The Dead Milkmen, “Pretty Music for Pretty People”

This was a fun project. Once again, I have to thank Kyle Cassidy for asking me to shoot video during a photo shoot. The Dead Milkmen, a Philly punk band which had hits with “Punk Rock Girl,” “Stuart,” and “Bitchin’ Camaro” (which got some play on Orange is the New Black this year), were working on a new album Miner Street Recordings, with Brian McTear as engineer. Kyle came in for photos, and I brought a couple of cameras to shoot whatever happened.

I wound up with about four hours of really wonderful stuff. To begin with, Rodney Anonymous is one of those people who is constantly, naturally and effortlessly funny, whether he’s talking about his neighborhood, why he wrote a particular song, or why he loves Crudbump’s “Crab Hand.” So while the others are checking their instruments and Brian’s linking the cables up and checking levels, I’m recording Rodney on why living next to a jazz trio has its downside.

That day they recorded the basic tracks for a song titled “Pretty Music for Pretty People.” The first time they ran through the song, all I could hear was Dean Sabatino’s drums. Luckily, I figured that the control room was playing back the signals from all the instruments. So I set a stationary camera up in there with a microphone, where it could capture a more vivid soundtrack–  guitar, bass, Rodney’s keyboard and vocal– while my handheld was capturing the people in the studio, where all you could hear were the drums. Syncing the two later got me several takes of the basic track.

I suggested that I edit the video to the final track, when it was done; I think Dean said they were doing overdubs in two weeks, so I agreed to come in then and get more material. (Sadly, I missed the session when Rodney dubbed in his final vocal, and Joe recorded his full guitar track. )

The material was different on Overdubs Day. There was a lot less Rodney-banter, because he had a cold, but mainly because overdubs of single instruments and vocalists didn’t require the complex miking for the whole band. So right off, I got footage of Rodney laying in two piano tracks: one on a standard upright, but later on a tacked piano for a proper Carnival feel. And Dean used a small electronic keyboard to distort “Laaadies and Gentlemennnnn….” into a sideshow barker voice.

But the real fun began when Joe, Dan and Dean recorded backing vocals for a chant of “Ear candy” in the middle eight. It sounded okay, but I was really lucky to have the camera on Dan when he had an inspiration: why don’t we record this backwards, but play it forwards, and give it that strange, distorted quality? Bingo. Much discussion of Twin Peaks‘s red room scene ensued. How do we do this? Well, we record it forwards, play it backwards, then we try to imitate the backwards version, and then reverse the imitation, so what comes out is a funhouse mirror version of “Ear Candy.” So I wound up with about half an hour of Dean, Joe and Dan recording strange “Yin a Cree” sounds, and giggling over the playbacks.

Amy Morrisey came in to record two parts; the incantation that opens the record, and the “Sleep all night” commentary during the middle. She also had a go at the “Ear candy” chant; on her first try, her “Yin a cree” played backwards was an almost perfect “ear candy.”

The Dead Milkmen gave me an MP3 of the final mix, and I went to work. The first job was to find the video of the bits that were actually used in the final mix: if I’m going to be matching lips, fingers, and drum hits to voices, notes and beats, it helps to have all of that other energy right, too. (Brian’s Tendentious Explanation: You can frequently tell when a performer is not doing the same thing as the audio, even if it’s perfectly in sync. There’s a particular energy: you can see singers put the effort into forcing sound through their throats, the drummer’s relaxed mood in the studio may not match his furious playacting on the video shoot.) So, if I had good video of an original moment, I used it; this was most important for Rodney’s closeups, because when he was singing, I had to use takes where his visual effort was close to the final recording. For the other bits, I used video of alternate takes, carefully synced. (Amy’s takes were very similar to each other.)

During the “ear candy” part, I ran the videos of Joe, Dean and Dan in reverse to match the audio, and flipped them horizontally to make the “backwards” bit a little more noticeable. In my early drafts, I tried to capture the multi-layered aspect with things like split screens and moving wipes. I overthink things way too much: Dean had the good sense to choose the more direct approach we used here.

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