The Story of Making the Blue Album
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By Karl Koch, written October 30, 2003.
The following is the full text of Karl's "The Story of Making the Blue Album", originally intended to be included in the liner notes of the Blue Album Deluxe Edition.
Getting signed to a major label was simultaneously the culmination of 4 guys' lofty dreams of music success, and a plunge into an abyss of worry and confusion.
Everyone was excited and relieved, but the horror stories were in abundance of bands who made albums that were never released, got dropped before they even made an album, and put an album out but were never given the tour support to go out and give it a chance. Weezer had played only a tiny handful of shows outside of L.A., so they were banking everything on the strength of an album they hadn't made yet, as they had no built-in fanbase to impress the record company with. The band felt that it was safest to record the album themselves in their garage rehearsal space, where they had made demos in the past, rather than take the big financial risk of hiring a producer and a big-time studio. The band's A+R man Todd Sullivan convinced them to send some tapes out to producers and consider doing it on that level. I only remember that we were sending a tape to the Cars's Ric Ocasek, based on Rivers and the band's recent love affair with The Cars' Greatest Hits album. The band were reluctant to say the least, but the die was cast. Tapes were also sent out to Sean Slade/Paul Kolderie and Lenny Kay, to round out the possibilities.
Rehearsals commenced in Los Angeles at Cole Rehearsals on Cole St. in Hollywood. Every day the band went through vocal rehearsals early in the afternoon, followed by full loud band rehearsal, running through all the songs, trying to tighten things up. Several times a week I drove them over to a vocal coach's home studio where they would go through the bizarre vocal exercises that can turn an amateur singer into a professional sounding one...or at least help a guy not lose his voice from singing for hours on end every day. They would emerge from the coach's house an hour later talking about epiglottis issues and chanting bizarre warm up exercises.
Several weeks of solid practice later, the band got the word that Ric was visiting L.A., stopping by rehearsals to check out the Weez in person. Everyone was thunderstruck: Ric liked the songs! He was interested! While the band had had some run-ins with Rock Fame to date (such as ...heh heh... opening for Keanu Reeves' Dogstar for both bands' first show in '92, being courted by Interscope A+R guy Nigel Harrison from Blondie, and rehearsing across the hall from Wall of Voodoo's Stan Ridgway (okay, okay, so only I knew who W.O.V. were...), this was the Big Time, and the band worked hard to get it together in time to impress Ric on his visit. Fate seemed to be pushing things away from the lofty ideals of the homegrown Garage sound, toward the world of Big Budget Rock. The band was both excited and worried - I was just excited. I figured (in my naiveté) that this sort of Attention is not lavished on just any band - only GOOD bands with GOOD songs get people like Ric stopping by. And therefore: my secret Theory that I was helping out a Good Band who was going to Do Well was starting to be proven, despite the cloud of pessimism and (realistic) low expectations that permeated the group consciousness at that point.
A week later Ric walked in, the Tallest Man In The World, and proceeded to observe, hawklike, as the band rocked out their set. Ric turned out to be one of the most gentle, funny and genuine "rock stars" in the world, and was very interested in producing the album. His mastery of the Pop Song was a very tempting factor - he had done it! He knew what it took! But still, the band was worried. The "Ric Plan" was a hell of a lot riskier financially than the "Garage Plan". Todd suggested they go with Ric, and then later do their second album themselves. Of course the band was thinking: well that's great - but if things go bad enough, there might never be a second album! After a lot of late night band debates, all was settled: Weezer would go to New York and record the album with Ric at Electric Lady Studios. In other words: go for it. Score!
Soon a schedule was hashed out between Ric and DGC, and the New York Adventure was slated to begin with flights to JFK on August 8th, 1993.
The excitement and giddiness was tangible, and erupted into a going away bash at the bands longtime rehearsal house at 2226 Amherst Ave. on the evening of Aug 7th. Needless to say the party stretched into the wee-est of hours. We were awoken after about 45 minutes sleep by DGC's Denise MacDonald who picked us up in (Geffen exec) Tom Zutaut's Range Rover and took our ragged forms to LAX. Range Rover? Hey guys, we're in a Range Rover and we're one flight away from making the album!
NYC: While Rivers and Matt and I had at least been to New York, Pat and Jason had not. And no one in our little band of rebels had ever spent more than a day or 2 there. Now the city was suddenly ours to explore, from our 2 rooms in the Gramercy Park hotel on 21st St. While ultimately the band knew that if they were ever to make a dime from the album they'd first have to pay all of this back, it was mighty easy to look out the window of the hotel and say "Screw it! Were in New York! Hoo Haa!" Almost immediately, and without warning or explanation, The remarkably trim and essentially underfed Rivers and Matt got memberships at a nearby gym/health spa, memberships which would later end in hilarious financial chaos and confusion. Everyone went into curious explorer mode from day 1 onward.
Work started uptown actually, at S.I.R. rehearsals on 25th Street, where Ric had the band run through their stuff for several days in order to cull out any songs that weren't gelling with the rest. Here, early versions of "I Swear It's True", "Getting Up and Leaving", "Mykel & Carli" and "Lullaby for Wayne" were tried, but in the end only the 10 final album tracks plus "Mykel & Carli" and "Jamie" were chosen to try at Electric Lady. Ric dragged out his beastly Akai 12 track recorder and the band cut an admirable live demo over 2 days, with final vocals then overdubbed.
Ric also had some work to do at S.I.R. His own solo album Quick Change World was coming out and he had an upcoming appearance on Dave Letterman to rehearse for, as well as a one-off show in Boston. His band at the time included the Cars' Greg Hawkes and they ran thru a killer set of old Cars classics and new Ric tunes, with just us weez types for an audience. Greg was all too happy to show our curious minds his vintage keyboard setup, including the Univox MiniKorg responsible for all those shrill leads on the Cars classics.
One night Ric had his rarely seen car with him at S.I.R., and offered to take us back downtown after the session. We went on a spontaneous tour of lower Manhattan, Ric's home and favorite place in the world. A debate was raging: Ric was saying how weezer was a great band, and that he was sure they'd do well. The band was saying they didn't have a chance. Ric said something like, "Oh yeah? check this out!" We pulled up next to CBGB's and Ric lowered the windows. Confused club goers glanced over to see The Cars' band leader in a Land Rover with a pack of goofy looking dudes. Ric shouts out "Hey! ...These guys?...uh..." suddenly, having lost the plot, he floors it! We were laughing for blocks.
Finally we were ready for Electric Lady. The studio was about a 15-minute walk away from the hotel, down on raucous 8th Street, and in between the hotel and the studio was Union Square, with a huge daily Farmers Market where breakfast was usually procured enroute to the studio. Near the studio we frequented a little take out diner place for its killer grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, and Ric's fave deli market Balducci's, as well as countless Ray's Pizza joints [always in search of the "Real" one], record shops, bookstores, and everything else the Village had to offer.
Studio work commenced in the giant size Studio A, where the band ran through all their songs, getting about 5-8 good takes of each one on tape. Then a take was chosen that had the best drum performance. In some cases there were songs where take "a" had the best first half and take "b" had the best second half, so the master reels were spliced together to make the best overall drum performance. This was accomplished with a razor blade and an air of great concern amongst the band that they weren't being "real". Then the engineers told stories of some very famous bands who had done this, and not just one or 2 edits but hundreds per song! Everyone felt better after that. Once the final drum takes were decided on, then came the re-layering of the other instruments: the bass, the rhythm guitar, the lead guitar. By this point 2 weeks had gone by and the operation had packed up and moved down the hall to studio "B", a smaller room better suited for the piecemeal additions.
The nights were long down in "B", as Rivers beat his head against the wall trying to come up with just the right solo lines on his guitar. Some came easy, others seemed impossible. At one point, 6 hours into trying to nail the "World Has Turned" solo, Rivers was laying on his back in the tiny 12" space between the 2 soundproof doors between the live room and the control room, with his guitar perched on his chest, his legs squished up the walls. About 100 tries into it, he had given up, when Ric hummed a little melody over the talkback mic. "How about something like da-dada-dee-dee-dee?" Bam! In 5 minutes the guitars were finished and we were walking back to the Gramercy on near deserted 5 A.M. Manhattan streets.
Then came the vocals, in B and up in C, an even smaller studio on the 3rd floor, where the album was to be mixed. We were now in the 4th week at Electric lady, and there was only about a week to spare before the album would start to creep into "over budget" territory. And there was a problem.
During the course of the NYC adventure so far, tension had been steadily growing, centered around the youngest member of the band, Jason. He was going through a lot of stuff personally, and didn't seem able to keep his personal stuff from overflowing into his performance and presence in the band. It was getting very difficult and it was affecting everyone. The situation came to a head and the rest of the band agreed they weren't going to be able to continue working with Jason. But what to do? No one knew how to handle such a delicate situation, not to mention the album was almost finished!
An emergency meeting was called, and the situation discussed. While everyone felt that Jason just wasn't going to work out in Weezer, they also knew that announcing to Geffen Records that their rhythm guitarist had just left the band during the recording of their first album wouldn't exactly go over too well. The last thing they could afford at that point would be a loss of confidence from the higher-ups, who have little patience for delays and problems from new, untried bands. So the question was put out: could they line up somebody else for the position - as in right away? It seemed impossible - mixing was scheduled to begin in 2 days. As it was, the rhythm guitar parts and back-up vocals would have to be re-done. If they had someone new in there, the new guy would have to both learn and perform all that stuff, in only a few days. Even that much would delay the mixing and put the album over budget, but it would be worth it if it worked.
One extraordinarily uncomfortable and sad meeting later, Jason was heading back to L.A. and his new family, to begin a new path. Meanwhile, Rivers and Matt's "ace in the hole" card was being played. Back in 1992, they had made the acquaintance of one Brian Bell, who was then playing with Carnival Art. Brian expressed his fondness of weezer and Matt and Rivers told Brian that he rocked. A bond was formed that wasn't tested till almost a year later, when Matt and Rivers cold called Brian up from NYC:
"Hi, Brian, it's Matt."
"Oh, hey, how's it going? Are you guys recording?""Ok, can you send us a tape? Just play and sing some of our songs. Ill have someone at Geffen send our demo tape to you. Fed Ex the tape to us as soon as you can okay? It'll be like your audition."
"Yeah...er...so what are you up to these days?"
Rivers: (grabbing phone) "Hey, It's Rivers. Can you sing?"
"What? I guess so...why?"
"What's your favorite Star Wars action figure?"
"Do you want to be in Weezer?"
The Star Wars question was deemed essential, as the wrong reaction would brand Brian as someone who didn't "get it". There was a distinct worry at this critical point about having someone who didn't share the generational and suburban culture (or lack thereof) that was the one thing the guys knew they had in common. That connection had always been there with Jason, despite the problems that had developed, and no one wanted to lose that vibe of everyone sorta being on the same page. The main thing of course was if Brian could sing: no one had ever witnessed him doing it. What the guys didn't know was that Brian had been playing and singing in his own band for some months now and was indeed developing a distinct and excellent singing voice. When the tape (dated 9/14/93) arrived 2 days later, it was hastily jammed into the boom-box. Before the first song, a hilariously guessed-at-lyric version of "No One Else" was finished playing, The guys were on the phone with Brian again, arranging his flight to New York.
Brian was flown to NYC the next day and was immersed in the scene, welcomed as the missing link before we really even knew him. It was a good match, and the anxieties of the crazy situation faded as Brian started hasty rehearsals with Rivers to get his backing vocals sorted out. The plan was to have Brian re-record all the backing vocals and rhythm guitar parts that Jason had originally been responsible for, but in the end, they decided that there wasn't enough time for Brian to do everything and do it just right. Rivers stepped in and re-did the guitar stuff, leaving Brian to focus on his vocal parts. The pressure was really on, and the nights went long as the parts were banged out. Ric and Chris started mixing up in "C" while Rivers and Brian were wrapping up other songs downstairs in "B".
Mixing finally started a week late, and the album went about 15% over budget, but the results were melting away the worries. This album sounded damn good, by everyone's accounting! The band worked on 11 songs total during the tracking of the album - the 10 that appeared on the album, and "Mykel & Carli", which was left unfinished. In 1994 the band would re-cut "Mykel & Carli" with Brian, in a session that produced the studio b-sides for the Blue Album's singles.
Finally in late October, as New York was in its most beautiful and melancholy season, we said our sad goodbyes to Ric, who had been a heartfelt and hilarious team leader through it all, having us over to he and his wife Paulina's wicked cool brownstone home for fun, frolic and food on several occasions, and taking us out to see the Blue Man Group back when hardly anyone had a clue what they were all about. But now it was back to L.A. and a long period of artwork meetings, rehearsing, shows, and cursing what seemed like endless delays to the albums release. No one realized just how much red tape there was to slog through, as major label shuffling pushed the albums release ahead, to finally see release on May 10, 1994.
There were some last minute changes as well. Rivers was scheduled to return to New York in November to oversee the mastering process, but there was a problem: "Undone" was not gonna fly as it stood. The song had originally been based on a sort of conversational overlap concept, where with a stereo separation, one side would lament all sorts of negative thoughts, while the other side countered with all manner of good tempered optimism. This idea had been sort of lost when the band recorded their demos back in late 1992, and I had been asked to come up with an audio collage of samples for the first 2 verses instead. It turned out pretty silly, but for the album Rivers wanted to try and merge the 2 ideas - a collage of samples that collectively had that positive/negative argument going on. I obliged, gathering 200 potential samples of everything from Humphrey Bogart to Christian radio dramas, the Peanuts gang, and story dialogue from "The Black Hole", paring it down to two 15 sample sequences that I played out on a MIDI keyboard, creating the stereo "conversation". In the end, it was this conversation that Geffen didn't want to deal with - over 15 different sample clearances for a debut rock album? Not gonna happen.
This is when the now-familiar "party dialogue" verses were added. This was done on Rivers's 8 track back in The Garage on Amherst Ave in LA, with band supporter Mykel Allan, Matt Sharp, myself, and a "crowd noise" sound effect CD. A mix of "Undone" with the samples removed was made to a DAT tape at Electric Lady, which was sent to LA, where Rivers copied it onto two stereo tracks of his 8 track cassette recorder. Then on other tracks, the party noise was put on from the sound effects CD, as well as the hastily scripted conversations between Matt and I, and Mykel and I. Then the newly recorded vocals and party noise were mixed down (minus the guitars, drums, etc) to another DAT tape, which was sent back to New York. The finished party scenes were then "flown in" to the final mix, just in time for the mastering process.
The original intended vibe of the "stoked" versus the "non-stoked" on this song was preserved, with Matt playing the part of the impossibly happy dude, and I the out of place tongue tied spaz who wasn't happy to be there. Mykel played the party girl looking for favors, which my "un-stoked" guy couldn't refuse, as he couldn't come up with anything else to do anyway.
Once Rivers headed back to New York with DAT in hand, the recording work was truly done. He returned a week later, with a golden CD-R in hand of the final mastered album. CD-R's were quite new at the time so this was like the Holy Grail! Anyway, the excitement faded a bit as the weeks turned into months before the album came out, with the art, photo shoots, and record label preparation taking up a lot more time than we had considered. Rivers even managed to squeeze in a Spring '94 semester at LA Valley Community College, while the band rehearsed and played what shows we could get on.