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In The Middle Of The Night
How Doug Hoekstra made the most naked album of his career whilst waiting for the birth of his son.
For the seasoned Doug Hoekstra listeners the first thought on hearing his current album, Waiting, is, "Where have all those weird orchestrations and quirky arrangements gone?". The second thought, and the one that is likely to remain with you, is, "There's something about these songs which keeps them nagging away in your head". The album was indeed produced in a different manner to his last few records, as Hoekstra explains in the interview below, while Waiting probably does contain his best set of songs so far. The opening salvo of four tracks, in particular, are as good a start to an album as anything else released in this genre over the last year, and it's no surprise that they've become the bedrock on which his current live set is based.
The recording of this album, as indicated by its title, took place while awaiting the birth of Hoekstra's first-born son, Jude. The songs themselves, however, were written over an extended period of time, but have a certain dark and quiet unity of feel. The image conjured up is of Hoekstra, the detached observer, scribbling away late at night, chronicling the world he has glimpsed that day. (Actually, I should revise that, a more realistic contemporary portrait would be of the songwriter sat in his hotel room tapping away on the keys of his lap-top.) It should come as no surprise then that Hoekstra is also an accomplished short-story writer. In his native United States short stories are still seen as being a valid means of artistic expression and many of Hoekstra's best songs follow the creative writing maxim of "showing" not "telling"; slowly revealing aspects of the inner truth of his characters, without ever getting bogged down with convoluted plots and storylines. That's not to say that he can't do a traditional narrative, as "Theresa" so wonderfully demonstrates. Another sign of a writer who actually cares about words is in his delight in using language for its own sake. The songs on the album contain a hatful of witty phrases: the disenchanted father in "Sunday Blues", "pulls the bottom card from the deck of disbelief" while the narrator of "Blow Beautiful Dreams" admits that, "My expectations get the better of me / I put them on a shelf I can never reach". Hoekstra also shows that he can throw non-rock vocabulary into the most rocking song (although, with Hoekstra, that is a relative term) with lines such as, "Like Cary Grant in Connecticut / I'm baffled, bewildered, benign but doing alright" and still manage to sing the phrase convincingly.
Musically, most of the songs are based - as you would expect from what is essentially a home-recording - around the Hoekstra staple triumvirate of guitar, vocals and drum machine, with guest vocals from Amelia White and bass playing from George Marinelli being added at a later stage. Hoekstra also livens things up with a selection of more unusual instruments: sitar guitar, loops, Wurlitzer, slide whistle, rubboards and melodicas all make appearances. In fact the title track shows just how effective and moving an unpromising combination of instruments such as rubboards and melodica can be made to sound. To be a little critical, some of the verse melodies of the songs on the second half of the album are rather inconsequential, although Hoekstra still manages to throws in his own brand of catchy hooklines and chorus refrains.
In summary, a fine album of songs from Doug Hoekstra, which should delight aficionados of his songwriting, but probably not the best entrée into his work for the uninitiated - who should probably still head off to find 2001's Around The Margins.
DOUG HOEKSTRA TALKS TO TRISTE ABOUT "WAITING"
Triste: Doug, you mention, on the sleeve of Waiting, that the album was recorded in your home studio while you and your wife were getting ready for your son's birth. I understand the need to be around the house and also the need to record new songs, but when was the decision made to make an album from the recordings, rather than using them as demos for further work in a conventional studio?
Doug Hoekstra: It was rather organic. I didn't want to psyche myself out by saying the stuff I cut at home had to be the next record. First I was thinking, let's do really nice home demos, and maybe some stuff I'll keep as is, other stuff I'll recut with a band. But, as I got into the process of recording and listening, I was pleased with what I was coming up with, and I started to think, well, maybe all of it will be the next record. Then, when I went into my friend George's studio to bounce the tracks to pro-tools, for mixing and any minor embellishment, he was pretty complimentary, not just on the tracks but on the technical recording quality, as well. So, that sealed the deal, then I thought, okay, this is the record!
Triste: You also wrote that you recorded the songs on your "trusty Boss 532" and had to improvise the recording techniques. The Boss BR 532 is quite a small, portable, digital 4 track recorder. In other circumstances would the album have been markedly different if you had recorded these songs in a conventional studio.
