by Geoffrey Davis, Canadian Musician, June 1993
(contributed by Chris Edwards)
The Pursuit of Happiness have kicked off 1993 with an excursion down the road oft traveled, but less well documented. The Downward Road, their new 15-track release uses, according to singer/ guitarist/ pundit Moe Berg, "that idea of 'the downward road' or the road to hell as the centrepiece conceptually. It's not literally about the road to hell, but more about things falling apart, the descent to adulthood." The honeymoon is over - now the work begins.
Gifted with an almost patentable ability to turn the tables on pop clichés, Berg and various incarnations of TPOH have been battling the 'Corn God', so to speak, since the band's self-recorded and promoted first release "I'm An Adult Now" in 1986. Signed by Chrysalis, they released two Todd Rundgren-produced albums. 1988's platinum-selling debut, Love Junk, (from which "She's So Young" and a retooled "I'm An Adult Now" were released, breaking considerable CHR ground) and 1990's gold One Sided Story gave them enough profile to attract Mercury/Polygram, which became their new label.
The Downward Road marks a change in the affairs of the band. Instead of recording with Todd Rundgren at his studio, TPOH opted to go with a new producer, Ed Stasium (Living Colour, Ramones, Smithereens), and a new recording location, Los Angeles. Also, a new lineup has been ratified. 1993's team features Berg, lead vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and lyricist; Kris Abbott, rhythm guitar, vocals; Dave Gilby, drums; and recent additions Brad Barker, bass, vocals; and Rachel Oldfield, vocals.
The first single to be released is pure Moe. A sharp, cynical incision into the workings of a semi- depraved, domination-based relationship, "Cigarette Dangles" features a video by the much-lauded Canadian director Bruce McDonald (Highway 61), with special effects by video wonder company Topix. One line of thought has it that all Moe wants to do is get us hot and bothered with his imagery, but this type of examination is necessary for him to be able to explore the humour, ironies and nonsense of romance and relationships. "Besides," says Moe, "a lot of the songs you hear are about sex. Other writers are just a little more hidden about it. Those songs are nice and comfy and safe. I just try to say it like I see it. In these situations, that's just the way things occur to me. Other people may see it in a 'moon, June..' kind of way - that might really be the way they see the whole thing. The way I think about the subject is the way it ends up on the record." That's not to say that the situations in these songs are autobiographical. Asserts Moe: "It's mostly made up stuff. I unfortunately don't have the ability to walk through the woods and notice the beauty of it. Everything is somewhat made up."
Included in the things that got made up for this release is an alliance with new producer Ed Stasium. But Stasium brought more than just his personality to the project. Moe explains, "We did the first record with Todd (Rundgren) in three weeks. Whereas the record we did with Ed almost took three months. That was the first difference. The second was that Todd really went for the live thing. We all played together, and everything went down at the same time live, except for the vocals and guitar solos. Ed, on the other hand, is more conventional. That sounds odd (especially about a guy who's produced Living Colour and The Smithereens...), but the way records are made now is the way Ed makes them, with more sweating on the details.
"There's a whole different philosophy on this record," continues Berg. "Todd was more of a 'big picture' kind of a producer. However, he had a concept for the backing vocals that actually helped us define the sound of the band. Todd thought of the backing vocals as more of an effect. Ed saw the background vocals in a more organic way. In terms of getting a sound for them, or recording them, Todd wanted to make them more unusual, whereas Ed's more of a traditionalist. And that went all the way down the line. Things like guitar sounds and stuff - working with Todd, there was nothing that was too far out. In fact, he was constantly pulling me in that direction, to make things sound more odd or weird.
"But with Ed, it was exactly the opposite. Whenever something would sound too weird, or too synthetic, he was constantly pulling me back and saying 'Well, no, I'd like it to sound a little bit more real.'"
Some of the touches of reality TPOH got to include are through the use of some pretty famous gear. Moe tells the tale: "I used some of Spinal Tap's speaker bottoms - Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins Marshall 4x12"s. They just happened to be at one of the four studios we recorded at. For a guitar solo on 'The Downward Road (Revisited),' I used the Leslie speaker that was used on (Steppenwolf's hit single) 'Born to Be Wild.' The guys who own the studio called American Recorders produced all the Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night stuff and have a room full of vintage instruments." Says Kris, "It was a lot of fun trying out these vintage instruments for this sound and that sound, but ultimately, we stuck with what we're able to do ourselves."
"The first couple of times we went into one of the studios," she admits, "we were relaxing on the couch and putting our feet up on this thing, it was all covered up. Later, we found out it was this historic Hammond B-3 organ that had been used for all these big hit records, and we just went whoa!"
Going with their own sound proved to be the best idea. The Downward Road shows the band in a cleaner, tighter, more focused sounding frame than the previous two releases. Kris Abbott details the experience, "Ed seemed to have this philosophy that it was very important to capture the sound of the band the way it is. No matter how many bands use the same guitar and the same amps, every band has a slightly different sound because of the way that different people play their instruments and the personal preference in tone and all that kind of thing. So it was really important to him that he start out with what we are. Our true sound.
