Saturday, December 8, 2012

Recording A New Record - Photos (A Trakan Music Update)

In my last article, I rolled out a long list of everything we've been up to in this indie music project. Well, today I want to focus on one thing in particular.  Lately we've been recording a brand new album! 

Pre-studio demoing of new tracks on my "portable studio"
Happily, for the first time in the five or six years that I've been doing this, I have a stable band contributing to the songwriting process and supporting me in the studio. 

So late this summer, after playing a smattering of shows to promote my second record, "Powder Kegs Beneath Dagger Trees" (PKBDT), I started showing up at the factory where we rehearse with some new songs I wrote on my acoustic.  We began composing parts as a band.

The resulting songs were quickly whipped into shape and ready for the studio late in September, so I reached out to the guy who mastered PKBDT, Mike Namoff at The Hatch Studios near China Town on the south side of Chicago. We put a schedule in place and agreed on pricing, and on September 30, the band showed up to kick off the recording of my my forthcoming third release, "Backporch Hymns."  

Mike Namoff behind the controls at The Hatch Studios
About two months later - last weekend - we finished those sessions, and the "Backporch Hymns" should be ready to hear in 2013 at some point (after all the editing, mixing, mastering, duplication, promotional, video and art decisions come together).

So I wanted to take a moment today as I switch gears from tracking to editing, and share some photos/stories from the our sessions.

To start, let me introduce you here to Mike Namoff, the owner and engineer at The Hatch Studios in Chicago.

In a great building with lots of history (an old lumber mill near the south branch of the Chicago River),  Mike's truly a good guy, laid-back, light on ego, and super talented.  I'm excited we met him before he gets too well-known and moves to LA or something.  I couldn't recommend an engineer more enthusiastically if you're in the market for a studio. Some of my Budweisers might even still be in the fridge if you hurry!  

Some more photos from our stay at The Hatch:

Here's Matt above, beating me to the comfy chair in the corner, clearly having an enlightened moment and demonstrating just how comfortable an experience it is recording at The Hatch.  (I took all these photos unless otherwise noted by the way.)

The view from the "control room," through the eyes of Mike the engineer.  Mike has a great balance in the way he works - flexible and respectful, letting us make all creative decisions without any overbearing "you should" advice, but also quick to provide timely and accurate production feedback when needed.  You could tell he was cheering for us, instead of just punching the clock and it was greatly appreciated.  (Again, you might notice a lot of Budweiser in this photo shoot.  You'd think we were going for a sponsorship or something!)

The very first thing you have to do when tracking a song (at least in my experience) is to put down "scratch tracks" that provide vocal cues and the song structure.  They are later "scratched" when the real drums, bass, guitar and vocals are put in place.  Here's me makin' scratch tracks. (Photo by Roxy)

In the "live room," the first thing we officially tracked was drums.  Here's a live Chris action shot from the room's sweet spot.

Roxy making badass rocker faces - how can she not, playing that sweet Lakland bass through that Orange amp?!  (We're big fans of both Lakland basses and Orange amps too by the way, in addition to Budweiser.)

Somehow we don't have any photos of Matt rockin' his Les Paul through Roxy's OCD pedal. (That's what we get for not having Rob Gaczol shooting the photos!)  I considered Photoshop-ing a Les Paul into this photo, but I guess we're settling for a Matt-on-bass action shot instead.

Claire waiting her turn above while Freddy kicks off his shoes and lays down some rhythm electric guitar.  Notice I beat Matt to the comfy corner chair this time.  He was forced to read his Peter Criss autobiography from the other couch.

Claire's turn!  We have so much cool instrumentation on this record, led by our mad Canadian fiddler here.  (More product placement in the background, of course.)

You can't have fiddle without a little washboard.  Am I right?!  Beside that thing's been laying in the corner of Trakanland studios for years.  I knew I'd eventually meet someone like Chris who could make it sound good with the pair of "second-hand keys" I've also had around for just such an occasion.

I added some steel drums, inside "the booth"... If we ever have to play this song on SNL, I'll need to find someone from Trinidad.  It took me two separate days to get this right.  (Photo by Claire)

I also found space in a song for a Sioux flute.  Because you can't have fiddle, washboard and steel drum without Sioux flute... again, am I right?!?! (Photo by Chris)

Finally, the official vocal tracks! (Photo here by Roxy)...

... and Roxy adding background harmonies to pretty this thing up.

Oh one last thing - thanks to Dave Noss, Joe Goldberg and Diana Jewell who contributed tracks a couple years back - tracks that I'm finally getting a chance to use on this EP.  I really appreciate your patience, guys.  

And I think I have photos laying around from those sessions a few years back too.  Let me see...

