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.

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