I thought it would be cool to use this space to tell the stories behind the songs on (re)animate, and to shine a little light on the terrific musicians who helped bring them to life. Might as well start with the first cut on the album, “Take It Back Baby.”
As you'll glean from the lyrics, the song is about how, once you say something out loud, you can never take it back. It doesn’t matter how much you try to explain or clarify or walk it back, the words are out there, echoing around in the atmosphere, sticking in someone’s head. Somebody once said something to me that—to this day—I wish I’d never heard. I remember wanting so badly to go back in time and give her a chance to say it differently, or to say nothing at all. It changed everything.
What’s said is said.
Musically, “Take It Back Baby” started with a mistake. I grabbed my guitar one day, dropped my fingers on the fretboard in some thoughtless position, and strummed. The chord that rang out was awesome: mysterious, tense, a little dissonant. It begged to go somewhere, to find resolution...to become a song.
For you musicians scoring at home, the magic mistake chord turned out to be an “A 7th Flat 11th Suspended 2nd.” This is not, as far as I know, the kind of chord one tends to run into when playing a tune by the Eagles. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful, and established a mystical mood that I had to pursue. The A7b11sus2 suggested something Indian—kind of like what Jimmy Page might have played on an early acoustic Led Zeppelin number. I kept noodling it until I hit on a sequence of intervals built around the chord's droning A note. From there, a melody came to me, then a chorus, and it was off to the races.
“Take It Back Baby” originally appeared on my second album, Truth Lies. In keeping with the vibe of that record, I arranged it as a rocked-up, electric track that sounded more like Free than the spacey acoustic thing I’d started with. The plan for the (re)animate project was to get away from the power-pop approach I'd been doing for a few records and try something more intimate and earthy. I wanted to feature acoustic guitar and push my voice right up front. And I swore there would be no drums!
As with all the songs on (re)animate, I began by stripping “Take It Back Baby” down to its core, tracking just an acoustic guitar and vocal. I was going to leave it like that…until it occurred to me that I could reinforce the raga-sound of the guitar chords if I worked in some Indian percussion. I don’t know any Indian drummers, so I built a beat using samples of tabla, ghaṭam and mridangam—all traditional Indian hand drums. The pattern that emerged was heady and hypnotic, maybe a little like the groove John Bonham plays on Zep’s “Black Mountain Side.”
At this point, I turned “Take It Back Baby” over to the members of The Powers That Be. The first guy to jump in was keyboardist John Buckley. John is a classmate of mine from the University of North Carolina (GO HEELS!) and we played together in a new wave band called The Shake in Chapel Hill in (gulp) the '80s. John's an outstanding pianist, a master of many synthesizers, and a terrific composer and singer in his own right. These days, he performs every Sunday before thousands of people at the Point Church in Charlottesville, VA.
John cut several tracks on “Take It Back Baby.” Listen to the delicate piano figure he came up with for the opening of song—perfectly understated. You hear that part that sounds like a pedal steel guitar? That’s John, too—on the keyboard. Later, he applies gauzy strings to the instrumental breakdown. I love the way John’s parts add harmonic and rhythmic interest without distracting from the song itself. You can hear his excellent-ness elsewhere on (re)animate, too.
With the song's atmosphere established, it was time to bolster the rhythm track. Enter drummer/percussionist Chuck Sullivan. Whereas John Buckley and I go back 30 years, Chuck is a new pal. We first played together a couple years ago at a show put on by BandHouse Gigs, the super-cool concert production company that Chuck co-founded. Chuck is a world-class drummer. He plays with Soul Crackers, a mainstay DC-area R&B band, and did time touring with Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren. It was Chuck who encouraged me to pursue my idea of recording (re)animate without a drum kit, relying only on hand-percussion. The fact that a drummer embraced such an idea tells you something about Chuck: he’s selfless and creative and always enthusiastic about doing things differently.
Listen to the array of percussion Chuck contributed to “Take It Back Baby.” Shaker supplies the pulse. Clave adds accents. Somehow Chuck gets guiro and cabasa—Latin instruments—to integrate with the Indian tabla drums, turning the whole thing into a world-music melting pot that still serves the song's intent. It’s so cool. Chuck played on pretty much every tune on (re)animate and I am so pleased that he's sticking with me in the band that will soon be playing this material live.
Once we had the percussion tracked, it was time to add bass guitar. For that I turned to one of my oldest and best friends, Andrew Luthringer. Andy and I have been jamming together since high school, when we started our first band, Phobia. Probably because he started out on guitar and then moved to bass, he understands how the two instruments should work together and apart, and his bass lines are always super tasty. Andy attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston and now plays with a bunch of jazz and avant-garde combos in Seattle, so he knows what he’s doing on the fretboard.
On “Take It Back Baby,” Andy doesn't even play a note until the first chorus, so that when he finally comes in with his percolating bass line, the song gets a major oomph. It reminds me of how Tony Levin operates with Peter Gabriel—lots of rubbery low-end and short melodic runs that propel each section, one to the next. Andy's shit is so hip.
With bass in place, it was time to decorate. I overdubbed another acoustic guitar, added a grinding electric guitar, faked a sitar to underscore the slightly Indian vibe, and slathered the choruses with harmony vocals to make it pop. "Take It Back Baby" was finally done. I turned it over to Mark Kenneth Williams at Sucker Punch Recording Co., and he delivered a dynamite mix: heavy, like a feather. I'd come a long way from stumbling into that A7b11sus2 chord, but the song still carried a bit of that original, mystical vibe.
I hope this little (okay, long) write-up gives you some fun stuff to think about when you’re listening to "Take It Back Baby." You might also dig the lyric video I did for the tune.
In my next blog, I’ll tell you about “Find Our Way,” which features—in addition to Chuck Sullivan and Andrew Luthringer—some new faces from The Powers That Be: guitarists Joe Adams and Parthenon Huxley, pedal steel player Buddy Griffin, and percussionists Morgan Davis and Fred Monte (my father-in-law!).