My good friend Dave Noss flew in from Cleveland a couple years back to add some drums.  How cool is that?  What's cooler is he's an airline pilot when he's not drumming, so he may have flown the plane himself.  

You may remember Joe Goldberg from my first record, "Opening Soon Under New Management"?  Well I don't have footage of him performing the part he plays on this next record, but let's go to the way-back machine above to see him in action from that first record.  (I CANNOT believe there was a bottle of Budweiser in this photo too.)

Last but certainly not least, I can't wait to finally share Ms. Diana Jewell's soulful vocals with you.  This is her above, tracking her performance for the next record a couple years back at Trakanland Studios.

So that's it!  The first hurdle - we have tracks.  Next step is me finding time to pick and choose the best performances ("editing"), after which time Mike at The Hatch will mix them.  

I'll need to find a mastering engineer after that, create all the package art, and decide how I want to package the final product.  All those stories coming soon!  For now, off to work on editing those tracks. With a bottle of Bud.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"You Should"... Be Blogging More (A Trakan Music Update)

Funny thing, making this indie project.  You hear all kinds of "you should…" or "you have to…"  advice from literally everyone and... 

I KNOW. I know...  

I should blog on a more regular basis.  And I really want to - there is so much great genuinely-indie stuff happening behind the scenes of the Trakan project.  I really do need to find more time to maintain this journal.  But man, been busy.  Sorry for that cliche excuse, but really man, been real busy behind the scenes and it cuts into time I can spend on hanging out here.  Let me explain...

Recording and promoting music isn't just about writing songs.  In fact I almost never get to write songs at my level.  Most of those "you-should"-advisers end up looking at me confusedly when I lay out exactly how much goes into making indie music behind the scenes.  I found this checklist recently, a long 10-point checklist for indie musicians to help them organize the efforts they "should" be doing.  

I was excited to read that checklist too because I spend a lot of time thinking about such things - how to balance everything big famous bands do (with their teams of agents, artists, film-makers, and other executives that manage their production, distribution, marketing, etc.)  We indie artists have to do all that stuff too (we are often reminded by the "you-should"-ers that "Radiohead did [whatever], so you should [do that too], Trakan!").  But we have to do it by ourselves, independently, with no budget, and to the best of our ability. And damn anyone who doesn't agree that there is some great indie music projects happening these days on shoe-string budgets around day jobs.  I know I'm proud of mine.

Well anyway, I looked at that checklist, and reflected on myself and how many things there really are to do, to do this "right," and I've begun to imagine that the tasks fall into the hands of imaginary "departments" in my imaginary production "team" (because of course, it's almost all me on those department "teams," but what the hell - if this is an expensive hobby, I might as well imagine it's a business and I'm the staff, right?

So let me expand on that checklist, highlighting everything I've been up to the past eight months, during the time you've been asking why I've been neglecting this here blog.  Please read to the end, friends - things are clearing up!  More blogs more regularly soon!

First, to do this making-music thing right, obviously an indie musician needs to find time to write good songs.  The checklist doesn't mention this, I suspect because it seems so obvious, but you have to have cool music to promote. 

I savor the moments I get to take new songs I've written to my band, because that’s why I'm doing this ultimately – I'm a musician and a song-writer. And unfortunately and somewhat ironically, these times don't come around much over the course of the year, where I actually have time to actually write music for the next album.  We just finished writing my upcoming third release, due out in 2013.  Not sure when writing for the fourth will commence.

Roxy tracking bass at The Hatch Studios (photo by Trakan)

Because you also have to spend a lot of available time-in-the-day as "band manager," "graphic designer" and "producer," recruiting band mates, teaching/refining the songs, tracking the parts in a studio, editing/mixing the songs, mastering the final record, creating the album art (I’ve gotten pretty good with Photoshop and Illustrator I think), and working with the factory that takes your master and your graphic design files and actually packages the final music into large cardboard boxes full of hundred of CDs (that your "fulfillment department" will need to find room to store. Mine are in my back room, which also serves as "Trakanland Studios" when I'm the acting engineer, sinking hours and hours into editing tracks we've recorded.) 

I know - it all sounds fun as individual tasks... and it is!  I'm living a dream.  But there are only so many hours.

And a lot of those hours remaining go to additional roles once you have a product, such as "booking agent," "promoter" and "street team" (with more design, PR and band management roles). You have to book shows which is a black art for another discussion another day.

When you get a show, you have to book rehearsals and manage the band's schedule (they have lives).  You manage the rehearsals, coordinating set lists and what you’re going to do/say on stage. Then you promote the shows (with social media outreach, designing handbills/posters, distributing the handbills/posters – by the way, band mates and the venues themselves aren't always helpful here, so you have to do more than you hope by yourself).  Finally you manage the day of the show itself (distributing a pirate's share of about $10 a person at the end of the night after the club takes all the money).  

