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  • Writer's pictureRDO

20th Anniversary of Bagdaddio

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the release of my first album. Despite having released many albums and singles since then, Bagdaddio still has a special place in my musical heart. For me, it’s representative of a time when I was experimenting with what it means to make music, to write songs, to create albums. There were many musical influences for me during that time, and looking back, hints of what I was listening to come through clearly in the songs on the album. So, in light of 2023 being the 20th anniversary of this album, here’s a little stroll down memory lane with some insight into how the album came to be.

To begin with, let’s talk a bit about gear. Or, really, a lack thereof. I set out to make a record at home, which meant I attempted to throw together a studio in a room in my house. This is a ubiquitous endeavor now — tons of records are made in home studios. However, in 2001 when I began making this record, it was not as common. The prices of things like microphones, mixers, pre-amps, etc. reflected that as well. Most high-quality equipment was out of reach of the budget for most musicians starting their journeys. Therefore, a lot of us made do with what we had or could easily get our hands on. The entirety of Bagdaddio was recorded using a single SM-48 microphone and an early version of Cakewalk Home Studio. By most studio standards (including my own) this is laughable. It would be hard to put together a simpler setup to record with, but it’s what I had, so I used it the best I could. In addition to the software, I had Roland software that had built-in virtual instruments, and I used these to create some of the programmed tracks on the album, like “Humble”, or “They Called it America”. For drums, I borrowed a small, stripped-down Yamaha kit that my friend had. For bass, I borrowed another friend’s 4-string active pickup. The guitars I used were a Danelectro 52 reissue (which I still own and love) and a Takamine G-series acoustic/electric (which was a gift from my mother when I graduated high school). Other than that, there was a smattering of percussion instruments and some good ol’ experimentation to get other sounds. Keeping all that in mind, let’s move on to discussing the songs.

The first two songs, “Last One Standing” and “Before I Wake”, both came out of some experimentation sessions. The theme of my writing at the time (which seems disappointingly relevant in 2023) was about war, greed, and questioning humanity’s integrity. “Last One Standing” is largely about being disillusioned by how far people seem to go to exalt themselves and how many will seemingly throw the entire human race under the bus if it leads to their own personal gain. “Before I Wake” is about being afraid of death and disappearing, and about how we try to mitigate those feelings. The percussion used on both was a mixture of a basic kick/snare/hat drum kit, a large frame drum, and some shakers. The string parts on “Last One Standing” are synth that I programmed, but everything else was tracked using the SM-48.

Next, I have to talk about tracks 3 and 5 at the same time for the sake of how they were recorded. The two songs, “A Trace of Petals” and “Instra En Silencia Part 1”, were originally recorded onto tape using a Tascam 4-track, my Danelectro through a Boss Flanger, and a frame drum played with a mallet. Once I started work using a digital audio workstation (DAW), I transferred them to the digital environment and added harmony vocal tracks. “A Trace of Petals” gets its name from the line in the song’s lyrics, but “Instra En Silencia Part 1” (and Part 2) gets its name simply from what I wrote on the tape label. It began as an instrumental track that I was just calling “En Silencia” (Spanish for “In Silence”), so I just wrote that on the label. Later, it didn’t seem like I needed to change the name, so that’s what I called it.

Between tracks 3 and 5 is the song “Raise Your Head Up”, which is about desperately wanting the youth to resist being manipulated by big money and pop culture. Idealistic, I know, but it’s something I grow ever more concerned is possibly ruining the future of the human race. Anyway, the opening is a combination of programmed rhythmic sounds, an unplugged electric guitar with a microphone on it, and a pieced together simulation of a radio broadcast insinuating that the youth have been given a broken world and essentially told it’s up to them to fix it, a sentiment I also expressed in the album liner artwork. Sidenote: a couple years after the album came out, a kid who was about 15 years old got the pencil sketch from the liner notes tattooed on his stomach — pretty cool.

Then comes track 6, “Sitting Like Anger”. I often hear from people that this is their favorite track from the album. It has a very accessible 6/8 lilting rhythm with acoustic guitars, brush-on-snare drumming, programmed strings, and layered harmony vocals. The song is about letting our guards down long enough to try to find some sort of common ground. The chorus, which is a group of voices, was intended to have a church choir feel to it that elicits that sense of community and fellowship. I also played a harmonica and some percussion to round out the sound.

Track 7 is called “Veil”, and this is one of the few songs on the album that is more about romantic relationships than the other songs. It’s very simple production: two guitars, two voices. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Radiohead, and this influence can be heard in the high-pitched falsetto vocals at the end of the chorus. Unlike most of the other songs that have fairly standard tunings for guitar, this one was a bit different. Nothing too drastic, just tuning the B string up a step. Or maybe it was the G string. I don’t even remember now. Just don’t ask me to play it:)

Track 8 is the first departure from the typical indie-folk, indie-rock vibe that the first half of the album grooves with. The song is called “Humble”, and it is largely driven by the programmed beat and heavy delay on the guitar. This one was very much an experiment, and none of the lyrics were written until the music was done. Lyrically, this song is another one about dysfunction in society. It’s also a much more aggressive song than the rest, with the choruses being very angry and abrasive. At the time, I had gotten very deep into meditation and the idea of transcending the physical plane, so a lot of the lyrics were influenced by some books I was reading at the time by people like Paramahansa Yogananda and Baba Ram Dass. You probably wouldn’t guess it, but the heavy sonic influence for the chorus was mostly some moments from Marilyn Manson songs. Thought it seems a bit sophomoric now, I still feel some of the same sentiment expressed by the lyrics “Daddy, why is it that we alienate the feeble? And why is it so f*%!ing cool to hate people?” I have certainly mellowed out a bit since then, but the song has its place in my musical evolution.