Doug Hoekstra: Yes. By working this way, I self-imposed some limits, and I believe that necessity is the mother of invention. You know, your personal and technical limitations can make you look at things differently and experiment in ways you wouldn't normally. For instance, the Boss has 4 tracks and 32 virtual tracks. However, the memory gets eaten up quick, so it's really hard to go past 10-12 tracks, max. Plus, you can only hear 4 tracks at a time, so you have to imagine the full arrangement as you lay things down.
I tend to think arrangement as I write songs, so this wasn't a huge stretch for me, but still, it was interesting -- on some tracks, like "Blow Beautiful Dreams", I really only heard the whole thing upon dumping it to pro-tools in post-production. And, though I did most of the recording at home, I gave myself license to tack on small parts on a few things in post-production, or double up tracks on Pro Tools, particularly with loops and vocals, to give them different sounds.
Anyway, ironically, my original intention on Waiting was to keep everything to 4 tracks, think of it as a slightly embellished Freewheelin' Bob Dylan kind of record. But, songs have a way of telling you how they should be arranged, so I expanded a little bit past that, and though it's still a stripped down recording, some songs are quite full. The other limitation I should mention is that since I'm only adept at certain instruments played in certain ways, I had to experiment with playing parts in ways that a backing band might not. Like the little rat-a-tat-tat drum in "Blow Beautiful Dreams", or the looped tambourine and looped bass vocal part in "In the Middle of the Night". But, that stuff is cool because you just open up new ways of looking at achieving your ends.
Triste: You say you envisage the arrangements to the songs as you're writing them, but you also admit your musical talents stretches to only certain instruments and styles. What happens when there's a mismatch between your head arrangement and your abilities? Say you needed a complex drumming part or a jazz guitar solo. If the arrangements are integral to the song how do you sort out a compromise?
Doug Hoekstra: Well, as much as I envision the arrangements, I also don't like to be too rigid either -- hopefully, that doesn't sound like a contradiction. If you have a band behind you and you give them a well-written tune, I think they can feel the arrangement in it and you can just point to sign-posts and let them interpret. So it fits with your plan, yet it's open to their vibe, as well. Similarly, my limitations dictated some of my choices on this one, but within the realm of ideas, if I couldn't executive one, I was ready to head to another option. And, sometimes those options turned out to be better, ones I wouldn't have turned to in other circumstances. If that makes sense!
Triste: We've been talking about the production on your record, but where do you stand, in general, on production values and records? I expect we could both trot out a list of albums where the production has been either too slick, too lo-fi, or just plain wrong. Would you agree that the wrong production can ruin a good set of songs, but also, on the other hand, that good production, in itself, can't save a set of
Doug Hoekstra: Well, I think in the scissors-rock-paper game, good songs beats production. I mean there are always certain songs on my CDs that I know I didn't capture as well as I could have, but if they are among the stronger tunes, they're still the ones folks like the best. I think the producers and players and artists all focus so much on detail, they can tend to forget that a listener goes as much for the song and the vibe it carries, and even the biggest of fans won't put it under the same microscope as those producing the record. That said, it's always a desire to make your record sound as good as possible, but that's relative - "bad" can be good if you're talking about the feel on a Charley Patton record; but if the Beatles had tried to make Sgt. Pepper be "lo-fi" it wouldn't have worked. So, it really depends on the aesthetic you're trying to achieve, and how the material relates to that aesthetic.
Triste: Let's move onto the songs now. Were the songs on album written in the immediate run-up to the recording or did they stretch back to your last studio album (Around The Margins) in 2001?
Doug Hoekstra: A bit of both. My songs tend to come in batches, and I'd say the bulk of the material from Waiting came to me in the months after The Past is Never Past, But, there were a few ("In the Middle of the Night", "Dark Side of a Pearl", and a couple that didn't make the record) that were written immediately before recording and/or finished while recording. I tend to go in to the recording process with a good amount of material at hand, but the process always ignites new ideas, so I like to save some room for that stuff.
Triste: Do you treat The Past Is Never Past as a "proper" album - or more of a collection of "Odds & Sods"?
Doug Hoekstra: It was put together as an "odds and sods" collection -- as the liner notes say, I sent the tracks to my then-label, Inbetweens, and Jos really liked how they held together, and so we decided to proceed. Some people thought it was more interesting and/or cohesive than the "real" cd before it, Around the Margins, which goes to show that one never knows!