Elbo Room 2012 (photo by Gaczol)

I swear though, even after all the expense and pain that goes into taking a show to stage, that 45 minutes you're on stage with your guitar, looking past the stage lights, actually performing... well not to get too sappy, but it's priceless at that moment - actually doing musician-things again for a few minutes. 

Then, the days following a show, you send thank yous and listen to friends who didn't come to the show ask you, "when’s the next show?"  Hahaha.  

(I haven’t toured yet.  I’ll get back to you on what that takes later.  I also, so far, tend to avoid festival bookings.  As you know, I hate summer.  But I’m told that this is something I "should" look into as well.)

Then, assuming you didn't sell out all your CDs from the merch table at the show, the "distribution department" in you has to find ways to distribute the music – both digital copies and physical copies.  It cost you thousands to make the music.  Kiss that money away, because after the five you sold at the show, good luck finding anyone who isn't advising that "you should" give the songs away for free (Radiohead did after all, fool!...  An aside - these same people are often the ones who tell you you should play more shows, even if they haven't been to one in almost ever). I digress... you already know you have to play more shows and probably have to give away your music for less than it cost to make, but you play along anyway, enjoying the attention you're getting from a dude in a bar stool who's got all your answers.

All joking aside, it does actually occasionally happen.  Some awesome local music lovers DO actually buy physical copies of the records (thank you!!!).  At this point, you become the "shipping/fulfillment" department, and find yourself waiting in long post-office lines, learning all sorts of packaging and customs rules.  

For those who prefer to purchase digital copies, you have to set up Paypal accounts and configure online stores to handle digital distribution.  In either case - digital or physical - the person who bought your songs (unless they're musicians who understand your pain) will rarely tell you what they thought of the music, leaving you somewhat empty inside - we all hope people like our music.  (Ever since I started doing this indie project, I make sure to contact musicians when I hear their music I like.  Musicians are nice people in general.)

Then there is the "Business and Legal Department."  It took me a long time to find a lawyer I like and trust.  I now handle all the artist agreements (from templates my lawyer provided - when I don't need specific help), and I handle all accounting and inventory.  I fill out all the copyright forms and make all the submissions to the copyright office, and I maintain my ASCAP artist membership, in the case one of my songs ever end up in a film.  (I’m told that I should look into film licensing opportunities.  It’s on my short list, if I find the right people, after weeks of upcoming research.)

"The Bridge" Video Shoot (photo by Gaczol)
Then there is the "video department."  

Thanks for reading this far into this article by the way.  I know I "shouldn't" write so much.  And that instead people prefer visuals and brevity.  So, while brevity is shot today... visuals - right...

I've made two videos so far with one more for "The Bridge" in post-production (created over the past few months when I haven’t been blogging), and one new video in pre-production for a song from the studio work we've been doing over the past few months (during time I haven’t been blogging).  

Video – wow so much goes into video.  It’s been a great learning process and they are becoming a lot of fun to make.  First you have to pick a song and have a basic concept (not nearly as easy as it sounds), then you have to find a director and/or film-maker (one you can afford) that wants to turn your concept into something video-worthy (because you’re a musician – what do you know of film?  I learned this lesson on my first video for "Summer" which I went into way too heavy-handed on the concept).  

Then there are months of coordinating schedules, putting together shot-sheets and brainstorming.  The whole time, all of the producer roles land in your lap and all expenses land on your credit card.  Roles such as finding any actors, tracking down Sean the Devil, managing the troupe, securing lighting/locations/wardrobe/props.  Then you have to film the thing of course.  Then weeks of editing, and finally of course, distribution/finding an audience.  

"The Bridge" Video Shoot (photo by Gaczol)
Most people are used to Hollywood-sized productions and see billions of videos online, so don't expect a lot of slack-jawed admiration from the masses.  I'm still not totally sure how to distribute them. That said, I am a firm believer that a cool concept trumps a lack of production budget and I feel we're getting better at all this in general.  So here's hoping when you to see the video in early 2013 for "The Bridge" you dig it. I can't wait to get to work with the cool video team I now have for the next video.

Next there is the "marketing department" - PR, marketing, radio, outreach.  Unfortunately this is an arena that I find difficult.  Its so vital and I just don’t have the patience, the connections, or the time to be great at it.  I’m considering paying for these services moving forward instead of doing it all myself (even though I hear horror stories about big expenses and small returns on investment). That said, for now, I am the marketing department as well.  

I spend much of my "marketing" time researching how to write press documents, then actually writing my press documents and one-sheets, then obsessing and modifying the language of those press documents over and over and over again, always searching for bloggers and folks in the press or radio who might like my style of music.  Then you have to figure out how each writer or music director prefers to receive the songs so I don't piss them off out of the gate with something they don't want (sending a CD for instance, instead of the download link they specifically require).  So it's always a game (when you don't know them) figuring out what kind of lead time each person needs, how do you deliver the songs, what are their pet peeves?  

