Thursday, August 29, 2013

Webbtrospective #5: Stockholm Syndrome - Derek Webb

(To celebrate the release of Derek Webb's new album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You on September 3, I'm doing an album-by-album recollection I'm calling the Webbtrospective. Back In February, I sat down with Derek to discuss each one of his albums through his own reflections. Instead of interview questions, I simply gave him some prompts and just let him go. Every word of this article is his own. I'll be posting a new album each day until the release of his new album, so stay tuned.)

Stockholm Syndrome (2009)

Word Association: Wow, gosh…I don’t even know what to say about that one… Urban?

Thoughts: That was the moment where I was needing the music I was making to catch up with the music I was listening to. That was always a concern of mine. I remember being in bands in junior high and high school and playing songs thinking “I wouldn’t like this music, I wouldn’t listen to this music.” It’s fun to play, but I wouldn’t enjoy this. Caedmon’s was the first band that I was in where I thought “Okay, now I’m making music that I would also listen to.” By The Ringing Bell, I wasn’t listening to any conventional pop music or singer-songwriter music. Like, no acoustic music. I was really bored to tears with acoustic guitars and earnest boys and girls singing over them. I’d had enough of it. Mostly I was listening to hip-hop and electronic music. I didn’t know how to get there though. I knew how to produce and engineer, but I didn’t know how to program or do any of that stuff yet. That was where I knew I needed some change.

As far as the whole online scavenger hunt, none of that was anticipated and not of that was planned. I was just making the record and planning on turning it in and putting it out, just like I did any other of my records. I infamously don’t play any of my records for my label before it’s completed and they put them out as I turn them in. That’s been our deal. They don’t have a say in the artwork or the mixing or the sequence or the songs or the writing or the lyrics or the production, anything. This time around, we were having a marketing meeting and I had just come back from Texas with Josh and I was really jazzed about some of the stuff we were working on. I just couldn’t help myself. I asked if they wanted to hear some stuff I had with me… rough, mid-process, me singing the same verse twice kind of stuff. I was just so excited about the sound of it. One of the songs I played for them was “What Matters More.” It was finished enough to already have a lyric in it that had some language that was going to be tricky for the particular label I was with. Once I saw their reaction, I walked out thinking it was a mistake. I literally got a call from the record label president the next day asking for my manager and I to come back for another meeting. I should say that he’s a guy I've known for a lot of years and have a lot of respect for. He’s supported me through so much, through language and content. To his credit, he said, “As your friend, I understand what you’re saying and I like the song, but as the head of this record label… absolutely no way is that going to go on the album.” For his business reality, it would’ve been like feeding nails through the sink disposal trying to get that album through his distribution channels with that song on it. So it was a real impasse. I had never hit the ceiling before. With all the politics on Mockingbird and the language on my first record, I didn’t think that there even was a ceiling. But I found it and I hit it. It was a wake-up call for me.

In the car on the way back, my manager and I hatched the plan for what ended up being that scavenger hunt. We felt like the song was important and it needed to be on the record. We needed to do something that we felt that the label would forgive us for (laughs). But we needed to do it right then. Our plan was to leak the song. It would’ve been illegal for me to do it just entirely. We had to do it in such a way that bought us some time so that by the time the label figured out what we had done, we would’ve been able to prove to them that it was going to work to their advantage. We chopped it up into a hundred mini-slices, which is not enough to even detect what it was, and we put it onto little USB thumb drives and we chose 20 cities to send five jump drives to. We made a little secret website, leaked hints to where the USB drives were, and allowed people who found the jump drives to upload their snippets and try to assemble the song. That took months but it got an unbelievable amount of attention. On some days we got over 100,000 visits to that secret site. Also during all that, I made an announcement saying we were having trouble and that I personally was going to go offline. I couldn’t be seen as the one doing it. By the time the label figured out what we were doing, we were able to have a meeting with them and say “yeah, yeah, yeah, but check this out, look at the traffic we’re getting.” We were basically doing their marketing job for them. The pre-sales for that album ended up being more than what most of my albums sell in their lifetime. I took a crappy situation the label handed me and made lemonade out of it. I threw them under the bus during the process, but all of the money flows back to them anyway, so they were going to forgive me for it (laughs). We agreed to keep the song off of the retail release, but they gave me the exclusive right to distribute the record with the song on it directly from my website, which they had nothing to do with. I had the exclusive and the vast majority of the sales were directly from my website. It was a coup for me. It was a real conflict though. It wasn’t manufactured like some thought.        

