“Dead Dog’s Eyeball” was my first ever DIY record. (DIM?) It was 1993, and my friend Craig Ross had a few pieces of recording equipment, and I’d bought a few complimentary hunks of gear, and suddenly, between us, we had a fully portable multitrack recording set-up to share. Almost at the same time, my ex “Glass Eye” bandmate Kathy McCarty convinced Glenn Morrow of Bar None Records to finance and release a record of her singing Daniel Johnston songs, and she asked me to help her put the whole thing together. As an excitable young producer who suddenly had a "studio", this was irresistible! A perfectly simple great concept! We'd have to be big dumb numbskull idiots or frothy lightweights to ruin an idea this good. The thought of being able to pick any tune from Daniel’s massive mountain of songs and put them together however we wanted (and at our own pace) made me downright giddy! Having known Daniel for a while, we felt confident we could lead each song down some unique, beautifully broken path without betraying their exotically fragile personalities. Daniel’s performances of his songs are for the most part always the best versions, but the fact is many folks do find him unlistenable... it's true. I think it’s mostly caused by the vulnerable, intimate nature of his songwriting. It quickly makes the listener feel voyeuristic, and his frayed and pleading vocals make his pain on display too much to bear. BUT… Lo and Behold, these too personal to witness tid-bits come in the form of strangely classic songs, slightly fractured, full of ear worms boring into parts of your brain you thought were off limits to outsiders. Kathy and I wanted to make this record for fans of Daniel, but especially for those folks who couldn’t get past Daniel’s “Too Real to Bear” presentation, so they could hear what wonderful songs they were missing.
We were both excited about the cinematic nature of the song “Rocketship”, so we decided to shoot it into space. It was one of about 7 songs we basic tracked in a proper studio (Arlyn... ok, ok, so it wasn't completely DIY...), with Stuart Sullivan engineering, recording directly into our Alesis Adat 8 track digital recorder. (Yes, Dead Dog’s Eyeball was recorded on an 8 track machine, like Magical Mystery Tour… but with VHS tapes instead of 1" analog tape.) The band, for this tune, consisted of all of the original members of Glass Eye (Kathy McCarty on guitar, Scott Marcus on drums, Stella Weir on keyboards and myself on bass). We were familiar with the discipline needed to get it right in the studio, where the clock ticks so loud. We were well rehearsed, and we'd plotted out the basic arrangement and dynamics. I remember tracking it very distinctly. I did the phony NASA inspired countdown live on our scratch vocal mic., and stuck it through my little beige radio shack speaker later on at home, to give it that “broadcast” sound. If I recall correctly, we only did two or three takes. It was pretty easy. We didn’t bother tracking lead vocals, we wanted to take our time with that later, where the clock didn’t tick so loud.
When we finished, we packed up and went home, where Kathy did the vocals, paying a lot more attention to subtle dynamics and dramatic interest than we could have had we been in a real, hourly rate recording studio. Kathy had always wanted it to feel like David Bowie’s “Heroes”, so we got Scott Marcus (who is also a fine, lyrical guitar player) to come in and do some warm singing guitar through his brown Masco amplifier, harmonizing with himself during the verses… (“We’re going on a trip… far away….”) Scott played the same role as Robert Fripp in “Heroes”… the soaring, sustaining guitar that lifts you off of the ground. And notice, though we nicked the whole idea of the sustainy guitar to make it feel like “Heroes”, it doesn’t sound anything like “Heroes”?
We wanted to make the background vocals sound like cute aliens, so I slowed the tape down while Kathy sang the parts like a cute alien, and we ran them through some analog delay unit with knobs so we could modulate the tone and make it all wiggly with vibrato, It had something like a 10ms delay, with none of the “direct” sound, but that just made the cute aliens sound hipper, like they had some slowmo flow. We printed the just the effect output, all "wet". More alien-y! We labored for hours to get it right, and when we played it back at the correct speed, we were amazed! They were warbly and munchkin-ized, just as goofy and cute as we could have hoped!
The VERY end was inspired in my mind by a Poi Dog Pondering song I heard on the radio once… I don’t even remember the tune, but as it ended there was there was this organ chord that just kept sustaining and sustaining. It was so much fun to hear that long dreamy sustaining sound (on the radio, especially…) that I just had to steal that idea! (Thanks, guys…) I recorded a very distorted low sustaining chord at the end of “Rocketship” knowing I would fade down the drums and the other instruments, and there would just be this organ, sustaining forever, like the infinity of space!
The very last touch, to sort of glue the vibe together, was to take those finely recorded drums and ruin them. Stuart had done a stereo drum submix during the basic tracking, and I took the 2 drum tracks and stuck them into the line inputs of 2 of those little beige radio shack speakers, coming out of the line outputs and back into my mixing board, turning the volume knobs on the little speakers up and distorting them JUST enough, till they sounded ratty and skrewed, like a sample from a well worn record. I even remember mixing the song in my rat infested garage while my buddy Craig was sitting in the comfy chair and listening with headphones… When I finished, he said “that mix was great… but in the fade, the drums disappeared from the right side first…”
“Rocketship” is just one of the fabulous adventures in song and sound I had recording “Dead Dog’s Eyeball”. Because we had no “style” we were trying to represent, so we could just dress the songs up any way we wanted, as long as it passed our “beautifully broken” standard. We’d say “What was Daniel thinking?”, and we’d just try to do it. We knew him, and it wasn’t hard to guess. Our open ended “anything is possible” approach to making this record did a lot to form my personality as a producer.
PS… A few years later, I’m a dad doing the dishes, and my kids are watching the new “Futurama” DVD, “Bender’s Game” in the other room, and I suddenly hear my own voice doing that phony NASA countdown… our version of “Rocket Ship” was on a “Futurama”! I told Kathy about it, and she called Glen Morrow at Bar None Records, and he said “Yeah, yeah… I think I owe you guys some money for that…” (Daniel had already been payed, in case you’re wondering…)
Thanks and BLESS YOU, MATT GROENING!!!