Expensive trips to the post office to mail packages of demos/one-sheets/customized cover letters follow. You're excited for a potential review in Pitchfork while waiting in line, but you know that in all likelihood, the package is going to land on a pile of hundreds of competing submissions and probably, ultimately, into the garbage unopened.  

The goal of the marketing department as I understand it at this point is to hunt for reviews or radio play that lend credibility to the project and maybe draw a little attention your way, so you wait, hoping they listened.  You Google yourself shamelessly searching for a playlist or a review because they usually don't contact you when it happens (hell, I’ve begun hoping for rejection letters, which are better in some ways than silence).  You follow up when you don’t hear back, and then follow up again, savoring and publishing any radio play, reviews or feedback (as good or bad as it is.  I delighted in Richard Milne of WXRT telling me "you don’t suck".)  
Click here to see my press stuff

Then it’s off to the website and your press documents to add any victories like “You don’t suck. - Richard Milne” to the top of the one-sheet.

If you’re lucky after all this, you don’t have to replace band mates along the way, causing you to have to re-teach songs, and slowing your ability to push forward with the incessant needs of other "departments." So far in 2012, I've managed to keep rolling.

Oh and don't forget that you should be managing your photos/files/posts daily on a myriad different social media sites. (I'm still sorting through thousands of photos various photographers have been kind enough to take for me to document this whole thing.)

Which reminds me - are you tweeting every day?  They say I should. Lately I've been hitting FacebookReverbnationTwitter and Soundcloud the most, when I find time.

Are you adding new content to your website (I build my own website too - months at a time - which I use as a hub for all my social media/online presence).

Oh and - are you blogging regularly?!?!  Right!  This brings me to my original point.

Sorry not blogging like I should lately.  Just simply been busy in 2012 with that other stuff up there, my friends.  (Alongside a job hunt that just landed me a great day job - because as an uncle once not-so-encouragingly reminded me, "you shouldn't quit your day job."  Which IS actually true – after all, all that stuff up there is really expensive.)

Am I complaining, by the way? No.  Let me sum up this long-ass post...

In fact, I’m just trying to organize everything I've been up to, outlining everything I need to start finding time to share with you on this blog. 

Because I've done all of that stuff I just mentioned the past eight months.  And I'm not quitting.  We have a new record tracked for 2013, a new video coming... still shamelessly Googling myself most days in search of new press while writing unreciprocated emails to others in the press by the dozens... and I'm always thinking about better ways to handle PR/Booking.  So this whole thing is just a cycle that you get better at each turn, hoping for some luck, meeting better people along the way that believe in you and help you out, and ideally find time to blog once a freaking week.

So bear with me as the dust settles.  Stories and photos and new songs and videos coming soon, mes amis!

(And as always, these are just my experiences.  Feel free to contact me here via comments, or via the website if you want to share ideas!)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

You listened to me play on the radio Friday… Have you met DJs Razor and Di?

Part of the challenge as an independent musician of course is getting heard.  I find myself always pushing pushing pushing toward targets on the horizon... you know, that new record is never "coming quick enough"... that elusive review or booking is lost in the limbo of an unrequited email inquiry.  You push the bounds of your life outside the day job, and probably of your health.  And the reward for the effort is more and more deafening silence as you target bigger and bigger goals.  It's a war of attrition, it sometimes seems.

But then there are moments where I'm forced to stop my march toward whatever I've targeted over that next bridge, take off the blinders, and really reflect on where I'm standing at the moment.

So yesterday, hours after playing live on the radio, while decompressing shotgun, as Veek weaved back through rush hour traffic toward the rehearsal space to dump off our gear, I saw someone walking with her guitar to a class at Old Town School of Folk Music on Armitage.  This girl was off to learn the guitar (I imagine.  Maybe she's a virtuoso teacher for all I know).

Regardless it gave me a chance to really think about how at one point I was learning barre chords.

At that moment, I thought, "Damn that used to be me, but today I was on the radio."

photo by Di Kulka

How did I get from there to here??

The way I see it, I got to play live on the radio because of at least three basic things:  I made what I hope is pretty good music.  I found a team of musicians that (for the moment) believes in my music and/or hasn't pissed me off.  And thirdly, after many years, I've gotten to know two DJs here in Chicago who genuinely seem to like the music, me and the people in my band.



Sometimes in the past the convergence of those three things has felt like impossibility.

So assuming you're a musician in Chicago writing your own music (and if not, I do highly recommend training at the Old Town School of Folk Music), and you have a cool band... allow me to introduce you, if you haven’t met, to Razor and Di of "The Razor and Die Show" on Chicago's (88.7 fm).