“Did You” is the next track, and it is another one with odd tuning. The song is in an open Amin tuning, which can wreak havoc on an acoustic guitar. I broke a few strings before switching to playing it on an electric. I also played drums, bass, and synth for that one. The subject matter is mostly about reflection and contemplation about the nature of existence and where the human race is headed.

After that comes “Wind and Rain”. This was another completely experimental song that began as a floppy bass line, which is actually just an electric guitar tuned down really low. I also used some vocal distortion and delay effects, then added more layers to fill out the second half of the song. The lyrics came about through mostly free association writing, having no real intention. The percussion is some hand drums and a rain rattle. I wasn’t even sure I would put the song on the album, but I figured it should be added as part of the “collection” of experimental artifacts.

Next comes “Instra En Silencia Part 2”. If I had to pick one song that was my favorite overall, this would probably be it. The structure of the song is greatly influenced by both Tool and Modest Mouse. That probably doesn’t seem like a sensible combination, but the chunky 7/8 time signature comes from the Tool influence, and the organic, repeated vocals and guitar lines of the verses come from the Modest Mouse influence. To build this song initially, I returned to the repeated guitar line from “Instra En Silencia Part 1”, expounding upon the riff as more of a chord progression than a simple series of notes, and also expounding upon the simple lyrics of “Part 1”.

The song “Ruby” is another one of the few songs on this album about romantic relationships. Inspiration for this song came from my great grandparents, who both lived to be near 100 years old and who passed away very close together. This one follows a 3/4 rhythm in the verses and then switches to a 6/8 feel in the choruses. The production is very simple. It’s basic acoustic guitar, a simple drum pattern, a few vocal layers. Some influence for this song came from PJ Harvey and Whiskeytown songs about love and loss.

“They Called it America” was the first spoken-word song I recorded. I had many influences for writing this song, but mostly it comes from years of reading poetry and listening to hip-hop and Tom Waits records. Spoken-word is an artform all to itself, and I think it can be very effective as a powerful social tool. The music is mostly programmed beats and synth with layers of vocals. I have since put spoken-word pieces on other albums as well, but sometimes I worry it pushes the audience away. Nevertheless, I felt strongly about its subject matter at the time, and I am glad it’s on the album.

Last but not least, track 14 is called “Brother”. This was a song I used to play in my band Mosaic before I started doing solo stuff. This one is about a young man’s journey through the trials and tribulations of life while seeking the light and illumination. Seems fitting as a last track to this album. The production is mostly rock band stuff: electric guitars, acoustic guitars, drums, bass, and then a swelling of synth strings at the end for a big finish. Symbolically, this song was representative of the evolution I felt the rest of the songs led up to. In other words, there are issues facing humanity, and after all the fear, anger, doubt, love, pain, growth, and realization, the end is all about elevating oneself out of the petty physical plane to a reality of pure light and being. Who knows. We still have some time left.

If you heard the album on CD and let the last song keep playing, you probably also heard a secret “hidden” track that is just me and a guitar playing another sad love song. It’s sort of a B-side, but I figured I would put it on there for safe keeping. It took me about a year to finish playing all the parts and mix the album. Then I had it mastered by Thaddeus Moore in Eugene, Oregon. Thaddeus has been mastering my music ever since. When I was done with the album, a buddy of mine, Russell Tanenbaum, who owned a small indie outfit called Wondergoat Records, brought me on to their label and manufactured the album. Russ also sang some backing vocals on "Sitting Like Anger", and we started another band together called Hester Beasly using a collection of songs that I had written for a follow-up solo album. The album was finally released in New York, and with Russ on bass and drummer Tom Maxfield, we did some performances to promote.

A lot of time has gone by since Bagdaddio was released, and a lot has happened in the music world. I will always look back on this record as a sort of personal school session when I messed around with the toys to see what everything could do. Nowadays, I have a studio with much better equipment, a bunch of microphones, a collection of guitars, my very own drum kit, etc. But this was where it all started for me on my journey with indie-folk and indie-rock. I know there were a lot of us hidden in the mix back then, trying to use what we had available to us to make art that we were passionate about. I mean, it was only about 4 years after Bagdaddio came out that Bon Iver’s “For Emma Forever Ago” came out and he would be made world famous for recording an indie album with one microphone. Then the home studio revolution would be underway. In today’s way-too-fast-to-be-sustained pace, the term “indie” has come to essentially be its own genre of music. You can search for indie music on streaming platforms and what you commonly get is very polished, very produced, major-label releases by world famous superstars. It didn’t used to be that way. “Indie” used to truly mean “independent”, and we were gonna make our records whether or not the mainstream said we could. And we still do. We are still out there writing, recording, performing. Never forget that for whatever art you like, whatever songs you listen to, whatever films you watch, whatever media you may take for granted in any form — someone had to make it. Songs don’t just appear out of nowhere, they have to be written, and often that process is grueling, emotional work. So next time you’re in a coffee shop and some young kid is banging on a guitar and wailing out a vocal line that they invented, drop a little something in their tip jar. And thank you for supporting the very human endeavor of the independent artist.

Much love


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