shai azul

Work. by Marcell Marias

It’s been weeks since I reported on Shai Azul.  Which is lame.  There’s lots going on.  We go into the studio next weekend to lay down vocal tracks.  The instruments are done.  Vic, Oily, and I are already talking about CD number 3 and side projects.  We’ve decided on a new image for the band which, while not wildly different from the present look, fits us way better. 

I’ve just been too exhausted of late to write, blog, or Tweet about it. 

Like most aspiring musicians, I am presently working a day job.

And like most aspiring musicians, there’s a part of me that hates it.

It’s not like working a day job is anything new.  Being a full-time musician, for most of us, is taking a vow of poverty.  Sure, the top-earners are wearing Versace and vacation in Paris. Ain’t reality for most of us. Even a top-drawing local band is only making play money in the grand scheme of things.  And music costs money.  Want a guitar that doesn’t go out of tune?  Pony up $600 at a minimum.  Want a good, reliable amp?  Kick in a grand.  And don’t get me started on studio costs. The second disc is going to set me back about 3-5 large.  And that’s with the friend discount. 

So yes, after almost three years, I have returned to corporate America for a while.  By choice.  I’m in a situation where I don’t “have” to work…but the extra income is the tipping point in my little family.  Even if I were to walk away from the job right now (that won’t happen), it’s generated enough resources to pay for the next recording and upgrade some gear.  I dig my new synth.  It’s going to be all over CD number 3. 

I even really like the place I am working at and the people I am working with.  Learning lots of useful skills and staying out of trouble.  Being a contractor, however, isn’t so much fun.  Ever wonder why companies are reporting record profits and unemployment is still at 9%+?  Part of that, in my less than humble, is that many entities have discovered that they can get the same amount of work out of a contractor for half of what an employee would cost.  My Other (another contractor) encounters this at her workplace as well. Contractors don’t get much in the way of benefits, and sometimes, it almost feels like your nose is getting rubbed in it. It’s also hard to shake the occasional feeling that people in other departments know I have a limited shelf life, and maybe aren’t as civil as they normally would be because of it.

Still.  My immediate co-workers are a hundred different levels of awesome, and they take care of me.  And I reciprocate the best way I know how – work hard, solve problems, and kick ass.

I am reminded, though, of how hard it is to balance full-time work and full-time musical aspirations.  Work demands brainpower, focus, and attention to detail.  Music demands creativity, forward motion, and technical excellence.  And last time I checked, there was still only 24 hours in a day. 

I used to work a full-time job and be in 4 bands.  My Other and my friends also remind me that I was miserable, prickly, and never had time to do anything fun.  And that was also 10 years ago.

You know, I can’t really complain.  All things being equal, things are good. Shai Azul is moving forward, I can pay for it, I get to work at a place I’ve always wanted to work at, and I’ve even figured out how to cycle in (at least to downtown) a few times a week. Even if that does mean a 5:15am alarm.

But if you and I are at a party, and I should nod off on you…nothing personal. Just tired.  That alarm goes off awfully early most days. 

Because, like most aspiring musicians, I am presently working a day job. 


Dark. by Marcell Marias

It’s always dark now.

That’s not figurative or metaphorical.  That’s literal.

It’s dark when I wake up.  It’s dark when I travel to my temp job at a game company.  My cube is in the middle of the office; I have to stand up and walk to a window if I want to see daylight.  And there hasn’t been much of that recently.  It’s dark when I leave.

As I type this, I’m reminded that it’s winter solstice today.  Shortest day of the year.  Darkest, too.  Beginning around 4:30pm. 

Not trying to be depressing or imply anything here.  It’s just how it is in the Puget Sound in the winter.  It’s the price you pay for long beautiful summer days. 

Many say that the light shines on and reveals the truth.  But I have found that the darkness can be a mirror as well.

For if the light is certainty, the darkness is uncertainty.  And I have found that uncertainty is often minted in greater quantity.

It’s in times of darkness (this time both literal and figurative) that you find out what you really are.  Anyone can be bold and brash in the daylight.  But the sun goes down, it gets harder to see…and be seen.  What are we in these times when nobody’s looking?  Do we hold fast to our sense of honor and integrity?  Or perhaps we cheat a bit.  After all, it’s dark.  Nobody can see us. 

The darkness reminds us of what we fear.  Also not a bad thing.  We should have a healthy caution for what we cannot see, understand, or control.  But does the fear instruct you, or consume you? 

Yes, you can hide many things in the dark.  But you can never hide from yourself for long.  Eventually, the darkness forces you to look at things you’d rather not look at. 

Because there are times when we all feel small.  Alone.  Naked.  Afraid.  The question is not why… that part is inevitable.  The question is… what will you do with it?  What will you do in SPITE of it?  What will you be when all you want to do is cry, run, or vanish quietly into the earth?

This is the gift of the black, I think.  The opportunity to meet your frailties and weaknesses face-to-face… and by doing so, gaining power over them. 

It will be dark soon.  But that’s okay. 


Throwing it up against the wall. by Marcell Marias

I won’t lie.  I was nervous about our session back in October.

Not that we don’t have the right chemistry.  We do.  It’s just that when you get that many artistic people in a room together, things can go off the rails.  Egos can get bruised.  Ideas can fly so fast and furious that nothing really ends up sticking.