Hosts of what is becoming a Friday afternoon tradition in Chicago, Di and Razor embody an authentic rock spirit in my opinion, and in my mind are two of the greatest, most-genuine champions of independent music going.

In an era where six companies control most of the music we hear (resulting in some 80% of all radio playlists matching across our airwaves), Razor and Di are a throwback to an endangered species – the legendary Johnny Fever type of DJs that spin records because they like them, not because market research tells them what to play... the type of DJs who still care so passionately about music that (a lot like us indie musicians ourselves) they sacrifice their time not for money, but instead to celebrate an art form so primal that birds and cavemen were creating it in the beginning of time.

And they definitely have the music history acumen to take on this role.  With audiophile roots dating at least back to the early 80s punk and new wave scene (if the images of them as badass Psychedelic Furs looking kids posted on their anniversary party invitation are any sort of clue), if you're ever lucky enough to sit in the studio and hear their off-mic banter about unfamiliar songs old and new, take full advantage.

By the way, I just reminded myself - DAMMIT I meant to shoot them "Happy Anniversary!" wishes on the air but forgot... but really that's Di's fault, cuz she took so much time and care to prepare an interview that was customized specifically for me, with "real" thought-provoking questions, that I simply forgot... instead having to manage on-air toughies like:

"So what’s in the future for Trakan now that you finally have a band together and new recordings?  What's after that?"


Ha again.

For those of you who have been reading my blog, you know that "the band" and "the future" keep me cautiously optimistic at best (and wide awake with insomnia in the middle of the night on bad days).  So much so that in tough times (for those who know me even more personally) it's a fundamental question that sometimes makes me want to quit entirely!

photo by Rob Gaczol

But not today.  Today I feel fulfilled.  Fueled by playing my music on the radio to two amazing DJs and everyone that tuned in, I am putting the blinders back on and charging toward the next stretch of deafening silence, onward toward that next ellusive big goal over the bridge, whatever it is.

Meantime, I leave you with The Razor and Di Show.

Here is their official facebook page.  And their official website.

Listen to then here next week Friday from 2pm till 6pm on (88.7 on the local Chicago FM dial) for more live local music, thoughtful interviews and a ton of great music.

I know I will... whatever you're in the mood to play, Di and Razor, I'm just gonna sit back at my day job and enjoy whatever tunes you show up with, to cap another work week.

Old School.

(I'll post more photos after I get them.  Meantime listen to the show here if you missed it!)

Oh and Happy Anniversary, Razor and Di!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Want to share some ideas? Let's talk shop.

Well enough talk about me.  I've introduced some songs off my new CD, my band, and my new video. I've let you inside rehearsals and performances.  We have one final radio performance coming up on June 8th, then we're producing a couple new videos and recording a new EP for early 2012.  Oh but don't worry - when news from my indie project breaks, you'll hear it first!

But let's talk about you now...

It's come to my attention that others out there might be wondering where to start making their own records, assembling their own bands, making their own indie videos, etc. etc.  (Of course, I'm not playing Wembley Stadium at this point, so I have a lot of bridges to cross still, but I might have some knowledge to share.  Or maybe we can bounce ideas off each other.  By all means, if anything I write seems incomplete or off (in your experience) I am completely open to questions, comments, and your advice.  I look forward to meeting you.

In the coming weeks, I'll get the ball rolling, introducing you to some of things I've learned.  I'll write "How to…" sorts of blogs.  I figure, hell, even if no one need or reads them, I'll at least be documenting what I did.  There is a lot to remember when you're doing it all yourself, so next year when I'm copyrighting my 4th release, future-me can come back here to my blog and remember what the hell I did.  "Oh yes – Copyright Form SR.  Right. Thanks, past-me."

I'll also introduce you to some of the people I've met along the path during these early stages of my career - my favorite people in the music community - bands, press, radio, booking agents, engineers, bloggers, fans. etc.  (By the way - none of this will be pandering bullshit – these will be people who I personally know are doing good work.  People you should know too.)

So let me kick this thing off with a brand new lesson I learned just last night!

? How to get your blog listed on Technorati (an online blog search engine, if you don't know, that will hopefully help you connect with other fish in the big indie music sea?)

Well, it seems you have to sign up and fill out a pretty straight-forward form.  (As an indie musician, you have to fill out so many online forms while "making music," that it seems there is never time to make music!).

Then you have to embed a validation code inside one of your blog posts.  Like so:  XPNDZZRRN946 (You see that Technorati?)

There you go – our first shared lesson!  Catch you soon with more!  And looking forward to meeting you.

