In 1997 Kaptain Karl and I had been living in the same house for three years. I lived in the attic, which was converted into a three and a half room apartment. Karl lived a room in the basement. We had been making music together for about five years. We had finished our first Great Uncle Helmer CD old man will travel and were playing shows 2 or 3 times a month. Both of us had broken up with longtime girlfriends. We had recently met the band Doc's Kids in Winona, Minnesota and were very impressed with them. I felt rejuvenated by finally finishing the Great Uncle Helmer CD and by meeting this cool band of four guys that liked us too.
I had been recording song after song on my four track for a little more than five years. I had bought the hottest, newest PowerMac available and set it up with the most high tech recording system I could get, ProTools 4.0. That expense may have had something to do with the loss of the girlfriend, but who can see back through the mists of time? While I learned to use the exciting new digital technology, I loaned by good friend my old Tascam PortaTwo cassette four track so he could get more comfortable with the multi-track recording process and, more importantly, get down some of the great songs he was writing on his own. The resulting album is "Art Is A Lie, Baby".
The cover of the album is typical Kaptain Karl art. At first it just looks like a skillfully executed drawing of a guitar. But take a closer look and there is something weird and somewhat disturbing about it. The guitar has seven strings and a peg halfway up the neck like a 5-string banjo. This is more visible on the back cover. This also foreshadows Karl's later interest in instrument building.
The inside of the album has a great snapshot of the scene around us at the time in the "Check out the following artists" list. Doc's Kids two great tapes, Evan Johnson's Stealing Stage Time, which was the original title for what became How Could I Know the following year. Then later he released a live album with the original title.
Kansas City, Nebraska
The first song on "Art Is A Lie, Baby" would also have to kick off any Kaptain Karl best of CD. We played this song live at the Cardinal Club in Winona after a Doc's Kids set that ended with Fade Away. Fade Away has responsive backing vocals and Justin and I were cracking ourselves up by singing responsive backing vocals to this new song of Karl's. To Karl's credit, he accepted and embraced them. The last words of the responsive vocals, "It's Just Me" reflected to my mind the fact that we didn't have girlfriends anymore. The phrase also became a title for one of my own songs.
Karl recorded a decent version of this on the four track but I decided to offer the services of my new digital studio for this tune and a couple of others that one or both of us really liked. This resulted in a large variation in sound (and, yes, perhaps sound quality) throughout the CD. The jaw harp was actually at an e flat, but I pitch shifted it to a C for the entire song, letting it revert to its original pitch only on the song's very last note, creating a jokey "boing!" effect. I wish I had held the bass note and cut the drum machine at the dramatic pauses between the verses in a minor, one such pause occurring at 2:09 if you're interested. The vocal also got pushed more to the front and had a little slap back Sun Studios style echo added on the Y2K remix.
This song entered the Great Uncle Helmer repertoire and gained a lead guitar part which we both liked a great deal and which found its way on to the controversial year 2000 remix of the album. There is also an acoustic guitar single note line Karl played and the three note figure after the "What the hell" stacking vocals was something he was very (justifiably) proud of finding. "F#, E, C - What the hell is going on?"
Exploring the lower boundaries of song length made this, Lazy, and Yeah standout songs on this album. The real trick when writing such a short song is to make it feel complete despite its length. These three songs succeed in doing so. These were possibly inspired to some extent by They Might Be Giants' "Fingertips" piece on Apollo 18, the pieces of which are intentionally less complete. The temporary name change by Prince may have also played a part in the title of this song.
