in the City and I met up with him and a few friends at his place, where we were watching movies and everyone was enjoying the free time afforded of us college graduates.

Out of nowhere, he suddenly said, "I'm an impressive individual?"

I immediately wrote it down, taken aback at the boldness of such a statement. A few minutes later, somewhere in that same conversation with everyone, the title of the song made it to the cosmos: "don't you realize how cool I am?"


A few days later, I sat at the Rhodes piano at my first apartment in Sacramento and...I wanted to write something reminiscent of an obscure tune I had heard, Missy Higgins's "Katie." But not exactly that. Just something in A minor that would be fun to play.

I forget if I had come up with the melody before I sat down at the keys, or if I was thinking about the chords before everything came together. In any case, less than half an hour later, the basic concepts of the song had been completed and I tailored it around my friend's life at the time: his trip to Greece, his love of chess, his movie-watching habits. Original demo from August 2007? About three and a half minutes long.

Over the next couple of years - when I was writing occasionally, but not yet performing - I started exploring the idea of lengthening the tune as an excuse to do piano solos. It's that part of me that adores stretching music past the 5 minute mark; I also explored the idea of adding extended rests after each bridge, something I have yet to actually incorporate in any recorded or performed take. In any case I recall demonstrating it to Mario's sister and her friends sometime in 2008 or 2009.

Although I had privately shown the tune to Mario on multiple occasions beforehand, the live debut in 2010 was what kinda set up how I approached the song thereafter. Demos to that point had been recorded with the Rhodes piano (out of convenience) but more and more I was seeing the pace and vibe of the song as suited for acoustic piano, in line with some of my favorite Billy Joel songs (notably "Captain Jack"). I had used the acoustic patch on his Korg keyboard for that show, and once I formed Nino Blankenship a year later, I set about fully adapting the arrangement to the classic instrument.


By the time the heart of the home-recording sessions for The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship had begun in spring 2013, we had already performed the tune as a band at all but one (an acoustic guitar-driven beach performance) of the seven shows we'd had, in addition to uploading a home-recorded take in 2012. The arrangements in those performances were as follows:

Show #1 (parents' house) - piano, drums, bass Show #2 (Mario's house) - piano, drums, bass Show #4 (Warmwater Cove) - bass and drums only, due to a non-working keyboard Show #5 (Brainwash Cafe) - Yamaha PSR-3 and drums Show #6 (Tobin's Folly) - Yamaha keyboard and drums Show #7 (Kentfield) - piano, drums, bass

To that point, I had a pretty short intro before the first lyrics came around. (Prior to 2012 I had switched over one line of the song, "All the old men with their chess boards say hi" to "All the old men yelling checkmate say hi" in order to reduce word repitition) The initial 2013 recording of the song continued in that pattern.

Sometime in summer 2013 I decided to experiment with a long, drawn-out introduction...letting the instruments enter one-by-one, with the bass playing a 70s-inspired riff in parallel with the chord progression, then dropping the piano in after eight measures. To add to the "live" vibe of the song, where past takes had involved recording the drums in their usual room, I decided to try to introduce some real room reverb by playing in the living room where my parents' piano is also located.

My compatriot in Nino Blankenship sees this as "similar to Karma Police" in feel and in tempo and I can't say I disagree. I hear other inspirations in there too - a pounding groove not unlike Magnolia Electric Co.'s work, seemingly endless solo sections reminiscent of Neil Young, and a structure that is almost conventional verse/chorus but not quite.

I find it ironic that, where my co-writer's piano material tends to go the high-tempo route, I opted (having created all the music here) for something a little less fast-paced. There are times I've wanted him to try rearranging the song to his tastes, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe someday.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


(First of a ten-part series on The Unsinkable Nino Blankenship)

Laugh, the opener to our first album, owes much of its sound and style to 1970s yacht rock. It's not quite a Purdie Shuffle kind of beat, but it hearkens back to certain smooth tunes of that era (Chuck E's In Love, Smoke On A Distant Fire) that swing just a bit. And the Rhodes piano drives everything in here - its rounded tone, its inherently clean, clear sound.

Maybe it's that instrument choice that informs Laugh with a bit of a jazzy feel, something to counter the 70s pop tendencies of the tune a bit. In line with its musical inspirations, I opted to go for a muffled snare sound (like many recordings of the era) along with slightly muted toms - the beat is important, yet secondary to the melodic drive.

It's the very first song I wrote solely for Nino Blankenship (as opposed to having existed in the years before) and when I played it for the band cofounder, she was reminded of our band namesakes' walking around in a goofy suit during an Arashi concert.

Couldn't help but think the same thing myself, as jaunty as this ended up.

This was a song that took some time to get right - I had a decent Rhodes piano take early on in April, but accidentally erased the first few bars and rerecorded the whole thing again a few days later. Then came the drum track...which was probably a 50-or-60-take thing to get right. I was playing the bass drum part somewhat intricately for the stanzas and it dragged everything down, until a week after my initial attempts, I decided instead for a snare ghost note to fill up the space - more successful, with much better flow.

The bass track ended up requiring over 70 takes to get down, just due to simple mistakes here and there. I came up with the counter-riff early in the process but just didn't have it solid until an early-morning session produced what ended up on the final recording.

All that for about three minutes of audio.


I remember coming up with the first part of the song in the shower:

Everybody laugh at me, and I won't be the slightest bit perturbed When you react, I'm happy, it's silence that leaves me there disturbed

In just about every way, that couplet is the linchpin upon which the rest of Laugh anchors off. It's a performance philosophy. It's going out there and sticking to your creative principles, even when they aren't always understood by everyone else.

That shouldn't be mistaken for indifference towards the crowd, so much as...a declaration that we in this band are who we are, and we can only represent ourselves as such. I would say it most strongly about myself but it's applicable to just about all of our material and to the times we've played in front of people.