I was so completely excited as we started recording the basic tracks for “Black Sheep Boy”. When I’d heard Okkervil play the tunes for the first time at the Parish in Austin 6 weeks earlier, I knew right away that this was already an amazing record. The band had been playing the tunes on the road, so they sounded great... The concept was gripping and theatrical… The songs were wonderful… Our job was simply to not ruin anything. (Harder than it sounds, sometimes…) My wife, 2 kids and I lived in a classic hundred year old farm style Texas wood frame house with 12 foot ceilings. Before it was moved to South Austin in the 50’s, it had been the pastor’s house at an East Austin church for the first 50 years of its life… We wanted to record the basic tracks of Black Sheep Boy in a space larger than my studio, which was an 18’x18’ rat infested garage out back. Ramona and Felix were about 6 and 8, and my wife, Valerie, being a fan of Okkervil, offered to go visit relatives with the kids in Houston for 5 days so the band and studio could take over our home and turn it into the stage set for Black Sheep Boy.
As we began pre-production rehearsals a week or 2 before we started recording, Will commented that he was relieved that I didn’t think “So Come Back, I am Waiting” was too long. The band kept referring to it as their 10 minute song. (It's actually a breezy 8 minutes. But it feels like 5!) It sounded like a mini symphony to me… unfolding so beautifully and slowly… the song is so grand and scary and engaging, it hadn’t really occurred to me to be bored while listening to it. I knew we would need careful dynamic cooperation to give it as big and clear a dramatic arc as it deserved. I think in rehearsal we worked towards a feel of large, elegant simplicity and broad strokes, fewer strums, fewer hits. Zach says “I remember as a very unpolished musician struggling to play it because of so much space between the notes!” We worked through that kind of stuff, letting Will have a long intro by himself, the piano and bass coming in together after a minute, the drums waiting to come in for almost 2 minutes, getting warmer and quieter (yet not wimpy or vague) in the quiet parts and fucking loud in the loud parts. The band worked hard on all of that business in pre-production.
I’d moved the furniture around a bit to open things up and maximize my house as a world of sound. It was connected to my ratbox studio in back with a 75’ long snake. The living room was about 28’ by 15’ by 12’ tall, all wooden walls and floor, and that was the “live” room, where Travis was playing drums, where Zach stood (with his bass amp in my kids’ room off to the side), and where Jonathan Meiberg sat with his Wurlitzer, connected to his Fender Princeton in the kitchen… Will was in my bedroom beyond the far end of the live room with blankets and sleeping bags hung over the door on both sides. We began recording this song on perhaps the second day of the basic tracking session. We had 2 other basic tracks already recorded, so things were starting to get rolling and we were beginning to get comfortable. We all had in the back of our minds that there would be some sort of grand orchestration drama eventually, so the arrangement needed space for the stuff we hadn’t imagined yet. (Strings and horns and horns and strings, arooo, arooo!) Just as I was expecting a longish slog of “perfecting” the dynamics and approach, after the 3rd take, we piled into the garage to listen back. Maybe the bass sound wasn’t quite right, Will was (very helpfully) giving dynamic instructions to the band while he was singing, but after about 1/2 way through I realized that Travis’ drum performance was an example of simple perfection. It fairly breathed with potential energy till it exploded, and it also swayed like a big, listing ship, somehow precisely in character with the song in every moment. Kind of messed up, actually. Not “perfect” by any traditional definition, but a lovely perfectly bent up framework... Just exactly right for the the song. Not one single extraneous or misplaced sound. He was in a spell, and he was transfixed and transfixing till the last cymbal decay. (Well, we may have punched in his drums for just a few of the heaviest, fanciest accents so he could do it just so, but that was the final tiny touch, and then it was pure gold.) If we used it as the first building block for the tune and added the other elements as needed, all we had to do (once again) was not ruin it! We had a breathtaking drum track. The song was already amazing. Because it felt logical, and because it’s fun to cross something off a list, I suggested we move on and have faith in Travis’ elemental “So Come Back…” backbone.