That was the concern I had going into the first combined session for the next Shai Azul compilation.  I’ve been working with everyone in ones and twos for some months; this time, I wanted to get everyone together in the same room.

On Mirror Darkly, I introduced the vocal parts to the singers in the morning and we cut the tunes in the afternoon.  With this go-around, I wanted more of their input.  Just because I came up with the melody doesn’t mean that it’s the best idea for the tune.  I’ve always known this.  But knowing it and giving the singers time to wrap their vocal chords around it are two different things.  It was also a first to have pretty much the whole band there… Tanya, Oily, Anthony, Vic, and Chris.  All we were missing was Kelly.  Something about small children needing attention or some such thing. 

I shouldn’t have been concerned.  I couldn’t have asked for a better idea session. 

We kicked off at around 10 am with just myself, Tanya, and Chris.  We set the rhythm for the day with the first song; spending some time listening to the tune, me singing the melody (big thanks to Tara W, my vocal coach, for giving me more training and confidence than I have ever had), and then turning the singer loose for about an hour.  As more people showed up, more conversations and ideas were thrown around.  But rather than just being a chaotic jumble, it seemed like every idea was a touchstone for forward motion. 

In fact, at one point, there were six of us working on one song. Vic, with tremendous artistic humility, said “Guys, I don’t know where to take this.”  You don’t often hear someone say that about their own tune.  So we all dived in.   And the song turned out better than we could have imagined for it. 

Lather, rise, repeat.  9 songs later we had gotten through the whole disc (or as much of it as we were going to get done that day). 

We now have a disc full of vocal ideas.  Sorry, you don’t get to hear any of it yet.  We used the time as a musical sketchpad rather than trying to get melodies set in stone.  So if I played it for you it would sound pretty scattered and random.  We got what we wanted - tons of ideas and direction.  It’s taking longer than I hoped, yah.  But this is all about making the best music we can.  If it takes longer, it takes longer. 

The work is in the vocalists’ court for a season.  And I am glad for the break. 

This disc is gonna kill. 


Space by Marcell Marias

Sorry about the silence.  Been kinda busy recently.  Took on a temp job which should run through the end of May 2011.  Hey, the recording won’t pay for itself.  And it’s actually a good time for this since right now the bulk of the development work is with the singers.  Has been liberating to save all the musical data to hard disk and put it away…in advance of the next project.  And there will be more.

The job is a good one; helping out with event planning, logistics, and management.  It stretches an existing skill set and adds new ones.  I like the people I work with and I still have time (although less) to do Shai Azul stuff. 

Thing is that it’s about 20 miles away, and I hate driving.

I take that back.  I like driving.  Some of my most recent fond memories are of long trips in the trailer down to SoCal.  I hate COMMUTING.  That ever so vexing time of day when everyone is trying to get to the same place as you.  Right now, it takes me about 50 minutes from my front door to theirs. Less than 22 miles. Blech. 

Now, I think I may have a plan.  There’s a bus that gets close enough to the office.  So the present plan is to ride the bike to downtown Seattle (about 6 miles), lock it up at this really neat bike storage place/shop, walk 2 blocks to the bus stop, and let Metro worry about everything else.  It will add about 40 minutes to the commute, but I’ll get exercise and won’t be burning gas.  All good things. 

I was reminded, though, as I rode the route this week, of the general lack of awareness people seem to have regarding the physical space they occupy.

Lest you think I am just calling out vehicle drivers, I have noticed this of pedestrians and cyclists as well.  I have been run over equally by things with 2 wheels, 4 wheels, and boots. 

I am not sure whether this is a Seattle thing, an American thing, or just a people thing.  Maybe we’re just used to having a lot of (literal) space here in the west.  Or maybe it’s just that we’re a busy people; lots going on in our heads.  It takes us out of the here and now, perhaps distracts us. 

Whatever the case may be, it’s oftentimes a little disconcerting to be on my bike and to see a car/pedestrian/what have you and to know, from personal experience, that all of my lights, reflectors, wild gesticulations, slowing down, and vocal prompts of “Passing on the left, please!” will go unheeded.  And one of us is going to have to make a drastic yield.  It’s usually me. 

Hey, I’m not perfect at this either. I am guilty of spatial cluelessness as well.  But being a cyclist has made me far more aware of my surroundings.  It’s also made me aware that BEING aware of one’s surroundings isn’t something that comes naturally to such as us who to live where we do, when we do. 

Let’s make a deal.  I will watch out for you.  You watch out for me.  Cool?



For the 50th Time… by Marcell Marias

By the time this goes out, we will have had our first studio session with (almost) everyone.  I hope to be able to report good things about that. 

However, before we get there, there’s a teeny thing I needed to do.  Finish up all my instrumental tracks.

One of them just about killed me, I won’t lie.

Funny thing is that it’s really not that difficult a riff.  It’s a repetitive 16-bar guitar hook.  It only happens twice.  So you think it wouldn’t be that hard.  But it’s the dominant part of the song it’s in.  It has to start strong and end stronger.  On a technical side, it also requires a fairly quick alteration between palm muting and picking.  So it’s not just bashing out slop chords, but it’s also not Flight of the Bumblebee.  Should be doable. 

