Inside ‘Muscle Memory’

On Wednesday, May 20th, 2020 I released an EP entitled Muscle Memory. In this post, I will discuss the history of it’s inception, as well as its musical influences and meaning.

PREFACE

The story of Muscle Memory begins on Christmas Day, 2017 –

My cousin Alessandra is an incredibly talented drummer, and I’ve always wanted to record music with her. After spending Christmas Day together with our families, at the end of the night we found ourselves chatting, hanging out, sharing songs, and began to talk about recording music together. I knew of a studio near me in Woodland Park, NJ called The Den and decided to reach out. In the past, I wanted to book time, but had always been somewhat trepidatious to bite the bullet, fearful and anxious on both an emotional and financial level. It’s something I had never really done before. But I knew I had these songs I really loved and thought had potential, and I wanted to give them the full studio treatment.

Everything I released as an artist prior to this point (with the exception of one or two tracks) had all been self-recorded from my very humble home recording environment, using a Macbook (with ProTools and/or Logic) and an Mbox Mini. But over the years, hardware aged and died, hard drives failed, software became outdated, and eventually I didn’t have the means to record at home anymore. And at that time, I didn’t have the money to just go out and buy more gear So with that situation in mind, and having already talked to Alessandra, I emailed The Den my most recent recorded material as a point of reference for my sound (These were my Unreleased Demos – which I had recorded in hopes of getting those songs professionally recorded with some musician friends/acquaintances of mine circa 2014-ish?, but those plans fizzled out and never came to fruition). I soon got an email back from Matt Maroulakos, and we set a meeting for the evening of Thursday, January 11th, 2018.

Around this time, I was in my last semester at Montclair State and remember driving over to the studio after work (from my on-campus IT job). The sun having gone done hours before, I remember the crisp, cold air of the night and driving 46 West to the nearby studio, the sky already blue-black and filled with stars blinded by light pollution. The meeting went well and I remember Matt showing me around the studio. We had a good conversation about my influences, the songs I was thinking about recording, and how I wanted my cousin Alessandra to get involved and drum for on the recordings for me. Afterwards, we parted ways and I recall leaving feeling really jazzed and excited about making music.

Over the next few months, it became apparent that because of my and Alessandra’s physical distance (she goes to school in Boston), along with our own busy college schedules, that it was going to be incredibly challenging, if not practically impossible, not just to meet up to record, but to also write and practice these songs. Not knowing any other drummers (and not being a drummer myself), I became focused on others things and kind of forgot all about The Den, chalking it all up to, ‘it wasn’t meant to be’.

At the end of May / beginning of June I got an email from Matt following up. Had I connected with my cousin? How were the songs coming along? I had just graduated Montclair State a few weeks prior and that summer my schedule was ridiculously loaded with me working sometimes five or six days a week. But I started to think about this. Maybe I could make this work, even if just on my days off. Even if Alessandra and I couldn’t collaborate, Matt had given me some info on his drummer friend (the great Dana LaMarca). If I could maybe get him to play on the songs, that is if my songs were good enough at all, I could still do this. I soon sent Matt a voicenote for a song called, “Gotta Get Out” and decided we’d do a one song trial-run to see how it went. We then looped in Dana on email, went back and forth with dates and musical references, and eventually settled on having our first session on Sunday, August 11th. The tracking for “Gotta Get Out” went so well, I soon decided that I wanted to do 4 more songs and self-release a 5 song EP. This is how Muscle Memory was born.

RECORDING

Most of the guitar you hear on Muscle Memory is Matt’s 1996 ES-135 hollowbody Gibson (which I loved playing). “Gotta Get Out” has a little bit of what I like to call my “Franken-Strat” on it (my 2003-4 Fender Squier that’s had a recent-ish setup, with a new input jack, new pickguard, and pickups installed over the years). The acoustic guitar on “Gotta Get Out” was recorded with my 2012 (?) Tanglewood Sundance (which I have now since sold). The beginning acoustic guitar on “I’m Feeling Lost” was recorded with Matt’s Takamine in the control room; I sang the first line through the talkback mic to get that distorted-ish sound. The beginning (and end) acoustic guitar parts were recorded using my Takamine (G-Series) in the space between the live room and the control room.