Definitely one of my top 5 Kaptain Karl songs, this to me contains the quintessential, archetypal Kaptain Karl character. He is mysterious, fearful, dangerous, rural, angry, different, sad, and yet hopeful. It is a quintessential KK song of the period, with some weird chords and delightfully strange and unexpected chromatic melody moves. I liked this song and this character so much I wrote some unofficial back story in the form of a new first verse and re-recorded it myself. My verse goes like this.
heard the yell for help between the sighs
The silence of the silo
or maybe it was noise
walked around the corners of his everything he had in life
and when he found an opening
slipped quietly back inside
and he ran to tell his wife
but Amelia wasn't there
She'd only left a word or two for Julio
So that to me is the non-canonical back story, after which Julio goes to the bar and gets in a fight, goes back home and makes some weird art, then disappears for good. I think of this song as taking place in the same mysterious, rural, symbolic universe as R.E.M.'s Wendell Gee and my own sequel to that song, Eddie Gee.
We sampled a note from Karl's trombone and I played the part on a keyboard using that sound. I don't think there is any "real" trombone on this song.
Li'l' Fingerpickin' Song
This song was originally about our favorite late night talk show host, Conan O'Brien. Replace "but really I like it/so just go to hell" with "I guess I'll just watch me/some Conan O'Brien" and you'll get the idea. This song was about Gathering Grounds coffee house on 50th and 34th in South Minneapolis, where we played several shows, including the one at which I met my wife. "The guy with the hair" was into her at one point but she liked me more. True story! The woman Karl was interested in who hung around there we never really saw again and now the place is a fancy restaurant, which sucks. It was one of the best coffeehouses ever, and I have seen a few in my time. They lost their lease and only a place that sold booze could afford to rent the space.
The title of the song and its maximization of apostrophes is a tribute to a cat my sister had recently adopted and named Li'l' Pud'n' Pot. And a tribute to Karl's growing mastery of the art of fingerpickin', which extends through much of his music.
The throat clearing that kicks off this song is typical of the "extraneous" sounds that I encouraged Karl to leave in. There are several more throughout the CD. The acoustic guitar was recorded first, with Karl singing an off mike vocal which is still nevertheless audible to the careful listener. That way the real vocal has this ghostly echo behind it, a technique I used all the time back then. Notice "face in the rain" and "rain in my face" are different in the two vocals.
At 1:35 there is a "punch in" that creates an impossibly fast grace note in the acoustic guitar part. Justin asked us about it and Karl explained that it was created accidentally as I was trying to press record just as he was starting to redo the guitar for that section. But he thanked Justin for the compliment, since it was at the time something Karl could probably not have done in real time.
The smooth sliding sixths and gentle hammer-ons of the electric guitar part were created in subsequent live performances of the song then added to the Y2K remix of the album. If I remember right, after one such performance Karl said something like "It's too bad we can't go back and put those on the album." and I said "Why not?" This part and that on "Dry Heat" may have been the primary impetus for the remix actually.
Far Better Place
On this song and a couple others Karl is learning the bass. This leads to some inspired moments and yes, perhaps some less than inspired moments. Karl considered leaving this song off the CD but I encouraged him to make it a sprawling, long album with perhaps a few marginally less successful recordings a la the Beatles' White Album. I think this is a great song and I wish there were "world enough and time" to give all the songs he and I write the recordings they deserve. This song reminds me of "Sliver Bells", which we performed together many times, in that it concerns Karl's occasionally feeling miserable and alone in his apartment.
I argued for singing "Sister make no mistake" rather than "Girl make no mistake" but to no avail. I felt at the time it was less sexist. Now I think it just goes better with "Brother don't you weep". But yes, there is an extra syllable so I understand the man's position as well.
On the line "my eyes bound by ribbons of night" I doubled the vocal an octave lower to represent the malevolent, threatening bass coming to life and finding an actual human voice. This occurs again later during The First Loud Ding Dong of Time & Doom
The change into 6/8 during the outro was Karl's excellent arrangement idea. Fading out everything except the guitar was mine.
Another thing I wanted on the coda was for backing vocals to sing the basic chorus while the lead singer extrapolated and improvised, just like on Please Mr. Postman. This has long been a dream of mine. Songs besides this one I thought it would work on over the years have included:
God Held Her Hand and Behind The Curtain, where it kind of happened
Look At The Rain, where the live-in-studio performance was so stunning it needed absolutely nothing to go with it.