About a week later, after we’d finished most of the other basic tracks we started building it up again. Will's dynamic instructions had spilled into his guitar microphone during basic tracking, so we needed to replace his guitar with a "clean" track. He re-did his part, using the old performance as a “click” track. He played very subtly and dynamically, still cueing off of that grand raggedy feel from the drum track pretty handily. (Not that Will has a hard time with “raggedy”…) We next moved to the vocals. I think he sang it 3 or 4 times, and we came in the next day and listened to it, and then he honed in on a few more subtleties and he sang it 3 or 4 more times, eventually punching in moments on a favored track. He got most of it pretty easily by then, very vibey and spooky and large, but I remember we fussed over the pretty, high falsetto notes in the beginning. We talked about having Jonathan sing those lines with his flawless pretty boy voice, but it made more sense for Will to sing it, and he nailed it eventually. (turns out Will’s a pretty boy, too!) I think he worked a bit on holding back from his “full-on out of control Will” till the most dramatic moments possible, which added to the large dynamic feel. By the end of the song it’s loud and intense for a long period, but it still gets just a little louder. Scary! It took a lot of control on Will’s part to make it feel just a hair out of control, especially because the dramatic arc is so large and the song is so long. In the end, it’s frightening, the song and Will’s performance act like a tsunami… it pulls back to possibly its quietest state, like the ocean pulling back unnaturally, and then it keeps building and building, getting more and more large, until it sweeps through and destroys everything in its path. And yet it stays beautiful. What fun!
Zach came and re-did his bass part, with a slightly better tone and better attention to the more carefully crafted dynamics. He was a pro and he zipped right through it, including all of his well placed fish saucy moments. Now it was beginning to sound large. The next step was simply re-emphasizing the existing dynamics in the loud parts. Will’s acoustic guitar was lovely, but the song needed some rock smash in the loud chords. Will doubled his acoustic guitar with an electric on the loud parts (and some of the quiet parts... starting around 3:19...) I think it was a Les Paul going through my friend Scott’s beautiful brown Masco guitar amp turned way up… Will simplified his strumming patterns slightly so the distortion could sing out a little. That amp has such a unique and powerful sound, with a dense complicated midrange and roaring low end. Resonant and rich when picked lightly, but bone crunching when hit hard. This one overdub added such amazing drama, I think to my ears the recording became fully alive with wild potential at that moment. Such a simple and obvious addition, really, the distorted electric guitar playing along with the acoustic, but it elevates the song to heart stopping intensity. The way it stops just short of sounding like a rock cliche feels like ALMOST getting hit by a bus.
Although Jonathan had tracked with his Wurlitzer electric, the intention was to replace it with an acoustic piano. I had an old Kimball upright in the house, and Jonathan came soon after to play his part. All I remember is that I was worried the track would suddenly become too dense, but just the opposite happened. His performance seemed to open the song right up. Long, sustained chords. It marries to the bass in such an orchestral way when he first comes in, at :59, straight and satisfying. (Thanks, pre-production!) Jonathan played it in one or 2 takes flawlessly, simply, elegantly. These guys were making it easy! The track was floating and breathing and crashing and howling. Now for the extra bits.
It was Jonathan’s turn for background vocals. I remember almost all of the BSB background vocal sessions with Jonathan being more like Olympic sporting events than recording sessions. Will’s vocal style has some pretty unhinged moments, and those are also often the perfect places for harmony vocals. Jonathan is a very accomplished singer with a huge range and immaculate technique. When I started to understand the scope of his abilities, I began to ask for more and more of the stupid shit (like from 6:47 to 7:30) where, in order to blend with Will’s most shredding outbursts, Jonathan had to contort the sound of his own fine voice to be a harmonic shadow of Will, usually higher and maybe louder than Will is singing, but precisely shaped by Will’s voice, phrasing, and diction, even in his most out of control moments. It’s a beautiful and terrifying sound, and it’s painstaking and physically punishing to do. Jonathan always did an amazing job, but at the beginning of any of these heroic background vocal sessions he eventually started to give me a look like he was a Sherpa, and I was asking him to carry me in my lounge chair up to the top of Everest by sunup so I could enjoy my cappuccino while it’s still hot…
The behind the scenes secret sonic hero of “Black Sheep Boy” is Seth Warren, Okkervil’s original drummer. He was living out in Berkeley, and Will sent him some rough mixes of the incomplete BSB tracks, and he proceeded to create an electronic soundscape of manipulated recordings of whirling plastic tubes and mysterious vocalizations that exotically messed up and dressed up what we were making. He sent files of his sounds to Will, we put them on a cd and flew it onto the multitrack from the cd player, timing it by hand. (I couldn’t share files easily in the traditional pro-tools way… I was recording with an Alesis hd2424 Adat, a self contained 24 track multitrack digital recorder. [Although for some reason I chose to record “Black Sheep Boy” on only 16 tracks…] The Alesis Adat uses a proprietary digital language… it doesn’t speak “Pro-tools” or “Wav Files”) You can hear at around 3:53 the spooky whirling tube like ringing. Then there’s the hissy noisiness that turns into a feedbacking guitar or howling wind sound, till about 4:47. And the wild keening flying monkeys at about 6:25. That’s all Seth’s stuff, the hairiest, wild shit. He says “I love using my voice (usually rather non-traditionally) for sound design. For this song I remember doing extreme close-micing (practically in my mouth) of lots of vocal cord shredding (glottal fry) and using distortion and compression to make it larger than life and frightening. Because the crescendos were so long I remember struggling to do what I wanted to do in single breaths.” He used his mouth! I never even knew that! I just knew what he added was mysterious and essential. He interpreted what we were doing and sent us his sounds, and when we stuck them onto the track, it made an instant unique imprint. Will’s song cycle, the band being in top form, the earthy dynamic of our approach and tones, plus Seth’s “electronics”… these are the primal elements that give BSB it’s distinct personality. I had to step up my game to make our work blend with Seth’s abstraction of our work. Influenced by his strangely appropriate additions, we felt free to add quite a few other unusual found sounds throughout the record.