Bass was recorded using a natural wood, really heavy Fender P-Bass, (also Matt’s), and the primary guitars on “No Wonder She’s Alone” and “All Your Books” were played using my hella-heavy 2018 Gibson Les Paul Traditional,  but which I bought for myself (on sale, baby!) over the course of recording this EP. I wanted to do some Jawbreaker-esque / “Condition Oakland”-esque spoken word stuff laid over the solo for “No Wonder She’s Alone” (I was going to use a Janeway monologue from the Star Trek: Voyager episode, “Fair Haven”), but Matt and I ultimately decided against it and I think that was the right choice. That sort of thing could still could happen in the future though, either with another song and/or another piece of dialog. I recorded all the vocals to this EP (perhaps with exception of “Gotta Get Out”) using a Shure SM7B microphone with the lights off in the live room.

We recorded the tracks in the following order: “Gotta Get Out”, “Talk Me Down”, “I’m Feeling Lost”, “All Your Books”, “No Wonder She’s Alone”. It’s amazing to me how much the structure of these songs evolved over the recording process, and how I hadn’t really finished writing the lyrics to “No Wonder” until after we recorded it. A lot of the guitar solos, fills, and bass lines I would figure out on the spot, or write at home and then bring it back for the next session. I almost recorded a song called “A Funeral March”, but decided it wouldn’t be the best fit for the record and that it was a little too rhythmically ambiguous for my first, legit studio recording (imo). Also, Dana absolutely killed it on drums. He went into recording these songs with a recorded voicenote of me singing over an acoustic guitar and nothing else, and a list of song references. That was it. We had one rehearsal for “No Wonder She’s Alone” since the transitions between the sections were a little more complicated than the other songs. Everything else was done on the spot and he basically wrote the parts your hear on the EP in the moment.

Muscle Memory was recorded over the span of a year, between August 2018 and August 2019, all on my days off from work. Matt started mixing in September, and Mike Piacentini began the mastering process soon thereafter. The album’s been done for a few months now, but I chose May 20th to release it because it is the shared birthday of my maternal grandfather and Captain Kathryn Janeway, both whom have shaped my life in a multitude of ways. But perhaps that is topic for another post. 🙂

MEANING

The term “Muscle Memory” is used when describing the way our bodies and minds remember how to do something over a period time; By repeating that action over and over again, it eventually becomes so second-nature, we don’t even have to think about it anymore – We just do it, we just know how; It’s learning via repetitive motion. It’s a term I found myself saying a lot before and during the course of this recording process. Hell, I still use it now. When I think about all my musical knowledge, self-taught or otherwise, it’s all muscle memory to me.

But then while considering what to title this EP, I began to think about how muscle memory can have a negative connotation too, as in behaviors where we’re constantly unfair to ourselves (or to others). Muscle memory kind of can became this “negative mantra on loop repeatedly” (See I’m Feeling Lost!). When we do this, we risk getting stuck in mentally unhealthy thought patterns and self-sabotage; Negative behavior and negative thoughts can start to feel normal after awhile, dragging us down and effecting our mental state, making us constantly anxious and at times, depressed. If we go through the motions enough times, it can start to feel increasingly difficult to break out of these “prisons of our own design” (see No Wonder She’s Alone). These are things I have struggled with all my life.

But as the great Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of star stuff”. And if that is true, then we as human beings, whose origins start in the stars above, we must then have the power to transcend that negativity and become better somehow. If it’s already in our DNA, it must be ancient history, ancient muscle memory and maybe, just maybe, we can tap into that powerful potential and in turn overcome any trial whether emotional or physical. This is what I attempt every morning when I wake up and get out of bed. This is essentially what I would like the listener to take away from this EP.