And for the life of me I could NOT get it right.  Something was always missing in the performance.  A missed mute here, a wrong note there.  I added up the time usage while I was taking a frustrated break.  I had tried and failed to get the riff recorded correctly 50 times. 

So what do you do when you’ve blown it for the 50th time?

Play it for the 51st time.  Or however many times you need to so you can get it right. Or maybe even swallow your pride and re-evaluate the part.  Because that’s what it means to be a professional.  The whole is more important than any one part.  Get over yourself that you’re not a hot guitar player and serve the tune, anoN.

In this case, serving the tune was to simplify the riff down to the parts that were cool and iconic and jettison everything else.  6 takes later it was done.  And you will never miss the other notes. They weren’t really required. 

You know what?  Sometimes doing what you love really sucks.  It doesn’t make it any less cool that you get to do it.  But just because you love it doesn’t guarantee pure joy; sometimes it’s just soul-sapping work.  Just because you love it doesn’t immediately make you a master of it.  And it doesn’t always mean it comes out the way you envisioned it. 

That’s not weird.  That’s life. 

For the record, the guitar line that nearly did me in is the main verse hook from “House of Cards”.  That song should be out in the next 6 months.  And yes, you probably could have done it better. 


Something for everyone to find fault with. by Marcell Marias

(Written Monday, Sept 20)

It’s one of those days in the Northwest where if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes.  Recording is on hold for one day; fatigued ears need some time off. I am presently working on the louder, faster songs.  They are more challenging to play, and tonally there’s more distortion and jagged edges.  More complex+more abrasive tonality=lots of time spent making it right and tired ears even when recording at a relatively low decibel level. 

It has been a good reminder, however, in how varied this upcoming compilation is. 

It’s not a huge departure from Mirror Darkly. True, most of it falls in the 100-140bpm industrial pop/rock vein.  I suppose it’s more of an evolution, with wider bookends.  The mellow stuff is more chill; the harder stuff is more intense.  Example.  The song that’s blown out my ears is over 200 bpm when you take into account the double time drum signature.  It’s based around a fast, chuggy guitar riff and a relentless beat.  The topic of the song is betrayal, usury, and revenge.  It’s brutal all the way around.  On the other side is an atmospheric, largely electronica tune clocking in at 91bpm.  The song initially started as a personal challenge to write about a topic that’s often a rock and roll cliché. When I sent it to Tanya for her comment, it was couched with “Does this sound too much like a Christian worship song?”  She laughed and assured me I was in no such danger.  But even the topic – alright, fine, it’s a love song – is a bit of a departure from the more angsty, aggressive lyrics our songs usually have.

And in the middle?  More. More guitars.  More keyboards. More drums.  More harmonies.  More riffs.  More space.  More atmosphere.  More turmoil.  More defiance.  More hope. 

More paradox. 

I can already hear industry professionals shaking their heads and telling us to focus.  Do one thing really well.  Paradox doesn’t sell.  Neither does a compilation that goes from blast beats to synth drums; from hard-edged male vocals to delicate female performance. 

They’re not wrong about this, you know.  You won’t be hearing Lady Gaga doing jazz standards anytime soon.  Even though I’m sure she can. 

I also know that it wasn’t too long ago that Led Zeppelin could put “Stairway to Heaven”, “Going to California”, and “When the Levee Breaks” on the same album.  3 different songs, 3 different styles.  All clearly one band.  And they weren’t the only ones doing this kind of thing. 

We’re not Led Zeppelin.  But we are a band of a lot of contributors and a lot of emotions.  Only makes sense that the music would reflect that in the aggregate. 

It would surprise me if everyone liked every song on the compilation.  But that’s okay.  You can always skip over the songs you don’t like. 

Besides.  I would rather that you hate a tune or two than lose interest less than halfway through. 


Pondering Truthfulness… by Marcell Marias

I was struck by something that happened a few weeks ago.

If you’re on Facebook or any of the social sites, you’ll know of what I speak, likely.  Seems that there was a young lady who had quit her job. She announced it in the form of a series of pictures emailed to her former company.  In it, she told everyone why she quit and revealed a few less-than-desirable qualities in her former boss. 

Bold.  Clever.  Funny. 

Except for one thing.

It wasn’t true.

I do give the website credit for coming forward a few days later and admitting that it was a hoax (in the same fashion and style as the young woman allegedly quit her job).  Still bold, clever, and funny… and still, a fabrication presented as fact, for whatever reason the perpetrators had in mind when it was set in motion.

This is a very strange time we live in.  We are literally saturated with information.  Access to pretty much anything you want to know has never been easier. 

It’s also never been easier to pass off falsehood, opinion, punditry, and inaccuracy as ‘true’.

Case in point.  I go by ‘anoN’. I pass myself off as a male of indeterminate age; over 20, under 65.  But unless you have actually met me and know my connection to the band… you really don’t know who I am.  I could be a 15 year old girl.  Or 70.  Or a collective of people who write as ‘anoN’.  You only have my word that I am who I say I am.

And if I am lying to you about who I am… well, what of it?  What consequences will I really pay when I can reinvent myself daily?  If I am banned from a website for using abusive language…language that very few people are bold enough to use face to face because the consequences would be immediate and painful…what is to stop me from creating another doppelganger and continuing my ways?  

