Murph The Piano (part 2)

Part Two: In Which I Fulfill My Destiny, Or Try To

So as we left things last time … what’s the big deal? What’s all this about pianos?

To use the most irritating of the common questions: why not just play a keyboard?

The answer has little to do with sonics and not much to do with the issue of convenience. Only a bit to do with aesthetics and almost nothing to do with the obvious masochism necessary to be interested in gigging with a piano.

The answer has been concisely summed up in this particularly excellent interview with Sonny Rollins from a few years back.

“If I don’t get to practice, work on my embouchure and scales, then I can’t play correctly, and if I can’t play correctly, I can’t work out my ideas, and if I can’t work out my ideas, then I go crazy.”

If I’m forced to play a simulacrum of a piano, that’s what happens. It’s not a piano, so I can’t express anything.

Now, keep in mind I’m not referring to a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer or a Hammond organ or a synth – those are their own instruments with their own traditions and their own vocabulary of technique. That’s not what I’m talking about. And again, it isn’t an issue of the sonic quality.That’s not what I’m talking about. Samplers sound great lately, of course. Sampled piano libraries are amazing in this current era of that technology. They sound totally “real” and could, I’m sure, fool me no problem in a blind test, listening to someone play. Especially in a live concert setting – even if you see what looks like a piano on stage, it’s often the hollowed-out shell of a piano (or a wooden case built for the purpose) with a keyboard or MIDI controller inside, triggering a sampler. That’s not what I’m talking about either.

Why was Mr. Rollins speaking about not being able to work out his ideas, the circumstance that would cause him to go nuts? He’s talking about a situation in which he “can’t play correctly.” That’s what I’m talking about, in regards to the playing of a real piano. There is a difference to me and it is absolutely insurmountable.

(You know, this might not be the best place for a full-on diatribe. Thinking about it, if I’m going to really get into this, there’s a bunch of expository stuff to talk about, and some longwinded philosophical garbage, and at least one or two guitar-player disses in there, too. Let’s keep the story going and I’ll hit full-speed rant velocity in the next entry. I’ll segue effortlessly into it at the end of this entry, I promise. I’m sure you’re thrilled at the notion.)

 


 

Those Shea Stadium shows had been their own spectacle, for sure, but there was a greater point: we were releasing the fourth Titus Andronicus album. The Most Lamentable Tragedy had taken quite a long time and a huge amount of work to create, and it represented my biggest contribution to the band so far. It dropped on July 28th, 2015, the last night of the Shea residency.

I’d played on all the studio albums since the beginning, The Airing of Grievances, which was recorded in 2007. I’d done occasional gigs & tours as a sideman over the years, as you’ll remember from the keyboard talk of the last entry. It was only as the release of TMLT approached that I joined the band for real. Of course this was motivated by my desire to do the tours to promote the album, cause then I wouldn’t have to see some young punk up there on stage trying to cop my shit.

TMLT is the heaviest piano record in the +@ catalog, even more so than The Monitor. And unlike that record, TMLT was tracked by the same lineup of guys who had been doing the tours leading up to it (a first for Titus, in fact). A stretch of gigs in the weeks beforehand to get the band comfortable with the new material saw us headed into Excello Recording in Brooklyn in September of 2014 ready to rip. “Fired Up,” if you will.

 

The piano at Excello Recording in Brooklyn

Wearing a Phillies hat around a bunch of Mets fans is always a good time.

 

That’s the crappy Baldwin upright at the old Williamsburg Excello location. I was playing on those tracks more for stylistic continuity and rhythm section moral support than for the goal of getting keeper piano takes. I was there to give the right atmosphere on the songs that needed it. Keeper rhythm section takes were more important, since this piano was shit and we’d already talked about tracking all the piano and keyboard instruments at a later date at the Soul Shop.

 

Kevin McMahon sets up piano mics at the Soul Shop

Kevin McMahon with Lawson L251

 

Neumann U87 on Steinway at the Soul Shop

Steinway with Neumann U87

 

In October, after the Excello sessions were over, engineer/co-producer Kevin McMahon (along with Patrick Stickles & co-producer Adam Reich) came to Medford to work at the Shop for a few days. Above, Kevin sets up mics on the Steinway, a 1926 Model M grand. He’s moving our Lawson L251, set to omnidirectional pickup, for placement as a room mic. His two Potophone ribbon mics are positioned close, nearly inside the case of the piano, above the strings. The Neumann U87 is set up to capture the player’s perspective, and was only about three feet from the keys.

This was the first +@ material recorded at the Shop since The Monitor, and the first with the Steinway. (I recorded all the piano on The Monitor on our 1946 Wurlitzer spinet upright.)

 

Recording Fatal Flaw on the Steinway at the Soul Shop

 

My favorite moment of the Shop session (in fact, the entire album recording process) was Stickles offering me a “surprise” on the first day – the unrehearsed, brand-new, never-before-seen “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming.” He threw that song on the table and suggested we cut it immediately.

Everyone in the band had been wondering about the content of the then-secret material in the fifth act of the opera. None of it was part of the pre-production process and we hadn’t touched on any of it at Excello while recording the rest of the record. It was known only to Patrick, and, if you ask me, “NFV” is the lynchpin of the entire story of the album. This wasn’t a task I took lightly.