The other random thing that happened was there was a guy from Columbia Records who was sharing office space with my label. He heard what was happening, loved the record, and knew that Columbia’s distribution channel would have no problem with the language. So they offered to put some dollars in and distribute it on vinyl with “What Matters More” included. It was two different labels under the same umbrella company, which was Sony at the time. So, “Mommy, Daddy, stop fighting.” The silver lining through all of it was that if “What Matters More” hadn’t been on that record, there would’ve been a half dozen other songs on that record that wouldn’t have come out. Because the label was so focused on that song, I was able to sneak a handful of others through the back door. I mean, “Freddie, Please”… there’s no way that song would’ve made it without the big siren of “What Matters More” getting all the attention.   

Inspirations/Influences: This one was a whole different animal. It completely changed the way I was writing songs and it was something I really responded to. Like, writing more to beats and rhythmic elements. The thing I was really reacting to… was that so much singer-songwriter music is not about the rhythm or the feel. It neglects the beat and the bass and the rhythm section and it doesn’t take you anywhere. I was really responding to tracks that you would put on and it would immediately transport you somewhere and open your imagination up and you hadn’t even heard a lyric or a melody yet. It was just the bass and the drums and the beats and you felt something. I wasn’t feeling anything, in that regard, when I was listening to the singer-songwriter music. So I kinda wanted out. I didn’t want to be associated with singer-songwriter music because I felt that they neglected the things that I was starting to really care about. I wanted to prioritize the beats, the bass, the rhythm section and the thing that made you feel something in a different way than the melodies and the lyrics made you feel. If you could make somebody feel something with all of it, well then you’ve really got something. That was my feeling at the time.

It was a great exercise and really fun not to have the burden of sitting down with an acoustic guitar and trying to come up with an original chord progression. That makes you approach songs in a certain way and it makes you presume a lot of things on the thing you’re doing. Where as, when I’m writing to a beat or synth pattern, it unlocks a whole new side of writing for me. It helps me not feel like the melody and the lyric have to bear the full weight of delivering the emotional value of the song. Suddenly, you can depend on other things and actually say less, have shorter melodies, be more abstract, and do things differently. You’re spreading out the responsibility in terms of what’s being communicated.       

Production Notes: My buddy Josh Moore, who I played in Caedmon’s with for a lot of years, was a really good friend but we hadn’t worked together since I had left the band. He was in Houston and had grown into a very accomplished hip-hop producer. He really has a great thing going. Every time I would hang out with him, he would show me these tracks he was building for major hip-hop artists. I was amazed by what he was doing. I told him, “Man, I want to make a record that I don’t know how to make, but I think you do.” I asked him to help me, shepherd me, and co-produce with me. So that record just started with him basically building me instrumental tracks, sending them to me and then I would write to them. Which was new for me. I didn’t write any of those songs on acoustic guitar. I was just writing to beats and nearly completed tracks. That was the first time I’d ever done that.  

For example, when he sent me the track for “Black Eye,” it was just that weird mellotron sample and that beat. He sent me just a quick verse snippet as an mp3 right before I got on a plane and I wrote the melody and the lyrics. Then I had an idea for the chorus that kind of changed keys a little bit and I recorded it and sent it back to him and he built that chorus under the melody section I had sent him. We were just continually sending tracks back and forth and constructing songs. That’s how that record happened. There are only a few that I did at my house. I would go to Houston a lot and he would come here a lot. We were both working out of our own studios. At the time, I was just building my current studio here. So most of what I made of Stockholm Syndrome was done in the upstairs of my house. The last few bits of it were done here after we finished building it.  

Josh was teaching me tricks, telling me what software to get and teaching me how to use it. I was learning how to program and how to use soft synths. So I was experimenting and constructing on my own as well. Like, “The State” into “The Proverbial Gun”... I recorded all of that myself. “American Flag Umbrella” and “Heaven” was all my doing. “The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum” was all my doing, except for live drums, which we added later. Maybe half the record I was programming my way through and then Josh would come in and add stuff. We did spend one solid week at his studio in Texas, where we brought together all of our bits, finished everything, and I sang it all. The only other musician who played on that record was MacKenzie Smith (from Midlake) who played some live drums. I’ve known him for a long time because I was best friends with his older brother growing up and we played in bands together. We finished that week and then Josh mixed it.  

Mixtape: Maybe “What Matters More”… it’s pretty representative of both the sound and the content. 

A variety of cool pre-order packages for I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You (including immediate digital download) are available HERE.

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