It’s not too hard to imagine a world where expertise is less about actual skill and more about perception and who promotes themselves the loudest.  I believe we have already taken steps in that direction. 

Look.  I am not some humorless curmudgeon whining about the good old days here.  I enjoy a good red herring. I don’t mind being taken as long as my pride is more or less intact at the end of it.  I can take a joke.  And I also appreciate the opportunities that taking a pseudonym provides.  Otherwise I’d just tell you my birth name. 

But I grow wary when deception comes easy.  Whether from individuals, communities, or the environment that makes it possible.

I promise you this.  I may not be able to tell you everything that’s going on… but I WILL be truthful with you.

And in many ways… that’s a far more dangerous thing.

-anoN (who still claims to me a male of indeterminate age) 

The Process: Why I Hate Drum Programming. by Marcell Marias

There are very few things I really and truly dislike.  That implies that I go out of my way to assign this person, place, or thing negative emotions.  In general I think life is too short and beautiful to waste your time being overly aggro about something.

Drum programming scores high on this very short list.

It’s not that I hate drummers or percussion or anything like that.  Rather the opposite.  Once I (or other members) come up with a drum line, then it helps set the dynamic for the rest of the song, given the way we record.  It’s inspiring and leads to new ideas.

I just hate having to come up with the initial ideas.

You would be perfectly within your rights to interject a few things here.  For example: “You’re not fooling us, anoN.  We know you use a drum machine.”  And you would be right.  You would also be fair in saying “You are playing industrial pop-rock.  Set down a simple beat with a 4-on-the-floor kick drum and quit whining about it.”  And that would also be right. 

Thing is… I have played with enough fantastic drummers over the years that I want to do this right.  I want the drums to sound good, even if I am ‘only’ programming them.  Yes, they are loops.  But I don’t want you to go “Yep.  Loop.”  I want them to sound as if one of my very talented drummer friends might have at least inhaled a few breaths around my beats. 

Here’s the thing.  I am not a drummer.  Bass?  Guitar?  Keys?  Loops?  Sequences?  Arpeggios?  Pennywhistle?  Sure.  Something that requires doing 2 different things out of rhythm with each other?  Forget it.  And don’t get me started about when you should have an open high hat as opposed to a closed high hat, or when to use 16th notes as opposed to 8ths.  I’m just using the Force most of the time. 

That’s why it’s been awesome to have Carl on board for some of the drum programming.  He’s a jazz/progressive/rock guy with a great sense of when to lay back and when to rock it.  He also knows when to go outside the box.  We have an unusually mellow song on the upcoming compilation.  I was tempted to go with a more loop-oriented feel.  Carl took that idea, invoked early 80s Phil Collins, borrowed some of his rock background, and came up with a really cool set of ideas.  They have a looped feel (which benefits the tune) but help drive the dynamics in a way that I would have never thought of on my own. 

Like leads to like, and I am getting more and more comfortable with drum programming.  We have 5 of the 10 done… and I know that getting this element done usually means that the rest of the instrumentation is only 1-2 days away from recorded completion.  Still.  I want Carl to come back from vacation so we can collectively tackle some of the harder, more driving songs.  It’s right up his alley.

And I still don’t like drum programming. 



The Process: Tone in the Digital Realm by Marcell Marias

So.  We got songs.  We got arrangements.  We got lyrics and melodies.  Ooo-rah.  There’s just one little thing more.

It needs to sound good.  Because regardless of what you might have heard, you can NOT fix it in the mix.  You can alter the tone a fair spell, add effects, and generally make a good track sound better.  But it won’t help bad source material.  As one of my friends is fond of saying, “You can polish a turd all you want, but it’s still a turd”.  The better the tone you track, the less time you have to spend wrestling with your mixes later. 

If I was in a traditional studio setting, I’d achieve this by setting up drums, amps, microphones, and firing up at least a 32 channel board.  I’d also spend at least a day just dialing in basic tones for all the instruments. 

Shai Azul is all digital.  Which has significant advantages.  I can record at 3am without bugging the neighbors.  I can lay down over 100 tracks on a single song if I want to (that’s usually a bad idea).  And best of all, I can do it by myself.  There’s some limitations, though. I can’t just tweak a knob on an amp to get the tone I want – it all needs to be preprogrammed.  The deck I am using has about 30 virtual amps.  None of them are even close to the actual amplifier I use live.  So there’s a lot of fiddling around.  And straight digital recording is *VERY* dependent on the quality of your gear. In a pro studio, a crappy guitar through a good amp can be made to sound passable with enough boosting and knob tweaking.  A crappy guitar recorded direct will just sound bad no matter what you do. 

Keys and drums are pretty easy.  By the time I’m at this stage, there’s been a fair amount of time spent on finding the right keyboard patches, snare sounds, high hats, etc.  We can fine-tune the EQ later; at this point, I just want the tracks to be loud, clear, and out of each others’ way.  I like to try to record the tracks as hot as I can without clipping.  You can always turn the volume down; it’s a bit harder to turn it up. 