As I’ve mentioned, intentions of strings and horns and horns and strings haunted us, so I said, “Hey, how about I play the melody on bowed bass starting at 3:47?” Actually, I may not have said it out loud… I believe I played and doubled the bowed bass part one day while I was waiting for Will to show up at the studio. It passed the sniff test and we moved on.
Will told me they were bringing in Michael Kapinus to play trumpet on the song. I said, “Who is this guy? We haven’t written any parts!” and Will said, “Relax, Brian, Michael’s great, he just makes up a part, and then he goes back and harmonizes with himself, and pretty soon it’s a horn section!” Sounded like a delusional fantasy to me, (I was picturing some stranger ruining everything with crummy tootling trumpet jams…) but sure enough, Michael carefully layered beautifully melodic stuff in the most appropriate places, he was a delight and a completely sensitive musician, and we didn’t even have to write his parts! I think I may have had some suggestions like “funereal” or “keep going down, end low”, and “Don’t play here”, but mostly he tuned right in to the needs of the song and our large dynamic arc. We had beautiful, heartbreaking horns, and we hadn’t ruined the track yet! The final element was strings. My bowed bass part was not enough. Okkervil is an ambitious band, and quite often, as we started recording a song, Will was already saying “This song needs strings and horns and synthesizers and harmonies and huge guitars and it needs to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it gets HUGE”, and I’m like the dad driving the car on a family vacation… “You kids quiet down back there or I’ll make a wide sweep!” He’s the visionary, and I’m trying to be practical. We both wanted the large, orchestral drama, but sometimes, when everything’s playing and playing at the same time you can lose some of the fire, and it starts to sound diffuse. The great thing about “So Come Back” (besides the fact that’s it’s a beautiful song) is the huge emotional and dynamic arc… The intro is quiet, and when the piano and bass, and then the drums first come in, it’s like the foothills rising, and then it goes back to a quiet-ish verse, like the high plains, and then when the loud guitar comes in, it’s like the mountain peaks. It keeps slowly moving up to the mighty peaks and back down to the foothills and plains. BUT, the end is supposed to be the grandest, the mightiest peak of all. There are only so many things you can fit into a recording before it’s full, so if you want to put in more and more elements, they have to be puzzle piece-y (fitting into a specific spot) or harmonious (blending with and enriching [or stinking up] existing melodic or harmonic patterns) or conversational… (the vocals have a phrase here, the strings and horns have a phrase here.) My “let’s not ruin it” worries get more and more intense as we pile on the final elements. If I remember correctly, the string arrangements were largely done by Jonathan and myself, traced out on my pump organ, scored by Elaine Barber, and played by one of the most professional string groups I’ve ever recorded. A few of them were members of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. The transporting, soft, super high entry note at 5:03… Sounds simple, but only certain players can pull that sort of stuff off. There were 2 violins, a viola, and 2 cellos. I was sort of directing the session from my rat box studio through a microphone, and the string players were in my wife’s painting studio, a lovely wooden room with high ceilings in a small building next door. Jonathan was the session leader, so he was dealing directly with the string players. I remember one moment when one of the very best players got a bit upset about not knowing precisely who “maestro” was… (Jonathan? The voice in the headphones? Symphonic players need to know!) I minimized my chaotic ways and they did an beautiful job. We doubled the strings to make it a 10 piece. (10 string players is a "murder" of strings…) Just enough to make it a tiny orchestra!
When all was said and done, I recorded a decent amount of echo and effects on a few instruments, (I print my effects…my wife calls it “putting on the patina”) All that was left was the mixing. I think we’d been careful enough with the dynamics and arrangement and performance that it posed no particular problem. (Lord knows I probably spent 2 days on it anyway…) I remember Will’s hand being on the faders for Seth’s “electronics”, giving the mix its proper spice blend, and to push up one of his acoustic guitar stabs at 4:03. All in all, a wonderful memory and a great song. I recall nothing but deep cooperation and love all around, like everyone was thrilled to be along for such a huge, fun ride. I know I was. It still feels like an adventure every time I hear “So Come Back, I am Waiting”.