Triste: The song "Theresa" - the early biography of an old-beyond-her-years, Sao Paolo street-kid - is, I think, one of the strongest and most immediate songs on the album. What was the inspiration for the song? It's so very visual and seems as if its creation was stimulated by a TV documentary you saw or some magazine article on the children of the favelas. Was there a particular source for the song or was it a product of your imagination?
Doug Hoekstra: Thanks. Yes, that's a personal fave. I read an article about the kids in Sao Paolo, in a literary non-fiction magazine. The huge disparity between the haves and have-nots in that city, how most of the wealth is controlled by a very few, and the fate of its children, all made a great impression on me. But, rather than write a song that preach or stand on a soapbox, I thought it would be more effective to try and get into the head of one of those street kids, and have at it from that perspective. So, that was a challenge, but I'm happy with how it came out.
This past week, there was a series on NPR on Latin American cities - Sao Paolo, Caracas, Buenos Aires, and again, the economic disparity between the classes is something they have in common. In Caracas, you've got all these educated people vending on the streets (selling cell phones or renting chairs for people standing in lines) because they have no job opportunities. There's always the rich and poor, but when the gap gets that wide, crime rises, health costs rise, and there is lost income in taxes because everyone's on the black market. It isn't that bad yet in the states, but I've seen that gap between rich and poor get wider in my lifetime and people like Bush aren't helping it at all. If we don't watch out, our cities are going to be looking like some of those South American capitals.
Triste: After the first three tracks the setting for many of the album's songs drifts into night-time: "In The Middle Of The Night" and "Nighttime Rain" give it away with their titles, but the night crops up in several other songs - often in a significant role ("Crawling Out From Under", "Driftin'", "Dark Side of a Pearl", "Eternity", and "Waiting"). Was this something you were conscious of when arranging the album?
Doug Hoekstra: I wasn't really conscious of it, no. I have specific ideas about what I'm trying to communicate in each song, but I don't edit myself on themes, settings, or those sorts of things. So, if there's a thread, it'll come through subtly. If there are a lot of nighttime songs, all I can say is I must have been having a lot of nighttime experiences! And, that makes sense, as I wrote a lot of this material on the road.
Triste: "Dark Side of a Pearl" is one of those tracks which creep up on your subconscious over time and is now one of my favourite tracks on the album. Can you explain why you quote "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" in the song lyrics?
Doug Hoekstra: I like "Dark Side of a Pearl" myself, that was a quick recording and I think it shows, it has a nice feel. I definitely quoted Bob's song on purpose, and I just thought it would be interesting to have the woman in the song (who is confined in the relationship and not expressing herself) whistling some Dylan. It would be her almost subconscious way of releasing some of her bottled-up energy. So, I was really thinking of it more in relation to developing her character, if that helps.
Triste: Talking about "Dark Side of a Pearl", Amelia White features strongly here. How did she get to appear on the album? Had you
played with her before live?
Doug Hoekstra: I met Amelia like one meets so many music folks in Nashville, quite organically. She had just moved here from Boston, came to a show I was doing with a couple other friends and left her e-mail on my list and we started communicating and we swapped CDs and I thought hers was terrific, so I asked her to sing on a couple tracks. I really wanted most of the stuff on Waiting to be just me vocally, because I felt like I'd taken the gospel choirs, Greek chorus vocals and female intertwining parts to the limit on the couple of CDs before. But, these two songs - "Dark Side of a Pearl" and "Waiting" just begged for that something extra, which Amelia did a terrific job providing.
Triste: Similar kind of question about George Marinelli. Did he replace existing basslines or conjure up something completely different?
Doug Hoekstra: Well, I worked with George (at his studio) for parts of "Around the Margins" and we'd co-written together and collaborated on other stuff. I was dumping all the tracks from Waiting onto his Pro-Tools rig and mixing at his studio. So, as the song became more evident in the mixing process, I wanted to be open to adding extra touches, if necessary. Most of that happened with little mixing tricks, running parts to extra tracks or through amplifiers (as with the loops on "Eternity") and remiking. Most of the songs sounded as if all the proper instruments were there, but a few, "Crawling Out from Under" (bass), "Dark Side of a Pearl" (bass), and "In the Middle of the Night" (keyboards) begged for these additions. George is one of those ace-studio-cats who can come up with and lay down a part very quickly, and so, he was happy to contribute those bits. I can't remember exactly, but the bass parts were probably mutual (i.e., oh, this thing needs some bottom), whereas the keys on "In the Middle of the Night" were his idea. But, to get back to the beginning of a long answer, no he didn't copy existing stuff. Most of the existing parts I did at home were kept as it, just with extra eq and that sort of treatment.