Getting good bass tone is a bit more involved.  I knew I wanted a metallic, slightly distorted, defined quality a la King’s X/Overkill/Tool.  Unfortunately, none of the bass amp presets came close.  I struggled with this for several weeks, trying every combination of virtual bass amps, EQ, and outboard pedals I could find in increasing frustration.  This was one of those moments where the hands-off nature digital realm works against you. Because, were I in the studio, what would I have done to get this tone?  I would have grabbed a guitar amplifier, sat it on top of the bass rig, split the signal, recorded both tones, and blended them.  Durr.   Virtual guitar cabinet, check.  Massive bass boost, check.  Tame the midrange, check.  The sound I wanted, check. 

And, of course, guitar tone takes the longest to dial in.  We do some clean guitar, but most of the time we’re looking for big chunks of sharply defined distortion.  That’s a bit easier to come by; I think I chose the preset that said something like “Wall of Marshalls” and went from there.  But just because it sounds good in the phones doesn’t mean that the settings are right.  The initial Mirror Darkly guitar tones had a really unpleasant overtone.  Ever listen to Metallica’s “And Justice For All”?  Does it ever make your speakers make a “whoom-whoom-whoom” sound?  That’s what I had.  That means there’s too much bass on something.  Chris says he can fix that later, and I believe him, but I also didn’t want to be the cautionary tale.  So you turn down the bass.  But then it’s too trebly.  So you dial that back.  Then it sounds right… but doesn’t have that crunch you’re looking for.  So you up the volume… and back comes the “whoom”.  So yeah, lots of fine-tuning and getting the levels set just so.  Just like in a traditional studio. 

There’s about 4 different distortion settings on the Mirror Darkly compilation.  And unless I played them back to back you’d probably not notice any difference.  One for parts played with palm muting (louder, more bass and midrange), one for chord and riff-heavy songs (less bass and volume so that “whoom” doesn’t appear), and two more ‘general’ sounds that I use for blending.  I also tend, on the more metal/industrial songs, to double the guitar parts.  Makes for a very big sound, as long as I play them identically. 

That’s a lot of instruments, and one of the main challenges is making them all distinct and cohesive.  You want clarity, not sonic mush.  You can avoid a lot of this in the songwriting and arranging – drop out a guitar line, boost the keys an octave, simplify the riff, whatever.  But you also need to shape the EQ of individual tracks.  Sometimes that means adding or subtracting way more of something than your instincts would tell you.  But the goal is for the instrument to be audible in the mix.  If it’s not, then drop it.  It’s just clutter.   

Oh, vocals?  

I don’t even try.  I bounce all this down to .wav files and take it to a full studio for that.   


The Process: Here and Now… by Marcell Marias

There is nothing more ironic for a musician as the moment where they forget how to play their own songs.  And I have been enjoying a lot of irony of late.

If it seems like I am going to California every other week, it’s about right.  As I have mentioned before, Shai Azul is one of several projects.  As much as I enjoy making music with Oily, Tanya, Kelly, Vic, and Anthony, it doesn’t pay the bills.  That isn’t too weird.  It’s rare that ANY artist can pay the bills with their art form.  So I have been spending a lot of time with the theatre troupe in the last 2 months, helping them get ready for tour, rehearsing the players, driving, and generally trying to pass on everything I know to people half my age.

And they are presently on tour.  In California. 

Admittedly the reason I am going THIS time is because a friend asked if I would help her company out at San Diego Comic Con.  I have never been.  Should be fun. 

Still, that’s a lot of time between recording sessions.  Last week I finally had an uninterrupted stretch to get some work done on the second compilation of songs.  And it was hilarious how much I had forgotten of my own music. 

The scratch tracks for most of these songs are 4-6 months old.  While I do take notes, sometimes I forget to write down the chord patterns.  That’s not too bad for guitar, since most of what we do there is riff-driven.  But I tend to play a lot of ambiguous-sounding patterns on the keyboards (5th chords, suspended chords, and things that generally don’t imply a major/minor).  I also tend toward a gut-level approach with keys, playing what sounds ‘right’ and then figuring out the actual chord voicing later.  If I haven’t written this all down, then it’s a game of ‘guess the chord’.   Which, on some keyboard patches with lots of extra fiddly bits, can be a challenge. I struggled with one part for 3 hours before I realized that the arpeggio pattern I had put on the scratch track required actual chord voicings as opposed to single notes.

That’s written down now.

The most humbling indication that I have been away from the console for too long came on a new song called “Wasted/Wanted”.  This particular tune is the first collaboration between Vic and myself and is quickly becoming one of my faves.  Vic’s initial vision was for a strong keyboard hook, but as the tune developed, a relentless distorted bass guitar line came more to the forefront.  The scratch track came around in less than a few hours.  Then the tune simmered on the back burner until last week.  Well, I’m a bass player, right?  How long can it possibly take to cut a mix-ready version?  I’ve played on about half a dozen studio recordings in the past year.  Not like I don’t know what I’m doing.

Or not.  Took me about 30-40 passes to get it right.