With a firm handshake,

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A spirit guide! (story of "Valarie")

Sometimes your spirit guide finds you in the most unlikely places, wearing the most surprising faces.  Sometimes they find you sort of plodding along and they show up to give you a little nudge right when you're about to give up. On my new record's third track, my spirit guide Valarie finds me just in time.

For those keeping up (and between you and me, you're still not late - you can go download these songs for free if you want to follow along at Soundcloud)...

The first track, “The Bridge” kicked off this whole adventure, all about some nervous indie musician confronting his initial fears, escaping the weeds, and accepting the challenge to cross into a dreamscape.

The second song, “All I Need” finds the musician on the other side of the bridge, wondering what he got himself into and wondering if it's all worth it. Caught in the dark recesses of his mind, yang battles yin, anima slaps animus, everyone leaves him behind, and he's trapped in hell. In the end, there's no place to go but forward.

"Valarie" is the third stop on the record... the third chapter in the story... and hey how about that?!  A happy poppy song for all you busting my chops all the time about being so "dark"!!  In this song, the musician finally runs into a true friend - a guardian angel actually - in a road-side coffee house.  Listen here if you haven't heard.

Metaphorically, Valarie represents those who give you the strength to keep going, to keep trying to succeed, because they truly and purely believes in you. Those who will be there in the end. (And these are people hard to find I think. I can count on half a hand how many of these people I have in my life.) 

In my story, this person is so hard to find, well this person isn't even real. Valarie is a ghost... a guardian angel... a spirit guide. Let me explain...

The song was inspired by a couple true stories actually.

Several day jobs ago, I was cubicling in a big downtown corporate hellhole. I was in the midst of an out of control caffeine addiction – it got so bad I actually waited in line every morning with the other drones at – seriously – a f#$king Starbucks across the street. (Seriously – if you ever get trapped in downtown Chicago, trust me there are no other coffee house options.)

There was a barrista who worked there for no more than a month.  She knew me only as “Venti Four Shot Americano."

We never even talked, but I swear there was something in her face or aura or something that reminded me of my grandmother Valarie, whom I never met. So I jotted a couple lyrics into my song notebook and it sat in my song-notebook-shoebox for several years before the rest of the song came to me.

So fast-forward a few years - one day I'm wandering home from teaching on Chicago's west side, and a melody pops into my brain jukebox. I couldn't get home quick enough. Fortunately, I didn't forget the tune on the bus ride, turned on my digi recorder when I got home, grabbed my acoustic, and the music quickly fell in place. Rifling thru my shoebox, I found the old lyrics that this was built around, and the whole song came together about 30 minutes later.

Which is cool.  

See, the real Valarie (my grandmother) died of breast cancer at a pretty young age before I was born, so I never knew her.  All I know about her comes from a couple pictures laying around (she's top-left there with a bunch of other grandmas and aunts I suspect - more relatives I never met), as well as occasional holiday stories, and of course the musical gifts she left me (to my knowledge, no one else in the family plays any instruments – except my brother who plays a bit of percussion, and my aunts - Valarie's daughters - who play glockenspiel and a deck of cards on my new CD.)  Valarie, I'm told was a fantastic musician though. 

I've always wanted to meet her, and well now there is this sort of musical connection. The moment it came together, Veek was at work and I had a very personally almost spiritual moment.  Which is appropriate for a song about a spirit guide, no?

So there you go – a deja vu story/past-life sort of thing with this song – guided by spirits perhaps.  Thanks, Grandma Valarie, for this musical "curse"! :)

But hey - don't get too caught up in all this happiness now!!  This independent music road is a yo-yo ride.  So don't be surprised if the fourth track contains another dark obstacle along the path. Another bridge perhaps. This time with a guardian gate-keeper maybe? Nice.

More Valarie Trivia

Valarie was of Irish heritage, which helped me decide to color the instrumentation with banjo.

That's me playing the banjo on this track – which not coincidentally was first owned by.... Valarie! 

Diana Jewell, a bartender at the pub where many of the record's lyrics were physically put onto paper, replaced Heather Perry's original vocal track. Heather had some issue with all the “on-and-ons” at the end. (I wasn't asking for help writing the song though. And Diana had no problems singing the lyrics.  Thanks, Diana!)

Heather Perry remains on bass, but isn't singing here.

Merilee Phillips makes another appearance on cello.

Valarie's banjo is also the very same banjo I played on Jackknifed Truck from Opening Soon Under New Management (another supernatural story of sorts... what is it with the banjo and ghost stories with me?)

Rosie O'Connell, a real live Irish person (and also a bartender, at a different pub down the street from where I live) added a hint of brogue. I tried getting her a copy of the song via the current bartender – her cousin – since she relocated to the far west burbs, but it seemed like he didn't give a crap, and I doubt the CD got to her. So Rosie – if you ever read this, let me know and I'll get you a copy.

