Stillwater Black came together in 1991 when Chris Thayer met Ahmed and Sam Pierstorff while playing in the pit band for a high school musical production. Issac McCorkell was quickly recruited on drums and the band recorded its first EP, The Last Virtuous Lady of Athens.

In 1995 they signed with Cleaves Entertainment, a now-defunct independent label based out of Southern California's Inland Empire. Stillwater Black recorded their debut LP, Adam. They played frequently with local and national acts including Dishwalla, Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish, and IE punk/ska mainstays, The Skeletones.

In 1997 the members parted ways and the project lay dormant for two decades.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

longshot: Another listen

Chris, Issac, and I were talking about how hard it is to listen to and really enjoy music with the kind of abandon that a lot of people seem to experience. We just hear too much.

I don't know how Chris and Issac got to that point, but I do know that Chris ruined me in that way.

It started decades ago in his truck. We would take drives together, maybe to a gig or rehearsal. And we'd be listening to something and he would start pointing things out that I hadn't noticed. Maybe it was a buried harmony, a time-shift, or the way a ride cymbal anchored a particular passage. He really opened me up to a deeper listen, a fuller appreciation of the elements of composition. I don't think it was his intention, but it has since become very hard to back away and just appreciate the whole.

I'm about to ruin our latest song, longshot, in the same way. Fair warning: if you're perfectly content with the piece as it is, you might want to stop reading.

But if you want a peek behind the curtain, put on some headphones, click on the link above, and let's take a little tour.

The song opens with two plucked harmonics on an acoustic guitar. These notes were pitch-shifted in production to create that descending fade. After that, we go right into the first chord. The opening verse progression was tracked on a Fender Telecaster with additional volume swells and acoustic strumming added for texture. But my favorite part in there are the dark slide-guitar bits, the first descending and the second ascending into the vocal.

Issac's drumming comes in tight and sparse with my voice bouncing off the ride cymbal. See if you can track Chris' moody guitar slides through the verse. It all feels very smokey moving into the first chorus.

After the chorus, for just a sweet moment, we allow for silence. Issac's cymbals fade and I make the octave jump into the second verse.

And there's Chris, ghosting me on vocals an octave below, his voice like a memory of the first verse as we move into the rest of the song. This is actually the first we've ever sung a lead part together.

As the band comes in, listen closely and you'll hear the tinkling of an arpeggiated piano part. At about 1:32 (of the YouTube official audio), distorted guitar jabs crackle into your left ear. Listen to those jabs and see if you can hear the snakey shaker bouncing a three over the progression.

My favorite accident of the recording is the dissonant piano note that falls on the word "close" in the line "because we're getting too close." It so beautifully emphasizes the suspect nature of the relationship described by the words.

And then the big distorted guitars in the second chorus snap us out of the loungey space we've created into something much more violent and immediate. This is our 90s rock pedigree and you can hear it all over rock music from that era, including ours. Don't miss Chris' slippery, descending octave runs through this section.

Then we hit the bridge and, after a tasty little drum fill, Issac moves into a half-time groove to add some weight. You can just pick out Chris harmonizing with me, more noticeable the second time I say "longshot."

At the end of the bridge, I offer some spoken words. We used to be very comfortable with spoken parts in our music. The opening track to The Last Virtuous Lady of Athens, was primarily spoken. I don't think there's anything like that on Adam, and I'm really happy that we were able to bring that element into this first composition after so much time away. I feel like it really ties our history together.

Listen closely as I scream "choke" and you'll hear Chris playing through an amazing bend that evokes the siren of a European ambulance. Chris ripped through his solo on a solid-body Flying V. It's a wholly different approach than I'm used to hearing from him. I've always thought of his leads as "singable" with a recognizable melodic structure. Listen to anything off Adam for an example.

But this is dirty and frenetic. It's loaded with frustration and, like that dissonant piano note on the word "close," it just nails the emotional intent of the song.

Hitting the final chorus, we pull out all the stops. There's a string section. Chris is running octaves all over the chord progression and punching in with bluesy leads on the vocal breaks.

We arrive at the final word, "man." The strings shimmer and the piano comes in, much darker than when it was introduced in the second verse. There's a filtered synth that growls and whispers over the guitars before it all resolves on that final piano note.

The chord progressions through the verse and chorus were jammed out on our first meeting together back in November of 2016. The song was released eight months later. Part of that is coordinating busy schedules and balancing competing priorities.

But a lot of that was actual time in the studio talking and playing through ideas. This song was absolutely crafted.

All of the music was written by Chris. All of the instrumentation was tracked by Chris. That's him on guitar, piano, shakers, and bass. And that's him at the recording desk, tweaking and mixing and blending. Issac gifted us with his powerful drumming and I offered language and melody.

We're in the process of lining up studio dates in September and October. I really can't wait to hear what comes out of us.

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