Admittedly my studio doesn’t make overdubbing easy.  I am using a console-based digital deck for recording; no Pro Tools at this stage.  So I either have to be very quick with my button pressing (a very 80s’ way of doing it all) or program in the punch points.  But on this song specifically, the bass guitar NEVER LETS UP.  There’s not really any place to insert an overdub without making a digital ‘click’ because of the note spacing and distortion.  Even if I had Pro Tools with Chris at the command chair, this would be a hard song to punch in on.  And I kept screwing up either 15 seconds in (doesn’t take long to decide the overall performance isn’t where you want it to be) or 15 seconds from the END of the song. 

In the end, it all worked out.  The guitars went surprisingly fast (I was expecting to struggle with them since I hadn’t completely finalized the guitar grooves yet) and we added a few little keyboard treats that we many not even end up using. 

It even provided enough momentum to get some more drum programming done and dissect out chord charts for some of the other songs.

It only cost a little bit of professional pride. 

Cheap price to pay, really. 


The Process: Development by Marcell Marias

Let me let you in on a secret. 

About 75% of what I write is crap. 

Is that pretty blunt? 

It’s meant to be. 

Because it’s true. 

I really don’t know how other artists work, but most of the time, my initial ideas for lyrics, songs, and melodies aren’t good enough to present to my Other, let alone anyone who might spend money on it.  It doesn’t mean I abandon those ideas.  Most of that stuff ends up turning into something that’s pretty decent.  But my music doesn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  It takes work. 

That’s not really that surprising, is it?  Saying otherwise would be like an author saying that their first draft is *THE* version of the book.  Or a sculptor looking at a rough-hewn lump of iron and going “This is complete”.  The creative process is…well…a process.  It gets better when you spend time on it.  One of the best things that my consulting producer Anthony suggested I do at the beginning of the project was to write for an hour a day.  Don’t have a goal… just write.  Get the ideas out on paper. I have a ton of ideas and songs because of that.  But very few of them are acceptable as written; they’re incoherent and random.  A good song says something, even if that something is abstract or metaphorical.  It still needs to be tight. 

As I mentioned in the last entry, a song will have most of the critical elements in place only if I am lucky.  Most of the time, I instead have a handful of riffs, some lyrics, and some vague idea of a melody.  At that point, it’s laying down a simple drum loop to kick things off (working without a metronome is asking for trouble) and literally sitting down with a guitar or a keyboard, throwing things up against the wall, and seeing what sticks.  If the melody is more defined, it’s usually easier to make the music around the melody than the other way around. But either way, it’s all about finding what ‘serves the tune’.

‘Serving the tune’ is a philosophy I learned early on in my career.  It’s the notion that every song you write has a natural tempo, groove, vibe, dynamic, and flow… you just need to find out what it is.  It’s a goal-oriented method that starts immediately with your beginning building blocks.  A sad, brooding tune will tend to have certain qualities; a fast, intense song others.  The tune will take its’ natural channel because of that. 

This is the place where verses, choruses, and bridges are crafted (intros and outros come later).  Most of the time, I will want distinction between all these parts so listeners know what’s coming up.  But that’s not always the case.  Again, every song is different.  Some songs don’t ‘ask’ for that.  “Only As”, from the early scratch tracks, only ‘asked’ for 2 parts, with the keyboard solo evolving out of a variation of the verse groove.  And yes, this kind of thing has been done before.  Want to know what inspired the music?  Check out ‘Controversy’ from Prince’s album of the same name.  I dare you. 

This really doesn’t take as long as it sounds.  Once things get rolling, like attracts like.  Guitar ideas suggest keyboard lines and vice versa.  Melodies suggest harmonies.  Bass grooves imply drum grooves.  And if I am with one of my collaborators, it’s usually a matter of having to stop adding layers to the idea.  After all, the goal is to get an idea of what the song COULD sound like, not total completion of the song. 

Once I have the outline, I will fill it out with a few instruments (usually keys, guitar, and bass so it’s a good representation of what I think the final song can be) and send it out to Vic, Kelly, Tanya, and Oily.  I will ask for their opinion.  A response of “Wow, this sucks” means I have missed the mark.  A response of “I don’t know what to do with this” usually means the same.  And that’s okay.  I have a hard drive full of ideas that haven’t quite found their voice yet.  If it clicks, then it’s up to the singers to work with basic melody lines, or if I haven’t come up with one, to make one up.  Tanya likes working without a net.  Kelly prefers melodies more defined.  Oily is somewhere in the middle. 

While the singers work on their part, I am usually writing more songs.  Of late, Vic and I are working a lot together.  I like his vibe.  I am more cerebral and metaphorical; he’s more gritty and sensual.  He also has a cool sense of groove that keeps me from going totally black metal on everyone. 

Once a song finally passes muster, then the real fun begins: Commitment. 



The Process: Genesis by Marcell Marias

I get asked a lot about songwriting.  Where it comes from, what inspires, and how it all comes together. 

Easy question to ask on the surface.  Until you start unpacking it.  What’s a ‘song’?  If it’s just words and chords, then you’d think the component parts would be compelling on their own.  But there’s something about the combination that can make it quite a bit more than just poetry and a G-C-D strumming pattern.  People spend careers trying to understand this recipe, and opinions on the topic run all over the map.

I think we’re all trying to do the same thing, though… communicate the intangible.  Songwriters don’t want to tell you about a sunset. We want you to see the colors of the sky and feel the evening breeze on your face.  We don’t want to simply talk about our anger… we want your indignation to rise and your pulse pound with ours.