Hey, Where Mah Shed Done Gone, where it happens exactly as I'd always imagined it at Shotgun Johnson & The Mississippi Seven shows. Finally!
At the time we recorded it I thought this was not a very good song, but it's grown on me. Actually, when listening to this album recently this song and several others revealed wonderful lyrics that had technically gone through my ears and reached my brain but that I had somehow never actively engaged with. I like this song, and this whole album really, even more than when we first made it. More shades of meaning have revealed themselves to me. I also think with a tightened arrangement that this song could really come to life with a swingin' rock band, rather like my own Ark of the Covenant did with the band Honigman.
This is probably Kaptain Karl's best bass performance on this CD. This recording was meant to be "live" sounding with the false start, the clapping and yelling in the background, and the "thank you very much" at the end.
This song, like "The Ghost of Elvis" is part of a three part series. Unlike the Elvis troika, all three parts of which have now been recorded and released, I'm not sure when the other two parts of "Lazy" will be out. The percussion instrument is a plastic orange and yellow guitar given to me by GUH admirer/admiree Elizabeth Hauser. It made a groovy rhythm track, man. I noticed recently that the song at some points resembles "Iceland (Reykjavik Revels)" in its overall groove and switching back and forth between the chords C and G.
Because this song has been a big hit at our live shows, we considered re-recording this one when we did the "Generic Mayhem" CD. Ultimately we decided not to because this somewhat esoteric recording would have been hard to beat. The two main guitars - Karl's acoustic and my rhythm electric, were recorded first and together live I believe. Then I did the overdubbed solo flange/wah electric guitar and bass and Karl did his vocal.
The flange and wah effects enliven a guitar solo Justin called "a tribute to the eighth note." The "don't talk over my solo" during the end may have been stolen directly from Doc's Kids or it may have been a case of parallel evolution. The end solo with its metallic hammer-ons was a direct result of my studying an Eddie Van Halen lesson in a guitar magazine, as were my solos in my own songs "You're Steppin' Up" and "I Have Committed Murder". The strong "A" chord from Karl at about 3:40 is one of the most nicely "present" acoustic guitar moments on the CD.
Young Beyond My Years
A true story about a guy who lived in the rest of the basement at our landlord's house for a week or two. He and Karl shared a bathroom during that time and he left the note for Karl exactly as described in the song. This always seemed to me like one of Karl's more '70s-ish singer songwritery moments, which is not a bad thing at all.
This song is primarily in the key of D but features an E Major chord with a walk up to G Major. This move also happens in "Look at the Rain" and several other Kaptain Karl songs. It became such a "thing" that he used it in his official "Kaptain Karl" version of his classic project/song "Garbage" on The Chicago Tapes.
After the phrase "being here and all alone" there is a semi-accidental electric guitar phrase Karl played that he was very (justifiably) proud of finding. The words to this phrase, revealed here for the first time, are "Though it was good to me-eet you, I am all alone." I think the single note electric guitar part in this song could benefit from the same Amp Farm FX that treated the part for "Li'l' Fingerpickin' Song" so well. Perhaps in the next re-master.
When we made the album Generic Mayhem we decided to redo this song. We liked the song a lot and the needlessly complex chords of the instrumental section had been replaced in live performance by the chords that support the chorus. Also this recording ended up with a mysteriously muddy rhythm guitar sound we felt we could improve upon.
Still, this version has the Zen bell I got from Professor Gerald Erickson at the conclusion of one of the most meaningful classes I ever took, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. And it is interesting to compare the dark chords and sounds of this to the bright, almost friendly GUH recording. I think Karl was under the spell of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" when he wrote this one, as they have some imagery and events in common.