INFLUENCES

These are songs that influenced me, whether rhythmically, sonically, or emotionally. The hyperlinked song titles lead to a Spotify playlist of the referenced tracks listed below:

“No Wonder She’s Alone”

  • “I Could Be With Anyone” – Kevin Devine
  • “Feel Like Rain” – Motion City Soundtrack
  • “Nothing Left” – John-Allison Weiss
  • “She Doesn’t Get It” – The Format
  • “Chia-Like, I Shall Grow” – Say Anything
  • “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” – Say Anything
  • “American Hearts” – Piebald

“Gotta Get Out”

  • “Cemetry Gates” – The Smiths
  • “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” – Weezer
  • “Kiss Me” – Sixpence None The Richer
  • “Upstate Blues” – Into It. Over It.
  • “You & Me & Mt. Hood” – Pet Symmetry
  • “The Last Lie I Told” – Saves The Day
  • “State Trooper” – Bruce Springsteen
  • “Shatter Your Lungs” – The Get Up Kids
  • “Capital H” – Motion City Soundtrack
  • “It’s Summertime” – The Flaming Lips

“I’m Feeling Lost!”

  • “Midnight: Carroll Street” – Into It. Over It.
  • “Atoms Smash” – Weatherbox
  • “Scattered” – Green Day
  • “Radio Hive” – Weatherbox
  • “Connecticut Steps” – Into It. Over It.
  • “Kick-Flips” – Weatherbox
  • “Ghost Malls” – Weatherbox
  • “shoes (the sneaker song) – Oso Oso
  • “Let It Happen” – Jimmy Eat World
  • “Familiar Theme” – Somos
  • “Revelation” -Balance And Composure
  • “Permanently Lost” – Somos
  • “No Eq” – Into It. Over It.
  • “Third Engine” – Saves The Day
  • “Wearing The Tie” – The Early November
  • “Lives Of Others” – Somos

“Talk Me Down”

  • “Bastards of Young” – The Replacements
  • “Kill” – Jimmy Eat World
  • “Take Our Cars Now!” – Saves The Day
  • “The Shape of Love to Come” – Say Anything
  • “Familiar Theme” – Somos
  • “No Amount of Sound” – Into It. Over It.

“All Your Books”

  • “get there (when you’re there)” Oso Oso
  • “Call Off The Bells” – The Early November

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’d like to confess that lyrically, this is me at my most vulnerable. There are songs on here that still scare me a little. Aside from the overall intended message of this EP (see above re: Star Stuff), what I hope the listener can glean from listening is that they’re not alone and that it’s okay to feel hopeless and helpless and weird and in-betweenish. Making this EP was an invaluable learning process in terms of recording, writing, feeling, and emoting. I also find that these lyrics can (and will) take on new meanings, especially in how they now exist within the climate of this current pandemic-affected world we now live ourselves in.

THANK YOU

Creating this album would not have been possible without the support of my parents and my brother John, as well as the few friends I played this for and sent this to over the course of the recording process. I am so grateful for you all. Also thank you to all the artists listed above for creating wonderful, deep, thought-provoking, and captivating music. You are all my heroes. Creating this piece of art, this document of my life has been an unforgettable experience. Thank you Matt and Dana for your talents, and also for being so incredibly patient and professional. This project would have been impossible without your help and coordination.  I’m excited for the future. Thank you for bringing this baby to life.

CREDITS

Guitar, Bass, Vocals – Roe O’Brien

Drums – Dana LaMarca

Xylophone on “No Wonder She’s Alone” – Roe O’Brien

Tambourine on “Gotta Get Out” – Dana LaMarca

Violin on “All Your Books” – Nicole Scorsone

Produced by Matt Maroulakos and Roe O’Brien

Recorded, mixed & engineered by Matt Maroulakos at The Den Recording in Woodland Park, NJ

Additional engineering provided by Shane Furst and Dylan Saraciniello

Mastered by Mike Piacentini

Cover Art by Dominic Sylvester

All songs written by Roe O’Brien

dream chords

I just awoke from a very interesting dream –

I was at an outdoor music festival…but no, wait. There was a scene before that. A scene I was not a part of, not present for, yet somehow still witnessed as though as was there. I mean, I was there – I saw it – But, I wasn’t really there. I saw it as if I were a spectre – spectre spectator:

It was nighttime in the forest, where the outdoor music festival would occur the next day. – where Maggie Rogers would be playing the next day. And it was cool and dark, with just enough moonlight to see. Dana wasn’t the drummer though. It was a drama / theatre teacher whom I had known throughout my childhood (named Dennis P – also funny how Dennis is..well was the drummer for Saves. Maybe my subconscious pulled the wrong Dennis. Ha. Also, it’s a “D” name, but not “Dana”; “Drama” also starts with a “D”). But in the dark, him and Maggie are alone outside at first and then in a car. And then he somehow comes out with it that he doesn’t like the set. Maggie is shocked and surprised and clearly upset with him. Perhaps asking things why he didn’t say anything sooner and what he means by that? And he is clearly terrified, but he stands by what he says anyway.

The rest blurs on and now we’re at the performance the next day. There is almost no one in this forest scene; Sunlight dapples against dry grasses. We’re in a clearing with the trees around us. I’m not even sure if Dennis P is drumming – I suppose someone is though; It soon becomes unimportant. Maggie and the band are going through the set and in one of the songs Maggie is holding the bass, but she’s also being held up by someone. And as she chooses the notes on the bass, Elle is striking them for her. Or maybe they were all open string notes (EADG). But one or two of the strings break (which is pretty hard to do on a bass, but it does happen). As a riff / drone plays in the background (which is supposed to be an extended intro for the next song), Maggie (and the person holding her up, maybe the bass player of her band, Brian) excuse(s) her/themself(ves) from the stage. So now it’s just Elle and whoever’s playing drums. And I see Elle left hand clearly, choosing the chords to this song, which I don’t actually remember hearing, but can definitely see her hands making chords. It’s not chords to anything I know.

I wake up now, remembering her hands and the frets she was on and the chords she chose. It is 6 AM and dark. I pick my Strat off the wall and start figuring it out in the dark – and I did. And I feel overwhelmed by this dream magic and I want to write this song for Maggie now, or at least, in the style of Maggie. The chords are something I would not have bothered to come up with on my own, but now, in this way/order, they take on new meaning. They are not currently a Maggie song.

In the past, I have written a full song while in the midst of a 10-15 meditation, I have remembered dream melodies upon waking up, but never have I remembered chords from dreams and have been able to successfully identify and play them.

I’m looking forward to hashing this song out. I’m already starting to hear where it’s supposed to go. I am in pleasant, stunned disbelief.

remembering i’m a songwriter

The past few days I’ve really been into Pinegrove’s new song called “Moment”.

Coincidentally, I’ve also been making more time for songwriting and guitar noodling.

It’s been a consecutive two days and I feel good like it’s been two weeks. The two songs I’ve written are not good, but I think there’s a certain degree of rediscovering one’s self after walking away for a while. I don’t know who I am as a songwriter anymore. I don’t know what I need to say. But it’s something and it’s coming and it’s bubbling. Right now I’m following the threads I blindly unravel; Chords I stumble on, saying words that feel good in my mouth, finding melody from my throat that magically appears, taking on conversational cadence. If you’re a songwriter, you know, you understand.

Another thing about songwriting, at least for me, is that it’s this meditative exercise; I can focus and shut the world out in full concentration. Breathing becomes easier, anxiety dissipates. And this is incredibly important to me in that mine has been mostly unbearable for at least two months. I need to write songs. I think I’ve forgotten this. I actually need to; otherwise my Life becomes this unbearable, miserable hell.

I’ve been so focused on other life things and work and my EP, which as cathartic as that process has been, those songs were not recently written. The songs are good, but I already consider them past emotions. They’re not my present state. I’m trying to figure that out now.

I oftentimes forget how songwriting legitimately saved my life in middle school and high school (and college). Those songs weren’t good either but the saved my damn life. They allowed me to articulate frightening and complex emotions, to navigate my hormonal teenage years. If I didn’t have those hundreds of sheets of paper as my sail, I don’t know what I would have done. Surely I would have combusted and drowned in pure emotional frustration.