With him singing scratch vocals in the control room, we started running down the song. I wanted to hear it through only once or twice, to make sure I knew the form, and then start recording right away, so we could get keeper takes before I was too familiar with the song. We only did three takes, the last of which is the one you hear on the album.

 


 

Actually, naw, man, I remembered my favorite moment from making that album:

 

 

Yeah that’s definitely “Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Stickles on unplugged electric guitar and Reich on bass recorder. Sorry for the 2014-era phone video quality.

 


 

Returning to July of 2015, when this record saw the light of day. There was a lot of touring to be done to promote it, and I had a choice to make. Just as I hadn’t wanted to see some punk up there playing my parts, I also didn’t want to bring that music to the public with any less of a commitment than what we’d put into the album when we made it.

I think by now you won’t be too surprised, dear reader, of the obvious choice I had to make. I was going to have to tour with a piano. A real one.

Of course, the way I thought about it then (and still do), I didn’t have a choice. The music mandated it.

I ran it by Stickles, just cause that seemed like a thing I should do. Postulating that I might try to … not sure how this will work … maybe … bring a piano on tour … ?

(As soon as I was saying the words out loud I started considering that maybe he’d just fire me right then & there.)

He was unfazed. “I figured you were gonna do some crazy shit like that.”

 


 

I soon found an Aeolian-style (more on that later) tiny piano on Craigslist. Branded “Mason,” but not to be confused with the still-extant Mason & Hamlin piano brand. The latter were made in Massachusetts, of excellent build quality, and rival the best in early-/mid- 20th-century Steinways. (Let’s put it this way, I would rather play a Mason & Hamlin than a Yamaha any day.) This little guy was clearly a beater, of far less pedigree, but it looked OK in the photos.

 

Mason Piano

Mason Piano

Mason Piano

 

And it was free. Come on.

I rented a van and drove to the North Shore. My partner in the Soul Shop, Patrick, was nice enough to come along to help, on the contingency that I get him an ice cream afterwards.

The piano turned out to be … rough.

It had sat outdoors under a tarp for quite a while. Apparently used to belong to a nun (there was still sheet music in the bench). Pushing down one key produced something akin to three or four out-of-tune notes sounding at once. Out-of-tune was to be expected – this sounded like a Tom Waits record being played at the wrong speed. More like a Tom Waits-arranged gamelan. At the wrong speed.

Ballparked at about 400 lbs, it was unwieldy and cumbersome. Lifting it into the van was a painful ordeal. Getting it out was worse. The wheels were useless.

We dragged it into the live room at the Shop and talked about options for touring with it. Cutting off some of the wood (no good, all the weight was in the frame & action); building a more substantial frame at the base with bigger wheels (not only would this be a huge pain in the ass, it would add weight and put the keyboard at a not-ideal playing height); building some kind of fallboard to protect the keys (again, more weight & hassle).

It occurred to me that so far I’d only been concerned with the functional aspects of dealing with it, and not thought at all about whether it would come up to pitch. I tried one of the tuning pins with a pair of pliers, since I didn’t own a tuning hammer.* They turned. I hoped that that was a good sign. It also occurred to me that a piano this far out would probably lose pitch quickly after the first tuning. Like ten minutes after.

*Never do this, this is wack, and bad for the pins

Our studio shares space with a piano restoration shop, owned & operated for nearly a hundred years by four generations of the same family. Master craftsmen. I’d trust our friend Gary, the current owner, with anything. He took a look at the pin block and turned a few pins (with a tuning hammer, like a professional). He was even-keeled in his judgement – like an intake nurse at the emergency room, he wasn’t going to be the one to go “HOLY SHIT, LOOK AT THAT, YOUR LEG IS SUPER FUCKING BROKEN, BUDDY.” Instead, he checked the piano over, and carefully said that I should have my piano tuner come in and give it a shot. The standard move would be to tune it twice: once up to concert pitch (or a little beyond, because it’s likely to fall back down flat again, after its first tuning in who-knows-how-long). Then wait a while & see what happens (if it fell back down, which it would), and then tune it up once again to see if it remains stable. Maybe there would need to be some work on the action, later on down the line.

Gary knew, like I did, that this wasn’t a piano you’d want to invest in, but he also clearly knew that I was going to be killing myself to try and tour with the thing, and that there was as much likelihood that it would never hold a tuning. He was gentlemanly enough not to say that in the moment. But I knew, too.

Gary left and I sat in the Shop with my new useless boat anchor. I thought about everyone else in the band leaving me and this piano by the side of the road somewhere in North Carolina after a week of tour, fed up with this bullshit. I was already fed up with this bullshit. I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I was a snob but I wasn’t an idiot. I wasn’t going to waste my tuner’s time and my money to find out what I already knew: this piano was never going to be road-worthy. I was going to have to do another tour on that digital fakery.

Fuck it.

There was only one solution.

 

WHICH I’LL TALK ABOUT NEXT TIME

 

RIGHT AFTER I DROP THAT *RANT* YOU WERE WAITING FOR!

 

Dig that impressive segue? I promised ya.

Tune in next time for some serious hollering.

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