And that’s the thing that I find so cool about songwriting.  It’s open ended.  Now, if your goal is to write a pop country hit, there’s things you can, and should do, to hedge that bet (no longer than 3:30, get to business quickly, into the chorus by 45 seconds, write about things people can relate to, have a catchy, anthematic chorus, etc).  But really, it boils down to what you want to say and what you want to leave your listeners with. 

The down side of that is that inspiration often strikes when least expected, and from unusual places.  A visual image.  Something you hear on the bus.  A smell.  A sudden burst of emotion.  A memory.  An idea or a challenge.  Many’s the time I have awakened from sleep with a melody or a lyrical line teetering on the edge of perception.  I have learned to try to capture these fleeting moments.  Vic and I have both had the experience of stopping on the bike path and scribbling down ideas before they flit away like spooked mayflies.  (By the way, I have just given you the specific sources of inspiration for 4 of the songs on the upcoming compilation. True story…) 

No matter the initial inspiration, a ‘song’ will usually end up having three foundations.  A melody, a chord structure, and lyrics.  These foundations help make a song more memorable.  You might also use the term ‘hooky’.  Certainly you don’t *NEED* all these.  Black metal songs don’t follow this rule, with constantly changing chord progressions, dissonant melodies, and unintelligible lyrics.  Black metal will also never be as popular as pop music because of it.  …Okay, there’s also that whole misanthropic Satan thing that black metal embraces.  But you get the idea. 

If I am lucky, all of these parts will come together at once.  Supercollide was such a song; from the get-go I knew what chords to play and where the lyrics and melody would fit. That doesn’t usually happen, though.  More often than not it comes in bits and pieces.  I’ll have a cool riff, or lyric sets at varying levels of completion, or sometimes just a new keyboard patch that sounds like it could go somewhere.  Rockethead came from experiments with bass guitar tone.   More on THAT later. 

So.   When inspiration is often fickle or incomplete, what do you do?  Hard and fast rule: you don’t take it personally.  It’s par for the course; good songs rarely fall out of the metaphorical sky on golden tablets.  You take a breath, pour a drink, and roll up your sleeves, and Develop the song.  It’s a very rewarding (if often frustrating) process.

We’ll get into that next entry.


“You Guys Sound Like Two Bands…” by Marcell Marias

This is a comment I have heard a lot about Shai Azul.  To which I enthusiastically reply.

“Yes.  Yes we do.”

Truth of the matter is that we probably sound like about 3-4 bands, depending on which song you listen to.  And it’s intentional.  In spite of the opinion I know that the local and national music industry holds on the topic.

I have no problem with a band having their ‘sound’.  It’s what makes you distinct amongst all the other bands out there.  It’s a good thing to have something that defines you as you, whether it’s your lead singer, or your beats, or your guitar riffs, or your attitude, or what have you.

The hazard there, though, is that your ‘sound’ turns into your rut. 

And I have been there.  I have been there when I find myself starting off a song and having to really focus on which tune it is, because it sounds suspiciously similar to about half a dozen other tunes the band has written.  I have found myself going “How many songs do we have at 100bpm??”  I have found myself struggling to make a song sound fresh when, ultimately, the band has used the same ingredients 20 times before.    

And all too often, in this season, I even find myself listening to a band I like.  And turning off the CD halfway through.   Because I have heard it all by the 6th song.  I know what’s coming. That’s kind of disappointing. 

With Shai Azul, I want to have a ‘sound’ that’s defined our personalities and our passions.  And you know… that’s a really big category.  But it wasn’t so long ago that having a varied sonic experience on a record (remember those big waxy things?) was par for the course; even a good thing.  It was okay for the band to try different genres and styles, because it was still ‘the band’ doing it.  I want to be soft and loud and intense and retrospective and in your face and happy and angry and everything in between.  I’m not just one emotion; neither are you.  We are legion. 

I would rather take a chance and risk having you not like the tune as opposed to having your response be one of boredom and apathy.  I would rather that you screw up your face and go “Bleah” than have you listen to a whole CD and go “Enh.  Been there.  Done that.” 

The core of Shai Azul is heavy, melodic music.  We will stay close to that, because it’s what we like.  We won’t do a tune that sounds like a country and western song. 

…or maybe we will.  Hard to see it, but you never know.  But hey.  I honestly don’t expect you to like every little thing that we do.  I mean, my OWN opinion about the songs I write fluctuates on a daily basis.  I can’t expect any less of you.        


On Being Creative… by Marcell Marias

My Other will occasionally look at me from across the table or in a quiet moment and ask me, “What’s it like to be creative?”

I don’t think I have ever answered the question to her satisfaction.

I mean, how do you quantify that?  My Other is a measurable genius. I suppose it would be kind of like asking her “What’s it like to be smart?”  It’s not like she has a point of reference; she just is.  She can’t separate herself from her synapses and mental processes anymore than she can separate her vena cava from the rest of her circulatory system.  

But while not all of us can be intellectual powerhouses… I believe ALL of us can be creative.  And are creative. 

