Part One: In Which I Fight With Unfriendly Droids
Or: Not The Droids I Was … nevermind, sorry
OK, let’s start at the beginning.
Sometime in late July, 2015, I was sitting on the floor of an empty stage at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn, dealing with something I’d been putting off for a long time.
I suppose I should start at the very beginning….
It’s a keyboard. Graciously provided by Adam Reich for my use with Titus Andronicus when I was in NYC for shows or rehearsals. I don’t even know what it’s called. It’s made by Roland, I have no idea what make or model it is. That’s because I covered it almost completely in black gaffer tape every time I used it. (Not in the above photo, though. I had yet to put a new layer of tape on at that point, after Reich had taken my last coating of tape off so that he could, you know, actually use the thing.) This had started back in 2013 when – also on the stage of Shea Stadium – we shot the video for “Still Live With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter,” my favorite song from the
misunderstood genius oft-neglected album Local Business.
We’d recorded that album at Marcata, and I’d used their beautiful Leckerling upright piano, pictured above. Leckerling was a small New York manufacturer from the pre-WWII era of great American pianos being made by a zillion different companies who are mostly forgotten today. The Marcata beast is a gorgeous full-size upright from the turn of the century.
As for the video, my rationale was that if I had to mime on a keyboard, there was no way in fuck I was going to imply that I’d played a particular piece of gear when I hadn’t. Maybe no one cares about this stuff – of course music videos are unreliable sources of facts. But hey, I’m a little nuts about certain things. And a snob about a lot of things. Also, no one was paying me to put a logo on my situation. So I brought a roll of gaff to the video shoot and covered the keyboard entirely in black tape, aside from the volume knob, output jack, and a few necessary buttons.
And yet somehow it made it to the cover still of the damn video.
At least you can see my dope-ass cufflinks. Courtesy of my dad and his great sense of style, circa 1961.
Over the years I’d used that same keyboard dozens of times with Titus: in NYC, on short tours, regional gigs, etc. It was rare that I was able to play real pianos with this band in a live setting. One time – cause it was a local show and I’m a glutton for punishment – I brought an upright piano to the gig. That was enough of a functional hassle that I swore I’d never bother with that again. That’s the main photo on this site, me playing that piano at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass. (I should do a separate “Pianos of +@” entry about all the weird & wacky instruments I’ve played with this operation over the years.)
Anyway, let’s get out of the flashbacks and back to July, 2015. The five-night stand at Shea Stadium, Brooklyn.
Titus took on a monumental task with the release of the album The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Though I
might certainly have a flair for hyperbole, I can also of course recognize a master of the craft … I’ll quote from the band’s press release from the subsequent live recording:
“In the hallowed halls of Shea Stadium, New York City’s longest-running active all-ages DIY space, +@ was doing the unthinkable again, becoming the first band in the history of NYC DIY to sell out five consecutive nights at the same venue. While these epic shows ostensibly served as a record-release celebration for TMLT (as well as an uproarious shindig for the 30th birthday of +@ singer-songwriter Patrick Stickles), they shattered the limits of mere promotional exercise and reached mythical status. Sadly for the wider world, you had to be there… until now.”
The “now” refers to the release of the live album S+@dium Rock : Five Nights at the Opera, as I mentioned in the intro.
When it came time for us to really prepare for that residency, I took a long hard look at the situation and had to resolve myself to the fact that me & this keyboard would be stuck together on the live album for eternity. Shea is located on the second story of its building, and has a harrowing flight of stairs at each entrance – up which I have struggled, cursing, with many an amp that seemed to get heavier every step – and also down which I once sort of dropped a Fender Rhodes. (It was fine. Those things are tough.)
Unless I was prepared to pay astronomical amounts of money for movers & instrument rental, there was no way I was going to be able to get a piano up in there.
There’s no point in being a snob if you’re not functional. You’d better be able to roll with the punches when shit doesn’t go your way. As such, I sat down on the floor of an empty Shea on the morning of the first residency show (July 24) and begrudgingly decided to learn how to get along with the thing. I dialed through all the bootleg-ass piano presets, pausing for a good laugh at the expense of the ones layered with strings & synth pads (which sounded like a Yanni track), until I found one that was solid in the lower midrange and didn’t sound too heinously digital. I pulled out pedals & outboard gear that I’d brought from home and finally settled on a signal path that would get me what I wanted: a regular ol’ hard-hitting, old-school upright piano sound. Something that sounded like a Shure SM57 jammed up against the soundboard of a nicotine-stained club piano.
I used the Xotic EP Booster as a preamp to provide “weight” and midrange-forwardness to the sound, followed by the Ross 10-band EQ, an ancient graphic equalizer unit that I almost hadn’t brought. It perfectly suited the task of removing the digital edge (screw you, 4 khz) and notching out some of the flub. Here’s a photo where I zero’ed my settings so you snitches can’t cop my stuff:
The output of the Ross went into a Radial JDI, my favorite passive direct box, straight to the PA. Having a transformer-loaded DI box in the signal path helped immensely.
How did it sound, you [undoubtedly] ask [since you’re totally still reading this after I’ve gotten marginally technical]?
It worked pretty good. Didn’t hurt that Adam Reich knows how to mix live recordings. Check us out in all our sweaty glory:
Can you believe the bullshit voicings I’m getting away with at the beginning, there? Holy shit. Stickles loved the drama of a great transition and I’m lucky he was also apparently down with my overuse of IV/V chords.
Those shows were an insane, magic time. I should write more about them someday but I have a specific story to tell, here. If you want to feel like you were there, aside from the recordings, may I suggest this excellent article from SPIN.
So, you may ask [if you’re still reading] … what’s the point, here? After all this, it sounds like nothing drastic was compromised and there was a decent piano sound at the end of the day. So what? Why not just use this keyboard? Why all this talk about “real” pianos?
That’s my next installment.
Until then, scope out how much of a townie douchebag I was to have worn a Boston Braves hat to five NYC shows in a row: