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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

fifi History 7: The “Paul’s Basement” Tapes

NOTE: Citing my notoriously faulty memory and my tendency toward “mendacious untruth” (not my words), various fifi alumni and supporters have graciously added corrections and additions where necessary throughout this series. If there are no corrections in the article below, that must indicate that my recollections are without error.

fifi Makes an Ill-Conceived Attempt at Recapturing Past Glory

When fifi recorded our debut album, it was strictly a no-frills, quick and dirty, seat of our pants, get-in-get-out-nobody-gets-hurt proposition. We recorded, mixed, and mastered the entire thing live in the studio in a single eight-hour session. Total cost (to yours truly, since nobody else seemed to have a job): $200.

usefists

What kids today would spend on an Xbox, we spent on RECORDING A GODDAMN ROCK ALBUM. When it was finished, we would sit in Paul’s car and play that tape over and over again, intoxicated with the thrill of LISTENING TO OURSELVES! ON THE STEREO!! We breathlessly analyzed every nuance of Paul’s single-note bass solo, critiqued that awkwardly-timed drum fill that Joey threw in before the chorus, and admired Eric’s unhinged guitar solo, until the tape wore out and we had to ask the guy at the studio to dupe us another one ($10).

Thus, the sickness began.

If we could do THIS for $200, we reasoned, what if we spent $225? Or even – although it seemed unthinkable, and we chided each other for grandiose dreaming – $250? What if we actually, you know, practiced, and became proficient on our chosen instruments? What if Jason learned to sing, instead of… whatever it is that he’s doing? In our deluded state, one of us (probably Eric) carelessly strung together two words… these two words, though harmless when used singly, combined to form a diabolical incantation, one which had destroyed the careers and reputations of many bands before us. Two little words, which even now I hesitate to use in the same sentence:

“Concept” and “Album.”

Only later would we recognize that these two words, laughingly spoken and quickly forgotten, would spell nothing less than the demise of fifi. Why, even the mighty Styx, their reputation otherwise untarnished, ultimately succumbed to the malevolent effect of the Concept Album Curse. (“My name is Kilroy! KILL-roy! KILL-ROY!“)

Over the course of our 4 (some would claim 5) subsequent albums, we incrementally raised the stakes, adding a guest musician here (Sarah Ness playing bass on “Sacrilegious Sour Cream”), some exotic instrumentation there (wind chimes, timbales, toy cell phone), audio collages (“Semi-Revolutionary Colons”), sophisticated studio techniques (backwards guitar on “Rock ‘N’ Roll is Pretty Cool”), fake interview segments (“fifi Does its Duty”), public service announcements (“A Very Special Message from He’s”), and sundry other tomfoolery, until you’d think fifi had the artistic ambition, musical chops, and unlimited production budget of Pink Floyd. Which, I can assure you, we did not.

This unhealthy trend reached its apotheosis with fifi’s (wait for it…) CONCEPT ALBUM: “Everybody Should Love Each Other and Live in Peace and Harmony,” the production of which required 4 years, 4 studios, 20 guest vocalists and musicians, and untold hundreds of dollars spent on instrument and equipment rentals, not to mention Eric’s car repair bills, phone service late fees, and some unfortunate NSF charges (ahem). By the time we released it to nearly unanimous indifference, several marriages and friendships were in shambles and I was $4000 in the red (I always get confused; is it “in the red” or “in the black”? If “in the red” means “I charged it on my Chase VISA at 23% interest and then injured my spine and lost my job, and oh my god what the hell are we going to do?” then, yeah: “in the red”). Chastened and disillusioned, Eric and I agreed that our little hobby had outlived its usefulness, and fifi decided to disband. In fairness, perhaps I should say, “I decided, and I assumed that Eric agreed, since he was living in Panama, and we weren’t really on speaking terms at the moment.”

But then Eric moved back to the States, and we started hanging out together again, and we played a fifi video at our 20-year high school reunion and some folks kinda dug it, and the discouraging memories of our previous recording debacles faded, and we started doing this Paul’s Basement thing, and eventually, someone (probably me) said, “Hey, you know what we should do…?” and we were off again, like the proverbial dog returning to its proverbial upchuck. First, we thought we might do a collection of cover songs, but the only song we could agree on was “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, and our plans for a comeback album stalled. That is, until someone (probably Matt) said, “Maybe you guys should do a collection of songs based on stories you’ve written,” and all of us gathered around Paul’s kitchen table opened a second box of “Atomic Cajun” hot wings, and knew that Matt had spoken the truth.

Thus we excitedly embarked on our latest, most personal – and hopefully final – recording project. We soon realized, however, that doing a collection of songs based on our “real-life experiences” posed unexpected semantic difficulties. By which I mean… the members of fifi didn’t go see the Police; Eric and I did. The members of fifi didn’t hang out at the Grand Cinemas Alderwood; Eric and I (and Paul and Matt and Joy and Jen and Jeff, etc.) did. These new “fifi songs,” sung in our own voices, couldn’t really be “fifi songs” at all. Not having the plausible deniability of our fifi personas also meant that the songs would have to be, you know, extra good. Or something.

Determined to keep the project manageable and steer clear of the “Concept A***m” trap, we set a modified goal of recording a 5-song EP, which we later reduced to a 4-song CD Single. The planned songs included:

  • Paul’s Basement – a dissection of the Paul’s Basement zeitgeist, if you will, referencing tarantulas, guitar repair, and plenty of hot, hot teen action under moldy quilts
  • Grand Cinemas R.I.P. – an ode to the Mecca of our youth, now laid to waste by the Kohl’s infidels
  • Police Brutality – documenting our hellish sojourn in the wilds of downtown Tacoma, circa 1983, and…
  • Jason Goes to Hell – a trip-hop/poetry slam retelling of the similarly-titled story of my highly symbolic fall from a great height

Only “Grand Cinemas” and “Paul’s Basement” ever got within visible distance of being finished, however, leaving us with a classic 2-song 45.

To avoid the expense of a professional studio, we decided we would record these songs at home, using Apple’s GarageBand software (part of the $59 iLife package), on my work laptop. Not strictly within the parameters of the company equipment usage agreement I signed, but rock and roll is inherently defiant, is it not? HELLZ yeah! Eric rented an effects pedal from the music store where he worked part-time, Jolinda (Eric’s wife) had that electric piano thing – what’s it called? a clavicle? – Dan had a bass guitar, and I had some maracas and two karaoke microphones sitting around, so we figured we were pretty much set.

Two Songs! No problem, we thought! How long can it possibly take to record TWO FUCKING SONGS? In our case, over a year. Part of this is because Eric moved to another city just as we began the project, which is starting to seem like a pattern with him. But also, there was the whorish enticement of all those cool samples and effects included with GarageBand, and the possibility of filling up unlimited tracks per song proved impossible to resist, and, quite honestly, we’re not very “professional” and nobody really practiced their parts between recording sessions and – as is our custom – we occasionally got sick of each other and had to take a few months off to prevent the exchange of gunfire.

Here’s how it went down:

Everyone contributed lyrics, though Matt provided my favorite verse (in “Grand Cinemas,” about his lumbar), and I put a final “gloss” on the lot. Eric came up with the “Grand Cinemas” chords, and his wife Jolinda (mad props!) then recorded the piano parts on her clavicle or whatever, put the MIDI files on an old-school 3.5 floppy and mailed it to me via the U.S. Postal Service. Unfortunately, Macs don’t come with floppy drives anymore, so I had to load it on my Windows box then FTP it to my Mac, after which I loaded the MIDI file in GarageBand, and built the “Grand Cinemas” song around it, demonstrating once again that I got the skillz to pay the billz. Whenever Eric was in town, he’d stop by to record and also drink beer for a few hours, and I drove over the mountains to Eric’s house a couple times as well, where we’d spend 10 hours at a time huddled around my laptop in his cat-pee-smelling basement, trying not to wake the baby, and working the hell out of that rented effects pedal, after which Eric would sleep for two hours before his morning shift at the Orondo CiderWorks.

Mr. Dan Carnahan joined us for a grueling, all-day recording session out in the shed behind my house; in fact, Dan did a lot of the guitar stuff on Grand Cinemas, including the chocka-chocka Radiohead noise. Though initially skeptical, Eric now likes the chocka-chocka, as do I. This session produced some fantastic recordings, and also some hurt feelings and uncomfortable, brooding silences.

After all these years, Matt suddenly decided HE was a member of fifi(!), so I took my laptop over to Matt’s house and recorded his “When adults are saying NO! There is someplace you can GO!” vocals in his living room, while his son Nick averted his eyes, mortified. One night at Paul’s house, I convinced everyone present to contribute the “PAUL’S BASEMENT!” shout-out chorus response. I waited until they were very drunk, and I think it shows. I recorded my “Paul’s Basement” vocals in my son’s bedroom when everyone was out shopping, then proudly played an early mix for my wife Robin, who was unimpressed. “Your vocals aren’t very… powerful,” she noted. “Listen to Matt’s vocals – he’s got some real spunk.” So I tried again, with mixed results. Eric came over one Sunday and recorded the vocals and the reflective, nostalgia-inducing guitar solo for “Grand Cinemas” and the hyperactive, Lukather-ific solo for “Paul’s Basement.” Then we remembered that “Grand Cinemas” still needed a bass track, so Eric used his newly-purchased effects pedal (thank you, employee discount) to shift his guitar down an octave, and we were in like Flynn. Then Eric went in the living room to call his wife, while I shrieked out my “Grand Cinemas” backing vocals (“Cra-zee Mama!”).

At the last minute, we called Paul and told him about this great idea we had for a four-line spoken-word “rap” verse, and could he please come over right away, because we wanted to finish these damn songs tonight, and Eric still had to drive back to frigging Yakima. Unfortunately, Paul was helping Clint pull out a woodstove or some such nonsense, but as soon as he was done with that, he came over. We thrust the hand-written lyrics into his hand, handed him some headphones, sat him down in front of the microphone, and pressed “record.” One minute later, it was all over.

Somewhere during this process, we actually performed these two songs LIVE, in Paul’s ACTUAL Basement, but as anyone present that night can attest, we’re really more of a studio band. You know, like Steely Dan.

Despite the fact that these two songs were the least expensive things we’ve ever recorded (excepting the apocryphal “Thrash on You,” recorded on a Radio Shack cassette deck, with Jeff Henderson pounding on a bucket, but that hardly counts), they came out… pretty well. You know, for fifi.

In any case, I hope you enjoy them, because these will be the LAST SONGS WE EVER RECORD.

Except for that cover of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. We’re definitely going to finish that pretty soon here; I’m just trying to learn the yodeling part. After that, though, it is OVER.

Video

  1. Paul’s Basement
  2. Grand Cinemas R.I.P.

Audio

To download any of the songs individually, just right-click on the desired track in the playlist above and select “Save link as…”

To download the entire set in a .zip file, click here.

Lyrics

In case you’re interested (and also because Robin says she can’t understand what the hell we’re singing), the lyrics to all four originally-planned “Paul’s Basement” songs can be found here.

Proceed to the next chapter in the spellbinding fifi saga.

2 Comments

  1. The concert was performed after no rehearsals, just a quick run-through by Dan and me about 45 minutes earlier. Dan was, by the time of the performance, thoroughly enjoying the party’s generous proffering of a dizzying assortment of beers, and that can have an effect on live performances.

    As much as I really like these songs, I think a little remix of Paul’s Basement would be nice. A couple of the guitar tracks sound a little…thin, quiet. I found a little adjustment on the EQ goes a long way, though.

  2. I just about pissed myself listening to Grand Cinemas RIP.. oh dear Jeeeesus that was awesome!
    It’s too bad I missed it because my friend was upchucking Robin’s mojitos on Paul’s lawn…
    You are a glorious writer! More! More!

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