Triste: "Screwball Comedy", a song commenting on life's absurdities, shakes up the mood of the album just over half-way through. I've got a couple of questions here. Did you feel it was important to break the mood here, and can you explain the Cary Grant reference?
Doug Hoekstra: Yes, I did feel it was important to shake up the mood a bit. For the most part, I was trying to deconstruct the songs: make them sparser and slower than I might normally. But that said, I wanted to give some relief from that, hence "Screwball Comedy" and "Eternity". The song is about life's absurdities, and in particular, I was thinking of those Preston Sturges screwball comedies when the characters all end up in a train going somewhere - this travelling madness sort of thing. Sometimes touring is like that, you feel like you're in constant motion, bumping into new characters and experiences every day, while you retain some calm at the heart of the storm, "Baffled, Bewildered… but doing all right" as the song goes.
As for Cary Grant, I was thinking of him in flicks like "Bringing Up Baby" and "Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House", where he captures that combination of cluelessness and dignity perfectly. And on an even greater level, isn't it like that? We're all barreling through, partly oblivious and partly tuned in, and somehow most of us make it through just fine.
Triste: "Eternity" has a strong modern rhythmical backbone to it using a lot of looped beats, but do I detect a slight "late Beatles" influence there as well?
Doug Hoekstra: I'd say about 3/4 of everything I do musically has some Beatles influence, they are and were the end-all, be-all for me. Not much I could add to the volumes written about them, but in short, they really created the whole "art" form of making records, and their records hold up as entities. Their arrangements were often deceptively simple, but always clever, and in service to the song. I don't know if "Eternity" was consciously inspired by anyone else, Beatles or otherwise - other than the piano break in the third verse, which is an inside homage to my piano-playing pal in Chicago, Jeff Kowalkowski. That said, it wouldn't surprise me at all if some Beatles stuff worked its way in their sub-consciously.
Triste: The final song on the album is the title track, which has the narrator at a café table, perhaps in Europe, watching the world going by and waiting for "tomorrow's news to come through", presumably from his partner. Was this, perhaps, a creative imagining of your own situation waiting for the birth of your son?
Doug Hoekstra: Actually, I wrote that in Amsterdam, sitting at a sidewalk café around the corner form my hotel. At that time I was starting out on a five week tour and already missing my wife. But I was also trying to make a bigger connection in that song, to the idea that we always seemed to be focused on the "next big thing" - the career highlights, the money trucks, the arrival of a child, whatever your deal might be - when really the waiting is to be cherished just as much. Although the moments that "happen" are markers in our lives - the moments leading up to them, the anticipation, the quiet times when you're enjoying things at face value - are the things that we often overlook. So the idea is to appreciate those moments of waiting. Later when Molly did become pregnant and that process began and I started looking forward to Jude, as well as making this record, it all came together, I saw many songs were connected in their view of suspension.
Triste: So what's the significance of the medieval style illustration that you used for the front cover?
Doug Hoekstra: That's a tarot card, the hangman. My designer, Deanna Glaze, came up with that. I gave her the roughs to listen to as she started in on the cover, and this card popped into her head, because it is a card of suspension, and the songs are largely about suspension. She is more familiar with Tarot than I am, and explained that the hangman is a card that a lot of folks take negatively on face value, but it can also be a positive card. And, this fits with the theme of the CD, that those moments of waiting can hold the best experiences in life... So, I said, yeah, let's go for it!
Triste: Finally, any idea how the next album will be recorded? Do you see this way as being the norm from now onwards or will you be trying something different next time out?
Doug Hoekstra: It's hard to say just yet, as all the songs haven't been written yet, but my feeling is the next disc needs to be different. Part of me thinks it'd be cool to get a six or seven piece band and cut all of the next album over a day or two, and then wack out the mixes. Another part of me thinks it'd be cool to find a good cut and paste kind of producer and collaborate that way, something like Jim White did with Morcheeba or Beth Orton did with different folks. Plus, you know, being in indie land, budget probably will be something of an issue! So, we'll see!
Waiting - Doug Hoekstra (Paste/Fundamental)
Produced by Doug Hoekstra
The album can be bought from Doug's website: www.doughoekstra.com as well as from all good record stores.