Music is magic I must believe in. If not that, then what? And if not now, then when?

Writing songs is my most favorite thing in the world. I need to start acting like it.

waiting to leave

I’m waiting to leave my house.

It’s 9:20 AM on a Tuesday. I have studio time booked for 10, but it’s too early to leave.

It’s not that far. Only a 12 minute car ride from my house.

I’ve hired a violinist play on a sad track I wrote called, “All Your Books”. A track that I know is my most honest one yet, but I’m simultaneously afraid to release it for fear people/listeners will needlessly worry about me. (Y’all don’t need to – The song was written awhile ago in a different headspace than my current one.) But I can’t deny the honesty Life. That’s what music and art and songwriting is all about. And I feel as though I must stay true to that, regardless of others’ potential misconceptions.

The song touches on loneliness and I suppose feeling left behind in an important aspect of growing up – that of physical love. And grappling with that. Trying to pull myself up out of my depression by my own bootstraps; Trying really hard to put a positive spin on it, and lift myself out of it based on logic and sheer will. It’s a very intimate song. It’s delicate. It’s vulnerable. It frightens me.

But the one thing that does not frighten me is the certainty that I am not alone. That I am not alone in my feelings or experiences and that there are other people out there just like me. Who feel just like this. Who will/can resonate when the hear the song and/or read the words. And as an artist who appreciates music, how else can I contribute to the scene without putting something out there that perhaps has never been expressed before in this way? Isn’t that the point? To do it even when it hurts? Even when you’re scared?

Today the sky looks like blue raspberry italian ice. I’m drinking cold brew I made with Madcap coffee (really good coffee and would totally buy those beans again). Today would have been my maternal grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary (that’s Nonna and my Poppy for those keeping score). Today my mom seems tense, anxious, and worrisome.

We got a little puppy last month (a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix whose name is Mario) and he has been such a joy to have in the house. He’s going to be 7 months in a few weeks. He is playful, a little mischievous, doing pretty well with house training, and only barks a little a night – he’s getting better with that…

I think there’s so much more to talk about and say – I’ve forgotten how nice it is to just let it out on the page sometimes – but I think I will focus on finishing this cold brew and loading the few items I have into my car.

To anyone who’s reading these weird, little, intimate posts of mine – Hello! Thank you.

And even if no one is, I don’t care. Sometimes it’s nice to write it all out, just for me. 🙂

 

angeles

Last night I (quite literally) dusted off my Elliott Smith songbook and opened to the first page and proceeded to learn “Angeles”. I would love to have a been a fly on the wall when Elliott wrote this song because it is pure magic and power in the quiet and the flawless accuracy of his fingerpicking. I can get through the song, pretty well actually. But I’m still practicing to get that Elliott perfection.

Elliott Smith is one of my favorite songwriters of all time because of where he goes, musically, in his songs. He covers so much ground; the chords are constantly moving and changing, which in turn makes the melody more compelling. I’ve been a fan for awhile now. I remember having some of his music on my iPod between high school and college, but his catalog never fully hit me until I wanna say, 2011. That seems right.

Dedicating time to learn covers (or even new chords for that matter) is something I’m incredibly bad at; I’m impatient and impulsive and sometimes I wish I weren’t. But I think there’s immense educational value in sitting down to learn songs and different chords and strumming patterns because that is what in fact informs future songwriting. That concept is literally the way I started learning guitar and soon after, writing my own songs. But again, sometimes I find it difficult to commit. Though I was glad to find time to take a look at “Angeles” last night. I was so excited I even played it for my parents once I had it down.

I’ve recorded a bunch of videos on my phone between yesterday and today, wanting to ultimately upload a flawless clip to Instagram, but it is still a work in progress and something I don’t think I’ll cave into until I get it right. I just found what seems like a good tutorial on YouTube and I think I’ll watch that next time I sit down with my guitar to play it.