Funnyman and author (Hey, God! Adult Letters To God), Kip Conlon, smoked a stogie, swilled scotch and axed The Insomniacs deep, probing questions about their new record, Switched On!. Let's listen in
1. I really liked the ballads, Gone and Tomorrow. Do you have any ratio in mind going in, of fast songs to slow, sad songs to happy? Or just whatever songs you've written, whatever they are.
Dave: last time i checked, the insomniacs were a pop rock outfit who played rock n roll and generally those type of toons are upbeat, uptempo- its the nature of the genre. but after so many years, we can afford a slow one or two. The song Tomorrow wasn't really considered to be for the album, but Mike persisted and said we should record it as he liked the song. I'm glad he did.
Bob: I actually didn't wanna record tomorrow. Surely didn't seem like a 'band' song, something more for Dave's solo record. Because, at some point, we planned to do 3 solo records for simultaneous release. Like the Kiss records. But I actually find it one of my favorite songs on the record. Turned out really cool. It's Gone is also really great. And I think the piano adds an awful lot to it. I think the intent was to kind of make it sound like a Merseybeat ballad. Not so sure it turned out that way, but I really like it.
Mike: For me, if I like the song, that's all that makes the difference. I like to judge the song singularly, not in relation to how it fits with a batch of songs, an established style, or whether it can include enough of my contributions. For example, with Tomorrow, I pushed for its inclusion because I simply thought it was one of David's best melodies.
2. Speaking of the lush, tender ballad, Tomorrow. Am I right in hearing this song as a giant middle finger to the life and work of Sir Paul McCartney?
Dave: more like a small thumbs up to mr. heather mills.
Bob: where's Gilbert Godfrey when you need him? What the hell kind of question is that?
Mike: Wow, tender and giant middle finger in one question Well, I guess you could interpret it that way since Paul McCartney gave the giant middle finger to the life and work of the Insomniacs on his last album.
3. What is a pudding club? (Oxonian eating club orsomethin'?)
Dave: Pudding club refers to a phrase I picked up from a Joe Orton play, which means to be knocked up, preggers, in the family way, etc... Its an old song. more
like a poem than lyrics...
Bob: Another song that I really like. An old song that we sorta reworked and I think the organ gives it a nice Deep Purple vibe or something. That was pretty fun to record. The dogs are still waiting for their union scale pay.
Mike: David can give you the definition, but this is another song I lobbied to play and record because it was a chance to effectively feature style over substance and maybe expand the band's margins a bit. What the tune lacks in originality is more than compensated with catchiness, swagger, and arrangement.
4. For David: Are there singers you emulate? You sound positively Costello-ian, at times, also a bit like Alex Chilton in places. Pure accident? How does a guy (or anyone) figure out how to sing/find their voice?
Dave: Good question, I'm not that big an elvis vocal fan as i think he is generally WAY over the top in his emotional deliveries and his trill... I dont really consider myself a singer per se, but was always fascinated how the beatles didn't sound english when they sang. Years ago, all of us 60's guys sang in pseudo English accents (before Madonna), but I think my voice sounds more like me than ever... but I don't know.
5. How clear an idea of how you want it sound before you begin recording?
Dave: Depends on the tune. Some songs were pretty much straight renderings of demos while others were totally changed by rhythm nuances (which mike is good for) and ideas that come up in rehearsals, usually a guitar lick or a fuckup that we like
(robert's good for that). But I'm always open to change. sometimes if a demo is too skeletal then there are too many avenues to go down. But since ultimately they are my songs, I guess I can decide, though there's nothing we've ever recorded song wise that I would've done differently as far as arrangement goes....
Bob: For me, I think I had a relatively clearer idea of how I wanted my guitars to sound. Maybe more so than on previous records. I think we were maybe a little more conscious of trying to add some more stuff to the mix rather than just guitars, bass, and drums to make things a little more varied and interesting. Some stuff wound up on the record, some didn't. The one regret I have is that the Doors medley jam didn't become side 3 and 4 of the vinyl version of the record.
Mike: When listening to David's demos or rehearsing a new song, I think I try to grasp the mood of the tune first. Before recording, I think it's important to have a defined arrangement in mind, but many ideas, of course go right out the window (while many come in) after listening to an initial playback. I think it's important to surmise what each part of a song is trying to accomplish before recording it.
6. If you had two million dollars to record an album(assuming you didn't this time around), would it sound any different? How?
Dave: if we had two million dollars to do an album i doubt we'd get around to recording at all.