Chris Warren is there on drums. Like a rock.

And that's about it.  Catch you soon with the story behind "Long Way From Home" - go listen to it on Soundcloud in the meantime!!

And thanks a ton for all the support so far on this record everyone.  Be sure to listen to us play this and other songs live on WLUW radio on June 8 at 3pm.  Stream it from work or anywhere in the world at

We'll be interviewed and hanging with the amazingly cool and awesome Razor and Die show.  And that's not just me blowing smoke.  Their radio show really is the coolest for those of you looking for new music.  Check em out every Friday.  And definitely Friday June 8 at 3 pm :)  We're really excited to be their guests.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why so much devil, Trakan?

You may have noticed that the devil makes a few appearances in my songs and videos.  

For instance, you might remember the "Sean the Devil" character first showing up in my video for my song "Summer," from my first record a couple years back, Opening Soon Under New Management

So, after releasing the new video for "All I Need" last week, an observant fan pulled me aside and worried, "so I see Satan makes another appearance in your new video."  

No no no.  

This isn't that Christian character "Satan."  Notice "Sean the Devil" is not sporting horns or tail or pitchfork.  Instead, my devil is a metaphor.

Maybe you're confused.  You might be wondering...

"Your devil, Trakan? Explain."  

"Why the occasional references to demons on this new CD [in the back stories for songs like "All I Need"]?  

"On the new CD I bought from you, I see a song called 'Cab Six Six Six'?  Is there really such a devil cab?  Why are you riding in it, Trakan?"

"Who exactly is this 'Sean the Devil' character?  (And where did he get the badass leather jacket I see him wearing in the videos and occasionally on stage with you?)"

"Really...why so dark, Trakan?  I thought you were a nice guy."

Whoa ok ok ok.  One question at a time!

See, this is why I'm writing this blog today – to clarify the details on the devil, and to introduce you to the man behind that super-cool leather jacket (By the way, I don't know where he got that jacket, but I do agree it's super-cool and I too am envious.)

And I can't say too much right now about "Cab Six Six Six" yet.  (If you bought the CD already - thank you!  Please do go get it and put track 6 on while you read the rest of this blog!)  

I can say this:  I'm releasing "Cab Six Six Six" for free download in July when it's hot as hell outside.  You will be able to download it for free at that point via the website - just like you can STILL download "Valarie" for FREE the last ten days this month!!

(Oh and it is definitely a real cab that patrols the north side of Chicago.  I've never ridden inside.  Caroline Horist took the picture you see in the CD's liner art, from the cab's back seat.  Again, I'll give you all the details here on the blog in July.  Check back in this summer!)

Any rate, "All I Need" and "Cab Six Six Six" off the new CD are songs built on metaphors about defeating self-doubt, fear and temptation. 

My devil, the devil who appears in my project represents mischief, temptation, personal demons, and an occasional "damn I had too much fun last night and now I'm in hell this morning" experience (which actually does happen every time I run into Sean the Devil, by the way!)

My poetic, metaphoric devil represents envy and jealousy, and making decisions that leave other choices you could have made on the table - with the very human problem of "never knowing what could have been."  Cuz, sometimes I feel "cursed" pursuing this music thing.  

I mean I can't stop writing songs.  I'm a song-writer.  I love writing songs.  My hell instead comes from deciding whether I record or perform the songs I write.  Whether I should kill my bank account hiring PR people and wrapping the CD in plastic packaging. Whether I should write this blog instead of taking a nap.  Whether the sacrifices I am making will lead to regret.

It's lonely and expensive sometimes. And other times, it's full of ego and temptation.  And it's all a mirage and sometimes it's feels like it's "cursed," "damned"... what have you, my devil is about my very human experience... this "hell on earth" personal battle wiggles its way into my conscience a lot when I'm writing.

So again, my devil is metaphoric, not literal.  There ya go. 

Now who's this cool cat Sean the Devil who keeps showing up in the videos and occasionally on stage?

Let me introduce Mr. Sean Shadrach  (aka Sean the Devil or Old Man Sean).    

Appropriately I met Sean at one of my local watering holes. I used to stop by this bar on the north side called "The Daily" in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.  Neither one of us hang out there too often anymore.  The whole neighborhood has changed a lot since then. It's all baby stroller-y and packed with Michigan refugees now.  And the staff has changed a lot.  For me, I used to swing by to have a beer with a familiar staff of friends, and the cool regulars.  

There was a contingency of dudes who are a bit older than me - you know, guys "from the neighborhood" - a throwback to the tavern scene that my old man says existed in Chicago before my era when Mayor Daley messed everything up.

One of these bar-flies was Sean. 