"Then, what he would do is fine tune that to make it a better thing. For example, I started off with my Kramer and my Fender amp, with the type and amount of distortion that I liked. What he suggested was that I use a Marshall closed-back cabinet with the same amp. It gave out pretty much the same sound, but a little bit bigger and a little bit tougher. He would ask 'How do you want your guitar to sound here?' and then direct us into finding that. It became really important that we sound like ourselves. He didn't want to give us this totally brand new sound.
"Ed had such a different approach to recording," continues Kris, "that you couldn't really compare it to Todd. It was as if we had never made an album before. Even the preproduction rehearsal stages were totally different."
"He doesn't go for the big live sound of everybody playing at the same time and capturing the moment," explains drummer Dave Gilby, "he goes for the layering effect, the building of the house. He spends all his time on me, then goes to the bass, next to the guitar, then to the other guitar - just layering it, as opposed to Todd's technique of keeping what was keepable in the recording session. Ed goes for the most perfect take imaginable. Then he'll edit it all together. He'll splice and grab the best pieces from different takes and build the basic track. He'll do that with guitars, too. He'd comp a solo; whichever track he thought had a better feel. So it's definitely a longer process, "says Gilby, "time code being the glue, of course."
Woodstock, New York and Los Angeles, California are almost the diagonal extremes of continental American geography, but somehow recording in either location was surprisingly similar for TPOH. "When we worked with Todd," says Berg, "we recorded out in the country, just outside of Woodstock, New York. He has a studio there, his house and the house the band stays in. And if you want anything, a quart of milk, bottle of beer, anything, you'd have to drive about 15 minutes to get it. We had an identical experience in Los Angeles. We were staying in a house in the Hollywood Hills and it was the same thing - we were 15-20 minutes away from the nearest corner store. So in an isolationist kind of way it was not a dissimilar experience."
"I didn't like recording in L.A. that much," admits Dave Gilby. "It was always a 40-minute drive to the studio, there were riots, there were earthquakes, our van was stolen. So there were a few dampeners. But I'll always remember the sessions because of that. Our problem was that we stayed in the Hollywood Hills, away from everything. We should've stayed in a hotel. We didn't have the luxury of walking out of the hotel and going down the strip and doing things. All of a sudden we were residents, and we had to try to get around like residents. We'd have to phone cabs - I think there's like four in L.A., we had the same cab driver so many times...I've never had that happen in Toronto - and you feel like a loser without your own wheels - it's such a wacky little town." Ah, the hardships of making an album's worth of tunes.
Drummer Dave Gilby confides that "on the album, Ed did a bunch of percussion stuff. He used everything from shakers to coffee tins. There's little things like that - tambourine, all that kind of stuff. He's just got this trunk he carries around with him, just full of little gidgets and gadgets and things. But that's his baby. He likes to do that, so I wasn't allowed." The secrets come out.
On the other hand, between Gilby, Barker and Abbott, they've got about as solid a rhythm section as one could ask for. Tracks like "Bored of You", "Nobody But Me" and "Love Theme From TPOH" (featuring a guest appearance by Todd Rundgren), get the treatment in royal fashion. "I love playing rhythm guitar," says guitarist Kris Abbott. "It's exciting to me to sound chunky and play along with the kick drum. I really like it a lot."
"Ed's pretty good at recording guitars," says Moe, "he even has Kris doing a solo on 'Terrified.'"
"Yes, "agrees Kris, "a very little one. I'm not a solo player. That song, I guess it's a 'Kris' song: I get to play predominantly in that song. I'm not really a lover of lead guitar playing, actually. I really, really love rhythm guitar playing and I don't want to offend any guitar players, but I hate self-indulgent Blah- Blah endless solos. Hate them. And it totally amazes me that I play guitar because I just can't stand the Ritchie Blackmores of this world."
The album has another guest presence as well. Jules Shear and Moe got together for a succesful collaboration on the track "Villa In Portugal," which is very craftily constructed. As Moe concedes, "Co-writing is never easy at the best of times, but I was surprised his thoughts were so in sync with mine. It was easy to work with him."
The song, in which the object of the singer's affection disappears to Portugal after advising that she was only going to the movies, gives both Berg and Abbott the opportunity to shine with identical rhythm chops that make Keith Richards sound old. But then, this whole release turns on the rhythm work displayed here.
One is tempted to attribute this equally to both guitarists, but Kris protests. "Honestly, I can't really take credit for a lot of that. I'm entering my sixth year of The Pursuit of Happiness, and though my taste is similar to Moe's, I think that playing with him as a guitar section has developed me in that certain direction. A lot of times we're a mirror of each other - we're playing exactly the same thing. Even upstroking or downstroking on the guitar exactly the same. It's like doubling the track in the studio, or whatever. We both have different sounds, but when you combine those sounds together, it's a big sound."
"There are times when the parts separate, when we do different things. In a lot of ways, I've kind of adopted his personal style just from working together and being in the band for so long. It's become my own style as well."
Working together, making things work despite all odds; these are traits that are crucial to the success of this or any band, as a band. The fact that The Pursuit of Happiness can make the transition from one producer to another, understand the large and small differences in methods and still come up with a strong and unique piece of work is truly the mark of maturity. There is little reason to fear that they will be swallowed up by the 'downward road'; in fact, the only vaguely threatening road before them is the one they will take while touring this new material across North America. And the worst thing that can happen is maybe they'll get their van stolen. Again, Dave, don't say you weren't warned.
Copyright © 1993 Canadian Musician Magazine, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.