Bob: I think it sure as hell would have taken longer to record. In a lot of ways, I don't mind a limited budget. It forces you to give up the process at a certain point and be done with it. If you've got tons of cash and unlimited time, you can do things to death and PROBABLY get things perfect. Or, just NEVER be done with it. Personally, I'd rather live with some imperfections. At a certain point, I find diddling in the studio to get very annoying unless you're making a psychedelic meisterwerk. In which case, hopefully a lot of that 2 million would be spent on mushrooms and good weed. But, more to the point of your question, yes, we did have 2 million dollars to record this record. It all went into Hamish's hind quarters.
Mike: Do I think we would have then incorporated $2 million worth of technology and gizmos into the recording/mixing process thus rendering a different sound? No, I don't think that. But $2 million would have surely affected the logistics of this record. For example, no fitting rehearsing and recording an album around real life would have made the album sound different. A figure such as $2 million would afford us the chance to make rehearsing and recording album a sole primary concern for a defined period of time. I'd like to think the money would provide greater continuity and acute focus on the project. Just the fact that our minds would be functioning differently would change the sound of the record.
7. On the record credits, I noticed that Dan played something called Sugar. What the hell is Sugar. My theory: Dan calls his tambourine Sugar.
Bob: I think we all know what Sugar means, now, don't we? Don't be playin' a playah, yo y'know, sometimes coffee isn't just coffee.
Mike: Other than holding the position of top engineer in Pennsylvania, Dan is famously known as the Mack of Center Valley, PA. He not only sweetened the tracks, but he sweetened the honey. Dan only calls one thing Sugar, and it's not his tambourine.
8. I sense from listening to your albums the three of you share a love of certain musical traditions, unless I'm way off. If I'm not, is there stuff you don't share whatsoever? One of you worships Ashlee Simpson, somebody else is a Delta Blues freak, etc.?
Dave: i think we're sorta on the same page musically these days. it seems doc sinock is moving back toward freakbeaty stuff and bob towards the new scene and me going back to classic dinosaur rock.
Bob: I'm not a Delta Blues freak, but I am a freak for Delta Burke. I think generally, we like most of the same kinds of stuff and then diverge at a certain point. I'd say we have in common a love for most of the 60s stuff and 70s punk rock/new wave. And I like Blue Oyster Cult in small doses.
Mike: well, a corporation didn't put us together! Our collective appreciation of certain musical styles and friendship is what brought us together in the first place. Fifteen years later, of course, we can't stand to be in the same room together.
9. If I may ask about a particular lyric that intriguedme. I can't even remember the actual song at themoment, but the lyric's, all the things that you want you want right now. I liked this lyric, and without wanting you to overexplain, can you give some sense of what that lyric means to you?
Dave: The things that you want are just things that you want... right at that moment... Preferences, feelings, desires change , just like that. so what you want or need can change from day to day . reminds me of a george harrison lyric: " little things that can change you forever may appear from way out of the blue". which is a much more elegant way of putting it.
10. You're not that band that plays only toy instruments, are you?
Dave: yes, thats us.
Bob: No. That would be Megasaurass, no?
Mike: No, I'd like to, but have you seen the price tag on those Fisher-Price xylophones? Too rich for my blood.
11. The production side of recording-is that fun to you?
Dave: no. i really would love to work with a producer who would just say, that sucks do it again, instead of what usually happens when things are "good enough".
Bob: I think I'd find it interesting to work with a producer to see how different the process would be. Maybe not someone with grandiose ideas and a major ego, but someone who would be able to suggest things that maybe wouldn't occur to us. We've always functioned as our own producers and lots of time we're at the mercy of engineers we work with. I think sometimes we might have knowledge in our heads of what we're going for, but it'd be good to have someone to maybe have the technical know-how to translate that or improve upon it. In some ways, I think it'd be easier for an outsider to also not feel like he'd be steppin' on toes if something WASN'T working. I've always wanted to work with The Matrix or Glenn Ballard.
Mike: I find the production of a recording project very interesting. From the placement of microphones during recording to adding particular effects during mixing -- it is all intriguing to me. For me, sound is just an important as performance, and a record is a series of nuances. The production of Insomniacs' records, I feel, have always been the weak point. Many times I've felt we've rose to the occasion performance-wise, but the production deflated it. I wish the Insomniacs had the opportunity to work with a producer. Although I'm interested in the production of a recording, the fact that I'm part of the creative process prohibits me (and Bob and Dave as well) from hearing a recording with total objectivity. No matter how hard one tries, he will always hear his parts a bit separately from the rest of the song. He'll never hear the whole immediately. In addition to providing another set of ears, a producer could add more creativity in regard to manipulating the recording gear. The producer could stay focused on the technical side during the time the band must focus on the performance.
12. re McCartney: I was being a flippant jerk when I asked the McCartney/Tomorrow question, yet Mike's answer intrigued me. A story there? If not could you clumsily make one up?