We actually first broke the ice over the subject of carpentry one afternoon.  Me? I used to spin wing-nuts in college during the summer, building trade-show displays at McCormick Place. So I'm a part-time "used to be in a carpenter's union" guy with a genuine interest in the craft. But Sean is the real deal - a cabinet maker and finishing carpenter, it turns out he discovered that bar while installing its booths, and he just kept coming back to hang with the same cool staff. 

This "carpentry" conversation happened just as I was about to release my first CD, Opening Soon Under New Management, which opened with that song called "Summer." (Maybe you bought a copy? Thank you for supporting indie music! This is the point where you should go into the other room, find the CD, and cue up the first track "Summer," to listen along while finishing this blog.)

So you know the lyric, "the devil raises a glass and makes a toast to the summer," right? I felt I needed a scene with the devil in the video.  So I looked to my left at the bar stool next to me and there was Sean.

I mean look at the guy - tell me he shouldn't be cast as "the devil."  Beside, he really does have this devilish knack for showing up just when I need to go home, and twisting my arm into more beers and shots.  This was a no-brainer.

And Sean was into it.  Steals the show in the "Summer" video

He got into it so much and did such a great job, a "fan" started a myspace page for him and he got cast in another band's video as well!  We're making stars here! :)

But here's the really cool thing.  During the course of this project, no one has been more supportive of my music, more respectful to me and Veek, and more eager in promoting my songs than Sean. He's turned into a great friend, and probably my most supportive "fan."

And what devil wouldn't continuously feed your ego and tell you to keep a walking a path of the damned when you're about to give up?!  He's always there telling me "you're my favorite band," or "if this was the 70s, you'd be a star.  What is it with these people these days?" whenever I find myself playing to a small crowd.  

He even actively tells other people about my project - which is a borderline miracle in the white noise of this social media era (If only he was a writer for the Tribune or a PR mogul!! ) 

What else can I say about Sean in this bio here?  Genuinely enjoys life.  No perceived drama.  Toasts the summer (a Leo of course).  Hell of a conversationalist.  Great laugh you can count on.  Perfect Devil.  A true pal.  Thanks, Sean!

So if you see Sean at a show, give him a "hi," and encourage him to drink a little more at the bar so he gets the nerve to jump up and dance on stage during "Summer."   A karate student with excellent dance footwork, you will not be disappointed with his moves. And even a devil needs to be tempted and encouraged sometimes, so buy him a shot and get him on stage.

And or course, if you haven't yet, be sure to look for him in the corner of the room in the new video for All I Need!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Official Record Release Party - Set One (part b)

Here are some more photos taken at the CD release show on February 22, taken this time by Mr. Kennedy Shenberg of Chicago's Coldforge Studios. Hot off the DVD-R he handed to me just the other day! Thanks Kennedy!

No idea what Chris has stuffed behind the kick cover up there. I prefer that it remains a mystery. Let's get started...

A nice shot from the second row (above). What a great crowd!

.... and another from the front row (below).

(I'm not invisible in reality. That's motion, y'all! Captured by the magic of photography!) Ms. Roxy Swain on bass and Mr. Matt Walters on guitar. We were cramped... I only bumped into Matt a couple times throughout the night somehow.

These are out of sequence, I just realized. My fault. Below, this is us just prior to the first song of the set, "We'll Be Strangers." Don't ask me how I know. I just do... Ms. Claire Halpin on fiddle back there, and working double-time carding Chicago's youth as they come through the door. No no no. Just fiddle. No minors were in attendance.

This photo below is a little later in the first set... maybe we're back in sequence, now? Lovely Roxy harmonies!

Nope. Still totally out of sequence. This photo below is "Long Way From Home," which we played second (and will be available for free download in May!! This month's free download will be available on the "Listen" page on April 17, for those keeping up with my free stuff on the website.)

People keep asking me if that's Jesus on the guitar strap above. As you know by now, we swap instruments a lot on stage. In this photo above, Freddy is playing my acoustic, and I'm wearing Freddy's strap. That's not Jesus on Freddy's strap. Although he might disagree.

Matt acting invisible now, below...

Matt also sporting the "Wino" shirt below, the second in my growing collection of Trakan-brand hand-made t-shirts.

(Thanks again to Webster Wine Bar for all your support - for letting us release the record with you, and of course for letting us film the video for All I Need upstairs! We're forever honorary Winos!!)

Damn. Here's another photo (below, and out of sequence) from the very first song...

But I wanted to showcase it last, cuz it's just about the closest a photographer has gotten to date, of capturing all six of us in action on stage at the same time!! Turn your head right a tad, Chris!! Almost :)

I'll leave you with that for now. Awesome photos, Kennedy! Thanks my man!!!! And thanks to everyone who came and filled the wine bar to capacity on that super-fun Monday in late February!!