I think we in the artistic community are often a little too protective of our turf.  We can make strange statements like “Everything the artist spits out is art”.  We can be purposefully oblique and toss our heads in disgust when people don’t ‘get it’.  We can be offensive, yet surprised when people take offense.    We have a bad tendency as a community to define creativity along our own lines, often to the exclusion of others who may not see the universe as we do. 

But every time we see patterns and want to recreate them… we are being creative. 

Every time we appreciate a piece of music... we are being creative. 

Every time we appreciate a sunset, because somehow this one is DIFFERENT from the one hundred sunsets preceding it…we are being creative. 

Every time a sports fan makes connections between hard statistics for their favorite pitcher… we are being creative. 

Every time we cook a meal, with all the many possibilities and ingredients… we are being creative.  

Every time we resolve a conflict… we are being creative. 

Creativity is not limited to the physical and sonic arts.  Creativity is an expression of who we ARE.  Creativity sees the bits and pieces, picks them up, and strings them together into a necklace.  It sees things as more than the sum of the parts.  Not because it HAS to… but because it WANTS to.  Whether it’s music, or sports, or food, or painting, or writing, or geophysics, or computers, or middle management.

Embrace your own creativity.  It’s already there. 



So, where are we at? by Marcell Marias

I have been looking forward to this spring and summer for some time.  While I enjoy all the other projects I am involved with, Shai Azul is...  I suppose one could call it the closest reflection to where I am at.  All my other projects are quite specific in their demands, musical and otherwise.  Shai Azul gives me (and my bandmates) quite a bit more latitude in creativity and direction.

In the past few weeks, I have been reviewing 10 scratch tracks with several Shai Azul bandmates and associates. Think of a scratch track as a diagram of the overall song.   It has lyrics, a basic melody, and most (if not all) of the planned instrumentation.  It's more than just a sketch; it's a pretty complete outline.  Verses, choruses, intros, outros, etc.  Even though I write the bulk of the material, I give the singers the final say over melody, harmony, and how something is constructed.  After all, they have to sell it, and if they don't have room to breathe, then that's a problem. 

With the Mirror Darkly compilation, I did most of this on my own.  With this upcoming compilation, I've brought in more people.  Vic, our art director, has co-written three of the songs.  I like what he brings.  I'm far more cerebral and reflective; he's a lot more in your face and sensual.  I have been talking a lot with Carl, a drummer/bandleader friend as well.  He has great ideas regarding rhythm, dynamics, and how to make my drum loops sound more like an organic component.  There's also about half a dozen people outside the band that get updates on the songs regularly.  Their job is to be brutally honest and opinionated about what they hear.  And they are. 

Oily and I are getting together next week to finalize the structures for the songs he leads on, and Tanya is even coming in a few weeks to hash her stuff out. 

If this sounds like an extended process, it isn't, really.  I could dictate down to the note and interval what to do and everyone could pull it off.  But that's not as satisfying as the collective creative process.  I would rather wait a few weeks for everyone to feel good about their contribution than create a song that people are ambivalent about.  The tunes are always better for it. 

After that... it's mostly on me.  The singers will hone their melodies and harmonies, yes.  But the instruments are on my plate.  Drum programming, guitars, bass, keyboards, and any loops or sequences.  The scratch tracks are physically designed in such a way that I can record the 'real' tracks as virtual tracks on top of what's already been recorded, so that saves a lot of time.  Still, it will probably take about 6 weeks to finish all the instrumental tracks at my home studio.

At that point, I will bring all the recorded tracks into a Pro Tools studio (Birdhouse, Seattle, WA), and after a (very critical) confirmatory listening session, we'll start having Oily, Tanya, and Kelly cut vocal tracks.  Probably late June or early July; all depends on how quickly I get done. 

More on that process as it progresses.




...and then there was a bit of silence... by Marcell Marias

anoN here. Wasn't expecting there to be as much space between the blog entries as there was.  I've been on the road for the past 2 and a half months with one of my other projects and it ended up taking all the available bandwidth I had.

it's certainly one thing to play music; it's quite another to actually make a living at it.  And that sometimes means doing what you need to do.  It was a lot of fun and I enjoy touring with the theatre group.  I am happy to be home for a while now, too.

We're presently in preproduction for the CD.  That is, by the way, that ambiguous time period between when the songs get written and when they get recorded.  We have 10 songs so far.  In the next few weeks, Oily, Vic, Tanya, Anthony and I will give the scratch tracks a critical listen and adjust anything that needs adjusting.  After that, it's all on me for the next few months to record the instruments.

It's been a long winter.  I can't wait to get started.


Stare into the Abyss by Marcell Marias

Hello, and welcome.

If you have found your way here, then you might be wondering what we are.  We are many things, really.  Individually, we are artists. Poets.  Writers.  Designers.  Parents.  Spouses.  Dreamers.  Iconoclasts.  Round pegs in occasionally square holes. 

Collectively, we are called Shai Azul.  And we make music.

Over the next several weeks, we will be posting here on a lot of different topics.  If you come back often, you’ll get a sense of who we are, what we do… and why we do it. 

We invite you to take a look around.  Listen to some samples. Maybe even throw down a few dollars for some new music.  Check out the artwork and the things we find compelling.  Drop us a line and tell us what you think.

We only ask one thing of you as this process begins.  If you like what you hear… tell someone. 

Come.  Stare into the Abyss.