Mike: McCartney has gone on record stating that the lyrics I hear your music, And it's driving me wild, Familiar rhythms, In a different style, I hear your music, And it's driving me wild again are directed toward the Insomniacs. Praise or insult? You decide.
13. I hope this isn't an obnoxious question, but at this stage of the game are you still dealing with issues of technical mastery of your instruments, if you will? Or songs that when you play them live, think damn it, this one's tricky. As one who can barely play the guitar, I know I have that experience with I Ride An Old Paint. Or does this not happen at all?
Dave: Its really just remembering the keys and chords for the toons that becomes tricky
Mike: I'm far from a master on my instrument, that's for sure. I'm very limited because when I first began learning to play drums, I spent more time mimicking drummers on records of the music I liked rather than mastering the basic rudiments and expanding the palette with formal training. For me, most problems on stage pertain to feel more than anything technical. In the midst of a performance, sense and perception of tempo can get altered and distorted. It's very easy to unknowingly squash all the tunes into similar tempos.
Bob: I wouldn't consider myself a virtuoso guitar player in any way. I can sorta fake a lot of things and play them relatively well. And there's lots of stuff I wish I was able to do, or had the patience to try to learn how to do. But I don't. I just have a lot of fun playing guitar. At this point, I rarely have to really think about what I'm doing when we play the songs live. Of course, that's one of the reasons bum notes might fly around at times. That, and maybe too many bourbons before playing
14. Could you each name a band, that despite the kind of music you play and your overall taste in things, you're surprised you like anyway?
Dave: Smooth by Santana. It is a great great track. Don't know why I dig it so much. But, there you go
Mike: Hawkwind, The Hard-Ons, Duran Duran.
Bob: Van Halen. David Lee era, of course. But, I guess that should go without saying
15. There are three songs with girls' names in the title. I kind of always wonder this with girl-titled songs, did any of these people exist, their name totally unaltered? Or altered? When you're writing a sort of song-portrait of a girl (which applies to She's A Mess as well), is there an actual person in mind, or is it like creating a character sketch from thin air? Which would be fine, of course.
Dave: I too am always fascinated by girls or guys names in songs (Eleanor Rigby, Billy Hunt, Wally Raffles,)Our song Sylvia Gray was about a dry cleaner on the upper east side - saw the sign in the shop and bingo, there was the song - Listen Mary off the new one has a long, strange history I'd rather not go into. Maryanne Lightly was just having fun with names.. I believe my wife was preggers when I was writing it so we were throwing around a lot of names so it was just playing. But yes, there are always bits of real people in all the songs I write, some more disguised than others Alice White is a not so veiled homage to a wine bottle.
16. Do you think of each individual album like this is the (adjective) album? Like there's something in the mood of music or lyric that characterizes all the songs on that album distinctly? If in any way so, would Switched On be about something in particular, in your
view? For each of you personally, even? (too Diane Sawyer?)
Dave: Um, Diane, this record was recorded over a period of a year - Not like a Sgt. Pepper deal, but just 4 or 5 sessions over a year that included the birth of my son and soured relationships with girlfriends and stuff, so it was a bit difficult to do anything. I'm proud that we got it together and we're still friends. Finding time to write was difficult I think Switched On is a nice name for an ultimately very up sounding record. Though I think its typically Insomniacs how the light switch on the album cover is very pussy and not a more high voltage - danger breaker switch. Though Get Something Going was a great album, I think, that never quite got much attention And I liked the guitars and drums on the front and back covers, Looked cool.
Mike: I think when any album is neatly summarized with a pithy adjective or a pithy phrase, it's always applied retroactively. Time has to supply some perspective, and then in retrospect, lines can be drawn. Our albums are not recorded "correctly" in the sense that there are often long gaps between recording sessions -- each respective album, as a whole, does not "crystallize a moment", as it were.
Switched On was recorded over a year and a half, not because the album itself required that, but due to the realities of being in a part-time band with our time, money, and logistics steering the project. What really separates this album from all our other albums is that songs were written and recorded without any "road testing". I personally liked that because I didn't have to consider whether or not a particular arrangement would work on stage. We didn't have to limit our thinking or approach. Many times songs are written then arranged to work in a live setting and then that becomes the default arrangement.
Bob: I'd have to agree with Dave in that it's kind of an oddly up sounding record considering a lot of the crap that each of us was going through during the time we recorded it. And I think the record's got some of Dave's best tunes yet. I certainly wouldn't describe it as a fuck on the floor garage rawk orgy. But I think it's a damn good record.
Order a copy of THE INSOMNIACS "SWITCHED ON!" LP/CD