The Ghost of Elvis, Tom & Me
This is Part One of a trilogy that continues with "The Dead Don't Mind", in which the fun gets actually ramped up a notch, and "Elvis Said", in which the fun is a nostalgic memory for a tired old man. Naturally, I like the last song in the trilogy best. This was a newer song at the time of this recording and I believe it was the first one of the trilogy to be written. It is always a live favorite. I sometimes try to recreate the harmonica solos, the first one ending down and the second one ending up.
Once Karl and I were listening to The Band's Music From Big Pink and he said something to the effect of "Any instrument whose absence would not be noticed should not be present in the first place." He meant it as a compliment of The Band's simplicity of instrumentation. On that album, every instrument is audible and has a role to play in the groove. This recording certainly keeps to that ideal.
For the recurring sustained E notes on the syllable "vis" we used reverb rather than delay or double tracking. I had in mind the effect created in Crosby, Stills, & Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" when Stills hits the high note on "...listen to me baby, it's my HEART that's been..." I wonder if Mr. Stills still hits that note in shows. Karl hits his these days even better than he did on this CD.
Karl often says this song has only one lie in the lyrics - that Chevy, not Ford, made the Bel Air.
The lyrics for this song became part of a project not unlike Karl's Garbage project. He sent the lyrics along with some other verses to many of his musical friends. Scot Ninnemann accepted the challenge and created two great songs that went on his excellent Slight Change of Plans CD. My idea, which I never executed, was to sample every word of the lyric sheet from other recordings. This idea had two strikes against it - it would be extremely time consuming and not very pleasant to listen to. Like I always say, two strikes and you're out.
Karl plays some great banjo parts on this CD and this song has perhaps the best of them. I also very much like the backing vocals. There is some rhythmic irregularity, a constant in Karl's and my work. Notice and enjoy free of charge the extra long measure at about 2:41 around the lyric "let me lie finally in your sweet soft earth."
There is so much to like about this scary little song. During the intro, when one would expect a suspended fourth (a) over the E Major chord, one gets a suspended sharp fourth (a#). The double tracked vocal is strangely menacing, perfect for the song's lyrics. I always considered it to be about our landlord, who lived on the two floors sandwiched between us in the great pillared manse on Highland Avenue. But Karl seemed surprised when I interpreted it that way and said he'd just thought of it with nothing in mind.
I argued in favor of the accidental a capella coda, which Karl hadn't intended as part of the recording. I find it catchy and forceful and I feel it adds another dimension to the song's protagonist.
The First Loud Ding Dong of Time & Doom
I didn't love it the first time I heard it, but this song has grown on me, especially on the Y2K remix which attempted to add some high frequencies to the lead vocal and threw some slap back echo on it. This throws the somewhat muddy background into sharp relief.
Like "Li'l' Fingerpickin'" this had an off mike vocal sung during the recording of the acoustic guitar. Unlike that song, this song's off mike vocal was completely wild and very different from the finished vocal. Elements of it creep through, like when you hear Karl yell, "Time And Doom Baby!" and laugh maniacally. Perhaps if this song had been recorded like "Look At The Rain" - one take with guitar and vocal - it would have been a very different and much livelier recording.
On the line "Time and space are one to me/associated free" I sang again in the character of Karl's menacing bass gaining a human voice for a single line.
This song is based on and inspired me to read Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" but I failed to get very far.
Megan's Memory Song
Written for an ex-girlfriend of Karl's, this song had no title until we were working on harmonies with Megan Cox at her parents' coffee shop Professor Java's in Hastings. (Another great coffeeshop that is sadly now closed, by the way) So this song was written for one person and titled for another. Live, I play a guitar part in G capoed on fret 7 to go with Karl's part in D with no capo. It was determined that this guitar part was not necessary for the Y2K re-master as the recording was perfect the way it was.
Listening to it today though I thought maybe a real subtle bass part, sticking to roots and fifths to go with the drum machine's kick drum would be good. Karl and I argued over the drum machine breaks at :45 and again at 2:04. We did it his way, of course, it being his album, and I fully admit he was right on this one. We had fun arranging and overdubbing the stacking "Something" vocals, which are all him singing.
God Held Her Hand
I love this song. I like the melody and the chords and the words. Karl plays a part on the bass that I think would sound great in a string section. I like the trombone part. We tried this one live a few times but it didn't stick.
I suggested some lyrics for this song, but they didn't make the final cut. They might have fit somewhere in the first verse, but looking at the lyrics as they were recorded I don't know what lines mine would replace. Here are the apocryphal lyrics revealed to the public for the first time:
Answered questions remain questions
They run down from the walls
Like "Far Better Place" this was a song Karl considered leaving off the CD. At the time I had been compiling the tapes "Ringin' Far And Wide" "Mellby 324" and "Bullet Collection". Each of those fit neatly onto a 60 minute tape, as did the cassette version of old man will travel, albeit with "Travellin' Around" and "Xanadu" out of order. 60 minutes was my ideal for album length at the time and this album is 60 minutes, 23 seconds. Now I'm more interested in 35 minute albums like Let It Be or Highway 61 Revisited.
Another big beneficiary of the Y2K remix, this song got a more distinct vocal e.q. and some slap back echo on the majestic acoustic rhythm guitar and its simple, elegant C-E-C hook. I have no idea to what the title is referring.
Look at the Rain
I feel this may be the best one-take acoustic guitar and vocal part ever recorded live at Memphis Studios. My own "Leave Slow" is the primary competition and that song is much simpler and easier to play than this harmonic, melodic feast.
As I mentioned earlier, we were originally going to do some soul style backing vocals chanting the title over and over at the end while the lead vocal wails away, but they were determined to be unnecessary if not intrusive and were never even recorded.
This song most blatantly speaks to the theme of loss, which runs through the disc. In fact "Loss" was under consideration for the title of the album. The title as used has grown on me over time as I have come to a deeper understanding of its contention.
Some simple 1950s chords start off this ballad of a man on the edge. If you've heard the Doc's Kids song "One-Eyed Duck" you are familiar with the setting of the fun, frisbee tossing parts of this song, that is to say the park with the turtle fountains.
For the "High up on a narrow ledge" verse Karl asked me to come up with some windy, confusing sounds. I put his vocal for the verse on a separate track and made it go backwards while the original vocal was going forwards. I also brushed my fingers over an electric guitar's strings with some flanging and delay effects on. Karl's resulting delight was one of my proudest moments as a producer of other people's music.
I love this song and sometimes request it on those lucky occasions I am able to attend a Kaptain Karl show.
A nicely miked acoustic guitar, and a precise, defiant vocal recorded (on mike this time!) at the same time were later augmented by Karl on the banjo and me smacking a basketball and an empty gatorade bottle. A similar "Hey, go jump in the lake" message as "Li'l' Fingerpickin'" brings the album to its conclusion.
At the end of the take, Karl said, "I wanna do that again," meaning that he wasn't satisfied with the take. He did another, but we ended up taping over the second take in favor of the banjo and the gatorade bottle. We were using the four track, and take two was on tracks three and four, where we needed to put the overdubs. This first take that got the overdubs and made the album was the better one.
Indeed, I can think of no better phrase than the off-the-cuff "I wanna do that again" to end this CD. It was fun. We had fights and made mistakes, but I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Sometimes I think the best justification for me buying all that recording gear isn't so much the hours and hours of fun I've had by myself but rather the music I've made with my friends, especially Karl, who continues to actively make good new albums. So enjoy The Chicago Tapes. Enjoy Nothing Strange. But tonight when you go to bed, enjoy Art Is A Lie, Baby. And tell him Memphis sent you.
Memphis Evans has been best friends with Kaptain Karl for twenty-two years. He was credited with several contributions to Karl's first solo album. He now serves as an executive producer on the WB's Charmed and lives in Los Angeles.
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